illustration: Adam Poole
I’m of the opinion that Notts County are much easier to write about when things aren’t going so well on the field. That my first column for LeftLion sees us having started with three wins out of four means this has been quite the challenge. There’s so little to complain about – it’s all very un-Notts to be honest.
Yet back in pre-season, there seemed much to be concerned about. After a few weeks of results on non-league pitches that are nigh on impossible to evaluate, things picked up with the visit of AEK Athens – for all of 45 minutes. The most torrential downpour seen at Meadow Lane since Howard Kendall was let loose on the Meadow Club optics, saw the surface rendered unplayable for the second half, at which point Notts were a goal up thanks to Alan Judge. The club’s claim in the wake of the abandonment that there’d be no refunds was a bit laughable. They’d hoped we considered 45 minutes as “value for money”.
A couple of days later and it was That Club in Red from Across the River disgracing our turf as they raced into a 2-0 half-time lead, taking apart a patched-together defence with consummate ease. The second half was a different story though – another from Judge, from a brilliantly bent free-kick, and Yoann Arquin moments later saw the match drawn. In fact, were it not for the colossal Enoch Showunmi being scythed down in the last minute when through on goal, it could’ve been a different story altogether! These are the straws we as Notts County fans are left to clutch quite often – well it was either that or remind our nouveau riche neighbours that they’ve not been able to beat us in 210 minutes of football over the last 12 months. Petty? Never.
football rivalry with Victorian roots
That should’ve been the end of the pre-season preparations, with the League Cup First Round tie at home to Bradford next, yet manager Keith Curle saw this as the opportunity to experiment one last time. As experiments go, this was akin to stitching wings on to the side of a massive mutant rat and wibbling “fly, fly my pretty”. Goalless at full-time, it was Carl Regan’s ball-juggling skills on his back that would lead to the visitors picking their spot for the winner in extra-time.
It was a quite woeful afternoon, one that did supporter confidence no good whatsoever going into the League One opener away at Crewe a week later. This the same Crewe Alexandra of the famed conveyor belt of youth prospects – bereft of their most recent product, Nick Powell, who’d left for £6m to Manchester United – yet who were still undefeated in more than 20 games en route to the third tier.
Yoann Arquin - Image courtesy of Notts County FC
The fears would be unfounded, as it happened. A brilliantly worked Francois Zoko opener and Yoann Arquin (both debutants) slotting home saw a two-goal lead opened up with half an hour still to play. It was all a bit too easy. Enter Arquin and this temperament about which we’d all heard so much. A half-arsed kick out at “hardman” Ashley Westwood (who hit the deck like a sack of the proverbial) saw the red card brandished, and Notts’ 10 men left to weather whatever the home side could muster. You’d be hard pressed to say it was a storm – but certainly the wind was picking up a fair bit. The hosts earned their consolation goal, but Notts held on with makeshift centre-half Gary Liddle earning many of the plaudits having taken on the position 15 minutes into the game.
Liddle’s former club were up next as it happens. Visiting Meadow Lane were Hartlepool in another game where the elements looked like robbing us of our entertainment. Ref Stuart Attwell, of Premier League attention-seeking fame, decided to play on in spite of the heavily waterlogged areas on the surface. County adapted, ‘Pools drowned as another from Zoko and a season’s first from captain Neal Bishop got Notts’ season off to a flyer.
We aren’t the fastest side out of the blocks, see. Over the past 20 or so years, the only occasions we’ve won the first two games of the year saw us go on to seal promotion by the end of the campaign. A third win on the bounce is almost unheard of – it’d be quite something if anyone reading this was alive the last time it happened. 1937, in fact! No pressure, then.
Such unparalleled pressure (or not) was evidently too much when Walsall smashed and grabbed their way to a 1-0 victory at Meadow Lane last weekend. Without wanting to sound all Colin Fray, on another day it would’ve been a heavy Notts victory. Creating chances wasn’t the issue, it was putting them away. Oh, and defending rather routine free-kicks from the half-way line. Such is football. County will play a lot worse this season and find a way to win.
The losses of Zoko (injury) and Arquin (petulance) were quite evident – Curle had just shy of six days to try and draft in some reinforcements ahead of the transfer window deadline. Alas he decided not to, happy enough with the strengthening he had done during the summer albeit with an eye on the loan market, which he’d exploited with great proficiency last January. Most importantly, though, was the statement of intent in that the club kept hold of Alan Judge despite increasing speculation regarding a move to the Premier League with one of either Norwich or Reading. It wasn’t lost on anyone, the importance of holding onto Judgey while not bringing in any new blood.
Alan Judge - Image courtesy of Notts County FC
This, and that part about us playing a lot worse and still wining, was proven last Saturday. That Notts saw off Bury 2-0 at Gigg Lane having created one decent chance all game was the perfect response to the onion sack-finding failures at home to Walsall. Taking the lead through an Alan Judge free-kick (Lee Hughes has claimed it, but I’ll never be convinced) in the first minute, the advantage wasn’t built upon. Instead we were left riding our luck, relying on the brilliant pairing of Dean Leacock and Gary Liddle in the middle and Bartosz Bialkowski in goal.
It wasn’t until Bury over-committed in attack that the lead was doubled, just as the game went into injury time. Andre Boucaud found Notts’ first incisive ball of the afternoon for Judge to slot home with aplomb just inside the area. Captain Neal Bishop got it exactly right on Twitter shortly after the final whistle: Bury had been robbed. Harsh on our hosts without question – yet no more so than we’d seen a week before. Again, such is football.
It takes us to three league wins in the first four games – a start only bettered in recent memory by 2009’s Munto All-Stars. Early days, of course, but with the loan window opening and Curle’s eye for a lend, the signs are already there that the promotion chase that some fancied is definitely on.
However, business most certainly picks up in September. Starting off with the inevitable falling-at-the-first-hurdle in the Football League Trophy, we’ll be ending the month with MK Dons, Portsmouth and Sheffield United, so it’s no exaggeration to say we’ll have a greater understanding of what this side is capable of come the start of October.
The signs are positive. Arquin’s suspension is over; Zoko returned to the side against Bury; and on Saturday a Shrewsbury side with only the one win so far come to Meadow Lane from New Meadow. It’s not too far out of the question to see us finishing the weekend top of League One.
LeftLion would like to thank Jacob Daniel for his sterling contribution to Left Pie-On last season.