Even in a season where unexpectedness became the new normal, nobody could have predicted Michael Flynn commanding Newport County AFC from the sideline at Cardiff City Stadium.
The pitch at Rodney Parade takes a battering throughout the season with three teams playing at the ground, including Dragons Rugby, Newport R.F.C. and, of course, Newport County.
Although these poor conditions have been recognised in the EFL since the Exiles’ return to the campaign in 2013, this common knowledge was elevated to another level, as it rendered the Welsh club desperate for a change of stadium.
With careful spending being a necessary measure for the fan-owned club due to the financial impact of COVID-19, the pitch was not re-laid in the summer, which proved challenging in an already tough year.
The grass was being ripped up by studs, sand wasn’t enough to maintain the surface and with the inevitable Welsh rain falling, the ground was at its worst.
The Exiles welcomed fellow promotion hopefuls Forest Green Rovers to south Wales, but playing football was nigh-on impossible. If County had any hope of play-offs, they could not continue to play at Rodney Parade.
Attempting to play out from the back, a style that Flynn enforced at the start of the season, was hopeless. Playmakers such as Matty Dolan, Josh Sheehan and Liam Shephard were stuck in the mud.
At the beginning of March, it was announced that County’s next two home games would be played at the Cardiff City Stadium to give their home a chance to recover – rivalries aside. The stadium move proved the club’s desperation and gave the team an opportunity to pick up points.
There were no teething problems at the Championship ground for Michael Flynn’s men, as Dolan’s brace against his former side Bradford secured a double over the Bantams this season.
Being County’s most creative player, Josh Sheehan had 19 more touches in his first appearance at Cardiff City Stadium than he had in County’s previous home game at Rodney Parade against Stevenage.
And a pleased Flynn said: “I thought the first half was probably the best I’ve seen in a League Two game this season. It had high-quality football, passing patterns, and players having confidence and bravery on the ball.
“It was a much better performance at ‘home’ because of the surface that we’ve got. Did we create enough? No, not really. Did we play some really good football to the final third? Yes.”
A 61st minute winner from ex-County striker Connor Wilkinson was a frustrating goal to concede, as County were condemned to defeat against Leyton Orient during their second trip to the home of the Bluebirds.
Despite the loss, Sheehan took a total of 89 touches against the Os in comparison to the 40 he had taken two home games prior versus the Boro, proving the sleek surface gave him the ability to play more creatively.
However, on the return to Rodney Parade, there was hope. The groundsmen deserve unlimited praise for how well they restored the pitch, enabling Newport County to execute their run-in to the end of the season positively.
A loss and a win at Cardiff City Stadium show that the move bought the team time and allowed them to play the attractive football they started the campaign with, more so than it impacted results.