It’s been a bumpy, troubling ride for Erik ten Hag, and that came long after the Manchester United manager had fielded further questions about Marcus Rashford’s apparent indiscipline. Rashford was conspicuous by his absence from the United squad that flew to Cardiff, which Ten Hag said was due to an internal matter, days after the striker called in sick for training, hours after he was reportedly in had been pictured at a nightclub in Belfast. On the pitch, United avoided an ignominious defeat at Newport County when Antony and Rasmus Højlund scored late on to prevent the League Two side from scoring a historic result and forcing a replay. Newport recovered from a 2-0 deficit after early goals from Bruno Fernandes and Kobbie Mainoo, his first goal for the senior team, to equalize in the second half and make for a thrilling encounter.
Until Bryn Morris’s shot was deflected off Lisandro Martínez in the 36th minute, it seemed as if this draw would be something of a high point after all. Newport provided anything but. Will Evans, who until two years ago milked cows on his parents’ farm in mid-Wales, equalized early in the second half and fired his shot past the post in the 90th minute. A grandstand finish seemed assured when the fourth official, Andrew Kitchen, called nine minutes of injury time in which Højlund scored from close range to seal the victory.
“It’s fair to say Newport is on the map,” bellowed the stadium announcer in the minutes before kick-off as the self-proclaimed Amber Army hopped in the stands. Christian Eriksen and Amad Diallo were among the United substitutes who couldn’t help but smile as they walked down the touchline towards the bench. “You will be released in the morning,” was the unique way Ten Hag was greeted by the Newport fans as he took his place on the away bench. The fifth round promises a trip to the winner of second division club Bristol City’s replay at Nottingham Forest.
Graham Coughlan, Newport’s manager, shook his head in disbelief as he walked into the stadium after warming up. Just before the first whistle, Newport’s players, many of them childhood United fans, lined up to shake hands with their United colleagues on the walls of the dressing room.
Newport erected a temporary stand to accommodate an additional 1,000 fans, increasing noise and increasing capacity to nearly 10,000. And those who couldn’t get their hands on tickets resorted to unorthodox measures. A pair of rowhouses on Rodney Road, which flanks one side of this rickety stadium, accommodated about two dozen fans to watch the game from makeshift, scaffolded viewing platforms. At full time they shouted the players off the pitch.
It was these fans and those on the extended north terrace who had the best seats in the house when that place heated up two minutes into the second half and Evans converted Adam Lewis’ low cross from the left to equalize. Lewis, who is on loan from Liverpool and went to school with Trent Alexander-Arnold, would surely have enjoyed every second. Suddenly the fact that United opened a two-goal lead within 13 minutes was a distant memory as the home team cheered Newport’s every block and reveled in United’s every miss. United were unsettled and Altay Bayindir fired a pass straight out of the pitch on debut. “Everywhere we go we look at Newport County and put on a show,” was the patio chant, now playing on a loop.
A stoppage of play in the 64th minute when Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend required treatment gave Coughlan the chance to coach his players. Inside he must have been bursting with pride. Earlier in the week, Coughlan had stressed the need to contain United’s midfield at all times. Morris and Aaron Wildig, on a free transfer, enjoyed battling Casemiro, a five-time Champions League winner, and Fernandes, signed for a combined £117m.
Newport supplier David Pipe, who played here twice as a player, handed out water bottles to Newport’s current team. Hydration to fuel one of the greatest comebacks, let alone cup upsets? Ten Hag must have felt a rush of relief four minutes later when United regained the lead through Antony. Luke Shaw cut inside with his right foot and sent a shot against Townsend’s left post, but Antony was there to save the rebound.
Newport, 16th in League Two, did themselves and the Pyramid a credit. Newport, a team that was fielded for a pittance compared to United and cost more than £400 million, pressed until the final whistle and that the game was only truly dead in the 94th minute was a testament to their uncompromising performance. With just under a minute left, Newport substitute James Waite forced Bayindir into a fingertip save. United had to work hard to get the job done.