As the nights draw in, Notts fans can reflect on a peculiar period in our recent history, during which time we struggled to find consistency on the pitch, yet remain well positioned in the play-offs. As is so often the case, however, the real intrigue comes off the field, where there are signs that a most protracted race to the finish will shortly be crossing the line.
When, back in April, Chairman Ray Trew proclaimed that a takeover would be concluded in ‘days rather than weeks’, few supporters expected to be sat around in The Embankment having the same pre-match conversations about due diligence and business structure come November. After eight months of being left out on the forecourt, it appears that interest from Danish billionaires, Asian corporations and UK-based hedge-funds has not materialised, forcing Mr Trew to make the short trip to Lowdham for Alan Hardy to casually kick the tyres as he inhales sharply and ponders how much to deduct from the offers he made over the summer.
The black and white machine now at least comes with something approaching a full tank. In manager John Sheridan and Chief Executive Jason Turner, it seems that the penny has finally dropped with Mr Trew in recognising the importance of having experienced, capable staff on board. The unmitigated fiasco of our annus horribilis last season is thankfully beginning to fade in the memory, where the chickens hatched by a culture of negligent recruitment over the course of several years very publically came home to roost. It is deeply frustrating that it took so long for this lesson to be learned by the self-styled custodians of the club.
Meanwhile, across the river, a more high-profile fire-sale is taking place. It is curious that Notts cannot even change ownership without being overshadowed by our neighbours in the south and, while it is to some extent comforting not to be the biggest circus in town for once, one cannot quite escape from the sense of having our thunder stolen yet again by the red three quarters of the city.
Nevertheless, how will history judge the often turbulent reign of the Trews? The stated aim of the outgoing administration from an early stage was to get the club up into The Championship, yet the closest we came was finishing just outside the League One play-offs under Keith Curle in 2012. It would be unfair to simply write off the Trew-era as a complete failure on this basis, however, and it is worth reflecting on some of the good times we have enjoyed together, not least to provide some explanation of why the club might appeal to an otherwise sensible investor.
Managerial appointments have long been a justifiable stick with which to beat the current owners, but they couldn’t have made a better call with their first effort. When Steve Cotterill inherited the stars assembled by Munto, the team were significantly underperforming yet he was able to make them align to the extent that Notts shot to the League Two title above Rochdale and Bournemouth (whatever happened to them?!).
Back then, Ray Trew must have thought this Chairman lark was a breeze as he basked in the adulation of seemingly half of Nottingham in Torquay. Considering our pitiful gates this season, it is hard to comprehend just how many supporters travelled down to drink Devon dry on an epic final weekend – certainly several thousand more than were allocated legitimate away end tickets, as a mass of black and white filled Plainmoor to bursting point.
Further fun on the road was enjoyed a couple of seasons later when we experienced our own One Night in Turin, as the club participated in the opening game at the Juventus Stadium. Fans could be forgiven for not believing their eyes, following an afternoon in the 1870 Huntsman pub, at the surreal sight of Lee Hughes scoring a late equaliser against The Old Lady, on a day which has passed into Notts folklore. Presiding over the five-star treatment afforded the club by our hosts were the owners, two seasons ahead of the fictitious Munto timeline which continues into perpetuity in a parallel universe (where we have now finally eclipsed our neighbours in Rushcliffe by winning the European Cup three times on the spin).
These positives are key to understanding why anyone in their right mind would stump up seven figures for what is little more than an expensive headache. The club will only ever haemorrhage money, doesn’t own the freehold on its ground and has few other discernible assets, so in effect Alan Hardy would be purchasing only a liability on his balance sheet. This at the cost of recompensing a significant percentage of Ray Trew’s own loses over several years, whilst at the roulette wheel of the club he purchased for just £1. However, as the Juventus experience in particular showed, what you do get is a seat at the top table, a golden ticket into oak-panelled boardrooms everywhere to clank whisky glasses and smoke cigars, all the while being addressed as ‘Mr Chairman’ and having somewhere nearby to park the Bentley.
If Juventus was the peak, or close to it, the slow descent into the trough would soon follow. It is difficult to come up with a more shambolic managerial appointment than Chris Kiwomya (well, there is one but he’s been done to death), following a distinctly underwhelming spell as caretaker boss. While clearly not a manager, Kiwomya was however presumably cheap, thus in-keeping with the mood of austerity then coming from the top which was characteristic of our final couple of seasons in League One. This failure to adequately invest at the right time (see also 2010-11) would ultimately leave Shaun Derry with little choice but to assemble a Dad’s Army of players past their sell-by date which then inevitably ran out of legs, returning the club back to the fourth tier where the Trews found it.
As the Chairman’s enthusiasm apparently waned, the PR gaffs on social media increased. Bickering with fans on Twitter and various forums became commonplace, passing through ‘moron-gate’ to arrive at the infamous ‘keyboard warriors’ statement; demonstrating exactly why the model owner should be seen and not heard. We all know it and it is worth repeating again; fans are fickle (Ian McParland, 2008), so engaging with Eddie Punchclock on social media, while at face-value admirable, is only ever going to end in tears. Alan Hardy, a serial Tweeter and rampant self-publicist, would do well to heed this warning from history should his endeavours to take over prove successful.
Yet this abstinence of attention runs contradictory to the ego trip that is inherent in being a lower league Chairman, where you are in effect just enjoying being the biggest dick at the urinal. If you can’t hold court at a Torquay bar, a bit like Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, savouring the handshakes and back slaps from fans as you fund their end-of-season binge drinking, you are missing the point, as this could well be as good as it gets.
It is easy to sit back and pick apart the actions of others with the benefit of hindsight. The Trews after all are only human and, like us all, imperfect. Whatever they could and probably should have done differently, they have still made an indelible mark on the club, during a tenure which featured some genuine highs. While these should be offset against a number of crushing lows (Jamie Fullarton, Salford City, Guy Branston, Tom Williams, Paul Ince, etc, etc) we have clearly been through a lot together and, although it is the right time to part ways, hopefully in the future we can still be friends.