NEWPORT County AFC have been condemned to a push for the play-offs after League Two leaders Cambridge United burgled a victory at Rodney Parade.

The Exiles spoke about putting the heat on the U’s in the race for automatic promotion but those hopes have surely been ended by a 1-0 loss.

County produced a fine display that certainly didn’t deserve defeat but that’s what they go after defender Declan Drysdale’s header squirmed past Nick Townsend after 78 minutes.

The Exiles moved the ball nicely all afternoon and had two penalty appeals for handball waved away but, just as they did against Carlisle in midweek, drew a blank.

They drop below Forest Green Rovers to seventh and now need to respond with Tuesday’s clash with Crawley followed by a trip to Exeter – at least four points will be needed against two rivals for the play-offs.

It was a deflating result after a strong performance, their best for several weeks, with Scot Bennett getting through a mountain of work in midfield to limit the threat of the division’s third top scorers, shadowing playmaker Wes Hoolahan all afternoon.

However, once again the Exiles were left to lament their quality in the final third with some wasteful delivery from the wide channels.

South Wales Argus: SUPERB: Scot Bennett got through a mountain of work for CountySUPERB: Scot Bennett got through a mountain of work for County

Michael Flynn made three changes to his starting line-up after the goalless draw against Carlisle with striker Padraig Amond and midfielder Kevin Ellison promoted from the bench while Ryan Haynes made his first appearance since the start of March after recovering from a groin injury.

He returned at left-back with County changing from three at the back to a flat four after the loss of Matty Dolan because of a concussion suffered in the closing stages against Carlisle.

Aaron Lewis had deputised impressively for Haynes and kept his starting role, switching to the right with Liam Shephard moved to right centre-back.

Flynn pulled another surprise by moving Bennett back to his favoured midfield and sticking tight to experienced former Ireland playmaker Hoolahan.

Both sides forces the goalkeepers into work in the eighth minute with Townsend saving well from a Joe Ironside header to his right before the ball went to the other end for Josh Sheehan to force Callum Burton into a smart stop with a long-range effort.

The Cambridge stopper was rather less convincing after 11 minutes when Lewis had a crack from distance but got away with slapping away a dipping effort straight at him.

County had to defend solidly from set plays delivered by Hoolahan, who was grateful for some peace away from Bennett, while they were looking most threatening down the right flank.

Sheehan was in the book after catching Hiram Boateng to stop a counter after 19 minutes and it remained scoreless after an encouraging first half hour.

They remained on top approaching the break and were livid with referee Thomas Brammall in the 42nd minute when they felt a Lewis cross was handled in the box.

County had performed strongly without reward and Flynn would have asked for a bit more quality from wide channels after the resumption.

Yet it was the U’s that came closest in the 47th minute when Luke Hannant cut in on his right, fired in a shot that was set to test Townsend but Mickey Demetriou got his head to the ball and deflected it for a corner via the top of the bar.

It was a tight, tense contest and Flynn turned to his bench after 57 minutes when he brought on Nicky Maynard for Ryan Taylor up front and added the youthful legs of Lewis Collins for the older ones of Ellison, who had made his first start since the win at Grimsby on December 8.

Cambridge hit the woodwork for the second time on the hour when a cunning corner routine ended with Paul Mullin smashing the ball against the left post.

County then came close twice with Sheehan winning a free-kick that he tested Burton with from 30 yards and then the Wales international pinged in a shot that they felt was handled in the box.

Furious Flynn gave the advertising board a good kicking and fumed at Mr Bramall for the second time, resulting in a caution.

Malta international Luke Gambin was introduced with 15 minutes to replace Amond, with County looking to pull the trigger more in the hunt for the opener.

Yet rather than chasing a winner they were forced to push for a leveller after Shephard conceded a free-kick down the left and Drysdale nodded home at the far post with 12 minutes to go.

The Exiles were close to an immediate response when Bennett pulled the ball back for Labadie in the box but his shot was well blocked by the scrambling defence.

Lewis was sacrificed for forward Dom Telford as County hunted a point but they failed to scramble one to leave their automatic promotion hopes hanging by a thread.

Rather than pushing for third, County need to hold onto seventh.

County: Townsend, Lewis (Telford 81), Bennett, Demetriou, Haynes, Shephard, Sheehan, Labadie, Ellison (Collins 57), Amond (Gambin 75), Taylor (Maynard 57).
Substitutes: King, Longe-King, Ledley.
Yellow: Sheehan, Lewis

Cambridge: Burton, Knoyle, Iredale, Digby, Taylor, Drysdale, Hannant, Mullin, Hoolahan, Ironside, Boateng.
Substitutes: McKenzie-Lyle, O'Neil, Dunk, Okedina, Alese, Tracey, May.
Goal: Drysdale

Referee: Thomas Bramall