Journey to the Final
With Mansfield Town securing a win on the last day of the Conference season, their return to the Football League after relegation in 2007/08, was confirmed. It also meant that Kidderminster Harriers, Wrexham, Newport County AFC and Grimsby Town were the four teams fighting it out for the other promotion place via the Play-offs.
In the First-Leg games, Kidderminster (who finished in second place) visited Wrexham (who finished in fifth place). David Artell scored with a header in time added-on at the end of the first-half to send Wrexham 1-0 ahead at the break, but The Harriers were level on fifty seven minutes when Michael Gash scored from the penalty spot. With the game entering the last five minutes, the deadlock was broken when Wrexham were awarded a penalty of their own and Neil Ashton converted it to give The Reds a 2-1 advantage. In the other Semi-Final game, Newport County AFC (who finished in third place) travelled to Grimsby Town (who finished in fourth place) and came away with a 1-0 win after an eighty ninth minute goal from a Ismail Yakubu header which went in off Town defender Ian Miller.
Back at Kidderminster for the Second-Leg, The Harriers task was made all the more difficult when Brett Ormerod scored on twenty nine minutes for Wrexham to give them a 1-0 lead and 3-1 aggregate advantage. Kidderminster equalised on sixty four minutes through Cheyenne Dunkley, but hopes of a comeback were short-lived as just five minutes later a Joe Clarke free-kick restored the Wrexham lead. A spot at Wembley was sealed when with eighty five minutes gone Neil Ashton converted a penalty to wrap the game up at 3-1 and a 5-2 aggregate win. An all-Welsh Conference Play-off Final was confirmed when Christian Jolley scored on thirty one minutes for Newport, sealing a 1-0 win on the day and a 2-0 aggregate win over Grimsby.
2012/13 League encounters
In the league meeting at Wrexham in September, The Reds won the encounter 2-0 with goals from Adrian Cieslewicz and Danny Wright. At Newport in January, County had the chance to go ahead on twenty seven minutes, but Wrexham keeper Joslain Mayebi saved Andy Sandell’s spot-kick. The visitors then took the lead on thirty four minutes through Danny Wright. However, Newport salvaged a draw on fifty six minutes through Max Porter.
Other Conference Meetings
Blue Square Bet Premier
22 October 2011 Wrexham (0) – (0) Newport County
24 April 2012 Newport County (0) – (1) Wrexham
Blue Square Bet Premier
27 March 2011 Wrexham (1) – (0) Newport County
5 September 2010 Newport County (1) – (1) Wrexham
Last Football League Fixtures
League Division Four
24 October 1987 Newport County (2) – (0) Wrexham
26 March 1988 Wrexham (4) – (1) Newport County
Sunday 05 May 2013 – Leeds to London
The 09:45 train from Leeds to St Pancras International is my mode of transport down to London for the game. Whilst unsurprisingly there are no Newport or Wrexham fans evident in the station, groups of Bradford City fans, resplendent in Claret and Amber shirts, merrily gather on their way to Burton for their npower League Two Semi-Final Second-Leg fixture. The Bantams supporters seem in exceedingly bright spirits given that their team trails 3-2 from the First-Leg game in Bradford. Leaving them to dream of a second Wembley visit this season, my train pulls out and the journey to the National Stadium begins. The great thing with this trip is the time it allows you to relax and think about the game ahead. So with coffee and The Non-League Paper as my companions, I settle in for the long haul and a bit of ground spotting along the way as the East Stand at Elland Road appears then disappears from view very quickly.
It’s the third Play-off Final I will be covering and the first in which Luton Town won’t be featuring. The Hatters finished down in seventh place and thirteen points away from the last Play-off spot, in what was a difficult season. Without the team from Bedford, I’m a Northern gate-crasher at an all Welsh Final between Newport County AFC and Wrexham. My thoughts are broken as I catch sight of the various pitches and building that make up the West Riding County FA Headquarters at Woodlesford, a venue which has hosted the West Riding County Cup Final.
Today and for the Bank Holiday tomorrow the forecast is for a bright and sunny couple of days, but the reality of the early Sunday morning weather hasn’t yet matched that forecast. As the train reaches Barnsley, the grey sky is punctuated by shafts of sunlight which linger over Oakwell; the town still slumbering, no doubt sleeping off the celebrations of yesterday as the club retained its status in the Championship. As the journey through South Yorkshire continues, the train stops at Sheffield – a station busy with people and a city still with football matters on its mind this season. Whilst Wednesday fans can rest easy in their beds this morning after their team ensured there will be Championship football at Hillsborough next season, United followers have a Semi-Final Second Leg encounter at Yeovil tomorrow to see if the dream of promotion can be brought one step nearer.
As the train leaves sunny Sheffield, I doze slightly and only half consciously take in the next part of the journey as stops at Chesterfield, Derby, East Midlands Parkway, Loughborough, Leicester and Market Harborough vanish in a blink. I get another coffee at Kettering and take in the pretty uninspiring flat landscape outside set under what is now a grey sky. Wellingborough passes too and at Bedford as the sun once more fleetingly appears I check on the Bradford City score as the game approaches half-time and see that The Bantams are a goal to the good. I close my eyes once more and awake to see that the journey is nearly at an end as the train hurtles parallel to the M1 into North London and the arch at Wembley Stadium flashes past my eye-line. A last check of the Bradford score sees The Bantams incredibly ahead 3-1 and heading for the Play-off Final, although there is still time left for Burton to grab a game changing goal. For now the result will have to wait as I make my way from St Pancras to catch the Underground to Wembley Park.
The Match – Newport County AFC v Wrexham
Arriving at Wembley Park an hour before kick-off it is evident from the lack of people on and around Wembley Way that there is not going to a crowd of any significant numbers today. Indeed the estimates pre-game were that it would be around the 17,000 mark with Wrexham outnumbering their Newport counterparts 2 to 1. As I get set-up in the press area, on the pitch the two teams go through their warm up sessions, whilst the stadium announcer does his best to engender some atmosphere to the occasion. A few opera pieces are belted out by Martin Toal who closes his set with the tune that became so much associated with Italia ’90, Nessun Dorma, reminding the crowd of the closing words, “…I will win, I will win, I will win…” Those in the stadium are appreciative of the efforts of Toal and give him a warm reception as he leaves the pitch.
With fifteen minutes to kick-off, Newport are first to exit the hallowed turf to be followed minutes later by Wrexham. The respective squads return to their dressing rooms for the final preparation and I wonder how relevant the statistics around this game are and whether the coaching teams use them to provide a last minute psychological boost. Would for instance The Reds player-manager Andy Morrell tell his players that Wrexham had never lost to Newport in all the six Conference encounters with Newport, or would he say that York City won the FA Trophy and then went on to win promotion via the Play-off Final last season and that Wrexham had the chance to do exactly the same this season. Across in The Exiles dressing room was Justin Edinburgh reminding his players that in the ten years of the Play-offs, that no team from 5th place (this season, Wrexham) had ever won promotion via the Final and that the team finishing in 3rd spot (this season, Newport) has emerged victorious on five occasions.
The crowd now start to appreciate that kick-off is fast approaching and both sets of fans start to crank up the noise. As they do, the grounds-staff replaces the divots on the pitch and red carpets are laid out for the pre-match presentation of the games dignitaries on the half-way line. The television monitors in the press area show that the teams have gathered in the tunnel and the camera pans to a tense looking Justin Edinburgh. Moments later both teams emerge to roars of encouragement from the crowd and line-up awaiting the match guest of honour, Richard Scudamore, Chief Executive of The Premier League.
Given that it is an all-Welsh Final, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) is played and rousingly sung by both sets of supporters. Unsurprisingly, the English National Anthem, God Save the Queen, is not received with quite so much warmth. At the close of the two Anthems, the two teams break rank with kick-off now just minutes away. Wrexham seem more animated as various players buzz round giving last minutes words of encouragement. Newport by comparison seem more static and the only significant movement sees captain David Pipe briefly speak to his manager Justin Edinburgh on the touchline.
Wrexham resplendent in red and white kick-off and attack the Amber and Black end of the ground where the Newport fans are situated. It’s a nervous start from Wrexham as Davis Artell slices the ball out of play, but from the resultant throw Newport are unable to threaten and the ball goes through comfortably to Chris Maxwell in the Wrexham goal. Indeed the opening minutes are ragged as an early Wrexham cross is over-hit and Newport captain David Pipe is guilty of putting a long-ball directly into touch. However, on three minutes there is a first concerted effort on goal from County’s Michael Flynn, although the shot lacks power and is easily gathered by The Reds keeper Maxwell. The Exiles are struggling in the opening ten minutes as Wrexham settle the better of the teams and force Newport to concede a number of free-kicks. Justin Edinburgh spots something and tries to get a message to his skipper David Pipe. Newport attempt to get a foothold in the game but their long-balls forward are over-hit. However, County do win the first corner of the game on thirteen minutes, but it is well taken by keeper Maxwell. Wrexham continue to dominate and after good build-up play, Brett Ormerod fires wide just three minutes later. Jolley and Crow are having little impact on the game so far, and are unable to get any meaningful possession. When Newport do have a chance to break on nineteen minutes, Andy Sandell wastes the opportunity with a long-range effort that sails high and wide. Seconds later Sandell has another effort which is again wasteful, but at least The Exiles are getting into the game. Wrexham though quickly respond on twenty one minutes, with a diving header from Ormerod, but he is always struggling to make a clean connection and Pidgeley in the County goal is untroubled. Shortly afterwards due to a clash of heads Ormerod has to change his bloodied number ten shirt to reappear wearing a shirt without a number. Newport are looking to get behind Wrexham, but the balls through continue to be too long for their intended targets and the County boss visibly shows his displeasure. Unlike his Newport counterparts upfront, Ormerod is causing problems and constantly involved in all the pressure Wrexham are exerting. On thirty minutes Joe Clarke has an effort from distance for The Reds but it rises way over the bar. Just three minutes later Wrexham create an excellent chance when good inter-play with Hunt allows Ormerod a good shooting chance around the penalty-spot, but it is always going wide. The Reds striker has another chance on thirty six minutes and this effort from outside the box is again the wrong side of the post. There is respite from the Wrexham pressure a minute later when Newport win a free-kick in a good position. Michael Flynn delivers it into the box and Maxwell displays excellent handling in claiming it. As the game enters the last five minutes, Newport enjoy their best spell of the game. On forty minutes, Michael Flynn has an effort on goal comfortably gathered by Maxwell, but the best chance occurs on forty three minutes as Christian Jolley curls an effort from inside the box just wide. With time running out in the half, Newport win a free-kick which Andy Sandell takes, the ball into the box is met by Lee Minshull, but the connection isn’t as clean as he would have liked, so Maxwell is able to make the save. The stadium announcer informs the crowd there is one minute of time added on and it passes without incident, sending the teams into the tunnel level at 0-0.
As the players depart to the dressing-rooms my immediate thought is whether Wrexham will come to regret the chances that Brett Ormerod had but was unable to convert. The impression so far is that the club from North Wales have had the better of the half, so it is interesting to read the stats from the opening forty five minutes. It shows that Newport had 52% of the possession, with both teams having six shots, although Wrexham only had one on target compared to three for Newport…Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Back on the pitch, the grounds-staff are ensuring the divots are replaced and the pitch is ready for the second-half.
Newport are first out and when Wrexham arrive and line-up for kick-off the game doesn’t immediately start as the referee waits for the ‘green-light’ from the television production team. The Exiles kick-off the second period, playing towards their own fans. As with the first-half, the opening minutes are scrappy with the teams trading free-kicks. The Wrexham fans try to up the tempo and up the volume and they are rewarded for their efforts when on fifty five minutes as Brett Ormerod has a header off-target. Wrexham have momentum now and win two corners in quick succession. In keeping them out, Lenny Pidgeley goes down injured and requires a few minutes treatment before he can resume. On fifty six minutes from another Wrexham corner the balls breaks to Joe Clarke, but like so many of The Reds efforts today it is wide. The chances continue to come for Wrexham and just before the hour mark, player-manager Andy Morrell has his effort saved by Pidgeley, the ball breaks to Ormerod in the six-yard box, but the veteran striker cannot capitalise on this guilt-edged chance. Newport are struggling and manager Edinburgh decides to try and change things with Danny Crow being replaced by Aaron O’Connor. However, there is no immediate impact and instead The Exiles have keeper Pidgeley to thank for keeping the score at 0-0, as he makes an excellent save from Johnny Hunt. Brett Ormerod’s day doesn’t get any better when on sixty four minutes he is booked for a foul on Byron Anthony. At last Newport enjoy a spell of possession, but on sixty seven minutes Jolley is winded after colliding with a Wrexham defender, so that the impetus of the game is once more interrupted. However, it provides some time for the coaches to talk to the players whilst they take on some fluids. Once play resumes, Wrexham continue to ring the changes as player-manager Andy Morrell gives way to Adrian Cieslewicz on sixty eight minutes, with Morrell having run himself into the ground. The second-half has flown by and there are only twenty minutes left with the game still in the balance. The game enters a scruffy phase as free-kicks awarded to both teams break up any flow and suddenly there are just ten minutes remaining and the spectre of energy sapping extra-time looms. Another name enters the referees’ book with Newport’s Alex Gilbey receiving a yellow card and it also marks another substitution for The Reds as Glen Little replaces Dean Keates. An air of apprehension starts to filter through from the crowd and Wrexham’s Jay Harris long-range effort reflects the anxiety as the clock ticks down. On eighty three minutes Jolley has a header which goes wide and suddenly the Newport striker is starting to buzz as a minute later he has a shot blocked by Wrexham defender Riley. With four minutes to go Byron Anthony plays a long-ball down the Wrexham left where David Artell’s header only succeeds in flicking the ball backwards into the path of Christian Jolley. Having collected the ball The Exiles striker continues into the six-yard box before coolly slipping the ball over the advancing Chris Maxwell. The Newport faithful explode in celebration whilst there is stunned silence from the Wrexham fans. As Wrexham kick-off Wembley reverberates to the noise of celebration from The Exiles fans. With just two minutes left, some Wrexham fans are already making for the exits as Jay Harris is replaced by Dele Adebola. Coaches from both team in the technical areas urge their respective set of fans to up the noise levels. The goal seems to have knocked the wind out of The Reds fans and they seem unable to create any significant sound. The announcer relays the fact that there are four minutes added time to be played. With ninety minutes up, Wrexham pepper the Newport box and win a corner, which The Exiles are grateful to clear anywhere up-field. Back come The Reds and they win another corner, but Newport hold firm as Pidgeley easily gathers the header from Ormerod. Newport though draws breath and as the seconds tick away they break down the left with Jolley. He cuts into the box and plays the ball across to the right for Aaron O’Connor, whose initial shot is saved by the knees of Chris Maxwell; as the ball rebounds out, O’Connor lashes it into the top right-hand corner to send the Newport fans behind the goal into dreamland. The entire coaching staff and substitutes of Newport know that promotion has been sealed, whilst the disbelief of the Wrexham fans at the dramatic close of the game is palpable. Goal-scorer O’Connor is booked for taking his shirt off during his goal celebration and as soon as Wrexham kick-off the referee blows for time.
The images at either end of the ground are ones that I have witnessed at these Play-off Finals over the last three years. Quite simply – ecstasy and agony, the faces of winning and losing. Many Wrexham fans have already gone, but those that stay applaud the efforts of their team as they collect their losers medals. The Newport fans are a black and amber sea of noise and movement and await the moment that David Pipe raises the trophy to acknowledge that Newport County are back in the Football League.
First into the room is the Wrexham player-manager, Andy Morrell. His tiredness from not only his physical exertions on the pitch, but the emotional exhaustion of defeat is apparent. Despite this he puts on a brave face and is dignified, honest and respectful to the questions asked; a credit to himself and the club. Morrell is initially asked how he feels right now. His response is entirely understandable in that he says he is hurting and disappointed, but so proud of his players. He adds that he believes Wrexham have played all the football, creating a number of excellent chances, but that it was just not The Reds day.
Next Morrell is asked as to whether the tough end of season schedule has taken its toll on his players. He replies that he didn’t feel that it had and looking at the game the first-half was a very cagey affair which became stretched into the second period. Morrell continues that he had said to his players that Newport would look to get behind them and for 85 minutes Wrexham dealt with it. However, when that crucial chance came, Christian Jolley capitalised; the Wrexham player-manager adds that he thought the Newport forward had been the difference for the South Wales side this season in terms of gaining promotion. Morrell is asked if he had been interested in signing Jolley, he acknowledges that there had been discussions, but that the funds required to sign him weren’t available.
The next question to the Wrexham player-manager asks why the game took a while to ‘warm-up’. Morrell says that there was no point going ‘gung-ho’ as had happened in previous Play-off games and that the approach was to be patient and then exploit the situation when the game opened-up in the second-half.
Morrell is then questioned as to how the club will deal with the defeat today. He responds that as in previous years, they just had to bounce back. He continues that it is a horrible situation, but they had no choice other than to deal with it. Morrell adds it will next be a case of speaking to the players, his staff and the Board to see what is decided and therefore plan for next season.
Given that Wrexham had won the FA Trophy, Morrell is asked what sort of season it has been. He replies that of course to win a cup was an achievement, but that having lost today it was a ‘good’ season rather than a ‘great’ season.
The next question is in relation to what the Wrexham player-manager had said to the players at half-time. He replies that he had told them that it had been a good half, adding that the second-half would ‘open-up’. Morrell continues that Brett Ormerod is down in the dressing room still apologising for the missed chances. However, Morrell says that the defeat wasn’t just down to him.
Moving on, the Wrexham boss is asked about squad strengthening next season, to which he simply replies that it was purely down to finances. He continues that at the end of the day the squad wasn’t too far off and he is proud of the players, some of whom had been wrapped in ‘cotton-wool’ all week whilst others needed injections to get them onto the pitch today.
Finally, Morrell is asked if he thought the team had done itself justice. He is emphatic in his answer, in stating that they certainly had, and in reality on the day the strikers for Newport had made the difference.
Once Andy Morrell departs there is a brief wait until the victorious Newport manager, Justin Edinburgh comes into the interview room. He is immediately asked to put into words how he feels right now. The Exiles boss says that he is extremely emotional and has felt the importance of the occasion all week. Edinburgh adds that it was special given that it is the clubs Centenary and twenty five years since relegation from the Football League. He continues that it is life-changing for him and the victory is dedicated to all those who had worked to reform the club and kept it going to this day. Edinburgh goes on to say that this was the best moment of his footballing career, as could probably be seen after his celebration for the second goal!
Focusing on the ‘story’ of the revival of the club, Edinburgh is asked how it was going to be, given after victory today he will have legendary status in the city. He jokes that there will be some celebrating over the next few days and a few people not making it into work come Tuesday! He adds though on a more serious note, that the hard work starts now as League Two is a highly competitive competition. Edinburgh says that being at the club has enabled him to fall back in love with the game after the problems at Rushden & Diamonds which saw the club go into liquidation.
Edinburgh acknowledges that Newport is a ‘special’ club with equally ‘special’ fans and that County was fortunate to have a Chairman in Lee Scadding. He continues that he believes the Chairman will continue to back the club in League Two, but that in order to survive and go forward, Newport needs growth in other areas of investment; stability is vital.
The Newport manager is asked about what he had said to the players at half-time. He responds that he thought they had been nervous, anxious even and wanted to get behind Wrexham too quickly. Edinburgh accepts that Newport had to weather the Wrexham pressure and The Exiles keeper Lenny Pidgeley had to make a couple of saves. However, he continues, with forwards like Jolley and O’Connor you hope they will seize the chances when they come. In relation to Aaron O’Connor, the Newport boss is asked if the introduction of the striker had changed the game. Edinburgh replies that insomuch that when the striker was brought on the game was still 0-0, then the introduction of O’Connor could be seen as pivotal, but ultimately he was part of a team that achieved the result.
Next Edinburgh is asked as to whether the history and story of the club has filtered down through the squad. He replies that he believed that it was essential for the players to know and that it had played a part in providing them with determination and focus.
Staying on the topic of the playing squad, the Newport boss is asked if it will stay together. Edinburgh says that it was never in doubt and that the focus and aim at the start of the season was promotion. He adds that the squad has a great togetherness and that he had spoken to all the players out of contract prior to the Final. Edinburgh continues that having now got promotion, contract discussions would be part of the work over the coming summer.
It was pointed out to The Exiles manager that going into the Play-offs, Newport were, despite finishing third in the league, considered an outside bet. Edinburgh replies that he thought it was harsh that his team were dismissed so easily and it was to some extent disrespectful. Robbie Savage had prior to the Final pledged his support for Wrexham, and Edinburgh says that this was typical of many people outside the game who gave no respect to Newport; he adds all this did was to provide extra motivation for The Exiles.
Edinburgh is next asked if he was preparing for extra-time the longer the game went on at 0-0. He says even though the second-half opened up and became stretched, he honestly felt as if the teams were heading for an extra thirty minutes. However, Edinburgh continues that the game can turn in minutes and that ‘Man of the Match’ Jolley had remained cool, calm and collected when the time came. He also praises Aaron O’Connor who despite being the leading scorer started on the bench, but proved his worth with the second killer goal.
Given his successes as a player at Wembley with Spurs (FA Cup winners and League Cup winners) and now as a manager, Edinburgh is asked what the secret is. He replies that it is a bit of fortune and a lot of positive belief. He adds that ultimately it is down to and about the players. Edinburgh goes on to say that although Newport didn’t win the league, they were never out of the top five all season. He continues that the fixture schedule had done them no favours and had been ridiculous, but that it had worked as motivation for the squad.
In closing the interview Edinburgh says how proud he is to be part of a wonderful season for South Wales.
Even a couple of hours after kick-off it still feels a bit like Newport did a late ‘smash and grab’ raid to win the game today. But is that fair? Looking at the stats of the game, Wrexham edged possession with 54%, whilst both teams had fourteen attempts on goal. Of these though Newport had nine on target to five for Wrexham, but looking back on the game the efforts for The Reds worked the keeper more. Wrexham also had seven corners to just one for Newport, which does confirm the feeling that they mounted more pressure up-front than The Exiles. However, the reality is that the decent chances created by Wrexham weren’t converted and that ultimately Newport were clinical when in that last dramatic part of the Final.
One disappointing aspect of the day was the attendance. Yesterday the FA Vase Final was here at Wembley and attracted a crowd of 16,751, which was bigger than that today (16,346). Since the return to Wembley, crowds for the Play-off have ranged from 35,000 up to 42,500, so the turn-out today was a major disappointment. Various reasons have circulated in the press and internet forums. Some blame ticket prices, whilst others claim that traveling on a Sunday was prohibitive. Throw into the mix that Wrexham had been at Wembley six weeks earlier for the FA Trophy Final and that both sets of fans had only a week’s notice to make the necessary arrangements, and the factors are starting to stack up. It may be that it is simply a one-off and that come next season the 35,000 plus crowd will return. However, what about considering staging all three Conference Finals (Premier, North and South) on the same day with kick-offs at midday, 3.00pm and 6.00pm, with fans having a ticket that entitles them to watch all three games? Wembley could accommodate all the fans, but would mean for segregation purposes that each competing team would have to be allocated different levels and areas; not logistically impossible. Rugby Union and Rugby League both have events where a number of games take place on the same day in the same venue and at which fans from across a range of clubs are accommodated. A Conference Festival of Football Finals?
Some other thoughts about the venue from today, include whether players are still inspired by Wembley when the arena is only a third full? Are the teams nervous and react both positively and negatively because of the occasion or the location? Is it all about the ‘prize’ of promotion and not the venue? So as an example did gaining League status mean any less to AFC Wimbledon because the victory was achieved at the City of Manchester Stadium rather than Wembley? A player wants to play at Wembley, but if that only occasion in his career is on a losing team, then then surely the dream is only partially achieved? Maybe it’s just all about the winning – certainly a Final is no place for losers whether a player or fan.
Finally, it’s been one hell of a season for South Wales, with Swansea City winning the (Capital One) League Cup, Cardiff City winning the Championship and promotion to the Premier League and of course, today Newport County returning to the league after twenty five years. I wonder how many of those 1,627 who witnessed the last League meeting between Wrexham and Newport in March 1988 at The Racecourse Ground sat through the drama today. It’s been some journey, but The Exiles are back!