Notts County: away strip 2012-13. illustration: Adam Poole
All things on and off the field taken into consideration, nobody will view this latest round-up as among the most spectacular few weeks in the club’s history – but that’s not to say there wasn't plenty to talk about as Notts finished the period still fighting for the play-offs at the top end of the table, and with the FA Cup potentially opening its way up towards the fourth round.
Having seen signs of improvement in the previous game, against Eddie Howe's Bournemouth, going into the home clash with Doncaster Rovers there was a sense that Notts' home form would be steered back on track. It wasn't to be though. A rather sterile encounter was instead settled by two goals in as many second half minutes. County didn't manage to scrape together a single shot on target in the entire game. This was just the latest in a string of bland home games with very little to show on the attacking front. Forget the talk of formations and line-ups – the players’ performances were just not up to the high standards that they themselves were setting on their travels.
A week later, the FA Cup was to offer the club some respite with a trip south to Portsmouth in the first round: a tricky tie, given the resurgent (at the time at least) league form of Pompey since they were soundly beaten 3-0 at Meadow Lane some weeks back. As is the case on the road, though, supporters had little to fear. Goals either side of half-time through Francois Zoko and later Yoann Arquin secured a glamorous second round tie in New York. No, sorry, at the New York Stadium, home of Rotherham United. How we cheered when our balls dropped!
Name. On. The. Trophy. Surely?
The next stop in the league was another hefty midweek hike to Colchester United in which first half goals from Neal Bishop and Alan Judge saw the game out of sight even by half-time. Job done once more on our travels in about as unspectacular a fashion as you can imagine – little that it mattered.
With things ticking over so well away from home, we all ended up back at Meadow Lane practically praying for a home win when Crawley Town came to visit. The game started brilliantly enough with some of the best football that Keith Curle's side have played this season. The richly-deserved lead came courtesy of now ace marksman Bishop (who apparently “scores when he wants, scores when he waaants…”), finishing coolly after neat work in midfield from Jamal Campbell-Ryce. For the sake of confidence, though, getting to half-time with a lead intact would be crucial. The defence, when called upon, had looked unsurprisingly indecisive from the offset so it was hardly the greatest shock in the world when the visitors equalised – sadly, through Johnny Forte [any relation to Trusthouse? – Ed.], who has wound up at Town in his latest quest to find first-team football. Forte would be replaced in the second half, receiving a rousing applause from Meadow Lane in light of his own loan spells with the club. Post-match, he told the local press how much he would love to return, given the chance. The feeling remains very much mutual; a 4-2 win at Charlton last year still lingers in the memory in no small part due to his first-half hat-trick.
But he wasn't the only person on the field that day to receive a standing ovation. Match official Andy Haines arguably produced the most inept refereeing performance to (dis)grace Meadow Lane. The ironic cheer is commonplace when referees don't give things your way – the ironic standing ovation given to a match official who only awarded Notts two free-kicks in the whole game was a sight to behold. The game would finish 1-1 despite County's second-half dominance, with both Arquin and Lee Hughes (more on him shortly) responsible for some glaring misses across the course of the afternoon. Disappointing – but you couldn't argue that decent strides had been made since the flaccid display against Donny.
Last season, en route to what would be a costly 0-0 draw at Scunthorpe United, Hughes crashed a header against the crossbar from six yards out late on in the game, easily the kind of chance that the Hughesy of old would've gobbled up. This year's visit to Glanford Park would be far more profitable for him, though, as he twice levelled things up to snatch a 2-2 draw. But the old Hughesy was back in more ways than one, it would transpire. Cited for an off the ball elbow by a rare slice of retrospective Football League action, he was ruled out of the next three games. As the week would go on, it would appear we almost lost him for even longer!
Before all that, however, the club hosted a Legends Day at Meadow Lane: there were signing sessions with Notts pros both old and new (there was even an appearance from local Z-List celebrity Tom Williams), a game between those who have served the club so well in the past, and Notts County: The Movie. Ignoring the reasonable grumbles that the club had failed to host a glamour tie as part of the 150th year celebrations, for £5 you could find little to complain about. Certainly no one appeared to leave unhappy with the day's events.
Back to more pressing matters, and the away streak would continue further in a game memorable for all the wrong reasons. A physical encounter at Deepdale saw Preston North End defender Scott Laird hospitalised with a broken leg in a challenge by Jamal Campbell-Ryce. JCR was rightly sent off. The aftermath of the incident was something altogether quite appalling, led by shit-stirrer-in-chief Graham Westley, the PNE manager. His pre-match comments that Notts would “park the bus” set the tone for the evening, but his post-match rant concerning a refereeing conspiracy and the world of football being jealous of him and Preston was something quite surreal! The game would finish 0-0. Well, of course it did: we'll park where we want… Notts weathered a pretty decent storm on this occasion, and were most certainly grateful for goal-line clearances from (spectacularly) Gary Liddle and Carl Regan.
Having already made the headlines because of his latest suspension, loan transfer deadline day was to revolve next around Lee Hughes with word late in the day that he was bound for Port Vale of League Two, with a view to a permanent transfer in January. The news came via Colin Slater (through Robin Chipperfield) and was very much out of the blue. The club refused to comment on the speculation though, instead waiting until everything was officially in place. A wise move, you’d say, looking back – the transfer collapsed on account of Vale not submitting the necessary paperwork on time! Notts had their Hughesy back, but they also welcomed Chris Iwelumo from Championship side Watford, who was instantly into the first team and on debut put in one of the better ‘big man’ performances in a Notts shirt as the Magpies saw off the Robins…
With Paolo Di Canio's Swindon Town following Stevenage, Tranmere, Bournemouth, Donny Rovers and Crawley, the hellatious run of home games wasn't getting any easier, just over two months since the last win at the Lane. The game was settled by a first half rocket from Alan Judge, while the second half was a nervy affair with the visitors very much in control of the game. Former short-term Magpie Matt Ritchie would be pulling the strings, but his personal duel with Bartosz Bialkowski in the Notts goal would see him walk away empty-handed. Such was the Pole’s solidity between the sticks that this was the easiest Man of the Match decision there’s ever been to make.
Di Canio: everyone's favourite fascist
The freakshow of opposing managers for Keith Curle continued in the FA Cup’s second round as we journeyed to the New York Stadium for a tie with Rotherham and Steve Evans – as if Graham Westley and Paolo Di Canio hadn’t been enough (side note: the coming weekend’s opposition manager is perpetual whingebag Gary Johnson at Yeovil!).
Yoann Arquin’s spectacular volley from Alan Sheehan’s high, early ball in set Notts on their way and capped off the opening stages, which they had roundly dominated. In effect it was the worst thing Notts could have done as they instantly allowed their League Two hosts back into the game. The lead would last just ten minutes, as a crisp strike from Ben Pringle levelled matters. Rovrum would see plenty of the ball, yet Bartosz in goal was rarely troubled for the afternoon. The sides meet back at Meadow Lane next Tuesday with an away day at Aldershot as the prize for the winners.
This twentieth away game without defeat caps off another mostly decent month for Notts. They’ve finished the calendar month of November undefeated with three wins and three draws, which paints essentially the right picture of how things are right now. We are a side that's difficult to beat; at the same time, we’re still trying to take a hold of games that we should be winning comfortably. The signing of Iwelumo already looks to be a shrewd one, while the glimpse of the lesser-spotted free-scoring Lee Hughes served as a timely reminder that we do have a man born to score goals still in our midst. It’s convincing him to play a part as a squad player that will provide a huge challenge in December, though.