A bitterly cold night at Rodney Parade saw a Robbie Willmott thunderbolt send Newport County into Round Two of the FA Cup for the first time since a visit to Craven Cottage in 1986. With a third home game in eight days taking its toll on supporters pockets, a lowest home crowd of the season witnessed a fiercely competitive cup replay in which Conference visitors Braintree put up more than a fight against the in-form Exiles. As it was, one goal eventually proved sufficient; something that was rather appropriate given that it was a strike that deserved to win any match.
With squad numbers in short supply, boss Justin Edinburgh named the same side that had beaten Hartlepool four nights earlier; keeper Lenny Pidgeley keeping goal just a couple of hours after the arrival of his newborn daughter. It was the visitors from Essex who threatened first however, midfielder Kenny Davis testing the keeper from 25-yards with an effort that produced a routine gathering. In truth, there was precious little to warm the shivering crowd in these opening stages, with County struggling to pierce the Iron rearguard.
Conor Washington appeared to have been nudged inside the area on 17 minutes, but any penalty shouts from the amber faithful were more in optimistic hope than any real anticipation. Six minutes later, a Christian Jolley shot was deflected wide of goal after the striker had jinked his way inside, before Dan Holman rifled another long-range Braintree effort straight at Pidgeley. It was perhaps going to take a moment of class to bring this game to life, and just as we laboured towards the break, it arrived thanks to a sublime moment from wing-back Robbie Willmott.
Washington was halted in crude fashion, wide on the left side of the visitors penalty area by Ryan Peters on 45 minutes, an offence that saw the defender promptly enter referee Mr. Davies’ notebook. It appeared too wide an angle to be a viable shooting opportunity, but Willmott thought otherwise as he promptly smashed a brilliant, right-footed effort over the startled goalie and into the far top corner. It was a stunning moment of quality illuminating what had been a dreary spectacle up to that point.
Sadly, it would be proved something of an isolated moment as the second period began in equally turgid fashion. Ismail Yakubu did his best to double County’s advantage on 52 minutes; sadly his firm header from Willmott’s corner flew over Nick Hamann’s crossbar. Reduced to efforts from distance, Holman tested Pidgeley once more on 58 minutes, whilst another home corner resulted in Harry Worley nodding over on this occasion. The game’s outstanding player, home midfielder Adam Chapman was next to threaten; his shot from 25-yards being well fielded by Hamann.
With that slender lead still proving the difference, Pidgeley was called upon to make the game’s best save on 81 minutes; the new Dad splendidly stopping a venomous effort from the always impressive Davis. Four minutes later, Washington burst clear of the Iron defence for the only time all evening; sadly, it was a contest that keeper Hamann won with some aplomb. It mattered little, County were through to face Kidderminster in Round Two thanks to a sixth home win on the bounce, and a third successive clean sheet. As weeks go, it has been one most productive with the Exiles continuing to make large strides on three fronts.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” explained assistant boss Jimmy Dack afterwards; “Braintree are having a good season and came here with nothing to lose. It was all about attitude tonight and to be fair, the boys had a good go; we weren’t as good as we were against Hartlepool, but you’re not going to be great every week. Everyone has stood up to the battle though and we’re delighted with them. Robbie has got that in his locker, he does things like that in training and can win you the game out of nothing. The good thing for us is that it was another clean sheet and that’s three wins in a row; something we hadn’t done this season, so we’re very pleased about that. We’ve just got to keep winning; momentum is massive.”