NEWPORT County AFC got a huge reality check as to the value of pre-season success with a turgid performance to begin their 2014/15 League Two campaign.
They began their 46-game odyssey with a lifeless, uninspiring and hugely disappointing performance against a side nearly relegated last term and will need to sharpen up quickly to avoid the campaign becoming a huge slog.
The Exiles have tricky fixtures to come for the remainder of the month and if Saturday is a benchmark, they’ll do well to end August in better shape than a British Eurovision entry after the votes are collated in the Balkans.
This was very much the Newport County AFC vintage that we endured between January and March last term where a combination of factors sucked the confidence and ability to win from Justin Edinburgh’s charges.
That is hugely disappointing and despite what some pessimists will say; it wasn’t necessarily to be expected, because County finished last season if not with a flourish, then with a vast improvement.
They took at least some momentum from the end of the campaign and capped it off on a high by beating promoted Rochdale and have looked a million dollars in pre-season where they won all but one of their games.
However, pre-season can be a misleading time where fitness drills masquerade as football matches and that was illustrated on Saturday.
County looked nowhere near as assured defensively as they did against the likes of Coventry City and Carl Zeiss Jena and their impressive displays from set pieces seemed like a distant memory.
County’s forwards found cohesion in July that encouraged us all, but on Saturday, in truth, they looked like three new signings thrown together by Karl Oysten last week; though all three have pedigree at this level.
However, County didn’t fall meekly to defeat due to the poor performance of any individual, it was a collectively bad display with no function of Newport’s game as effective as was necessary.
In midfield County weren’t especially competitive and they failed time and again to retain the ball with Mike Flynn and Lee Minshull particularly culpable. The result of that was County resorting to long balls time and again after the half hour mark, but even that was executed poorly.
There is a myth that direct football is a bad thing, it’s even a myth to say it’s always bad to watch, but the way County did it on Saturday, it’s both a bad tactic and bad to watch without question.
The Exiles didn’t plan to play directly, they resorted to doing so because of an inability to keep the ball and they also did so aimlessly and without sufficient pressing in the Wycombe half to ensure they didn’t just turn over possession more often than not.
County found themselves under the cosh after just a minute but Paris Cowan Hall’s header was tipped over the bar acrobatically by Lenny Pidgeley.
Newport then had their best spell of the contest and the most dominance either side enjoyed throughout, as for 25 minutes they looked as good as we’d hoped.
With Sandell roaming forward effectively and Howe and Zebroski finding some space, they tested Michael Ingram in the Chairboys’ goal a few times, Howe, Flynn and new signing Mark Byrne all finding the target, but it was speculative stuff. Only when Kevin Feely’s firm header went over the bar did Newport genuinely look like opening their account for the season.
County lost momentum and the visitors grew into the game and then punished Newport with two quick and highly preventable goals.
Peter Murphy easily headed home a near post corner on 41 minutes and the Exiles compounded that mistake with another, Jones and Feely too easily beaten on the stroke of half time, allowing Sam Wood to waltz across Newport’s penalty area and cross for Cowan-Hall who couldn’t miss.
Manager Edinburgh switched from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 before the hour after making no inroads at all at the start of the second half; the visitors had a composure and steadiness about them that will have delighted visiting manager Gareth Ainsworth who has signed several players with stature over the summer.
There was almost 70 minutes on the clock before County truly fashioned a chance that would get them back into contention and they fluffed it, Lee Minshull missing the target completely from a header from about eight yards, a glaring miss by his standards.
And by the time the referee announced six minutes of injury time, there was an acceptance inside Rodney Parade that six hours wouldn’t be enough time to produce a goal. The fans departed desperately disappointed at the start to the campaign, but hopeful it is not a sign of things to come.
Newport County (4-3-3): Pidgeley, Willmott, Sandell, Jones, Feely, Byrne, Flynn (Klukowski 56), Minshull (Chapman, 72), Zebroski, Howe, O’Connor (Yakubu 56)
Subs not used: Thomas, Hughes, Jeffers, Jolley
Booked: Sandell, Byrne, Zebroski
Wycombe Wanderers (4-4-2): Ingram, Jombati, Jacobson, Pierre, Mawson, Cowan-Hall (Craig 86), Murphy, Kretschmar (Bloomfield 80), Wood, McClure, Hayes
Subs not used: Richardson, Morias, Rowe, Walker, Holloway
Referee: Peter Bankes