Life at the bottom with one of Britain's worst teams: Newport County
NEWPORT, Wales -- "No!" screams a Newport County fan in anguish as the ball bounces unevenly in the six-yard box, as welcome a sight as a rat in the bath. "Nooooooo!"
There is a desperate melee of muddy legs, a distant thud of leather on leather, the ball pops up... and careens harmlessly away for a throw-in. The man -- sensible hair, sensible jacket, driven insensible by frustration with his team -- exhales loudly and shakes his head wryly. Too close. Far too close.
The margins for Newport County are narrowing. At the start of Tuesday's game, they were 91st of 92 Football League clubs, with only crisis club Leyton Orient beneath them. They are marooned in the relegation zone of the fourth flight of the Football League, making them nominally "the second-worst team" in English -- Newport is in Wales but the club plays in the English system -- professional football, and they began the match against Luton seven points adrift of safety with only nine fixtures left. Too much of the season has passed for points to be squandered so late in the night. But they are still fighting.
And are fighting back against Luton after conceding a fourth-minute penalty: another silly spot kick, the 19th to be scored against them this season. Newport have levelled through a glorious Sean Rigg free kick, they have pushed for a winner, they have been denied by a magnificent one-handed Matt Macey save, they have shrugged off the late red card shown to their impressive defender Mark O'Brien. They have not come this far and given this much to concede a scrappy late goal and lose the game.
At any other stage in the season, a point against fifth-placed, promotion-chasing Luton Town would be a good result. But the games are running out, with the maw of nonleague football gaping underneath them. They need a win. Defeat would be too cruel.
Where to start with Newport County?
All football teams offer their supporters up and downs but the peaks and troughs are rarely as stomach swirling as they have been here. This is the perennially lower-league club that reached the quarterfinals of the now-defunct European Cup Winners Cup in 1981, eventually succumbing to a combination of bad luck and East German prowess when they met Carl Zeiss Jena. Eight years later, it's the club that tumbled, debt-ridden, into nonleague just seven years after those European heroics, vanishing in a puff of IOU notes in 1989 before reforming as a grassroots phoenix.
But this is also the club that was propelled back into the Football League by the most unlikely soap opera storyline: local lottery winner Les Scadding. He ploughed a chunk of his fortune into the club in 2012 and was rewarded with promotion. But in 2015, he retired to spend more time with his family in his beach house in Barbados. Entirely understandable. Thus, the club came into the hands of the supporters' trust.
"We owe him a great debt," chairman Malcolm Temple told ESPN FC before the game.
Board member Shaun Johnson was at the centre of the handover: "If we didn't have an input of finance quite quickly, then it wouldn't sustain us through the season. Les fully endorsed the trust taking over, supported us and was happy to push the agreement through. The biggest challenge for the trust at the time was mobilising quickly enough to make sure we got the finance in place to get the Football League to sign it off, all in a very short period. We managed to raise £250,000 in a month to meet that target."
For many supporters, the prospect of taking over in the boardroom of your favourite football club is a dream scenario, but there is wry laughter at that suggestion from those involved.
"I think it puts a lot of pressure on you as a supporter," says Johnson, a lifelong Newport fan. "You need to show more detachment than when you're a fan. You can't be as emotional. You have to control yourself."
"The biggest change I've found is that I can't tell my friends what's going on," says Temple, a supporter since 1951. "I will tell them if it's general knowledge but a lot of what we do isn't just strategic; it's commercial. I can't discuss what the goalkeeper gets paid or whether I think he's any good."
This is no easy ride for the board and there is little time to enjoy their position. The league table is only the start of their problems. They are merely tenants at Rodney Parade, sharing their pitch with two rugby union teams. The pitch, even by the variable standards of League Two, is a rugged, hideous mess of a playing surface suitable only for the growth of root vegetables. A third-party report concluded that it was unsustainable for three sports teams to use the same surface and it's hard to disagree.
In dry conditions, you can see why the ball is always kicked high in the air: there's a serious risk that it would burst if it ever touched the ground. But when it rains, as it does so often in this part of South Wales, what little remains of the grass is quickly churned into a thick, muddy soup. There's no point trying to play progressive football.
If that wasn't bad enough, this week the owners of Rodney Parade announced the sale of the ground to the Welsh Rugby Union. Newport County's lease runs until 2023 but there is great uncertainty within the club as to what happens after that. They may soon be on the move again.
There is transition in the dugout, too. Caretaker boss Michael Flynn is the sixth manager in two years. The last manager, Graham Westley, left after a 4-0 defeat to Leyton Orient and responded to his dismissal with an eye-popping column in the Football League Paper that alleged malicious leaks from the boardroom to the local news. "No manager should work in an environment where that stuff is going on," he wrote.
In the boardroom, there is respect for Westley and sadness at the poor results. Much was expected from the man who had led Stevenage Borough to back-to-back promotions, but there is obvious underlying tension and a desire from both sides to move on.
There's no disguising the change in mood on the pitch. Newport won five games all season under Westley, a tenure that concluded with the thrashing by Orient, but caretaker boss Flynn won his first two games and was unfortunate not to take something from the previous weekend's clash with Blackpool.
No one could accuse these players of having lost heart. Common sense, certainly, as proved when Sid Nelson is caught out by a quick throw and fells Danny Hylton in the penalty area for the early penalty. But not heart.
On the touchline for only the fourth time as a manager, Flynn urges his players on regardless.
"He's a real committed man," chairman Temple tells ESPN FC before kickoff. "He's good, he's respectful, he gets the club. He understands the hurt that's inside us all. I personally hope that he succeeds and we can turn him from a caretaker manager to a permanent manager."
The rain that battered Newport in the afternoon mercifully subsides before kickoff and thanks to the efforts of the ground staff who meticulously fork drainage holes across the entire pitch, the surface just about holds up. Luton are clearly the technically superior team but they can't settle even after they take the lead. And while there are only 2,304 fans in attendance, they make the noise of many more. Newport even boast that rarest of attributes in British football: a talented drummer with a range of styles and speeds.
"The fans have been brilliant again," said Flynn afterwards. "I'll be honest: when we walked in after the warm-up I thought it was going to be a very low crowd and then I came back out and they must have all just run from the boozer because it seemed to have doubled. The crowd were brilliant, the fans are special and I'm just glad they're fully behind the team and the team are giving them something to shout about now."
With the score still locked at 1-1, for all Newport's efforts, Luton should really take the lead on the hour, missing a free header at Joe Day's far post. But Newport's Tom Owen-Evans has the best opportunity to score with 20 minutes to go, racing onto a neat through ball only to be denied by a Macey save that would draw gasps of disbelief if it were made by Gianluigi Buffon.
That brings the small, but defiant crowd to their feet. The pitch may be rotten and legs may be tiring, but they can sense a chance here. As long as nothing else goes wrong.
In the 80th minute, something else goes wrong. Joss Labadie goes down in the Luton box but wins himself only a yellow card for simulation. Sixty seconds later, another grievous blow. O'Brien is shown a second yellow for a mistimed challenge as Luton break across the halfway line. Both decisions look sound, but the fans are livid, the drum beats to the shout of, "CHEAT! CHEAT! CHEAT!" and you only hope that the referee has parked his car somewhere safe.
Still, Newport push for the winner, going close twice through the vibrant Swansea loanee Alex Samuel and once through substitute Marlon Jackson. And then, deep into injury-time, Luton break and the ball ricochets around in the Newport 6-yard box, causing supporters to howl with anxiety. The match, the night, maybe the whole season, teeters on the edge of the precipice. But the ball is cleared.
The referee blows for fulltime and Newport have a point. Just the one. On and off the pitch, they face a gruelling battle. The supporters stay to applaud their players' efforts and then quickly vanish into the night as the rain sets in again. Outside the dressing room, local reporters exchange rueful smiles. It's a good result. It's a good performance. But will it be enough to save Newport from the drop?
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.