Newport. Just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything. Well, maybe not quite, but are the exiles on their way back? Welcome to IBWM Chris Hunt.
When a town is being regenerated, it's hard ideal that it's most famous for being the subject of a pastiche of the latest Jay-Z song. It's even worse when the town's councillors embrace that and try to use it for the good of the town. Newport, known to many as the main train stop between Bristol and Cardiff, has never quite been the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. That has been especially the case for the town's sports scene. The rugby union team didn't maintain independence as did the Cardiff Blues or Llanelli Scarlets, being merged with Ebbw Vale to form the Newport Gwent Dragons in 2003. The Ryder Cup of 2010, aimed at kick-starting yet more economic regeneration of the grey town, actually benefited the cities which sandwich Newport (Cardiff and Bristol) as many tourists stayed there rather than plough money into local businesses. But as bad as all that sounds, the story of the local football team had, until recently, remained in the shadows.
Newport County AFC went bust in 1989 after miserably falling out of the English Football League and were exiled from Newport upon reformation, thus the clubs nickname 'The Exiles'. Whilst playing home games in Gloucester, [England,] the Welsh FA actually tried to expel Newport from the English League pyramid, but a High Court decision eventually allowed Newport the right to fight their way back up the English League pyramid during the nineties. This landmark economic and political watershed did not, however, result in a sporting catalyst for future glories as the Amber Army might have hoped, as year upon year was spent – fittingly, in light of the eerily similar state of the town - languishing in the darkest depths of the league pyramid.
The next watershed was not to come until April 2008, when former England B international Dean Holdsworth was appointed as manager, replacing Peter Beadle. Beadle had signed, and released, Holdsworth as a player for Newport County only months before, yet this intriguing story of how tables turned was pushed off the back pages by Cardiff City's run to the 2008 FA Cup Final. Nobody really took notice of little Newport County. On closer examination though, Holdsworth seemed strangely apt for the post as leader of 'The Exiles' having spent one of the most successful spells of his career at Wimbledon as a revered striker. Wimbledon, pre-Pete Winkleman, was a club which itself had no ground to call its own and was always slightly erratic, as readers who remember the so-called 'Crazy Gang' will be aware. Tie that in with Newport being an unfashionable club, mirroring Holdsworth's experience at classically unfashionable Bolton Wanderers, and the parallels between Holdsworth's and Newport's experiences only grow. But was the man who led the Crazy Gang now ready to lead the Exiles and breathe life back into this deflated club?
Initially the answer seemed like no. Having eased himself in at the end of the 07/08 season and narrowly missed out on the play-offs, much of which was Beadle's work, Holdsworth's first full season in charge only yielded a worse league finish. County ended up in 10th place in 08/09, but more importantly were miles off the play off zone. It seemed the managerial gamble wouldn't change what had become a culture at the club. This though was to prove merely the calm before the storm with the team blitzing the Conference South in 2009/10. Records tumbled before them and promotion was won as early as March. It was quite a remarkable turnaround for the club which now finds itself finally back at the same level it had been when it went out of business two decades previously. The momentum and positive energy around the club was tangible and a promising start to their return season in the forth tier of English football gave no reason to doubt that the upward surge would continue.
Their storming promotion season forced the club into the media eye. The records broken, the ludicrously early promotion and the managerial Midas touch of Holdsworth all captured the imagination. Those who would previously shrug at Newport's football team and move swiftly on to the 'big three' of Welsh football, Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham, pricked up their ears and began to finally recognise Newport as a club that demanded respect. They now command as much attention as Conference Premier rivals Wrexham and have obliged Welsh sports coverage to monitor the comings and goings of the Amber Army. Whilst Swansea and Cardiff battle in the race for the Premier League The Dragons and Exiles fight for a place in the Football League, both with realistic ambitions of achieving a play-off spot this season. This remarkable ascent to the brink of the League has of course had league clubs looking at County's players.
Star striker Craig Reid's goalscoring exploits in Conference South continued into the Conference National and he made the move to League two side Stevenage just before the transfer window closed on Monday. The club's ambitions clearly match that of their players, though, as has become evident through comments both in the promotion season and this season from players and manager Holdsworth. Clearly a man with natural managerial flair and the inspiration which lit a fire in South East Wales, he is a man who earns respect both through his experiences as a professional and his motivation. Holdsworth had always stressed that Newport County could, given the backing, reach the levels they currently occupy and further. The importance of the players turning full time and continuing to adapt a more professional approach to their football was deemed key in continuing the momentum of a club on the rise, though frustration at the board's perceived lack of ambition had threatened to stall the clubs progress in Holdsworth's eyes. This perceived lack of ambition may well have been the reason for his departure from the club in January 2011, as struggling League 2 side Aldershot appointed Holdsworth as their new manager.
Ironically it seems that the same ambition and drive in Holdsworth which propelled County to within touching distance of League football, reinvigorating a stagnating club, may have forced him away from the Newport Stadium. Continually frustrated by a perceived lack of ambition from the directors, there still remains a sense that Newport are punching way above their weight by challenging for the Conference National play-off spots, whereas Holdsworth had seemed to feel that the club should capitalize on this momentum. A small squad, small stadium and (as he may have seen it) small men not being brave to plough money into making Newport a league club both on and off the pitch may have driven Holdsworth to jump at the opportunity of league management, but the effects of the former top flight striker on the club – and of the club on his own managerial career – could be life changing.
Whatever happens for both the club and Holdsworth, the memories of 2009/10 will never be erased, with County's name in the record books for so many reasons. What is certain though is that both benefited from their time together and both helped kick start each other's future. Despite the rumours of discontent and lack of ambition, County now find themselves as strong contenders in the Conference National this season and have had names such as John Hartson linked to the managers role. The increase in media interest could serve to help the club if managed correctly, having created a respect that can attract bigger names and potentially bigger prizes. As for Holdsworth, he now has a hugely respected record which guarantees him at the very least a top non-League role. But more likely, opportunities in League management will present themselves. If his spell at Aldershot doesn't go to plan he'll surely be given chances to continue his managerial rise. And after the immense promotion season of 09/10 both Newport County and Dean Holdsworth will certainly believe that if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere, because they did it with Newport, Newport, Newport.