Beleaguered County came away from Fleetwood’s Highbury feeling rather hard done by and with good reason. Reduced to ten men and a goal behind after only 180 seconds of play, the afternoon didn’t get any better thereafter for the unfortunate Exiles thanks in no small part to a display of officiating that was erratic to say the least. The final 1-4 scoreline clearly flattered the hosts who leapt to the summit of League Two as a result. Games such as this can and will invariably happen however, sometimes for all your endeavours it just isn’t your day; the only thing that matters now is how the Exiles respond and bounce back from it. Thankfully, in that regard, resilient County have excellent past form.
Boss Justin Edinburgh made one enforced change from the side that had performed so impressively against Southend last time out; new loan signing Adedeji Oshilaja coming in for Tony James at centre-back. The match got off to the worst possible start for Newport when some haphazard defending presented the ball to Steven Schumacher inside the visitors’ box in only the second minute. With a near-open goal to aim at, County’s Robbie Willmott dashed back to block the attempt with a combination of upper arm and chest. Referee Mr. Haines was in no mood for mercy though, pointing to the penalty spot and promptly sending the aghast Willmott off. Schumacher gratefully doubled the punishment, despatching the spot kick past Lenny Pidgeley with ease.
Despite such a horrendous early setback, County to their enormous credit took control of the game and how they trooped off at the interval still that goal behind was perplexing. Town keeper Scott Davies stunningly saved Chris Zebroski’s header from one of Newport’s numerous corners on 25 minutes; whilst both Ismail Yakubu and Conor Washington went mightily close soon after. An Adam Chapman pile-driver stung the hands of Davies on 35 minutes, before the busy stopper denied Zebroski once more. On 41 minutes, Washington raced clear of the home defence and did everything right; only for his neat clip over the on-rushing Davies to strike the inside of the post and roll agonisingly across goal. When your luck is out it’s certainly out.
The was summed up in spades when Fleetwood began the second period with another breakthrough to match the whirlwind start to the first; Schumacher again inflicting the damage with a lovely strike. This time it was from all of 30-yards; his sweetly-struck shot flying in via the same meddling upright that had thwarted Washington not an inconsiderable amount of time earlier. Them’s the breaks I guess. The hosts began to enjoy themselves now; Schumacher curling another effort just over the bar, before a second penalty award on 59 minutes all but killed County off.
Ryan Jackson was the unlucky player on this occasion and, once again, it could be argued that there was a hint of controversy over the award; Jackson and Town’s Jeff Hughes coming together inside the box. There was no doubt in Mr. Haines’ mind however, Jackson was booked and the delighted Schumacher gleefully completed his first senior hat-trick with another deadly spot kick. With one corner of the ground and pitch in darkness now thanks to a floodlight failure, the game was bizarrely allowed to continue and it was a case of damage limitation for the Exiles now.
The goal their doughty display clearly merited arrived on 70 minutes; courtesy of the game’s third penalty. A seemingly deliberate Nathan Pond handball, with the defender lying stretched out on the ground denied Zebroski; but unlike the contentious early Willmott incident, Mr. Haines didn’t think this one warranted so much as a caution; only he will know why. Chris Zebroski leathered home the kick and the County faithful at last had something to cheer. Sadly, the last word went to Fleetwood as David Ball struck a delightful fourth past Pidgeley on 76 minutes; leaving County to bemoan their luck, regroup, and get ready to go again at Braintree in the cup next Saturday.
“I don’t ever remember being involved in a game where I’ve left feeling there was more of an injustice than there was in this one,” reflected manager Justin Edinburgh afterwards; “What’s frustrating is the inconsistencies, that’s what is so irritating for a manager. Great credit to my lads for keeping going, but the manner of this defeat is hard to take. We were the better side in the first-half, the goalkeeper has made some great saves and Conor has hit the post; we could have easily come in level or better. It wasn’t really a 4-1 game and we never gave up; there aren’t many times I’ll say well done to the players after a defeat, but great credit to them the way they kept their heads – I was very pleased with them.”