Monday 24 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Carlow's Padraig Amond shows magic of the Cup is more than a cliche'

Cynics fail to appreciate how much giant-killing means to fans of English football’s lesser lights

Padraig Amond celebrates after scoring the winner for Newport County against Leicester City in the FA Cup third round. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Padraig Amond celebrates after scoring the winner for Newport County against Leicester City in the FA Cup third round. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Padraig Amond celebrates Newport’s win with fellow goalscorer Jamille Matt. Photo: PA
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Cometh the hour cometh Amond. Who needs Roy of the Rovers when you have Padraig of the County? 'The Magic of the FA Cup' has become a phrase, like 'Fox News - Fair And Balanced' or 'Holy Catholic Ireland', usually uttered in a spirit of mockery.

Yet few other competitions could give us a drama like the one which unfolded at Rodney Parade yesterday.

Newport County lie 13th in League Two, having won two of their last dozen matches. It was 1979 since they had reached the fourth round of the cup and 1964 since they'd beaten top-flight opposition. They faced a Leicester City team which has recently defeated Chelsea and Manchester City.

Leicester were not at full strength but their side was a strong one, including several players who'd been on their Premier League winning side two and a half years ago.

Yet after 10 minutes they found themselves a goal down. Robbie Wilmott, who around the time Leicester won the league was working in a supermarket after County laid him off, put in a perfect cross which Jamille Matt, a striker who has played for six different clubs in the last three years, headed powerfully home.

Newport dominated much of the first half but after the break engaged in one of those desperate rearguard actions which are to be expected when a club with a £112m annual wage bill faces one which pays out a hundredth of that.

Padraig Amond posing with the jersey having signed for Shamrock Rovers while also a Carlow minor hurler
Padraig Amond posing with the jersey having signed for Shamrock Rovers while also a Carlow minor hurler

County hung on heroically, thanks in no little part to outstanding centre back Mickey Demetriou, who to increase the fairytale aspect wore a protective face mask which made him resemble the Phantom of the Opera.

But when Rachid Ghezzal equalised eight minutes from time, that seemed to be that for Newport. So near and yet so far. With a little luck County might hang on for a replay they'd surely lose.

Newport thought different. A couple of minutes later they mounted an attack which led to Marc Albrighton handling a cross from Vashon Neufville, a teenager who'd only arrived on loan from West Ham a couple of days previously. Referee Chris Kavanagh pointed to the spot. Amond time.

Everything now depended on the Carlow striker who once starred for Sligo Rovers. As they say in the GAA, the right man had it. Because scoring goals is what Padraig Amond does. At Accrington Stanley he was top scorer, at Morecambe he was top scorer, at Grimsby Town he was top scorer, at Hartlepool United he was top scorer. This season he's top scorer at Newport.

Padraig receiving an U-11 Player of the Tournament award from Ray Houghton
Padraig receiving an U-11 Player of the Tournament award from Ray Houghton

These are not the most glamorous clubs but Amond is the epitome of an honest professional. It is no mean achievement to keep making your living as a footballer in England considering the amount of competition out there.

Over the last four seasons the 30-year-old's strike rate is almost a goal every two games.

So anyone who knows anything about Padraig Amond knew what would happen next. Calm as you like he sent Danny Ward the wrong way and rolled the ball into the net, adding one more goal to his tally. It may be the most famous one he'll ever score.

There hadn't been much scope for Amond to display his gifts as a finisher in the previous 85 minutes. But he'd been a leader for County, advising younger team-mates and chivvying them along, leading the line with aplomb and chasing, chasing, chasing all the time.

It was one of the game's most familiar sights, Amond haring across the field to put pressure on the City defenders, denying them the extra moment needed to pick the ideal pass. It looked fruitless but it was essential. One run after an apparently lost cause ended with him hooking a cross back to Matt, who might have made it two but lost control. A deft lay-off gave Matt Dolan the chance to test Ward with a fierce drive.

The move which led to the penalty began with Amond getting himself under a long clearance to win a header which put County on the attack. In injury-time a clever Amond pass put his teenage team-mate Antoine Semenyo through for a shot deflected narrowly wide. He left it all on the pitch.

Life is generally tough for clubs in the lower divisions but few have had it tougher than Newport. In 1989 after 69 years in the football league the club went out of existence altogether. On reforming they found themselves well down the non-league pyramid and only regained league status in 2013.

That return seemed a fleeting thing when with 12 matches left in the 2016-17 season County were 11 points adrift at the bottom of League Two. Then they appointed a new manager, Newport-born Michael Flynn, who not only contrived a miraculous escape but was also behind yesterday's victory.

People who denigrate the FA Cup ignore what it means to clubs like Newport or Gillingham, who beat Cardiff City on Saturday, or Oldham Athletic who turned over Premier Division side Fulham yesterday.

The cynics make the mistake of viewing the Cup through the eyes of the big clubs, whose oligarchical tendencies make them disdain the company of smaller fry.

Democracy

But when a small club tumbles a big one it is a triumph for democracy, a footballing equivalent of Jim Larkin's immortal exhortation, "The great only seem great because we are on our knees, let us rise."

Outsiders find it hard to understand why supporters stick with these little clubs. Newport is half an hour away from Cardiff, Oldham 20 minutes from Manchester, Gillingham 30 miles outside London. Premier League football is within touching distance for supporters who instead stay loyal to their local team.

Days like yesterday at Rodney Parade are a special reward for fans who've followed teams through thin and thin.

They show that magic is real. Padraig Amond's goal joins those of Ronnie Radford, Mickey Thomas and Matthew Hanlan in the FA Cup pantheon.

Newport will never forget Carlow's finest.

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