By Paul Jones
Michael Flynn was proud of his rain-lashed Newport County heroes and claimed their Wembley shot at promotion is just reward for a year of playing by the rules and keeping their risk-taking to events on the field.
Goals from substitutes Kevin Ellison, Joss Labadie and Nicky Maynard might not have been enough to win a thrilling League Two play-off semi-final second leg – they lost 4-3 in a dramatic clash at Forest Green Rovers – but they were sufficient to take the Exiles through to the final against Morecambe, with an epic 5-4 aggregate victory.
Flynn said: “I am very proud. It has been a very tough year both on and off the pitch.
“The circumstances we’re living in, people have lost lives and we’ve not been able to do the things that we’re used to doing.
“I am so proud of these players – we haven’t had a game called off due to Covid so that shows me how professional they have been.
“This is their reward now – a trip to Wembley and hopefully we can get the win against a good and dangerous Morecambe team.”
Forest Green trailed 2-0 from the first leg but wiped out that deficit within eight minutes.
Flynn added: “We got off to the worst possible start. We knew what to expect so the manner of the goals we’re not happy with – all four were from crosses and that’s very unlike us.
“But the character of the players showed. You could almost see one or two were about to drop their heads but the way we finished the game was good – we looked fitter, we looked strong and that’s a credit to the players and the way they look after themselves.
“I would rather lose trying than being too conservative and thankfully it paid off – I think all the goals came from the subs.
“If we didn’t go through I had my comments ready – same old story in that we didn’t take our chances and kill teams off. Thankfully we’ve managed to score enough to get to the final and let’s hope that we are saving our goals for there.”
Ebou Adams and Aaron Collins scored Forest Green’s early goals, with Nicky Cadden and Jamille Matt firing the Gloucestershire side to a 4-3 victory on the night – but Maynard’s goal late in extra time clinched the result for Newport.
Rovers caretaker boss Jimmy Ball said: “I’m proud and heartbroken all at the same time. It was an amazing performance from a wonderful group of men who are over in that dressing room absolutely heartbroken.
“When you ask men to go to the well and bare their soles and give everything and they do that then it is an incredible feeling. It’s a case of mixed emotions.
“In their first game back, I hope the fans saw a team play with bravery and risks and leave it all out there. We didn’t achieve our goal which is disappointing but it gives us a bit of hope.
“After the third goal we didn’t take care of the ball well enough. We then ran out of legs a little bit as well and the players coming back from injury were beginning to feel it.
“We’ve been caught with the sucker punch but you can’t ask any more of the boys, they’ve given everything.”
There was only a minute left of extra-time when the substitute Nicky Maynard cheekily clipped the ball past the Forest Green keeper Luke McGee and rolled it into the empty net, leaving County 5-4 aggregate winners despite losing 4-3 on the night.
They will face Morecambe at Wembley on Monday, May 31 with a place in League One on the line.
Newport led 2-0 from Tuesday’s first leg but Rovers made the perfect start on Sunday, wiping out the deficit inside eight minutes.
The opener came when Nicky Cadden’s free-kick on seven minutes picked out Ebou Adams 10 yards out and he guided his header beyond the keeper Tom King.
Less than a minute later it was Baily Cargill’s inch-perfect cross that did the damage with Aaron Collins, whose brother Lewis scored Newport’s second on Tuesday after Matty Dolan’s stunning opener – providing the finish with a first-time shot that squeezed past the Exiles keeper.
— Scot Bennett (@BennettScot727) May 23, 2021
Forest Green took the overall lead soon after the restart, a defensive error costing them as Cadden’s 30-yard free-kick eluded everyone and ended up in the net.
Flynn made changes that included the arrival of the 42-year-old Kevin Ellison, and it was the veteran who levelled the tie on aggregate with a stunning 25-yard effort that went in off the underside of the bar on 70 minutes.
Ellison will surely relish the chance to lock horns with his former club Morecambe at Wembley.
With both sides looking for a winner, Cargill was inches away for Rovers with a header that was cleared off the line but, on 76 minutes, Joss Labadie scored Newport’s second on the night when he turned in Haynes’ cross from the left flank.
But the tie was forced into extra time when Forest Green’s Jamille Matt, playing his first game in nearly two months after injury, steered an Odin Bailey cross home from six yards.
Maynard missed a chance to score early in extra time but made amends with his last-gasp effort to wrap up a Wembley appearance.