Newport County suffered heartbreak in the League Two Playoff final as a Connor Jennings header two minutes from the end of extra time was enough to condemn County to a 1-0 defeat and see Tranmere promoted to League One.
Mike Flynn named an unchanged side from the semi-final second leg at Mansfield; Tyreeq Bakinson replaced Will Randall on the substitutes’ bench for County’s fourth trip to Wembley in just seven years. Likewise, Mickey Mellon's Tranmere’s XI bore no changes from the 1-1 draw at Forest Green but Ben Pringle replaced Jonny Smith on the sidelines.
An even but end-to-end opening saw half chances for both sides; Amond looked like he was in on goal before getting his feet muddled and he then flicked on a Robbie Willmott free kick for Matt but the ball just evaded the big man. At the other end, James Norwood fired a dangerous low cross in but Mark O’Brien got a vital foot in before any damage was done and Connor Jennings saw a shot from distance deflected safely into Joe Day’s grasp.
The League Two goalkeeper of the season was called into serious action on 25 minutes when League Two top scorer James Norwood was served up a delicious cross from Caprice on the right-hand side. It came perfectly to the striker’s right foot but he could only put his volley straight at Day, who did brilliantly to beat it away from almost underneath his crossbar.
The Wembley pitch is far larger than either side is used to and both teams sought to exploit the wider areas but chances were largely at a premium up to the whistle for half time; a lot of industry all over the pitch but ultimately, the game just lacked that piece of brilliance to set it alight.
Tranmere came out for the second half seeing to do that very thing and got into good positions but their best chance to that point came from the simplest of free kick routines. As County lined up to defend, they weren’t paying attention to David Perkins and a simple pass unlocked the defence; fortunately, Mickey Demetriou was switched on enough to get back an make the block but it could’ve been a downfall of their own making for the Exiles just 10 minutes into the half.
County would create their first guilt-edge chance of the half with just under 20 minutes left. Dan Butler’s left foot has been the source of a lot of good things about Newport’s season, and it was his pinpoint delivery that found it’s way through to Matt at the back post. He was able to generate a good amount of power but Scott Davies produced an instinctive palm away on to the post. Matt would then look to turn provider for Amond, but the Irishman somewhat dug at his shot and Davies produced a more comfortable save.
Manny Monthe struggled against Jamille Matt at Rodney Parade and this final was no different, but with barely 5 minutes to play, County should’ve been given a penalty. Some pinball in the box resulted in Matt wriggling free but the big centre half halted his progress in somewhat unceremoniously circumstances. The referee played advantage as O’Brien was subsequently played in, but given the offside decision, a penalty simply had to be given. Alas, it wasn’t. And it would get worse…
Minutes after his offside decision, O’Brien wrestled his man to the ground on half way to prevent him from advancing and was, quite rightly, shown his second yellow card of the game. County would play extra time with 10 men against a side building a head of steam…
As Extra Time looked to be petering out and penalties looked like the only outcome, County were dealt the cruelest blow of all. Good work down the right hand side saw Jake Caprice pick out a perfect cross for the onrushing Connor Jennings who made no mistake from close range. Wild raptures in the Tranmere end, dejection amongst the Exiles. There wasn’t enough time to mount a comeback and it will be Tranmere Rovers that grace League One next season.
Man of the Match: Dan Butler
Player Ratings: Day 7, Butler 8, Labadie 7 (Dolan 5), Willmott 7 (Marsh-Brown 6), Amond 7, Matt 7, Sheehan 7 (Bakinson 7), Bennett 7, O’Brien (C) 6, Poole 7, Demetriou 7
A final note:
Two years ago, Newport County AFC were minutes away from relegation from the Football League and the subsequent likelihood of folding as a club. Since Mike Flynn has taken over, he got the club going back to basics on the pitch and grinding out results. They stayed up that season because they earned it. While juggling a ground-share with rugby teams, one of the smallest budgets in League Two and one of the smallest squads, Flynn and his background staff have masterminded a run to the playoff places. The run culminated in a penalty shoot-out victory against the favourites to lift the playoff trophy and the right to win promotion at Wembley, the home of football
Two minutes from the end of Extra Time, they’re beaten. Yes, it could’ve been huge to be promoted. But take a minute to think about the bigger picture and what’s actually going on at the club. Hurt today, by all means. But be excited for what comes next…