Newport County AFC have ascended into the automatic promotion spots of the League Two table after securing their first three points on the road in a 2-1 victory at Port Vale.
After withstanding some early pressure, County took the lead in the 18th minute when Scot Bennett capitalised on some poor defending in the Port Vale penalty area to swivel and stab home from eight yards after a Matty Dolan corner-kick.
Port Vale found their equaliser nine minutes later and that also came from a corner-kick. Luke Hannant’s powerful delivery went over the head of Joe Day and the County centre-halves and talisman Tom Pope was there waiting to level the scoring with a looping header.
That again started a period of possession for the home side before half-time, but the Exiles just seemed to score at exactly the right time and they got their match-winner three minutes after the interval.
It was a perfectly executed move by County, Josh Sheehan and Mark Harris combining well to set the latter free into the penalty area, and after the cutback was intentionally mis-kicked by Amond, Dan Butler rushed in from left-back to score his first goal of the 2018/19 campaign.
That three-point haul lifted County into second position even if after only six matchdays in League Two, while Vale’s home defeat twinned with a similar result for Swindon Town means County are now one of only two teams in League Two with a perfect home record to start the season.
Mike Flynn elected to make six changes to the side that suffered defeat in the Carabao Cup against Oxford United at Rodney Parade in midweek.
Joe Day returned between the sticks and there was also a place for David Pipe in the starting side, that duo replacing Nick Townsend and Tyler Forbes respectively.
Pipe provided attacking intent from his wing-back position on the opposite flank to Dan Butler, while it was the usual back-three of Fraser Franks, Scot Bennett and captain Mickey Demetriou.
Matty Dolan overcame a groin strain to replace the injured Andrew Crofts, while Josh Sheehan also returned to join Tyreeq Bakinson in the midfield three.
County reverted back to the attacking force implemented against Grimsby Town last weekend, as Padraig Amond and Mark Harris came in for Jamille Matt – who was on the bench – and Antoine Semenyo.
Port Vale manager Neil Aspin made three changes from the side that lost to Tranmere Rovers last time out, handing Lewis Hardcastle his home debut in place of Nathan Smith.
Louis Dodds and Dave Worrall also returned for the Valiants in place of Anthony Kay and Ricky Miller, as the home side lined-up in a 4-4-2 formation from the first whistle.
Port Vale edged the opening exchanges but were restricted to very few sightings at goal, Dave Worrall forcing a smart save from Joe Day and Tom Pope headed straight at the goalkeeper’s gloves.
County had their first chance in the 13th minute when Josh Sheehan was hauled down just outside the area. Matty Dolan couldn’t replicate the heroics from last weekend, however, as Scott Brown was equal to the effort and pushed it wide.
That started a sustained period of possession for the Exiles and they found a way to take the lead after 18 minutes of the contest.
The Exiles had been trying some rather interesting corner-kick tactics early on but it was only when they returned to a more orthodox style of delivery that they reaped the benefits.
Matty Dolan’s in-swinging delivery was only half-cleared to Josh Sheehan on the edge-of-the-area, his shot hit Lewis Hardcastle and Connell Rawlinson on the way through, and Scot Bennett was quickest in the box to swivel and poke it past Scott Brown in the home goal.
County could have doubled their advantage just minutes later when Tyreeq Bakinson went on a trademark run from midfield, this time going for placement rather than power, but Brown was down effectively to keep the attempt out at his near-post.
Everything was coming from the Exiles at this point, but you can never be sure with a slender advantage and Port Vale made County pay with a corner-kick routine of their own after 27 minutes.
It was a piece of history when it did arrive, striker and captain Tom Pope rising highest to Luke Hannant’s delivery to bag his 56th goal at the stadium to make him the highest ever goal-scorer at Vale Park.
That goal clearly switched the ascendency in Stoke-On-Trent and the Valiants came mightily close to turning the game on its head on the half-hour. With Pope lurking at the far post, Demetriou decided to try and head the ball out for a corner but inadvertently hit his own post, but the ball fortunately trickled across the goalmouth and County survived.
That was about it in terms of clear-cut chances in the first-half at Vale Park, Bakinson skewing a shot into Brown’s palms at the end of the one additional minute.
It was certainly a fair scoreline for a contest in which both teams had their spells in possession, with several chances being created in Stoke-On-Trent.
From a County perspective, Bakinson was again starring with his tenacity and athleticism in midfield, while the defence had to take a lot of credit for nullifying the obvious threat of Pope and partner Louis Dodds for the majority of first-half proceedings.
It was another fast start to a half at Vale Park but this time it was County to start brighter and they re-took the lead within three minutes of the restart.
Sheehan and Harris combined well on the right-hand-side to set the latter away into the area, his drag back was intentionally missed by Amond and Dan Butler was there at the far post to tuck away the chance with a composed finish from eight yards.
That goal seemed to shellshock the previously unbeaten at home Valiants and it was only after they made a double substitution on the hour that they ever looked like getting back into the contest.
At the same time, County also made their first alteration and Flynn threw on Jamille Matt for Amond, who had seemingly taken a knock during the build-up to another County chance.
Day’s quick-thinking again denied the effervescent Pope as the Valiants started to throw everything towards the County goal, and substitute Ben Whitfield was mightily unlucky to see his cross-shot drift narrowly wide of the far-post.
Another substitute in Ricky Miller twice had the Vale Park faithful on their feet in quick succession with 18 minutes to play, although their hopes were quickly dashed both times as the attempts hit the side netting when he perhaps should have found the target.
The ball just wouldn’t go in for Miller after his introduction and his frustrations continued when his shot rebounded off the post with ten minutes remaining.
It was all Vale pressure as five minutes were indicated at the end of the game and County had to rely on the quick-thinking of Bennett to preserve the lead as the goal scorer cleared Pope’s header off the goal line.
That was the final chance of note that the home side could muster as Day held several deliveries into his area – County moving into the top-three with a resilient and dogged display at Vale Park.
Newport County AFC (3-4-1-2): Day, Butler, Franks, Demetriou (C), Bennett, Pipe, Dolan, Bakinson, Sheehan (O’Brien 78’), Amond (Matt 60’), Harris (Marsh-Brown 90’)
Subs not used: Townsend, Foulston, Forbes, Cooper
Port Vale (4-4-2): Brown, Clark, Legge, Rawlinson, Montano (Gibbons 72’), Worrall, Joyce, Hardcastle (Miller 60’), Hannant, Dodds (Whitfield 60’), Pope
Subs not used: Kay, Hornby, Quigley, Smith
Referee: Martin Coy
Attendance: 4,385 (223 AWAY)
Next up for County: Oldham Athletic (8th September 2018) AWAY