FA Cup: Newport v Manchester United – Graham Coughlan ‘proud’ after tie to savour

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Newport County fans enjoyed the occasion at Rodney Parade
A sell-out crowd of 9,086 at Rodney Parade watched Newport take on Manchester United

As a familiar feral atmosphere gripped Rodney Parade and the tinfoil replica FA Cup trophies glistened under floodlit skies, it felt like another shock was brewing in Newport.

Within 13 minutes of kick-off, hopes of adding Manchester United to League Two Newport County’s list of cup scalps appeared to be over.

Bruno Fernandes and Kobbie Mainoo had put the Premier League giants 2-0 up, and such was the air of confidence about the visitors that there seemed absolutely no prospect of them joining the likes of Leicester City, Leeds United and Middlesbrough in being humbled on this storied old ground.

But there is something about Newport and cup competitions, this one in particular.

As well as those wins over opponents from higher divisions, the Exiles had drawn with Tottenham here in 2018 and a year later they kept Manchester City goalless until Pep Guardiola’s side eventually pulled clear in the second half.

Newport knew they had it in them to defy the odds. They had done it before and, even in these circumstances, they could do it again.

It is why Rodney Parade erupted when Bryn Morris scored to make it 2-1, belief coursing around the stadium. It is why Will Evans could find a way to bring County level.

Evans’ equaliser represented the essence of the FA Cup. Here was a 26-year-old former farmer, who had been a full-time professional for less than two years, getting in front of four-time Champions League winner Raphael Varane to score against the club he supported as a boy.

These are the moments players dream of when they are drawn against a club of United’s stature; it is the promise of these moments that prompts fans to queue outside the ticket office before dawn in sub-zero temperatures.

Antony may have restored United’s lead 21 minutes later – but how Newport will cherish those 21 minutes.

Evans and his fellow United fans in the County team and dugout – defender Scot Bennett and manager Graham Coughlan among them – would have been forgiven for allowing their minds to drift towards thoughts of a replay at Old Trafford.

“I was dreaming at 2-2,” said Coughlan. “I thought we had them at 2-2. They were a bit rattled.

“We gave ourselves a mountain to climb. You can’t start like that against quality opposition. They were clinical, they hit us hard.

“But at 2-1 we gave ourselves a glimmer. This group of players represent me. I would never wave the white flag and that group wouldn’t either.

“It doesn’t take that – a fourth-round cup tie against United and coming down from 2-0 down to peg them back 2-2 – for me to be immensely proud of them. I love working with this group. They’re a brilliant group of lads.

“It’s just unfortunate we couldn’t reach our cup final, which would have been a replay at Old Trafford.”

It was not to be this time for Newport – Rasmus Hojlund’s late fourth goal for United made sure of that – but this was still another occasion to savour.

This is a club, after all, that has overcome true hardship to simply exist. Newport went bust in 1989, only to reform and rise from the ashes.

That history is woven into this club and its supporters, who all rose at the final whistle on Sunday to salute their players with a standing ovation.

“I’ve got a great group of lads. They’ve done themselves, their families and the club immensely proud this week,” Coughlan said.

“They represented themselves brilliantly well and I don’t want today to be the end of it – I want today to be the catalyst for the rest of the season.

“There was a lot to be pleased about. Yes there was a massive gulf in class, but I’m really proud of our lads.”

Newport’s players bridged that gap at times to prove they could compete with their illustrious counterparts on the pitch – and Coughlan did the same with United boss Erik ten Hag in the dugout.

“We had a couple of words afterwards,” the Irishman said.

“I congratulated him and he congratulated us and thanked us for our hospitality.

“I wished him all the best. He gave me a nice bottle of red wine – but don’t tell him I don’t drink red wine please!”