Giving heavyweights a fright has almost become the norm for Newport but the League Two side have limbered up for West Ham in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday by rubbing shoulders with a former Premier League striker on a daily basis.
Wilfried Bony, whom the West Ham manager, Manuel Pellegrini, took to Manchester City from Swansea for £28m four years ago, began training with the club three weeks ago.
“It was a bit of a shock to be fair – I thought he was lost or something,” says Nick Townsend, the Newport goalkeeper, whose heroics against Gillingham teed up another glamorous tie.
“I’m sure Wilf is very fond of Mr Pellegrini but I’ll try to catch him off-guard and see if he can let something loose,” says the Newport manager, Michael Flynn, smiling.
Flynn laughs off a scenario whereby Bony ends up signing for Newport – “I think he’s a lot better than this level” – but is adamant the Ivory Coast striker, released by Swansea this summer, has had a big impression on a green squad and on Lewis Collins and Tristan Abrahams, Newport’s young pups up front, in particular.
The arrival of Bony is an example of how far Newport’s stock has risen under Flynn, a manager with a burgeoning reputation. The former midfielder masterminded a great escape in 2017 before his side gatecrashed the League Two play-offs last season. “We have made big improvements as a club in the last two or three years and we want to keep getting better and better, on and off the pitch,” Flynn says. “It’s fantastic that we’re on the map.”
Cup runs have been the lifeblood of Newport over the past couple of seasons. They made a profit in 2017-18 on the back of an extraordinary FA Cup ride that included overcoming Leeds on home soil and taking Tottenham to a replay at Wembley. It put around £750,000 into the coffers before more of the same last season when they beat Leicester and Middlesbrough. They came unstuck against Manchester City but the run further funded a club fan-owned for the past four years.
Bony, who lives in Swansea and whose two sons are in the Championship club’s academy, is a free agent and has been training with Newport to keep himself ticking over while hunting for a club. The 30-year-old is not under contract but essentially forms part of Flynn’s squad, even training the morning after games with other players not involved in the match.
Flynn says such traits emphasise how hungry Bony, whose agent has been speaking to clubs in Italy and Turkey, is to play.
“I think he has brought the level of training up and everything like that,” Townsend says. “He is the first one in and the last one out and he’s showing a lot of the lads the standards you need to play at the top level. It makes the young lads raise their game.”
Newport have a lot going for them; they are unbeaten and no team in the Premier League or EFL have kept more clean sheets in the league this year than their 16.
Much has been made of the playing surface at Rodney Parade , which is shared with Newport Dragons and Newport RFC but Pep Guardiola was loth to criticise the pitch when City visited in February, reiterating how all of his players had experienced a “bumpy pitch” at some point. At this stage of the season, Flynn is adamant West Ham will have no such problems.
“The real bad one last season was against Middlesbrough – and we played some fantastic football that evening,” Flynn says. “We play football and we have proved it many times. Against Man City we didn’t have that much possession but tell me who does? It’s hard to get the ball off them and, at times, every outfield player was in our half.”
The last time Newport played West Ham was in 1979 and it proved a memorable occasion, toppling a team who included Trevor Brooking, Frank Lampard Sr and Billy Bonds.
Flynn hopes it will prove a good omen but is acutely aware of the size of the task of taming Pellegrini’s attacking riches. “We will give it our best shot,” he says. “I’m not one to sit back, drop off and let teams pick you off – especially Premier League teams. You cannot let them have wave after wave of attacks, because they will murder you.”