County 2015-16 illustration: Natalie Owen
It is always awkward bumping into an ex- and Notts have certainly been putting it about a bit with managers in recent years. Indeed, partnerships at Meadow Lane are often as fleeting a dalliance as those fixed up at ten minutes to closing time, with those managers kicked out in the morning unlikely to move too far up in the world too quickly afterwards. As such, the last month or so has witnessed a parade of shame we’d rather forget in the Black Orchid
of English football.
But first a word on one with whom we are yet to be reunited. Keith Curle is often derided as a figure of fun, yet he presided over one the best periods of away form in the club’s history, his side remaining unbeaten on the road for almost a calendar year. Unfortunately, the Meadow Lane garden was not so rosy for Curle, whose fixation with his formation of choice achieved neither the results nor the level of entertainment expected by the fans, many of whom expressed their unhappiness by staying away.
Ricardo Moniz has thus far achieved the mirror image of Curle during his time in the back seat of the black and white Capri: dreadful away form, which has seen the team fail to record a single league victory since the opening day defeat of Stevenage, has been compensated by a highly credible home record. Consequently, when beleaguered Northampton Town belied their unfortunate off-field problems to turn up organised and motivated, recording a deserved 2-1 victory at The Lane, one could not help wondering if Chairman Ray Trew was warming up his axe-swinging arm.
The disappointment in the Northampton performance was that supporters deserved a positive response after the televised public embarrassment at Salford City in the FA Cup. A limp first half showing did little to appease a fanbase growing evermore disgruntled, especially after over two weeks of ridicule from anyone who tuned into the Salford debacle. And although things improved after the break with an early Jon Stead equaliser, yet more lacklustre defending allowed the Cobblers’ fullback to waltz in from the touchline and slot the winner past Roy Carroll, heaping more pressure on Moniz. That the fullback was former loanee, Brendan Moloney, a totem of those now halcyon Munto days, did little to quell the mood of despair.
A further parallel between Moniz and Curle is their shared suffering of that unfortunate affliction plaguing modern football at all levels. Like inflatables, the EASY! chant and fridge magnets for sale outside The Nav, playing two upfront appears to belong firmly in the annuls of football yesteryear. Certainly, a single striker can work. For it to do so requires an exceptional lone forward with both strength and touch, capable of doing the work of two men (e.g. a Drogba), backed up by highly skilled and mobile support on the flanks and in the hole. You are unlikely to find these players in the doldrums of the English professional game, although in fairness Curle came pretty close at one point with Arquin, Zoko, Campbell-Ryce and Judge – at least, on the rare occasions when the first three could be arsed at the same time. The current Notts team does not come anywhere near to achieving this, however.
Moniz and Mad Dog exchange pleasantries
For those left scratching their heads for an argument in favour of persevering in our turbulent relationship with Moniz, the return of former manager Martin Allen to The San Sirrel could not have come at a worse time. Allen has been around the block more times than Shelly from Strelley and in that time has picked up that indefinable quality which so charms the common man, something MPs can spend their whole career desperately searching for. Thus, where Peter Mandelson would confuse mushy peas with guacamole when ordering fish and chips, Allen is more likely to roll up his sleeves and dredge his own scraps from the depths of the fryer.
Never one to shy away from using his common touch to rouse a rabble, ‘Mad Dog’ continues to be something of a figurehead for those seeking to attack the current owners. The midweek scheduling and freezing temperatures saw to it that there was no embarrassing outpouring of adulation for the now three times Barnet manager, who had to make do with a polite round of applause when taking to his favourite dug-out near The Kop.
The Bees were swiftly subdued by early goals from Stead and Mike Edwards, as Moniz mercifully convalesced from Lone Striker Syndrome, pairing Stead with Izale McLeod. A second half notable mainly for Barnet’s efforts to kick as many of our team as possible saw Notts run out 4-2 winners, with a cute long range effort from Alan Sheehan followed by Edwards underlining his newly anointed goal-machine status by completing his brace.
Stead slots home against Barnet
The abiding conclusion to be drawn from this much needed victory is the importance of building the attack around Stead, a fine Number 9 at this level and a player who has spent much of the season out of position to accommodate McLeod. Essentially, Stead has paid the price for being too good a pro, too willing to do whatever is asked of him unquestioningly, whether playing out on the wing or dressing up as James Bond to front club promotional campaigns. By contrast, Izale McLeod is neither a target man nor a lone striker, yet has been expected to perform both roles despite being comparatively weak in the air and lacking the physicality to stand up to the robust defending characteristic of the fourth tier. His considerable abilities lie in playing on the shoulder of the last defender, sniffing out balls in behind the back line. In this unnatural role and starved of the right type of service, McLeod has struggled to maintain the high standards set by the flurry of goals which followed his arrival from Crawley.
Notts and Moniz desperately needed to build on the defeat of Barnet at Cambridge United a few days later, which would mean overcoming yet another notch on the managerial bed-post in Shaun Derry. De-flowered in the Meadow Lane dugout, Derry is still regarded with a certain fondness amongst many Notts fans despite a parting of ways last season. Of the many ships which have passed through the Trentside night, it is Derry who is most likely to embark on a decent managerial career, assuming he can learn from mistakes in the transfer market.
Ricky meets another County ex-
Unfortunately our away day misery continued at the Abbey Stadium, with a 3-1 reverse. An injury to Stead took the decision of whether to play two upfront away from Moniz, and what we witnessed from McLeod were the classic symptoms of a striker bereft of confidence: a reluctance to shoot or even make himself available to receive the ball in dangerous areas. When Moniz did the forlorn striker a favour by giving him the hook in the dying minutes, he would have been left in no doubt as to exactly what the travelling contingent thought of his efforts, with an unedifying chorus of boos and chants of ‘what a waste of money’ accompanying his trudge to the touchline.
Having previously curtailed the mad-dash forward which characterised our early season woes, Moniz has already showed himself capable of learning lessons. What this striker conundrum clearly needs is one of McLeod or Ronan Murray playing off Stead in what should be a very respectable front pairing at this level. In the event Stead is unfit, Jimmy Spencer offers a more than capable alternative, and is desperately in need of a run of first team football to get back to match sharpness.
Izale McLeod in action at Cambridge
Happily the visit of Newport County offered the chance for Moniz to finally pick a team and formation which many an observer had long been crying out for. In came the neglected Curtis Thompson (Hallelujah!) to partner Liam Noble in midfield, while the returning Stead was paired with McLeod upfront. The only downside was the inclusion of Civard Sprockel in defence, a player whose every appearance raises more questions about the club’s puzzling summer recruitment drive.
Even hardened Notts supporters, well used to regular drama unfolding at The Lane, can’t have expected the barn-burner that was to ignite. Pre-match chatter was dominated by Newport defender Danny Holmes’ observation that, should the visitors get off to a decent start, Notts fans would undermine their team after ten minutes with our apparent renowned negativity. In reality, after a slow start which could have seen us 3 or even 4 down due to more hapless defending, it took less than ten. Fortunately, the Mighty Magpies rallied and a two-goal deficit was overcome to see the team draw level and get well on top by the break, leading to the peculiar spectacle of fans simultaneously clapping and booing their team off at half time.
Liam Noble celebrates a last-gasp winner
Few mentalities are more baffling in football than that of the spectator happy to hurl abuse at an individual player from the anonymity of the crowd, yet becoming deeply outraged when that player responds to his tormentors (witness the Neal Bishop ‘Shush-gate’ from a few years ago). When McLeod followed in at the far post to bundle in the equaliser just before half time, he made it quite plain what he thought of the fans’ appraisal of his performance at Cambridge. A further non-celebration followed his second after the break and a prompt disappearance down the tunnel at the end, neglecting to join in with the revelry on the pitch which followed another last-gasp winner from Noble, all of which suggests a degree of bridge-building is required between player and fans. Strikers tend to thrive on the confidence of feeling loved by the crowd and in this respect McLeod is no different to, say, Lee Hughes.
So what has the last month or so taught us? A run of fixtures punctuated by reminders of the Chairman’s previous no-strings attitude to hiring and firing managers suggests that he is finally ready to settle down with Ricardo Moniz. The opportunity to send ‘The Text’ came after the defeat to Salford, and was passed up. The time for questioning the manager’s position after every defeat has now gone and the club as a whole should make efforts pull together, particularly if we are to avoid the indignity of having our unity called into question again by jobbing lower-league defenders. And this includes if we lose at Wycombe tonight.
Hopefully the abiding lesson for Moniz – who is fortunate to have been afforded the patience previously denied others – is that English football at this level is quite simple and often at risk of being over-thought. As Mike Bassett so aptly put it it requires little more than “four, four, f*cking two”.
All images provided by Notts County FC.
Notts County FC website