“I would’ve liked for it to be earlier but I feel like I’ve arrived now.”
Dom Telford has forced the EFL to sit up and take notice but despite a seminal season that saw him score 26 goals for Newport County and win the League Two golden boot, he is clear that he has no plans of slowing down.
“I want to kick on and do the same next year,” says the 25-year-old. “I was saying to Kev (Ellison) at Christmas time that I finally feel like a footballer. That sounds a bit crazy because I’ve had a decent career for still being quite young but I feel like I now know what it takes to be robust and play Saturday, Tuesday. To manage my body off the pitch to make sure I’m ready for when I’m on it.
“I want to string games together, score goals, and play at the highest level possible. It’s a summer of me working as hard as I can to make sure I come back strong and sharp, to make sure I hit the ground running and pick up where I left off.”
Of the players to score more than 20 goals in English football’s top four divisions this season, only record-breaker Aleksandar Mitrovic (0.98) has done so at a better goals per game ratio than Telford, which illustrates just how far he has come over the past 12 months.
The striker was told by Michael Flynn that he could find a new club at the start of pre-season, just five months after joining from Plymouth Argyle, but now has Newport and a number of others battling for his signature.
“It was literally just a case of pulling me into his office and telling me straight up that I’m not going to play and I’m not in his plans and he could do with my wages to recruit someone else that he had his eye on,” says Telford, recalling the day last summer that would prove something of a crossroads moment in his career.
“I went home that day and I was in two minds. Part of me wanted to just go ‘sod this it’s not for me’ but at the same time I was thinking ‘no I’ve worked for 20 years for this, I’m going to prove him wrong’.
“That’s the best motivation. When someone’s telling you that you can’t do something and you know you can so you go above and beyond to prove what you’re about.
“It was a tough pill to swallow because knew I could do it here and I came here to play games and score goals. It’s difficult when things aren’t going your way. It’s a challenge.”
It’s a challenge that Telford has undoubtedly risen to, though he would have to wait until Flynn was replaced by James Rowberry in October to really show what he was about.
A shift in the system followed the change in the dugout, with an emphasis on attacking football meaning that new faith was put in Telford as well as Aston Villa loanee Finn Azaz and on-loan Swansea City midfielder Oli Cooper – two players that he is quick to admit have played a “crucial” role in his success this season alongside the off-field influence of housemate Kevin Ellison.
Rowberry’s trust, too, was vital in helping the 25-year-old flourish and saw him go on a remarkable goalscoring run, bagging 25 goals in 22 League Two games as he helped transform Newport into play-off chasers.
“It’s been brilliant (working under him),” says Telford. “I was literally transfer listed, out the door under the old manager, so it was a breath of fresh air. He’s been brilliant. He’s trusted me, believed in me, backed me, and as a player that’s all you can ask for.”
Newport’s play-off push would eventually run out of steam but despite an 11th place finish, Rowberry’s impact has seen him linked with the vacant QPR job.
“He’s an ambitious manager,” adds Telford when pressed on whether the 36-year-old is ready to step up to the Championship. “He wants to work at the highest level as we all do. At the moment, he’ll be focussed on getting Newport to where they haven’t been before but at the same time he’s ambitious and wants to do well.”
And what of the manager Rowberry replaced in the Newport dugout? Well, the relationship between the 25-year-old and Flynn is not as icy as one might suspect.
“If you take football away from it,” he explains. “Me and Michael Flynn never had any animosity because he was so clear to me on the second day of pre-season, he just said it’s better if you find a new club. He was honest and straight up with me and I was straight up with him.
“We had that level of respect. Sometimes things work out in football, sometimes they don’t but you can still be respectful to each other. It wasn’t his fault, it was 50/50. I could’ve done more, he could’ve done more. It’s just one of those things.
“With my achievements this season, he’s texted me to congratulate me and I think that’s testament to him – even though it didn’t work out, it doesn’t mean there’s not that level of respect there.”
Though it was not his intention at the time, there is no denying the impact that Flynn and that conversation has had on Telford, providing him with that extra bit of inspiration to become the 20-plus goal striker that he always felt he could be.
When he left Blackpool to join Stoke City as a teenager, however, he will not have imagined it would’ve taken him this long.
He never got a chance for the Potters’ first team and was little more than a bit-part player at Bristol Rovers while on loan in 2017/18 but found his feet under Ryan Lowe at Bury where he helped the club win promotion in the season before their unfortunate expulsion from the EFL.
The adversity that Telford has experienced – both personally and at club level during his spells at Bury and Blackpool – has helped him to bounce back and prove Flynn wrong at Newport as well as to better appreciate his current success.
“I think it was a blessing really,” he explains. “Seeing that side of football so early on. It sort of makes you grow up quickly and realise people have mortgages to pay. It’s a results business. You need to win, you need to be at your best all the time.
“Especially when I was at Bury and I wasn’t getting paid, you see not just what it means to the players but also to the staff behind the scenes – people have been there for 20 or 30 years and it’s their livelihood. It’s more than just your matchdays.
“It was a blessing seeing that, learning from it and not taking for granted the good times when they do come because unfortunately, stuff like that happens. It’s a business and it’s unfortunate but when you get the good times you can’t take them for granted.
“You’ve been through that spell of not getting paid or the club’s going through a tough time and the fans are going through even worse. Their club is going downhill and it just makes you appreciate the good times when you do have them.
“I do think it helped with this time around. I’ve seen lads get told what I got told and they go one of two ways. They just blow it off but that doesn’t get you anywhere. Or lads roll their sleeves up and say alright I’ll prove you wrong.
“It definitely helped me to take it in my stride a bit more than I would’ve done if I’d not experienced that side of football earlier in my career.”
Those experiences and an understanding of just how much fans put into football clubs from going to games with his father as a child have influenced Telford’s work ethic, which makes him a useful asset out of possession – though it’s the diminutive forward’s talents as a finisher that clearly take centre stage.
“Growing up I tried to model my game off Jermain Defoe,” he says.
“At the time he was doing it week in, week out in the Premier League and wasn’t the tallest of strikers. It was almost like anywhere in the box, however the ball came to him, he could put it in the back of the net and he sort of inspired me to have that second nature thought process too.
“So now wherever I’ll be in the box, whether it’s a header, left foot, right foot, I know what I’m going to do. It’s just having that poacher’s instinct.”
Defoe’s influence has been clear to see this season – in the movement for his header against Barrow, the touch and curling finish against Colchester United, and the audacious swiveled volley against Bristol Rovers – and it’s helped him bag the League Two golden boot for 2021/22.
Along with that has come a place in the EFL’s League Two Team of the Season, a nomination for the EFL’s League Two Player of the Season award, and multiple club awards at Newport but his greatest reward may arrive later this summer in the shape of a move to a higher division.
Telford’s contract is up at Rodney Parade and though the club have offered him new terms, with Rowberry pledging to pull out all the stops to keep him, he is going to take his time when deciding what comes next.
“It’s going to be a time to reflect now,” he explains. “Chill out, rest the body up, and then I’ll see what’s there for me with my family, my agent, and the people around me and see what options there are out there.
“I’ve loved playing at Newport and that’ll definitely come into my decision but it’s weighing up all sorts of different things. I am ambitious, I want to play at the highest level. We’ll just have to see what comes up but I won’t be in any rush to jump to a decision.”
The 25-year-old’s agreement with his agent means he is kept in the dark about anything that’s not concrete interest but he is set to sit down and find out exactly what his options are very soon.
“There is a bit of interest,” Telford confirms. “I’m not sure who or where or anything like that. I’ll have to have a sit down with him and go through what’s on the table but as it stands, I know there is some but I don’t know about any specific teams or anything like that.
“It’ll be a tough decision for me and one that I’ll have to think through thoroughly to make sure it’s the right one for me and my career. I want to go back-to-back next season, I don’t want to sit back and not do the same again.
“I’ve loved scoring goals, doing what I always knew I could do. Helping the team get three points when you’ve scored a last-minute winner or contributed, there is no sweeter feeling so I want to do that again and kick on.”
Could that be at Preston North End in a third spell under Lowe? Telford certainly isn’t ruling it out should the opportunity arise.
On the former Bury and Plymouth boss, he says: “I get on really well with him. He’s a top manager and a top bloke. You can learn from him, he always used to tell me he had scored 200+ goals. Because he was a striker as well you can really bounce off him.
“He’s really black and white. He’ll tell you if you’re doing something in training or in a game that he’s not happy with but if you’re doing well, he’ll let you know.
“Anyone that works the way Ryan Lowe works, I would love to work with again.”
So far, Newport are the only club whose interest has been confirmed and less than a year after being told they wanted him gone, Telford admits that their efforts to keep him do make it feel like he’s proven his point.
“Yeah, kind of,” he says. “The whole concept has changed now because it’s a different manager. It is different but at the same time, it is a bit sweeter because everyone wants it to be plain sailing but it never really is like that.
“I think coming in pre-season, having that adversity thrown at me and seeing the way the season unfolded, yeah it does make it that little bit sweeter because it wasn’t easy for me.
“It’s one of them where me, my agent, and my family will have to sit down and weigh up options this summer and see where that takes us but I’ve loved every minute under the new manager.
“Playing games and scoring goals for Newport, it’s been a rollercoaster but a really enjoyable one.”