First times are never easy. The pressure to get something right without the benefit of experience is something that most of us have felt and wouldn't go through again willingly. But that's exactly what Kevin Nolan and Alan Hardy are currently experiencing at Notts County. Both manager and chairman are embarking on their first preseasons in their roles at Notts and hoping to ace it.
There certainly seems a determination to learn from the mistakes of others. Notts have an established training ground at Basford that will be theirs for at least this season, a welcome relief from their tour of Nottingham's local pitches under John Sheridan, and a plus in the eyes of any new signing.
The transfer policy also shows signs of considered reflection. Gone are the flurry of signings we experienced under Ricardo Moniz, where Notts' most consistent performer seemed to be the black and white scarf that was held above the head of no less than 19 players before the end of August. Both Nolan and Hardy have been quick to remind transfer-thirsty fans that targets had been long-established and vetted, and that getting 'the right player' is crucial.
Not that there hasn't been mistakes. The protracted and public negotiations for Liam Noble's return only did his agents work for them as Noble used this interest to secure a 3 year deal on better terms at his current club. Despite Nolan's vast experience in football and Hardy's business acumen, their inexperience of the preseason trolley dash for players left them with only sour grapes on this occasion but will serve as an interesting aperitif before Forest Green Rovers visit to Meadow Lane on 7th October.
The players that have arrived, particularly the second coming of Jorge Grant, have done much to appease the frustration caused by the Noble fiasco and Notts look to be going into the campaign with a tight-knit camp of experienced players.
It'd be fair to say that Nolan's first signing of 17/18 did little to whet the appetite. The fact that most fans were still on Jorge Grant withdrawal didn't help either, such was the impact of his explosive loan spell last season. But on closer inspection, Hawkridge's arrival possess quite a few ingredients that could provide a potent mix for the Meadow Lane marinade. For one, Hawkridge is a local boy determined to avenge his release from Notts as a youngster. But the 27 year old returns as an experienced pro on the back of tasting promotion with Lincoln City last season, so is far from a token acquisition. Most importantly, his arrival signals Nolan's determination to address the desperate lack of width Notts teams have suffered from for such a long time. It must be hoped that Hawkridge's eye for a cross, as evidenced in his assist vs Wigan in preseason, will be the lifeblood for ageing target men Jon Stead and Shola Ameobi.
Similarly well-travelled, Lewis Allesandra could well be operating the opposite flank to Hawkridge when the season finally kicks off. Originally a striker, Allesandra offers a more realistic goal threat than Hawkridge and managed 9 goals last season in a struggling Hartlepool side that was eventually relegated. But Alessandra is clearly a man for all occasions, having made over 40 appearances for both relegation-bound Hartlepool last season and promotion-chasing Plymouth in 2014-2015. In fact, he's topped 40 games in three of the last four seasons, so Notts should certainly get the money they have invested in him back in commitment to the cause. Early indications certainly show his willingness to graft and chase, which always goes down well with the Meadow Lane faithful.
It perhaps shouldn't be the case that the success or failure of preseason, in Notts fans' eyes, rested on whether Jorge Grant came back to Meadow Lane. After all, this is a 22 year old who is yet to play a full season of professional football. But the biggest compliment I can pay to Grant is that news of his return on loan was enough to dilute any dissatisfaction at having lost to the red half of Nottingham the night before. Grant possesses the ability to find space in a way that hasn't been seen since Alan Judge, whether to play a decisive pass or unleash the type of shot that registered six goals in seventeen games last season. It remains to be seen if he can reproduce this sparkling form and poses even more questions if he does, having signed a 3 year deal across the Trent. But having previously loaned us Colin Calderwood and Eugene Dadi, they more than owe us this one.
A less heralded return than Grant, but Dan Jones' second spell at Meadow Lane is a welcome one. Renowned for his energy and forward-thinking, Jones will inject much needed life into the left back position now that Marc Bola is stepping up to League One from Arsenal. An endearing memory from Jones' first spell at Notts was watching him explode down the left flank from full back - often to the annoyance of Matt Ritchie who occupied the same space. Whether the 30 year old Jones can do this consistently will be an issue though, having only broken the 30 appearances barrier three times in his entire career, the most recent being 2014-15. Should he keep fit, Jones will be a further source of supply for the likes of Ameobi and Stead to feed off.
Before even kicking a ball for Notts, Shaun Brisley's arrival automatically made him many fans' favourite central defender. That might seem harsh on Richard Duffy and Haydn Hollis, but it's hard to like a pairing that contributed to conceding 76 league goals - only 'bettered' by relegated Leyton Orient. But Brisley has more perks that simply not being Hollis or Duffy. A promising product from Macclesfield, he made 125 appearances for his hometown club before being snapped up by Darren Ferguson's Peterborough. There he played both Championship and League One football, vital experience if Notts are to progress as they wish, before spells in League Two with Northampton, Leyton Orient and Carlisle. Though the words 'contract terminated by mutual consent' don't exactly suggest we had to fight too hard to wrestle him from Carlisle, it's important to remember that we received Notts' last dominant centre half Mike Edwards in similar circumstances - who was also undervalued in Cumbria. If Brisley can offer the same aerial presence as Edwards did, we have some player on our hands.
The Gibraltan Magpie may sound like the type of detective fiction Dashiell Hammett found fame for, but Liam Walker may prove something worthy of one. The 29 year old mysterious midfielder seems a steal given his international status and goal scoring prowess, bagging nearly 40 goals since 2014. But clues gathered from Wikipedia can prove to be a red herring, particularly as his early preseason performances were nothing other than solid before the convincing display at York. As players like Mawouna Amevor and Filip Valencic previously demonstrated, ability is often lost in translation into English football. But Walker's 26 games in League One for Portsmouth in 2012-13 suggests that English football is no mystery to him.
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