It was Michael Flynn’s epiphany in lockdown that prompted the change of approach that has taken Newport County within one game of the third tier, a level at which this club has not played since being reformed in 1989. He wanted to play a different way.
It had always been the intention to play good football. “We worked on that,” Flynn tells Sky Sports. “But we relied more on set plays. You know, long throws and corner routines, which can still play a massive part. Some of the biggest games are won and lost on set plays.”
It was Newport’s pitch at Rodney Parade that led Flynn down that route. A ground shared with a rugby union team does not encourage a passing game. “In previous years, we had thought, ‘Come on, let’s go direct, because with this pitch we cannot do anything else.'”
Something persuaded him otherwise during the near six-month gap between Newport’s final game of last season’s curtailed campaign and the restart in September. It was a bold move given that Flynn’s methods had brought relative success since taking over in 2017.
He had helped save his hometown club from relegation in spectacular circumstances that spring. In 2019, he took Newport to Wembley only to be denied promotion by a narrow defeat. But last summer he presented a new vision to his players. A change in style.
“It had been kind of hard asking the players to do the opposite of what I wanted because I did not believe in it. And if I don’t believe in it, they are not going to believe in it.
“Also, I did not want to be labelled as a long-ball manager because it is hard to shake off whether it is true or not. As soon as you get labelled with it, I think it is damaging.
“I am someone who wants to play football.”
The statistics bear out the shift. Last season, Newport’s passing accuracy of 58 per cent was the lowest of any team in League Two. This time around, it has risen to 68 per cent – not only eighth in the division but the biggest leap of any team in the Football League.
“It has been a huge change,” says Flynn.
“When I first arrived here, it was do or die. The pitch was gone. You had no time to improve technique or do too many tactical things. We had to focus on pulling together, otherwise we would have been relegated and we probably would not have come back.
“We managed to do that and then build on it. Now we have changed the squad slightly. In the summer, we were able to move a couple out and really nail down the players who we wanted, who were more comfortable on the ball, and those adaptable to new roles.
“For example, Liam Shephard is now playing on the right side of a three at the back. He was always a right-back. He can come out with the ball and link the play with midfield.
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“We have got people in who are comfortable with the football. That is no disrespect to the other players who were fantastic for us. But it has been a slow process with the recruitment because we are not the biggest payers and you have to make the best of what you have.
“But we have played some outstanding football this season. The boys know the plans and the passing patterns that we go through. It gives them a lot of options.”
Importantly, the players have embraced that.
“Nobody wants to kick the ball from one end of the pitch to the other and just run around. Especially, the midfielders. I was a midfielder myself and the last thing that you want in there is to have a stiff neck watching the ball go back and forth.
“The way football has gone, the pressure from supporters, they don’t want to be seeing that. The influx of top managers in the country, they don’t do it so why should we?”
The Welshman makes no claim to be the next Pep Guardiola, although the Manchester City manager is an ally since his team played at Rodney Parade in February 2019. “I used to sign Pep on Championship Manager when I was a kid so I have always admired him,” jokes Flynn.
He adds: “Pep is an influence, of course he is. If I am not influenced by the top manager in the world, then I don’t know what I am trying to achieve here.”
The pair have stayed in touch, Flynn contacting Guardiola after a game against Cambridge early in the season in which Newport had 29 shots and 71.2 per cent of the possession.
Four points clear at the top of the table in December, the real test came during the winter months when the pitch deteriorated and key loan players began to return to parent clubs.
“When we had Brandon Cooper and Scott Twine, we had natural links all over the pitch. It hit us when we lost those two because the pitches went. Our pitch was probably the worst I have ever seen it. It was hard because we basically had to build another squad in January.
“It was a tough time, if I am being honest.”
This time, Flynn clung to his beliefs.
“In previous seasons, when we had changed, we had still had that dip. So I said, ‘If we are going to have a dip by going more direct, we may as well stick to our principles.'”
A run of red cards hampered momentum and defeat to Tranmere at the beginning of March left Newport out of the playoff places. However, three wins in a week emphasised their resolve.
“We should have picked up more points than we did and if we had, we would have been in the top three. We didn’t, so now we have to do it the hard way.”
The semi-final against Forest Green was certainly packed with drama as Newport secured a 5-4 aggregate victory thanks to Nicky Maynard’s winner in the 119th minute of the match.
That has set up a final date with Morecambe on Monday and another opportunity for Flynn – who had no fewer than four spells at Newport as a player – to make history at the club.
Does being a local boy help? In some ways, it only adds to the pressure. Even amid a pandemic, he is not cocooned from the hopes and dreams of supporters.
“The weekend is when the butterflies start. The excitement of being at Wembley again. That is when it hits home. There is a hardcore group of fans at this club who realise how well we have done. They are the ones you want to get the win for and reward.”
There is his family too, who will be in attendance.
“We were unsure whether to take my three-year-old but I want him there because I might never get back to Wembley. It is something I will never take for granted. I know people might say that is negative but I am just a realist who does not get carried away.
“You have to take every opportunity.”
As for the game itself, he is aware of the danger posed by Morecambe, the team with the lowest possession in League Two but one with a successful counter-attacking strategy.
“We are going to need that bit of quality in the final third to open them up and have one-on-one situations where we can exploit them. If we are wasteful or too slow in moving the ball, they will pick us off on the counter. They are organised but hopefully it is our day.
“It has been about getting them ready for the biggest game of the season. There are no fitness issues or anything like that. The boys are ready. It is just about making sure they are sharp. It is whoever makes the least mistakes, whoever is most clinical.”
If that is Newport County, it will be Flynn’s greatest achievement.
“Nobody can ever take away a promotion with your hometown club.”
Especially one that will have been achieved his way.
Watch the League Two play-off final between Morecambe and Newport on Monday May 31, live on Sky Sports Football from 2.30pm; Kick-off 3pm
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