IN TERMS of maintaining belief that a promotion push is still possible, this really was a game Newport County simply couldn’t afford to lose.
After shock back-to-back losses to Cheltenham and Wimbledon meant Newport failed to cut their arrears to the play-offs, becoming the latest victims of the runaway train that have been Scunthorpe – smashing all before them – simply wasn’t an option.
After producing one of their best performances of the entire season in the first half on Saturday, you’d have forgiven any County fan, or player, for beginning to really lose hope trailing 2-1 with the fourth official holding up the board for injury time.
And yet, County rescued a point, with a goal they totally merited, at the death. And suddenly, the gloom was lifted at Rodney Parade.
The almost 3000 strong crowd were already in raptures after Chris Zebroski’s late, late show and the perfectly timed announcement by Tim Thraves on the PA that fans can pay a fiver on the door on Tuesday when Fleetwood visit can keep that positivity going.
The visit of Fleetwood could prove season defining. Forget the fact that Newport have slipped to 11th in League Two, if they beat the Cod Army, they will be just four points off the top seven with two games in hand.
And thanks to their never say die spirit, Newport will go into Tuesday’s game feeling like they can yet put their bid for the play-offs back on track. If they can match their benchmark performance up to half time on Saturday, they’ll do it with something to spare.
Manager Justin Edinburgh directly referenced the Rodney Parade playing surface in his team talk and urged his side to use it as to their advantage and his words were clearly heeded.
Many have felt Newport have been far too pre-occupied with the pitch, especially in the Cheltenham game, but on Saturday they just played naturally, coped with the surface better than Scunthorpe and could easily have been more than a goal to the good at the break.
Led by the ever-improving Ryan Burge, who really came into his own with Max Porter and Lee Minshull protecting him, there was a real vibrancy about the Exiles.
Burge was the outstanding performer in the first half and he helped Newport to control a shockingly one-sided 45 minutes.
Apart from a Sam Winnall shot, well wide on 43 minutes, it was virtually all Newport and that’s quite a feat against a team who haven’t lost since November.
Burge tested goalkeeper Sam Slocombe within ten minutes and he then spurned a golden chance, firing over after linking with Rene Howe and Robbie Willmott to find himself unmarked six yards out, but he clipped the ball over.
Newport were constantly on the front foot and in pairing Rene Howe and Chris Zebroski, the Exiles were able to go direct whenever they found themselves under pressure, a necessity on Parade now and something County deploy best as a plan B.
County’s plan A of high intensity and constant pressing worked and unsettled The Iron and their opener was by no means against the run of play.
It was Burge – who seems to share duties for set-pieces equally with Willmott – who floated in a freekick that Slocombe could only punch onto his own defender, allowing Howe to head intelligently back across goal where Minshull stooped to nod home.
The Exiles pushed for a second before the break and started well after half time, but the quality of the visitors saw all their hard work undone just past the hour.
The impressive Marcus Williams was the architect, finding space to wriggle past Ismail Yakubu and find Eddie Nolan whose cross was perfect for Paddy Madden to tap home. Madden cost more than the entire County side put together and it gave the Iron all the momentum.
After a similar reversal in midweek against Wimbledon it was no great surprise when a tiring County went behind, a couple of unlucky ricochets and a poor attempt at a tackle from Andy Sandell allowing sub Hakeeb Adelakun to cut the ball back to David Syers who finished with some aplomb, picking his spot as the ball bobbled up at him and firing through a crowd.
It was déjà vu of the worse kind for the Exiles but to their great credit and that of the crowd, no-one in a County shirt lost faith and excellent late pressure from them yielded a precious dividend.
Slocombe had done brilliantly to deny Minshull as Newport threw bodies forward and from the resulting corner, sub Adam Chapman’s effort was headed on first by Yakubu and then Minshull for Zebroski to swivel and smash home from six yards.
At worst, it earned County a valuable point. But there is no denying the feeling in Rodney Parade on Saturday that Newport’s late show might prove to be a major turning point in this dramatic first season back in the Football League.
Newport (3-5-2): Parish, Jackson, Willmott, Sandell, Anthony, Yakubu, Burge (Chapman 79), Minshull, Porter (Jeffers 87), Howe (Jolley 72), Zebroski
Subs not used: Crow, Flynn, Naylor, Worley
Scunthorpe (4-4-2): Slocombe, Ribeiro, Mirfin, Canavan, Nolan, Hawkridge (Adelakun 65), Syers, McAllister (Sparrow 81), Williams, Winnall (Waterfall 88), Madden
Subs not used: Severn, Dawson, McSheffrey, Hayes
Booked: Canavan (23), Madden (37), Williams (48)
Referee: Carl Berry (Surrey)