ONE year, two months and 11 days after last being able to watch their team on Welsh soil, Newport County fans finally got the chance to head back to Rodney Parade this week.

The first leg of their League Two play-off semi-final against Forest Green Rovers came 437 days after a 1-0 defeat of Morecambe, Newport’s final home game of the 2019/20 season before Covid-19 hit.

A long, long wait then followed for the supporters until earlier this month when the Welsh Government announced a list of nine pilot events to test the safe return of crowds.

The first sporting event on the schedule would be Newport’s clash with their Gloucestershire rivals, meaning it was all hands to the pump to get Rodney Parade ready for Tuesday night’s encounter.

And things couldn’t have gone much better for the Exiles, as Michael Flynn’s men secured a 2-0 win to take into tomorrow’s second leg and the staging of the game ran as smoothly as they could have hoped.

Here, chairman Gavin Foxall reflects on a big occasion for the club, both on the pitch and off it.

He said: “It reminded me of the FA Cup third round and the anticipation that comes when you get one of the big boys at home.

“The team at Rodney Parade and within the club did a staggering job in such a short space of time.

“We only got approval for supporters to attend the game a week before, but within a few days they had turned the whole thing around.

“They did it in extremely difficult circumstances with the rules and regulations reflective of the environment we are in, and it was something they had never done before.

“It was a massive effort by everybody at Rodney Parade and the club.

“Earlier in the day, what struck me while I was walking past the Hazell Stand was that somebody had sprayed markings on the floor two metres apart for people to stand on.

"It was that level of detail that had gone into maintaining social distancing that impressed me.”

The National Wales:

Newport County chairman Gavin Foxall

He continued: “To see the supporters coming back and hearing that roar when the players came out, and then singing throughout the game, was fantastic.

“There were 900 supporters at the game but it felt like 9,000. When the players came out and the cheers went up, I felt really emotional.

“We know how important the supporters are to the club and how important the club is to the supporters. It was great to see familiar faces, talk to people and see how delighted they were to be back.

“The performance on the pitch was great and hopefully we can go to Forest Green, put in another great display and get to Wembley.

“To win 2-0 at Rodney Parade and then reflect on it all and realise the magnitude of what the team had done off the field was very satisfying.

“It was the first one of its kind in Wales, and while it was a modest number of fans, the logistics behind it were immense.

“The Welsh Government and safety advisory group had put their trust in us to deliver and we showed our commitment to getting everything right on the night.

“We had observers at the game to see we were doing everything right and they were happy with the way we handled it, so that bodes well for the future.

“It was a massive team effort from everybody – the club, Rodney Parade, the local authority, the safety advisory group, the Welsh Government and the EFL.

“There was a responsibility that came with it, and not just because it was the first event of its kind in Wales since last March, but because it was a pilot event. These events need to be run so that they will influence the decision-making for next season.”

He added: “It’s good to give things a sense of perspective and this year has been tremendously difficult for everybody.

“Sport plays an important part in people’s lives and it’s a really important measure of how we come out of Covid and get back to some sense of normality.

“I think Tuesday was a great advert, not just for the club and Rodney Parade, but for the city and Wales.

“It was great to be able to put it on, and it has given us confidence that we can deliver. Hopefully it will get us to where we want to be in August with the fans back and the stadium near to capacity.

“It’s an old cliché but football is nothing without the fans. They create an atmosphere and experience all of their own and that has been missing for far too long.”

WHAT THE FANS THOUGHT

Chris Shingler, 58, first started going to watch the team in the early 1970s and was lucky enough to be among the 900 on Tuesday night.

He said: “Firstly, what a performance from the County. We probably should have won by more, but I’m happy with 2-0.

“It was a little surreal and strange to be back but it was very well organised and took about 15 minutes to gain entry from the point we joined the queue.

“Fair play to all the Rodney Parade staff for all their hard work.

“It was funny having to take my passport to a football match, and before I left for the ground my major panic was trying to find my County scarf as I hadn’t needed it for 14 months, so much so I nearly forgot my face mask!

“Wearing them wasn’t a problem, in fact, it kept me warm!

“It took me all of 90 seconds to shout at the referee and after that it felt like I’d never been away.

“It was lovely to see old faces, or part of their faces anyway, and the match definitely benefitted from having a crowd as it had an intensity to it from the off.

“I even managed a cheeky hug with my son Sam’s stepdaughter after the goals, which is our normal routine.

“All in all, it was great to be back and everyone connected with the night should be proud of being involved in the first professional sporting fixture to be played with a crowd in Wales since the pandemic started.”

Caitlin Webb, 17, who has been following Newport since 2012, was also there.

She said: “The feeling of walking up those steps into the ground from the concourse was so overwhelming.

“The Covid measures put in place were respected and carried out well, and credit to all involved for making it possible for the return of fans.

“The performance from the team was perfect, unfortunate that we couldn’t capitalise on all the chances had to kill the game off, but no complaints from myself.

“It was great to see the likes of Liam Shephard, Nicky Maynard and Priestley Farquharson in a County shirt. I had a brilliant night!”