Mike Flynn heaped praise on his Newport County AFC squad for digging in and grinding out a hard-fought victory as they secured their first three-point haul in League Two in 2019 with a 1-0 success against Exeter City.
Both sides created chances at Rodney Parade, but County were able to twin a resolute defensive display with a priceless late winner to keep up the pressure on the teams occupying the play-offs by cutting the gap to just five points with 19 matches still remaining.
Mark O’Brien and Jamille Matt both saw headers saved early on as County started the first-half on the front foot, but Exeter concluded it better and Joe Day had to make a stunning fingertip save to deny a looping attempt from Dara O’Shea.
The travelling Grecians started the second-half with the ascendency but they couldn’t break the County defensive wall down, eventually resorting to shots from distance and Ryan Bowman wasn’t too far away from capping his first league start in perfect fashion when he hit the middle of the crossbar.
Virtually everything from a County perspective was coming through the channels, Robbie Willmott and Dan Butler energising and pressing from wing-back, and Willmott capped a fine individual display with a pivotal role in the match winner in the 72nd minute.
A free-kick about 30 yards out afforded him the chance to cause havoc inside the penalty area with another pinpoint delivery, up rose Mark O’Brien to flick the ball on and that gave Jamille Matt the simplest of jobs to tap it home.
County were able to hold on rather comfortably from there to achieve a first win in League Two since 27th November – and Flynn feels the Exiles got their just rewards for a stellar team performance.
“This is an important three points,” he affirmed.
“Again, I don’t want to be the doom-monger but that is what frustrates me – we defended so well and if we’d have done that last weekend then we’d be a lot better off and have another three points.
“I’m over the moon because the boys have dug deep and worked really hard to try and get this result and put things right.
“They got their rewards today because without being great in the final third, I thought we were the better team and we created the most chances against an Exeter City team who have been in the play-off final for the last two years. It’s a good win that.
“It was a great, solid performance without being too exciting.”
The levels of performance in League Two matches haven’t been too far away in recent weeks but the Exiles have been getting punished for either lack of clinicality in-front of goal or mistakes in defence.
But everything clicked at Rodney Parade as County secured their first 1-0 victory since late September – and Flynn was delighted to stop the run without a league victory.
He said: “Listen, I said it right at the beginning of the season – we are going to have good times and we are going to have bad times.
“Everybody gets disappointed, everybody gets frustrated but let’s not forget where we’ve come from. Let’s not forget what we’re doing and how good things have been.
“I was due a sticky period but that’s done now, it’s out of the way.
“If we’d have taken our chances in the previous three games, we’d have an extra eight points and that’s not exaggerating – it’s obvious to anyone who has watched the games.”
He added: “I promise you, I wasn’t nervous at all today. What will be, will be.
“We do our tactics, we do all our work on the training pitch. I made a last-minute decision to revert back to a three [in defence] and there were some really, really good performances today and I thought we deserved the win.”
Matt’s divine intervention was his 15th goal of the season, nine of which have come in League Two, and it means he has already surpassed his best ever goal tally for an individual campaign.
“He’s never scored that many [in a season,]” Flynn remarked.
“I told him when I was signing him that I’d get him going again and I keep reminding him of that – he hates it. He’s there, he’s in the right positions getting on the end of things and his work rate is phenomenal for a big man – in the 93rd minute he’s still running.
“Those Exeter centre-backs will know they were in a game because he was a handful.”
Ahead of the game, Flynn made three changes to the starting line-up from last weekend and one of those saw Fraser Franks miss out through injury.
“Fraser has hurt his ankle ligaments,” Flynn confirmed.
“It’s not good if I’m honest but I’m not even going to give you a timeframe on it. It’s one of those where he might be alright for next weekend or it might be a four-week job. I really don’t know.”
Franks’ absence allowed Regan Poole to flourish on his second-debut having re-joined the club on loan until the end of the season from 13-time Premier League champions Manchester United.
The 20-year old fitted in assuredly to the defensive system as part of a 3-4-1-2 formation and played alongside Mickey Demetriou and stand-in captain Mark O'Brien.
Flynn stated: “I think Regan was excellent on his first game back in and he was a man today – I thought all of them were.
“I thought he was brilliant. I know what Regan can do, he’s a talent and you only had to look at the headers he made today, he wasn’t bullied once.
“He had quality on the ball when he was dropping it into the box and onto the striker’s chest. Look, he’s been playing at one of the biggest clubs in the world, so he’s bound to have improved.”
As well as Poole, every player raised their game in a superb performance from the team – but Flynn thought it was about time versatile defender/midfielder Scot Bennett got some more than deserved praise in a post-match press conference.
He affirmed: “I’ll be honest, I think Scot Bennett has been absolutely exceptional all season, bar maybe one or two games he has been brilliant.
“The amount of running that boy does, he puts himself into the right positions during games, played at the back and played in midfield.
“He’s been key for us when we’ve had so many injuries in midfield. He’s an unsung player for us, Scot, and I think it’s about time he got some serious praise because I thought he was excellent.”
For the first time since he took charge at the club on 9th March 2017, Flynn chose not to make a single substitution at any point of the contest.
“That’s something we learnt as staff,” he confirmed.
“We had to make changes last week, but I didn’t want to. Please believe me when I say that, we didn’t want to make any substitutions last week, but we had to.
“I didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm or the consistency that we had out there, and we looked more like scoring a second than them scoring.”
NEXT UP | County will be looking to reach the fifth round of the Emirates FA Cup for just the second time in their history when they travel to Championship outfit Middlesbrough. Find out about match tickets here.
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.