Newport is one of those places in the British Isles that if it wasn’t for sport you’d probably never give a moment’s thought to visiting. And yet Newport is a fascinating place with a rich history and some fabulous Victorian architecture in its centre. The people are also very friendly and there is a genuine pride about the place.
Notwithstanding that it is roughly half the size of Bradford and granted city status only as recently as 2002, there are numerous similarities between the two. Newport for instance was similarly an industrial frontier town in the nineteenth century and like Bradford was transformed by industrialisation. It has likewise been forced to cope with deindustrialisation in the last fifty years and the corresponding challenge of regeneration.
So too Newport was a place that established for itself a reputation as a sporting centre. By the end of the 1880s, Newport Athletic RFC (established 1874) and Bradford FC (whose origins dated to 1863) were considered by many to be among the leading rugby clubs in Great Britain. Such was the mutual respect that high profile fixtures between the clubs were organised in the 1893/94 season when the Bradford and Newport clubs played each other at Park Avenue as well as Rodney Parade. The first game in Bradford in October, 1893 was drawn but in February, 1894 Bradford FC suffered a resounding 0-34 defeat in Newport. That same season, Manningham FC, forerunner of Bradford City AFC played at Rodney Parade in November, 1893 but the Bradfordians were also beaten albeit by a narrower margin, 3-6.
After the split in English rugby in 1895 and the formation of the Northern Union, sporting contests between representatives of the two centres were put on hold and not renewed until 1938 when Newport County (founded in 1912) first played against Bradford Park Avenue in the FA Cup and then in 1946/47 as second division rivals. In the post-war era, fixtures between the Bradford clubs and Newport County became more commonplace in the basement of the Football League. Bradford City did not meet Newport County until the 1958/59 season in the new national third division.
Newport County has always been the unfashionable cousin of Newport Athletic RFC and for most of its history has struggled to stay afloat. The club endured a series of financial crises that led to the loss of Football League status in 1988 and liquidation in 1989. It was not until 2013 that a reformed club had reclaimed a place in the 92 hierarchy of English and Welsh senior football after climbing from the base of the football pyramid. The manner in which the Newport supporters sustained a phoenix club is an inspiration to others who have faced similar circumstances (ie Bury FC) and they were held up as an example in 2004 when it seemed that Bradford City might follow into oblivion.
I had looked forward to the opportunity to visit Newport when the fixtures were announced last summer. Having attended the last game between the sides at County’s former ground, Somerton Park in April, 1985 I was keen to visit Rodney Parade which the club now shares with Newport Rugby and the Newport Gwent Dragons rugby union franchise (now known simply as ‘Dragons’).
Rodney Parade dates back to 1877 and is reputedly the second oldest sporting venue in the Football League after Deepdale, Preston. Although nowadays it stages only rugby union and association football, for the majority of its existence Rodney Parade was a quintessential multisport arena. There are indeed similarities to Park Avenue in that Rodney Parade had an adjacent cricket pitch (home of Monmouth County Cricket Club) which has been the site of a school since 1993 and behind the north terrace there are the former grass terrace courts and bowling greens (abandoned in 2013). Additionally it was a centre for athletics as well as staging other spectator events as the town’s premier arena.
Newport County AFC is a tenant of the Welsh Rugby Union who purchased Rodney Parade from the Newport Athletic Club in 2017. This was part of the grand WRU project to establish regional Welsh rugby clubs and at a swoop, the proud history and tradition of Newport Athletic RFC was swept aside by the new corporate entity. Nevertheless although the Newport Gwent Dragons initiative appears to have had limited success – it has failed to emulate the achievements of Newport RFC and its gates are no higher than those of Newport County – the Dragons are the lead tenant at Rodney Parade. From conversation with supporters of Newport Rugby and Newport County, the general consensus is that the relationship with the Dragons leaves quite a bit to be desired and the two are considered junior partners at Rodney Parade.
It is quite remarkable that a ground should be shared by three ‘football’ clubs and if anyone had any reason to ask why the playing surface of Rodney Parade is in such poor condition, that is the answer. Economics has forced cohabitation which is a matter of convenience. Newport County for example has no other option and the Dragons need the sub-tenancy revenue. Poor Newport Rugby has been assigned feeder status to the Dragons and there is little chance to secure a new stadium or independence.
The arrangement provides a case study in the practicalities and emotions of ground-sharing and confirms that it is seldom as easy as theory might imply. City supporters have had their own experience of co-habitation at Odsal in 1985-86 and of the Bulls at Valley Parade in 2001 and 2002. I am not convinced that the Rodney Parade example gives encouragement to the Bulls ground-sharing at Valley Parade in the future on a permanent basis, particularly given that our pitch is already among the worst in the country even without the impact of the steampigs.
Photo shows southern end of the ground with (non-permanent) seating. The football pitch does not use the full length of the field. In the corner is a modern building that is used for offices and dressing rooms. From the outside the stadium has the appearance of a modern office block on a trading estate and the absence of floodlights makes the ground relatively inconspicuous in its surroundings.
Rodney Parade seems adequate for current purposes although it would benefit enormously from development. At the moment it feels something of a hotch-potch of facilities that do little justice to the heritage of the venue. Realignment of the pitch has also left the main grandstand off-centre to the pitch. Schemes have been investigated but inevitably finance is the constraint. The current talk is of a hotel being built on the former bowling greens, the development of which would fund new stands.
The ground is bounded by residential properties and the school on its southern side. On the northern perimeter of the grounds is the former pavilion of the Newport Athletic Club (used by Newport Rugby) which awaits demolition having been condemned. A few years ago its attic yielded an amazing find when an archive of sporting records of the Newport rugby and athletic sections was discovered. This included cuttings, teamsheets and ledgers dating back to the 1880s. Having had sight of the rugby artefacts I can attest to the content that brings the history to life. The discovery has been recognised as a significant finding and for sports historians it is the equivalent of Tutankhamun’s tomb for Egyptologists. If only the equivalent existed in Bradford contrary to reports that historic records at Valley Parade and Park Avenue have long since been disposed of.
Whilst the treasure trove has value for those interested in individual sports it also confirms the extent to which sporting activity – across all codes and pastimes – was co-ordinated and mutually interdependent in the Victorian age. In that sense Newport was not unique and the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club similarly operated as an umbrella organisation like the Newport Athletic Club with distinct sporting sections.
There is talk of the artefacts being displayed in the Welsh National Museum in Cardiff and being lost to Newport. By contrast it seems more fitting that there should be a local display.
When I was in Australia earlier this month I visited a number of sports grounds and had tours of stadia including the WACA in Perth, the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Adelaide Oval. The aforementioned are impressive structures with a real character and architectural appeal but what struck me was the manner in which the Aussies celebrate sporting heritage. The way in which sports history is interwoven into the fabric of the stadium experience is inescapable and something at which the Australians excel. It seems that no stadium is complete without statues, historic story boards, graphics or plaques – all of which tends to be lacking at British football grounds despite the boast of our own sporting history and tradition.
At Rodney Parade the truth is that the visitor gets little sense of the history of the ground quite simply because it is not celebrated which seems bizarre given the stories that could be told. Newport, like Bradford has lost its profile as an industrial and sporting centre but the tragedy is that it is allowed to be forgotten and for places such as these to become known for all the wrong reasons.
I have long argued that sporting identity has its role to play in urban regeneration. The celebration of sporting achievements and civic patriotism is surely no bad thing, a means of emphasising common purpose and identity, whether that between different clubs in the same city or the people who live there. Ironically the Victorians recognised the value of sport in this way as a means to overcome differences of politics or religion.
Of Park Avenue, little remains and the memory of how Bradford was a pioneering centre of organised sport has been forgotten. It seems incredible for example that Bradford FC was considered one of the richest sports clubs in England at the beginning of the 1890s!
As with Newport, Bradford has a proud sporting heritage even if it has not translated into modern success. Despite the fact that Newport County has had an even more modest record than either of Bradford City or Bradford Park Avenue, it was still sufficient to motivate people to rescue the club from being dissolved altogether and to be preserved as a community focused institution. My impression of the Dragons is of a corporate creation, arguably in keeping with the fact that from the outside Rodney Parade now looks like a trading estate. Having shed its Newport Gwent affiliation the Dragons project seems more about branding than harnessing local loyalties but I am probably not the person to judge.
And so a Bradford side has yet to record a victory at Rodney Parade. The game between Newport County and Bradford City on 22nd February, 2020 was not exactly a memorable exhibition of football – the match will be remembered for the inept display of the visitors and a piercing wind that made Odsal Stadium seem hospitable. It was however a good excursion rounded off with the unique company of Ricky Holden on the train back to Manchester. Newport’s first goal in the 1-2 defeat is pictured below.