Sky Sports legend Jeff Stelling was an interested spectator as County took on his in-form Hartlepool favourites in the Friday-night contest under the Rodney Parade lights. It was the team with the division’s best home record that ultimately prospered however, as the bubbling Exiles made it five home wins on the bounce, keeping another clean sheet in the process. Defender Harry Worley had headed Newport into an early lead, but it took a second-half Conor Washington strike, his third in four days, to seal what was an excellent victory against arguably the best side to have visited ‘Dave’ so far this campaign. That lifted County to sixth in the table, as Justin Edinburgh’s stubborn charges continue to make light of the club’s horrific injury list.
The canny Newport boss made three changes from the side that had trounced Portsmouth in the Paint Trophy; Lenny Pidgeley reclaiming his goalkeeping berth following a midweek rest, whilst Adam Chapman replaced Michael Flynn in midfield having served his one-match suspension. The final change was enforced with skipper David Pipe beginning a three-game ban; Ryan Jackson returned to the right-wing-back role in his absence. Visitors Hartlepool arrived in South Wales on the back of a great run of form, having won seven of their last nine games.
It was the hosts who began the brighter as County simply leapt out of the blocks, taking just seven minutes to get their eager noses in front. A terrific goal it was too; Robbie Willmott whipped over a venomously struck corner from the right, and Harry Worley rose superbly to thunder home the header. It was the big defender’s third goal of the season, and the Exiles continued to relentlessly press the ‘Pools rearguard; on 16 minutes the crowd were screaming for a penalty when Danny Crow’s shot struck the arm of Jack Baldwin, which certainly fell under the ‘seen them given’ category. Unfortunately, match referee Mr. Martin was wholly unimpressed.
Conor Washington in particular was causing all kinds of problems with his pace and trickery; midway through the half, he went close twice within the space of a minute, thumping shots just wide of either upright. On 34 minutes, Newport were once again howling for a spot-kick, Washington appearing to be nudged over this time as he skipped the wrong side of Neil Austin; once again, Mr. Martin waved play on much to the chagrin of the home faithful. Always dangerous on the break, Pidgeley was called upon to produce a fine save on 38 minutes, when Jack Compton threatened to earn United parity from 20-yards.
The excellent Tom Naylor, a revelation since his midfield switch, was next to go close for County; before the half drew to a close with Chapman testing United keeper Scott Flinders. However it was ‘Pools who started the second period the brighter, forcing Newport back with their first real sustained spell of pressure. James Poole had an effort deflected wide on 48 minutes, before League Two ‘Player of the Month’ Luke James forced another splendid save from determined stopper Pidgeley.
Just past the hour, with the home crowd becoming evermore twitchy, another Pidgeley save became the catalyst for the moment that ultimately sealed the match. His stop from Poole saw County break at speed, with Christian Jolley teasing Michael Duckworth on the right, and the arriving Conor Washington knocking his low cross in, just about. It was the sort of goal a striker only tends to get when he is enjoying a rich vein of form; an instinctive toe-poke and try as he might, Hartlepool keeper Flinders couldn’t prevent it from creeping over the line. The closest United would come thereafter was when Andy Monkhouse unluckily struck an upright in the closing minutes; it simply wasn’t to be their night.
“The lads have fallen below the standards they’ve set themselves tonight,” explained ‘Pools boss Colin Cooper afterwards; “Against a team like Newport it’s all about rolling your sleeves up and I don’t think we were up to the test tonight. Newport are very effective; Justin has them well drilled, they all know their jobs – they’re tough to break down and very good at getting in behind you.” County boss Justin Edinburgh added “I’m extremely pleased, we came up against a very good side but we took our chances when they came along. It was never comfortable when the score was only 1-0; we knew Hartlepool would pose a threat and they certainly did that second-half. We got that second goal at a crucial time, which settled us down and we won fairly comfortably in the end. We’ve made Rodney Parade a fortress; the fans made a big noise out there.”