Newport's incredible revival gets them taste of FA Cup magic against Man City
NEWPORT -- Pep Guardiola has probably never experienced anything quite like Rodney Parade, the home of FA Cup fifth-round opponents Newport County, during his gilded career with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
Opened in 1877 -- it hosted a Wales rugby union international against Scotland as far back as 1884 -- the old ground is lacking the amenities that Premier League stars take for granted. Don't expect underfloor heating, mood lighting or individual lockers in the visitors' changing room.
At Rodney Parade where Manchester City come on Saturday to face League Two Newport in the FA Cup. A lot of talk about the pitch. It's pretty flat but a bit bald in places. Rain in the next couple of days could make it interesting. pic.twitter.com/ASnWXNaa6j— Jonathan Smith (@jonnysmiffy) February 13, 2019
There might be a line of players waiting for their turn to take a postmatch shower once this tie (live on ESPN+ on Saturday, Feb. 16 at 12.30 p.m. ET) is played out on Newport's threadbare pitch. A favourable weather forecast for south Wales promises the playing surface won't be the mudbath on which Newport defeated Middlesbrough 2-0 in their fourth-round replay, but with the League Two side sharing the ground with two rugby union teams, the pitch is anything but lush and even.
"I don't want it [the pitch] like a bowling green, I'm not going to lie," Newport manager Michael Flynn told ESPN FC. "That would give them the advantage. It's not the standard that Premier League or Championship clubs are used to playing on every weekend, but we're a League Two club, we've got two rugby clubs sharing it and there have been over 60 games on there already this season."
And it's not quite the Etihad inside. pic.twitter.com/xwNc7eo0a3— Jonathan Smith (@jonnysmiffy) February 13, 2019
It will be a culture shock for the Premier League champions, but it is a classic David vs. Goliath FA Cup tie and Newport are relishing the opportunity to share the same stage as Guardiola and his team of expensively assembled superstars.
It marks potentially a career high-point for Flynn and his players, many of whom have overcome adversity to play at this level. That group includes striker Robbie Willmott, who recalls once rushing back from a shift stacking shelves in a supermarket to watch one of Guardiola's teams on television.
"He was at Bayern Munich at the time," Willmott said. "I was finishing a shift and he was lining his team up for a Champions League game when I was just finishing in Tesco. To go up against one of his sides is a real privilege."
As a club, Newport have come back from the dead to enjoy their day in the spotlight against City. Back in 1981, they reached the European Cup-Winners' Cup quarterfinal, losing narrowly to East German side Carl Zeiss Jena, before financial difficulties led to them going out of business in February 1989, six months after being relegated from the Football League.
The road back has been long and strewn with obstacles. Their nickname of "The Exiles" -- it used to be "The Ironsides" -- stems from when they were reborn as Newport AFC in 1989 and Newport Council refused the use of their Somerton Park ground, claiming the club was County in all but name and still owed money from eviction for failing to pay rent.
That led to the reformed Newport playing over the border in England, some 85 miles away in Moreton-in-Marsh, for one season.
More problems followed in 1992, when the Football Association of Wales (FAW) demanded its clubs play in the newly-formed Welsh Premier League. Newport refused to leave the English pyramid and were exiled over the border again, spending two seasons in the city of Gloucester as they fought the FAW in court, citing Restraint of Trade.
The club's case was successful and Newport returned "home" in 1994 to play at Spytty Park in the Lliswery area of the city, where they stayed for 18 years. Ahead of promotion back to the Football League in 2013, necessary ground standards led to another move: Newport have shared Rodney Parade with rugby clubs Dragons and Newport RFC ever since.
"We were out of the league for 25 years," club chairman Gavin Foxall told ESPN FC. "Our president David Hando, and the people who were around him at the time, did a fantastic job to put the club back on the map and through the English pyramid system to get it back to where we were, in the Football League.
"To progress on and now become known as a bit of a Cup team, it's fantastic. When you think about it, it is what dreams are made of because who would have thought we'd be playing Man City in the FA Cup fifth round?"
And aside from the romance of facing one of the most high-profile teams in world football, Foxall said there are also huge financial benefits, with the club on course to bank over £500,000 from gate receipts, television revenue and FA Cup prize money.
"The big thing it does, and I don't think people realise, is that when you run a football club, the close season months are a nightmare because of the fact that you don't have any income but you still have the same outgoings," he said. "First and foremost, this gets you through those months without having to make difficult decisions about season ticket prices or whatever it has to be."
For Willmott, whose goal against Middlesbrough set Newport on the way to their victory earlier this month, facing City makes up for the hard times when he almost walked away from the game.
"I dropped into part-time, worked in Tesco and played locally," he said. "But I said to myself, 'Have one more season,' and if it doesn't work out, I'll probably know myself that I'll not get back to the standard of football where I wanted to be.
"But that season in part-time probably made me learn to love football again. I went from training in the morning to training in the night. People won't think that's a massive change, but when you're sitting around all day and training at 7 p.m. and you've got half a team there because they're working late at work or their train hasn't come in, it's mad.
"For me it makes it so much more special because of what I've had to do to get back here. I was playing at grounds where there was no one even there. There's no atmosphere, there's nothing. I've had to deal with a lot to get back in, so it's special for me."
Willmott and Newport have already created lifelong memories from this Cup run -- goalkeeper Joe Day missed the birth of his twins by playing against Middlesbrough -- but a victory against City would top everything and project this small club into the hearts and minds of football supporters across the globe.
So, can they overcome an 81-place gap between themselves and City in the football pyramid to pull off one of the FA Cup's biggest-ever shocks?
"Let's not dress it up," Flynn said. "We've got to have the game of our lives and hope City have an off day. I know it's going to be really, really tough. Anything against Manchester City would be monumental."
Additional reporting from Jonathan Smith was used in this report.