CONSIDERING that Newport County AFC's season began with a thumping 3-0 defeat at Mansfield Town, it hasn't turned out too badly, hasn't it?

It was a tough first-day assignment for the Exiles, away against one of League Two's promotion favourites armed with one of the division's biggest budgets.

For the 320 County fans who travelled to Nottinghamshire on August 4 last year, the prospect of a promotion push must have seemed very distant.

But the way County bounced back from that opening day reverse began to instil the belief that this was a team, a squad, that had the character to bounce back from such setbacks as this.

So it proved. County subsequently embarked on a six-match unbeaten run in League Two, including a 3-2 win at Notts County secured by an injury time Jamille Matt strike, and successive away wins at Port Vale and Oldham Athletic, to sit joint top of the table early in September, with eventual champions Lincoln City.

Nothing is ever straightforward for County, however. A midweek defeat at Swindon was followed four days later by the season's most shocking reverse, a 6-0 loss at home to Yeovil Town.

County remained in the promotion places however, and a 1-0 win away against today's opponents Tranmere Rovers - thanks to an early Fraser Franks strike - steadied the ship.

Two hard fought draws followed, before on-loan striker Antoine Semenyo made County's 13th League Two fixture of the season a lucky one, netting the winner in a 2-1 victory Stevenage on October 13 in the eighth minute of injury time, to send the Rodney Parade faithful home with smiles on their faces.

That was the third goal County had scored deep into injury time - Matt secured a point in a 3-3 draw at home against Macclesfield Town in the 97th minute 11 days earlier - and these late goals have proved crucial.

Here we need to take somewhat of a leap forward, to better appreciate County's achievement in reaching Wembley.

The Stevenage win maintained County in third place, but league-wise things were about to go somewhat awry.

The next 23 League Two matches brought just six wins and four draws - 22 points out of 69.

A home win against Colchester United on November 17, the first in five matches, briefly put County back in the promotion places, and there were vital winter wins against promotion/play-off rivals Exeter City, Mansfield Town and Carlisle United.

But by and large, autumn and winter was a slog in terms of League Two, as the promotion and play-off places gradually slipped from view. On a chilly late February evening, County lost 2-0 at Milton Keynes Dons and found themselves in 15th place.

Of course, there was another improbable, fabulous and heartwarming FA Cup run - those victories over Leicester City and Middlesbrough, and the wonderful build-up to, and occasion that was, the fifth round tie at home to Manchester City need no recap here.

It would be easy to conclude that these exploits took County's eye off the League Two ball, but in truth the teams' struggles in the league began long before the FA Cup got serious again in the New Year.

Post-Manchester City, there was a lot of feverish calculation about what County had to do to reach the play-offs.

Assistant manager Wayne Hatswell told the Argus the club had targeted nine wins from the remaining 14 matches before the Milton Keynes Dons reverse, and he remained bullish despite that defeat.

“We’ve still got a hell of a lot to play for,” he said as March dawned.

“It’s in our hands. We’ve got to go again and we’ve just got to believe that we can do it."

A fine 2-0 win at home to Carlisle United on March 2 was the perfect response, but two subsequent defeats, at Colchester and Northampton, made the mountain that little bit steeper.

Crucially however, teams in the play-off places were not pushing on, and County began the final 10 matches of the season - at home to Cheltenham Town on March 15 - in 13th place, eight points adrift of the last play-off place.

And something clicked. County's defence developed a Scrooge-like level of miserliness, conceding just two goals in the final 10 matches of the regular season, and recording eight clean sheets, compared to 10 in the previous 36 matches.

This, combined with sharper finishing up front, slowly but surely rekindled the prospect of a play-off place.

Wins in April over champions Lincoln City and subsequently promoted Bury were highlights in a 10-match unbeaten run, concluding with that heart-stopping finale at Morecambe on May 4 and another late goal, again by Jamille Matt, to seal the final play-off place.

Of course, County embarked on a late season revival in 2016/17 - who can forget the Great Escape? But this time it was different, divested of the doom and gloom that accompanied that late and ultimately successful chase for survival.

And if that 1-1 play-off semi-final first leg at home to Mansfield Town was a nailbiter, Lord knows what travelling fans were gnawing on during the away leg three days later.

This was a breathless but brilliant advert for League Two, that County should have had wrapped up by half-time but could have so easily lost in the second half and in extra time, before that thrilling penalty shoot-out victory.

And so to Wembley for the finale to yet another topsy-turvy season. Keep believing.