MICHAEL PEARLMAN SAYS: Time to pick County's player of the season
Updated 11:47am Tuesday 22nd April 2014 in Sport
IN the coming days your Argus will be asking you to name your Newport County and Newport Gwent Dragon of the season.
While it would be remiss of me to begin to pretend to know who should scoop the award for the Dragons - for the record I vote for the solitary team member who follows me on Twitter for that precise reason - I feel I'm pretty well placed to assess the Exiles' runners and riders.
This column is a much happier place as of yesterday. As I write this, I will shortly be headed to Rodney Parade for the Burton match safe in the knowledge that the Exiles will be in League Two next season.
This landmark campaign for Newport County AFC after a 25-year odyssey built on the blood (not really), sweat (probably) and tears (definitely) of the likes of David Hando and the late Ray Taylor (plus a few hundred more), is just the beginning.
That's a big relief. The run Newport have endured in 2014 was very much relegation form and for a period we did all seem to become totally consumed by negativity, from the terraces to the dressing room. But my record remains, three promotions (even if one was de facto) and no relegations covering the County.
The Exiles have managed to rally before it became too late, responding well to defeat against Portsmouth, unlucky to lose to Plymouth and impressive in draws with Chesterfield and Wimbledon and getting that vital win over Wycombe Wanderers to push them clear of the mire. They are now a best price of 60/1 to go down.
In the coming weeks we'll have ample opportunity to assess how and why County's capitulation came about after such a promising opening to life in League Two and there are several factors. For now, I'm merely grateful that lessons can be learned rather than looked back on ruefully had Newport slipped back into the Conference, the hardest division in English football to ever get out of. Ask Luton Town, a club with double the fanbase and twice the resources of the Exiles. It’s taken them five years.
Though this piece was penned before yesterday's clash with Burton Albion, 54 points is going to be enough to guarantee safety and it'll be interesting to see how Newport fare in the final three games with an opportunity to play party-pooper against a trio of sides in contention for promotion.
However, because of County's rotten back-half of the campaign, the field is hugely narrowed in terms of candidates for player of the season.
Here are my top three and reasons why. Details will follow in the Argus of how to vote for your player of the season.
Bronze medal: Ismail Yakubu
If only his physical condition was as reliable as his defensive prowess.
If Yakubu wasn't beset by knee issues and so susceptible to muscle issues, I dare say he'd have possibly scooped gold in this category.
Yakubu is very experienced at League Two level and it has shown this season, generally speaking he's been County's best defender and they never looked better at the back than when he and on-loan defender Adedeji Oshilaja formed a formidable partnership as winter began.
Byron Anthony has missed most of the campaign, Tony James was jettisoned early on, Andrew Hughes has been in and out of form and fitness and Harry Worley has, on balance, disappointed.
Throughout though, when fit, Yakubu has impressed, his organisation and communication are big attributes and I'd retain both him and Anthony next season, irrespective of what happens with Kevin Feely and Darcy Blake.
Silver medal: Robbie Willmott
If you show me a fan who thought Willmott would be one of the best two performers in the squad over the whole season back in August, I'll show you a liar.
Let's recap with Willmott, shall we? Essentially Justin Edinburgh's only natural wide player, Willmott joined from Cambridge last January and was a squad player in a congested part of the campaign.
He featured, often from the bench in the Conference run-in and his involvement in the play-offs speaks volumes. He played for two minutes at Grimsby, didn't come off the bench in the return leg and played no part in the final.
Seemingly more likely to be rowing on Twitter than setting the world alight, I was sceptical Willmott would make the grade a division higher. I was totally and utterly wrong.
Willmott has been not only Mr Dependable but Mr Versatile and it's no wonder Justin Edinburgh has leaned on him so heavily that he's looked exhausted for a month or more.
No County player has played more games, not even close and in all competitions, Willmott's appearance at Wimbledon on Friday took him to 50 for the season.
That, in itself, is impressive, but Willmott's often shone and in a variety of roles. Now perhaps best deployed as a wing-back, Willmott's passing, work rate and his set-pieces have all impressed.
He's extremely unlucky if he isn't named your player of the season, just as he was not to be mine.
Gold medal: Chris Zebroski
By a nose from Willmott, I go for Chris Zebroski as player of the season as his influence in his debut season simply can't be underestimated. He’s the only striker still at the club who has delivered all season.
I raised my eyebrows for two reasons when Edinburgh swooped for Zebroski and again have been proven majorly wrong.
I questioned the need for him with Conor Washington (gone), Aaron O'Connor (injured all season), Christian Jolley (goal-drought all season) and Danny Crow (struggled for form and became boo-boy target) at the club, but Newport would've been relegated without Zebroski's goals.
I also questioned Zebroski as a character. He came with self-acknowledged issues with alcohol in the past and a list of clubs on his CV so extensive that it suggested he could be the next Jefferson Louis in terms of never settling and unlike Jefferson, not everyone had nice things to say about Zebroski.
However, in a division where goals can be scarce - only 20 players in League Two have managed double figures at the time of writing this - Zebroski is the fourth highest scorer despite missing three entire months, from November 9 to February 15 with a dislocated knee cap.
Can you still be named player of the season if you miss three months?
I think you can. I have little doubt that Zebroski would be closing in on 20 goals if he'd stayed fit all season (he has 13 in 36) and only one player in League Two has managed that.
Zebroski's goals have been simply imperative and a man who represented something of a gamble for Justin Edinburgh has rewarded him handsomely.
He’s also found, like many others before him, a good fit in Newport, off the field. Zebroski has matured immeasurably and he’s represented the Amber shirt with real distinction.
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