RODNEY Parade does not look or feel like a football ground.
The reason for this is, of course, that it is not a football ground, more a ground where football is played. A Newport home to a Newport football team known, confusingly, as the Exiles, it is the also the long-time domicile of both Newport RFC and Newport Gwent Dragons and their presence is predominantly everywhere, not least on the pitch where there has been no noticeable effort to disguise the 22m lines or other markings.
The game-time clocks are set to a rugby union-length 80 minutes; had that digital advice been enforced rigidly by referee Steve Martin, it would have helped Argyle, whose tendency to ship a late goal away from home (three times in the final ten minutes of matches) and not score at all, reared its head.
Given all this oval-ball prevalence, it was a relief to see that the home side emerged into the afternoon’s incessant rain with just 11 starters, rather than 15, none of who appeared to be wearing scrumcaps or shoulder-pads, although former Pilgrim Chris Zebroski has bulked out to such an extent that, as a former colleague was often fond of saying, he looks like he had left the coat-hanger in his shirt.
Zebroski’s name was greeted with a warm chorus of jeers by the Green Army when it was announced, the striker having acquired a bad rep while at Home Park in the mid-2000s following a violent incident which curtailed current first-team coach Paul Wotton’s participation in a pre-season tour of Austria.
Last season in the same fixture between the two sides, Zebroski responded to near constant taunting by netting the Ambers’ goal in the Greens’ 2-1 win; there was, then, a certain inevitability that it would be Zebroski’s bald pate that rounded off the home side’s high-tempo start with a headed first goal.
The keepers of the Argyle record books prepared themselves to make an annotation. Not since John Sheridan was pulling the strings in the Bolton Wanderers’ midfield had they lost a match on the Feast of Stephen – or Gwyl San Steffan as it is known in Wales, where it used to be marked by slashing late-risers and female servants with holly branches, a custom since discontinued because of the lack of holly in the Principality.
The last time he Greens’ colours were lowered on Boxing Day – 4-1 at home to Fulham in 1997 – their two-man strike-force was Carlo Corazzin and Danny O’Hagan. Canadian international Corazzin and O’Hagan, a Cornishman, scored 26 goals between them in their Argyle career, which is only six more than the Pilgrims’ current vanguard has notched before the halfway point of this season: new sensations Lewi-Reid have certainly transformed the Pilgrims’ prospects over the past year or so.
Time has dimmed the memory of that game’s circumstances, but the Argyle bench that afternoon – Adrian Littlejohn, Earl Jean and Ronnie Maugé – has, on paper at least, a stronger look to it than some of the starters. Martin Barlow scored for us, by the way.
Argyle had showed no changes to their starting line-up, which meant that Rodders was on parade at Rodney Parade, the teenage Nicholas Lyndhurst-lookalike central defender Aaron Bentley having shown himself to be more well oiled, than a dipstick, in the previous week’s 3-0 home win over Dagenham & Redbridge after Peter Hartley’s warm-up breakdown.
Aaron and his colleagues (none of who calls him ‘Dave’) responded well to the setback against a strong Newport side which plays to its strengths, the most notable of which is their strength. They are a physical side who impose themselves by means of a pressing game and Argyle needed to draw that sting, which they did gradually, inching their way away from their end of the sodden pitch and towards the equally sodden Green Army before the expiry of the first 45 minutes. Or 40, as the countdown clock showed.
The break brought no break from the conditions and young Aaron, who had a shot cleared off the goal-line on his debut, was denied by goalkeeper James Stephens after finding space for a header from Bobby Reid’s free-kick. The Argyle Angels would have been singing if his attempt had been slightly east of Stephens.
Zebroski had emerged for the second half in a shirt which bore neither his name nor his number. If this was an attempt to hoodwink the Green Army, into whose quadrant he was now heading, it failed: the abuse was vehement and the joy unconfined when Carl McHugh rattled his bones with a tackle that would have even made Gaelic footballers wince.
The home fans had a nip back – ‘Boxing Day/1-0 and you’re soaking wet’ – as Argyle introduced Marvin Morgan into proceedings, although the replacement took a little longer than normal as the rain had got into the fourth official’s board and rendered Ollie Norburn’s number 6 little more than a blur of red light.
The officials were not having the best of days all round. Their decisions were causing both sets of fans some distress and the Green Army certainly thought Martin was a dirty rotten scoundrel to turn down a penalty appeal when Marvin was blatantly tripped.
Shortly afterwards, Kelvin Mellor went on one of those mazy runs of his that makes you wonder if he has forgotten that he is allowed to pass or shoot and does not have to go on beating opponents endlessly. His eventual shot ballooned to Reuben Reid, who uncharacteristically hoicked the rebound over.
Those two opportunities, turned down and spurned, proved vital. Newport made sure of the points when Mark Byrne flicked on a corner and then had whatever the Welsh is for ‘chutzpah’ to claim the goal when it cannoned off at least one other person before nestling in the back of Luke McCormick’s net.
Beaten, cold and miserable, the Pilgrims showed some spirit and Reuben cracked a shot against the crossbar before the fourth official held up a by now blank board prior to an announcement that he had indicated three minutes of added time. Which is precisely what he had not done.
One hundred and eighty seconds later, it was all over, and Newport had achieved what neighbours Cardiff had failed to do in four attempts between 1997-2013, not to mention Torquay (three times), QPR (twice), Southampton, Bournemouth, Bristol City, Oxford United, Barnet and Bristol Rovers during the same period, and rain on the Pilgrims’ Boxing Day parade.