Play-Off Weekend, Part 1: There Can Only Be One Winner

End of season play-offs have a distinct feel to them, and in recent years that feeling has increasingly started to smell of desperation. But in a culture which venerates money considerably more than it does football, so much as the presence of Newport County and Tranmere Rovers in the League Two play-off final at Wembley this afternoon is somewhat unexpected. Newport County, a football club that died during the 1980s before being reborn and clambering back to Football League status, and Tranmere Rovers, second tier inhabitants who drifted down through the divisions and eventually out of the Football League altogether before finding their way back at the end of last season.

The fate of Newport County might be considered a parable for the generally terrible condition in which football in this country found itself during the second half of the 1980s. Newport had started the decade with the most successful period in their history, winning promotion from the Fourth Division and the Welsh Cup in 1980, before reaching the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners Cup the following year, losing on aggregate to the East German side Carl Zeiss Jena after having drawn the first leg away from home. A fourth place finish in Division Three the following season was their highest league position since winning the Division Three South title in 1939. It might have been even better, too. 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, dropping just outside of the promotion places.

Soon after, the backbone of the team started to break up. Newport’s success had been built on a foundation of goals from strikers Tommy Tynan and John Aldridge, but 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. The drop into non-league football was the killer blow for the club. Wages had been high, and the club had to sell 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 out. Collapsed businesses in Canada, fraud, and police investigations started to come to light.

By the time this became common knowledge, 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. He was imprisoned in Canada in 2007 for defrauding the parents of a junior ice hockey team. A new club, called Newport AFC until 1999, was formed in 1990, but the club had to play its first season seventy miles from home after the local council, who believed the new club to be a continuation of the old, refused them permission to play at Somerton Park.

After two years back in Newport, the club was forced back into exile as one of the “Irate Eight”, the clubs who protested being rail-roaded into the brand new League of Wales. After winning their High Court case, the club returned to the municipally-owned Newport Stadium. The club reached the National League in 2010, winning promotion into the Football League via the play-offs in 2013. Life back in the Football League, however, hasn’t always been easy. Despite earning a reputation as cup giant-killers over the last couple of years, the club has struggled financially, eventually being transferred into the ownership of its supporters trust after lottery-winning former chairman Les Scadding left the club in the summer of 2015.

The 2016/17 season saw a “great escape” at the other end of the table. It began with Warren Feeney in charge of the team. He was replaced Graham Westley, but by March County were  bottom of the table and a 4-0 home thrashing by another relegation candidate, Leyton Orient, was enough for Westley to go and for Michael Flynn to be promoted from first team coach to first team manager. The following day, Wayne Hatswell joined him as coach and veteran former Charlton Athletic manager Lennie Lawrence arrived in a consulting role. Under Flynn, Newport overcame being twelve points from safety with eleven matches of the season to play, securing their Football League status on the last day of the season in the most dramatic sense possible, with an eighty-ninth minute goal from Mark O’Brien giving them a two-one win against Notts County to keep the club in the Football League.

Flynn has been building the club up since then, finishing in eleventh place at the end of last season and squeaking into the last play-off spot this time around. They’ve also earned a pretty fearsome reputation in the cup over the last couple of seasons. Over the last two seasons, Newport have beaten Leeds United, Leicester City and Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, as well as taking Tottenham Hotspur to a replay last season and giving Manchester City more of a game that many Premier League teams have in this year’s competition.

It’s only been five years since Tranmere Rovers were last playing League One football, a figure all the more remarkable for the fact that the club spent of those intervening years in non-league football. Historically, Tranmere Rovers have always been been cast in the slightly patronising role of that “other” club from Liverpool, even though the club’s home is several miles (and one river crossing) away from either Anfield or Goodison Park. This isn’t to say that Liverpool and Everton didn’t hold a small degree over events at Prenton Park. The Football League kept the two giants playing at home on alternate weekends, but this wasn’t any use to Tranmere, who would always find themselves clashing with one or the other.

Once floodlights became commonplace in the 1950s, though, Tranmere started to shift some of their matches to Friday nights, and although the club spent most of the 1980s in the Fourth Division, Friday night football took on a cult appeal. By the 1988/89 season, the club was heading for promotion from the Fourth Division and arguably their best known fans, the indie band Half Man Half Biscuit, made headlines after turning down an appearance on Channel Four’s The Tube because it clashed with a Tranmere home match. As singer Nigel Blackwell told Sabotage Times in 2009: ”They did genuinely offer the helicopter but it would only have got us to the ground at half-time, and not being ones for a fuss we weren’t particularly sold on the idea.”

The early 1990s turned out to be the club’s golden era. Promoted into the Second Division in 1991, the club found itself losing in the play-offs for a place in the Premier League in 1993, 1994 and 1995, each time in the semi-finals. In both 2001 and 2001, they reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. They remained in the second tier until relegation in bottom place in 2001, and then stayed in that division for the next thirteen consecutive seasons, although they only finished in a play-off place once, in 2005, after having finished in third place in the table.

The history of Tranmere Rovers has been one of staying in the same division for long periods of time. They were members of the Third Division for every season bar one between 1968 and 1979, spent the years from 1991 to 2001 in the second tier, and thirteen in the third. Two straight relegations in 20014 and 2015, however, sent the club down to the National League, making Tranmere a non-league club for the first time since 1921. After finishing in sixth place in their first season in the division, they were runners-up twice in a row, going back up via the play-offs at the end of last season, after beating Boreham Wood in the final.

So, to Wembley, and to a taut and tense play-off final. Tranmere finished the season in sixth place in the table and Newport in seventh, both clubs having upset the odds to beat Forest Green Rovers and Mansfield Town respectively. A noisy crowd of 25,000 was present, but this match didn’t really seem able to break out of its straitjacket of nerves. Newport probably shaded the first half on possession, but the best chance of the half fell to top scorer James Norwood, whose shot from eight yards was magnificently beaten away by the Newport goalkeeper Joe Day. There were half-shouts for a penalty kick for Newport, and with seventeen minutes to play Jamille Matt’s header was excellently saved by Scott Davies. Their big chance, however, came with six minutes to play. When Monthe tripped Matt, it looked as though it might be a penalty kick for Newport, but when the referee’s whistle came to blow, it was on account of an offside call fractionally earlier in the move.

With a couple of minutes to play, however, Newport’s job became much more difficult. Mark O’Brien, whose goal kept the club in the Football League two years ago and is now their captain, tugged at a Tranmere shirt and earned himself a yellow card, his second of the afternoon. Being a man short for extra-time was always going to be a problem for Newport, as the players started to tire at the end of a very, very long season and Tranmere began to increasingly control possession. The match felt as though it was drifting towards a penalty shoot-out, but with less than two minutes of extra-time to play, Jake Caprice crossed and Connor Jennings headed the back across Day and into the goal to send Tranmere Rovers into League One.

It should go without saying that to lose a play-off final, the culmination of a forty-nine match league season, with ninety-odd seconds left on the clock, is extraordinarily tough and it would take a heart of glass to not have a degree of sympathy for the manager, the players, and the supporters. But, difficult as it may be to retain much of a sense of perspective at a time like this, all connected with Newport County would do very well to consider the enormous progress that the club has made over the last couple of seasons. Mike Flynn is clearly a very talented coach and the club will do well to retain his services. If they can, there is absolutely no reason why the club shouldn’t be able to progress still further.

This day, however, belongs to Tranmere Rovers, and to one player in particular. The club’s plummet out of the Football League over the course of two successive seasons passed, considering the decades they’d spent as stalwarts of the lower divisions, relatively without comment, but it was a dangerous tailspin that the club might have found difficult to pull out of. That they did is a tribute to the dedication of all connected to the club, and a special mention should be made of the former FA Chief Executive Mark Palios, who took a controlling stake in the club in 2014 and, after the bumpiest possible start of getting relegated from the Football League at the end of his first season, has done an excellent job in stabilising the club.

But today’s winning goal was scored by Connor Jennings, and Jennings has a remarkable story of his own. Towards the end of last season, the popular midfielder was suddenly and unexpected hospitalised after contracting viral meningitis. There were concerns about his long-term health when he was taken to hospital, but within two weeks of his release from hospital he came off the bench to provide the cross from which James Norwood scored the goal which took Tranmere into the Football League. Today, Jennings scored the goal that took them into League One, and no-one can resist this sort of happy ending. Tranmere Rovers deserve their win. Newport County may well improve further, next season.