Newport County AFC - SkyBet League Two
The year 2012 sees the centenary of the formation of the original Newport County Football Club, and after 99 years of fluctuating fortunes, rarely has there been such a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm. The 2009-10 season has a claim to be the most successful of all for County.
The championship of Blue Square Conference South was ensured on 15th March 2010 with a 2-0 home victory over Havant & Waterlooville in front of 4,221 fans who helped make the evening one to remember with their enthusiasm and passion. By the end of the season, County had amassed a phenomenal 103 points from their 42 games, scoring 93 goals and conceding just 26, with second placed Dover Athletic leading the chasing pack 28 points adrift.
Newport and Monmouth County AFC came into being following overtures from the Southern League to which entry was gained for the 1912-13 season. A black and amber kit was chosen, the same as that of the local rugby club, and virtually identical to the old gold and black of Wolverhampton Wanderers which was appropriate as the steelworkers at Lysaght’s provided most of the new club’s support base and many of them had moved from the Wolverhampton area to work in the Newport steel industry. Despite the name chosen to broaden the appeal of the new club, it was only ever known as Newport County, and the nickname of the Ironsides was also fitting, given the role of steelworkers in the club’s formation, together with the location of its Somerton Park headquarters, just off Cromwell Road.
County played in the Second Division of the Southern League for the three seasons before the competition was suspended for the duration of the First World War, after which County were elevated to an extended First Division. This proved fortunate because a year later, in 1920, the Football League added a third tier which consisted largely of the clubs in the upper echelon of the Southern League, including County. The following two decades were difficult for the Ironsides with league membership lost for a season in 1931-32, but in 1938-39, former Northern Ireland international full-back Billy McCandless led County to the championship of Division Three (South) and promotion, a feat he was later to repeat with both Swansea Town, as they were then known, and Cardiff City!
The declaration of war in September 1939 soon curtailed County’s Second Division season after home matches against Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur had yielded a win and a draw, while a tricky away trip to Nottingham Forest resulted in a narrow defeat. When competition resumed in 1946, County were unable to survive and were relegated back to the third tier where they remained for a further 12 years. In 1958, they made the cut for a new national Third Division composed of the upper halves of the northern and southern regional sections, but they were relegated to the Fourth Division in 1962 and spent 18 seasons in the basement section.
Len Ashurst was appointed manager in 1978 and in his second season, he led County to a promotion and Welsh FA Cup double before, a year later, they reached the quarter-final of the European Cup-Winners Cup, suffering an unlucky 3-2 aggregate defeat to East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. Colin Addison replaced Ashurst in 1982 for his second spell in charge and County topped the Third Division after a 1-0 win against Cardiff City at a packed Somerton Park on Easter Monday 1983, but failed to clinch promotion and, within a year, the team of all the talents, boasting the acclaimed striking skills of John Aldridge and Tommy Tynan among others, had been broken up. In 1987 County were relegated back to the Fourth Division and Somerton Park had been sold back to the local authority in a bid to achieve financial security, with the club continuing to play there as tenants of the council.
However, the decline continued and County lasted just one season back in the Fourth Division before becoming the second victim of automatic relegation to the Football Conference in 1988. This arrangement had replaced the dubious re-election system which had previously required the bottom four clubs to seek the support of their peers in an annual vote involving ambitious non-league clubs who aspired to league status. By the time County competed in the Conference they had been taken over by an American entrepreneur called Jerry Sherman who failed to live up to his brash promises and, when they were locked out of Somerton Park following their failure to meet their payments to the council, they were first suspended and then expelled by the Conference, playing their final league game away to Maidstone United before their sorry playing record was expunged.
It appeared to be the end of senior football in the town, but there had always been a passionate, if relatively small, support base and within a matter of weeks, contingency plans were afoot to form a new club, to play at the highest level of the English pyramid to which entry could be gained, with a view to the restoration of Football League status by successive promotions. The new club was named Newport AFC, and election was achieved to the Hellenic League, on the basis of an imaginative ground share arrangement with fellow Hellenic members, Cotswolds based Moreton Town, 82 miles from Newport. This cunning plan was necessary after the council would not agree to provide a playing base within the town to a new club, while the Football Association of Wales refused to sanction its participation in the English system at Hellenic League level, and it gave rise to the new club’s nickname of the Exiles.
The solitary campaign at London Road, Moreton-in-Marsh proved a spectacular success with an amber army of fans (the traditional black and amber having been adopted by the new creation) enjoying a magical mystery tour of the Cotswolds and other rural football venues and providing substantial bar revenue as a team managed by former County stalwart John Relish powered to a Hellenic League and Cup double. Promotion to the Midland Division of the Southern League in 1990 was accompanied by a return to a near derelict Somerton Park which had a makeover from fans and the FAW withdrew their objections to the new club playing at that level as it was deemed to be higher than any that domestic Welsh competition could offer.
However, two seasons of top half finishes were achieved against the backdrop of a new threat with the FAW planning to form a new national competition for Welsh clubs outside the fully professional status of the Football League. Assurances that no club would be coerced into joining the new set-up were withdrawn and in 1992, the only way Newport AFC could maintain their foothold on the ladder to restoring Football League membership to the town was to return to exile, this time at the rather more salubrious Meadow Park ground of Gloucester City. Two seasons later, the club had to take their case to the High Court where, following a series of landmark rulings, the actions of the FAW were deemed to be a restraint of trade and the serious business of climbing the English pyramid could continue in earnest.
The Exiles’ return to Newport was not at the old home of Somerton Park, the council now having capitalised on their asset which was turned into a housing estate, but at the new Newport Stadium within the Spytty Park sports complex. Newport AFC stormed to the Midland Division title in their first season back home and achieved promotion to the Premier Division of the Southern League, though relegation two seasons later set back the club’s progress before a second Southern League promotion under present general manager Tim Harris in 1999 when the club reintroduced the name of Newport County AFC to the football world.
In 2004, after five top half finishes in the Southern League Premier Division, County qualified for membership of Conference South with the new tier taking the cream of the Southern and Isthmian Leagues. Two seasons of struggle were followed by two in which a place in the end of season promotion play-offs was missed only with a home defeat on the last day of the season, though in the latter of those two campaigns, Peter Beadle led County to the capture of the prestigious FAW Premier Cup, with victories against Swansea City and Cardiff City achieved along the way.
Beadle was replaced as manager by Dean Holdsworth in May 2008 and the former England B international striker, who had briefly played for County a year earlier, set about rebuilding the squad. After a difficult start to the 2008-09 campaign, it was clear that the foundations were being laid and in May 2009, the club revealed a business plan to a packed audience which showed how it would budget for success. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the achievements of 2009-10 exceeded the wildest expectations of the increasing fan base as County played attractive winning football on a regular basis. Crowds averaged 1,842, more than double those of the previous year, as the club completed the season with an unblemished Spytty Park record of 18 wins and just three draws in league matches, while away from home, County were regularly followed by hundreds of fans who added to the growing reputation of the club with their colourful and enthusiastic support.
The club has run a successful academy in partnership with Hartridge School close to the ground for several years and it continues to work with the Newport City Council to develop the stadium into a venue fit to accommodate the return to the Football League which is perceived as the Holy Grail. As almost a hundred years of history are reflected upon, it is often a source of debate as to whether we are discussing two separate clubs, with the second rising from the ashes of the first which played in the Football League for 61 seasons, reached the last 16 of the FA Cup and the last eight of the European Cup-Winners Cup. Those arguments will continue, but what is clear is that there is a new generation of football fans enjoying the successes of Newport County AFC, and that 2009-10 will be talked about for many years to come for the outstanding achievements of which the fans were made to feel a vital part.
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