Karl Darlow: Why I owe so much to Wednesday's cup opponents
Written by Dan King
Karl Darlow's 196th career start at the weekend saw him put in a man of the match performance as Newcastle United drew with Tottenham Hotspur in a game televised around the globe - a world away from his first, which came in March 2012 in front of a crowd of 1,261 for Newport County in a 1-0 home win against Gateshead.
On Wednesday evening the goalkeeper - who made a string of superb saves on Sunday and was hailed by José Mourinho as the Magpies claimed a valuable point in North London - will return to Newport for the first time since the final match of a short but successful loan spell with the Exiles which Darlow gratefully admits helped him to get to where he is now.
When he joined the Welsh side as a 21-year-old rookie, his only taste of senior football had been as a late substitute appearance for Nottingham Forest in a 3-0 victory against Crystal Palace on the final day of the 2010/11 campaign. Newport were near the bottom of the National League, facing the very real prospect of dropping into the sixth tier of English football and returning to a part-time status, but they won three and drew three of the eight games in which Darlow played and eventually escaped relegation.
They went on to reach the FA Trophy final that season - losing to York City in their first ever visit to Wembley Stadium - and the following term, won promotion back to the Football League after a 25-year absence. Currently third in League Two, last week they beat Championship side Watford to reach the fourth round of the Carabao Cup for the first time in their history and set up a meeting with the Magpies - one which holds a special significance for Darlow.
"Going there on loan was a massive start to my career and it's just a shame there'll be no fans there on Wednesday night because it would have been nice to go back and see the ground full, and enjoy the occasion," he told nufc.co.uk. "With us being a Premier League club, it's a big occasion for them and it'll be a nice moment for me, going back there.
"They were near the bottom of the Conference so it was an eye-opener for me. It was men's football, which I was desperate for at the time. I'd played reserve games for Nottingham Forest but I needed some proper first team action and to find out what it's like.
"We scrapped and scrapped and we managed to stay up. It was a really good period for me to find out what it's all about, really, and what men's football means to people, their livelihoods - they couldn't afford to get relegated and trying to stay in the division was a big thing, and I enjoyed it.
"We had a really good group, and Justin Edinburgh was the manager at the time. He's passed away now and I owe him a lot for taking me on, having faith in me and playing me at that time of the season, when it was important for them to get results. I really do have a lot to thank him for - and he did an unbelievable job at Newport - so I was very sad when he passed away last year.
"It was a good time for me and it turned out well when we stayed up. I always look out for them and always follow them. They did a great job, especially Justin, taking the team from where it was to bringing it back into the Football League, and staying up and getting promotion was a massive, massive thing for them. Now they've established themselves in the EFL which is fantastic for them as a club, and the whole of Newport will be proud of the football team - and they always were - so I'm delighted for them."
Darlow went on to play on loan for Walsall before establishing himself as Forest's first choice goalkeeper, then earning a move to Newcastle six years ago.
Meanwhile, under the management of former Darlington midfielder Michael Flynn, Newport were beaten in the League Two play-off final in 2018/19 and have gained a deserved reputation for their cup performances, knocking the likes of Leeds United, Leicester and Middlesbrough out of the FA Cup in recent seasons, as well as forcing a replay against Tottenham and reaching the semi-finals of the EFL Trophy last term.
Newcastle were 7-0 winners at Morecambe in the last round, but Darlow - whose grandfather, Ken Leek, was a Wales international and also played for the Magpies in the 1960s - warned: "I think every time you play lower league opposition, it's a big occasion for the club so we need to be professional, like we have been in the first two rounds, and hopefully go and get the right result to get ourselves into the quarter-finals.
"It would be great for the club if we can progress further than we have done in previous years and really have a go at this cup."
Darlow is likely to be on the bench on Wednesday, with Mark Gillespie playing each of United's cup games so far this term and keeping clean sheets in both.
And Darlow, who signed a new five-year contract at St. James' Park earlier this month, said of his fellow goalkeeper: "He's been brilliant.
"Obviously for him it was a massive moment coming back here and he's probably already told you about how proud he is to come and make his debut against Blackburn in that first round. He did brilliantly well against Blackburn and he did very well against Morecambe.
"It's brilliant for him to be playing for his boyhood club and he's proved himself more than good enough to be here and be playing for Newcastle United, which I think is a big thing as well. He's been magnificent in training and he's a great lad, so it's all good."
Photographs courtesy of South Wales Argus
"I always look out for them and always follow them. Now they've established themselves in the EFL which is fantastic for them as a club, and the whole of Newport will be proud of the football team - and they always were - so I'm delighted for them."