NEWPORT County AFC suffered a 1-0 defeat at blustery Barrow in League Two after Cole Stockton’s first-half strike.

The Bluebirds forward scored the only goal of a scrappy game at Holker Street that was seriously impacted by the wind.

He struck from inside the box in the 20th minute and the Exiles could not respond when the conditions were in their favour in the second half.

It leaves County two points shy of matching last season’s tally of 57 – manager Graham Coughlan’s frequently-stated target – and leaves them with little margin for error in the surprise bid for the play-offs.

They are now four points off Crawley, who climbed above AFC Wimbledon into seventh with victory at Tranmere, and also have a game in hand.

The Reds travel to Rodney Parade for a key clash on Bank Holiday Monday, that after the Exiles make another long trip to Colchester on Good Friday.

On paper, this was the toughest assignment of the run-in against a Barrow side who are sixth, in good shape for the play-off and potentially able to force their way into the mix for the top three.

County could have no complaints about being edged out after the hosts played the conditions better than them and limited Coughlan’s side to one chance of note.

South Wales Argus: Bryn Morris on the ball for County at BarrowBryn Morris on the ball for County at Barrow (Image: Huw Evans Agency)

The Exiles headed north after a textbook 2-0 away win at Wimbledon and made two changes, one enforced.

Academy graduate Harrison Bright made his first League Two start – and first Exiles start since the EFL Trophy game at Swindon in November, 2021 – in place of Matt Baker after he featured for Wales Under-21s at Rodney Parade on Friday.

The 20-year-old from Blaenavon, who spent the first half of the campaign on loan in the Cymru Premier with Barry Town United, slotted in at right centre-back for his third County appearance of the season.

The other change to the XI saw Seb Palmer-Houlden get the nod ahead of former Barrow striker Offrande Zanzala, while the host brought an ex-Exile into their starting line-up in 2022 golden boot winner Dom Telford.

Both sides struggled to get going in the early stages, largely due to the conditions, with the hosts half-asking for a penalty in the sixth minute after a theatrical fall by centre-back George Ray following a corner.

The first incident of note came in the 11th minute when Telford won a tussle with Kyle Jameson and smashed in a wind-assisted shot from 35 metres that went narrowly over.

County were pinned back but their first chance came after 17 minutes when Aaron Wildig improvised a flick over the top that was scrambled clear with Will Evans lurking.

That was swiftly followed by Adam Lewis whipping a ball in that goalkeeper Paul Farman dealt with, but not convincingly.

However, the Exiles fell behind in the 20th minute with a poor goal to concede.

Dangerman Stockton was left in acres in space on the right of the goal and slammed home after strike partner Telford controlled a shot and provided the assist.

The wind was used by County in the bid for a rapid response with Bright playing a clever ball over the top that held up for Wildig.

He tried to lob Farman from wide on the right, a tough task on a still day, and he failed to hit the target.

County needed to stay in the game while playing into the wind and did that to get towards half-time without Nick Townsend having any issues, other than having to really put his boot through the ball to get clearances to halfway.

There as a scramble in the box in the 39th minute but Jameson blocked from Kian Spence and then his fellow defenders managed to crowd around Telford to prevent him getting a shot off with his dangerous left boot.

The Exiles got to half-time just 1-0 down and made a change for the second half with in-form ‘keeper Townsend, who was clattered by Tyrell Warren early on, replaced by big-kicking Jonny Maxted.

He was soon watching a header by Stockton go over the bar with the goalscorer wasteful when found on the six-yard box.

County responded well with a couple of dangerous balls into the box, the second guided towards goal by Evans and comfortably saved by Farman.

The visitors were seeing more of the ball and had another attempt in the 55th minute with Harry Charsley firing a yard wide after it sat up nicely on the edge of the box.

He was then to the fore to prevent Barrow doubling their lead in the 57th minute when some unconvincing defending allowed Ben Whitfield to cross from the left, Kian Spence was at the far post but the County midfielder got back to block.

The Exiles had their best chance in the 63rd minute when Charsley cut the ball back from the left wing and Palmer-Houlden hit the target only for Farman to theatrically save with his right hand.

County right-back Lewis Payne was glad to see a yellow shown in the 64th minute for a wild tackle on Spence – it has been a season for Newport grumbling about officiating, but not here – and then the Bluebirds man got up and dragged a shot wide after breaking clear.

Coughlan made his second change after 67 minutes by bringing on Zanzala and the Exiles were fortunate to still be in it with 13 to go.

Spence tried his luck from a free-kick and Maxted was relieved that Elliott Newby shanked wide from a rebound after he palmed the ball back out.

County were lacking composure and quality in the final third and the manager looked to change that by bringing on striker Luke Jephcott for defender Payne.

Yet the visitors were unable to build up a head of steam and the hosts looked the more likely to strike as the clock ticked towards 90.

Morris fired a shot wildly over the bar from distance in the 88th minute and County failed to scramble anything in four minutes of added time, their afternoon summed up at the death when Zanzala ran the ball out of play rather than whipping in a cross.

They must dust themselves down for the key Easter fixtures as they attempt to stay in the scramble for the top seven.

Barrow scorer: Stockton.

County: Townsend (Maxted 45), Payne (Jephcott 76), Bright, Bennett (captain), Jameson, Lewis, Morris, Wildig, Charsley (Waite 87), Palmer-Houlden (Zanzala 67), Evans.
Substitutes not used: Sanca, Bondswell, Rai.
Yellow: Payne, Bright.

Referee: Ben Speedie.
Attendance: 3,379 (224 County).