One of the aims of this book that I’m writing about Welsh football is provide an independent, neutral description of the events that led to Newport County’s sad demise, its rebirth as a Phoenix club, and the debilitating battle with the FAW over its right to play in the English pyramid.
Newport’s situation has never been satisfactorily explained as far as I am aware. This is an emotional subject, and fingers are pointed, people are blamed and accused of many things. Somewhere in this mound of accusation and counter-accusation there is the truth. I want to examine the history of Newport County and ask some questions. If I make any inaccurate assumptions, please don’t get angry with me; I’m admitting my ignorance from the start. This is an attempt to educate myself and others about what really went on.
Newport County had never been a big club. The years before the arrival of Len Ashurst in 1979 had been a perpetual struggle. But suddenly, with his appointment things began to look up. There was promotion to the 3rd Division and a place in Europe after winning the Welsh Cup. Newport spent money. £20,000 on the playing surface and £45,000 on the late Mark Kendall.
There were two wins in Europe and an incredible draw away against the East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. The return leg at Somerton Park in front of 18,000 fans was a travesty, as Newport did everything but score. They went out, but it was the proudest moment for the club and their team which included the international players, Nigel Vaughan, John Aldridge, and Steve Lowndes. Newport were top of the 3rd Division when they beat Cardiff in 1982, and they drew with Everton in the FA Cup. But even during this period of success, finances were bad, and the club were relying on handouts from the council to avoid court appearances. The FAW attracted criticism when they refused a request for £100,000 assistance. What is rarely mentioned is that the FAW had already saved the club once with a grant of £5,000 in the mid 1970s.
After missing out on promotion that year, Newport went into decline. There were losses of £185,000 in 1985, and in 1987 Newport were relegated from the old 3rd Division. The following year they were relegated from the 4th amidst deepening financial trouble, and on 27th February 1989 Newport County went out of business with debts of £330,000 without completing the season in the Conference.
There are questions to be raised. Firstly, who was Jerry Sherman and what was his involvement in Newport’s collapse?
Jerry Sherman had arrived on the scene in 1986, apparently attracted to the club by its name; he was from a place called Newport in America. He was brash, elusive, mysterious, with the shifty-eyed evasiveness of a potion seller at a wild west show. He made promises that he couldn’t keep. As Newport County went out of business , Sherman became the target of local anger. He became the scapegoat, but was it justified?
Sherman announced his arrival in Newport, Gwent, by telling the South Wales Argus that he would be buying the board out for £750,000, thus causing celebrations throughout south east Wales. When people are desperate they will believe anything that provides hope, and that perhaps is Sherman’s cruellest deed. That takeover never materialised. In 1987, Newport went into administration and Somerton Park was sold to Newport council to save the club, though when they failed to meet rent payments in 1988, they were evicted over £23,000 arrears. Only a last minute payment saw them re-admitted to their home.
In October 1988, the club faced a winding-up petition over a £132,000 bill. A deal had been struck, and Sherman made out a £10,000 downpayment, but he failed to meet any of the remaining installments. Rumours of his involvement into an alleged fraud were surfacing and yet against all of this financial chaos, the players were still staying in top hotels before games. It was finally confirmed in November 1988 that Sherman was indeed the new chairman of the club. When he made the step up from board member that year, he claimed he had no option but to take the club over, as nobody else wanted it. He had anticipated that a single payment of £125,000 would clear the clubs debts and allow him to rebuild. He says that it soon became apparent that matters were worse than they had been portrayed.
In January, he told the local press that he had a six-figure sum in a bank account just waiting to be transferred and invested. In February he announced that he had given the order to clear all debts. He was even buying new players. Then he announced that he had found investment which would guarantee the club £40,000 a week. By now nobody believed him. Even when the club was wound up at the end of the month, he asked for 2 days grace due to a banking slipup.
In his 6 months as Chairman of the club, Newport’s debts had increased from a reported £132,000 to £330,000. What really happened? Did Sherman embezzle that extra £200,000 out of the club, or was he telling the truth when he says those debts were there when he arrived? Whatever the truth, Newport County were wound up and the resulting auction of their history produced some of the most heart-breaking scenes witnessed in not only Welsh football, but in any place where people love their local club.
So what were Sherman’s motives? I’ve never been able to understand this. He did make a £10,000 payment to rescue the club, and his company JLA apparently made a £30,000 shirt sponsorship. Did he really get involved just to swindle Newport County?
My second question is regarding the formation of the phoenix club, Newport AFC. When the supporters met to establish a new side, I had never realised that Newport County were still actually in existence, were in training, and had been accepted into the Vauxhall Opel League. I had always known that some County fans objected to the formation of the new club, and perhaps this explains it. Could County have been saved if the supporters had backed it in the Opel League? I doubt it, as Sherman would never have found funds to pay off the debts, but should the supporters have waited until County had officially disappeared?
In the event, Newport County never did play another game, so the phoenix club was proved right. They were expelled from the League with Sherman still asking for two days grace. What was it with this bloke?
In January 1990, there was a poll in the Argus asking if Newport AFC should be allowed to return to Somerton Park. I was surprised to see that 340 people, 10% of the votes, were against the idea. Were these local residents enjoying the peace, or disgruntled old County fans unhappy with the new club? I’m not criticising or implying any wrong-doing here, I’ve just always been aware that some old County fans didn’t back Newport AFC, and I’ve never understood why.
My third question is about the FAW battle. I’ve read plenty of times about the alleged vindictiveness of Alun Evans in his position as secretary of the FAW, but I’ve never accepted that as a plausible explanation as to why he was so keen to refuse Newport AFC a home in Wales. Surely there must have been pressures at the time which led Evans to believe that Wales’ independent status was under threat. There must have been valid reasons for Evans to believe that a new LoW was necessary and that he simply could not allow the rebels to play in the English pyramid from their Welsh grounds. I hope to speak to Mr Evans about the issue, but until then I can only guess that FIFA/UEFA officials were insistent. We now know that Welsh football has survived the scaremongering and some semi-pro clubs play in England with no apparent damage to the FAW. Once again Newport fans were proved right, but why was Evans so sure of his position at the time?
It’s a minefield, and the recent history of Newport County/Newport AFC along with Wales’ domestic relationship to UEFA must be the most intriguing and perplexing story in European football. If anybody is able to help me plot a pathway through the murky past of football in Gwent, then I’m all ears.
In the meantime, here is the full BBC documentary featuring Jerry Sherman and Newport County from 1989.