Mike Flynn says he is the ‘proudest man in Newport’ after watching his Newport County AFC side reach the Fifth Round of the Emirates FA Cup for just the second time in their history with a confident and resolute 2-0 victory over Championship outfit Middlesbrough.
The Exiles were relatively comfortable all night, Middlesbrough attacker Jordan Hugill hit the post in an early scare but County were just immense defensively – and when Jamille Matt and Padraig Amond track back to block shots in their own area, you know it’s going to be your night.
County still had to get the goals to ease themselves into the last-16 of the competition, and despite a heroic effort from Dimi Konstantopoulos in the Middlesbrough goal, the Exiles did enough to navigate their way through and set up a tie with Manchester City a week on Saturday.
On three occasions in the first-half Konstantopoulos came to Middlesbrough’s rescue when thwarting Padraig Amond – saving a cross-shot, diving at his feet to thwart a lob and repelling a bullet header.
It was one of the best away goalkeeping performances seen at Rodney Parade but there was just something about County on the night which hinted everything was going to be okay – and they finally broke the 40-year old’s resistance after the restart.
The first was a goal for the ages, a goal for the County history books and a goal for the city of Newport from its adopted son of Robbie Willmott.
Such was the quality that you wouldn’t have guessed it was his first of the campaign, Willmott picked the ball up inside his own area, waltzed his way through the pitch before picking his spot and curling into the top corner.
As is the case for Emirates FA Cup matches nowadays, Tully’s bar in Carlow again put on a promotion that there would be a free drink when – not if – their prodigal hero Amond got his name on the scoresheet.
They probably imagined it would be a cheap night as the Greek international Konstantopoulos continued to keep out the Irishman – but someone’s got a bar tab to fork out for this morning as Amond finally got the goal his performance warranted after 67 minutes.
Assistant manager Wayne Hatswell works tirelessly on how County can exploit set-pieces and this one worked a treat. Amond peeled away from the pack as the ball was driven towards the penalty spot, finding the top corner first-time in a goal that BT commentator Ian Darke described as ‘Premier League quality.’
County held firm from there to ensure it was a safe passage through to the next round – 70 years to the day since the last – and only other – time they got that far in the competition.
Flynn affirmed: “For somebody like Tim Thraves, who has followed the club all around the country and given his time up for 60 years, for him to say that this was the best County performance he has seen, that makes me the proudest man in Newport tonight.
“I thought we were superb. These players never cease to amaze me – one way or the other. This result is huge for the football club and what this means is absolutely huge.
“It’s overwhelming – it’s just massive. The second goal we scored, my assistant manager Wayne Hatswell has worked hard on these set-pieces and it’s not a one off.
“We do them week in week out so that shows we prepare in the right way and it’s just huge.
“This secures the financial future for the next few years – it is that big.
“I’m so proud to have delivered this for the football club and if nothing else happens then I can still hold my head high and say I’ve secured the future of this football club.”
Despite passing up a whole host of opportunities in the first-half, it was just one of those nights where it felt like County wouldn’t be left to rue those missed chances.
Flynn continued: “I wasn’t worried – a bit apprehensive – but I said to the players that they couldn’t create that many chances in the first-half and not have another one in the second-half.
“I told them to keep believing, they were going to have another chance and actually, I thought we could have been three or four up [by half-time.]
“The players never feel sorry for themselves, they have off days, but they never ever feel sorry for themselves. They are a group of players that I want to strangle and I want to kiss – they are that bad or good.”
It’s a real ‘Roy of the Rovers’ narrative as far as Robbie Willmott is concerned.
In less than two years, Willmott has gone from playing non-league and part-time at Chelmsford City, working at Tesco, to returning to County and putting in a man-of-the-match display against Leeds and Tottenham – and now the pinnacle is a goal in this game.
“Robbie is unbelievable,” Flynn stated.
“He should have played his career higher – I’ve got the best Robbie Willmott now because he’s fully focused, not immature anymore and he’s a joy to work with.
“He’s one of the older pros now and he is a leader – even in the house that they all share. He takes responsibility and he has really grown since the time I’ve known him which was 2012.
“We played together and I know how much of a talent he is.”
The monumental display means that Pep Guardiola, Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and co will all be sampling the delights of Rodney Parade a week on Saturday.
Flynn explained: “We’ve had Mauricio Pochettino, Claude Puel, Thomas Christiansen, Tony Pulis – they are all fantastic managers but this is the crème de la crème.
“Pep Guardiola is a master, he is somebody that I idolise and I would say he’s the best in the business – alongside Jurgen Klopp of course because I’m a Liverpool fan.
“I know Mikel Arteta, he’s just text me saying ‘good luck, see you soon.’ That is fantastic, we did our pro license together, and it goes to show you how down to earth they are.
“They’re a fantastic outfit and knowing how good Pep is, I’m sure he’ll overcome that pitch.
“We passed the ball around a lot in tough conditions and I’m sure Man City will do the same.
“I watched them against Arsenal and I wish I didn’t because they were absolutely breath-taking. It’s something that we’re looking forward to and we’re going to have to be prepared.”