This season was supposed to be a tough in the Blue Square South, if you listened to the pre-season pundits. Chelmsford City had missed out in the play-offs and were anticipating another championship challenge, Woking, with Wembley appearances and FA Cup giant-killings still comfortably within living memory and had been arguably surprisingly relegated from the Blue Square Premier. Meanwhile, Dover Athletic had swaggered up from the Ryman League, had money behind them and were widely tipped to not want to hang around for too long before launching another promotion bid. Anyone seeing off just those three this season to lift the BSS championship would have achieved something quite siginificant.
Enter stage left, Newport County. The South Wales club came from nowhere this season to storm to the top of the table, and last night they became the first champions of the senior English league system, beating Havant & Waterlooville by two goals to nil and guaranteeing a the league title with seven games of the season left to play. Everywhere you care to look, this season has been a record breaker for The Exiles. They have lost just one of their thirty-five league matches so far this season. They are unbeaten in the league since a defeat at Staines Town at the end of October. Their top scorer, Craig Reid, has scored twenty-five goals in thirty matches in all competitions this season. Last night, they broke their attendance record when 4,221 people crammed into Spytty Park to see them wrap the title up.
When we covered Newport County’s ascent on this site a few weeks ago, we largely covered the past – the death of the old Newport club at the end of the 1980s and its rebirth, which was marred by the Football Association of Wales’ churlish forcing of the club to play in England because they didn’t want to be part of the League of Wales. Still, though, their rise back to the national league stage has been a long and occasionally tortuous one. Indeed, as recently as a little over a year ago the club was staring into a financial abyss, before much of the day-to-day running of the financial side of the club was taken over by the newly-formed Newport County Supporters Trust.
In a little over a year, the NCST has seen its membership swell to over 400 members, and the expertise that its members have been able to bring into the club – they were first brought on board, by their own admission, to “put out fires” – enabled the club to budget properly for the first time, leading to the introduction of several players that now form the backbone of the squad that has swept all before it this season. Manager Dean Holdsworth, who seemed to be a dead man walking after the club had a poor start to last season, has come along in leaps and bounds, spending money wisely and building a cohesive team that mirrors the effective unit that has been taking care of the behind the scenes organisation at the club.
There is a lot of work ahead for the club. Spytty Park requires further development if it is to become a stadium capable of coping with life at a higher level on a week in week out, and the club will have to foster it relationship with the council, who own the stadium, if they are to be able to carry out extensive redevelopment work on it. Also they seem likely to continue to remain part-time in the Blue Square Premier – a sensible move, considering the ongoing problems that smaller clubs with full-time wage budgets have suffered in recent seasons, but one that may mean that they have to cut their cloth accordingly in their new league. Still, there has been enough dead wood in the Blue Square Premier in recent years to mean that they are unlikely to start next season expecting a grim war of attrition in order to stay up.
Such considerations, however, are for another day. For now, the only thing that Newport supporters should be giving any thought to is that, twenty-one years and one month after the original Newport County AFC went to the wall, the new club is back in the league that it was in when it folded in the first place, and only one division from the holy grail of reclaiming their place in the Football League. To do so when so many hurdles were put in their way, when on so many occasions it seemed as if stagnancy would creep into their bid to get back from whence they came, is nothing short of a sensational achievement, and proof – as if it were needed – of the importance of clubs getting their act together off the pitch if they are to succeed upon it. They are worthy champions and deserving of our congratulations.