NEWPORT COUNTY 3 OXFORD UTD 2
AFTER more than six weeks without a home game this felt like the start of the season all over again for Newport County AFC.
And Justin Edinburgh will be hoping it is the start of resurgence for his team as they picked up a desperately needed three points against third-placed Oxford United.
With four more home matches to come in the next fortnight things could be looking a lot brighter in Newport – if the rain stays away.
A fantastic crowd of 3,757 spurned the attractions of Manchester City v Barcelona on the box to cheer on their heroes at a patched-up Rodney Parade for the first time since January 4.
And, frankly, who needs Xavi, Iniesta and Messi when you can watch Ryan Burge, Adam Chapman and Robbie Willmott?
Edinburgh made three changes from the disappointing 3-0 defeat at Hartlepool United on Saturday with Harry Worley suspended and Tom Naylor and Shaun Jeffers dropping to the bench.
In their place came three returning heroes.
Byron Anthony made his first appearance since his horrific broken leg at Brighton in August.
After an encouraging cameo from the bench on Saturday Chris Zebroski got his first start since dislocating his kneecap at Braintree in November.
And Ismail Yakubu hasn’t been out for anywhere near as long but his absence at the back has been felt as much any other.
And what a difference playing at home with a near fully fit squad can make to a team.
County had started well in Hartlepool before crashing to a dispiriting defeat but they flew out of the blocks against Oxford.
Zebroski almost marked his return to the starting XI with a goal within five minutes after Lee Minshull’s flicked header put him through but visiting ‘keeper Ryan Clarke blocked his snap shot.
Clarke also did well to punch Willmott’s teasing cross away under pressure as the Exiles poured forward in the opening stages and put the side with the best away record in the division on the back foot.
But, as so often happens when you’re on a bad run, the visitors then broke away and scored with their first attack.
And it was the experienced front duo of Dave Kitson and James Constable who did the damage for the visitors.
Former Premier League front man Kitson found his strike partner with a defence-splitting ball on 14 minutes and Constable slammed the ball past Elliot Parrish in the County goal.
It was extremely harsh on Edinburgh’s men and, after the last few months they’ve endured, they could easily have crumbled at that point.
But, as is usually the case, they showed the fantastic character of this squad and roared back at Oxford with twice the intensity.
They might have had two penalties, one for handball and one when Minshull appeared to be tripped in the area, but the equaliser they deserved didn’t come until first half stoppage time.
Minshull’s scuffed shot from the edge of the box clipped Rene Howe on the way through a crowd of players and bobbled off the sand into the bottom corner of Clarke’s net.
That was the least the Exiles deserved for a spirited first 45 minutes and they picked up where they left off after the interval.
Willmott and Chapman both tried their luck from distance and Zebroski continued to be a menace to one of his many former clubs.
After pushing and probing for 25 minutes the goal came from a set-piece – a peach of a free-kick from Burge.
The midfield maestro endured a disastrous start to his Exiles career as injury after injury kept him sidelined for months.
But he has been the most impressive player in amber for weeks now and this was his finest moment yet as he curled a beauty past Clarke and into the bottom corner from out wide on the right.
Any of the Barcelona stars would have been proud of the goal and, even though League Two is a world away from the mega millions of the Champions League, it could yet prove priceless for County.
There were two more goals in the last ten minutes but Burge’s was the vital contribution.
Zebroski added a third on 82 minutes after a mix up between Clarke and his skipper and substitute Potter pulled one back for Oxford on 87 but County held on despite five nervy minutes of injury time.
County: Parish, Pipe, Yakubu, Anthony, Sandell, Willmott, Minshull, Chapman (Porter, 85), Burge, Howe, Zebroski (Jeffers, 85)
Subs not used: Thompson, Crow, Jackson, Naylor, Jolley
Oxford: Clarke, Newey, Kitson (Williams, 58), Constable, Smalley, Hunt, Rose (Potter, 46), Mullins, Wroe, Bevans (Connolly, 76), Ruffels
Subs not used: Henly, Davies, Long, Ashby
Referee: Oliver Langford
Argus star man: Burge