ON a day of heroes and villains, heartache and redemption in the Football League, Newport County ended their campaign with a party of their own at Rodney Parade.
It might not have meant the world; the difference between finishing 14th and 18th in League Two doesn’t quite yield the fiscal benefits it does in the Premier League, but the Exiles maintained some proud records by virtue of Saturday’s dramatic victory over title chasing Rochdale.
County remained unbeaten all season at Rodney Parade against the elite of League Two, winning five and drawing three of their games against the teams who finished in the top eight.
Newport were beaten just once, at Dale in the reverse fixture, against the automatically promoted teams this season and the Exiles also finished the campaign staring up again rather than down, only two points behind the top ten after a brief flirtation with the relegation minefield.
So yes, although the travelling revelers from Rochdale were right in their boisterous pre-match proclamations that “We’re going up, we’re going up, you’re not, you’re not,” Newport will take huge consolation from taking the opportunity to finish the campaign with a spring in their step, a Feely good factor, if you will.
Sides that tank towards the end of a campaign rarely start the next one too brightly and by turning a narrow and closely fought contest against a superb outfit in Rochdale into three points, Newport have closed with a big win in front of a bumper crowd swelled by a giant travelling following.
It was a day to look positively forward rather than forlornly back - as evidenced by the inclusion on the bench of Joe Parker - but goodness knows where Newport might have finished if Aaron O’Connor has played a part in the first 43 contests of the campaign.
He incredibly finished the season just one goal shy of Christian Jolley and with a 100% strike rate in terms of games started, his effort just before the interval pure predatory instinct, something that County have missed badly since Conor Washington departed for Posh pastures.
However, this was a performance built on good defending and organization and Edinburgh is forming a spine that he’ll be loathed to disband.
The prospect of Lenny Pidgeley, Darcy Blake, one or both of Ismail Yakubu and Byron Anthony and a fully fit Max Porter holding in front of them would provide the Exiles with a solidity rare indeed in League Two. Even when down to ten men, County’s defensive minded players excelled.
Porter, both central defenders and loanee goalkeeper Ian McLoughlin were all excellent at a vibrant Rodney Parade and the quality of possession football both sides managed in patches made a mockery of the supposed ‘unplayable’ pitch notion, Mike Flynn and Rochdale’s Ian Henderson rarely misplacing a pass.
The opening quarter of the game didn’t match the thumping atmosphere, but County had already survived a scare via the combination of Henderson and George Donnelly – who fired narrowly wide - and had no response to the combination just before the half hour mark. Then Henderson split the County rearguard and Donnelly beat the offside trap to clip the ball past McLoughlin at the second attempt after the goalkeeper partially blocked his initial effort. It was a smart move from a team that is geared towards admirable attacking intent.
With Rochdale briefly hitting the summit of League Two County suddenly felt like unwanted hosts of a party they were hosting, but just before the interval they clawed their way back into the match.
Ryan Jackson found space on the right and crossed invitingly, Rochdale clearing only as far as Mike Flynn who volleyed firmly at Josh Lillis pushed the the ball straight to O’Connor who turned it home, a magical moment for Newport’s fox in the box after a torturous campaign.
The Exiles were perhaps a little fortunate to be level but the second half was a different story with County more than matching the visitors, the exceptional work rate of the players a testament to their desire to send the home crowd home smiling.
That prospect appeared to have vanished when Rochdale’s incisiveness on the break yielded a huge dividend, Henderson ghosted in behind Kevin Feely where Jackson brought him down somewhat clumsily, the referee forced to award both a penalty and the somewhat inevitable red card that follows as Jackson was the last man.
It appeared Newport were set for another hard luck story in a calendar year full of them, but Ian McLoughlin had other ideas, flinging himself at full stretch to his left and guessing correctly to push away Matt Lund’s effort. Very much a penalty saved rather than missed.
And with the noise level increasing in Rodney Parade as Newport looked to push out and maybe look for a counter, they found a winner from a set-piece, the ever reliable delivery of Robbie Willmott finding Feely whose looping header somehow crept home.
Joy unconfined for the Amber Army who haven’t had too much to shout about in 2014, but will now but full of optimism for bigger things next season.
Newport: (4-3-3): McLoughlin, Jackson, Feely, Blake, Hughes, Flynn, (Minshull 72), Chapman, Porter, Willmott, O’Connor (Jolley 66), Zebroski (Jeffers 80)
Subs not used: Naylor, Holloway, Parker, Howe
Sent off: Jackson (86, professional foul)
Rochdale: (4-1-4-1): Lillis, Bennett, Lancashire, O'Connell, Rose, (Done 72), Vincenti, Allen, Hery (Lynch 56) Lund, Henderson, Donnelly, (Bunney 71)
Subs not used: Cavanagh, Eastham, Rafferty, Thomson
Booked: Lund, Henderson
Referee: James Adcock