The first meaningful Severnside derby since Coventry lifted the FA Cup, saw former Gas winger Andy Sandell clinch the honours for the host’s via the penalty spot; on an afternoon not for faint hearted. Crunching challenges, a turbo-charged atmosphere and a packed stadium are a prerequisite for such an occasion; and a wet and drizzly Rodney Parade in which both sets of supporters turned out in force certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.
The game itself was always likely to be a tense affair, both sides suffering from crippling injury lists yet giving it their all nevertheless. Another former Rover in Chris Zebroski might have given Newport an early lead as the home side dominated, ghosting in at the far post he agonisingly prodded Adam Chapman’s cross just the wrong side of the gaping upright. His strike partner Christian Jolley saw another effort held by Steve Mildenhall in the Bristol goal, whilst Lee Minshull, Robbie Willmott and Zebroski again all went close.
Just when you felt the pressure had been somewhat in vain, County grabbed that crucial breakthrough with only three minutes of the half remaining. Jolley danced in majestically from the left flank, only to be sent theatrically tumbling by a needless challenge from the lunging Tom Parkes. Referee Mr. Collins pointed straight to the spot and Sandell did the rest; smashing a perfect kick into the bottom corner with his trusty left peg as Mildenhall dived in the opposite direction.
The visitors were certainly more forceful after the break, albeit without ever really extending the returning Lenny Pidgeley in the Newport goal it must be said. Deprived of all three regular centre-halves, County displayed an assured calmness at the back; one in which Andrew Hughes, Harry Worley and debutant Tom Naylor were in quite immense form. The Exiles regularly raided Rovers on the break too and Zebroski brought a splendid save out of Mildenhall with a powerful, downwards header. In-form substitute Conor Washington had an even better chance; sent clear in a one-on-one his attempted lofted finish over Mildenhall wasn’t quite cute enough to deceive the experienced stopper.
Rovers naturally pushed further on as the game entered its latter stages, but a blocked effort from Clarkson and a late scare when the keeper raced upfield were the best they could muster in response; County holding their nerve to record back-to-back victories on home soil on their Football League return. With the next two league matches on the road, along with the small matter of a cup trip to West Brom sandwiched in between, that slender result could be worth its weight in gold.
“I thought the team was outstanding,” explained debutant Tom Naylor; “To keep a clean sheet in a derby and get the three points was great for us. I think me, Hughesy and Harry looked solid at the back and they couldn’t get through us; we clicked straight away in training, and on the pitch it felt like we’d been together for months.” Match winner Andy Sandell added “We’re still on a roll from last season and our confidence is high; as long as we make Rodney Parade a fortress and pick up some points on the road, we’ll be in a very good position. We’ve got absolutely nothing to fear.”