Mike Flynn hailed a heroic team performance as Newport County AFC’s never-say-die attitude saw them fight to the end and score a last-gasp equaliser to secure a 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round.
The Exiles never looked intimidated or fearful of their Championship opposition at the Riverside and had the lion’s share of the chances from a goalless first-half.
Antoine Semenyo dazzled under the Teesside floodlights to set-up Padraig Amond inside 30 seconds but he shot over the crossbar, the Irishman was also denied by the legs of Boro goalkeeper Darren Randolph and Dan Butler saw an attempt cleared away by a heroic block from Ryan Shotton.
In response, Middlesbrough midfielder Lewis Wing clipped the corner of the crossbar with a curling effort from just outside the penalty area and striker Britt Assombalonga twice fired off target from distance.
Set-pieces were always affording Middlesbrough their greatest impetus in the game against a resolute and solid County defensive structure and their early second-half pressure told as they opened the scoring on 51 minutes.
In came Wing’s corner-kick towards the penalty area, defender Daniel Ayala rose highest to meet it and powered a header into the near post despite the best efforts of Nick Townsend in the County goal.
Other sides would have crumbled after such a demoralising goal, but County just don’t know how to lose in this competition and fought with spirit, heart and desire to get themselves back into the contest.
Semenyo put too much power on a Dan Butler cross into the penalty area when side-footing over the crossbar, the Bristol City loanee also flashed a header past the post and substitute Joss Labadie stung the palms of Randolph.
Four additional minutes were added. County had one final chance. Step up, Boro boy Matty Dolan in the dying embers to smash home amidst a goalmouth scramble and cause pandemonium in the away end – where 40 of his friends and family were in attendance – as the Exiles did it again in the Emirates FA Cup.
Has there ever been a script more beautifully penned?
County still had a few seconds to hold out for the replay, Assombalonga looked for a split second like he might have broken through on goal, but the Exiles weren’t to be denied their moment and will now welcome Middlesbrough to Rodney Parade next week to contest a spot in the Fifth Round of the Emirates FA Cup.
It was the perfect ending for the team and Dolan – who spent 14 years at Middlesbrough from the age of six – and Flynn praised his midfielder for coming back to haunt his former side, even if a kit faux pas almost prevented him from taking to the field in the first place.
“It was unbelievable,” Flynn affirmed.
“You can’t write that – Matty is an ex-Middlesbrough player and he had 40 of his friends and family in the crowd. He was disappointed not to start and I don’t think he’s ever scored a goal inside the box. It’s a fairy tale, really.
“I said to Wayne Hatswell that we had to give Matty a game. I’m not soft but I do have a little bit of sentiment and I try to look after all my players.
“You can’t put all of them on but we thought, with the quality of his left foot, we might get a set-play and he’d be able to deliver one or score one."
Flynn joked: “Matty did my head in actually [before coming on] because his socks weren’t ready. It’s a bizarre rule but he cut his socks so had to tape them up.
“It took longer than I wanted to get him on. We had some choice words but that’s all forgotten about because he’s just gone and got the equaliser and kept us in the hat.”
Dolan’s stoppage time heroics perfectly embodied the spirit and character of the squad in what was their fourth goal of the season into the added extras which had overturned a result.
Flynn stated: “It tells me that my players’ mentality is strong and they learn from their mistakes.
“A few weeks ago we went to Crewe and we were winning 2-1 with a few minutes to go and we lost. Today we were losing and we turned it around. Sometimes it’s just concentration levels and consistency.
“We changed formation three times because we had to find a way to break them down, and then we had to take our chance. Thankfully we did that.
“Our game plan worked to a tee.”
Two divisions and 58 places separated the sides before kick-off at the Riverside, but County never looked the inferior team and weren’t afraid to play at their opposition with confidence, vigour and intelligence.
The Exiles - on the balance of the game as a whole - had the better clear-cut chances and more shots on target, and looked rather comfortable without the ball when suffocating the attacking intent of Middlesbrough.
Flynn said: “We missed a couple of chances in both halves. I thought we created the better chances, Middlesbrough might have had one or two more half chances.
“You look at the corner we did first-half, he’s only got to put his foot through it and it’s a goal.
“You start thinking it’s not your day but, fortunately, this team doesn’t know when they’re beaten.”
County will now welcome Middlesbrough to Rodney Parade in the week commencing 4th February – with the date being confirmed once the relevant broadcasters have selected all televised ties.
“There’s no chance we’ll be the favourites,” Flynn affirmed.
“They’re a Championship team going for the Premier League and they are littered with quality players.
“We’ve probably got a little bit of a better chance but, unless we’ve got the same work-ethic and desire and we play with the confidence that we did today, it’s going to be a tough evening.
He added: “Lennie Lawrence, who’s been involved in over 1800 games on the touchline, will tell you that usually cup runs mean league failure, unless you’re one of the big boys and you can afford to play a totally different team and you can keep everybody fresh.
“We found that out [last season] and we’ve got a small squad this season. I’m looking to try to add a couple more before the window, just to keep everybody on their toes and to freshen it up.
“It’s a tough schedule now, but it’s something we’re looking forward to.”
Despite the scintillating performance and result, Flynn also warned his players that he wouldn’t be accepting complacency on Tuesday night with the quick turn-around of playing Port Vale – insisting his players could celebrate their achievements at the end of the season.
“We’ve got a game on Tuesday – Port Vale at home,” Flynn added.
“I’ve told them they’re going to have to do their celebrating in the summer, because we’ve got games on Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday now for the next six weeks.
“They’re a great group and I’m so proud. These players have given the fans memories that they will never forget.”
Flynn made one change to his starting side as goalkeeper Joe Day unfortunately missed the trip to Teesside.
Joe’s wife Lizzie is expecting twin girls and with the team starting their trip to Middlesbrough on Thursday and not coming back until the early hours of Sunday, it was decided that the best option was for Joe to stay home to be with his family.
Flynn explained: “Joe’s wife is expecting twins and they could be here this weekend. For me, family is the most important thing and what’s more special in life than watching your partner give birth and meeting your new babies for the first time?
“We wish Lizzie and Joe all the best and, hopefully she has them soon because I don’t want to be missing him for too long.”
In Day’s absence, Nick Townsend came straight into the side for his 8th appearance of the campaign and he made some smart saves to keep Middlesbrough out and set-up the dramatic finale.
Townsend did superbly to adjust himself and jump back the other way to thwart Assombalonga’s effort which deflected off Mickey Demetriou, before getting down well to save attempts from Wing and George Saville.
“I thought Nick was brilliant. He was absolutely outstanding,” Flynn commented.
“He made two really good saves and his distribution, bar one or two, was excellent.
“I could hear him organising the back four as well. I thought he was brilliant.
“The goal we conceded was a bit sloppy, so I wasn’t happy about that. But, to be fair, they kept going and they got what they deserved – maybe a little bit less than they deserved.”
Flynn also made sure to praise the 1,200 supporters who followed County up to Teesside – especially as nine coaches set-off from Newport at 6:30am just to watch the match.
He affirmed: “The amount of fans we brought up not long after Christmas just shows how special they are. To bring 1,200 to Middlesbrough is exceptional and I can’t thank them enough. They didn’t stop singing from the first minute to the 95th.
“It makes the long journey worthwhile.”
AT HOME | County’s rearranged fixture with Port Vale has been set for 29th January. Buy match tickets for the next game at Rodney Parade.
ON THE ROAD IN LEAGUE TWO | It’s the long trip to Lincolnshire to face Grimsby Town on 2nd February 2019. Ticket details & prices to be confirmed shortly.