Newport County AFC will take a two-goal advantage to Forest Green Rovers in the play-off semi-final second leg on Sunday after an impressive victory at Rodney Parade.
They were cheered on by a vocal and enthusiastic crowd for the first time this season as 900 fans were welcomed back for a test event, and they were not disappointed by what they saw.
Padraig Amond could have opened the score on 46 seconds but he blazed over, however, the Exiles did take the lead when Matty Dolan’s unstoppable 25-yard strike flew past the outstretched arms of Luke McGee.
Academy graduate Lewis Collins doubled the lead after the break to give the Exiles a strong lead to take to the innocent New Lawn on Sunday.
Having named the same team for five consecutive games, Mike Flynn had to make a change with Dolan replacing the injured Joss Labadie. Collins, who went up against older brother Aaron, once again supported Amond in attack. Priestley Farquharson recovered from his ankle injury to take his place on the bench.
The Exiles didn’t hang about after the first whistle. Lewis Collins knocked Liam Shephard’s long pass into Amond and the striker went through on goal but fired over inside a minute.
The Irishman repaid the favour seven minutes later, following a Mickey Demetriou long throw, but visiting goalkeeper McGee kept him out.
The Exiles took control of proceedings but Forest Green grew into the game and Aaron Lewis was in the right place to clear the danger after Jayden Richardson had escaped down the left and fired a low ball into the box.
But just as they were starting to build pressure, the Exiles opened the scoring and the ground erupted. Exactly 437 days since fans last cheered a goal at Rodney Parade – Dale Gorman’s winner against Morecambe – the Exiles faithful shouted in delight as County took control of the tie.
Ryan Haynes fed Collins down the left, the academy star shrugged off the challenge of Kane Wilson and picked out Josh Sheehan. The Wales international then laid it off to Dolan on the edge of the box and the midfielder fired it into the top corner.
There was a scare at the other end after Odin Bailey clipped the top of the crossbar from a free-kick but the hosts held their advantage until the break.
Just like in the first half Amond bore down on goal minutes after the whistle blew for the restart. Demetriou stepped out from defence and found the run of Amond with a defence-splitting pass but the forward couldn’t keep his effort down.
The two Collins brothers were in the thick of the action shortly before the hour mark. Aaron was agonisingly close to an equaliser after a deft header, from Baily Cargill’s cross, bounced narrowly wide.
He was left to rue that miss as his brother Lewis added a second from the resulting goal kick. Aaron Lewis battled for possession and caught the Forest Green defence napping with a clever through ball and the younger Collins brother kept his composure to slot home and double the advantage.
The Exiles were dealt a blow a few minutes later when the goalscorer appeared to pick up a knock and had to be replaced by Ryan Taylor.
A defensive mix-up almost gifted Forest Green a goal back but Tom King came to the rescue with a heroic save to deny Bailey from point-blank range.
Former County frontman Jamille Matt, who scored 26 goals in 97 games for the club, entered the action for FGR on 75 minutes but not before his former strike partner Amond had the chance to increase County’s lead. However, with the goalkeeper away from his goal, Amond’s chipped effort landed on top of the net. Farquharson came on at the same time for Dolan.
Forest Green looked to up the ante in the final stages as they looked for a route back into the game but with four of the 11 that started in the play-off semi-final against Mansfield Town two years ago on the pitch; Demetriou, Bennett, Sheehan and Amond, County had the experience to see them through.
The Exiles even had further chances to extend their lead through Amond and substitute Nicky Maynard but a third goal eluded them.
Newport County AFC: Tom King; Liam Shephard, Scot Bennett, Mickey Demetriou; Aaron Lewis, Matty Dolan (Priestley Farquharson 75'), Josh Sheehan (C), Anthony Hartigan, Ryan Haynes; Lewis Collins (Ryan Taylor 62'); Padraig Amond (Nicky Maynard 90').
Subs not used: Nick Townsend, Joe Ledley, Luke Gambin, Kevin Ellison.