Hopeless Football League Teams 10: Newport County 1987-8
Previous entries in our Hopeless Teams series have provided ample supplies of gallows humour and indeed, the adjective ‘hopeless’ can be interpreted in differing ways. On the one hand, it can contain strong hints of self-mockery, indication of a self-deprecating streak that would be wholly unknown to the average Manchester United fan and arguably the elixir that keeps the average lower league supporter coming back through broad and narrow.
But ‘hopeless’ can also be defined more literally – as in ‘without hope’ and a sorry financial history behind some of the clubs’ travails can easily be detected – not least in Glen Wilson’s account of Doncaster Rovers’ abysmal 1997-8 season and Richard Bellis’s tale of Chester City’s slide into oblivion in 2008-9.
So in reviewing Newport County’s unfailingly terrible 1987-88 campaign, we’ll offer a disclaimer to the effect that circumstances were as mitigating as they could possibly have been and that this is a tale completely devoid of humour – one that possessed an element of high farce but farce of the grimly stone-faced variety.
For terrible it was. Take the headline stats: Newport finished on 25 points, 19 behind second bottom Carlisle United in the days when just a sole team was relegated, a goal difference of minus 70, only 19 goals scored at home, a top scorer in Robbie Taylor who netted only four times and attendances which dropped as low as 1,110 for the penultimate home game against Tranmere.
It was an unrecognisable situation from earlier in the decade when, following a prolonged period of success after the arrival of Len Ashurst in 1979, Newport ascended to within a whisker of promotion to the second division and famously reached a Cup Winners Cup quarter final against the East Germans of Carl Zeiss Jena, a club that has fallen on comparably difficult times since. Among those who strode the corridors of Somerton Park could be counted legends of Welsh club football such as John Aldridge, Tommy Tynan, Steve Lowndes and Nigel Vaughan.
But as recounted in a typically wonderful blog post from Phil Stead, author of Red Dragons: a History of Welsh Football, the club were overstretching themselves even then. Although less of a rugby area than other parts of the country, the round ball was still playing second fiddle to the oval one at that stage and average crowds of 3,500 were nowhere near the 5,000 required to maintain such a strong level of performance.
Having posted losses of £185,000 in 1985 and having been refused a bail out sum of £100,000 by the Football Association of Wales, the club needed investment but few were to foresee how disastrous the outcome of that search would be.
Enter Jerry Sherman. Rumoured to have taken an interest in Newport because he hailed from the identically-named American municipality in Washington State (had he been a native of another town of that name in Rhode Island, things may have turned out better given that burg’s reputation as a haven for monied yachties), the extravagantly coiffeured and imposing venture capitalist (at the time, the term was virtually unknown), strode into Gwent bearing a vague resemblance to Jason Donovan or, with hindsight, Matt Damon’s character Scott Thorson in the recent Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra .
This was in September 1986, with Newport still playing in Division 3 and with Sherman pledging three quarters of a million in rescue cash, the future of Newport County seemed assured.
That money failed to materialise and a BBC Wales documentary paints a vivid picture of the whole story – with Sherman seen patrolling the streets of Mayfair in a search for funding while all the time complaining that he had not realised the severity of the debt.
By 1987, the club were forced to sell the ground to Newport Council while all along, Sherman had stressed the need for a move – to a new stadium that would be akin to the Houston Astrodome, only better. In the meantime, fortunes on the pitch had dropped off the edge of a cliff.
Back in Division 4, fans might reasonably have expected better than the relegation that ensued but in an unusually tough division which saw Steve Bull fire Wolves to the title with 34 goals and Cardiff and Bolton also promoted, it was obvious County were to be whipping boys after they sunk to twenty fourth spot after only four matches, having failed to score in their first three.
The year featured two diabolical runs of defeats – an eight game spell in the autumn bettered only by a nine match salvo in the Spring. During that second spell, County lost three consecutive matches to the tune of 4-0 against Cardiff, Peterborough and Scarborough while the situation escalated when both Torquay and Bolton put six past The Ironsides on successive April weekends.
That culminating set of losses had started with a 4-1 defeat against Wrexham at the end of March, a game that saw wholesale changes to the team as the money situation really started to bite. Indeed, there was little consistency to the playing line up throughout the season – only Andy Thackeray was a virtual ever present in midfield while the experienced likes of ex-Wolves keeper Paul Bradshaw and former Bournemouth hard man Phil Brignull saw their involvement end early.
Paul Bodin, returning to Newport after an earlier spell in League football in the early 1980s did feature six times in the run in while that period is also notable for the emergence of a then moustachioed Darren Peacock, a central defender of considerable promise who went on to a successful career with Queen’s Park Rangers and Newcastle respectively. Peacock featured in a 2-0 win against Darlington in the penultimate fixture, thus helping the club complete an unlikely double over the Quakers – but that was to be one of only six league wins all year even if fellow Welshmen Wrexham and Swansea were also vanquished and Cardiff knocked out of the League Cup.
Worse was to follow, however. With Sherman continuing to hang around like a bad smell, rumours that he was a publicity junky or worse, out to embezzle the club gathered pace and the realisation that the outstanding debts would not be paid, let alone new monies found to boost the club
Newport did honour younger players on contracts allied to the hated Tory Youth Training Scheme but they were able to claim the money back from the government on those and the inevitable occurred when the club were wound up during the following season, with their Conference fixtures uncompleted. The aforementioned documentary depicts the auction that took place to sell off the club’s memorabiia with a total haul of £12,000 a miserable sum given the organisation’s rich history – at one point a clutch of black armbands fetched the princely sum of £1.74 – which would be funny were it not for the desperate sadness of the situation.
Subsequently jailed for fraud, Jerry Sherman has proved to be an archetype of that all too familiar figure (see also Spencer Trethewy) and a fantasist while a proud team from South Wales went to the wall as a result. Happily, league football returned to Newport this summer but it has been a long wait.