Newport County AFC have started 2019 in the most agonising of circumstances having conceded with five minutes remaining in the 1-0 defeat at Stevenage.
Despite dominating the game for large periods after Stevenage striker Kurtis Guthrie’s dismissal on 39 minutes, County couldn’t make their numerical advantage count and were ultimately dealt a sucker punch through Alex Revell’s late header.
The result means County slip two places in the League Two table to 12th, six points off the play-off places and nine off the automatic promotion spots.
For the fourth League Two fixture in just 11 days, Mike Flynn elected to make two changes to the side from the one that concluded 2018 with a point in a goalless home draw with Crawley Town.
Both alterations affected the midfield as Matty Dolan and Andrew Crofts, who were both withdrawn on Saturday through respective injuries, hadn’t recovered in time to start – Dolan able to make the bench and Crofts out of the squad altogether.
In came Mark O’Brien and Tyreeq Bakinson to the familiar 3-4-1-2 formation in Hertfordshire, with Padraig Amond and Jamille Matt once again leading the line for the Exiles.
Stevenage manager Dino Maamria made three changes to his side that suffered a narrow away defeat at Crewe Alexandra last time out which dented their hopes of a play-off berth.
Of the alterations, Johnny Hunt came back in at left-back – a name that might be a familiar one to County fans after he played the full 90 minutes for Wrexham AFC when County beat the Dragons in the 2013 Conference play-off final.
In a first-half where both sides seemed to be missing that final splitting pass, the main points from an attacking sense came inside the opening 70 seconds.
Encouraging work down the left virtually straight from kick-off saw Robbie Willmott in behind Luther James-Wildin, he fed Jamille Matt inside the area who found Padraig Amond, his shot managed to get through, but Paul Farman made a smart save.
Straight down the other end went Stevenage and but for a bit of hesitation they may have broken the deadlock. Striker Danny Newton ghosted in behind but delayed dramatically on the shot, Mark O’Brien recovered the situation and put in the vital interception tackle.
A smart save from Joe Day to deny Ben Nugent on eight minutes was a precursor to a nice period of possession for the hosts, but hesitation always seemed to hold them back and this time Mickey Demetriou put the tracking challenge in to deny Kurtis Guthrie.
The response from County when it came was impressive and Scott Cuthbert had to leap extremely high to make sure Robbie Willmott’s free-kick couldn’t creep over the wall.
The trouble again for both sides still remained that final killer pass, County in the ascendency if any, but the lack of clinicality meant not many further opportunities could be produced at the Lamex Stadium.
That didn’t mean it was the end of the drama in the opening 45 minutes, however, as after 39 minutes County’s cause was aided by the sending off of Stevenage striker Guthrie. He went in to a 50/50 challenge with Fraser Franks a little bit overzealously and gave the referee little hesitation but to produce the red card.
County almost made their numerical advantage count before the interval after someone finally found what looked to be the killer pass, Tyreeq Bakinson with this one that split the two Stevenage centre-backs like a knife through butter, but Amond couldn’t quite keep the shot down.
That brought proceedings to a close for the first-half, but Stevenage’s trouble was they had made their tactical intentions clear when making the reactive substitution to the red card during the four minutes of added time.
Flynn therefore had the 15-minute interval to work out how County were going to respond to experienced midfielder Michael Timlin’s introduction, and he clearly used that time to work out that they needed to utilise the pace and trickery of Robbie Willmott who instantly made his presence known second-half.
The midfielder skipped past three challenges with ease on 49 minutes and Amond wasn’t too far away from finding the far corner with a header back across the face of goal.
Willmott’s crosses were simply sublime and another clever run and delivery was brought down expertly by Matt, he teed up Amond but home captain Cuthbert timed a lunging challenge to perfection to prevent the Irishman from smashing home.
Credit to Stevenage for remaining within the game despite only having 10 men and next to no ascendency as the game approached the hour mark, Danny Newton did send a header past the post following a counter-attack but County looked comfortable.
They still had to get the goal that all their possession and ascendency craved, however, and it should have come with 15 minutes remaining.
No prizes for guessing that the effervescent Willmott was the architect of the opportunity after another menacing run in behind, Farman came out to collect the cross but dropped it in a dangerous area, Scot Bennett got to it first but couldn’t get the shot on target.
The trouble was that the longer the game remained goalless there was always the possibility that Stevenage could find a goal against the run of play – and the sucker punch came with five minutes remaining.
Timlin swung an inviting corner-kick into the area after O’Brien had initially deflected a Newton attempt wide of the mark, Boro substitute Alex Revell rose highest from it and powered a header into the middle of the goal.
Time was still on County’s side as seven minutes were added on at the end of proceedings in Hertfordshire, and substitute Josh Sheehan agonisingly rattled the crossbar with a thumping drive after four of the added extras.
But no further chances could be created despite constant pressure in and around the Stevenage penalty area – meaning County fell to defeat in Hertfordshire.
Newport County AFC (3-4-1-2): Day, Forbes (Harris 62’), Demetriou (C), O’Brien, Franks (Marsh-Brown 83’), Butler, Bennett (Sheehan 89’), Bakinson, Willmott, Amond, Matt
Subs not used: Townsend, Pipe, Dolan
Stevenage FC (4-4-2): Farman, James-Wildin, Cuthbert (C), Nugent, Hunt (Timlin 45’), Kennedy (Revell 60’), Byrom (Henry 77’), Iontton, Seddon, Newton, Guthrie
Subs not used: Wilkinson, Ball, Vancooten, Campbell-Ryce
Referee: Andy Haines
Attendance: 2,299 (150 AWAY)
Next up for County: Leicester City (6th January 2019) Emirates FA Cup Third Round – HOME