Notts County shirt 2011-12. Illustration by Adam Poole
At the end of November, Notts found ourselves in a bit of a slump, form-wise, and, unfortunately, throughout December we’ve struggled to haul ourselves back to the level of performances seen at the start of the season. Maybe it’s because actually playing games in December is something of a novelty for the Magpies, with the last two festive periods being as good as frozen out – much in the same way midfielder John Spicer currently finds himself...
Anyway, the month began with a return to the FA Cup, a competition which has given Notts so many memorable moments in the last two seasons with trips and victories away at Premier League sides becoming commonplace. We found ourselves on the other side of things this time, though, with an outing at high-flying Conference South side Sutton United providing the perfect opportunity for Notts to be shot at live on ESPN. We dealt with things pretty well though and, despite plenty of scares against a physical side on a narrow pitch, ran out 2-0 winners. Jeff Hughes scored both of the goals, but it was perhaps Stuart Nelson’s penalty save on the stroke of half time that proved pivotal. For the handful of travelling fans, watching the ESPN presenters trying to share an umbrella proved equally entertaining, up until the moment you realised you were on an open terrace with no umbrella at all.
The first league match of the month was a trip to struggling Yeovil Town, which didn’t exactly go to plan. Notts dominated the first hour or so but struggled to find an end product and, when they did, Alan Judge’s piledriver cannoned back off the crossbar. This left the door open for Andy Williams, whose injury-time winner for the hosts had a real air of inevitability about it. It seemed imperative for Notts to get back on track at home to Leyton Orient then, but yet again in a League One fixture things seemed to stack up against the Magpies. They (or We; you choose) missed chance after chance early on before an infuriatingly moronic defensive throw-in saw a combination of Alan Sheehan and Jeff Hughes let in Stephen Dawson for the Orient opener. The second period followed much the same pattern of Notts creating and squandering chances, whilst also having to contend with a referee determined to turn down all manner of penalty appeals, before Mike Edwards’ slip allowed Jonathan Tehoué to seemingly seal the three points for the O’s. To be fair to this side, though, one thing they do have abundance is fight, and they were able to show that with Lee Hughes dragging Notts back into it before Jeff Hughes won a penalty deep into injury time – the only problem there being that he stepped up and missed his first ever spot-kick for the club.
Whilst everyone else was drinking heavily and firing party poppers into each others’ faces, Notts had plenty to consider after a worrying run in League One. It got no better at high-flying Sheffield United, either, in the slightly delayed Boxing Day match, despite Alan Judge’s direct free kick finding the corner to give us the lead. The theme of December from a Notts point of view was certainly ‘costly individual errors’, and this was once again evident in Sheffield, first when Sam Sodje and Krystian Pearce made a mess of a particularly non-threatening position to gift the Blades an equaliser, then when Pearce decided to ignore a quick throw-in that ended in an Alan Sheehan own goal that proved to be the winner, as Bramall Lane went barmy. These defensive frailties also showed up on New Year’s Eve at Oldham, where Notts succumbed to a 3-2 defeat despite twice taking the lead against Paul Dickov’s Latics. Lee Hughes and Neal Bishop got on the scoresheet in the first half, but silly errors in possession and an insistence on sitting deeper and deeper allowed two late Oldham goals to win it for the hosts.
So, four defeats out of four in League One meant that December wasn’t particularly cheerful for Martin Allen and his side – indeed the usually unfailingly cheerful ‘Mad Dog’ sounded irritated and downcast in the interviews following both the Sheffield United and Oldham games. He finally indicated that the Magpies may have to look at recruiting new players in the January transfer window and, in truth, recent form suggests that it is hard to argue otherwise. Goals haven’t been too hard to come by, but there still appears to be something fundamentally wrong with Notts’ attacking shape – a lack of pace and a consistent partner for Lee Hughes being at the head of that. Individually the defence isn’t too bad, but a lack of cohesion has led to the shocking errors that have cost us points in recent weeks.
January should prove fascinating at Meadow Lane, with the sense that a lot of players have to start proving themselves soon if they are to have a future under Allen becoming more pertinent after every game. A big month in store…
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