Our Bank Holiday football ground-hopping ‘tradition’ has been observed more in the exception recently, so we were determined to get back on track on Boxing Day. Our original plan had been to take in the Welsh Premier League local derby between Cardiff Met FC and Barry Town United, at Jenner Park, Barry. An electrical fault at the ground and a shift in the kick-off time from 3pm to 12.30pm put paid to that ambition, and so we made the short journey to ‘Dave’ Parade, Newport, to watch seventh place in League 2 Forest Green Rovers against eighth placed Newport County. The actual name of the ground is Rodney Parade; the misnaming as ‘Dave’ Parade is a reference to Trigger in Only Fools and Horses and his constant references to Rodney as ‘Dave’ throughout the programme. It’s a silly joke, admittedly, but harmless!
This Boxing Day, Dan and I were joined by my dad for the 12 mile ride east along the M4 from Cardiff to Newport. One of the great advantages of visiting lower league football stadia is the relative ease of finding free parking close to the ground, and so – having set off at 1.40pm, we were safely through the turnstyles and enjoying a cup of coffee (me and dad) and a Cwtch (Dan) by 2.10pm.
One of the interesting things about our Bank Holiday ground-hops are the coincidences that get thrown up. Named in the Forest Green starting XI for this match was one George Williams. The diminutive attacking midfielder was on the fringes of the Welsh national squad until fairly recently, and indeed, the last time I’d seen him ‘in the flesh’ was as a substitute warming up for Wales’ opening European Championships game against Slovakia in Bordeaux in 2016. Williams’ career has been blighted by injury, and having initially been signed by Fulham as a youngster from MK Dons, he has struggled to establish a long run at any of the clubs that he has spent time on loan with since. Dan’s observation (before this game had even started) that Williams was too good for League 2 was borne out in spades.
On paper, this should have been a relatively closely-fought affair, with both sides pushing for a play-off place near the top of the table. Any thoughts that the first twenty minutes might be a bit cagey were dispelled almost immediately though as Rovers were awarded a free-kick 25 metres out and that man Williams lined up to take it.
It was a well-struck free kick that took a wicked deflection off the top of the Newport wall, causing the ball to loop perfectly into the top corner of the net, evading the full stretch dive of County ‘keeper, Day. Dan managed to capture the moment perfectly on his iPhone camera, and the action shot is captured in all its glory below. Three minutes on the clock, and Rovers were one-up.
Much of the next forty minutes of play followed a relatively standard pattern. Rovers looked the better footballing team, attempting to get the ball down and play on the floor as much as possible; County looking to get the ball forward much more directly (and often aerially), relying on the size and athleticism of Matt and Bakinson to cause problems for the visitors’ defence. Whilst there were half-chances for both sides during this period, neither side really troubled the opposition goalkeeper. Indeed, the main incident of note was a flare-up between County fullback Piper and Rovers’ Brown that remarkably led to a caution for the former but no sanction at all for the latter. This was one of a number decisions from referee Mr Busby that did little to endear him to Newport supporters.
If Forest Green’s opener was down to the wizardry of Williams, then their second goal on 43 minutes was down to speed, accuracy and teamwork. A Newport attack on their right hand side broke down and Rovers counter-attacked in numbers down their left hand side. They were assisted by a couple of rash attempted challenges by County covering defenders, but quick footwork and accurate passing got the ball to Campbell, who waltzed into the penalty area before calmly side-footing the ball past the advancing (and hopelessly exposed) Day.
Any fears that home supporters might have had that the second goal would kill off the game were quickly extinguished. The goal seemed to galvanise the Ambers and they laid siege to the Rovers goal straight from the re-start. Their ambition was rewarded in the second minute of first half stoppage time when Forest Green keeper Montgomery had a rush of blood to the head. Charging from his goal in an attempt to punch the ball away, he succeeded only in clattering into the back of Newport’s Amond. The most stonewall of penalties and one that Mr Busby was right on the spot to call (garnering some ironic cheers from the south Wales faithful in the process). Amond picked himself up to send the hapless Montgomery the wrong way and reduce the deficit to a single goal at half time.
The half time chat amongst the Pearce ground-hopping crew was whether Newport could continue their comeback in the second half. We were all confident that there would be more goals, and one of us was even rash enough to predict a 4-3 victory for the County. Dan, though, being both less rash and more fatalistic, cautioned that (as a Cardiff Blues rugby supporter) he was only used to seeing away teams win in Newport. I should have been more in tune with the omens.
The game was effectively all over as a contest within seven minutes of the restart. Newport’s Butler saw red for Denying a Goalscoring Opportunity in the 51st minute, and Williams stepped up to drill the resulting free kick into the top corner of the net without the aid of any deflections this time. You could sense the energy draining from the Newport players as a result.
Within five minutes, Williams had completed his hat-trick, finding space in the Newport penalty area following an intricate passing movements down Forest Green’s left, and curling a shot into the far corner of the net to make it 4-1 to the visitors. The final half an hour of the game was a master-class by Forest Green in how to play against ten men. They kept the ball, moving it across the full width of the pitch and forcing Newport to chase shadows. That their possession and movement did not lead to more goals was down to over-elaboration in the box, and some fine saves from Day in the Newport goal. It was all too much for a significant number of home fans who were pouring out of the ground with more than fifteen minutes of the game to play. Normally, I’d be highly critical of this sort of behaviour, but on this occasion, I could see their point. Whether this was on off-day, or whether some players have already begun thinking ahead to the FA Cup tie against Leicester City in January, it was clear that this performance did not live up to the standards that manager Mike Flynn has set for his side.
On the plus side, with so many fans having left before the final whistle, getting out of the ground and on the road back home to Cardiff was even easier than getting there in the first place!