Twelve months ago today, Newport County AFC supporters witnessed the finale of one of the most remarkable Great Escapes in Football League History. Over 7,000 County fans crammed into a packed Rodney Parade to back the boys in their final push to achieve the impossible.
When Michael Flynn took over in March 2017, avoiding relagation was - if not impossible - highly improbable. It would require seven wins in twelve which, when you consider the side had only registed five in the previous 34, was incredibly unlikely. And league survival would require at least a few of those seven wins to be against opposition who were chasing play-offs.
But hard-earned cleansheets, consecutive 1-0 wins and centreback Mickey Demetriou finding his shooting boots meant that somehow, just eleven matches later, the "highly improbable" was exceedingly possible! The Exiles had put their fate in their own hands and - as McFadden and Whitehead reminded us as they played loudly from the County dressing room - there "Ain't No Stopping Us Now".
With County's rivals Hartlepool overturning league-leaders Doncaster Rovers in the final match of the season, it took one final miracle to complete the Great Escape. If staying up was highly improbably, Mark O'Brien perfectly executing a chest and volley into the side netting was almost unbelievable.
Just one year on, we take a look at the County team that played on 6th May 2017.
Immediately following that famous day vs Notts County, Joe Day was voted Player of the Season for the 2016/17 Season. A few weeks later, Day was one of the first players Michael Flynn signed up for the new campaign.
This season, he’s continued to prove himself as one of the side's most reliable performers making 53 Appearances this season. He has now wracked up nearly 190 appearances for the Club.
He's watched managers come and go and witness the lowest of lows and the highest of highs with the Club. He is County's longest serving player and his heroics through the Great Escape and beyond will undoubtedly remain long in the memories of all County supporters.
After joining the Exiles on loan in January 2017, David Pipe brought in the fight, desire and determination that was required to inspire the Exiles to create the Great Escape. David Pipe signed a permanent one-year deal for the Club in the Summer of 2017. Earlier this Season, he triggered an appearance clause that sees him commit to the Club for another Season.
On discussing staying at the Club for another year, David Pipe said: “It’s what dreams are made of, to play for your local Club, eight miles from where you are born and lifting the trophy at Wembley. There aren’t many things that come close to having an international cap, but that’s right next door to it.”
Scot Bennett played on the right-hand side of a back three in the final game of the Season. Well, it started as a back three. By the 85th minute it was more of a back 2 with nine upfront and from the 89th minutes was a solid back ten with Joe Day in goals.
He performed solidly all afternoon and was the only player stopping Notts County breaking in the second half as his fellow centrebacks had run upfront in search of a winning goal.
Scot Bennett had a year left on his deal at the end of the 2016/17 Season and has continued to be a steadying influence and consistent performer throughout the most recent campaign.
Bennett probably suprised the world earlier this season when he Cruyff turned global-superstar Harry Kane on the half way line at Rodney Parade. All in a days work, hey Scot?
Bennett signed a two-year deal in April 2018 which committed his future to the Exiles.
Mark O’Brien is still yet to register another goal for County (or any other Club) but if you’re only going to score one goal in your career, it might as well be one of the most important in your Club’s recent history.
Mark O’Brien has taken on the vice-captaincy role this season after signing a two-year deal in the summer. He leads from the back and won’t let a striker leave the pitch without knowing they’ve been in a battle.
The dramatic beard, which was so iconic at the end of last season, has all but disapeared throughout the 2017/18 Campaign.
O'Brien is the name the majority of fans have worn on the backs of their County shirts this season, many requesting the number 89 below it.
Mickey Demetriou also signed a two-year deal in the summer which keeps him at the Club until 2019. He might not have kept up the scoring-form of April 2016 (who could?), but he’s registered 7 goals this season making him the Club's fourth top scorer – not bad for a centre back.
Demetriou was named penalty-taker ahead of the final match of the season finishing his spot-kick on the 32nd minute perfectly to give County the lead. He's remained penalty taker this season but was only given one chance from 12-yards (against Crawley Town) which he finished smartly.
Still one of the Club’s ever-present and most consistent performers, Mickey Demetriou has found himself taking on the role of Captain on a number of occasions this Season. He took home the award for goal of the season thanks to a superb strike at Stevenage and will undoubtedly play a big part in the 2018/19 Season.
Butler signed a two-year deal with County in 2016 and was one of the few players guaranteed to be playing for the Exiles in the 2017/18 Season.
It’s unlikely that the 23-year old could have foreseen such a successful season. From being named PFA Community Player of the Year for Newport County AFC as well as the Club’s Player of the Year, he’s also reached 100 Appearances for the Club and proven himself a fan favourite.
Dan Butler has recently signed a deal with the Club stating that the decision to commit to County was an “easy” and that he had no intention of moving to another League Two side.
If the 2017/18 Season has been about engaging with the Community and improvement throughout the Club, then Dan Butler epitomises that.
JOSS LABADIE (Captain)
Joss Labadie's return to the 2016/17 side coincided with Michael Flynn's first match in-charge. Labadie was made captain and scored an 89th minute winner against Crewe to get The Great Escape off to a flying start.
Joss Labadie was also committed to the Exiles for the 2017/18 campaign. He was confirmed as the team’s captain in July 2017 and has led by example ever since. His stand out moment of the season has to be an incredible Man of the Match performance against Tottenham Hotspur at that magical Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Match at Rodney Parade.
During the BT Sport punditry, Football legend Steven Gerrard claimed he wouldn’t want to play against a player like Joss Labadie. Labadie was awarded the title of Man of the Match by Spurs legend and ex-England manager Glen Hoddle.
Joss' season came to a premature end when he picked up a ACL injury.
Tom Owen-Evans scored his first ever county goal in a match vs Morecambe which was eventually abandoned at half time. His first goal which stood could not have been more important as he buried a left footed shot against promotion candidates Exeter City in a match the Exiles would win 1-0. That was probably the moment that everyone began to believe that The Great Escape miracle might actually be achieved!
Owen-Evans was the first to sign a new deal in the Summer of 2016 committing to the Exiles. He was a regular on the bench for County in the early part of the Season and played key parts in a number of games throughout. In order to get more minutes, Owen-Evans went out on loan to Truro City in January where he has excelled.
He’s scored goals and had a number of assists as Truro pushed for promotion. They just missed out on Play Offs in the final match of the Season but Tom’s performances have been fantastic.
MARK RANDALL - 🔁72' Rigg
Mark Randall left the Exiles in the summer of 2016 following instrumental performances which helped the Exiles complete the Great Escape. The midfielder had not featured under Graham Westley since January 2017 when he was substituted in the first half at the Hive Stadium.
Randall returned to the squad when Michael Flynn took over in March and started in the defeat to Portsmouth earning himself County’s man of the match. Randall played in the remaining six games and was influential in each.
In the summer of 2017, Randall handed in a transfer request in order to move closer to his family and secured a move to join former County boss Warren Feeney at Crawley Town.
Randall was mostly deployed as a substitute earlier in the season but soon became a regular starter. He’s played 32 times for the Red Devils this Season scoring once.
Ryan Bird scored 6 goals in 19 games to help the Exiles complete the Great Escape. He scored a goal on his debut for County in a 3-1 home win against Hartlepool and winners against Morecambe and Accrington Stanley.
He left the Club in the Summer and joined Vanarama National League Side Dover Athletic. He’s scored 16 goals in 43 appearances for the Whites. Dover pushed for the Play-Offs all season but missed out on goal difference on the final day of the season.
LENNELL JOHN-LEWIS - 🔁72' Jackson
After picking up an injury in a pre-season friendly, Lennell John-Lewis spent a season in the physio room. He made his first appearance of the 2016/17 campaign in against Carlisle United replacing Ryan Bird in the 72nd minute.
He started the final match against Notts County ahead of Alex Samuel who’d been ruled out through injury. He ran riot against the Notts County defence and was brought down in the box on the 32nd minute to earn County a crucial penalty. He came close to being the hero on a few occasions but ran out of legs towards the end of the match and was replaced by Marlon Jackson.
After the Great Escape, Lenell John-Lewis opted not to renew his contract with Newport County AFC and instead took a step up to league one signing for Shrewsbury Town. He’s made 34 appearances for the League One side scoring twice.
AARON WILLIAMS - 🔁83' Owen-Evans
After contributing to The Great Escape, Aaron Williams was sent on loan to Brackley Town in the early part of this season. He played 20 matches for Brackley whilst on loan scoring a massive 15 goals.
Aaron Williams officially left County in January, joining Brackley Town on a permanent basis. His prolific goal-scoring form has continued as he and the Brackley Town side finished third in the league – comfortably through to the play-offs.
Many County fans had a chance to watch Aaron recently, as the Supporters Coach stopped at Kidderminster Harriers on the way home from the postponed Chesterfield match. County fans opted to set up in the away end in order to support the Former-Exile.
MARLON JACKSON - 🔁72' Lenell John-Lewis
Marlon struggled with injury throughout the 2016/17 Season but was subbed on in the final match of the Season to great effect. There was an agonising FOUR minutes of added time for County fans to suffer through, but Marlon Jackson appeared to be holding the ball in the corner for about three of them easing the worries of many a nervous Exile and frustrating Notts County's players who just couldn't seem to retrieve the ball.
Jackson's determination to come back from injury, and his efforts in training meant Michael Flynn saw fit to offer Marlon a year long deal at the Club.
SEAN RIGG - 🔁72' Randall
Like Joss Labadie, Sean Rigg returned to fitness around the same time as Michael Flynn took charge in 2017. His clever, darting runs, his forward passes, and no-nonsense tackling saw him play a crucial part in the Great Escape. He also scored a vital goal in a 1-1 draw against Luton Town.
After a fantastic 2016/17 Season for the Club and a good start to the 2017/18 Season, Sean Rigg famously left County in early February to pursue a life-long dream of being a tattoo artist.
The announcement was made just days before the Exiles travelled to Wembley for the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay against Spurs and his departure attracted interest right across the country with the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Independent, and Talk Sport all running stories on it.
The 29-year-old now works in a Tattoo Parlour in Stroud whilst playing Football for Bath City in the National League South.
Sean Rigg often updates his Instagram Profile with photos of his tattoos.
Had it not been for a hamstring injury picked up in the penultimate game of the Season, Alex Samuel would likely have been one of the first names on the team sheet for this famous game. He'd proved a handful in every match he’d played for the Exiles and his effort and work rate made him a firm favourite amongst the County supporters.
Alex Samuel returned to Swansea City AFC when his loan spell at County ended. In the summer transfer window, he signed for League Two rivals Stevenage FC. Samuel has made 28 appearances for Stevenage this season scoring 4 goals.
Samuel deservedly received a very warm reception from County fans on his return to Rodney Parade as the Amber Army once again took the opportunity to thank the 22-year-old for his efforts in securing Newport County AFC’s league status.