Zebroski 9, Byrne 82
by Chris Groves
Considering Argyle’s last defeat in a Boxing Day fixture came back in 1997, you would be forgiven for forgetting some of the important names and faces involved on that fateful day. The figure most responsible for our loss 17 years later, however, is certainly a recognisable one.
Chris Zebroski, who started his professional career with the Pilgrims in 2005, scored in the ninth minute, heading home Mark Byrne’s cross to give the visitors a fairly hefty incline to climb in South Wales.
As a contest, the match was brought to a conclusion eight minutes from time, as a corner from the left side swung towards the near post and somehow found its way past McCormick and into the goal, travelling by many players on its way, most prominently Byrne.
Manager John Sheridan, taking charge of his 98th game as Argyle manager, opted to name an unchanged squad from the 3-0 victory against Dagenham & Redbridge six days earlier. It is a decision that would have been made not just because of the continued unavailability of Curtis Nelson and Peter Hartley, but also the impressive showings of their replacements, including debutant Aaron Bentley. The hosts, keen to enjoy their first Boxing Day home fixture in the Football League for 30 years, made two changes, bringing in Regan Poole and Adam Chapman for Yan Klukowski and Max Porter.
The two teams would contest their Boxing Day battle on a Rodney Parade surface sodden with the rain that had covered the area since early morning. Luckily, the grassless patches and puddles that invaded the pitch for this fixture last season, took their place around the outfield this time around.
As one would expect, the Exiles were the quickest to adapt to the slippery conditions, as the rain continued to thrash down after the referee’s first whistle. Chapman, operating down the right flank, showed some early flair to make space, get crosses in and win corners – all of which were dealt with by the men in Green.
That is, until the ninth minute. A corner from the left wing from Mark Byrne was cleared just beyond the penalty area, but an attempted Newport through ball cannoned off the referee and back to Byrne. His second ball was a better one, and found the head of former Argyle player Chris Zebroski, who headed across the box, beyond Luke McCormick and into the far corner.
Zebroski nearly added an assist to his goal after the restart, getting beyond his man and perfectly squaring the ball to strike partner Shaun Jeffers, who stretched to poke the ball inches wide.
Argyle allowed themselves to retort shortly after though: a free-kick 40 yards from goal was taken by Bobby Reid towards the far post, and was so nearly met by another loanee, Anthony O’Connor, whose leap to meet it was just short of the mark. Lewis Alessandra then chanced his arm with a 20-yarder, that Newport ‘keeper Jamie Stephens closely watched skim past his right-hand post.
It was clear that the hosts were more than keen to prevent Sheridan’s side settling into the game – a point made no clearer than in the 26th minute, as Lee Minshull gave Bobby Reid a forceful shove long after the ball passed them by, prompting water to fly off of his person, in true Rocky-esque fashion.
After scoring all three Greens goals last time out, the two Reids had their best piece of link-up play ten minutes before half time. After almost jostling with each other for the ball midfield, Reuben played through Bobby, who returned the favour as his teammate surged into the box, forcing a desperate Newport clearance.
Argyle were undoubtedly on top as the two teams took shelter from the rain after 45 minutes, with Newport’s only shot on target proving to be enough to give them a half time lead. The fact that the Greens had not registered a shot on goal themselves, though, was a statistic that could not be overlooked.
Captaining his team for the second game in a row, Reuben Reid kicked off the second half by getting that shots on target stat off the mark, before earning a free-kick for his side. The subsequent delivery from Bobby Reid found Bentley totally unmarked and in front of goal, but his header was brilliantly saved by Phillips. How fitting it would have been for the man known as ‘Rodders’ to net his first career goal at Rodney Parade.
As the Newport faithful got behind their men in Amber more than ever, substitute Rene Howe found room in the box to shoot, but could only cause a goalmouth scramble, ending in a save from McCormick and a Byrne effort that was skewed over.
As the game entered its final 20 minutes, Kelvin Mellor looked to make himself known in the opposition’s box with some cavaliering runs from right-back. Firstly, he cut into the box and shot just wide of the near post, then another effort was and fell to Reuben Reid in a crowded box, who could only loft the ball over.
But the Exiles’ ability to break up play, adapt to the conditions and keep Argyle at bay was rewarded in the 82nd, as the game was put firmly to bed. After Howe’s blocked cross went for a corner, the cross reached the near post and made its way past a number of bodies - including Newport’s Byrne - taking nicks and deflections before creeping into the net.
Despite the pressure shown by the Pilgrims for large periods of the game, it was clear that this Boxing Day would not be theirs to celebrate – a solemn truth made no clearer than when Reuben Reid flashed a shot against the crossbar from 20 yards moments from the end.
It is a loss that sees the Greens drop a place, but we remain in the Sky Bet League 2 playoff places, and just six points away from the top of the table.
So, on to Oxford. #StrongerTogether.
Newport County (3-5-2): 25 Jamie Stephens; 5 Darren Jones, 6 Ismail Yakubu, 13 Andy Sandell; 2 Ryan Jackson, 28 Danny Crow, 8 Lee Minshull (18 Yan Klukowski 88), 7 Adam Chapman, 33 Mark Byrne; 11 Chris Zebroski, 14 Shaun Jeffers (9 Rene Howe 66). Substitutes (not used): 1 Lenny Pidgley, 17 Michael Flynn, 26 Regan Poole, 39 Aaron Collins.
Booked: Jones 33
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 28 Anthony O'Connor, 16 Carl McHugh, 25 Aaron Bentley; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 4 Lee Cox, 6 Ollie Norburn (10 Marvin Morgan 68), 17 Bobby Reid, 13 Andy Kellett; 9 Reuben Reid, 7 Lewis Alessandra (8 Jason Banton 77). Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner, 3 Ben Purrington, 14 Tyler Harvey, 19 Nathan Thomas, 24 River Allen.
Booked: Kellett 17, O’Connor 49
Referee: Stephen Martin.
Attendance: 5,020 (1,200 away est)