The top cup competition in non-League football had, by a quirk, drawn together Newport AFC and Aldershot Town, two clubs which continue the century-old traditions of their now extinct professional forerunners. The hosts hailed it as 'the Phoenix encounter'. David Hando, a schoolteacher and the chairman of Newport, said: 'We are clubs which rose from the ashes because two groups of supporters were determined to restore League football to their towns.'
On yesterday's evidence, Aldershot's ambitions seem more soundly based. Despite conceding an early goal, when Linden Jones scored from a penalty, they won 3-1 with two coming from Dave Osgood, the cousin of the former Chelsea forward, Peter, and the other from John Humphrey, a former Millwall player.
The Shots had brought 500 fans down the M4 to boost the attendance to 2,138, and their secretary, Peter Bridgeman, was relieved they had a success to enjoy after last week's FA Cup defeat to Buckingham.
For Newport, it was the first reverse of the season and their frustration surfaced towards the end when Brendan Dowd elbowed Steve Stairs and was sent off for a second bookable offence. That incident is, however, unlikely to destroy the empathy between two clubs whose close relationship goes back to March 1992, when Aldershot FC went bankrupt and their supporters turned to Newport for advice.
Newport County had gone out of business only three years earlier, and their successors had already taken one step towards League status by winning promotion from the Hellenic League to the Beazer Homes League in 1990. 'When they contacted us, we gave them what help we could, but it was a bit like the blind leading the blind,' Hando said. 'We've got a board of 14 who are all workers. There's no great money among us - it's all down to voluntary effort and enthusiasm.'
The key to Newport's success was the Lifeline Society, through which thousands of supporters subscribe to the club every week. In 1991, however, the Football Association of Wales set up their own league and decreed that all Welsh clubs - except Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham and Merthyr Tydfil - should join it. Newport refused, were banned from playing in Wales and had to find a home over the border - first at Moreton-in-Marsh, then at Gloucester.
Their 838-day exile finally came to an end on 26 July, when a judge granted them and the two other clubs involved, Colwyn Bay and Caernarfon, a temporary injunction preventing the FAW from banishing them to England. AFC returned to Newport and a pounds 2.8m stadium, built last year by the borough council to replace nearby Somerton Park, Newport County's former home, which has been demolished.
The efforts of Aldershot supporters to recreate their club were, by contrast, helped by the game's administrators. The Hampshire FA gave them senior club status within weeks of the demise of their predecessors, and their application to join the Diadora League was accepted soon after. 'We didn't even have any players, but they could see that we would be an asset to the League,' Bridgeman said.
'Half our income comes from gates and the rest is from advertising and sponsorship. Our crowds have averaged over 2,000 and we've shown a profit every year. We're now building up money to buy players.'
Aldershot have climbed two rungs in the Diadora League in two seasons and are now at the same level as Newport. Both are favourites for promotion to their respective Premier divisions, which would leave them just one step away from the Vauxhall Conference. The chances of them going beyond that in the foreseeable future must be slim, but who would bet against their commitment?
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