Newport County 2 Hartlepool United 2 (3rd April 2015)
There’s little like an hour and a quarter of multiple delays to a supposed two-hour trip down the M4 to put a dampener on my enthusiasm for, well, anything really. Add to that an over-officious steward telling me I couldn’t take photographs without a permit – not just of the game, but of any of the ground – and four hours of rushing about to make kick-off didn’t really feel justified.
My first ever Reading game had been against Newport – a 2-0 win in the 85/86 season. If I ever mention that to Reading fans over a certain age they start going on about what a great day that was, when 4000 Reading fans (1000 higher than the first home crowd of the season) went down to Somerton Park to see the 2-0 win that gave Reading the football league record for the most consecutive wins from the start of the season (12).
Sadly, the game I went to was a run of the mill home win later in the year, and I never got to go to Somerton Park, although I did see it from the train a few times. I never went to Spytty Park either, where they played for twelve years before the move to Rodney Parade, not being wildly keen on football in small athletics stadiums. The new place was somewhere I was keen to go as soon as I saw they’d moved in though.
It is rare for football clubs, in the UK at least, to move to a central venue, and my original plan had to get there at about 1 pm, have a look at Newport Castle, before having some lunch in the town centre. Not parking up until about 2.15 though, rather scuppered that plan. As it turned out, Newport Castle really ought to have been named “What’s Left of Newport Castle” – not a lot as it turns out. I really had little time to do much else beyond walk beside Newport’s incredibly muddy River Usk and cross back to Rodney Parade over the new footbridge.
Actually getting into the ground from there took something of a circuitous detour – a walk brightened up by finding myself walking behind a woman with a very nice bottom for a bit – until I found the entrance gate, a good 100m or so way past the end of the stadium. This led to a large courtyard area, grassed in the middle, with random assorted clubhouse type buildings around the edge. Newport County do, after all, share Rodney Parade with both the Newport Gwent Dragons Pro 12 rugby club, as well as Newport RFC of the Welsh League.
The rugby origins of this ground meant that when county moved in, the ground only had permanent spectator accommodation down the touchlines. There are now temporary open seats at one end, and a new terrace, sadly also open, at the other. Even allowing for the extra space behind the goal common in rugby grounds, it’s hard to see why this terrace is located a full 25 yards beyond the goal line, although at least it does mean there’s room for future expansion.
Similarly quirky, in a positional sense, is the two tier Hazell Stand. A good old-fashioned stand with seats and a paddock of terracing at the front, this 80 yard stand is shifted to the south, with it filling the whole side down one half, but ending about 20 yards into the other. Small 1950s style stubby floodlights perch on the roof, completing the old time feel of the stand.
No such problems on the other size, where a new 2500 stand fills the touchline, just about offering views of the more pointy and sticky-up bits of Newport’s centre. The huge white supporting beams of the new footbridge loom into view from almost any angle though.
Unsurprisingly, despite being told by a steward in the ground that photography is banned without a permit, I still intended to take pictures. Beyond one steward at Dover, who for some reason decided that cameras should be banned “in case people start taking photos of children” I’ve never had any problems anywhere in the world, for any event. Even monolithic corporations like FIFA realise that unless the person is taking photos for commercial use, or is causing an obstruction, such rules are unenforceable, not to mention stupid. I don’t think too many who’ve seen my photos would think they have much commercial value either. Pros don’t generally have to worry about cropping out the back of the head of the guy sat in the row in front.
Equally unsurprisingly, given that the same steward was standing about 25 yards from where I was sat, I wasn’t keen to push my luck either. It would be a day for sneaky photo taking, aided by a handily placed vomitory to obscure the steward’s view. Even so, with another steward lurking in the tunnel of that same vomitory, it’d be a case of re-assessing risk as the game progressed.
On paper, with Newport fifth, and Hartlepool one above the drop zone in 22nd, it looked like it should have been a routine home win. With a Tranmere-supporting friend watching his team away at Stevenage, I was hoping I’d be able to text good news throughout the afternoon. For the opening part of the match, that looked likely. Newport certainly had more possession, and despite one or two wayward passes too many, looked to have much more of a threat.
That all changed a quarter of an hour in. With seemingly their first meaningful attack, a ball was cross in dangerously to the back of the six yard box. Newport’s Lee Minshull showed admirable determination to get back to win the header. Less so for not really knowing what to do when he got there. Whatever he was planning, nodding it past his own keeper for the opening goal probably wasn’t the plan. Odd acoustics of the new Bisley stand meant that despite 239 Hartlepool fans visibly celebrating at the far end, at this end the goal was greeted by silence, which seemed to just make it even more painfully embarrassing.
From there Hartlepool took over, running the show and looking dangerous on every attack. Newport, in contrast, didn’t do much more than a few set-pieces, and a couple of firmly hit shots that were so high and wide that you wondered if the Newport forwards practiced by aiming at the sides of small cruise-liners.
It was no surprise when Hartlepool doubled their lead eight minutes before the break. A shot from the edge of the area hit the crossbar, bouncing high into the air. As it dropped, some pretty awful ball-watching allowed it to be nodded back towards goal, towards Hartlepool’s debutant Jordan Hugill. Hugill had already annoyed the home fans for seeming to make a meal of a challenge a short while earlier. Bundling the ball in from point-blank range for 2-0 didn’t exactly increase his popularity in this part of South Wales.
A minute before the break, Newport got a lifeline. A shot from the edge of the box was kept down for once, and it was drilled across the keeper into the far corner for 1-2. At least my half time text to my mate in Stevenage wouldn’t be quite so grim now.
It got even more cheery early in the 2nd half. Another controlled low shot, this one from inside the box, also found its way into the far corner, leveling the scores and maybe even setting the scene for a home win.
That it didn’t happen is through no fault of Newport in their efforts. It just wasn’t to be. The closest they came was to force a great save from the Hartlepool keeper shortly before the end, and this entertaining game ended with a score that didn’t really help or hinder either team in their respective quests.
Hartlepool fans will no doubt be disappointed to have blown a 2-0 lead, but would no doubt have had mixed feelings on the 5 hour+ journey home, because they could easily have lost.
For me, it was odd to think that despite the length of that trip, they’d get home before me. At least it wouldn’t be due to stop-start traffic on the M4 this time, but because I had a second appointment of the day, up in Gloucester. From one 138 year old city centre rugby ground to a mere 124 year old one, only this time, it wouldn’t be for football.