On 5th May 2007 I witnessed one of the barmiest and most exciting games of football I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. This was the last day of the Football League season and Swansea had made a late and unlikely surge for the League One playoff spots after former player Roberto Martinez took over the managerial reins earlier in the year from Kenny Jackett. Swansea had to win their last game of the season (and hope results went their way elsewhere) to creep into the final playoff space. Unfortunately, their opponents Blackpool also had to win the game as they sought out a 2nd place finish. What ensued was a breathless 90 minutes of relentless attacking football which concluded with a 6-3 scoreline in favour of Blackpool. The star of the show was undoubtedly Blackpool’s Andy Morrell who finished the game with 4 goals to his name, a couple of them of sublime quality. The very same day, Wrexham were fighting for their Football League existence, needing to win their final game to stay in the league. I’m assuming because of their significance to Welsh football history, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the North Walian club and I found myself checking their game throughout the day. Wrexham won and staved off relegation, but the victory was only slowing the inevitable as the following season they were relegated and dropped out of the Football League. As a big Welsh football fan, I still question why I have still not visited Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground – I had not even seen the North Wales club play in the flesh. That was until today’s fixture. At the start of the Christmas holidays, a scan down the leagues’ fixture list revealed a Friday night fixture between the Conference’s two Welsh clubs, Newport and Wrexham, at Newport County’s new home at Rodney Parade. The game was being dubbed the division’s ‘Welsh derby’ in the build up to the game, despite Newport and Wrexham being separated by 140 miles. Both clubs are now managed by two former players: Newport by former Spurs’ left back Justin Edinburgh and Wrexham by their former striker and ‘Mr. 4 goals for Blackpool against Swansea’ himself, Andy Morrell.
The first port of call on my trip to Newport would actually be Cardiff, as I was meeting up with my former Uni housemate and, unfortunately, Cardiff City supporting pal, Sean. We rendezvoused at the Zero Degrees bar on Westgate Street since it is probably my favourite bar in Cardiff – it’s makes all of it’s own beer! Anyway, enough of Cardiff (save that for another day), we headed to Cardiff Central station to make the short 15 minute train journey to Newport.
Newport has only been a city for a decade after it was given ‘city’ status in 2002 and since then the city has undergone a large regeneration project. They seem to love a good bridge in Newport and the bridges across the River Usk are the first thing you notice as you pull into the redeveloped Newport train station. From the brief nose I had at the city centre, it did certainly look a lot tidier than the last time I visited the city in my teenage years. After a wander through the city centre, and thanks to some help from Sean’s phone, we soon found ourselves on the banks of the River Usk and we could make out the lights of Rodney Parade on the opposite side. We crossed over the footbridge and decided to head straight to the ground to get our tickets before heading in search of a pub. As we made our way to Rodney Parade we passed a pub right alongside the Usk which was appropriately named the Riverside – we made a note and decided to head back there once we had collected our tickets.
We were directed to a large fenced off area behind Rodney Parade to buy our tickets. The area housed the main ticket office, a large clubhouse, which was already taking in revellers with still two hours to go until kick off, and what I could only presume to be a bowling green. We decided we would head to the clubhouse about closer to kick off and instead we headed back to the Riverside Tavern.
What a pub! We knew we were in for a treat as soon as we saw the large banner outside advertising £2 a pint on most lagers. My assumption was that the place would be a bit like a Wetherspoons, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The ceiling was plastered with a whole host of retro Newport County shirts including the infamous limited edition 2004/05 Goldie Lookin’ Chain sponsored shirt. For those that are unaware, Goldie Lookin’ Chain (or GLC) are a mock rap collective hailing from the city, perhaps most famous for their hit single “Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do”. Fairly recently, the GLC even recorded a song serenading another of Newport’s most famous sons: Stoke manager Tony Pulis; as the song states “He’s not from Brazil/He’s from the Port/And he was born in Pill”. At one point they were what seemed like the biggest thing in Wales, even performing on the Millennium Stadium pitch before Wales took on England in a qualifying match; humorously they directed the lyrics of their single “Your Missus is a Nutter” at the England skipper, David Beckham, who was warming up on the pitch nearby. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of entering the Riverside was the fact that I was not greeted by the blaring of indie rock songs from a jukebox, which you may expect to find in a pub largely full of football fans, but instead a Jazz band, largely containing OAPS, called The Foot Tappers. They were superb prematch entertainment! They made the place seem more like New Orleans than Newport. Sean bought our round of two drinks for an amazing £4 and we went and had a nose at all the County kits garnishing the walls. We spent a long time trying to suss out which player’s 2 signed “number 12” Wales shirts had been placed on the wall, but we never did work it out (they were from the 2004 and 2006 qualifying campaigns if anyone has any ideas?) With prices so scandalously low, we opted for another drink and to take in the closing songs of The Foot Tappers. One of my favourite pub visits of my 2012/2013 Lost Boyo adventures.
With an hour or so to go until kick off, the next stop was the aforementioned clubhouse. When we entered we were stunned to be greeted by what was basically a large hall with a few round tables and very few people sitting around them. Where had everyone gone? We bought drinks at the bar and it was there I noticed I set of double doors leading to another part of the building. Behind the doors was the real bar/lounge of the clubhouse and the place was rammed with County fans and a small scattering of North Walians. In a nice touch, the clubhouse also had the Blue Square Premier highlights (Newport’s league in case you were unclear) on the TVs around the bar. We then heard murmurs that a band were playing in the hall next door, so we thought we may as well take in our second band of the evening. This time, the band were much, much younger than the Foot Toppers and this was reflected in the more guitar-based music that they played, which included great cover of the Outkast hit “Hey Ya!”. It was whilst watching the band that I discovered the true expanse of Lost Boyos. On approaching a random person in the hall to take a photo of Sean and I, I explained it was for my football website Lost Boyos. The stranger replied: “I know Lost Boyos. I read it and I follow you guys on Twitter.” Gobsmacked. The Lost Boyos gospel continues to spread. My new friend Neil (@The_Doveston) went on to explain to me that he writes for the excellent football website Two Hundred Percent.
The time was now 19:30 and we began to make our way to Gate 3 of Rodney Parade to take our place on the standing terrace in the Town End. One criticism of the ground I heard before the game was the fact that it is not well advertised that Newport County actually play at Rodney Parade these days. I hadn’t exactly been looking around, but I must admit I had noticed very little signposting for Newport County AFC. However, we had found our way to Rodney Parade easily enough, thanks largely to the floodlights illuminating the Newport night sky, and we were soon going through the turnstiles.
In regards of sport, the ground has been used for a multitude of sports over it’s history with the site originally adopted by Newport Athletics Club in the late 18th century. The ground which Rodney Parade now sits on was also the home of Monmouthshire County Cricket Club with the cricket club residing there between 1901 to 1934. To this day Rodney Parade, which sits very near the east bank of the River Usk, still houses a variety of sport: next to the ground is Newport Squash club and there is a large bowling green adjacent to it for the local bowls club. However, the ground is perhaps most famous for it’s association with rugby union with the ground hosting club rugby and Welsh internationals throughout it’s long history. The ground has been the home of Newport RFC for the majority of it’s existence, although now the club is merely a feeder club to the new inhabitants, Newport Gwent Dragons, after the regionalisation of Welsh rugby in 2003. Rodney Parade has had a massive face lift over the past decade with the redevelopment of the old ground and the building of two new stands. Newport County FC had spent the majority of their existence playing at Somerton Park before the ground’s demolition in 1993. At the end of the 1980s, Newport County went out of business whilst playing in the Conference but the new club that we see today arose from the ashes. The new club even had a short spell playing in Moreton-in-Marsh across the border in Gloucestershire. When the Newport Stadium (or Spytty Park as most people know it) was opened in 1994, Newport County resided there until the relocation to Rodney Parade for the 2012/2013 stadium. Spytty Park was never the most ideal venue for football, thanks largely to the running track that enveloped the pitch and pushed the fans away from the action. Newport have a three year deal in place to play at Rodney Parade, but the deal comes with an ‘opt-out’ option if they feel that the stadium change is not working out.
The first thing we encountered as we walked into Rodney Parade was the food van, so I decided it was time for a pie. Not the largest variety of pies on offer so I went for a steak pie. I’m fairly sure it was Pukka pie (I might be wrong though) but it was a decent effort nonetheless, but not spectacular either. After Sean and I had had a discussion in the pub about standing terraces at football matches, we decided to perch ourselves on the open standing terrace, The Town End, behind the goal nearest us. There was the opportunity to stand in the stand to our right, but we thought we’d give the new terrace behind the goal a go first of all; also meeting us here was the ‘Treharris Caravan’ crew and my fellow Jacks, Lynsey and Kelly (I should explain, that they don’t actually live in a caravan – it’s just how they refer to their transport whilst travelling). The other standing area is a covered stand and clearly the oldest standing part of the ground. The Hazell Stand also has the ability to offer fans seating in the upper tier section behind the standing terrace, but this seated area was not open for tonight’s game. Down the opposite side of the pitch is the more modern looking Bisley Stand (obviously named for sponsor purposes) which was opened in 2011 and can hold over 2,500 fans. The Bisley Stand has become rather infamous for it’s multi-coloured ‘polka dot’ effect seats, which when the stadium is empty are eye-catching to say the least. Behind the furthest goal stands a strange single standing, two storied building which appeared to have fans out on the balcony watching the game; I assumed that this was Rodney Parade’s answer to executive boxes. Similar to Craven Cottage, which I had visited less than a week before, the teams entered the field from under a small pavilion-like building in the corner of the ground. Both clubs came out in their traditional colours: Wrexham in their famous red and Newport in their amber and black.
After a humiliating 5-0 defeat in their previous fixture, Newport came out of the traps with a point to prove and looked the hungrier of the two teams in the opening exchanges without really threatening the Wrexham goal, although Wrexham had shown signs that they were capable of catching Newport on the counterattack at times. After Wrexham’s Joe Clarke fired just wide of Newport’s goal, Newport’s in-form striker Aaron O’Connor forced Joslain Maseybi in the Wrexham goal into a fine save from his powerful shot. O’Connor would soon be earning a penalty for County as he tricked his way into the box and was eventually tripped by Danny Alfei, the full back on loan from Swansea City. Andy Sandell stepped up but his effort was a weak one and Maseybi had a fairly easy save to make from the penalty. Newport’s penalty miss would be punished as Adrian Cielslewicz would launch a long ball over the top for Danny Wright to run onto; Wright cleverly placed the ball over Newport goalie Alan Julian to make it 1-0 to Wrexham. O’Connor put one last effort just wide of the goal after a tricky run, before the ref blew his whistle for half time.
Whilst the game had been going on, I had needed to make a toilet break and as there was none near the Town End, I had to make my way to the plusher looking Bisley Stand to take a slash. I decided to have a wander around the stand and despite it being very nice and tidy, it was a bit bare and just a bit grey. I felt it was much more fun over on the standing terrace anyway (and, of course, it was cheaper).
During half time, Sean and I decided to have a wander into the Hazell Stand and sample the atmosphere over there. Throughout the first half most of the noise had been coming from this stand (I’m fairly sure there was a drum as well, although it might have just been the rowdier fans banging on the advertising boards) and after navigating our way through the more cramped standing area, we decided that we would remain in the Hazell Stand for the second half. Soon enough, the two teams were walking past our standing perch next to the home dugout and then the managers arrived. Andy Morrell was displaying the classic, big style rain coat made famous by Arsene Wenger (although I don’t think Wenger’s has ever had ‘Blue Square’ written on it) whilst County’s Justin Edinburgh was going for the more smart/casual look with his grey jumper/black shirt/trousers/brown shoes combo, reminiscent of Roberto Martinez in his early days as Swansea manager.
Just before the second half kicked off, I ventured to the Hazell Stand concourse in search of a toilet (those Riverside pints had clearly now caught up on my bladder.) As soon as I stepped into the crumbling concourse a strong smell hit me: piss. The place was reeking of piss, so it was unsurprising to encounter the toilets fairly nearby and it’s fair to say the washroom facilities were a far-cry from the facilities in the opposite Bisley Stand. Whilst at the hole in the floor urinal, I even encountered a large dollop of sick floating it’s way along the gutter. Grim.
I escaped the toilets and happily made my way pitchside for the second half – a half that was to prove to be a much more entertaining game of football. The half started with David Pipe, captain of Newport and once capped by Wales during his time at Bristol Rovers, making a great tackle on Danny Wright to deny him a run through on goal. Soon another ex-Welsh international, Michael Flynn, had his header cleared off the Wrexham goal line. Newport gathered momentum as the first half unfolded and it was perhaps no surprise when they finally netted an equaliser. Following a County corner, the ball fell to Max Porter on the edge of the box, who rocketed in a shot via a deflection to make it 1-1. Both sides now went for the win and the game became an end-to-end affair. The final ten minutes saw County really turn up the heat and go all out for the win. O’Connor went on a solo run, before being denied a finish to cap what would have been a brilliant goal. Then substitute Danny Crow was put through on goal after a good passing move, only for his shot to be fired straight at Mayebi. Finally, a superb header at the near post by Michael Flynn looked destined for the top corner, until the ball cracked the underside of the bar and bounced away to sighs of relief from the Wrexham defence. Edinburgh was visibly distraught on the touchline that his side had not grabbed a late victory. However, nowhere near as distraught as Spytty the dog, the club’s mascot, who was jumping around behind the goals in hysterics as Newport went on to miss their final fluster of chances. Spytty had been an admirable mascot, showing passion for the club throughout the game and even handing out lollipops at halftime to people in the crowd. Top mascot! Anyway, the score would finish 1-1 with both managers praising the spectacle of the game, particularly the second half display “It was a fantastic advert for the league,” declared Edinburgh post match, whilst Morrell hinted that he was relieved that his side had held on by stating “It felt about three hours long, but a real advert for our league.”
By now Sean, who seemed to have enjoyed his Lost Boyo debut, and I had made it back to the standing terrace with Lynsey and Kelly, ready to make our exit from the stadium at the sound of the full time whistle. A good night at Rodney Parade, but my only disappointment was that Andy Morrell had not graced the pitch so I could see the lethal striker one last time in the twilight of his career.
Highlights: The Riverside Tavern, ground easy to get to from the city centre/train station, decent clubhouse, nice mix of stands with the two standing areas and the more modern Bisley Stand.
Low Points: still a strong sense that the ground is a rugby ground rather than a football ground, strong smell of pee on the Hazell Stand concourse, not seeing Andy Morrell grace the field