Tom ColemanComment


Tom ColemanComment

It’s the Friday before the final weekend of another eventful football season, and corporate attorney Gordon Grafft is staring out the window of his coach as it crosses the Severn Bridge into sunny South Wales.

Gordon has travelled from the other side of the globe to take in a piece of what he and countless others believe to be the richest footballing culture in the world.

Given the club’s brief fling with American coach Bob Bradley, it would be easy to think he is on his way to watch Swansea City continue their fledgling bid for Premier League survival at home to Everton.

But Gordon’s not going to the Liberty Stadium, although he does have an appetite for a relegation battle, albeit one that is far away from the attentions of your standard American soccer fan.

His destination? Rodney Parade, the home of League Two strugglers Newport County, who after an incredible revival under Michael Flynn, have battled to six wins in 11 games to bring themselves two points clear of Hartlepool United in the race to avoid the Football League’s final relegation spot.

A win over Notts County on the final day will be enough seal survival and it is not an occasion Gordon is prepared to miss.

He explains: “I’m confident, but not certain. I think if it was a sure thing I wouldn’t waste my time with the trip but I feel good about it.”

His hometown of Mountain View, California, is probably the last place one would expect to find a love of English lower league football. But it is here that Gordon, along with his roommate Sean McElroy, have founded the Newport County USA Supporters Club.

Neither have any connection with the city or Wales, but a series of binges on the video game FIFA sowed the seeds for an unlikely love affair.

“Both of us have followed English football for the past few years,” Gordon explains. “Here there’s obviously a lot of Premier League and Champions League football that we can get and we were ready for something that felt a little bit different, something that was a little more grounded.

“We’ve had friends over to watch matches and when the big club doesn’t win, it’s somehow embarrassing or when they can’t win every trophy every year they get fed up and we were just looking for something a little more connected to a community where you could experience highs and lows and maybe feel a part of something.

“The more we found out about Newport County and its troubled history and the classic characters that have played for the club, we sort of fell in love and it’s been a journey ever since.”

The enthusiasm is made all the more admirable considering they have only seen one full game ahead of this crunch encounter – the televised FA Cup Second Round Replay against Plymouth.

But the lack of coverage in the States only serves to compound the romance for the pair, who have kept in touch with events at Rodney Parade through early morning Twitter browsing.  

“Flynn really has been the turning point,” Gordon adds. “Once he took over there was a real change in the confidence around the club and a fearlessness among the players, who looked like they were definitely heading down for most of the season.

“I think they all feel like they’re going to stay up and we all think they’re going to stay up.”

Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for nerves, particularly during the mammoth journey, where Gordon has plenty of time to think.

He explains: “At some point on the plane over I started to get nervous - what if the result went the wrong way, what if no one in Newport wanted to talk to me, basically what if the entire trip turned out to be a waste.”

However, no sooner had Gordon tweeted his intentions to journey over, the local press had covered his story, elevating him to near-VIP status with the club’s fanbase.

The pre-match experience of a Nandos, several pints, a tour of the ground, and an invitation to meet the players and coaching staff is a little more colourful than that of most supporters. Then again, most supporters don’t travel 5,000 miles for a game.

Nevertheless, Gordon soon remembers the reason for his attendance as he files his way into a sold out Rodney Parade and, when the game finally starts, the roar from the Amber Army is everything he had hoped.

The raucous din drifts over the terraces like a fog, only to subside in favour of a collective sharp intake of breath as Jon Stead narrowly fires wide for the visitors after just a few minutes, sharpening the irritating voice of uncertainty at the bottom of everyone’s stomach.

Tension reigns supreme. But then, after just over half an hour, it happens. Lenell John-Lewis receives the ball in the area and goes down. It looks soft, but Gordon and the rest of the Hazell Terrace are jubilant when referee Nigel Miller points to the spot.

It’s like they’ve already scored, but those celebrations pale in comparison to the reaction when Mickey Demetriou steps up to slot home the resulting spot-kick.

A chorus of “We are staying up”, echoes round the ground, a flare appears to go off, and joy becomes the overriding emotion. So far, everything is going to plan, and the atmosphere is sweetened by the news Doncaster Rovers have taken the lead against Hartlepool.

“The most common prediction I heard before the match was a 1-0 victory,” says Gordon. “So I think a lot of people felt that the team could hold onto the lead and that would be that.”

But confidence is a fragile thing in football, especially when you’re in a relegation dogfight, and a bad feeling creeps over Gordon and the rest of the crowd as the second half begins.

The visitors come out and have a real go, and the home faithful do their best to try and ease their fears by continuing to get behind the team.

Newport hold out until midway through the second half. A ball threatening ball pings around the home penalty area for what feels like an eternity before the boot of Jorge Grant eventually prods it into the back of the net to restore parity.

It’s a goal that brings events at Hartlepool under increased scrutiny, with nerves becoming all the more shot when it transpires that Devante Rodney has equalised.

As things stand, Newport are staying up. But it’s a little too close for comfort.

And, around 10 minutes later, Gordon is facing up to the real prospect of heading back to California disappointed, as Rodney earns his second goal of the game to put Hartlepool in the lead and place them in pole position for survival.

“Once Hartlepool took the lead, the atmosphere just died,” Gordon recalls. “There were a few attempts at starting up songs that didn't really pan out. It took a few minutes for the crowd to recover and realise we needed to get behind the lads if they were going to pull this off.”

Newport’s Football League status hangs by a thread as the clock counts down, with every man, woman and child wishing the ball into the Notts County net. One goal will do it.

With only one minute of normal time remaining, a hopeful ball is whipped in from the right and, after a flick on or two, finds an unmarked Mark O’Brien in the box.

Time appears to stop as the ball kisses his chest and slowly starts to descend, before connecting with the Irishman’s right foot. Breaths are held, hearts stop, prayers are interrupted, and for a split second, the world stops turning. Everyone then watches as the ball gloriously nestles into the bottom corner.

Bedlam follows as Gordon gains a first-hand glimpse into the emotional attachment and passion that people on this side of the Atlantic have for their football clubs. This one goal sparks the sort of celebrations that border on outer-body experiences.

He recalls: “People were crying and shouting and dancing all around, and I heard more than one person declare it the happiest moment of their lives. It was nuts.”

Nevertheless, Gordon could have flown to California and back and it would have still felt quicker than the five agonising minutes that follow. But the referee eventually shows mercy and blows the final whistle, which is greeted by a roar that boasts a volume well beyond the capability of a mere 7,000, most of whom bundle onto the pitch to celebrate with their heroes.

“The stadium just exploded and the pitch invasion was immediate. It was really special. Seeing the players singing along with the fans, and the joy and the tears and how much it meant to everyone, I'm not sure I'll ever have another experience quite like that.

“You would never see a pitch invasion in the USA - there's generally such a barrier between the players and the fans, so to have everyone celebrating together was unique and great to be a part of.”

In the age of the billion-pound juggernaut of the Premier League, days like these are a timely reminder of what makes the British game so great in the first place. Football, even at this level, really means something, and it’s easy to see how people like Gordon can be taken in.

Even after the latest expansion, the number of teams in the MLS currently stands at 22, meaning a fan’s local team could be hundreds of miles away, inevitably making it hard for Americans to emulate the level of attachment shown at Rodney Parade.

“I personally don’t have a lot of time for the MLS,” Gordon says. “I see the owners as a lot more worried about their pockets and not necessarily the fan experience. We live in Silicon Valley so the closest team to us is probably San Jose Earthquakes, but to get to a game it takes at least 45 minutes to an hour.

“I just don’t see how anyone can follow along with what’s happening at clubs like Newport and not feel the romance of it all and not get swept away by it.”

Stories like Gordon’s arguably remind us that England’s football pyramid remains a very special entity. It carries the romance and drama needed to captivate even the most demanding audience. It offers people a chance to be part of something when they may not have been part of something before. It is to be treasured and appreciated.

By Tom Coleman