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Page last updated at 11:10 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Newport County are back in the black and Amber

Newport County seal promotion

By Peter Shuttleworth

Newport County's ground may be in the shadow of the Celtic Manor, but Newport County's team will not be in the shadow of the 2010 Ryder Cup.

When Tiger Woods and co arrive at the Newport home of the 2010 golfing showpiece, the famous old club will be back in non-league's big-time and heading for Football League redemption.

County, a club that once graced the European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final, have spent 21 years in the footballing wilderness since the original club was wound-up with debts of £330,000.

Archive - The story of the old County

But the Exiles have risen from the ashes of the old Ironsides, a club that won the Welsh Cup and Fourth Division double nine years before going bust in February 1989, and are returning to the league where their former selves were last seen.

And the current County are to be in the black too.

It is ironic that as the black and ambers return, Cardiff - who have a High Court 56-day stay of execution to pay their £1.9m tax bill - are staring down a financial barrel similar to one that once killed the County.

But their South Wales neighbours can tell the Bluebirds from bitter experience that the road to recovery is painfully prolonged and filled with frustration if the worst does happen.

Exiled to play their Federated Homes League Premier Division fixtures 80 miles away in the deepest Cotswolds, County's first big victory was in the High Court.

The club defeated the Football Association of Wales - who wanted Newport in the League of Wales - to remain in the English pyramid and play permanently in Newport.

Then the club have spent 15 years at their current plateau but this season's clinical County team are different - they have fired 78 goals, conceded just 17 and have romped 27 points clear at the top of the Blue Square South.

They sealed promotion on an emotional night at Spytty Park - being the first team this season to do so in the English pyramid - achieving it with seven games to spare thanks to a 2-0 win over Havant and Waterlooville in front of 4,221 fans on Monday.

Archive - Carl Zeiss Jena 2-2 Newport County

The club managed by former Premier League cult hero Dean Holdsworth has lost just once in the league this season.

So it is little wonder that Holdsworth has been touted for Football League jobs - most notably at Championship strugglers Peterborough United - but the former Crazy Gang chief is the beneficiary of a solid backroom and boardroom structure at Spytty Park.

"We showed the fans a business model at the start of the season that has worked to increase gate income," said County's general manager Tim Harris, who also had a five-and-a-half year spell as County manager.

"In the past there were unrealistic expectations because the club's structure was not quite right and we were gambling on winning cup games to bring in revenue.

"Now there is a structure where such prize-money is a bonus as everything is managed correctly."

Local recruitment entrepreneur Matt Southall and chairman Chris Blight keep a close control on the County purse-strings.

"Our biggest overhead is players' wages," said Blight.

"And we have a financial infrastructure that guarantees the payment of the wages and that is three-quarters of the battle as gate receipts rise and fall with the success of the team.

"What happens at many clubs, including ourselves in the past, that at the start of the season you set off on a journey knowing what your players overheads are but if gate receipts don't balance you're in trouble.

"We have constructed an income payment pattern throughout the season so the players pay structure is supported from start to finish so the variables are diminished considerably. So we are very confident that that players will always be paid.

Archive - Newport County's golden era

"It takes a little common sense and discipline. And if a club owns a ground, the banks feel safe lending that money as they have a freehold asset which could be sold in an emergency."

And it is County's stability off the pitch, that has provided the foundation for success on it.

"This has been a long time in coming," said Harris, who provides the link between board and boss Holdsworth.

"But now we are ready to roll - and everybody is aware is of our potential."

Harris was an apprentice at the old County in the late 1970s and early 1980s when 10,000 would cram into the old Somerton Park to watch the Amber Army's golden era.

Their 1980 Welsh Cup triumph, promotion to division three and a European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final against German side Carl Zeiss Jena - losing on aggregate over two legs - attracted full houses.

So that gives Harris hope that if County build it, Newport's sleeping supporters will reawaken and come back - especially as 3,084 turned out to watch Friday's 1-0 win over Bishop's Stortford and 4,221 for Monday's promotion party.

And high-profile home FA Cup games with Blackpool and Swansea City attracted stadium-bursting attendances in recent times at their current Spytty Park home with crowds of 3,721 and 4,616 respectively.

Harris adds: "So when we we're welcoming famous old teams such as Luton, Oxford, York and a mouth-watering Welsh derby with Wrexham, the locals will I'm sure respond as they have done this season as our average gate is almost 1,600."

But most teams in the division below the Football League are predominately full-time and County's full-time progression will be gradual.

"A fair percentage of the players we have are capable of withstanding the league above," said Chris Blight.

"And ultimately the aim is to gradually become full-time but we don't want to change everything all at once.

"Next season we'll be somewhere in between with some part-time and some full-time players depending on their personal circumstances as some have careers and some don't have jobs at all.

"We would be in danger of ripping the heart out of the squad by insisting everyone goes full-time when they cannot.

"But becoming full-time will become a necessity as we won't be able to live the top teams in the long-term without being a completely full-time club - and that includes the management team.

"However, there is an evitable cost to being full-time and if we are to increase our overheads we must sure the income is coming in to satisfy that as we keep a pretty tight purse."

Should County continue their momentum in the Blue Square Conference and the Football League dream would come into sharp focus - as would the need to improve their current home as the league demands certain criteria.

The Football League's admission policy is a 4,000-capacity ground with 1,000 covered seats before an upgrade to hold 5,000 and 2,000 covered seats before the end of the first season in the league.

Newport Stadium
Newport Stadium has been County's home since it opened in 1994

The 4,300-capacity Spytty Park is a council-owned communal-use athletics track-turned-football ground that would require temporary seating for the club to fulfil the league's request.

"I don't think in a month of Sundays we will have our own-purpose-built ground in the next year or two," said estate agent Blight.

"It would be nice. But my understanding is that a new ground costs £1m per thousand of capacity so a modest 8,000 all-seater stadium and its infrastructure would be about £8m.

"We certainly don't have the means to build a stadium ourselves so the likelihood is we'll stay at Spytty Park and Newport council have been extremely helpful with our growing pains."

County's board have vowed not to be "foolish and throw money away" as they chase the Football League dream, as their "prudence is the reason for their success."

Newport County learned the hard way, the shame is that the whole football family did not learn from their painful lesson.

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see also
Newport County's promotion party
16 Mar 10 |  Non League
Newport County 2-0 Havant & W
15 Mar 10 |  Non League
County look to rewrite the script
13 Mar 10 |  South east
Cardiff given tax bill deadline
10 Mar 10 |  Cardiff
Holdsworth takes on Newport job
18 May 08 |  Welsh
Newport 1-0 Llanelli
11 Mar 08 |  Welsh
Newport Co 1-3 Swansea
11 Nov 06 |  FA Cup
Newport County 1-4 Blackpool
28 Nov 01 |  FA Cup
Blackpool 2-2 Newport County
17 Nov 01 |  FA Cup

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