Newport County will start the 2019-20 season in League Two, exactly the same place where ended this season. No promotion, no hike in the club’s income and no bigger stage for the players and their ambitious manager Michael Flynn. But Callum Ellis believes he saw enough at Wembley to be convinced that the Amber Army can embark on another march to the summit when August comes around.
When the dust settles on Newport County’s play-off final defeat against Tranmere Rovers, manager Michael Flynn and his squad of players will sit down and reflect on what might have been.
A controversial decision by referee Ross Joyce not to award Flynn’s side a penalty five minutes before the end of normal time turned out to be a bitter pill to swallow.
Such is the magnitude of these occasions – and the enormity of the prize at stake – that being on the receiving end of a wrong decision was tough to take for the Exiles.
It meant heartbreak for the Amber Army supporters, their hard-grafting players, and their straightforward but charismatic leader, Flynn – the homespun Duke of Pill. It sounds trite, but it’s a truism to cling to . . . there’s always next year.
Ahead of kick-off, the Welsh national anthem was drowned out by boos from the Tranmere supporters, before the County faithful responded in the same fashion to the opposition’s.
On the field, it was a sign of things to come as both teams cancelled each other out.
Jamille Matt – the player who was central to his side’s spot-kick appeal – forced a reflex save from goalkeeper Scott Davies in what turned out to be Newport’s best chance of the afternoon.
Football can be cruel.
But this club have enjoyed another successful campaign under the guidance of Flynn, who continues to push the black and amber envelope.
More than 11,000 Exiles basked in the radiant sunlight in north west London, knowing their side had already exceeded expectations this term.
This set of supporters have become accustomed to big games in recent years – but their team still carries the underdog tag.
This season alone, they have been on an impeccable journey with a remarkable run in the FA Cup.
Nobody, however, expected them to be here; playing under the arch of Wembley for a place in League One.
This club continues to punch above its weight.
This club does not know when it’s beaten.
But let’s not forget, this club were mere minutes away from slipping out of the Football League just two years ago.
A goal against Notts County at the death of the 2016/17 campaign ensured County maintained their League Two status on the final day.
Mark O’Brien was the hero on that occasion, as Flynn’s men completed a remarkable turnaround despite being 11 points adrift of safety at one point.
It was the ever-present defender O’Brien – who featured in 45 of County’s games on the route to the final – leading them out onto the Wembley carpet on Saturday.
But it wasn’t to be this time around for the defender after he was given his marching orders by referee Joyce following a second bookable offence.
The Exiles didn’t roll over but would have had to complete another fairytale with 10 men.
Flynn’s troops were agonisingly close to forcing a penalty shoot-out after surviving the large part of extra time with a man down, before Connor Jennings nodded past Joe Day to spoil the Exiles’ party.
It was an aggrieved end to another successful season for the Exiles who continue to progress under Flynn’s leadership.
He condemned the EFL’s decision not to implement VAR for the big occasion, which ultimately cost his side dearly.
“First off, I want to congratulate Tranmere, before I go on and say what I need to say,” said the Exiles boss.
“Tranmere have had a great season and credit to them. But we are at the home of football, Wembley, we have the equipment, we have full time referees and today a big decision has absolutely killed us.
“It was a stonewall penalty and I cannot believe it wasn’t given. That is my frustration.
“It was a 100% penalty for the foul on Jamille Matt and I have seen it back. The TV were saying it was a penalty as well.”
Flynn added: “The referee said there was a touch, but it wasn’t enough. But it was a very poor decision and I would rather they hold their hands up and say, ‘I got it wrong’.
“It is a play-off final with these technology improvements. You can’t get it wrong in the play-off final – it is not a Mickey Mouse game.”
It will, expectedly, take some getting over for the manager who continues to be linked with a move away from his home-town club.
Several key players are likely to depart Rodney Parade this summer, a prospect Flynn alluded to in the aftermath of the defeat.
Regardless of what the future holds for this group of players and staff, however, they can be proud of their efforts this season.
The Exiles will be back.