Rodney Parade | Burger Bargains and Missed Opportunities

Hartlepool player on the touchline at Rodney Parade

Newport County 2-3 Hartlepool United

📍 Rodney Parade | Newport, Wales
🏆 EFL League Two
⚽ England (Tier 4)
📅 Fri 18 Mar 22 | 7.45pm
🎟️ £22 | Att: 4,768

In my opinion, Friday night games are one of football’s most underrated ventures – especially in the lower reaches of the pyramid.

Crowds tend to be bigger (particularly if any nearby bigger fish are playing on the Saturday), pubs tend to be fuller, and, let’s face it, any excuse for floodlights is a welcome one. Which is why, this evening, the old man and I find ourselves heading to a game in the relatively uncharted territory of Newport city centre. 

We initially opt for a pre-match tipple at the Queen’s on Bridge Street, but make a swift U-turn when it’s clear that the only choice is Birra Morretti or… well, Birra Morretti. Not to be deterred, though, we head back onto the High Street and brave the sea of reserved tables (and tinny, distorted speakers) in Tiny Rebel for an Afghan Pale Ale (5.4% ABV). It’s a little too light and fruity for my taste (the two or three pints of Butty Bach I consume in The Junction after the match are far more aligned to my palette), but it’s a fair loosener for the 10 or so minute walk to the ground.

Heading through the subway past Newport Castle, and on to the opposite banks of the broad river Usk, Newport could, for a fleeting moment, be a central European capital. It has, much like Swansea, often played second fiddle to the capital Cardiff, both in terms of financial investment and cultural relevance, but that’s not to say that this region is starved of significance. After all, Kurt Cobain allegedly proposed to Courtney Love outside the city’s legendary rock club, TJ’s, while the 2010 Ryder Cup was hosted at the Celtic Manor resort a few miles up the M4. And in recent years, the city’s football club has been making waves of its own, too.

One Club, Several Homes

Not that it’s always been plain sailing here. As is (depressingly) common at this level, financial mismanagement means that the current Newport County is a different entity to the one originally formed in 1912.

Unlike most clubs to suffer such fates, though, Newport also faced additional hurdles in the early stages of its rebirth; after being reformed by supporters in 1989, the club was then effectively exiled to Gloucestershire by the Football Association of Wales (FAW). A protracted legal battle followed (built upon the pretence of coercing County into the then-fledgling League of Wales), before the club was finally able to return to Newport in 1994 with a brand new nickname: the Exiles.

Since then, the club has been treading far more stable ground. So stable, in fact, that under the guidance of rookie manager James Rowberry (one of the youngest-ever recipients of the UEFA Pro License, no less), it now sits on the verge of promotion to League One. Heading into the ground, most fans seem reticent to focus on this, their hesitance perhaps justified by two lost play-off finals under previous manager and club legend Mike Flynn. But you get the feeling that tonight’s game is a crucial one, with the club even authorising a one-off pre-match firework display to mirror the sense of occasion.

Rodney Parade

Hartlepool, meanwhile, are also on an upwards, if not gentler, curve after a four-season hiatus in non-league. Sitting comfortably in mid-table, the Monkey Hangers (a moniker borne of appropriately bizarre circumstances) may now be short of a realistic play-off challenge, but are building strong foundations following former defender Graeme Lee’s appointment in December. I’m intrigued to see former Cardiff striker Omar Bogle in the starting XI, too – a player that the Bluebirds forked out some £1m for in 2017.

A Ground For All Occasions

Rodney Parade is, of course, one of several stadiums that have hosted Newport County in recent decades, following previous stints at Somerton Park and Spytty Park. But, despite County’s arrival in 2012, this ground is still very much rugby territory; owned and operated by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), its primary tenants are – and always have been – Newport RFC and the regional Dragons outfit.

In recent years, this has caused a whole host of practical issues, particularly in regards to the state of the pitch (indeed, things got so bad last season that County had to play two games at the Cardiff City Stadium). But these problems are now being addressed, with Newport RFC agreeing to play just two games per season at Rodney Parade, and the WRU installing a 4G playing surface in the summer of 2021.

So far, this is seemingly having the desired effect for the city’s round-ball representatives (the Dragons, conversely, have won just once this season). During February and March – usually the period where the wheels tend to fall off – County have made a habit of winning games, guided by the relentless goalscoring form of summer acquisition Dom Telford. And with the prospect of climbing into second place with a win tonight, it’s all set up to be the Exiles’ night.

Goals Galore at Rodney Parade

The script is seemingly being followed, too, when Bogle’s own goal from a set piece gives the home team the lead in the 15th minute. But Hartlepool are positive on the ball, with marauding wing backs Jamie Sterry and David Ferguson causing plenty of problems; it’s the former that gets the visitors back on level terms in the 35th minute, gliding through the static County defence and slotting calmly under Newport keeper Joe Day.

On the stroke of half time, Ferguson then goes on a winding run of his own, picking out Luke Molyneux to finish coolly, and it’s suddenly difficult to see how County are going to get back into the match.

This nervousness is reflected by the wild ranting of a lone Newport fan some 10 or so rows back. Indeed, for 90 minutes, our entire block is invited to consume this relentless verbal diarrheoa, an obnoxious brew of twitchy observation and brainless nonsense. He berates the Pools fans – whose dedication for making this 600-mile round trip warrants nothing but respect – for celebrating their team’s goal, before launching into a one-man rendition of “we’re going to win 4-2 and go second in the league”. At no point does anybody tell your man to shut up, suggesting that the regulars have pursued this approach previously sans success.

Newport striker Rob Street equalises in the 71st minute after some fine work by the lively James Waite and, for a minute, it seems as though our hero’s premonition has got some legs. A minute is all this equilibrium lasts, though, as Pools centre back Neill Byrne finds himself unmarked at the back post to nod home in almost instant response. This is how it stays, with growing frustration around the slow, sideways nature of Newport’s build-up play; a young lad nearby remarks that “when you go backwards, you don’t get anything”, and it’s hard to argue with the assessment.

The night is not a total write-off; upon leaving the ground, we secure two delicious double bacon cheeseburgers for £2 a pop, and the usually gluttonous NCP ticket machine requires only seven of our hard-earned British pounds.

But it’s certainly a missed opportunity for Newport County, if not quite a killer blow. It seems to me that the city is forging a new, modern identity for itself, and this is mirrored in the growth and progression of its football team, and promotion is still very much on the cards. There’s plenty of twists and turns to come over the next eight games, as the Exiles carry on rediscovering their relationship with home.

Newport travel to Mark Hughes’ Bradford next Saturday, while Hartlepool have another chance to shake up the play-offs when they travel to Northampton Town.

Postscript: The apprehension of Newport’s fans turned out to be justified, with the club falling away badly from the play-off race. They would eventually finish in 11th place after a dismal end to the season. Hartlepool consolidated their Football League status, finishing comfortably in 17th place.