Today is a good news day. Lewes Football Club has paid HMRC and dodged the bullet of their winding up order. It’s time, then, to take a look back just over twenty years to the death of Newport County AFC, and how they rebuilt to a position from which they might just get promotion back into the league from which they were expelled in the first place.
Which senior football team in the English pyramid is the furthest clear at the top of its division at the moment? Dartford are having an excellent season in the Isthmian League Premier Division and Windsor & Eton have a double figure lead at the top of the Southern League Division One South & West, but the team with the biggest lead going into the second half of the 2009/10 football season are a blast from the icier extremities of football’s past – Newport County AFC. It is almost twenty-one years since Newport were wound up at the High Court. They had been relegated from the Football League eighteen months earlier after a swift fall from grace, and their revival was a prototype for those whose clubs are currently staring down the barrel of a gun.
Newport County were one of the mass of clubs that swept into the Football League upon the creation of the Divisions Three North and South in 1920. Their early years were not characterised by great success. They had to wait until 1939 before winning promotion to Division Two for the first time. The outbreak of war rudely interrupted life in their new division, and it was a completely different team that played out the 1946/47 team, getting relegated and setting a Football League record in losing 13-0 to Newcastle United into the bargain. When the Football League reorganised the regional Third Divisions into Division Three and Division Four in 1958 the club were placed into the higher of the two, but they relegated again in 1962.
Their emergence from the Fourth Division in 1980 was the beginning of a brief golden period for the club. Under the managership of Len Ashurst and with a front line led by Tommy Tynan and a young John Aldridge, they were promoted into Division Three and in 1981 won the Welsh Cup for the first and only time. This win put them into the European Cup Winners Cup the following season, where they beat Crusaders of Northern Ireland and Haugar of Norway before being pitted against Carl Zeiss Jena of East Germany in the quarter-finals of the competition. A heroic 2-2 draw away in the first leg seemed to set them up nicely to keep the run going but, with Aldridge injured, they lost the home leg 1-0 in front of a crowd of over 18,000 at Somerton Park.
It was at this point that the story started to turn a little sour. Ashurst was sacked in February 1982, and the following season the club narrowly missed out on promotion into Division Two when , having led the table at Easter, their form fell apart and they managed just a solitary win and a solitary draw from their final seven matches. Soon, after the backbone of the team started to break up. Tynan was sold to Plymouth Argyle in 1983 and Aldridge left for Oxford United for a fee of £78,000 the following season. By the middle of the decade, the club was starting to slip into financial difficulties, and in 1986 Jerry Sherman arrived at the club.
Sherman was a brash American, and he talked big. He wanted to move County from their decrepit Somerton Park home and into a new stadium, but instead he oversaw the destruction of the club. Players went unpaid and the club was relegated from Division Three in 1987. The following season, the club fell out of the Football League after sixty-eight years, picking up a miserable twenty-five points and conceding over a hundred goals on the way. All the time, debts were being racked up. The drop into non-league football was the killer blow for the club. Wages had been high, and the club sold Somerton Park back to the local council to clear some of their debts.
Meanwhile, in a time before the internet made such information readily accessible, the truth about Sherman’s past was slowly starting to become apparent. Collapsed businesses in Canada, fraud and police investigations started to come to light. By the time that this started to become clear, though, it was too late for Newport County. Rudderless and with crowds having dropped to three figures, County didn’t even last to the end of their first season in the Football Conference and they were wound up at the High Court in February 1989 with debts of £330,000. Sherman continued to protest that he was trying to save the club, but his legacy was the death of the football club.
A new club was founded during the summer of 1989, but their problems didn’t end there. Named Newport AFC, they had to play their first season seventy miles from home in the Gloucestershire town of Moreton-in-the-Marsh (earning themselves the nickname “The Exiles” in the process), but they then moved back to Somerton Park for two years in the Southern League before the Football Association of Wales attempted to railroad them into joining the all-new League of Wales. Forced back into England to play at Gloucester, they became one of the “Irate Eight” – the eight clubs that took the FAW over the right to play in Wales as part of the English system. They won their case, and returned to Newport in 1994 at the newly-built Newport Stadium. They were promoted into the Southern League Premier Division in 1995, and were relegated and promoted back at the end of the last century. In 1999, they changed their name back to Newport County, and have been members of the Conference South since its inauguration in 2004.
This season, something has clicked. After a poor start to last season under new manager Dean Holdsworth, it seemed unlikely at times that he would even last his first season in charge of the club out. The team, however, recovered to a mid-table place, Holdsworth kept his job and Newport County supporters are probably, at this stage, thanking their lucky stars that they did. This season promised to be a competitive one in the Conference South, with Woking hoping for a quick route back up after their relegation from the Conference National, Hampton & Richmond Borough having only narrowly missed out on promotion narrowly in last season’s play-offs, Dover Athletic moneyed and ambitious after having won the Isthmian League Division One South and Premier Division in successive seasons and Chelmsford City continuing to lurk menacingly. A tight battle for the championship might have been expected.
So far, Newport have only lost one match this season, away at Staines Town in November. Since then, they have won ten of their eleven league matches and local support has risen accordingly, with crowds now regularly topping 2,000 for home matches. They’re also still in with half a chance of a place at Wembley, as they are still in the FA Trophy after a 1-0 win at Farnborough in the First Round of that competition. At the time of writing, they sit fourteen points clear of second placed Woking, and they have at least one game in hand on each of the three teams immediately below them in the table. Only fifth-placed Braintree Town have a game in hand on them and, should Braintree win that game, the gap will still be… fourteen points.
There is, of course, still time for them to lose it and the stronger teams in the division will continue to breathe down their necks for a while yet. Should they hold their nerve, however, they will be back, after twenty-one years, in the league that they were members of when they suddenly collapsed. They may have to wait a while before getting the chance to meet their old rivals from Cardiff and Swansea as equals again, but the possibility of league matches against Wrexham next season may set some pulses racing and promotion into the Football Conference will leave a return to the Football League within tantalising reach. Should they manage that, then they will really have managed something special.