Newport hero Robbie Willmott prepares to take on Manchester City in the FA Cup having once feared that he had wasted his career and would end up stacking supermarket shelves for good.
Willmott took a starring role in Tuesday’s 2-0 fourth-round replay win over Middlesbrough, opening the scoring with his first goal of the season before setting up Padraig Amond’s clincher.
But the Essex-born winger admits his story almost had an unhappy ending after being released by Newport in 2015.
Willmott drifted into non-league with Ebbsfleet, Eastleigh, Bishop’s Stortford and Chelmsford and worked at Tesco stacking shelves before Newport manager Michael Flynn gave him a second chance at Rodney Parade.
“I took a lot of things for granted when I was here before, like most pros do,” Willmott said.
“You think you’re going to carry on getting contracts. But a different regime came in at Newport, the budget was cut, and unfortunately I was cut as well.
“When I dropped out I thought this is going to be me now. Play part-time and work, and when I’ve finished think that I’ve wasted my career.
“But I managed to grind and work hard, find my love for football again and get back in the league.”
Willmott was playing for Chelmsford in the Conference South when the call from his former Exiles team-mate Flynn came in the summer of 2017.
The 28-year-old had played nearly 300 games for Cambridge, Luton and Newport but shopping aisles rather than training grounds were now his place of work.
“I was working from six in the morning to about one or two in the afternoon,” Willmott said.
“I’d go home and probably do an hour in the gym. That was my day.
“The turning point was probably training twice a week. It’s the same every day when you’re a pro, but those two nights a week I was buzzing for football.
“I couldn’t wait to get there and I couldn’t wait to play on a Saturday.
“I knew I only had those days to impress, so I managed to do that and get a few offers on the table.
“But this was the only club I was going to come back for because it means so much to me.”
Newport, 14th in Sky Bet League Two after a miserable run of one win in nine games since December, will now host Pep Guardiola’s side on February 16.
Flynn’s side cost just £50,000 to assemble, a number dwarfed by the £1million-plus figure Newport are expected to make from this cup run.
Yet Willmott insists County can add the Premier League champions to the recent list of Rodney Parade cup casualties that now includes Leeds, Leicester and Middlesbrough.
“We’ve beaten a side (Leicester) this season, who’ve won the Premier League,” Willmott said.
“So there’s no reason why we can’t pull off a major shock.
“They’re not going to be able to play free-flowing football on that pitch, they’re going to have to change their game.
“In my first spell here they dug six trenches on the pitch – and I’ve seen a goalkeeper fall through a sand trench!
“You’ve just got to roll your sleeves up and grind the game out.”
There was more good news for Newport in the wake of them reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time since the 1948-49 season.
Goalkeeper Joe Day sprinted off the pitch at the final whistle to attend the birth of his twins and did not have to wait long for another positive result.
The club tweeted on Wednesday that Joe’s wife Lizzie had given birth to two girls, Sophia Grace and Emelia Lillie Day.
“They’ve had two healthy baby girls so congratulations to Joe and his partner Lizzie and the two little girls as well,” Amond told BBC Radio Wales on Wednesday morning.