Assistant manager Wayne Hatswell said yesterday that Newport County AFC would need nine wins to make the play-offs and the Exiles are certainly going to give it everything they’ve got to get there after a 2-0 victory over Carlisle United.
When needing to climb the table to get into the top seven, it’s vital to beat the teams above you, and goals in either half from Ade Azeez and Padraig Amond did the damage at Rodney Parade to put the play-off push back on.
All the results seemingly went the way of the Exiles – arguably deserved after a stunning display from the whole squad – and it’s just five points from the top seven and there’s still that game in hand too.
Manager Mike Flynn made one change to the side that suffered defeat at MK Dons last time out as Azeez came in for his home debut and inaugural start for the Exiles after a cameo from the bench in Buckinghamshire.
Unlike last weekend, the change made the formation a lot easier to work out this time, with County choosing to revert back to the familiar 3-4-1-2 formation with Azeez partnering Jamille Matt and Padraig Amond playing slightly behind the front two.
Carlisle United have slipped off the pace a little bit of late having failed to win in the last four but manager Steven Pressley stuck by his team and named an unchanged side from the draw at play-off chasers Colchester United last Saturday.
That saw the Cumbrians field the familiar 4-1-4-1 formation with a starting side including former Cardiff City defender Anthony Gerrard, captain Danny Grainger – who scored a stoppage time winner in the reverse fixture – and in-form striker Hallam Hope.
In a first-half full of chances for both sides, County showed that little bit more of a clinical edge – something Flynn has been craving for weeks – and they had the advantage when returning to the dressing rooms.
The visiting Cumbrians – halfway through a 576-mile round trip to South Wales – started the better, however, and probably should have opened the scoring on eight minutes.
Mark O’Brien unfortunately miscued a clearance from a splitting Regan Slater pass, that freed Hope through on goal but even though Joe Day initially slipped when rushing out, he recovered well to tackle the striker and Mark Cullen blazed the rebound wide with the goal at his mercy.
The Cumbrian attacking force just seemed to be missing that final pass or shot when coming forward, they were really good in possession and carving out some good opportunities, but they just didn’t have that clinical edge in the final third.
In stark contrast, County’s attacking line-up was unbelievable – almost telepathic in some instances – and you genuinely couldn’t tell that this was only Azeez’s second appearance for the club since joining on deadline day of the January window.
He was also the man to break the deadlock for the Exiles on 14 minutes – the perfect way to mark a terrific home debut – and it highlighted his predatory instinct as he peeled from the pack when the cross came in to tap home unmarked from Amond’s flick-on.
Before that, the Exiles were mightily unlucky not to have already scored. Amond took fire from 10 yards but hit the post then saw the ball bounce off Adam Collin’s back and across the goal line, but Gerrard beat Matt to the ball to clear.
It was honestly a delight to watch the County attack in this sort of mood and although they couldn’t extend the lead before half-time, they were unreal – Azeez was the livewire, Amond the workhorse and Matt the aerial threat.
Such was the threat coming from County that Cumbrian goalkeeper Adam Collin had to make two world-class saves just to get his side in at the break just the one goal behind.
On 18 minutes, Azeez showed he’s got pace to burn but after a cutback was thwarted by a terrific reflex save, then Matt was also denied just before the half-time whistle with another stop right from the top drawer.
Carlisle just couldn’t find the ruthless instinct – they had four great sightings but to no avail – Stefan Scougall was denied low at the near post by Day, Tom Parkes put the rebound wide from a corner, and Cullen blazed over the top.
In the second-half, County continued their relentless pressure on the Carlisle United goal and always looked like extending their lead rather than the Cumbrians getting back into the contest.
Matt sent a volley over the top in a danger sign less than 90 seconds after the restart, whilst Azeez was only an inch away from connecting to a super 50-yard cross-field pass by Willmott.
It was only a matter of time before the lead was finally extended and it came on 67 minutes. Grainger strangely tried to pass the ball back to his goalkeeper from a corner, that didn’t work, and Amond used his intelligent reading of the game to nip in and stab home for his 21st of the campaign.
All Carlisle could muster when looking for an immediate response was a Hope volley drifting into the side netting on 72 minutes, but that inability to create was much down to the tremendous defensive resilience from County – Regan Poole in particular – which was thwarting the menacing prowess from the Cumbrians.
Even when they did get a clear sighting at goal, they missed, as Day magnificently saved a penalty for the second week in a row to deny Grainger with three minutes remaining after Mark O’Brien was dubiously penalised for a shirt pull.
It was the perfect way to conclude a terrific display from every single member of the starting squad and the substitutes – a statement win for the Exiles as we begin the business end of the season.
One thing is for sure now: the play-offs are a realistic possibility!
Newport County AFC (3-4-1-2): Day, Willmott, Poole, O’Brien (C), Demetriou, Butler, Dolan (Sheehan 31’), Bennett, Amond, Matt (Labadie 74’), Azeez (McKirdy 80’)
Subs not used: Townsend, Pipe, Marsh-Brown, Bakinson
Carlisle United (4-1-4-1): Collin, Grainger, Gerrard, Parkes, Liddle, Etuhu (Thomas 68’), Hope (McCarron 87’), O’Hare, Scougall, Slater, Cullen
Subs not used: Gray, Miller, Kennedy, Jones, Grant
Referee: Ross Joyce
Attendance: 3,432 (233 AWAY)
Next up for County: Colchester United (9th March 2019) AWAY