The last few seasons have been a wild ride for Newport County. Since barely clinging on to their Football League status in 2017, the club has gone on to host luminaries such as Tottenham and Man City at Rodney Parade and knock the likes of Leicester City and Middlesbrough out the FA Cup – all while establishing itself in League 2 and narrowly missing out on promotion to League 1 in 2018-19.
Key elements in that rapid change of fortune have been two Irishmen, striker Pádraig Amond and defender Mark O’Brien.
Amond’s 85th-minute penalty fired the Exiles past Leicester in January 2019, a victory that grabbed headlines for being one of the biggest ever cupsets, while he also scored key goals in his team’s other giant-killing exploits against Boro and Spurs, who needed a late Harry Kane equaliser to bring the sides’ 2018 FA Cup 4th round tie to a replay at Wembley.
And yet, were it not for O’Brien’s 89th-minute winner against Notts County on the final day of the 2016-17 season, none of Amond’s achievements may have been possible. Sent on for the last 10 minutes as a makeshift striker, with the scoreline at 1-1 and Newport needing a win to stay up, O’Brien volleyed home only his second-ever senior goal to make it 2-1.
Arguably, it was the South Wales club’s most important result this century.
But Newport staying up in such dramatic fashion also meant someone else went down, and the side losing out on this occasion were Hartlepool United, on whose books Amond was registered at the time. O’Brien’s volley had directly relegated his future team-mate, but a few months later Amond swapped one club for the other, and the rest is history.
For all their recent highs, both O’Brien and Amond have taken circuitous routes to Newport from Ireland. O’Brien spent a decade in the underage setup at Cherry Orchard in Ballyfermot, Dublin, before he was brought over to England by Derby County in 2008.
“When I flew over to Derby, Paul Jewell was the manager, but he was sacked midway through the [2008-09] season,” O’Brien told Paddy Power News. “Nigel Clough took over before the end of that season, he took a liking to me and I made my debut by the end of the year.
“He stuck by me through ups and downs that I had at the club, including the heart operation I had, so he was probably the main influence on why I was there for so long.”
O’Brien was just 16 when he was handed that first start, which came in a Championship clash with Watford in May.
But within a few months, a doctor was telling him he needed urgent and major surgery to resolve a leak in his aorta valve. As a consequence, the 2009-10 campaign was all but a write-off, but the Dubliner was back in the Rams first team setup by 2010-11 and became something of a regular under Clough in 2011-12.
Lurking around the corner, however, was a succession of injuries – and a lack of favour with new boss Steve McClaren – that ultimately led to a move away from Pride Park in 2015. After a tough couple of years with Luton and Southport came the move to Newport, which has revitalised O’Brien’s career.
“You’re supposed to take each game as it comes, but with the fixtures we’ve had, the teams who’ve come to our place, and the away trip to play Tottenham at Wembley – the old cliche is that it’s like our cup final. We knew we had nothing to lose – we were the underdogs and so you go out and express yourselves. When you’re playing in front of the TV cameras, it’s a chance to get your name back out there.
“Over the years, through injury and stuff like that, you get a few knock-backs so it’s a good way to get that bit of redemption for yourself and show people that you’re still around. With the games that we’ve had over the past couple of years, and the massive changes at this club, to be involved is great for getting yourself back on the map.”
For a player who, during the early stages of his career, would have been considered a sure thing to make a hatful of appearances for his country, the spotlight on Newport can only be a good thing. Amond was called up to the international squad in March, and O’Brien isn’t willing to let go of the possibility that he’ll experience something similar.
“You always live in hope that you might get an international callup. I know a couple of lads who are already there, like Jeff Hendrick and John Egan, and I’ve played alongside Richard Keogh and Robbie Brady from a young age. When I see people there who I’ve played with for so many years, I look at that and think, ‘If they’re doing it, so can I.'”
Similarly to O’Brien’s, Amond’s career had its share of ups and downs before the good times returned with a bang in Wales. The Carlow man was a League of Ireland star at a young age before earning a transfer to Portugal’s top tier with Pacos Ferreira in 2010. It was an unusual move for an Irish footballer, but one that Amond considers immensely valuable.
“I was playing for Sligo Rovers at the time and living with Mauro Almeida,” says Amond. “We were sitting watching TV one day and he made a throwaway comment to me, asking if I’d ever play in Portugal. I said yeah – I don’t know why people limit themselves to seeing the Premier League and Football League as the be-all and end-all…
“About a month or two after that conversation with Mauro, I was scoring loads of goals and we played Shamrock Rovers in the semi-final of the cup. I scored two, and the sporting director [of Pacos Ferreira] was at the game – they put in a bid for me that night and everything took off from there.”
What Amond faced in Portugal was a football world very different from home.
“During the year or so that I was there Porto won the Europa League, beating Braga in Dublin in the final,” says Amond. “They were two of the teams we were competing against and we finished 5th in the league.
“It was tough. You’re playing against the likes of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon – Benfica beat us in the cup final, which was a massive achievement for us to get there. The standard of football was brilliant – very technical.
“I always wondered how you’d see such high-scoring games when teams like Porto took on lower teams – was it just because they and Benfica were not that far ahead of everyone? But it wasn’t that. In Premier League matches, away teams often shut up shop and try to nick a goal but it didn’t happen over there: it was, ‘We’ll outplay you.'”
Things weren’t always easy. Amond struggled to become comfortable with the language and found himself somewhat marginalised within the squad.
“There was quite a divide in the dressing room between the South Americans and the Portuguese boys. Initially when I went over, there was an Australian lad there, Jason Davidson, who’d been there for quite a while and had a good grasp of the language.
“He was brilliant for me but he moved on a couple of months later and I was caught in between, sitting right in the middle of everyone, getting a bit from here and a bit from there. They all tried to make me as welcome as possible, but I wanted to play more football and that was one of the reasons I came back to England.”
After a couple of years moving around with the likes of Grimsby, Morecambe and, of course, Hartlepool, Amond is now making hay while the sun shines in Newport.
“It’s not by design you end up here. But you never know what’s going to happen in football – things can change very very quickly and since I’ve moved down it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because I really enjoy the place and really like the place, and on the pitch it has gone fantastic for me.”
Fondness for the area is something echoed by his compatriot, O’Brien.
“Newport is a lot different from home. But I’ve lived away for 10 years now, so you get used to it, no matter where you live. I’ve lived in Southport in a B & B; I’ve lived all over the place, but living in Newport I feel really settled and I enjoy my football here.”
With Premier League teams and the TV cameras visiting Rodney Parade seemingly every few months, it’s no wonder why.