Blog: How Newport crashed and burned before the Phoenix rose from the flames

March 18th this year marks the 30th anniversary of the most famous night of the previous incarnation of Newport County. Fourth division champions the year earlier, they had also beaten Shrewsbury Town in the final of the Welsh Cup and qualified for Europe at the beginning of what would be a golden age for the club. Forward pairing John Aldridge and Tommy Tynan were a constant menace, and it was their goals that put paid to Crusaders and Haugar Haugesund in Rounds One and Two, with the fortress that was Somerton Park bearing witness to 4-0 and 6-0 thrashings. One could argue that County had been the beneficiaries of a straightforward draw, but the results had demonstrated that despite Third Division status, they remained stratospheres above the continent’s footballing minnows. They were two games away from emulating the Cardiff City side that included a young John Toshack. Thirteen years earlier, they had overcome NAC Breda and Torpedo Moscow before eventually losing to Hamburg in the semi-finals (this was and would remain the best ever performance by a Welsh team in European competition.)

Standing in their way were the East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. They already had history of their own in European competition and had shown their mettle by eliminating Roma and Valencia in the opening rounds. When they twice went ahead in their home leg on the other side of the wall, the tie appeared to be going to form. However, Tynan, who had joined Liverpool at 16 after winning a local talent show, scored a late equaliser to silence the fanatical home support and leave the tie hanging in the balance. Newport had so many chances to score in the return match at Somerton Park that you perhaps come to the conclusion that it was Jena’s night, with captain Lothar Kurbuweit’s deflected free kick ultimately proving decisive. With four shots cleared off the line, the woodwork hit twice and goalkeeper Grapenthin performing like a highly convincing Jan Tomasewski tribute, this writer having watched some of the game is not convinced Aldridge’s injury was a fatal blow. It is likely they could have continued until the end of the 1980s and still not scored. Manager Len Ashurst’s comment that they were “rather unlucky not to be in the next round” may also go down as the understatement of that decade.

It was indeed a pair of heroic performances, perhaps not given sufficient coverage by the mainstream media as it coincided with the rise of neighbours Swansea City which would culminate in promotion to the First Division at the end of that season. The flirtation with glory would continue for two more years until Ashurst’s replacement, Colin Addison, saw his side narrowly miss out on promotion to the second tier in 1983. Having topped the division with seven games remaining, County contrived to throw it away with a run of four points from 21, with the loss at fellow-challengers Huddersfield Town in the penultimate game of the season equating to the death knell for their ambitions.

In a twelve month period, Aldridge and Tynan would leave the club, taking some 130 league goals with them. With Kevin Moore and Nigel Vaughan departing too, this really was the end of a dynasty as the club’s gamble on keeping their best players on wages their status could not afford began to backfire. Missing out on games against the likes of Newcastle, Leeds United and Manchester City (not to mention newly-relegated Swansea) was to prove catastrophic in more than a footballing sense. The 15,000 that had attended their demolition of Cardiff on Easter Monday 1983 was a good indicator of the club’s potential.

As it was, Newport entered a spiral of declining fortunes both on and off the field with mere survival now their realistic on-field aim. With the trapdoor into division four coming ever closer, Jerry Sherman entered the stage in November 1986. Having heard of the club from listening to the English results on the radio in Canada, the man from Newport, Washington appeared determined to take County and their supporters on a journey to hitherto unthinkable heights. Sherman promised more money, and more money until “it” happened. What actually transpired was successive relegations out of the league, a club’s slow slide towards insolvency and paycheques that bounced higher than Joel Garner’s most hostile bowling. Below is a YouTube video from Newport’s last season in the Football League. The 6-1 mauling at Plainmoor in March 1988 was in the midst of a run during which they would concede 30 goals in 7 games, and illustrates how demoralised they had become by this point. The one bright spot is the last appearance in a Torquay shirt by their teenage winger Lee Sharpe. His performance here is astonishing for someone who was really still a boy, and reminds us just what a wasted talent he was.

The final match for the previous incarnation of the club came in February 1989 as they lost 2-1 at eventual Conference champions Maidstone. That result, along with their four wins, seven draws and seventeen other defeats in that season would be expunged as the club was wound up on 27 February 1989 with £330,000 of debts unsettled. Speaking to a television reporter shortly afterwards, Sherman insisted that the club had a bright future in something akin to the Houston astrodome, with the charge towards the top flight giving way to money-spinning rock concerts in the summer. He also openly acknowledged that the club would be used to promote his venture capital business JLA, with on-field success seen as the vehicle to commercial name recognition. He may have had a shocking Kim Wilde hairdo, been flat broke in reality and had something of the Walter Mitty about him – however as a visionary, Sherman was some 20 years ahead of his time.

While researching for this piece, this writer stumbled across an article from the Seattle News in the early 2000s about a Jerry Sherman who had taken money from ‘investors’ for a business venture and spent it on a youth ice hockey team called the Washington Evergreens. The noble and popular concept of free hockey for kids won Sherman many friends, but appeared to come at the expense of those who had invested in his JLA company and its forays into the Indonesian gold market. An interesting line from here read, “it is unclear what exactly Sherman did before founding the Evergreens”. The tale of big plans backed by money from sources unknown would suggest that there are people in South Wales who could no doubt have assisted this particular scribe. Sherman’s quest for popularity, seemingly driven by personal insecurity, would end with him being given a seven year sentence in a Seattle prison for fraud.

Newport’s re-incarnation would begin in the lowly reaches of the Hellenic League, which they won at the first time of asking in 1989/90. Dave Jarvis and Chris Lilygreen both scored twenty goals as they clinched promotion with a 1-3 success at Abingdon Town. The subsequent rise through the non-league pyramid would be stop-start and regularly punctuated by a fraught relationship with the Welsh FA that would inspire the nickname ‘the Exiles’.

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