A DAY that started so full of hope and optimism ended in desperate disappointment at the hands of a former hero and a big decision.
Chris Zebroski scored just eight minutes into his return to Plainmoor and it would turn out to be the winning goal for Newport, but the match was really decided when referee Gary Sutton showed United Shamir Goodwin a straight red card in the first half.
It was a massive call from the official and one that gave the exhausted Gulls an insurmountable challenge. The long trip to York on Tuesday night is now almost make or break in the fight for survival.
United boss Chris Hargreaves made just one enforced change from the side that defeated Bury in midweek. A hamstring strain ruled out Courtney Cameron from left-wing duties but Billy Bodin’s return to fitness was perfectly timed for the Welsh youngster to line up against his countrymen.
Nathan Craig, another Gull from Wales, was included on the bench, with Danny Stevens joining the injured list. The last-gasp hero from Tuesday night, Ashley Yeoman, was again named among the replacements.
Newport manager Justin Edinburgh rung the changes to his side after Wednesday’s loss to Dagenham clocked up eight games without a win for the Exiles, although former Yellow Zebroski kept his place in attack.
New defensive signings, Darcy Blake and Kevin Feely, both started, with Byron Anthony and the suspended David Pipe missing out. The midfield alterations saw Ryan Burge and Max Porter replaced by Michael Flynn and Adam Chapman.
United were determined to test the all-new centre-back pairing for Newport in the early stages and a drifting corner from Bodin had Feely at full stretch to flick away from Aaron Downes powering in at the far post.
The in-form Goodwin was the next in Yellow to saunter forward, picking up a clever pass from Bodin to find space 25 yards from goal and the youngster’s eventual shot spun narrowly past Ian McLoughlin’s top left-hand corner.
Newport then struck with a painfully fortunate opener, as Flynn threaded a neat pass into the left channel for Zebroski, who shot instantly but was seemingly well challenged by Dale Tonge, only for the ball to ricochet agonisingly beyond the despairing dive of Martin Rice and into the far corner.
The Gulls had a decent chance for a swift reply after Enoch Showunmi was dumped to the ground on the edge of the visiting area. The free-kick was teed up for Kevin Nicholson and the left-back was unlucky to see his curling effort shave the crossbar.
In general, however, United had lost their impetus and it needed a drop of the shoulder from Bodin to reignite the enthusiasm. The final shot was steered over but a clear sign of the magic in his dancing feet.
Bodin came even closer with his next effort and from 15 yards further out, as a delightful curling free-kick beat the full-length dive of McLoughlin but, annoyingly, also the far corner.
Referee Gary Sutton then took centre-stage, issuing a straight red card to Goodwin after the winger apparently led with his arm in an aerial challenge with Lee Minshull. It was a desperate blow for Yellow hopes and the atmosphere inside Plainmoor had suddenly turned very hostile.
The first look was a flailing arm and an awkward challenge. The question Mr Sutton has to answer: was it deliberate intent to hurt his opponent? Given the importance of the occasion, the referee needs to be right in these situations.
The United team had no time to concern themselves with the validity of the decision and Hargreaves immediately looked to condense his midfield for the remaining minutes of the first period.
Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Gulls were playing the better football, although Rice was called into action for a double-save when Flynn’s long-distance shot was parried and the follow-up from Danny Crow required another decent block.
Zebroski screwed a low shot wide in the final act of a difficult first period and United came out for the second half with a mountain to climb: 1-0 down, down to ten men and playing into a strong wind were the ingredients for a monumental turnaround.
An early goal for Newport would surely kill the game and the visitors started the second half like a side determined to end the contest. First, Zebroski glanced a header inches over and then a fierce Crow drive prompted a fine save from Rice.
United responded with impressive character and a succession of crosses in the box had the Newport defence creaking under the pressure. Downes came closest with a header powered over the bar from a Nicholson corner.
Hargreaves turned to his bench with the introduction of Yeoman for Showunmi on the hour but the new problem for United was two relatively small front-men competing with a back four that was happy to head and hoof everything that came their way.
Newport sensed the Yellow legs were growing tired in midfield and Adam Chapman was able to sneak forward for a snap-shot after a half-clearance from a Robbie Willmott cross.
Two more United changes saw Craig and Anthony O’Connor replace Nicholson and Tonge, and a formation shuffle that had the Gulls playing with three at the back. In such situations, set-pieces can be crucial and Craig’s delivery from a free-kick only just eluded the run of Downes.
The growing feeling that this would not be United’s day had further evidence when a Naylor clearance from virtually the halfway line almost sneaked in the top corner. Rice just managed to tip over and the next Newport attack saw Andrew Hughes glance a header against the post.
Aaron Holloway replaced the cumbersome Crow for the last 15 minutes and the impressive Chapman was removed for Porter in the final exchanges.
United battled hard to the end and very nearly equalised with a desperate goalmouth scramble involving Downes and Yeoman, but McLoughlin somehow managed to keep the ball out of his net.
The last word on a disappointing day should go to Krystian Pearce, who produced a truly colossal performance at the heart of the Yellow defence.
The final, final word is more of a question for the referee: are you absolutely sure it was a straight red card?
United [4-4-2]: 13 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson (20 Nathan Craig 69); 17 Shamir Goodwin, 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 6 Damon Lathrope, 10 Billy Bodin; 25 Enoch Showunmi (14 Ashley Yeoman 59), 26 Elliot Benyon. Substitutes [not used]: 1 Michael Poke [GK], 8 Ben Harding, 9 Karl Hawley, 19 Jayden Stockley, 29 Anthony O’Connor.
Newport [4-4-2]: 33 Ian McLoughlin; 19 Tom Naylor, 16 Darcy Blake, 20 Kevin Feely, 3 Andrew Hughes; 12 Robbie Willmott (14 Shaun Jeffers 90), 7 Adam Chapman (4 Max Porter 86), 8 Lee Minshull, 17 Michael Flynn [capt]; 9 Danny Crow (24 Aaron Holloway 77), 11 Chris Zebroski Substitutes [not used]: 15 Ryan Burge, 22 Harry Worley, 23 Christian Jolley.
Referee: Gary Sutton
Attendance:2,874 (860 away)