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Ground: Newport Stadium (home of Newport City)
Date of visit: Wednesday 25th April 2018
Fixture: Newport City v Treowen Stars
Welsh Football League Division Three
Admission: £3 (programme £1, coffee in a mug £1)
Attendance: 20 (h/c)

After quite a few trips west along the M4, ground 15 took me in the opposite direction to the city of Newport and it’s eponymous Welsh League club.

Despite being born and bred in the south east of Wales, Newport is a place I’ve only a nominal relationship with. There would have been plenty of visits when I was a kid, but I could probably count on one hand the amount of times I have been to Newport as an adult – that’s if I can even remember them.

That’s not an insult though. I have always considered Newport a place of significance since it was the location of the last mass armed uprising against the establishment on British soil: the ill-fated ‘Chartist Uprising’ of 1839.

On the 4th of November of that year, thousands of working class men marched from the Welsh valleys towards Newport in the name of the Chartist movement, which, among several things, advocated universal suffrage at a time when the right to vote was extremely restricted and excluded the millions of working class men and women on whose toil Westminster’s imperialism was powered.

The march of the Chartists was supposed to be the start of a revolution, but it didn’t materialise. Despite a confrontation between the Welsh Chartists (equipped with home made arms) and soldiers of the 45th Regiment of Foot outside the Westgate Hotel that ended the lives of approximately 22 Chartists, the rebellion was quickly stifled by authorities, the leaders were rounded up and eventually handed harsh punishment.

There have been various commemorations to the uprising over the years. The figurehead of the movement, John Frost, has a square and a school in the city bearing his name, as well as a plaque erected on a building near his birth place. There was also a Chartist Mural in John Frost Square, but this was controversially demolished in 2013 (although the Chartist Trust is trying to commission a new mural, with Newport City Council committing funds). There are further tributes in Newport Cathedral, Monmouth, Chepstow and Blackwood; the latter an impressive 26ft sculpture of a Chartist marcher. In 1999 I helped my uncle organise a charity walk that followed the route of the Chartists of the Afon Lwyd valley to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the uprising.

That’s a small part of Newport’s place in history then, let’s get onto the football…

*

Newport City FC was formerly Llanwern AFC, a club with a long recent history in the Welsh League. The club was rebranded for the 2016/17 season, presumably as a ploy to boost the club’s commercial and local appeal. The club’s crest contains an impression of the Newport Transporter Bridge; a nod to it’s location, history, as well as one of the foremost ‘landmarks’ of the modern City of Newport.

The origins of the modern club can be traced back to the 1960s and the formation of Spencer Works AFC: a club, presumably, formed by and consisting of workers at Newport’s steel works. Spencer began life in the local Newport & District League, eventually progressing up to the Gwent County League. There were successive Gwent County League titles in 1971 and 1972 before entry to the Welsh League was granted for the 1972/73 season.

Spencer Works made quick progress through the Welsh League, finishing 2nd in Division Two (the modern day Division Three) in their debut season and thereby gaining promotion to Division One. Two seasons later (1974/75) Spencer won the Division One title and were promoted to the top flight, then known as the Premier Division. Spencer’s stay in the top flight was brief, they were relegated back to Division One where they remained until league re-organisation for the 1983/84 season saw them promoted again to the top flight (despite finishing 5th in Division One).

The club changed its name to Llanwern AFC for the 1988-89 season to reflect the change of the steelworks name. Since the late 1980s Llanwern have endured a nomadic journey up and down the three Welsh League Divisions, although since 2004 Llanwern bounced between Division Two and Three (tiers 3-4 of the Welsh pyramid). A finish of 4th in the 1990/91 season remains the club’s highest league finish.

Llanwern AFC’s biggest triumph though came in the 2001/02 season when they lifted the Welsh Football League Cup, defeating Gwynfi United in the final played in Neath.

The first season (206/17) as Newport City wasn’t an auspicious one as they finished bottom of Division Two and were relegated to Division Three. This season the club are under a new committee and a season of transition looks set to end with a mid-table finish.

Off the field, the club historically played at the steelworks’ football ground; the move to their current home at the council-owened Newport Stadium was made in 2003. They shared this ground with the city’s biggest club, Newport County AFC, until their re-location to Rodney Parade in 2012.

*

Newport Stadium is based in the south-east quadrant of the city, east of the River Usk, just off the A48. It’s easily accessible from the M4 from both directions and there is a massive car park. Newport’s railway station is on the other side of the Usk, in the city centre.

The ground has excellent facilities for the level. There is a significant covered grandstand with more than 1000 seats, accessed through the main entrance to the stadium. On the other side of the pitch is a large covered terrace that I’ve read is known as ‘The Shed’. There is also another terrace (uncovered) behind the goal at the north end of the ground. Around the pitch is a complete athletics track, which makes a tour of the stadium slightly more onerous as it’s a long walk along the length of the ground.

Underneath the grandstand are located the changing rooms and most of facilities in the ground, including a good sized cafe selling the usual hot drinks and confectionery. The tea and coffee comes in a real mug too and there was some interesting pre-match chat among the patrons.

Newport City’s programme is pretty basic content-wise although the print quality is excellent with plenty of coloured pages, including high quality coloured photos of the Newport City squad. There are manager’s notes, the usual history of the clubs, stats and match reports. However, it is a programme that consists largely of adverts, it’s rather more style than substance.

The peculiarity of the match experience on this occasion was the emptiness of the stadium. My rough headcount put the attendance at around 20 (the lowest crowd of any game I’ve seen this season, even as low as South Wales Alliance League Division One) and most of that number seemed to be supporting Treowen Stars. I couldn’t say whether this was a typical crowd for a Newport City game; it was an end of season midweek game that had very little riding on it for the home side as they can’t go up and won’t go down.

It was very strange and while Newport Stadium clearly offers the players and management facilities that are unrivalled in Division Three, the desolation subtracts from the spectator’s experience. It was a glimpse at a kind of worst-case scenario for clubs further up the pyramid who are being forced to spend vast sums on stands they are unlikely get a return on.

From the Newport City point of view there is in place at Newport Stadium an infrastructure fit for a higher level. If the club can restore some of the glory days of the former Llanwern AFC, there is some comfort that the club can call upon excellent facilities. It certainly would be nice to go back one day to see a successful Newport City being cheered on from ‘The Shed’ by a few hundred locals. The potential is certainly there in a city the size of Newport.

*

Newport City 2 (Martyn Mickiewicz, Patrick Pope pen)
Treowen Stars 3 (Jack Stait, Christopher Jones, Tom Harris)

When reading the programme before kick off one thing that struck me came in the ‘Message from the Manager’ feature. Here Newport’s manager Sam Houldsworth wrote “We are building for next season and looking to create a style of play which hopefully attracts players in the Welsh League pyramid who enjoy playing a passing game and want to improve within a like minded team.”

There are many clubs in the Welsh League that aspire to play ‘attractive football’, so there is nothing revolutionary in what Sam Houldsworth wrote, but what I liked about it was the idea that Newport City are at least trying to build an identity based on how the side are going to try and play. It’s not to say this is the correct way, it is simply good to see grassroots clubs trying to forge an idea of what they are going to be about, whether that it being a community club, commitment to developing local players, or by promoting a certain brand of football.

Of course, words and deeds are different things and it is can seem platitudinal to speak of ‘playing style’, but on the evidence of this game at least, it is fair to say this commitment to playing a passing game is evident in the Newport City side.

They seem to be at a stage of development though and the insistence on playing it out from the back came across as naivety in this match against a hungry, high-pressing Treowen side that are scrapping for points in their bid to maintain their Welsh League status.

Newport City did take the lead in the match, Martyn Mickiewicz converting with a fine finish on the turn after good work by Kareem Leigh on the right flank. This came after Treowen started the game looking the more accomplished outfit, their players more assured in their more direct brand of football. Having broken the deadlock, Newport looked like they might go on and take the game by the scruff of the neck, but a mistake at the back allowed Jack Stait to equalise with a well-controlled volley shortly before half-time.

The second-half started with Treowen in determined mood and they took the lead on 53 minutes through Christopher Jones. Another error at the back by Newport as they failed to clear their lines saw a deflection off a Newport player fall kindly for Jones to steer past the home goalkeeper. Newport were level again soon after thanks to a fairly generous penalty award for handball. Patrick Pope stepped up and made no mistake with his placed spot-kick.

Like a side scrapping and enjoying an upturn in form, Treowen’s heads did not drop. Another moment of calamity at the back from Newport, this time from goalkeeper Pateev. Initially he seemed to have done well to save a deflected strike at goal, but somehow he allowed the ball to squirm loose and Treowen right back Tom Harris was presented with an open goal.

Treowen defended the lead doggedly and it wasn’t until the latter stages that Newport threatened an equaliser, the best chance coming to Mickiewicz in injury time but his near post header from a long throw went the wrong side of the goalpost.

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