Newport County AFC secured their first League Two victory of 2019 as Jamille Matt’s 15th of the season gave them a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Exeter City.
In a closely fought contest, either side could have taken all three points at Rodney Parade, but it was County to strike in the 72nd minute. Robbie Willmott – the architect of the majority of County’s positive play – swung a free-kick into the area, stand-in captain Mark O’Brien rose to flick it on, and Matt tapped home.
A first league victory since 27th November sees County remain in 13th position in the League Two table but crucially the gap on the play-offs is cut to five points – with the Exiles still maintaining games in hand on four of the sides in the top-seven.
After suffering a heart-breaking defeat in stoppage time away at Crewe Alexandra last weekend, Mike Flynn elected to make three changes for the first league game of 2019 at Rodney Parade.
Regan Poole was thrown straight in at the deep end after his loan deal from Manchester United was confirmed yesterday, fortunately he had a day’s training in first and took the place of Tyler Forbes in the defence of a 3-4-1-2 formation.
Fraser Franks missed out completely from the matchday squad with what seems to be a problem sustained to his ankle last time out, Mark O’Brien coming in to captain the side, whilst the changes were made by Matty Dolan being given a well-earned rest as Tyreeq Bakinson returned.
Exeter City manager and former Exile Matt Taylor decided to make two changes to his side that slipped out of the play-offs on goal difference after being held to a 0-0 draw at home to Morecambe last weekend.
The Grecians have certainly been active in the transfer window both in terms of incomings and outgoings, they re-signed Kane Wilson on loan from West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday and he was put straight into the team, and Ryan Bowman was also handed his first start for the club.
Lee Martin and Lee Holmes both dropped to the bench in like-for-like changes which saw the Grecians once again implement the familiar 4-4-2 formation at Rodney Parade.
The first-half was certainly an uninspiring one played out between two teams who were that organised that neither could particularly break the other down for prolonged periods and no team ever really had the ascendency.
As has become the customary thing of late, all of County’s moments of note were coming from the architect Robbie Willmott and his perfect deliveries into the area.
Mark O’Brien glanced a header goalwards within four minutes but no-one could get a touch to it and it drifted through to a relieved Christy Pym, whilst Jamille Matt connected beautifully to a cross shortly after but the attacker put it in the only place Pym could save it and straight into his grasp.
Exeter grew into the game from there to create their first-half opportunities and just like most games since he’s been with the club, Joe Day had to come to County’s rescue when producing another world-class save.
On 26 minutes, experienced midfielder Nicky Law launched a free-kick from wide straight in towards the penalty spot, Dara O’Shea rose highest to seemingly loop a header over Day, but the Exiles goalkeeper somehow leaped back and clawed it off the goal line.
Other than that, all that happened from there until the end of the first-half was Antoine Semenyo blazeing a shot wide after encouraging work through midfield, and Regan Poole showed what he can bring to County from now until the season's conclusion by sliding in and stopping a Law shot which looked like it would settle in the bottom left corner.
The game brightened up in the second-half as chances became a more frequent affair at Rodney Parade.
Unfortunately for the Exiles, the travelling Grecians earnt the better of the chances immediately after the restart through some innovative play and Ryan Bowman wasn’t too far away from capping his inaugural league start with a goal when he smacked the crossbar with a speculative effort.
Law saw another shot blocked and away captain Jake Taylor should have done better when he had ample time to shot at goal from just outside the penalty area.
But County never give up and regained the ascendency through more play down the channels, Willmott by far and above the most menacing threat, and Pym had to make two smart saves to deny shots in the area from Semenyo and Bakinson.
You just felt that if County were to score, Willmott would be involved somewhere and that’s just what happened after 71 minutes of the contest.
A clumsy challenge from the Grecians 30-yards out afforded Willmott the opportunity to send another perfect delivery into the area, O’Brien rose to knock it on to just outside the six-yard area and Pym could only help it on its way as Matt passed home his 15th of the season.
Pym had to leap above the Exiles attacker to prevent a second with ten minutes remaining, this one from a Butler free-kick on the other side, as Exeter struggled to get any impetus on the game after falling behind.
On came the attacking substitutions as the Grecians switched to a three at the back formation, but still County looked comfortable with a lead and insistent on seeing it out this time around.
And they duly did just that with a resolute defensive display – County maintaining their 100% record at Rodney Parade in 2019 with a hard-fought victory.
Newport County AFC (3-4-1-2): Day, Butler, Poole, O’Brien (C), Demetriou, Willmott, Bennett, Bakinson, Matt, Amond, Semenyo
Subs not used: Townsend, Pipe, Labadie, Dolan, Marsh-Brown, Sheehan, Neufville
Exeter City (4-4-2): Pym, Woodman (Abrahams 85’), Moxey, O’Shea, Sweeney, Law, Taylor (C), Collins, Wilson (Holmes 73’), Forte (Williams 65’), Bowman
Subs not used: Hamon, Martin, Tillson, Martin
Referee: Charles Breakspear
Attendance: 3,791 (727 AWAY)
Next up for County: Middlesbrough (26th January 2018) Emirates FA Cup - AWAY