On Tuesday evening, League 2’s Newport County welcome West Ham to their atmospheric Rodney Parade ground for an EFL Cup 2nd round clash.
It’s the latest in a recent spate of broadly publicised cup fixtures for the Welsh side – who have been “unsponsored” by Paddy Power for the 2019-20 season – against high-profile opposition. Earlier in 2019, Newport dispatched Leicester City and Middlesbrough in the FA Cup 3rd and 4th rounds, respectively, before playing host to behemoths Man City in the 5th round.
That one didn’t end well on the pitch for the Exiles, with Pep’s automatons emerging as 4-1 winners, but the gate receipts and TV coverage earned during this period contributed to Newport turning a rare end-of-season profit, as well as increasing significantly the club’s renown in south Wales and beyond.
Overseeing these exploits was local boy and former County player Michael Flynn, who remains in charge of the side. Flynn became manager in March 2017 after Newport sacked Graham Westley following a dismal run of results that left them 11 points adrift in League 2. An exit from the Football League beckoned, but Flynn somehow inspired his players to eradicate that gap and earn survival on the final day of the season thanks to a goal from Irish defender Mark O’Brien. Two years on, the rest, pretty much, is history.
Yet despite the newfound celebrity recently earned by his team, the prospect of another big game hasn’t lost its appeal to Flynn.
“It’s always a special opportunity to play against a Premier League team,” he told Paddy Power News on Monday. “It’s going to be an exciting evening and we want to give it our best shot. It’ll be difficult, but we’ve got previous, so a lot of the players know what to expect. You’re playing against top players from a top football club with a good manager. It’s nice having them at our place under the lights and it’ll be a great atmosphere on a Tuesday night.”
More than most, Flynn knows what nights like this do for the city. To someone born and bred in the area, the increased attention on County and the impact of headline occasions such as this is clear.
“It’s huge for Newport. It’s not just the football club that benefits – it’s the community. It’s the extra kids who’re supporting the club. It’s the pubs, the restaurants and the shops around the city centre. On matchdays like this, there’s always higher footfall, and it’s huge for the local economy and the community.
“There is a higher interest in fixtures like this, but you can see that the previous games – Leicester, Man City – have raised the profile of the club. Everyone wants to ask questions. You’re more recognised in places – and not just in Newport, it’s nationwide, you get fans of other clubs talking to you and wishing you luck. Everybody loves an underdog story.”
In total, over 5️⃣,5️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ tickets have now been sold for the match ?
— Newport County AFC (@NewportCounty) August 26, 2019
At this stage, Flynn and his players may be old hands when it comes to facing opposition from higher up the football pyramid, but for the manager, life still comes first. Before taking on a Premier League giant like West Ham, there are other concerns.
“The kids are off school so I’m sure I’ll be up early! It’s just a normal day. I’ll spend some time with the boys, relax, and I might even go for a run just to clear the thoughts. Then maybe I’ll have a bite to eat and get dressed – though I don’t know what to wear yet, it depends how hot it is. I might go with the tracksuit.”
Come Tuesday night, it’s all about ironing out the finer details.
“We’ll go through a pre-match analysis video of West Ham before the game, but a lot of the work is already done. Then it’s down to the players – we’ve done what we can, all we can do is get our substitutions right. Hopefully we do ourselves proud.
“We’ve got to hope they have an off-day and we play to the best of our ability, don’t make any mistakes and take our chances. It’s a big gulf in the standard of players, but our players have shown they can rise to the occasion. If all goes that way, we could be in the hat for the next round.”
?️ | "The fans are loud, they are supportive and that is the key thing. It shows we are all in this together."
— Newport County AFC (@NewportCounty) August 26, 2019
He may play it down, but giant-killing has become a habit. Flynn and Newport will be more than ready for the visitors. County may not have the scouting or analytical resources of their opponents, but they make use of what they have, whether it be online scouting platform Wyscout, or something as simple as watching live games – and even taking note of the TV pundits’ analysis.
“I always respect the opponent, whether it’s West Ham or Crewe, who we played over the weekend. We do our due diligence with the same amount of detail. We had one of our scouts go to one of their [West Ham] games – I can’t remember which one if I’m being totally honest.
“But everything on the Premier League teams is there – we use Wyscout and the analysis of Match of the Day and Sky Sports. You can get the games up now on demand by the red button, so it’s all there.
When you’re scouting, you look at their dangermen.
“You look at set plays, for and against. You look for their patterns of play and how they try to get their dangermen on the ball and create scoring opportunities. And also their weaknesses: whether they’re stronger down the right; whether more crosses come in from the right; or against them on the left. We address all the pros and cons, it’s not just concentrating on their strengths – we look to exploit their weaknesses as well.
“These are all things we bear in mind, but if you put too much emphasis on the opposition, you lose track of what you’re trying to do yourself. We’ve got to make sure we’re on the ball and doing things right…
“We use stats, but my eyes are still working and I know what I’m seeing in front of me. The stats are good. They’re there – but you can also make stats work how you want them to work.
“You’ve just got to trust the players with the job you’ve asked them to do. Thankfully, I’ve got a group that I trust.”
Given Newport’s achievements over the past few seasons, that comes as little surprise.