County 2 Southport 1
NEWPORT County AFC produced one of their worst 45 minutes of the season followed by one of their best to beat Southport and remain top of the Blue Square Bet Premier.
The visitors will be bemused as to how they lost a game in which they could easily have been three or four goals up inside half an hour.
But this County side have shown time and again in the 10 matches they’ve played so far that they possess plenty of character and they shook off a seriously disappointing first-half display to dominate after the break.
Top scorer Aaron O’Connor netted his eighth goal of the season with 14 minutes remaining to cancel out Chris Lever’s 18th-minute penalty.
And the turnaround was complete in the second minute of injury time as substitute Ben Swallow earned the Exiles all three points with a superb left- foot rocket into the top corner of the net to send the Rodney Parade crowd wild.
With Luton Town having missed the chance to go top with a 4-1 defeat at Grimsby on Friday night, County began the weekend looking down on the rest of the Conference.
And a draw for Wrexham and a defeat for Macclesfield Town means Justin Edinburgh’s men have pulled a point clear of nearest challengers Forest Green Rovers ahead of tomorrow night’s trip to AFC Telford.
That certainly didn’t look likely in the opening stages on Saturday as Southport threatened to run riot.
Liam Watson’s side could have had a penalty in the first minute when the ball struck Mike Flynn’s hand in the box but referee Adam Bromley declined to point to the spot, which was to become a regular sight throughout the afternoon.
County had goalkeeper Lenny Pidgeley to thank for keeping them in the game as he saved first from Chris Almond, then Shaun Whalley and again from Godfrey Poku.
But he could do nothing to prevent Lever from giving his side a deserved lead from the spot after Andy Sandell had brought down Whalley in the box.
The County back four, missing Tony James due to a slight abductor muscle strain, were struggling to contain the Sandgrounders’ quick and inventive forward line.
And the Exiles’ midfield was too narrow, with four players who all prefer to play centrally in Flynn, Max Porter, Lee Minshull and Lee Evans.
With no width there was very little service to O’Connor and Danny Crow, who didn’t have many chances to add to the two goals he scored in the 3-0 win at Barrow the week before.
The ex-Luton man did feel he should have had a penalty, however, as he went down under the challenge of visiting goalkeeper Tony McMillan.
But the referee was not convinced, and despite the indignation of the home support, it did look as if Crow engineered the contact rather than the other way around.
Another shout for a County penalty, this time for hand ball, was also dismissed as the crowd’s frustration with the ref and the opposition’s perceived time wasting and tough tackling threatened to boil over.
Edinburgh admitted that he gave his players a good talking-to during the break but he opted not to make any changes until the hour mark when striker Jefferson Louis replaced Porter.
The Exiles boss had already seen an improvement after the interval with Evans curling one effort just wide and Minshull almost turning in a Sandell cross.
O’Connor set up Crow for a header, which went over the top, before seeing his own goalbound drive deflected behind.
But the hosts really took control of the game with the switch back from 4-4-2 to the 4-3-3 formation that brought five wins from five matches in August.
Louis joined O’Connor and Crow up front and Jake Thomson replaced Flynn in the centre.
The Exiles looked much more comfortable and started to push hard for the equaliser.
Crow, O’Connor and Minshull all went close before the goal finally came on 76 minutes.
Louis played a big part with a neat ball through to O’Connor and he did what he does best with a delicate chip over McMillan – a finish that is becoming rather familiar for County fans.
That was just reward for a spirited second-half fightback, but Rodney Parade is becoming a real fortress already and County weren’t satisfied with the draw.
The crowd sensed a winner was still possible. And the players sensed it too.
O’Connor almost got it but failed to connect properly with a Louis cross and it fell to Swallow, on for O’Connor, to be the hero with his first goal for the club and one he’ll remember for some time.