Mike Flynn heaped praise on the entirety of his Newport County AFC squad and the 270 fans who made the long trip to Brunton Park as the Exiles ended the 2017/18 campaign with a battling 1-1 draw at Carlisle United.
The Exiles had to come from behind in the contest, having fallen behind to the first realistic chance created by either side on the quarter-of-an-hour mark.
It came from a set piece – as did all their goals in the 3-3 draw at Rodney Parade back in December – this one a fine corner from captain Danny Grainger that swung in invitingly for Mark Ellis to power home just his second Carlisle United goal since his January arrival.
The game at Brunton Park had already been billed as the 207th and final match of Keith Curle’s spell in charge of the Cumbrians, with the 54-year old recently announcing that he would leave the club at the end of the campaign to pursue other avenues within football.
That gave the home side the added incentive to get the win, but they couldn’t extend their advantage despite a lot of possession, County shot stopper Joe Day making a smart save to deny Ashley Nadesan alongside Gary Liddle heading over the crossbar.
But County were quietly growing into the game themselves the longer it progressed and duly found their equaliser with seven minutes of the first-half remaining.
It was certainly a goal of exceptional quality – and the perfect way to sign off a triumphant campaign for the Exiles across all competitions – as Padraig Amond added his 15th of the campaign when finishing off a fine flowing move.
Robbie Willmott picked the ball up on the right-hand side with great intent before skipping past two challenges and working some space between the two defenders on the edge-of-the-area, chipping a pinpoint delivery into the six-yard area for Amond to head back across the goalkeeper and into the net.
Carlisle kept on coming in the second-half as they looked to sign off Curle’s reign in charge of the club in the appropriate manner, but were again frustrated by another fine performance from Day who made a smart save to deny Mike Jones.
Striker Jamie Devitt hit the post with a 25-yard free-kick, while defender Clint Hill saw his header rebound off the crossbar onto the goal-line – but the Cumbrians couldn’t find a winner at home as the points were shared.
County could have won the contest themselves deep into the additional time in the contest when Aaron Collins deflected a clearance goalwards, only for Carlisle to recover and clear their lines mere inches before the goal line.
That means the Exiles completed the 2017/18 campaign in exactly the same way as they started it – securing a point on the road having conceded the first goal in both of the respective games.
It also means the Exiles secure a top-half finish for the first time in three seasons, with the point at Brunton Park just about seeing County pip Cambridge United into 11th position in the table.
And Flynn wanted to place on record his thanks to everyone associated with the club for making it such a memorable season for the Exiles.
“I thought it was a very good performance today,” he affirmed.
“It was a little bit worrying I have to say in the first 10 - 15 minutes because I thought both teams were let’s say – not very intense.
“But they picked it up, got the equaliser and I thought the players were excellent from that point. I thought it was a very professional performance today.
“They’ll never [give up,] not while I’m here anyway. They are a great bunch and they wanted to give the fans who travelled up something to remember from the last game of the season.
“The fans were brilliant, they really have been absolutely superb this season – 270 to Carlisle is a massive achievement from them.”
Ultimately, a point at Brunton Park didn’t see the Exiles surpass the record points tally since County returned to the Football League – with the 64 points accumulated this season just one shy of the total during the 2014/15 campaign.
It means the Exiles finish in the top-half for just the second time since that promotion five years ago, while the run to the fourth-round of the Emirates FA Cup was the best since the 1978/79 campaign under Len Ashurst.
Asked to reflect on the season as a whole now it has reached its conclusion, Flynn feels it has been one of steady progression which the players can look back at and be proud of their achievements.
He continued: “It’s been a decent season. It’s been good, we’ve had a lot of highs, one or two lows obviously, but there’s been massive improvements from the last two seasons.
“The players have been absolutely brilliant this season. Like every team, we’ve not had too many, but there has been one or two off days where it was disappointing. Teams will lose football matches and there is a way to lose them, but they have been absolutely superb over 56 games.
“They’ve kept it going right until the end and I can’t thank them enough. That’s all we can ask for.”
Then asked as to what next season could turn out to be from a County perspective, Flynn affirmed that he wants to keep building and improving Newport County AFC season by season.
He continued: “I don’t want to get carried away – we’ve had a very good season and we just want to keep on improving.
“The club has finished in the top-half so that’s a great achievement from the players considering in the last two years that we’ve almost got relegated.
“It’s a massive improvement. It’s a credit to my staff, my players and the fans.”
During the game with Carlisle United, Mark O’Brien again had to withdraw after 58 minutes following a recurrence in the toe injury that had kept him out of the previous few matches.
And Flynn believes that having a period of rest before the squad re-group for pre-season training towards the end of June will allow the Irishman to solve the problem and come back fighting ahead of the next campaign.
He confirmed: “He’s struggling so it’s a good job that we’ve got six or seven weeks off. He needs to rest that up, might go and see a specialist on Tuesday just to see if it does need anything i.e. tightening up or any operation.
“There’s no danger [of him missing pre-season.] I’m only presuming – they might do something, and they might not. Let’s just hope he’s fit and raring to go come June 28th.
“It’s the same injury [that has affected him at times this season.] I don’t exactly know what the problem is to be honest, but it’s on the toe by the joint. Hopefully it will settle down.
“Mark is a great professional, he’s had to soldier through and I think it showed how much he wanted to play today.”
Twinned alongside some other injury concerns that only enabled the Exiles to field five substitutions on the bench, it did present Flynn with the opportunity to give Momodou Touray his professional debut for the club.
The academy graduate – who signed his first professional contract with the club in April – came onto the field with eleven minutes remaining and was calmness personified within seconds of his introduction when chesting a pass back to Joe Day.
His crosses from the right-wing also caused a danger to home goalkeeper Jack Bonham as County pushed for a winner late-on, as he fitted well into the first-team fold following his introduction.
Momodou is the sixth player to have come through the academy system that has been given their debut this season, with Jay Foulston – who also signed a professional deal at the same time as Touray – becoming the third youngest player to feature for the club when coming on as a substitute in the Carabao Cup victory over League 1 outfit Southend United.
Tom Hillman, Lewis Collins and Evan Press all started in the CheckaTrade Trophy encounter with Cheltenham Town at Rodney Parade in November, while Owen Taylor also came off the bench in that game to complete the list of academy debutants this season.
And Flynn thought Touray accustomed to first-team football in exactly the right manner.
“He’s been with us now for a while and I just thought it was the right time,” he affirmed.
“I would probably have brought two more with us as-well – Jay Foulston and Lewis Collins – but they are away with Wales.
“I’m all for promoting youth players at this football club.”
NEXT UP| #TheJourneyContinues. Newport County AFC are back in action in August 2018 when the new Sky Bet League Two Season begins.