As I watched Swansea progress in the Europa League before Christmas, my mind inescapably rewound to the 1980s, recalling similar such adventures for the Welsh club. Four times Swansea would participate in the old European Cup Winners' Cup, but nothing they did in the eighties would match the exploits of Newport County in the 1980/81 competition. For Newport's tale is one of triumph and despair, little hope but then great expectations, and above all, a sad conclusion containing massive slices of ill fortune. Not bad for a club that years previously had struggled for mere existence.
To understand Newport's achievements, first we need to assess just where they had come from. In 1976, the club had come close to bankruptcy, their off field troubles neatly reflecting matters on the pitch in that season. Newport would finish 22nd in the 24-team Fourth Division, and would have to apply for re-election to the Football League. Mind you, they were used to this situation, having to go through the re-election process ten times in their history, and as the 1976-77 season unfolded, it looked as if Newport's time in the league was up.
A glance at the league table going into the final match of the season shows Newport's predicament. Under the management of Colin Addison since January, the team had been revived, yet a defeat in their final home game against Workington would have meant another re-election ordeal and possible relegation. Newport's 1-0 win, their fifth successive victory, completed the Great Escape, and for the next few seasons, the club began to make moves in the right direction.
A 16th placed finish in Addison's final season, was built upon in Len Ashurst's regime, the team finishing seventh and then gaining promotion to the Third Division in 1979/80 by beating Walsall on the last day of the season. It completed a fantastic year for the club, their victory in the Welsh Cup gaining Newport entry to the 1980/81 European Cup Winners' Cup, and paving the way for the adventures ahead.
The first round draw was kind to Newport, the club paired with the part-timers in Northern Ireland's Crusaders, a team full of the obligatory civil servants, factory and shipyard workers, and plasterers. Crusaders manager Ian Russell was forced to take unpaid leave, losing four days pay from his role as the head of the Science Department at Belfast's Newtonbreda High School, as his team made the journey to Wales. "It's a bit of a sacrifice. But it will be worth it if we get a good result in the first leg".
Ashurst was taking nothing for granted, pointing to Crusaders' efforts against Liverpool at Anfield in the 1976/77 European Cup, a match that the Irish team only lost 2-0. Realistically though, Newport would have too much for their opponents, and so it would transpire.
In front of a crowd of 6,285 at Somerton Park, Newport won 4-0, with goals from strike duo Dave Gwyther and John Aldridge, winger Kevin Moore, and defender Dave Bruton. The return leg was drawn 0-0, in a match Ashurst described as "just about the worst game I've seen", yet Newport were comfortably into the next round, where Norwegian side Haugar awaited.
Between legs, Haugar would gain promotion to the Norwegian First Division, managed by former West Ham and Millwall player Dennis Burnett. A fine 3-1 aggregate victory over Swiss team FC Sion in the first round, had set up the clash with Newport, although Burnett openly admitted that his team's British style of play would probably play into the hands of the Welsh club. For Newport, the cup run was a welcome distraction from their poor early season form, the club struggling to come to terms with the demands of the Division Three, before gradually finding their feet as the season progressed.
Torrential rain in Norway almost forced the first leg to be switched ten miles away to Kopervik, but after 100 truck loads of sawdust were dumped on the pitch, the match went ahead. Unsurprisingly the playing surface was awful, although Newport had the better of the 0-0 draw, Aldridge and skipper Keith Oakes both missing glorious chances to win the match. Ashurst was fairly confident that his side would have enough in Wales to progress: "We saw nothing from Haugar to frighten us and with the right approach, we should beat them at Newport".
Just a couple of days after the first leg, Ashurst splashed £45,000 on Tottenham goalkeeper Mark Kendall, although it would be Gary Plumley would play the remaining Cup Winners' Cup matches. Ashurst's confidence after the first leg was well founded, Newport's crushing 6-0 victory in the end probably flattering the Norwegians. Goals from Gwyther, Welsh Under-21 international Steve Lowndes, Aldridge, Moore, and two from Tommy Tynan, booked Newport a quarter final place, as the British press began to take a keen interest in the feelgood story behind the Third Division side.
Despite avoiding European heavyweights such as Benfica, Feyernoord and Dinamo Tbilisi, very few gave Newport any hope against the East German team Carl Zeiss Jena. Having knocked out Roma and holders Valencia already, and flying high in the East German First Division, it was understandable that their coach Hans Meyer sounded extremely confident before the first leg in Jena. "We expect Newport to play above themselves for at least part of the game. But their industry should be no match for our skill and European experience," stated Mayer. On paper at least, his cockiness looked justified.
Ashurst, who was without the services of Aldridge (injured), and his record signing in Alan Waddle (ineligible) was realistic about the task ahead: "I know we're the underdogs and it will be largely a containing exercise for us, but we're determined to do well here". Newport arrived in Germany during Fasching - a pre-Lent festival celebrated in Germany, Switzerland and Austria - which certainly calmed nerves before the big test, the town in full party mode in the build-up to the quarter final. The carnival atmosphere was expected to continue, Jena's fans hoping to see the tie put to bed in the first leg.
Newport surprised Jena, taking the game to the hosts from the start, yet once the East Germans weathered the early storm they began to exert pressure of their own. After 22 minutes Newport's resistance cracked, as Jurgen Raab scored after a scramble, the first goal the Welsh team had conceded during their cup run. Undeterred, Newport absorbed all Jena had to throw at them, before grabbing a priceless away goal, Tommy Tynan scoring six minutes before the break with a good finish that beat Hans-Ulrich Grapenthin at his near post.
Both Raab and Tynan would repeat their first half exploits as the match drew to a conclusion. Raab's 85th minute goal looked to have won the match for the Germans, but with pretty much the last kick of the game, Tynan slipped the ball under Grapenthin, after great work down the right by Gwyther. Tynan's goal stunned the Germans, and left a shell-shocked Mayer proclaiming that "Newport are holding all the trumps".
"What a night," a delighted Ashurst said after the 2-2 draw. "The lads were marvellous. Now we must stand a great chance of getting into the semi-finals". The achievement of holding Jena to a draw should not be under valued, the Third Division side fully deserving the credit that came their way. "Newport, the minnows who played like giants" declared The Times headline, as unbelievably Newport were one match away from becoming the first Third Division club to reach the semi-finals of a European cup competition.
Cup fever swept the town, ensuring Newport's first capacity crowd of 18,000 in 21 years, and as the players trained on a pitch in the shadows of Uskmouth Power Station in a relaxed and confident mood, all of a sudden people began to believe that the impossible was now attainable. "We have learned that we have nothing to fear," said Ashurst on the eve of the match, exuding confidence in comparison to a circumspect Meyer.
Due to a combination of injuries and suspensions, Jena were without six of the men who had finished off Valencia, Meyer admitting "Our situation is very, very difficult. It is only normal to expect Newport to go through to the semi-final, though we will try everything". Meyer sounded as if the world was against him, his mood probably not helped when his team arrived at their accommodation, only to see the West German flag fluttering above the building.
If Meyer was feeling unlucky, then he should have tried being in Ashurst's shoes at the final whistle. In a superb display, Newport did everything but score, on a night that must still rankle with any Newport fan old enough to have been at a buzzing Somerton Park. Five goal line clearances, a crossbar rattled, and a quite breathtaking save at the end of a night of heartbreak indicates just how unfortunate Newport were.
Skipper Oakes was the first to be denied, his goalbound header cleared off the line, the defender agonisingly close to adding to his impressive tally of ten goals that season. From the resulting corner, Newport's players were convinced that Gwyther's header had crossed the line. "It was unbelievable. I thought at least two of our efforts were in," Oakes would later claim, but if Newport felt hard done by, they did not let it show.
The hits just kept on coming; Oakes again thwarted by a defender on the line, as a frankly startled Jena continued to ride their luck. Eventually, the one-way traffic stopped, with Plumley forced into a couple of smart saves in the rare moments that Jena managed to cross the halfway line. But ask any football supporter who sees his team spurn endless opportunities what they fear the most and they will all give you the same answer: we will pay for these missed chances at some point.
Lothar Kurbjuweit's free-kick was well struck, but a gaping hole in the defensive wall and poor keeping from Plumley were responsible for Jena's winner. Silence descended upon the ground as the German's celebrated taking an undeserved lead, but with two away goals in the bank, Newport knew they were still just a goal away from progressing. Easier said than done though.
Tynan tested Grapenthin from a free kick towards the end of the half, and barring a glaring miss by Raab, the second half was again all about Newport's bad luck and the charmed life of Jena's goal. Tynan struck the bar, Lowndes saw a shot deflected over, Grapenthin dramatically kept out Gwyther's close range header, and Moore was the latest player to see a German clear an effort off the line. It just wouldn't go in.
Just when everyone had given up hope, one final moment of agony was bestowed upon the players and fans. In time added on, Grapenthin kept Moore's header out with a stunning save, the keeper fully making up for his sloppy display in the first leg. "I've seen good goalkeeping performances, and that was as good as anything I've seen," said a deflated Ashurst post-match, no one quite sure how Newport had failed to score on an evening of frustration.
The one-word headline in the Daily Mirror neatly summed up the Newport experience on March 18, 1981: "Heartbreak". Ashurst admitted that many of his players were in tears in the dressing room, quite understandably seeing as they had completely dominated the match, and come so close to a place in the European Cup Winners' Cup semi-final. But their heads could be held up high, at the end of their European journey.
Jena would go on to lose the final - perhaps they had used up all their luck in Wales - and Newport managed to recover from their disappointment by dragging themselves away from the threat of relegation, and finishing 12th. But soon, the glory nights of that European run would become a distant memory.
After narrowly missing out on promotion to the Second Division in the 1982/83 season under the management of Addison, things started to unravel. Tynan and Aldridge would depart within a few years, debts began to accrue, and back-to-back relegations in 1986/87 and 1987/88 saw the club playing in the Conference by the end of the decade. By 1989, the club was £330,000 in debt, and unable to pay their players, and by February 27 the club was no more, wound-up in the high court.
To end this piece on such a low would be wrong though. Newport County AFC rose from the ashes of the club that ran from 1912-1989, and are now performing solidly in League Two, and the whole idea of this blog was to remember with fondness the underdog tale of Newport's European days in 1980/81. An exciting time in the club's history, as Newport went on a European tour, and were this close to making the last four of the Cup Winners' Cup. They may have had a little luck with the draw, but that all ran out on that infamous night against Jena. Either way though, what great memories.