League Two: County and community close to Newport boss Michael Flynn’s heart

Joss Labadie celebrates after scoring in the second leg over Forest Green
Newport captain Joss Labadie celebrates after scoring in the second leg over Forest Green
Venue: Wembley Date: Monday, 31 May Kick-off:15:00 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Lancashire, plus live text and score updates on the BBC Sport website and app

The cinema a short stroll away from Rodney Parade has shut its doors recently.

It may mean Newport County and their promotion bid has top billing in the city, but the bigger picture is unlikely to be lost on their manager.

The local boy doing good, Mike Flynn knows Newport.

As one of their own, he knows its people and knows just how tough they’ve had it over the past year.

It is perhaps why there has been his emotion at his team’s progress to Monday’s League Two play-off final, where the second coming of County can reach the third tier for the first time since the start of the original club’s demise in 1987.

This is a city that has the largest percentage of population in Wales claiming unemployment-related benefits – a figure that has grown over the past year, according to the ONSexternal-link. As well as the cinema, some of the other retail spaces in the Friar’s Walk development just over the river from Rodney Parade failed to re-open after lockdown.

Although he has repeatedly tried to place the success of his side into the context of the pandemic and its impact on supporters’ lives, Flynn will be aware that his team have put a bit of pride and joy into a community he knows so well.

“It’s such a strange time in our lives, not just in terms of football,” the 40-year-old said recently. “People have been affected all over the country and we are very fortunate to have been able to continue to do job we love and we don’t take things for granted.

“You’ve got to take yourself back and you’ve got to think of the people who are in a much worse situation than ourselves. And you know what, it makes me feel grateful. It makes me feel appreciative. And it makes me want to go on and win for all people who have made those sacrifices.

“It’s why one of the biggest things at the club is what we do with the community, that’s at our core and it’s crucial.”

It’s been at the heart of the city’s football club for a long time, ever since reformation in 1989 and the years having to play in exile before returning to league football 25 years later in 2013.

Flynn played in that side, just as he had played in the part-time days, energising the Newport midfield a few hours after he had strolled the Newport streets in his early-morning shift as a postman.

Michael Flynn
Newport County boss Michael Flynn had four separate spells at the club as a player

When the club was staring relegation in the face with 12 games to go in 2017, he stepped in as manager – and stepped up.

“I never would have forgiven myself if didn’t try and the club got relegated,” he admits. They didn’t and ever since it’s been progression from a side and a manager that has offered hope on the field – as well as support off it; mental well-being sessions including players have been available to fans through the lockdown.

It is perhaps why that, as much as there was passion in the stands when 900 County fans were able to watch their side for the first time in a year in the semi-final with Forest Green, there was also a poignancy.

The roar would come later, but as the teams walked out, there was a simple standing ovation that moved some to tears. It appeared to be a thank you, with Flynn keen to repay.

“I know it’s a thing all managers are going to say but I’m telling you now I genuinely mean it because I’ve seen how tough it has been for people of Newport, for local businesses people who’ve lost people, family members, friends, businesses closing,” he said. “I’ve seen how much this hit people and I’ve seen it first-hand and to see them at the game last week it was a special moment. It was like a big let off of steam for everyone.”

Gasps of air followed the dramatic 5-4 victory over two legs, with 4,000 making the trip to Wembley.

But while Flynn gives off the impression of the supporter in the dug out, he is much more than that.

Coaching badges were being studied for when he was still 28, six years before management called. On top of the sports journalism degree obtained while still playing, he is now in the middle of a diploma with the LMA for leadership while also attempting to learn Spanish.

Then there is the self-awareness that saw him reassess how he wanted his side to play during the six-month period before last season’s curtailment and the new campaign.

He wanted more than the up-and-at-em approach that had shocked Premier League sides in the FA Cup and got it. Newport have gone from the side with the lowest pass success in the division (58.4%) to eighth (68.1%). His team make around 100 passes more per game than they did last season.

It has worked, even if Rodney’s Parade surface caused problems to its own side, and it has long helped the surpass the club’s remit for the season to simply stay in the Football League.

Having lost to Tranmere in the final in 2019, Flynn is unlikely to call it a success unless promotion is achieved.

And yet in many ways, in a year where so many people he knows have struggled, he has already succeeded.

“Being from the area, I know too well what it means to the people,” he adds. “If I was the one to be able to get them to League One. They wouldn’t be a prouder man in Newport than me. I guarantee you that.”

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