AFTER last week’s ‘statement win’ over promotion rivals Colchester United, this was a stuttering display from Newport County AFC that left the 936 travelling fans desperately disappointed.

The injury-hit Exiles were outplayed for the first hour against a Cheltenham Town team that hadn’t won a League Two game at Whaddon Road all season and started the day above the relegation zone on goal difference alone.

Michael Flynn’s men fought to the end and could have snatched a fortunate point at the death but, ultimately, they paid the price for a below-par first-half performance.

And, while Cameron Pring and Charlie Cooper were both replaced at half-time, they were by no means the only ones to under-perform in the first 45 minutes.

Fraser Franks failed to clear a cross from the impressive Ryan Broom to allow Will Boyle to head Cheltenham into a deserved lead on 18 minutes.

And, after Scott Flinders had denied Franks at the other end with a superb save, County goalkeeper Joe Day let a Chris Hussey shot bounce off his chest for Tyrone Barnett to slot in the second a minute before the break.

“Cheltenham were strong, they were professional and they played to their strengths,” said Flynn.

“They were very direct and it worked well for them. We didn’t handle it.

"In the first half, they did a job on us. We didn’t win one second-ball and we kept kicking it onto their centre-backs’ heads, which we worked on all week not to do.

“After the first-half performance, if someone had offered me a point I would have bitten their hand off.”

They nearly managed it and if captain Mickey Demetriou hadn’t put his penalty the wrong side of the post on 85 minutes then Antoine Semenyo’s well-taken goal four minutes later would have completed an unlikely comeback.

County’s fighting spirit won the admiration of Cheltenham manager Michael Duff, who compared Flynn’s men to his former team Burnley.

“It’s a good win at home against a top-three team,” said the Robins boss.

“Mickey’s team do keep going and they remind me of Burnley in a way with the way they keep going with their energy and application.

“It’s almost like a one-team mentality and that’s something we can learn from.

“Newport changed their shape, coming here and playing a different formation,” he added.

“They haven’t played 4-3-3 recently so they’ve changed their shape to accommodate us, which is a compliment in itself.

“But we are not accepting where we are and we’ve beaten one of the top sides.

“That will raise a few eyebrows, and it wasn’t smash and grab by any means.”

Despite the visitors’ late rally, Cheltenham were worthy winners.

“I thought we were good for an hour,” said Duff.

“There was some good play in the first half. Naturally with where we are, it’s a human thing, they start protecting what they’ve got rather than getting on the front foot, which is what we did for the first hour.

“It was a bit ‘hairy scary’ at the end and you could feel it coming.

“Standing on the sidelines, I was thinking ‘I can’t take Tyrone or Luke [Varney] off’ because they are massive and we knew it was coming in the box.

“To see that through is a big thing because it would have been a real blow psychologically if we’d conceded another one so late in a game.”

It was too little, too late from County. And, with Northampton Town at Rodney Parade on Tuesday night and a tricky trip to Wrexham to come, they need to find the voice again quickly.

County: Day; Pipe, Franks, Demetriou, Butler; Cooper (Crofts, 46), Bakinson, Pring (O’Brien, 46); Semenyo, Matt (Harris, 72), Amond

Subs not used: Townsend, Foulston, Sheehan, Collins

Booked: Franks

Referee: Alan Young

Attendance: 3,672 (936 County)