THE GREATEST OF ESCAPES
After a crushing 4-0 defeat at home to 23rd placed Leyton Orient on 4 March 2017, fans of the football league’s basement club, Newport County could’ve been forgiven for ‘throwing in the towel’ and accepting relegation to non-league with County 11 points adrift of safety with just 12 games remaining and a team of players who seemingly could not cut it at that level. (County had achieved promotion back to the football league in 2013, after a 25-year absence.)
However, on 9 March 2017, just five days later, little did the County fans know that that day would be the start of an upturn in fortune when Graham Westley was dismissed as manager after winning just 4 league games out of his 24 in charge. Westley was appointed as Warren Feeney’s successor in October 2016 after the latter got off to a poor start to the 2016-17 season. Westley clearly had proven himself at this level; winning back-to-back promotions with Stevenage as well as having brief spells with Preston North End and Peterborough United at higher levels, therefore, it appeared County had recruited a manager who was more than capable of getting them out of trouble come the end of the season. However, Westley’s outspoken nature did not help his cause whilst trying to turn around the club’s fortunes and it certainly contributed to his downfall at the helm. Westley also decided the best approach to saving the club from relegation was to completely overhaul the squad in January. He made over 10 signings (mostly loans), including current players Mickey Demetriou, Mark O’Brien and David Pipe. Despite this, many of the signings failed to deliver. The defeat to Leyton Orient (who later went on to be relegated) just had to be the final straw for Westley. I watched that game with my dad and Orient were not a good side; I’m sure they were surprised at how abysmal County were that day and could not believe their luck. There was no coming back from that for him; the players were simply not playing for him and there was nothing to be encouraged about. County were down and out.
Enter Michael Flynn
The board appointed former player Michael Flynn as caretaker manager until the of the season. (Westley had already brought back Flynn as one of the first team coaches). At this point, as fans, the majority of us were probably not thinking about a possible escape, we just wanted a response from the players and to have a respectable end to the season. A week after the humbling from Orient, Flynn’s first game in charge was away to Crewe Alexandra. County came from behind to win 2-1, with captain Joss Labadie scoring late winner. This was the best possible response to the previous week’s performance. Next, County had a very tough test away to Morecambe, just four 4 days later on the Tuesday. A second half Ryan Bird penalty was enough to clinch all three points and make it two wins from two for Flynn. The 11-point deficit had already been cut to 7.
County only picked up 1 point from the next 3 games with a hard-fought point against Luton Town and frustrating defeats to Blackpool and Portsmouth. This left County 6 points adrift of safety with 7 games remaining, and having difficult away trips to promotion-chasing Exeter City, Plymouth Argyle and Carlisle United still to come. The odds were still stacked against us.
However, 3 consecutive 1-0 wins against Crawley Town, Exeter City and Yeovil Town respectively gave County a very strong chance of possible survival, with the deficit now being cut to just 1 point with 4 games remaining; already a remarkable turnaround. During these matches, Westley signing Mickey Demetriou started to hit form at the right time, scoring in the home wins against Crawley and Yeovil and County academy product, Tom Owen-Evans scored his first goal for the club; the crucial winner away to Exeter.
The next match was arguably our toughest since Flynn took over, Plymouth away. County were unable to cope with the onslaught from Argyle who won 6-1 and deservedly achieved promotion that day. This defeat could have easily dented the players’ confidence after such a good run but the thrashing in Devon would not prove to be costly, with the gap remaining at 1 point with 3 games to go.
Accrington Stanley were the next visitors to Rodney Parade for the penultimate home game of the season for County. On a sunny afternoon in South Wales, County won the game 1-0 thanks to a Ryan Bird header. This was one of the most significant games of the Flynn era so far because the club were now OUT of the relegation zone, being 2 points clear of Hartlepool United, who had drastically slipped down into 23rd place after poor form in the recent months. Unbelievably, County knew that they could confirm their safety the following week away at Carlisle United, even with one game to spare!. This was providing County won and Hartlepool dropped points away to Cheltenham Town. Incidentally, Cheltenham beat Hartlepool but County failed to capitalise on a half-time lead at Carlisle coming from a Mickey Demetriou header, consequently, losing the match 2-1. The nail-biting relegation battle between County and Hartlepool had gone right down to the final day of the season.
The final day
Newport County v Notts County
Hartlepool United v Doncaster Rovers
The scene was set. If County won, they were safe. Hartlepool had to win regardless of the result at County. Hartlepool were facing already-promoted Doncaster, who were attempting to win the League Two title. After being dead and buried at the beginning of March, County’s fate was well and truly in their own hands on 6 May 2017. The odds were now stacked in County’s favour to secure safety.
A season record-crowd had packed Rodney Parade for this game. The first half of both games could not really have gone better for County. The in-form centre back, Mickey Demetriou scored yet another crucial goal, despatching a comprehensive penalty not long before half time and Doncaster had taken the lead at Hartlepool. At half-time, most County fans must have felt relaxed and confident. However, it was not that simple.
Notts County equalised against County and Hartlepool then completed a shock turnaround against Doncaster and were now winning 2-1. As it stood, County were going to be relegated on goal-difference. The clock was ticking. It appeared that all our hard work to get out of trouble over the past two months would be cruelly snatched away. It was the 89th minute. After a long cross-field ball, County fan-favourite, right-back David Pipe cut back inside and put in a fantastic left-footed cross which was flicked on by Marlon Jackson……
…..straight onto the chest of centre-back Mark O’Brien, who then calmly volleyed into the bottom corner of the net like a world-class centre forward. Rodney Parade absolutely erupted.
County led 2-1 and were heading towards survival once again. There were 6 minutes of added time which seemed more like 6 hours. Despite that, County saw out the game very professionally with goalkeeper Joe Day not needed to be called into action for the final few minutes. The full-time whistle blew. County had completed the great escape. Nobody gave them a chance. We were gone. We were down. Our manager lost the dressing room. It was humiliating.
Up-stepped Michael Flynn. He brought the passion back into the side. He made them believe they could do it. The players responded, and it paid dividends. This truly was the GREATEST of escapes.
featured image credit walesonline.co.uk