Notts County home strip 2012-13 [illustration: Adam Poole]
Having wrapped up the previous Left Pie-On with abject failure at home to Stevenage, it was of the utmost importance that Notts County got things back on track with the visit of Tranmere Rovers to Meadow Lane at the start of October. Sadly, though, events that day would merely set the tone for what was to come during the rest of the month. Well, at home at least. On their travels everything is still looking peachy for the club – but you can’t shake that feeling that things could implode at any second.
And it certainly wouldn’t be without warning.
The game against table-toppers from the Wirral was far below the high standards that Keith Curle’s squad have come to set for themselves since he came in at the end February. Not that this was ever going to be an easy afternoon, with the visitors boasting the division’s three top scorers. But with one injured in Andy Robinson, and another (commentator’s friend, Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro) taken off injured inside the first 20 minutes, this game was there for the taking.
Akpa Akpro’s replacement Joe Thompson would be County’s undoing, heading in a first-half winner via the spine of the increasingly costly Carl Regan. The response from the home side was emphatically flaccid, of no note at all. Nor did it do much to answer the question of whether Rovers were worthy table toppers – it’s simply too naïve to judge a team based on a performance against the one that Notts had put in. In fact were it not for a combination of woodwork, Bartosz Bialkowski and debutant Jordan Stewart, this would’ve been far worse a result than 1-0.
With two defeat at home on the bounce behind them, County were looking for their “away comforts” as they hit the road again, making the longest trek of the season up to Carlisle – like Notts, a team pipped by Stevenage in last season’s play-off hunt. What came was the polar opposite of the previous week’s ineptitude. A Notts victory was never in doubt from the opening whistle.
Alan Judge - fuggling like struck
A struggling-for-form Alan Judge was rampant in the early stages, notching an assist with ten minutes on the clock when his cross was converted by Jeff Hughes. Skipper Neal Bishop, a man in resurgent form in recent weeks made it 2-0, sliding in from a handful of yards after great work down the left from Stewart. Judge was replaced minutes later, injured in an incredibly poorly timed stroke of misfortune. His replacement, former Carlisle hero Francois Zoko, would be the man to get Notts’ third in the 54th minute – in doing so silencing the Brunton Park boo boys who used to worship him. The rout was completed when Jamal Campbell-Ryce won and converted his second penalty in three games. This was rampant Notts’ 13th game unbeaten away from home – which makes the loss of form at home all the more hard to swallow.
The following Wednesday, the Sky cameras pulled up in NG2 for the visit of Sheffield United in the Johnstones Paint Trophy. As a club we’ve never cared much for the Football League Trophy so the 4-1 defeat is relatively easy to gloss over. The visiting Blades just had one of those evenings where everything they touched flew in. Notts meanwhile only had Stewart’s late consolation to show for an evening’s toil. A mauling at home, for sure, but many still believe it wasn’t anything like as bad as the scoreline suggested.
With one distraction out of the way for another season, a trip to Coventry made it two wins out of two on the road. Andre Boucaud’s first goal for Notts just short of the half-time interval settled nerves considerably, but it wasn’t until the end of the game that Notts took a proper grip of things. Having weathered some Sky Blues pressure in the second, Jeff Hughes’ superb backheel found Yoann Arquin the space to curl home for outside the area to make it 2-0.
In affording themselves some breathing space, Notts had oh so briefly allowed the travelling support – gracing the Ricoh Arena for the first time – to relax and just enjoy the remaining few minutes. Or not, eh? From a late corner, Richard Wood headed home unmarked in the area to ensure the last few minutes were much tenser than they ever needed to be. Could they hold on? Of course County held on – holding on is what you do best when you’re protecting an unbeaten away run now stretching to 14 games.
With the recent league form now reading two home defeats followed by those two away wins, the month’s record was finely balanced – enough so that two home games with Bournemouth and then Doncaster Rovers held the answers for many as to where Notts stood in the division’s hierarchy. The next 180 minutes’ football would reveal what this side was made of.
With the relative improvements that came against Bournemouth in the first of the two, came the none-too-subtle reminder that we’re just far too easy to breach at Meadow Lane. But things were looking so good at one point. Capitalising on some questionable defending by the Cherries, firstly Jeff Hughes would make the most of some trademark David James fumbling to put Notts in the lead, before a wayward backpass would find Yoann Arquin with plenty of time and space to coolly slot the ball under James from the edge of the area: 2-0 and near enough cruising at half-time.
Yet apparently there’s an unwritten ruling at Meadow Lane right now – one that states that we’re just not allowed nice things to happen to us. Certainly the return of Eddie Howe had rejuvenated Bournemouth, but it was more slack Notts defending that saw Josh McQuoid break into the area to slot wide of Bialkowski to get his side back into the game. Ten minutes later and things were levelled up. Whether Neal Bishop’s trip on Marc Pugh came in or outside the area is neither here nor there [beg to differ – Ed., on behalf of The Rules of the Game], Harry Arter’s conversion was immaculate and Notts had surrendered a two-goal advantage at home.
Not that they let their heads drop, though. They continued to press on with whatever home advantage they could find, and Bishop this time was the upended player in the area to win his own side a penalty. Jamal Campbell-Ryce just about squeezed the spot-kick through James – cue Charlie Palmer-esque celebrations spanning the length of the field! However, what happened next would suggest that this was a time when calmer heads needed to prevail.
The Notts goal came in the 84th minute. As did their equaliser – a goal so ridiculous that I still watch the replays and can’t quite believe a defence of professional footballers could concede it. Matt Tubbs, a predator at the best of times, somehow managed to slide the ball through a forest comprising keeper Bialkowski and both Jordan Stewart and Dean Leacock, with only six yards between he and goal. At the time it was astounding to watch, and it’s gotten no better in the days that have followed.
Campbell-Ryce: not a defender
Hard not to speculate how much the late setback would’ve taken out of the players but the final game of the month, a quite rank surrendering to Doncaster suggests the problems at Meadow Lane currently run much deeper than mere confidence. In reality this was just a contest of two quite poor sides only settled on the pitch by a minute’s horror in the second-half to allow Paul Keegan and Chris Brown to seal the points for Donny. The loss of the ever-dependable Dean Leacock at half-time to a virus had without question played a part in Notts’ downfall – but if the virus had been known about for the week previous, why had Keith Curle not packed adequate protection on his bench? A purposeful, energetic winger Campbell-Ryce may be; based on this showing, a defender he most certainly is not.
A month which has yielded four defeats at home (strictly speaking three that count), two away wins and a deflating draw sees Notts County end the month in sixth place in table. Hardly what would constitute a crisis. Not yet, anyway. But I do feel great empathy with the supporters who don’t see Notts away from home – if they’re restricted to only seeing the games at Meadow Lane then the frustration must be enormous. But consider how it feels if you’ve seen how utterly ruthless this same side is away from home. That these players can’t produce that form in front of their own crowd is unfathomable in the extreme.
Certainly, the hope for November will be rectifying the home record. Yet protecting the away record is perhaps what will prove the toughest task, with visits to Preston, Colchester and Scunthorpe on the horizon. Next up, though, Notts are granted a bit of respite from the league with a trip to Portsmouth in the FA Cup’s first round. The club’s supporters have taken great pride in our cup runs of late, reaching the fourth round in each of the last three seasons. However, defeat may see the tide turn against manager Keith Curle further than is actually necessary at this moment in time.