The Newport County Story
NEWPORT COUNTY, originally nicknamed The Ironsides due to Newport being home to Lysaght’s Orb Works steelworks, started out in the Southern League in 1912 at Somerton Park, embarking upon a rollercoaster existence in which they have experienced financial problems, a painful rebirth and frequent flirtations with re-election and relegation.
County were originally formed due to some football-fanatic steelworkers who had migrated to south Wales from Birmingham and weren’t interested in rugby which was the sport of choice for the locals. Almost entirely made up of Wolverhampton Wanderers fans, the steelworkers opted for amber as their team colour and began playing on fields opposite their workplace.
They started life in the Southern League before being invited to become founder members of the Football League Third Division in 1920. They failed re-election in 1931, but were elected back into the Football League the next year.
County struggled for the next few seasons, but eventually went on to be crowned Third Division South champions in 1938–39.
World War II meant they had to wait until the 1946-47 season to take their place in the Second Division, though they were relegated at the end of the campaign. They were relegated out of the Third Division in 1962.
The 1980s heralded both the brightest and darkest moments in Newport County’s history. Len Ashurst was manager from 1978 to 1982, the most successful period in the club’s history, coming under the chairmanship of Richard Ford.
In the 1979–80 season, under Ashurst, they secured promotion out of the Fourth Division and won the Welsh Cup for the first time.
The team of that time included a young John Aldridge who later became one of the most prolific goal-scorers in English football history, best known for helping Liverpool win the First Division title in 1988 and the FA Cup in 1989.
Also in the promotion-winning team was Tommy Tynan, one of the leading lower-league strikers of his era, who scored the all-important goal that sealed County’s promotion.
Youth team products Steve Lowndes and Nigel Vaughan went on to attain international caps for Wales.
Winning the Welsh Cup entitled County to play in the 1980–81 season European Cup Winners’ Cup. The first round against Crusaders of Northern Ireland was won 4–0 on aggregate. The second round against SK Haugar of Norway was even more convincing: after a 0–0 draw away, the home leg was won 6–0, taking the club into the quarter-finals to face star-studded Carl Zeiss Jena FC of East Germany.
Aldridge was injured for both matches against the Germans, though he was a non-playing substitute in the second leg. The quarter-final away leg was drawn 2–2 with Tynan scoring both goals, including an equaliser in the 90th minute. However, despite dominating the home leg, Newport lost 1–0 in front of 18,000 fans at Somerton Park, denying them a high-profile semi-final with Benfica. Carl Zeiss Jena went on to be the eventual Cup runners-up, losing the final to Dinamo Tbilisi of the Soviet Union.
In the 1982–83 season Colin Addison, in his second spell as manager, led Newport County to their highest post-War league finish – fourth in the Third Division. Huddersfield were promoted to the Second Division, along with champions Portsmouth and local rivals Cardiff City. County had actually gone top of the table in early April after a 1–0 win over Cardiff in front of 16,052 fans at Somerton Park, but a return of only four points from the last seven games meant County missed out on promotion.
Despite reaching the Welsh Cup final again under John Lewis in 1987, County were relegated from the Third Division and in 1988 finished bottom of the Fourth Division with a mere 25 points, meaning that their 60-season stay in the Football League was over. They failed to finish their first season in the Conference and the debt-ridden club finally went out of business in February 1989. They were then expelled from the Conference for failing to fulfil their fixtures.
The club was reformed three months later as Newport AFC, created by a group of County supporters, but the new team was initially unable to play at their home ground Somerton Park, so picked up the nickname of the ‘Exiles’. Newport Council denied AFC use of Somerton Park, arguing that the new club was really Newport County in disguise trying to sneak back into the ground from which the old club had been evicted for non-payment of rent and rates. Ironically, at the same time, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) claimed Newport AFC had no connection with the old club and denied them sanction to play in Wales in the Football League pyramid.
The infant club eventually received an offer of a place in the Hellenic League in the Football League pyramid, becoming a Gloucestershire-based club and ground-shared with Moreton Town. The Cotswold Town of Moreton in Marsh is 85 miles from Newport, so home games were further away that many of the team’s away fixtures. Nevertheless, AFC took over 400 fans on a “magical mystery tour of the Cotswolds” and cheered the Exiles to a League and Cup double.
So, for the 1990/91 season, Newport returned in triumph to their home town. Promoted to the Beazer Homes League, the FAW could no longer deny the club sanction, while the Council stepped back from their position of denying use of Somerton Park. At a cost of more than £20,000 and untold hours of voluntary labour to prepare the neglected and vandalised old ground for the BHL, Newport AFC went on to enjoy two seasons of consolidation – until being forced into exile once again.
The FAW launched the League of Wales and invited the eight Welsh clubs playing in the Football League pyramid to join it. Newport, with its sights set on a return to the Football League, were once again denied sanction after refusing the offer. The team now de-camped to Gloucester, a mere 50 miles away, to be followed into exile by Colwyn Bay, Caernarfon Town and, briefly, Barry Town. After two years of fruitless attempts at negotiation, which involved football governing bodies UEFA and FIFA, the Welsh Assembly and the two Houses of Parliament, Newport AFC and the two north Wales clubs successfully took the FAW to the High Court on Restraint of Trade.
Once again, Newport returned home in triumph, this time to 4,300 capacity Spytty Park in Lliswerry for the beginning of the 1994-95 Conference South season. as, by now, Somerton Park had been demolished and redeveloped as a housing estate.
Ten years on from being reformed, and after being advised that no one could chase the club for Newport County’s historical debts, the fans were asked if they wanted to change the club’s name. Following a vote, the name Newport County AFC was adopted, combining the old and the new.
Further promotions followed and the club, after two periods of enforced exile across the border in England and three visits to the High Court, finally fulfilled its mission of restoring League football to its home town following a 25-year absence by winning the Conference National play-off final in 2013.
As Spytty Park was not up to League standards, Newport agreed to share Rodney Parade with Newport Rugby Club and the Dragons regional rugby union side, playing on a newly-installed Desso hybrid pitch.
Rodney Parade is where Newport County AFC went on to complete the 2016-17 ‘Great Escape’ when, amid a flurry of managerial comings and goings, County went from 11 points adrift at the bottom of League Two to a remarkable recovery which saw them avoid relegation, sealed on the final day of the season with a 2–1 victory at home against Notts County.
They have also gained a fearsome reputation in domestic cup competitions with results like the 2–1 home win over Championship club Leeds United in the FA Cup third round in 2018. and the home 1-1 draw with Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur in round four.
Newport continued their FA Cup exploits the following season as they won their home third round tie against Premier League club Leicester City 2–1 and drew away against Championship club Middlesbrough before winning the home replay 2–0 to progress to the most high-profile fixture in their modern history, a fifth round home fixture against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City on February 16, 2019.
County lost the match 4–1 with striker Pádraig Amond scoring a late goal. Amond finished the competition as joint-top scorer with City striker Gabriel Jesus. Newport finished the 2018–19 season in seventh place in League Two, thus qualifying for the League Two play-offs. In the semi-final against Mansfield Town, Newport drew the first leg 1–1 at home, drew the second leg 0–0 at Mansfield, but then won the subsequent penalty shoot-out. In the League Two play-off final at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2019, Newport lost to Tranmere Rovers 1–0, after a goal in the 119th minute.
Newport also reached the semi-final of the EFL Trophy for the first time in February 2020, losing to Salford City on penalties.
In September 2020, Newport County beat Championship club Watford 3–1 at home in the third round of the EFL Cup to reach the fourth round for the first time in the club’s history. Newport were drawn at home to Premier League club Newcastle United in the fourth round and, after drawing 1–1 in normal time, Newcastle won the penalty shoot-out.
Newport again reached the third round of the 2020-21 FA Cup to face Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion at home and only lost on penalties having held the Seagulls 1–1 after extra time.
Newport finished the season in fifth place in League Two and again qualified for the play-offs. They beat Forest Green Rovers 5–4 on aggregate to reach the play-off final for the second time in three seasons. Morecambe beat Newport 1–0 in the final at Wembley Stadium after Carlos Mendes Gomes converted a penalty in the 107th minute.
(with thanks to Newport County AFC, David Hando, Tim Thraves and Chris Shingler)