Newport’s manager: ‘Either I won’t buy a drink all year or people will be unhappy’
There is a picture doing the rounds on social media that has Michael Flynn’s face superimposed above Steve McQueen’s body, with the Newport County manager about to pull off League Two’s version of the Great Escape on that famous Triumph motorbike.
For those not familiar with his story, Flynn is the local hero who has transformed Newport’s fortunes since taking over as manager in March, breathing new life into a football club that barely had a pulse when he was asked to step up from his role as first-team coach to replace Graham Westley.
“Back from the dead” are the words that the 36-year-old uses as he reflects on a remarkable run that has seen Newport, who were 11 points adrift of safety with 12 games remaining, pick up six victories in as many weeks to go into the final fixture of the season, at home against Notts County on Saturday, with their destiny in their own hands. A win will guarantee Football League status for another year. Anything less and Newport face relegation if Hartlepool beat Doncaster.
“It’s going to be nerve-wracking and emotional,” Flynn says. “There’s going to be die-hard fans crying if we stay up, and die-hard fans crying if we go down. Either I won’t buy a drink again for the rest of the year, or there will be a lot of people who won’t be too happy with me. It is what it is. But, hand on heart, I feel confident because the boys have given me everything and there’s no reason for them not to do it one more time – they know what it means.”
Flynn educated everyone on that front a while ago. Born and raised in Newport, he has amber and black in his veins. As well as working for the club across many different roles, Flynn has enjoyed three separate spells at Newport as a player – he has even made five appearances this season. One game, though, will always stand out: the Conference play-off final victory over Wrexham in 2013, which ended Newport’s 25-year wait to return to the Football League.
“That was one of the best days of my life because I saw what it meant to so many people – people who had worked so hard to get the club back,” Flynn says. “But I do think that this Notts County game is arguably bigger. During the play-offs we had a wealthy backer, so there was a bit of security there with Les Scadding, who did a very good job for Newport, helping to fund the club for a long time. But we haven’t got that now. We had to raise money for the fans to take ownership of the club.”
It has been a turbulent period on and off the field. Terry Butcher, John Sheridan, Warren Feeney and Westley have all occupied the manager’s office during the past two years, results have deteriorated badly – Newport finished third from bottom last season in a sign of things to come – and criticism has been levelled at the board for the way that it has run the club.
Flynn, in other words, was walking into a storm when he agreed to take the job, especially as Newport’s last game under Westley was a 4-0 home defeat against Leyton Orient, who were 91st on the league ladder at the time. “I could easily have shied away from the challenge and let somebody else do it. But that’s not what I’m about,” he says.
So how on earth has he managed to turn everything around so quickly? “We’ve put the confidence back into players and got them playing with a smile on their face,” Flynn says, alluding to the help he has received from the vastly experienced Lennie Lawrence, who is one of his tutors for the Football Association of Wales pro licence course he enrolled on last year, and Wayne Hatswell, his No2. “We’ve not overdone meetings or overcomplicated things. And I’ve played this season, so I still know what players enjoy and what they don’t, so we’ve just got back to that.”
Flynn has no plans to wear his boots again. He made close to 300 Football League appearances for Wigan, Gillingham, Blackpool, Huddersfield, Darlington and Bradford after starting his career as a teenager with Newport, where he stacked shelves at Tesco and worked as a postman to top up his part-time wages. Flynn also had a stint at Barry Town and, memorably, scored in a Champions League victory over Porto.
Yet no matter where he has played, Flynn has always thought of Newport as home, especially Pill, the inner-city docks area where he grew up. “I was always close to my mum, but I lived with my great auntie Sheila and my great uncle Ted, mainly because I wanted to live in Pill,” he explains.
“Unfortunately, they have all passed away. I had a tough time in 2007, when I lost my auntie to cancer and then 11 months later lost my mum, who was only 48, again to cancer. During that period my dad, who is still alive, had a heart attack and a stroke. It was horrendous, a testing time, and I’ve felt that I’ve always wanted to do them proud since. The play-off win at Wembley was for them and this will be for them as well if we stay up.”
Flynn is anticipating an electric atmosphere at Rodney Parade, where all 7,500 tickets have been sold, and he is also confident that the club will be playing their matches at the stadium next season. Newport Gwent Dragons, their fellow tenants, are subject to a takeover bid from the Welsh Rugby Union, which sees Rodney Parade as a rugby venue.
“We’ve got another six years left on the lease and talks have been positive with Rodney Parade Limited and the WRU if they do take over,” Flynn says. “That’s not my concern one bit, to be honest.”
Retaining Football League status is all that matters, so much so that Flynn has had to put the overseas study that forms part of his pro licence course “on the backburner” until the summer. He has been keeping good company in that classroom, with Thierry Henry, Mikel Arteta and Freddie Ljungberg among the other candidates, and must be looking forward to filling everyone in on what he has been up to since their previous get-together.
“The last meeting was March, just before I got the job,” says Flynn, smiling. “I’m due back there on 24 May and it’s the National Coaches Conference on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of that following weekend. We’ll have a couple of days before that and some of the big-hitters will then be delivering. You never know, if I keep Newport up, they might ask me to present on how a rookie manager comes back from the dead.”