Many clubs have made emotional returns to the back to the footballing fold but few have been as fitting as the one made by Newport County in 2013. Twenty-five years after their ignominious drop out of the Football League, and subsequent dissolution, centenary-celebrating Newport overcame Welsh rivals Wrexham at Wembley in the Conference play-off final.
Three months later, at age-old Rodney Parade, Newport hosted fellow phoenix club Accrington Stanley to play, and win, their first league game since 1988.
In between, there was another significant fixture for The Ironsides to fulfil, an anniversary match at Carl Zeiss Jena, the score ending 2-2, just as it had when these same two sides met for a European Cup-Winners’ Cup fixture behind the Iron Curtain in 1981. Back then, the Jena side contained a number of GDR internationals, and the two equalising goals by all-time County hero Tommy Tynan represent a high point in the club’s entire history. Jena, too, had fallen on hard times since German Reunification.
As if to add to the somewhat surreal aspect of the re-match, the Newport chairman and major shareholder was lottery winner Les Scadding, who had recently invested part of his £45 million windfall into the club.
Then again, it was no more bizarre than the arrival of a certain Jerry Sherman, from Newport, Washington State, in 1986. Little was known about this American entrepreneur then, and little now, only that he arrived in recession-hit south Wales promising salvation, and left under a cloud, the club bankrupt and auctioning off all its assets, down to a set of black armbands.
Newport had been formed in 1912, with close ties to the Lysaght steelworks and thus Wolverhampton, where much of the original machinery and most of the first employees came from. Adopting the colours of black and amber as worn by Wolverhampton Wanderers, Newport County, as they became known, set up shop at Somerton Park.
Along with the rest of the Southern League, County were elevated to the new Third Division in 1920, soon renamed the Third Division South, where they stayed until 1939. Promotion under former Irish international Billy McCandless was badly timed – after war broke out, players left in droves and Newport sank to the Third, and later the Fourth, Division.
Re-elected four times, The Ironsides revived under former Sunderland stalwart Len Ashurst, who signed fellow Scousers Tommy Tynan and John Aldridge as a lethal strike duo. Newport finished a creditable eighth in 1979 then gained promotion to the Third a year later, winning the Welsh Cup over Shrewsbury that May with two goals at Somerton Park from terrace hero Tynan, then another in the away leg.
The luck of the draw, offering opponents Crusaders then SK Haugar, losing finalists in their domestic cup competitions in Northern Ireland and Norway, allowed Newport to progress to the quarter-finals of the Cup-Winners’ Cup. Due to face Benfica in the semis, The Ironsides surprised three-time East German champions Carl Zeiss Jena with Tommy Tynan twice found an equaliser before a full house at the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld.
Back at Somerton Park, the tie was settled with a solitary goal from defender Lothar Kurbjuweit, a member of the GDR side that famously beat West Germany at the 1974 World Cup.
With Colin Addison returning to replace Ashurst, Tynan and Aldridge wreaked havoc on Third Division defences in 1982-83, pushing Newport up to fourth place, one off promotion. The season was also memorable for County’s 1-0 win over Bournemouth, who fielded George Best in his last ever stint in the Football League.
Tynan and Aldridge were duly sold, Aldridge to become a star at Anfield. Newport slipped down the table, fell into ever more debt, before successive relegations saw the club fall out of the League altogether. By February 1989, the club was no more.
Months later, adopting the name Newport AFC and the nickname The Exiles, the fan-backed revived club joined and won the Hellenic League while based at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire.
Returning to Somerton Park, then moving out to Gloucester City, nomadic Newport competed in the Southern League while taking on the Welsh FA to re-establish themselves back in Wales. Moving into the new-build Newport Stadium in 1994, part of a municipal sports complex, The Ironsides climbed up to the Southern League Premier and regained the name ‘County’ in 1999.
Joining the inaugural Conference South five years later, County were crowned champions in 2010, putting the club within one division of The 92.
Despite a shaky start, everything fell into place within a few short weeks in 2012. County marked their centenary with an appearance in the FA Trophy final at Wembley. The club also announced a move to the venerable rugby ground of Rodney Parade, near the city centre and train station, the timing soon to coincide with lottery winner Les Scadding coming on board with his millions.
Under Justin Edinburgh, strikers Christian Jolley and Aaron O’Connor scored the goals to take Newport into a play-off place in the Conference Premier, followed by another Wembley trip, this time for a first-ever all-Welsh clash. Wrexham looked like winning the prized berth in the Football League until two late goals from Jolley and O’Connor reversed 25 years of exile for The Ironsides. County were back in the Football League.
Taking Newport into play-off contention for League One in 2015, Justin Edinburgh was poached by Gillingham, before the club’s supporters’ trust assumed ownership from sun-seeking Scadding. Staying up by the skin of their teeth in 2016-17, the so-called Great Escape keeping County two points above the drop, Newport are now looking to old boy Mike Flynn, who started and ended his playing career in black-and-amber, to lead the way to League One. Spearheaded the charge is former West Ham striker Frank Nouble.
A prominent sports venue since 1877 and currently home to two rugby clubs, Rodney Parade has hosted Newport County since the memorable season of 2012-13. Owned and operated by the Welsh Rugby Union, it could never replace long-demolished Somerton Park, but for a centrally located venue of just under 8,000 capacity for football, it suits County’s purposes adequately. A new pitch, combining natural grass and artificial fibres, should improve an overworked and much criticised playing surface.
Around it, is a hotch-potch of open terracing, seating and facilities for all tenants, penned in by residential housing. On the Rodney Road side nearest the city centre, the Hazell Stand comprises roofed standing at the front and seats at the back. Opposite, home and away fans share the Bisley Stand, visiting supporters gaining access to block F via gate 6 on Corporation Road nearest the pre-match pubs on Chepstow Road.
There’s also an overflow of open seating, the PureVans.com Stand, for away fans behind the south goal nearest their section of the Bisley Stand. The north goal, aka Town End, is a modest open terrace backdropped by various local landmarks.
Rodney Parade is easily walkable from Newport’s train or bus stations, by taking the bridge by Newport Castle over the Usk, then first right into Rodney Parade (or carrying on to Chepstow Road for the pre-match pubs). Alternatively, more conveniently for coach travellers, you can walk along the water past The Riverfront theatre keeping Friars Walk shopping centre to your right, then ove the footbridge to the left.
The satnav code for Rodney Parade is NP19 0UU.
There’s no parking at the stadium itself, but limited and random street parking nearby, look out for the restriction signs. Council-run Maindee car park (NP19 8EE) has 40 spots on Chepstow Road before the Godfrey Morgan pub, £2 for up to five hours, cash only from the machines.
On the town side of the river, there are 350 spaces in the Friars Walk shopping centre (£2.40/2-3hrs), plus the NCP multi-storey car park Newport High Street by the castle before the bridge.
Advance tickets are sold online or from the outlet near the clubhouse at the north/town end of the ground. Opening hours usually follow those of the club shop alongside, Thur-Fri 10am-7pm and match days 10am-kick off then 30min after final whistle, extended in the run-up to any big cup game.
Admission is also sold on the day, cash-only, £20 to sit in the Bisley or Hazell Stands, £18 to stand on the Hazell Terrace. Seniors pay £16 to sit or stand, 16-21s £14/£12. Admission is £8 for 12-15s, £6 for 6-11s. Under-6s enter free.
Away fans have their own cash-only outlet by gate 6, admission £18, the same reductions at £16-£6, free for under-6s.
The modest club shop (Thur-Fri 10am-7pm, match days 10am-kick off then 30min after final whistle) at the north/town end of the ground stocks classic home amber tops, River Plate-style away shirts in white with a red sash and third kit in black.
Other merchandise includes ‘Great Escape’ DVDs, telling the tale of Newport’s miraculous recovery in 2016-17 to avoid the drop, branded anti-stress balls should the same happen again, and T-shirts emblazoned with club mascot Spytty the Dog.
Most pre-drinking options line Chepstow Road, a little further down from the bridge as you approach from the station. City-centre pubs are also within easy reach.
On either side of the river, away fans are reasonably safe in colours and served in pubs, though should exercise caution in venues closest to the ground.
The first pub you come to is rugby-focused The Dodger, with sport of both codes on TV and a decent kitchen. Opposite, the Clarence Club welcomes home and away fans on most match days, with no entry fee and sport screened – although admission policies may change for high-risk fixtures.
Further down Chepstow Road, The Godfrey Morgan in the Wetherspoons chain provides an easy option, while a turn up nearby Albert Avenue to the junction with Duckpool Road brings you to the friendly Royal Albert, with TV sport and affordable pub grub.
If you’re approaching the ground from the footbridge, you’ll see Horton’s Coffee House on the stadium side, no hotbed of football fever but a convivial spot offering cakes, soups and pizzas, bottled ales (Black Sheep, Fursty Ferret) and beers (Peroni, Tiger, Sol), handy if you’re with the kids on match day.
At the ground, the Clubhouse in the home end usually admits away fans, who also have their own little bar inside gate 6.