NEWPORT County secured their League Two survival on London Marathon weekend and also ensured their duals with Wycombe Wanderers will represent significant mile markers their uneven debut season in League Two.
The Exiles were flying higher than anyone could possibly have expected when they travelled to Wycombe on Boxing Day, a scrappy 1-0 victory pushing County level of points in the race for automatic promotion.
The winter of discontent that has followed with Justin Edinburgh’s side winning two of their next 22, with the Rodney Parade pitch becoming a major plotline in the season once more, has ensured that as the promotion dream faded, a relegation nightmare threatened to loom.
Newport have been one win from probable safety for weeks and confidence has slowly been almost obliterated from their camp as winnable home games have been drawn or lost and tough away days have seen County crumble.
However, cometh the hour, cometh the Wycombe, County almost certainly ensuring their safety in League Two with Saturday’s largely comfortable victory, while at the same time pushing the visitors firmly into the mire.
The Exiles are sitting pretty in 13th, knowing it’s going to take an utterly incredible turn of fortune to see ten sides overtake them with just four games remaining of the 2013/14 season.
Boss Justin Edinburgh has talked in recent days about his plans for next season and he’ll surely now be looking ahead for the remainder of the campaign, assessing who will and who won’t be offered a contract for next term.
We already know that Michael Flynn isn’t going to be offered terms, but he’s doing all he can to convince Edinburgh to change his mind, arguably once more the most influential player on the field as the Exiles grinded Wycombe into submission.
The Chairboys are a young side and compared to recent visitors Portsmouth and Plymouth, far from physically imposing.
And on a Rodney Parade surface made more for men with grit and desire rather than players with artistry in their boots, County outgunned Wycombe and deserved the three points.
There has been no shortage of effort and endeavour from Newport in recent weeks, but they’ve lacked quality at both ends of the field. On Saturday, that was exactly what won them the game.
Neither Newport goal will be winning any awards for beauty. Christian Jolley scrambled home from a long-throw and Chris Zebroski’s finish, while brilliantly struck, was the result of a route one ball from the goalkeeper and a flick-on. The Amber Army won’t care one iota.
They had cutting edge and converted their key chances and the Chairboys didn’t. Twice they had gilt-edged opportunities, twice they fluffed them, Darcy Blake and goalkeeper Ian McLoughlin coming up trumps for Newport just at the right moment.
Gareth Ainsworth had challenged his players that this was the biggest game of the season for his club, but it was clear from an error-strewn, tension-filled first 45 minutes that, that fact wasn’t lost on anyone at Rodney Parade. This was a monumental afternoon for County and they weren’t found wanting.
And the fact is, by the time they took the lead and then secured victory with an emphatic second, the Exiles were in control of the contest in everything but scoreline. Their second half display was their best at home since they beat Oxford and the visitors wilted under the pressure, unable to cope as Newport turned them relentlessly, targeting set-pieces and throw-ins as they worked over Wycombe like a grizzled veteran boxer against a naive young pretender.
Either side might have led at the break after an unusual 3.07pm kick-off in remembrance of the tragedy at Hillsborough – impeccably observed – but good goalkeeping and an absolutely remarkable clearance ensured parity.
The Chairboys had their best opportunity on just seven minutes, Matt McClure left with as much space as there is in half of Monmouthshire as he picked his spot and beat Ian McLoughlin, but Darcy Blake produced a brilliant acrobatic clearance.
It wasn’t the last time Newport had to defend with last-ditch stuff, but the recalled Andy Sandell, Ryan Jackson, Blake and loanee Kevin Feely can all reflect on a job extremely well done.
They were breached again just before the break, but Steve Craig’s firm header was brilliantly tipped away by McLoughlin.
There were equal heroics in the visiting goal, Matt Ingham flinging himself at full stretch to deny the recalled Jolley who had wriggled clean through as County sniffed for any hesitancy from the Blues.
Rene Howe headed wide as Stuart Atwell’s incessant whistle blowing ensured the quality never really improved in the contest, but thankfully neither did Wycombe.
The first half was even but the second was anything but, Newport on the front foot before their double strike.
First the magic moment for Christian Jolley, a player whose 15 goals between January and May 2013 played such a colossal part in ensuring the Exiles’ promotion party.
He was confidently predicting 20 goals for the campaign after scoring in Newport’s four goal opening day triumph over Accrington, but he’s failed to find the net since.
He picked his moment perfectly though, hooking home calmly as all those around him lost their head, a routine long throw by Jackson causing total panic in the Wycombe six-yard box as Jolley reacted fastest. Relief all round, was palpable.
It was a huge goal that reverberated around Rodney Parade, not least because of the popularity of the scorer and it crushed the visitors who were put to bed five minutes later.
Howe did well to find Zebroski who charged through after McLoughlin’s punt and lashed the ball home against his former club.
It was a priceless moment for County who know they’ll live to fight another day in League Two but on current form, they might not be able to rely on six points from Wycombe next term.
Newport (4-3-3): McLoughlin, Jackson, Sandell, Blake, Feely, Porter, Minshull, Flynn, Zebroski, Jolley, Howe (Willmott 87)
Subs not used: Pipe, Hughes, Jeffers, Burge, Naylor, Pidgeley
Wycombe: Wanderers (4-4-2): Ingram, McCoy, Wood, Pierre, Rowe, Arnold (Jeffery 78) Lewis, Scowen, Kretzschmar 5 (Morgan 56), McClure, Craig (Kuffour 72)
Subs not used: Johnson, Horlock, Pitman, Styche
Referee: Stuart Atwell
Argus star man: Christian Jolley