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The Comedy of Errors

Left Pie-On: The Notts County Column - January

19 January 16 words: Adam Taylor
"It is fair to say the club have endured a colourful recent history"
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County 2015-16 [illustration: Natalie Owen]

As with the assassination of President Kennedy or the death of Princess Diana, in years to come Notts fans will be able to recall with perfect clarity where they were when news broke that Jamie Fullarton was the new Head Coach at Notts County.

It is fair to say the club have endured a colourful recent history. Record breaking spells in administration, recruitment of ex-England managers by mysterious foreign consortia and revelations that Harold Shipman was reputedly a fan mean that it now takes quite something to surprise supporters. Nevertheless the appointment of the former Forest and Bolton Wanderers development coach caused many a Notts fan to fall off their chair (and then seemingly reach for their smartphone).

It is a decision that defies logic from whichever angle it is approached.

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Tick, tock, P45 o'clock

This column has been largely supportive of the Moniz experiment, despite the dreadful away record and the frustration of watching the team defend like a pub side the morning after an all-night rave. For the first time in years the football at Meadow Lane has been genuinely entertaining and that all-important floating fan, forking out £22-plus for individual matches, was not necessarily leaving the ground shaking their head and vowing to do something else the following weekend.

It is naïve to recruit a novice to fill any role and expect them not to make mistakes, the key is how quickly and effectively they learn. The English fourth division is a whole new ball game to the lower-tier European leagues in which Moniz had previously managed and a degree of acclimatisation was therefore inevitable as the Dutchman adapted his football ethos to include two men up-front and wingers making at least a token effort to track their man.

That is not to suggest firing Moniz was unfounded. Disappointingly, it took half of this season and the fag-end of last (during which time the team were relegated) for the penny to drop that a front pairing is required at this level. Furthermore the working relationship with Dave Kevan and Dean Yates, the coaches appointed to help ease the Dutchman into the English lower leagues, appeared strained. Training ground rumours are exactly that. However, whispered instances of the team training all week to set-up a certain way, only for Moniz to change his mind on the morning of the game, point towards a maverick at the helm. This is fine when the team is winning, yet results this season have cemented the side in mid-table, some way short of expectations fuelled by Chairman Ray Trew himself pre-season.

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Smith: slow in the legs, quick in the brain, big in the heart

In the lead-up to the sacking, a credible 2-2 draw away at Wycombe Wanderers in mid-December hinted (again) that the tide was finally about to turn on the road. The point was particularly hard fought as the team were forced to play much of the game a man short, Liam Noble once again giving the referee an opportunity to flash the red card in his direction. Noble is clearly a talent and unfortunate in that many officials appear to have his card pre-marked; however, as an angry mob gathering outside the house of a local paediatrician would later testify, there is no smoke without fire.

As was so often the case during the reign of Moniz, a step forward was quickly followed by two backwards. A Carlisle United side buoyed by a community spirt fostered in adversity from players helping local residents to clear their flood-ravaged homes laid waste to the Magpies in the unusual setting of Preston’s Deepdale Stadium. The 3-0 reverse was as predictable as it was shambolic and the Cumbrians’ manager Keith Curle would have surely enjoyed his new team expressing themselves all over his former employers.

As with his predecessor Shaun Derry, an over-willingness to fall back on old heads when times are tough proved costly for the Dutchman. Alan Smith, for example, is a player who attracts a lot of unfair criticism but remains well capable of doing an effective job at this level, if used sparingly and in the right context. He is also by all accounts an excellent pro and role model for the younger players behind the scenes, making him a valued asset as a player / coach. Sadly he no longer has 90 minutes of legs for the midfield engine-room, at least not without two willing runners alongside him. If Jamie Fullerton can avoid falling into the trap of expecting too much from squad members approaching veteran status and structure the midfield around the energy of Curtis Thompson, it will be to his credit.

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Curtis Thompson, midfield fulcrum

The admirable home record enjoyed by Moniz for much of the season effectively kept the wolf from the door. Unfortunately a home draw and a defeat to Morecambe and Oxford United respectively over the Christmas period showed the Meadow Lane fortress to be constructed from straw. Accordingly, prior to the New Year Ricardo Moniz became the seventh Notts County manager to have been handed his P45 by the present owners.

Many had assumed that in a season where relegation could be considered a practical impossibility, Moniz would be given the full term regardless to develop. Were a managerial change deemed necessary, the smoking gun to fire Moniz was probably the FA Cup defeat to non-league Salford City in November, or perhaps the home defeat to Northampton Town a few weeks later. A reshuffle at either of those junctures would have allowed the incumbent adequate time to assess the squad prior to the January transfer window. Overlooking this opportunity has risked taking this season past the point of no return.

As it stands the club face a situation where the incoming manager will be forced to hit the ground running in order to make a swift assessment of the considerable playing resources at his disposal before utilising his contacts to move unwanted players out and bring in replacements. A job for an experienced manager one might say, with all the early noises made in the local media suggesting the recruitment process was focused on candidates with experience at the level.

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Fullarton the rookie has a lot on his plate

This is not the case with Jamie Fullarton. The new coach has not previously taken charge of a men’s professional football team at any level and must now quickly earn the respect of a bloated dressing room comprising an array of different nationalities, including a number of former internationals. Reports suggest the recruitment panel had their socks blown off by a PowerPoint presentation given at interview (it is a pretty nifty piece of software in the right hands), however it is pertinent to question just how a candidate who didn’t meet the apparent specification for the position got entry to the room in the first place.

There is a tremendous sense of Groundhog Day with this decision. As has been eloquently pointed out by Jacob Daniel in The Post, Fullarton is the club’s fourth consecutive managerial appointment to be making their Football League debut in the Meadow Lane dugout. In adopting this approach the chairman is continuing to speculate he can hit the jackpot in backing an undervalued asset, much as a well-informed stockbroker might by investing in a small company on the brink of major breakthrough. This was clearly the theory behind the Moniz appointment, although the Dutchman carried with him a wealth of enticing future projections based on transferable skills developed from his experience elsewhere.

Mr Trew may well be party to inside information suggesting Jamie Fullarton is the football equivalent of Apple on the cusp of releasing the i-Phone. To the outsider however, the appointment appears more akin to buying an Irish lottery ticket or panning for gold in the Trent. The key to being a functional gambler is in not chasing your losses, yet it seems in this dogged insistence of appointing from left-field that is exactly what the club is doing, placing itself deeper in the red each time. The margin for error in the bottom half of League Two is considerably less than at the top half of League One, the club’s league position when Chris Kiwomya was appointed in similarly bizarre circumstances.

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Notts have been quick to scotch rumours that players are looking to hide

The sensible option on this occasion would have been to overlook another potential get-rich-quick scheme and appoint one of the tried and tested managers from the reported shortlist of reasonably credible candidates. On this the two social-media factions to which Notts fans are generally allied, the ‘Nodding Dogs’ and the ‘Bed-Wetters’, were broadly in agreement. The Fullarton appointment therefore achieved the rare feat of alienating nigh-on everybody. This is particularly concerning as there are not many more left of the ‘500 or so’ to be knocked off the attendance, that fabled quantity of stay-aways said to be created by each poor decision made at the club.

Where the club goes from here is difficult to predict (this is Notts we are talking about). The last managerial appointment to be greeted with similar rancour, Keith Curle, benefitted from positive early results quelling the murmurs of discontent. Fans may be fickle (© Ian McParland) but we are essentially simple creatures in that success on the pitch is paramount and acts as a catalyst to suppress any misgivings about the bigger picture. It is generally only when results turn unfavourable that we engage the higher parts of our brain and begin to question the order of things, at which point the profile of the individual in question generally dictates how much grace they will be afforded.

It is a fair assumption, based on the various Notts forums, Facebook groups and other forms of social media, that Jamie Fullarton won’t be cut much slack should the team not achieve the ‘dead cat bounce’ that often accompanies a change in management. Nevertheless, there are very few supporters who want the appointment to fail, the prevailing mood being a sincere wish to be proved wrong.  In the week leading up to the long trip to Crawley Town, anger appeared to give way to acceptance and the vast majority of fans seemed willing to give Fullarton a chance (what other choice is there after all?!).

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Matchwinner Valencic lets fly at Crawley

An attritional 1-0 victory suggests that the carefree total football characteristic of the Moniz era is over. That is not to denigrate the achievement of Fullarton in quickly organising the team into a functional defensive entity, achieving our first away victory since the opening day of the season. A brave team selection – dropping Alan Smith, Stanley Aborah and Graham Burke to the bench in favour of Curtis Thompson, the recalled Scott Bennett and matchwinner Filip Valencic – shows that the new manager will not be afraid to back himself. A promising start, then; it will be interesting to see how Fullarton sets up his team for the visit of AFC Wimbledon and his debut in front of the Meadow Lane faithful.

An eventful month all told, mostly off the pitch. There are clear misgivings regarding the appointment of Jamie Fullerton, relating primarily to the process behind the decision rather than the decision itself. There are only good wishes towards the man himself, and it is hoped he can wow the fans as he clearly wowed the interview panel. Anyone who buys a lottery ticket dares to dream, a sentiment well familiar to football fans outside a handful of top clubs. Maybe this time it could happen to us…  

All images courtesy of Notts County FC

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