“We’ve Never Lost at Wembley!” – And Morecambe Go Marching On…
Morecambe Football Club reached the climax of an unprecedentedly successful season today when they played Newport County at Wembley for a place in League One next season. This is only the third time they have appeared at the National Stadium. They won as underdogs against Dartford and their absolutely appalling supporters to win the FA Trophy as a non-league team in 1974. The Shrimps were underdogs again as they beat Exeter City for the first time ever during 2006 to enter the Promised Land of the EFL. I was present at both of these games and – thanks to the efforts of Charlie and two Grahams (you know who you are) I was able to be present again today despite the enormous – and completely unnecessary – disappointment of missing the Tranmere game at the Maz last time out. But it’s not all about me so let’s move quickly on…
There was a time when Morecambe would have welcomed any clash with today’s South Wales rivals: they won all five of their initial games against the Exiles home and away once County returned to the EFL in 2013. Since then though, things have changed markedly. They have only won one of their last seven fixtures against Newport and have lost both games against Michael Flynn’s side already this season and had a man sent off in both fixtures into the bargain.
A bit of spice was inevitably added to the clash in the person of former Shrimps icon Kevin Ellison. Kev didn’t do himself any favours by shouting in the face of Derek Adams – the man who let him go – after scoring for Newport against ten-man Morecambe earlier this year at the Mazuma stadium. Derek’s dignity in spite of this very childish provocation, on the other hand, increased his stock in the eyes of most people. But Kev does what he does and he had already started the wind-up process earlier in the week by saying the following:
“It’s written in the stars – it’s perfect for me. Tell me a game to go to a play-off final and I would have picked Newport-Morecambe. And who knows? Hopefully I can impact and have an effect on the game. I am glad what happened early in the season at the Mazuma, where I got my little bit of payback and my emotions out, I think I am in Morecambe’s heads.
But was he really? The itself match might tell us…
It was warm and sunny at Wembley as the match kicked-off at three o’clock. Morecambe immediately went onto the attack and Newport keeper Tom King was forced into action after 4 minutes to prevent Liam McAlinden latching onto a long ball on the right flank by leaving his area and booting it clear. Mickey Demetriou then blocked a Cole Stockton effort on goal after nine minutes. The same County defender than played a cross towards Scot Bennett after twelve minutes only to see the Welsh custodian in the Morecambe goal – Kyle Letheren – attempt to punch the ball away and then hit to man in the yellow strip as well – or perhaps instead. Although the Exiles’ Manager was to complain after the game that this should have been seen as a penalty by Referee Bobby Madeley, the reaction of both Bennett and his team-mates at the time suggested otherwise. Carlos Mendes-Gomes got round the back of the County defence on the Morecambe left after a quarter of an hour and played a low cross right across King’s goal. But there was nobody there in a red shirt to convert it.
There was a thoughtful touch after 34 minutes when the Morecambe crowd as a whole stood to respect the memory of the Shrimps’ Christian Mbulu – who very sadly died last year – and it was good to see some of the Newport staff, substitutes and fans joining in. Forty minutes saw Aaron Wildig bearing down on goal in a promising position but his shot was wayward as it whistled over the Newport bar. Right at the end of the half, though, the Shrimps had a proper scare as Bennett – on the Newport right – allowed Nathaniel Knight-Percival to deflect the best chance of the opening period into the side netting when he really should have hit the target at least. But all-in-all, I thought that Morecambe shaded the initial exchanges. There were few clear-cut chances but the Welsh club’s defence looked vulnerable at times in ways that the one from Lancashire’s never really did.
The second half was a totally different story though. Aaron Wildig – returning from injury – had an increasingly ineffective match; Toumani Diagouraga was also being bypassed a lot of the time and Carlos Mendes-Gomes only showed flashes of the brilliance we all know he possesses in abundance. The County defence basically stifled Cole Stockton as you had the gnawing feeling that Michael Flynn had figured-out how Morecambe manage to win so many games – and was effectively countering it. Apart from a Ryan Cooney strike in the 66th minute which was well-saved by County custodian King, the Shrimps offered little offensively. Newport were undoubtedly the better team throughout and were building a head of steam particularly from about the seventieth minute onwards, when the game was played almost exclusively in the red team’s half and Morecambe struggled to clear their lines; constantly booting the ball clear only to have it immediately returned and Newport’s pressure increase. Official Man of the Match Yann Songo’o and the defence marshalled by Skipper Sam Lavelle held firm most of the time and when they didn’t, Letheren came to the rescue with a few decent saves, most notably in the 78th minute – when he pushed a wicked low cross from Liam Shephard round the post – and again during the ninety-third from a powerful Ryan Haynes’ shot.
To be honest, I was personally hoping for a penalty shoot-out at the end of the second period and offering up prayers that Morecambe could actually withstand the onslaught which was surely coming in the next half an hour. Kevin Ellison had been introduced to the fray late on in the game and you just had a feeling that the stage was well and truly set for a cameo role by the veteran.
But the expected onslaught never arrived. Newport played worse with Kev on the field than they had done previously without him and Derek Adams shook-up his pack into the bargain. His introduction of John O’Sullivan – who was not expected to play again this season after a very serious injury just six short weeks ago – was a master-stroke. Morecambe went straight back onto the front foot and started to pressurise the Exiles much further up the field and far more persistently than they had during the preceding three-quarters of an hour. As had been the case in the first half, County again began to look shaky at the back.
There were no chances of note to report but Morecambe dominated the first period of extra time. The key moment of the game, however, arrived in the one hundred and sixth minute. The Shrimps were attacking again when Haynes’s bad tackle sent substitute Sully sprawling. Many pundits – some of them barely objective it has to be said – say that this foul was committed outside the Newport penalty area. But the Man Who Matters – the referee – ruled otherwise. Carlos had the guts to take the following spot-kick – and did so perfectly. He was immediately booked for taking off his shirt in what is certainly one of the most stupid rules in football and one which must surely have been invented by people who have never played the game.
And that was basically it. This game was by no means a classic with both skill and thrills at a premium. As the stadium rapidly emptied of yellow-clad supporters at the end and the victorious Morecambe team celebrated in front of their fans, it was noticeable that former Shrimps’ player Pádraig Amond took the trouble to personally congratulate the new members of the squad which he was once a part of. Well done that man. But in the background, a clearly very disappointed Kevin Ellison stood to the side and looked on. I thought it said everything when the scorer of Morecambe’s winning goal went over to him to offer his condolences. Kevin appeared to respond graciously enough. But I thought it said a lot that Our Kev is now 42 and Carlos is less than half his age. What does that say about Carlos’ maturity and good nature?
Afterwards, Kev’s Manager predictably played the We Wuz Robbed card. He must be smarting more than usual because this is the second time in three years that he has led the Exiles to Wembley – and lost. He paid no tribute to the opposition defence for keeping his key players quiet or for County’s collective failure to push home their advantage when they were indisputably on top during the second half. Instead, claiming that the penalty which Morecambe scored shouldn’t have been awarded in the first place, he said:
“It is two absolutely terrible decisions from the referee that have cost us. It’s why we need VAR for these games.”
To be fair to him, however, Mr Flynn also said:
“Congratulations to Morecambe, they’ve had an outstanding season and they have a group of players that never know when they are beaten.”
Too true. Off the field, there are persistent rumours that Bradford City have persuaded Derek Adams to jump ship and attempt to revive their flagging fortunes in the way he has done at Morecambe. At the end of the game, he refused to either confirm or deny these rumours. He did say the following though:
“We’ve shown this season you can do whatever you want to do. The club can go to the Championship if it wants to because if you believe then you’ll get somewhere. As a seven-year-old, I watched Aberdeen beat Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, so tell me what you can’t do in this world.”
What an outlook; what a philosophy – for life as well as football. I’m sure I am speaking for all Morecambe fans when I say – we salute you sir!
Long may it last…
Newport County: 1 Tom King; 3 Ryan Haynes (6 Priestley Farquharson 110’); 28 Mickey Demetriou (Y); 32 Liam Shephard; 17 Scot Bennett; 14 Aaron Lewis (29 Ryan Taylor 63’); 8 Matthew Dolan (20 Anthony Hartigan 63’); 10 Josh Sheehan; 4 Joss Labadie (C) (Y); Lewis Collins (22 Kevin Ellison 86’); 9 Pádraig Amond (18 Nicky Maynard 79’).
Subs not used: 30 Nick Townsend; 34 Joe Ledley.
Morecambe: 1 Kyle Letheren; 21 Ryan Cooney; 4 Nathaniel Knight-Percival; 5 Sam Lavelle (C); 22 Liam Gibson (2 Kelvin Mellor 104’); 24 Yann Songo’o; 10 Aaron Wildig (Y) (16 John O’Sullivan 90’); 8 Toumani Diagouraga; 9 Cole Stockton; 19 Liam McAlinden (15 Brad Lyons 75’); 11 Carlos Mendes-Gomes (Y) (14 Alex Kenyon 113’).
Subs not used: 12 Mark Halstead; 6 Harry Davis; 18 Ben Pringle; 17 A-Jay Leitch-Smith.
Ref: Bobby Madeley.
Attendance: 9083 (About half from Morecambe.)