There are few more astonishing stories in sport than the rise of Newport County, just like a phoenix from the ashes. A once proud Football League club forced out of business only to re-emerge playing in England, gaining promotion back to the Football League. And, having come so close to relegtion two seasons ago, are now riding high at the top of League Two. In his latest Dai Sport column, Robin Davey uses his rugby union knowledge to look at what the future holds for The Exiles and if it will be at Rodney Parade.
Newport County have not just revived, they are now joint leaders of League Two, an astonishing rise for a club who don’t own their own ground, have a limited budget and were one game away from non-league football two seasons ago.
They have 16 points from seven games this season to lift themselves up to joint top of the table, and they even lost their opening game of the season.
Since then it’s been an admirable story of success in the league, yet there is a big question mark over their very future or at least where that future will be.
The County have a lease to play at Rodney Parade until 2023, but the terms of that lease were changed -or at least that’s open to interpretation – when the Welsh Rugby Union bought Rodney Parade back in May basically to save premier users the Dragons from going under.
The County say that takeover meant increased costs for them which would make their continued use of the ground more difficult though Dragons chairman David Buttress is keen for them to remain there and says he can’t believe how cheaply they get the ground for a Football League club.
But County director Kevin Ward has cast doubt on the ability of the County to remain at Rodney Parade under the current terms. “The preferred position is to remain at this venue, but if we are to carry on in our current situation and the terms of the lease we play under it’s not viable,” he said.
It’s even more commendable that the County sit joint top of League Two considering the kind of pressure they’re under and even if players don’t get bothered by this kind of thing-that’s for others to worry about-it reflects wonderfully well on manager Mike Flynn.
Just short of his 38th birthday, this Newport born and bred footballer-turned-manager initially saved the County from the dreaded relegation after they were eleven points adrift at the foot of the table when he took over.
He guided them to an eleventh-placed finish last season and now to joint top.
All that on a limited budget at a club which has adopted a supporters trust ownership model, having three directors resigning due to internal problems and knowing there are financial issues with some doubt about their future.
He even inspired the team to FA Cup glory last season when they beat Leeds United to move into the fourth round for the first time since 1979, and they then earned a 1-1 draw with mighty Spurs at Rodney Parade before predictably losing the replay at Wembley.
But were it not for the money they received from that cup run the County would have suffered a major loss. They can’t be expected to enjoy such success every year which brings us back to those concerns about their future.
Rodney Parade owners the WRU are hardly likely to alter the terms of the lease under which the County play so if, indeed, that is not viable then what do they do? What exactly is their future?
They badly need outside investment, but the problem there is what can they offer in return for they have no assets?
If they do battle on at the ground until 2023 who knows what the situation will be then. The WRU could increase the rent they pay and it may well be the strain on the pitch, even a new artificial hybrid one, is considered just too great with three teams playing on it-the Dragons, Newport RFC and the County.
Only last weekend, for example three matches took place there, the Dragons A on Friday night, the Dragons on Saturday and Newport on Sunday. This is by no means a rare occurrence.
This season there are an amazing 63, yes 63, matches due to be played on the pitch, and that does not include possible additional games from various cup runs.
This is hardly sustainable apart from putting enormous pressure on the hardworking ground staff-no other major ground in the entire country carries such a heavy workload.
So on the one hand the team and management are working wonders, yet the future is clouded in uncertainty.
What of that future? One theory is the County will return to their previous ground at Spytty though that is out of town and would deprive the centre of much needed revenue from 3,000 fans or more on match days.
It is presently not up to Football League standard and the County would need some help from the council and the FAW. They could also draw on £1m in Premier League grant money for ground improvement.
But that depends on a guarantee that the team in question would be at the venue for 25 years. That would be impossible to provide at Rodney Parade, even the rugby wouldn’t get that!
There would still be a problem though, for a County return to Spytty would mean the athletics currently occupying the venue would have to find an alternative.
One silver lining could be the Dragons and their current board fulfilling their hopes and aims to develop the top end of Rodney Parade to such an extent that they become self sufficient.
That could happen by 2023- there are hopes for a hotel, restaurant and offices- and if it does and the Dragons are able to repay the money they owe the WRU they will then walk away and leave the Dragons to operate Rodney Parade.
And with Buttress well disposed towards the County they could remain where they are after all. A long shot indeed, but it is a ray of hope.