County home 2012-13: illustration by Adam Poole
In last month’s Left Pie-On
, I pointed out that Notts can be a difficult side to write about when there’s little for complaint. What we’ve seen so far suggests the season ahead will provide this writer with plenty of practice at putting the good times into words. At the time of writing, we’re fourth with just the two league defeat to our name, one blot coming at the end of August, the other you’ll read about shortly. The weeks that have followed that first defeat had largely put that day firmly out of everyone’s minds via a procession of hard-earned away points aided (up until the last minute) by some Meadow Lane dominance.
You might’ve sensed the times were changing for Notts with an away victory in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Scunthorpe United. Without a win in the competition for the past 11 seasons, Keith Curle’s largely fringe (for want of a better word) side went some way towards excorcising the demons felt from last season’s costly 0-0 draw in the league at Glanford Park. It was the first (and thus far only) Notts goals from Enoch Showunmi and Carl Regan that set Notts up, and with youth team prospects Kyle Dixon and Jake Wholey given brief run-outs at the end, it was a beneficial evening for the club, one that certainly helped highlight the depth the squad has. Conversely, the previous year’s JPT exit was the first sign of how ill-equipped Martin Allen’s squad was for the rest of the campaign.
Buoyed by being a step closer closer to Wembley Way, Shrewsbury were the visitors to the Lane the following Saturday in what’s likely to be one of the more entertaining contests County will take part in this year. Goalless at half-time, and with memories of Walsall still lingering, there was a real concern that we were about to have a repeat performance. A frantic four-goal spell in just seven second half minutes ensured things were a fair bit more hairier than that, though. Francois Zoko got the ball rolling with a tap-in after Jeff Hughes had collected a wayward backpass – but Shrewsbury were to hit back in some style…
Firstly, Dean Leacock was adjudged to have fouled Morgan in a 50-50 tussle inside the area. The penalty kick was scored, which set the stage for Jermaine Grandison to light up Nottingham with a spectacular solo goal. He ran half the length of the field unchallenged before wrong-footing Bartosz Bialkowksi between the sticks. 1-2. Having been provider for the Notts opener, Hughes of Jeff again made the most of the visitor’s slack defending to loop in a header in front of the Kop. With parity restored, a vacancy for a matchwinner had opened up.
The goals of Zoko and Yoann Arquin have stolen many a headline this year so far. So much so that Lee Hughes – whilst not completely forgotten – hasn’t been the attacking focal point that he has been in recent years. The general consensus has been that, whilst he might struggle when given a starting place, he’s just about as ideal a last twenty minute impact sub as you’re likely to find, a statement he went a fair way toward justifying when he came off the bench to net the winner in this contest. It was set up by Arquin’s burst down the left wing, beating a defender and running through the Pavis Stand’s tea bars (I exaggerate for effect – but not by much!) before he squared for Hughes to swivel and find the net. A year to the day since we celebrated a late Hughesy equaliser in the majestic surroundings of the Juventus Arena, we were again indebted to the man for a late goal which in this instance sent us to the top of League One. Some things just never change!
The players congratulate Jamal Campbell-Ryce after goal against Oldham - photo: Dan Westwell
Notts were back on the road a week later, at struggling Oldham Athletic. I say struggling: a day prior the game, they had strengthened with the loan signings of Forest’s Matt Derbyshire and free agent Jose Baxter. Quite some pedigree – Derbyshire was only playing Champions Leaague football as little as two years ago, with Baxter being “the next Wayne Rooney” about three Next Wayne Rooneys ago.
With County starting quite comfortably, the day’s match official, Chris Sarginson, felt the need to balance things out a little. His red card for Andre Boucaud will likely go unmatched for sheer ineptitude all season. This was a challenge so well executed, so well timed, that it had actually sent Arquin through on goal. A double somersault over the challenge was all the match official saw though, sadly.
With ten men, this was still Notts’ game to take by the scruff of the neck. Barely 30 seconds into the second half, Joss Labadie appeared in the box to stab home the opener on the volley. Derbyshire would take only three minutes to level matters as he rounded Bialkowski. And it would’ve been so much worse had Robbie Simpson not cleared the crossbar quite so comfortably with a penalty shortly after. Implosion avoided.
On the bench for the first time this season was the lesser-spotted Jamal Campbell-Ryce, a winger highly-rated by Curle yet largely unseen by Notts’ fans unless you’d been to the Scarborough friendly in pre-season. And it was his introduction at Boundary Park that tipped things back in Notts’ favour. Alan Judge picked up the ball on the edge of his own box before finding JCR just off half-way. Ignoring whether the finish was intended or not, his run down the right channel was the kind of determined charge that Notts fans have been craving since Lloyd Sam decided to take a series of holidays (sorry, trials) before setting up camp in the US. Having looked up, Campbell-Ryce’s right-footed effort sailed in at the back post with the goalkeeper having no chance. Lloyd who?? That would obviously not be that, though, as for the second time a lead was spurned within three minutes – this time it was the other debutant, Baxter, pegging County back.
The away point was not to be sniffed at considering the day’s match official. Though Curle’s side would have been grateful for an offside decision late in the game – not the last time that the club would benefit from such generosity either! Upon appeal, Boucaud’s red card was upheld. Quite staggering really. The 2-2 would equal the club’s record for most unbeaten games away from home as well – a record which would be broken if they could avoid defeat at a ground which generally yields little in the way of positivity…
Stadium MK – the soulless, barren wasteland home of MK Dons – was the biggest test of the season so far. By the end of the evening it was hard to argue that County hadn't passed the examination with flying colours, such was their dominance in the first half. I often question the possession statistics from most games; on this occasion they had Notts with 74% of the ball in the first period. This was of course accompanied by captain Neal Bishop’s 27th minute opener from 25 yards out. There might’ve been a hint of a deflection, but no one cared.
The second half was a different matter, though. It was no surprise that the hosts came out transformed, controlling the game for long periods albeit without seriously testing Bialkowski in Notts’ goal barring the equaliser from substitute Jay O’Shea with 20 minutes left on the clock. For a second game in succession Notts had dropped two points having seen three leads slip inside four days. Yet no ground was lost on the sides at the top of the division and positives certainly weren’t hard to come by.
The Notts County 2012-13 squad
With that said, it would’ve been nice for the players to get back to Meadow Lane for some home comforts, particularly for a test against relative pushovers (the apparently skint) Portsmouth. Yoann Arquin set Notts on their way in the fifth minute as he prodded home an Alan Judge corner. This was without question to be Judge’s best display of the season, backed up with perhaps his most spectacular goal yet: an outswinging right-footed hit from fully 35-yards. Then, for Arquin’s brace, he would again turn provider, making the most of some lazy passing in the Pompey back four.
A 3-0 win stretched Notts’ unbeaten run in all competitions to six, a decent response to the previous month’s blunt defeat to Walsall. But another stern away test was to follow a week later with Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. United sat in sixth place, likely with their 5-2 Meadow Lane just six months ago fresh in the memory.
Make no mistake, this was a game that last year would’ve seen capitulation across the whole field. But since promotion two years ago, Notts have learnt a few tricks in their time in League One. Our physicality was quite apparent to the largest attendance Notts will play in front of in the league; the side’s professionalism even more so. Do I have any problems with it? Absolutely not. These were merely the tactics employed back in March by both Sheffield sides. Curle knew in the summer that his team could be easily bullied and he’s gone about fixing that. Kudos.
United would lead through a Dave Kitson header, having been kept at bay almost single-handedly by Bialkowksi who, after seeming to struggle confidence-wise for a while, now looks to be on top form. It would be Lee Hughes, again rising from the substitutes’ bench, who would equalise, finding himself just a yard out to divert Jeff Hughes smash into goal.
Jeff Hughes challenges for the ball against Sheffield United - photo: Dan Westwell
The biggest sides in the division are without doubt MK Dons and Sheffield United – it’s only a matter of time before the table begins to reflect that – and Notts have just taken a point from each of them. In fact, in the four away fixtures against teams they faced last year, the results have improved. It’s a brilliant turnaround under Curle, who remains unbeaten on his travels since taking over.
Having finished the month of September unbeaten, October’s programme would begin with that not-holding-onto-a-lead thing biting County squarely on the ass. Stevenage, again amongst the top sides of the division, came to Meadow Lane, a repeat of the fixture which Curle began his tenure. If there was to be any clearer indication that it wasn’t to be Notts’ night than Jeff Hughes missing a penalty (scorer of nine, misser of just one last season), I couldn’t see it. When the match official awarded a second spot kick though, it was Jamal Campbell-Ryce who this time dispatched it.
Curle chose this as the moment to shut up shop. Francois Zoko was replaced with the returning Alan Sheehan who spent no more than five minutes on the field before being given a straight red card for handball in the area – the penalty was put away by Lucas Akins, once of Tranmere Rovers, who we began the night chasing in top spot. This was another lead thrown away yet still there was worse to come as substitute Robin Shroot pounced for an injury-time winner. With Notts down to fourth, a few boos rang out at the final whistle.
A disappointing start to the month, and things won’t get any easier with the visit of top of the table Tranmere Rovers on Saturday. They say in football that the ten game mark is when you begin to get an idea of the league table’s shape, yet perhaps it’s still too soon to consider the game a contest between two automatic promotion-chasing sides. It will however be a great test of character for Notts after just a second defeat of the season. Fixtures between the two have been tasty affairs as of late, but never recently have they come with both sides at such giddy heights in the table.
Having finished September with a daunting run of games against some of the biggest teams in the division, October’s fixture list has a distinctly mid-table feel to it, so Curle men’s will be looking to get things back on track as quickly as possible.
All images used with permission from Notts County FC.
Notts County FC website
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