By Damian Dolan
It’s been a “surreal” few months for Padraig Amond and the best could be yet to come, with the Carlow-native plotting a Wembley away-day to cap an extraordinary season with Newport County.
FA Cup giant-killing goals and a surprise Republic of Ireland call-up propelled the 31-year-old former Carlow underage footballer and hurler into the limelight.
This season’s FA Cup leading sharpshooter with five goals – he scored in every round of the Exiles’ run to the fifth round – including against Premier League champions Manchester City and Leicester City.
Amond and Newport now face Tranmere Rovers in Saturday’s League Two Play-off final at Wembley, with a place in League One up for grabs.
“It’s been a big few months for me and this [the play-off final] would top it all off, if we can win,” Amond told the Irish World.
“Saturday is just a case of ‘win’. If the manager picks someone else ahead of me and we win, I’ll still be the happiest person in the stadium.”
What an unbelievable feeling to be called into the senior squad for the first time. By far this is the proudest moment of my career 🇮🇪 https://t.co/OS28CJlZDo
— Padraig Amond (@padraigamond21) March 7, 2019
With 23 goals this year in all competitions for Newport, that’s unlikely. But the sentiment reflects the environment created at the club by its highly rated young manager Michael Flynn.
As a striker, whose commodity is goals, it’s not lost on Amond that he’s failed to find the back of the net in each of his three previous Wembley appearances.
He was a Wembley winner with Grimsby Town in 2016, as the club won promotion to the football league via the play-offs. A week later they were back at Wembley, only to lose to Halifax Town in the FA Trophy final, however.
And a little over a year ago, Amond’s goal came within eight minutes of dumping Tottenham Hotspur out in Round 4 of the FA Cup, before Harry Kane levelled.
Tottenham won the replay 2-0 at Wembley, with Amond shooting straight at Spurs’ keeper Michel Vorm in the dying seconds.
“I missed a sitter, so I’m out to rectify that. But if we win 1-0 and I don’t touch the ball, I don’t care,” he said.
“Playing in big stadia like Wembley is great, but it’s only enjoyable if you win the game.”
Two years ago, Newport were just minutes away from dropping out of the league – it’s been nothing short of a fairytale turnaround under Flynn.
Fellow Irishman Mark O’Brien’s sensational 89th minute winner for Newport on the final day of the 2016/17 season saved the Welsh club from relegation.
It completed the “great escape” for Flynn’s team – they were 11 points adrift with 12 games to go. Instead, a Hartlepool team, containing Amond, were relegated.
“That was the worst day I’ve ever had in football. It was a horrible, horrible feeling,” he said.
“When Mark scored against Oldham a few weeks ago, that was his first goal since then and only his second-ever.
“I said to him ‘that’s the first goal I’ve ever celebrated that you’ve scored, because the last time you scored you had me in tears’.”
Who fancies another trip to Wembley ⚫️🔶 pic.twitter.com/RnPDpUqbJi
— Padraig Amond (@padraigamond21) May 13, 2019
Flynn offered Amond a lifeline, bringing him to Rodney Parade, and last season he returned that faith by scoring 15 goals in all matches as Newport finished a respectable eleventh, and rattled a few cages in the FA Cup.
He added: “We’re now 90 minutes away from being in League One and two years ago the club was minutes away from going out of the football league.
“If they had gone down, the club probably would have gone out of existence. So the turnaround has been unbelievable.”
Amond puts it down to the togetherness instilled in the players by Flynn – a young manager whose stock is undoubtedly on the rise.
“We don’t know when we’re beaten. We’ll run through a brick wall for each other and that comes from the environment that’s set on the training ground every day,” he said.
Take it away, @padraigamond21! 🔥
— Newport County AFC (@NewportCounty) April 5, 2019
“Whether we win or lose we don’t get carried away. All the lads have brought into it and it’s a really enjoyable place to go into work every morning.”
Newport go into the Saturday’s play-off final unbeaten in their last 12 – a run Amond attributes in part to the postponement of their game with Oldham Athletic on 23 March, after four Latics players received international call-ups.
Flynn gave the players a week off to recharge the batteries. They haven’t lost since.
“He said ‘go and relax with your families’ and that reenergised the squad,” said Amond.
“When a manager does something like that you’ll run through a brick wall for him. You’ll go that little bit extra, and that’s the relationship the manager has with the players.”
— Elite Management (@elite_mgmt) April 27, 2019
It’s an environment in which Amond has clearly flourished, so much so that Mick McCarthy named him in his provisional squad for Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualifiers with Georgia and Gibraltar at the end of March.
Although he didn’t make the final squad, Amond says it’s still the “best moment” of his career. Now, he wants more.
“I want to pull on the green shirt and play for my country,” he said, and to do so would fulfil a “life-long dream”.
Although not included in McCarthy’s squad for next month’s qualifiers with Denmark on 7 June and three days later in Dublin against Gibraltar, he’s clearly forced his way in the new manager’s thoughts and he is a man in form after all.
Any late call up, though, would leave Amond with a dilemma, as he’s due to get married on 7 June.
“We’ll deal with that if it happens,” he says. “I don’t want to even think about that at the minute.”
Amond’s thoughts are solely on Saturday – it’s been a sensational few months, but it’s not over yet.