With no non-league participants left in the FA Cup at the Third Round stage for the first time since 1951, it falls to the teams in League Two that have fought their way through the first two rounds to sprinkle a bit of that cliched magic on the cup this season. Former winners Coventry City, now languishing in the bottom tier of the Football League, will be hoping to spring a surprise on Stoke City, while Luton Town will be hoping to continue their free-scoring form as they travel to Newcastle United. Exeter City also host a Premier League team in West Bromwich Albion, and Notts County, Wycombe Wanderers, and Stevenage will all fancy pulling off a shock in their ties against Championship sides. The most intriguing tie of the round, however, takes place in south Wales as Newport County – minutes away from relegation to the National League last season – host Leeds United.
“LEEDS?! At home?! What a draw!” the moment Newport County manager Mike Flynn discovered who his side would be facing in the Third Round of the FA Cup was caught for posterity by idle microphones during the recording of Elis James’ Feast of Football at The Wales Sport Awards. Flynn had gone on record before the draw saying that he was hoping for a big tie, preferably at Anfield given his personal allegiance to Liverpool, but the excitement in his voice at hearing the draw was palpable. Flynn’s zeal is understandable – when he first took on the role as manager at Rodney Parade in March this year he was faced with an uphill task. Newport were stranded at the foot of the Football League looking destined for relegation, having won only five games in thirty-four. Flynn’s presence had an immediate impact securing six points from his first two games, and losing only four of their final twelve. On the final day of the season Newport knew that only a win at home to Notts County would secure survival and condemn Hartlepool United to demotion. With the score tied at 1-1, Hartlepool winning, and time ebbing away, a cross into the area fell to full-back Mark O’Brien, and out of nowhere the Irishman chested it down and hit a first time volley into the bottom corner. Newport had been saved. It was the latest dramatic chapter in the story of a club that have travelled the hard yards to become a regular fixture in the football league, having seen everything crumble around them nearly thirty years ago.
The 1980s was a memorable decade for County fans. At the turn of the decade the club were promoted into the old Division Three (now League One), and had qualified for the European Cup Winners Cup having beaten Shrewsbury Town 5-1 on aggregate in the Welsh Cup final. In the following season their foray into Europe saw them dispatch Crusaders of Ireland and SK Hauger of Norway with ease before succumbing to eventual runners up Carl Zeiss Jena of East Germany, despite earning a creditable 2-2 draw in the away leg. Domestically, Newport had established themselves in the third tier, finishing as high as fourth in the 82/83 season and reaching consecutive FA Cup Third Rounds, thanks in no small part to the goals of young forward John Aldridge. Once Alridge had left for Liverpool, Newport struggled for goals and began to slip further down the league table. By 1988 they had suffered back to back relegations and after only half a season in the Conference the club went out of business. A year later the club had been re-established by 400 fans and entered the football pyramid at Level 9, playing in the Hellenic League. Without a stadium they were forced to play home fixtures at London Road in Gloucester – hence their nickname The Exiles. Winning the Hellenic League at the first attempt, the club were then promoted to the Southern Midland League, but any hopes of a fairytale rise through the pyramid were quickly curtailed. It took county another five years to gain promotion to the Southern Premier, but they yo-yo’d between steps seven and eight before the league reorganisation in 2004 placed them in the Conference South. After narrowly avoiding relegation in their first two seasons, Newport established themselves in the sixth tier before eventually earning promotion to the Conference in 2010. A shorter period of consolidation followed before victory in the Conference playoffs in 2013 brought Newport County back to where their supporters believe they belong.
While it hasn’t been easy going in the clubs first four seasons back in the Football League, they may have uncovered a gem in Mike Flynn. The former midfielder enjoyed five separate spells at Newport as a player, as well as turning out for Wigan Athletic, Blackpool and Gillingham among others in an eighteen year career. At 37 he’s the second youngest manager in League Two behind Kevin Nolan, but despite his tender years he appears to have engendered a tangible sense of belief in a squad that for large parts of last season lacked the requisite spirit to compete. Two wins and two draws from their opening four games pointed to a remarkable turnaround, and early in the season Newport were in amongst the playoffs and looking like genuine contenders. A sticky spell towards the end of the year may have curtailed those ambitions, but in a tightly packed league it only takes a decent run of results for County to be right back in the reckoning. Flynn’s summer recruitment has so far paid dividends – Padraig Armond, poached from relegated Hartlepool, is currently the side’s top scorer in the league, while the acquisition of former West Ham forward Frank Nouble gives County presence and experience up front. The form of goalkeeper Joe Day has also been key to the success of Flynn’s side, alongside O’Brien, Mickey Demetriou, David Pipe and on-loan Ben White, they represent one of the best defences in the league. The mission ahead of the season would have surely been to avoid a relegation scrap, but after a strong start to the season Flynn will be hoping for a mid-table finish at least.
With the spectre of relegation no longer a going concern, Flynn has been able to focus his players’ attentions on the domestic cups in the hope of providing some much needed revenue. Whilst their league status ensured Newport would enter the competition at the First Round Proper, they were hardly given the smoothest route through to January. A home draw against League One Walsall meant County were up against it from the off, but goals from Nouble and on-loan Stephen McCoulsky earnt Flynn’s side a 2-1 victory and safe passage to the second round. A marginally more comfortable draw, at home to Cambridge United, followed, but Newport’s supporters would have been wary of a side that took Manchester United to a replay in 2015. Despite those nerves, a brace from Joss Labadie secured the win for The Exiles, and their plum tie against Championship Leeds United. Newport are no strangers to the third round of the FA Cup, though this is only the second time they’ve reached this stage under their new guise having been knocked out by Blackburn Rovers in the Third Round two seasons ago. The current crop at Rodney Parade will be hoping to emulate the heroics of the 1949 County side that made it all the way to the Fifth round, knocking out – you guessed it – Leeds United in the Third and Huddersfield Town in the Fourth before succumbing to Portsmouth. The last Newport side to travel beyond the Third Round were the embryonic Welsh Cup winning team, with West Ham suffering a third round upset before Colchester United got the better of County in a Fourth Round Replay. To have made it even this far given the goings on at the club in the last ten years is a remarkable feat in itself, but Flynn will know that folklore awaits his team should they pull off a shock.
The history books aren’t exactly against Newport either. Whilst Leeds United still have claim to being one of the biggest teams in England, and can point to their FA Cup win in the ’70s as pedigree, they’ve often found themselves on the wrong end of an upset. Only last season Sutton United, now more famous for that bloke what ate a pie, stunned Garry Monk and his Leeds side with a 1-0 victory in the Fourth Round. League Two Rochdale dispatched the Lilywhites in the Third Round back in 2014, while Non-League Histon caught them at a low ebb in 2008 when Leeds were playing in the third tier. Even during their time in the Premier League the Yorkshiremen were not immune to a cup shock – most tellingly their 2-1 defeat in south Wales to Cardiff City, then in the old Division Two, in 2002. Whilst these results seem fairly meaningless given the context, there has long been a mentality at Leeds that things will go wrong – mainly because they usually do. After suffering the financial crash of Peter Ridsdale’s administration and the austerity of Ken Bates, Leeds fans were then subjected to three years with a complete nutjob at the helm of the club. Massimo Cellino’s reign of madness finally ended last summer, after seven managers in three seasons and a blanket ban on the number 17, Andrea Radrizzani completed his buyout of the club. After Monk’s surprise resignation, Danish coach Thomas Christiansen was brought it as manager, and the club hit the ground running going seven games unbeaten at the start of the season, conceding only two goals. Like Newport, their form has tailed off after a decent start, but Christiansen will be expecting to get a result in south Wales come Third Round weekend.
When the two met in the Carabao Cup earlier in the season Leeds’ class shone through as they outplayed their League Two opponents and registered a 5-1 victory. It’ll be a completely different ball game on a freezing cold afternoon at Rodney Parade, and if Flynn’s defence can hold firm, County will have more than half a chance of producing the headline story of the round.