Tuesday 23rd January 2018, League Two
It was exciting times in Gwent. Newport County, that much beleaguered phoenix club, were bracing themselves for a date with destiny. Having overcome Leeds United in a hard-fought 2-1 victory at their Rodney Parade home, they would soon welcome Tottenham Hotspur in a fourth round FA Cup clash, their first time in the fourth round since 1978/79. Before that though, the rather more pedestrian matter of this midweek league tie with relegation-threatened Morecambe. A mere 28 mile drive away from my Severn Beach home, Newport County has been a glaring gap in my portfolio for some time, especially considering my trip to Newport City last year where I literally walked past Rodney Parade on the way. The Exiles were offering £10 entry this evening in return for a donation to the local foodbank which was enough to tempt me along and an excellent gesture by the club.
The buzz around the place about the Spurs match as I entered was palpable. A huge queue had amassed outside the ticket office for the precious tickets and a few regulars strutted proudly in their new half-and-half scarves. Boy those market tradespeople work fast. The lady behind the counter seemed surprised when I asked for a ticket for tonight's fixture as opposed to the big'un but took the raffle ticket stub I'd been rewarded with at the gate in return for my small bag of cans and presented me with a boring old regular match day ticket. As I'm sure you can probably appreciate with the place playing host to County, two rugby teams (Dragons and Newport RFC), Newport Squash Club and probably some others, Rodney Parade is rather busy. This means you have to walk past the spare pitch and the squash hall in order to get to the football pitch. It was on this short walk when I first set eyes on a most beautiful sight: the Newport County Beer Gazebo™.
This massive white tent, the kind you get at outdoor weddings, contained a well-stocked bar, ample lighting and seating, carpet and even a little wooden dance floor. As a Bristol Rovers fan I’m used to obtaining my matchday vittles from tents of various sizes but this one put our efforts to shame. I’m not even being snide, it was a nice place to be. A good idea for clubs that lack space for matchday hospitality in the stadium proper. I had exactly one pint of Brains Bitter (when in Rome) and moseyed on over the turnstiles. For some reason I’d always had the impression that Rodney Parade was all newfangled redeveloped stands haphazardly thrown together, à la Barnet’s The Hive but it does some some charming retro bits. The oldest-looking portion of the ground is known as the Hazell Stand and is for me the most attractive part of the place. It has a layer of raised seating above a standing terrace that runs the whole length of the pitch. The raised tier doesn’t stretch as far as the whole terrace so there’s a section of uncovered standing towards the home fan’s entrance. One quite quaint feature is the white painted wooden fence that lines the bottom of the seated portion, which makes it look like one of those lean-to verandas you find on houses from the American Foursquare era of US architecture. Drink it in folks, that’s the most intellectual sentence this blog will ever inspire. As if the gazebo wasn’t enough, there’s a small concourse that serves beverages underneath this stand. The only drawback is you don’t get a very good view if you stand to the far south of the terrace because of the tiny pyramid roofed building crammed into the corner, which houses the player’s dressing rooms.
Opposite this is the very Hivesque Bisley Stand. A grey cantilever roofed stand with a jarring array of yellow, red and black chairs arranged in a pattern I’m too stupid to understand. This probably cost them the most money out of anything in the ground and looks to hold yet more matchday hospitality facilities but I’m afraid it looks horrible. Behind the goal nearest the entrance in a small uncovered standing terrace which was in the middle of having temporary extra seating erected behind it, so it was out of action today. The opposite end to this contains a bank of green temporary seating. A cursory glance around Google images has shown me that Rodney Parade has changed a lot over recent years and is very much a ground in transition but considering I thought I was going to be spending this blog laughing at it’s higgledy-piggledy nature, I was pleasantly surprised by the Hazell Stand, where I found myself today. This might be due in part to the efforts of the small group of lads huddled behind an ultras style banner adorned with Amber Army who made an absolute racket throughout most of the first half. While this would ultimately die off as the slightly drab game dragged on, their initial efforts were up there with some of the best fans I’ve seen, bringing to mind the Stanley Ultras from a few years back. Also commendable in their own way were the c. 12 Morecambe fans that had braved this 448 mile round trip on a miserable Tuesday night. The mad twats.
There was a lot of enjoyable basement-division banter flying round as a pair of old ladies harangued vintage Morecambe winger Kevin Ellison on his perceived likeness to Jonjo Shelvey (a comparison the veteran seemed to quite enjoy). Also prevalent was Morecambe assistant manager Ken McKenna, who spent the majority of the first half cockling impudently on an ice box right in front of the home fans, responding to their various jibes by muttering “Ooooh Cymreee!” in an exaggerated South Wales accent. This tit-for-tat escalated and reached it’s peak after the first goal when the home crowd burst in unison into a chorus of “Fuck off Grandad, you’re Jim Bentley’s bitch!” (Jim Bentley being the first team manager). Considering Ken is an ex-semi pro with over 180 Welsh League appearances under his belt, not to mention a seven year stint managing The New Saints, I’m guessing the old-timer is just a lover of a good old-fashioned shithouse rather than a hater of our Celtic chums. Later the much gruffer Bentley began barking orders to his players, which prompted a chorus of what I can only describe as demented blooping noises from the home fans. No idea.
Anyway as previously mentioned my enjoyment of these hijinks was briefly interrupted by Newport’s first goal in the 14th minute from a slightly unexpected source, defensive midfielder Ben Tozer. Willmott received the ball in the top corner and pinged a ball into the box which Nouble tried to get a diving head to but missed. Luckily Tozer had strayed obscenely far forward and narrowly beat his marker to poke it past the Morecambe keeper at close range. It was off the back of a very attacking first period for Newport with the only Morecambe break I can recall being snuffed out when their diminutive number 10 is overrun and robbed of the ball causing him to shove an opponent in frustration. Any other half-chance they muster in the first period is either very tame and easily gathered or blasted over. It really didn’t look to me like Morecambe were going to create a goal today, they might end up capitalising on a mistake but they weren’t going to make one of their own I thought to myself, in a rare moment of fidelity. During the break I popped back out to the gazebo to stretch my legs. There didn’t seem to be anyone keeping track of people wandering around the place and I briefly flirted with trying to sneak into the Spurs game at half-time.
During the second half it became clear that the hosts were going to need another goal as Morecambe began to grow into the game and force a couple of more probing saves, forcing Newport keeper Joe Day out of his net to charge down a threatening attack at one point. County look to be sitting back a bit, possibly high on confidence after Leeds. This begins to frustrate their fans who demand shots from any player in a central position 30 yards out from goal. I began to wonder if years of Rugby had affected the way their brains perceive football. The hosts appear to be happy to sit back and wait for the counter, which was a far-cry from their dominant first half performance. Suddenly Day slides and takes out Garry Thompson in the box and the ref points to the spot. A clear penalty which Morecambe have won in the final 15 minutes of the game. Michael Rose steps up and calmly slots it into the bottom corner. The baker’s dozen of travelling Morecambe fans go wild. It’s all very funny. Newport chuck on big Paul Hayes for the last five to try and salvage the game but it’s no use. The Shrimps steal a point and as I’m watching the players leave the pitch a young linesman zips past me on a beeline for the changing rooms, pursued by a beetroot-faced middle aged man screaming critique at him. It’s the perfect ending really.
It’s a funny old game, football. It’s taken me so long to write this report that I’ve been able to reflect on the fact that I left Rodney Parade scoffing at the Exiles chances of getting anything but a pasting against Tottenham. However on the day they held Spurs to a 1-1 draw, with only an 82nd minute Kane strike saving the white half of North London from cringing themselves into oblivion. Still the FA Cup is an unpredictable beast by nature and I don’t see Newport getting promoted this season but they’ve certainly already set themselves up for better things in the near future.