If you asked any Newport County AFC fan to describe the 2016/17 season with just one phrase, then the odds are that the words ‘Great Escape’ would feature in their somewhere.
But how would you define this latest campaign for the Exiles?
Finishing in the top-half for the first time in three years? A best run in the Emirates FA Cup since 1979? Going 206 days unbeaten at Rodney Parade?
Here, five moments have been selected that define another record breaking season for Newport County AFC…
A ‘Homecoming’ victory against Chesterfield
Ongoing works to the Rodney Parade pitch meant Newport County AFC had to wait a total of 112 days before they were allowed to return to the scene of Mark O’Brien’s heart-stopping winner to complete the ‘Great Escape.’
But any fears that the Exiles were going to struggle to adapt quickly to the new turf were soon put to bed as they stormed to a 4-1 victory against Chesterfield in what was the ‘Homecoming’ game for the side in South Wales.
It didn’t start as easily as the scoreline suggests, however, as the Spireites were the first team to score at Rodney Parade in the 2017/18 campaign when veteran striker Chris O’Grady completed a flowing move to beat Joe Day on 36 minutes.
But some things just fit perfectly like a hand into a glove – and based on the second-half exploits from Frank Nouble, you could certainly argue that the 25-year old and Rodney Parade were also the perfect fit.
The striker marked his home debut with a simply sublime hat-trick spread over 13 minutes, starting in the 55th minute with what could have won the goal of the season competition for the Exiles, Nouble picking up the ball before unleashing an unstoppable 30-yard strike into the top left corner.
Two as equally exquisite headers then followed from pinpoint deliveries by Dan Butler, while Padraig Amond marked his debut for Newport County AFC with a goal six minutes from time to make it a convincing display.
112 days (which could also be written as 2,688 hours or 161,280 minutes) separated the win over Notts County and the victory over Chesterfield – in which time, the Exiles had gone from surviving on the last day of the season to knowing that a win in the next match against Exeter City would send them to the top of the League 2 table.
What a difference five months make!
Just a second ever trip to Elland Road for the Exiles
You have to go back to 8th January 1949 for the last – and only – other time that Newport County AFC have been welcomed to Elland Road for a fixture with now Championship outfit Leeds United.
And you would probably have to attribute a certain element of luck for the Exiles travelling to the 37,890-capacity stadium this time out.
The overrunning pitch works at Rodney Parade meant that even if the Exiles had been drawn at home in the first and second rounds of the competition; then the game would have to be reversed after special dispensation was granted by the Football League.
See where this is going? County were of course drawn out first in both rounds meaning they would have to do things the hard way if they were to join the Premier League elite in the third-round of the competition.
Just three days after scoring a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser at Stevenage on his County debut, Shawn McCoulsky marked his first start for the club by scoring both goals in the 2-0 success down at League 1 outfit Southend United.
However, a much sterner test awaited the Exiles on 22nd August – the 1968 winners of this very competition Leeds United.
Goals from Guido Roffi, Eddie Carr and Len Comley had seen the Ironsides as they were then known to a stunning 3-1 victory in-front of 31,500 spectators in the FA Cup nearly 70 years ago – but this was an altogether different task.
County also had an unbeaten start to the 2017/18 campaign left to preserve in-front of a crowd of 17,098 (631 away) and were well on their way to keeping that statistic going when goalkeeper Rob Green spilled Joss Labadie’s audacious effort into his own net.
But the 1975 European Cup finalists hit back on the stroke of half-time to send the sides in at the break all-square, striker Kemar Roofe – who had haunted County from his days with Oxford United – passing the ball home amidst a host of bodies in the County area.
The 24-year old netted shortly after half-time to put Leeds in-front for the first time in the contest, while he completed his hat-trick on the night after 65 minutes with a simply superb overhead kick that would have beaten any goalkeeper had they been in Joe Day’s position.
Substitute Samu Saiz and Ronaldo Vieira put the added gloss onto the victory when finding the net late-on – but the Exiles could feel no shame in suffering defeat to a Championship opposition who were 51 places ahead of them in the English football pyramid before kick-off.
Biggest away victory of the season at Forest Green Rovers
Lingering just outside of the play-off positions via goal difference on 14th October ahead of the relatively short trip to Nailsworth, the Exiles were confident that they could achieve a top-seven position with all three points away at Forest Green Rovers, a side who were only a point above of the League 2 relegation zone.
Rovers had, however, triumphed over County at the New Lawn in a CheckaTrade Trophy encounter back in August, whilst also winning the other most recent tie between the two sides back in pre-season of the 2016/17 campaign.
To secure an away victory was definitely not an impossibility – the Exiles had already secured notable wins on the road against Coventry City and Crawley Town – but to secure a victory that Mike Flynn called “probably the best performance since I took charge” looked an altogether different task.
Step forward Padraig Amond.
The Irishman had already found the net in four of the six games at Rodney Parade but was yet to taste the feeling of scoring in County colours on the road.
So what better way to break that record than in-front of 815 travelling supporters not once but twice by the time 41 minutes had elapsed in the contest.
A header was first thumped past Sam Russell before the striker embodied his inner predatory instinct to tap home from close range ahead of his marker after superb work from strike-partner Frank Nouble.
Scot Bennett and Shawn McCoulsky both found the net in the second-half to put the appropriate gloss on a 4-0 scoreline – the first time County had scored that many on the road since securing a 4-1 triumph at the Memorial Stadium against Bristol Rovers on 24th October 2015.
That emphatic victory ascended County into sixth position and just five points off the early pace-setters in Notts County, while there was also a two-point cushion to Swindon Town who were just outside the play-offs at that time.
The entirety of the Emirates FA Cup run … and a third trip to Wembley in six years
In the 1978/79 campaign, Len Ashurst led his side to an unprecedented run to the fourth-round of the Emirates FA Cup.
Hereford United, Worcester City and West Ham United were all eliminated from the competition in order for the Ironsides to get that far, while had they been able to overcome Colchester United then a tie with Manchester United would have been achieved.
County were eventually eliminated 1-0 in a replay by the U’s - but that specific cup run will be forever remembered as one of the better ones by the side in the competition.
For Mike Flynn and his squad to achieve those glorious heights of joining the Premier League’s elite in that fourth round, the squad would probably need to have luck on their side, a will to win and certainly a lot of character.
The Exiles drew League 1 outfit Walsall in the first-round – a game selected for television broadcast by S4C – and the Saddlers were swiftly defeated thanks to goals from Frank Nouble and Shawn McCoulsky in a 2-1 success at Rodney Parade.
A succession of home games continued as captain Joss Labadie’s double saw off Cambridge United in a 2-0 victory – before Leeds United lay in wait as County looked to avenge their defeat at Elland Road exactly 138 days ago.
It didn’t get off to the best possible start from a County perspective either as captain for the day Gaetano Berardi scored his first ever goal for the Whites after just nine minutes of football.
If the Exiles were to replicate the heights of the 1978/79 team then they would need to embody every bit of fight and determination that they could - and they would have been forgiven for thinking it wasn’t going to be their day when Padraig Amond saw an effort hooked away on the goal line.
But the never say die attitude that held them in such good vain during last season’s ‘Great Escape’ came back to favourable effect when Conor Shaughnessy turned a Frank Nouble cross into his own net.
1-1 with 13 minutes still to play at Rodney Parade in-front of the BBC cameras.
Step forward Shawn McCoulsky – and the pandemonium of Simon Davies in BBC commentary – to give the Exiles an unlikely upset in the competition when scoring the most dramatic of late winners.
That was McCoulsky’s 11th and final goal of his loan spell with the Exiles and even at his young age, he will struggle to find a more important goal to any of his future employers.
Cue BT Sport and the live draw for the fourth round of the Emirates FA Cup. Could County really welcome one of the elite of English football to Rodney Parade? Would they be given a dream tie to Old Trafford or Anfield?
Dennis Wise duly picked the Exiles to again be at home – with Sheffield United, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Preston North End and Norwich/Chelsea left in the pot.
Rio Ferdinand then drew out ball number 18 and eight-time winners of the competition Tottenham Hotspur – and their star-studded roster – were to come to South Wales live on BT Sport.
And County were just seven minutes away from defying the odds when Padraig Amond scored a sublime header to put the Exiles ahead at the break.
Harry Kane did find the net on 83 minutes to break County hearts at Rodney Parade, although they could have been shattered entirely had it not been for another trademark save from Joe Day to deny Kane deep into added time.
No victory for the Exiles but a lucrative replay achieved at Wembley, the third time that County had graced the 90,000-capacity stadium in the space of six years.
An army of 7,200 County fans followed the team to the home of English football looking to see if the Exiles could pull off one of the true Emirates FA Cup upsets, an away support that is the largest ever observed for a Tottenham Hotspur home game.
It wasn’t meant to be for the Exiles on 7th February, however, as an own-goal from Dan Butler and a first goal in 14 months for Erik Lamela saw Spurs through to face Rochdale in the fifth-round.
No shame in again exiting a cup competition to higher league opposition – 74 places to be precise – as the Exiles missed out on a place in the fifth round of the competition for the first time since 1949 thanks to defeat at Wembley.
Halting the Accrington title party
Accrington Stanley made the trip to Rodney Parade on 24th April knowing exactly what they had to do in order to secure themselves the League 2 title. Only a point was required to secure that top spot – something that looked a certainty before kick-off considering the side had dropped just seven points since 30th December and came to Rodney Parade having not lost any of their last 15 matches.
Sound familiar? During last season’s ‘Great Escape,’ Stanley came to Rodney Parade with another 15-game unbeaten streak and that was extinguished when Ryan Bird bundled home the winner with an hour of the match played.
Not the same 1-0 scoreline this time around but another County success that saw the Exiles secure back-to-back home league victories for the first time since January 19th.
The opener on this occasion came after half-an-hour and allowed Padraig Amond to score his 14th goal of the campaign against a side that he turned out for between 2011-13.
No loyalties to his former employers shown on this occasion by the Irishman when netting another ruthless finish – Ben Tozer’s ball through and away goalkeeper Aaron Chapman going to ground left everyone inside Rodney Parade knowing where the ball was about to end up … in the back of the net!
The away side kept pushing for the equaliser that would put them within touching distance of the title, Stanley probably amazed as to how they hadn’t scored when Joe Day denied both Kayden Jackson and Jordan Clark from close range, before shouldering Mark Hughes’ thumping volley onto the post and away from danger.
And that title champagne looked all the more of a distant hope when Frank Nouble doubled County’s advantage with ten minutes to play after some exquisite trickery had afforded the striker with a sight of goal from outside of the area.
Stanley talisman Billy Kee did grab a consolation and ensure that the away side kept up their record of scoring in every game since 16th December 2017, although County held on from there to secure the impressive victory.
Somewhat more fittingly, Accrington secured the title at their Wham Stadium four days later thanks to Jordan Clark’s winner against play-off bound Lincoln City – but the accolades at Rodney Parade went to the Exiles, who became just the third team behind Exeter City and Crawley Town to remain unbeaten against the champions during the 2017/18 campaign.
What memories will Newport County AFC create next season to be talked about in 12 months’ time? #TheJourneyContinues in the 2018/19 campaign.
Don’t miss out on next season’s story! The Story Continues.