Simon Hart: Justin Edinburgh offers second chances at born-again Newport
Life Beyond the Premier League
Thursday 08 August 2013
To the outsider, South Wales is a place associated with the old stereotypes of rugby, coal mines and male voice choirs yet it is developing a nice line in football fairy stories too, and not just for the presence of Swansea City in today's Europa League play-off draw. The rebirth of Newport County AFC is arguably an even more romantic tale – one involving exile from Wales, five promotions, a lottery-winning chairman and, now, a spectacular return to the Football League after 25 years.
If beating Accrington Stanley 4-1 in their opening League Two fixture last Saturday was not pleasing enough, Justin Edinburgh's side then went and won 3-1 at Brighton in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday – a victory wrapped up by a goal from a player who 12 months ago was working as a postman, Conor Washington, and which has earned them a second-round trip to West Bromwich Albion.
Newport's club president David Hando was one of 500 travelling fans at the Amex Stadium, and was there at Rodney Parade last Saturday too when, as he explains: "We had to turn people away." It is a far cry from the day in February 1989 when Hando saw Enfield turn up for a Conference fixture at Newport's old Somerton Park home only to find the gates locked. That came nine months after relegation from the old Fourth Division; the winding-up order that followed concluded the ruinous tenure of a controversial American owner, Jerry Sherman, who left debts of £300,000.
It is thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Hando and a group of like-minded fans that Newport has a League team today. They set up a phoenix club called Newport AFC (renamed Newport County AFC in 1999) with Hando serving as vice-president. The road back was long: the new team had to start again in the Hellenic League, playing their first season in the Gloucestershire town of Moreton-in-Marsh. After two seasons back at Somerton Park, a second, two-year spell in exile at Gloucester City began in 1992 after the Football Association of Wales responded to their refusal to join the League of Wales by refusing to sanction their participation in the English game – an argument County won in the High Court.
"We didn't expect the barriers to be put in our way, like having to go into exile twice," says Hando. "It has taken a long time but the pace has accelerated recently, with the appointment of Justin Edinburgh and move to Rodney Parade."
Although Dean Holdsworth had led County into the Conference in 2010, they sat bottom when Edinburgh, the former Tottenham Hotspur full-back, replaced Anthony Hudson in October 2011. Nineteen months later, they were celebrating a Wembley play-off triumph over Wrexham – a success which, for Edinburgh, topped his FA Cup and League Cup final wins with Tottenham. "There is no doubt that was the pinnacle of my footballing career," he says, adding: "Tuesday went a long way to rivalling it."
Edinburgh had managed four non-League teams previously – Billericay Town, Fisher Athletic, Grays Athletic and Rushden & Diamonds – yet always had a "burning desire" to climb higher. "When I started at Billericay, that was my main aim. It took me a bit longer than I expected," he says. The 43-year-old has the benefit of a wealthy chairman in Les Scadding, winner of £45.5m on the EuroMillions lottery, who took over in August last year, just as Newport were beginning a 10-year tenancy at Newport Rugby Club's Rodney Parade stadium. That agreement allowed the club to focus on squad building, with Scadding's wealth enabling Edinburgh to sign AFC Wimbledon striker Christian Jolley, who scored 15 goals last term.
That said, Edinburgh dismisses their "moneybags" tag. "I've probably brought in 25-30 players in 20 months and three of them I've purchased," he says. "I managed to keep 15 of last year's squad so continuity is the key."
Edinburgh has forged a formidable spirit despite his willingness to gamble on players with a reputation – captain David Pipe and midfielder Adam Chapman have both served prison terms while striker Chris Zebroski left two previous clubs for disciplinary reasons.
"A lot of them have had a second opportunity," adds the manager of a club whose own second chance has finally arrived.
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