Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 13 March 2010

Newport County look to rewrite the script

By Neil Prior
BBC News reporter

Newport County playing at Somerton Park
Newport County used to play at Somerton Park

The history of Newport County AFC is a script that not even the most schmaltzy Hollywood romantic could have conceived.

It's a tale of triumph, tragedy, betrayal, struggle and, at last, redemption.

With the ravages of football's financial implosion encompassing everyone from Premier League champions Manchester United to lowly Chester City, Newport's story is also a salutary lesson of what could yet be to come.

After 21 years in football's wilderness, a one-nil win against Bishops Stortford on Friday has them within touching distance of the Blue Square South title, and with it promotion to the Blue Square Premier, just one level below the promised land of the Football League.

County have enjoyed a remarkable season, losing just one game so far and leading the division by an enormous 24 points.

A win or a draw at home to Havant & Waterlooville on Monday evening will make promotion a certainty.

Promotion will mark a return for The Exiles to the same level they were ignominiously forced to vacate when bankruptcy prevented them from fulfilling their fixtures during the 1988/89 season.

We're not a very big club, but we can be a successful club, by learning the lessons of the past
Newport chairman Chris Blight

Newport County chairman Chris Blight said: "Obviously our ultimate ambition is to get back into the Football League, but for many people who've followed the club for decades, there'll be a real sense of closure, having reached the same point as we were when the old Newport County went out of business."

Yet Newport's early history was as stubbornly dull and unremarkable as their recent past has been incident-packed.

Formed in 1912, they were elected into Football League's division three south in 1920, where they remained for the next 19 years.

With World War II looming, they won promotion into the second division, and had made a creditable start, with a win over Southampton and a draw against Spurs, when hostilities brought a premature end to the season.

When competition resumed in 1946, the County side had been dismantled, with just two of the original squad lining up.

Carl Zeiss Jena scoreboard
Newport enjoyed a good run in Europe in the 1980/81 season

One of their first post-war matches brought a 13-0 mauling at the hands of Newcastle United, a result which remains a joint record Football League defeat to this day.

The game also gave rise to one of football's most well-worn clichés, when Sunderland and Newcastle legend Len Shackleton coined the phrase: "Newport were lucky to get nil!"

Aside from a 1949 FA Cup run to the fifth round, where Newport lost narrowly 3-2 at league champions Portsmouth, the side's form remained undistinguished for the next four decades, until the 1980 double of promotion to division three and the Welsh Cup.

The following season, spearheaded by future Liverpool and Republic of Ireland star John Aldridge, County romped to the quarter-finals of the 1980/81 European Cup Winners Cup, their progress only checked by eventual finalists, Carl Zeiss Jena of East Germany.

The Somerton Park crowd of 18,000 was also a modern era record attendance for the club.

However the glory days were to be short-lived, as despite flirting with promotion to division two, poor attendances and financial strife brought about a move in the other direction.

Legal battles

In 1987 County were relegated back to division four, and a year later they dropped out of the Football league altogether after finishing rock bottom.

A new club rose from the ashes, and set about clawing its way back to the big time from the depths of the Hellenic League, five divisions below the Football League.

Newport were forced to play their home matches in Gloucestershire - firstly 85 miles away at Moreton-in-Marsh, followed by a stint at Gloucester City.

David Hando was at the thick end of the legal battles, serving as a director of the reformed team and more latterly as president.

He said: "At the time it was hard not to feel extremely bitter. We were let down by the two organisations, the FAW [Football Association of Wales] and Newport council, who should have been giving us a helping hand.

"The FAW said we were a new club so we couldn't play in the English system, and the council said we were the same as the old club, so came after us for unpaid rent at Somerton Park!"

Ron Jones
Ron Jones first watched Newport play in 1922

The club now play at Newport Stadium having made it home to Newport permanently in 1994/95.

In 2003, Chris Blight, who has reorganised the club's business dealings in readiness for the final push, took over the helm.

"We're not a very big club, but we can be a successful club, by learning the lessons of the past," he said.

"The new Newport County are a community side, a partnership between the fans, the council, local business, and of course the playing staff.

"The Football League is in sight now, but the only way we'll get there and stay there is by growing the club responsibly.

"We can't run out, sign a load of players, make everyone full time and blow the budget on a gamble.

"I have to go out and attract the sponsorship, Dean [Holdsworth - team manager] has to develop the players, Matt Southall has to maintain a feasible business plan, and the fans have to do their bit by continuing to support us like they have this season.

Rash promise

"This time last season our average gate was around 800, this season it's been 1400. If that increase carries on into next season then we'll be set fair for the future."

One man who is in two minds as to whether he is ready to see Newport back in the league is lifelong County fan, Ron Jones.

He first watched Newport in 1922, and as he prepares for his 93rd birthday next month, Mr Jones explained that he may have made a slightly rash promise.

"When the old club went down the pan, and we all started again out in Moreton-in-Marsh, I said I won't die until Newport are back in the Football League," he said.

"Now it's looking a bit too close for comfort! I haven't missed a game since then, and after everything I've seen them through, I'll die a happy man if I ever see my team back where they belong."

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