Newport County AFC’s stunning 2-1 victory over Championship side Leeds United was one of the greatest games that Exiles striker Paul Hayes has ever been involved in.
Hayes made his long-awaited debut for County during the game at Rodney Parade, a match in which the visitors did in-fact take the lead in after just nine minutes.
Captain for the day Gaetano Berardi scored his first ever goal for the Whites in his 102nd appearance for the club, firing home from 30 yards through a host of bodies into the bottom left corner.
But the Exiles fought back intently after that early blow, and were perhaps unlucky not to be level before half-time as Padraig Amond saw his effort cleared off the goal-line by Man Utd loanee Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
Scot Bennett and Frank Nouble both came close early in the second-half, and the Exiles were finally rewarded for all their efforts as Conor Shaughnessy inadvertently scored an own-goal with 13 minutes remaining.
Hayes then came on with five minutes to go at a packed Rodney Parade, and almost scored with his first touch after a scintillating 35-yard effort, only to see it narrowly drift past the far-post.
That set the stage for Shawn McCoulsky to grab his 11th goal of the season at the start of the three additional minutes, towering a bullet header into the roof of the net past a helpless Andy Lonergan.
Post-match, Hayes spoke exclusively to iFollow Exiles about that thrilling finale at Rodney Parade, his relief at finally getting back on the pitch and how the side must turn their attentions quickly back to League 2 action.
On beating Leeds United in the Emirates FA Cup…
“It’s fantastic for a club like Newport to beat Leeds in the Third Round of the FA Cup.
“It’s everything that the club are thriving to do now and it’s fantastic because they really have come a long way.
“The team spirit and the morale are obviously getting us through and obviously what a fantastic day this is for the club and the supporters.
“It’s obviously going to be up there for myself but I haven’t really played my part that much, so I can’t take all the credit, because I’ve only come on for five minutes at the end there. It’s the boys, the manager and the staff that have got the club over the line and into the fourth round.
“For everyone who is part of the club – the fans, the chairman, directors, players, manager, ground staff, everyone is a part of this.
“It’s massive for us to get to the fourth round, everyone played their part and what a great day this is for the football club.”
On making his long awaited first appearance for the Exiles…
“It’s been a very long time coming with the complications and problems for me not being able to play.
“Obviously, it’s been frustrating, but I am now very happy to get onto the pitch for the football club.
“And what a debut! Obviously to come on in the last few minutes, see that goal go in and be able to celebrate with the boys, what a debut for myself.”
On Leeds electing to field a slightly weakened team at Rodney Parade...
"Don’t take anything away from Leeds because they have obviously had a massive change in personnel. But you can only play what is in-front of you.
"The boys were absolutely fantastic, we said it at half-time that we are 1-0 down but we are the better side, and the lads did ever so well to do as well as they did.
"Second-half we went into another gear and I’m really pleased for the lads because they have worked so hard up to now to be three points outside the play-offs and playing against Leeds.
"Coming into the club and getting to know them, I am just so chuffed for them because there is a great team spirit here and it showed a lot of character to come from behind against a Championship side."
On almost grabbing himself a goal within a minute of coming on...
“It was extremely close, and it was in until the wind took over I thought. It was just one of those situations where I have just taken a touch, can either play it wide to Frank or have a dig.
“I chose to have a dig because I fancied myself and it’s one of those where sometimes it goes in and sometimes it doesn’t.
“It was close, it would have given the fans something to celebrate if it went in but obviously Shawn scored straight after it and I’m really pleased for the young lad.
“He’s a young boy coming into the game, it’s all new to him and he will remember that for the rest of his life now.
“I did that when I was younger, it was fantastic, and I was so pleased for Shawn.”
On why he chose Newport County AFC in October…
“There was nothing out there that really interested me or floated my boat.
“But I got LinkedIn and the gaffer here Mike Flynn messaged me on there because we followed each-other straight-away.
“He asked me if I had retired so I said that I hadn’t, but I was waiting for an offer that interested me.
“So he said for us to have a chat and as they say, the rest is history. We had a good chat, spoke to the chairman here as-well and within a day or two we decided that it was the right move for me and the team.
“Obviously those complications with the contract dragged it out a little bit but I just want to say that the club have been absolutely fantastic and spot on to me.
“When they found out that I couldn’t play for a while, they could have terminated the contract, left me, but they stood by me.
“I was grateful for that and I just have to repay the faith that the club and the manager have put in me. I’m looking forward now to playing for Newport and cracking on with my career.”
On the bumper crowd at Rodney Parade…
“I was very surprised with how many people turned up if I’m honest and it was fantastic for the community and the club to turn up in numbers and sing their heart out for the lads.
“Sitting there next to the gaffer and he was doing what he could as-well because he bleeds this club and it’s a recipe for success.
“It’s fantastic to be a part of that, to witness it and to see it, and the fans were absolutely fantastic throughout.
“And you could see that with the celebrations at the end there with the players and the fans, it’s just all together, so it’s brilliant.
“It’s been a long time coming and hopefully the crowd will be able to see a lot more of me.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to it, I’ve had a long break now you know the three or four months is the longest of my career, so I’m looking forward to playing my part and I’m pretty sure the fans will be looking to see me contribute and play my part.”
On facing Grimsby Town next weekend…
“To be fair, I haven’t really seen too much of Grimsby. I’ve seen a lot of other teams but not so much Grimsby.
“Being a Scunthorpe player for a long time then that’s obviously a rival club.
“I’m looking forward to that game on Saturday and being part of Newport going there and hopefully doing the business and getting the three points.
“I’m miles behind match-fitness to be honest but you are only going to get that by playing games.
“The gaffer has done well to bring me on with five minutes left there and allow me to get the taste back for it and open up the lungs again.
“Starting wise, I don’t think I’m fully there yet because I obviously haven’t played any games for three months.
“It’s a long time but I think I’m experienced enough and have played enough games that if the gaffer needs to play me or start me, then I’ll be fine.
“I won’t be as sharp or as good as what I can be, but you take each game as it comes. If I have to start then I’ll do everything I can for the club, if I come off the bench then I’ll do everything I can.
“The gaffer picks the team so whoever he chooses will go out there and do their best.”
On who he wants in the Fourth Round of the competition…
“Wherever I go I always want to make history with that club so to hear that [first time reaching the fourth round in 39 years] is a massive, massive thing for me.
“I think I had that at Wycombe where it was 44 years since we’d been in the fourth round so to be a part of the team is fantastic.
“Come Monday night, everyone will be around that table and it will be fantastic to see who we can get. Just bring it on, but listen we’re back to the league now and we’ll get our head down for Grimsby away.
“Obviously, for the club financially then you want a big club.
“And for the players, you obviously want to test yourself against the best players. Ideally, you want that but I’m sure there will be many clubs that want a good side.
“At the end of the day, it’s not up to us so we’ll take whoever is in the draw and go from there.”