Newport County AFC will be wearing our new commemorative shirt in this evening’s fixture against Bradford City to mark 40 years since our European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final against Carl Zeiss Jena. To celebrate one of the most exciting periods in the club’s history, we caught up with a former County defender, who was part of the European adventure in the 1980-81 season.
“There are three games that really stand out for me in my whole career: winning the Welsh Cup, winning promotion and then playing against Carl Zeiss Jena in that quarter-final game in the European Cup Winners’ Cup”.
They are the words of former defender Grant Davies, who still looks back at that European tie 40 years ago with fond memories and ‘immense pride’.
Len Ashurst led Newport County, known then as the Ironsides, into Europe after claiming a thrilling 5-1 victory – across two legs – over Shrewsbury Town in the Welsh Cup final in 1980, shortly after securing promotion to the Third Division with a 4-2 triumph over Walsall, who also earned promotion that season.
County made a big impression in the opening rounds of the 1981 European Cup Winners’ Cup with a 4-0 aggregate win over Northern Irish side Crusaders and a 6-0 aggregate victory over Norwegian Football Cup winners SK Haugar, who merged with SK Djerv 1919 in 1993 to form FK Haugesund, before meeting German giants Carl Zeiss Jena in the last eight.
The East German First Division side had knocked out European heavyweights Valencia – the reigning champions – and AS Roma to set up their clash with County, who travelled to Germany for the first leg on March 4, but it wasn’t ideal preparation.
“Well, they wouldn't let us fly into East Germany, so we had to fly into West Germany and then we had to have a horrendously long bus journey to get there,” recalled Davies, who played over 150 times for the club.
“The night that we got into Jena the hotel put on like a big party so we had a couple of beers to relax and went to bed.
“The following day they tried exactly the same thing, put a party on thinking that we would all go down. We didn't bother obviously.
“I like to look around when I'm in different places and I'd asked a couple of people where the shops were.
“I asked a lady in English, obviously she didn't have a clue, but after I walked off, I turned back around and a gentleman had walked straight up to her and it was obviously somebody from their authorities looking to see what we were doing.
“It was a very memorable time.”
The two sides played out an entertaining 2-2 draw with Tommy Tynan bagging a last-minute equaliser to leave the tie finely poised ahead of the home leg. Jürgen Raab notched both of the hosts’ goals with Tynan finding the net in-between those strikes before his late heroics.
“It was quite special. They went 1-0 up, we equalised, they went 2-0 up, we equalised,” said Davies.
“Then the night after we went back to the hotel and they closed all the bars down and everything so we couldn't even have a drink until [chairman] Richard Ford persuaded the manager of the hotel to open the downstairs bar so we could have a few beers to celebrate.
“It really was everything you would expect from an Iron Curtain country of how to try and play all the little tricks but it was memorable.
“They were a really good side. They had probably six or seven internationals in their team and really thought they were going to give us a thumping and it wasn’t to be.
“If you look at the team that we had, I would've fancied us against most teams in any of the leagues in the UK at that time as well.”
Somerton Park was packed out a fortnight later with 18,000 fans filling the stands in the hope of County pulling off the greatest result in their history, and arguably the competition.
“I think the whole build-up to the game was one of a lot of excitement of how well we played over in Jena”, Davies continued.
“Our expectation was that we would have a really, really close game again.
“Sometimes teams think they can take it easy and they get caught out. Our total expectation was the fact that they were going to come at us and that didn’t materialise because we could give as good as we got and because we had the ability to defend.”
Excitement and anticipation hung in the atmosphere as the supporters made their way to the game and Somerton Park was rocking as the whistle blew to get the action underway.
County had scored 10 goals in their previous two home European fixtures, so the crowd were used to seeing goals and Davies was sure they had bagged an 11th early in the first half.
“For me one of my standout memories was the header that I think was definitely in and everybody on the bank by the Railway End thought ‘that's over the line’ but the referee just never gave it,” Davies said.
“I think if we had gone 1-0 up that would have probably been enough.”
Lothar Kurbjuweit did manage to find the net for the visitors before the break and that proved decisive despite a strong attacking display from County. However, Jena goalkeeper Hans-Ulrich Grapenthin was in inspired form in South Wales.
“For the crowd it was a phenomenal game but so ironic that at the end of it having battered them we got beat 1-0, and that was probably one of the only times I’ve ever walked off the pitch crying, thinking that we did everything we possibly could.
“He [Grapenthin] just got in the way of anything and everything and if he wasn’t there one of his defenders was there.
“I’ve always said we could still be playing now all these years afterwards and we still probably wouldn’t have got the ball in the back of the net because of the way they defended and all credit to them that their defensive ability was stretched to the limit but they were just there all the time.”
The result may not have gone County’s way but their run in the European Cup Winners’ Cup attracted a lot interest and is still widely talked about today.
At the time Davies did not understand where that game would sit in the history of the football club but is glad to see the achievements of that era are still celebrated 40 years on.
“I didn’t think about that side of it at all because to me it was a game of football and we were just looking to progress.
“You just look at it as a game of football and all you think about is what it means to the fans.
“All the games when we played in Europe were very well attended and the fans are always behind your back and it’s just like let’s get on, let’s do more and bring more glory to the club because those years were glorious years for the club and for the fans.
“Forty years on people still remember it, which is quite amazing.
“I know that we’ve seen Jena come over and there have been some reciprocal games and different things, which has been good.
“I think they respected us for what we were, we were a team who were probably the most underrated within the whole competition and yet there we were in the quarter-finals giving one of the better teams a good thumping at their place, even though it was only 2-2.
“All clubs talk about past history, their teams of the past and what it meant and how it built that sort of pedestal.
“I’ve got an immense pride that I played for Newport County and nobody will ever take that away from me.
“I wish we, as a club now, could progress. That era becomes special but we need a new era now to keep the youngsters coming through who want to go and watch the club.”
The squad will look to hone the power of the class of ’81 when they don the commemorative shirt that marks the anniversary of one of the biggest nights in Newport County history against Bradford City as they continue on their quest for promotion.