Writing this column over the past couple of seasons has been a cathartic experience. As the club have lurched unsteadily from one disaster to the next, it has felt like an effective form of personal therapy to pound one’s frustrations out on the keyboard.
As it stands however, the expected end of season scramble for survival and associated social media recriminations appear to have been headed off at the pass. It seems that we will not, in all likelihood, be trooping nervously down to Rodney Parade in May, at whatever ridiculous time the Football League deem to have us playing our last game of the season. Following our 1-0 away win at Wycombe Wanderers Notts currently sit 13 points clear of the trap door, an unlikely chasm for Newport and Leyton Orient to bridge.
Frankly, this feels almost anti-climactic. We Notts fans are not used to this level of security, at what now appears to be an increasingly well-run club under the stewardship of Kevin Noble and Alan Hardy. Indeed, as we approach Sunday 9 April, the anniversary of the former owner’s infamous ‘race to the finishing line’ Tweet, it is remarkable how Meadow Lane has stabilised; especially considering the nine months or so of absolute turmoil which followed.
Aside from a chastising defeat to that blot on the modern game which is Stevenage, Notts have enjoyed resoundingly positive recent results. Even the defeat away to high-flying Doncaster Rovers saw the team emerge with credit, in the face of some curious officiating. Yet it was perhaps the 1-0 home victory against Barnet which offered the clearest signs that this is a club on the up. Despite losing Mark Yeates to an eleventh minute red card, an incident which would have previously seen the team capitulate in front of a small yet hostile crowd, Notts were able to rally, roll their sleeves up and battle over the line.
Players previously derided (justifiably) have been improved markedly under the guidance of Kevin Nolan. Richard Duffy played like a competition winner prior to Christmas but is now possibly our most consistent performer, Hayden Hollis is dominating strikers like the colossus we hoped he would be and Elliott Hewitt looks surprisingly competent in a variety of positions. Whatever Noble is doing away from the limelight monopolised by his Chairman, he is doing it diligently.
Moreover, the crowds at Meadow Lane in 2017 have been remarkable. Since Alan Hardy purchased Notts home attendances have averaged nearly 7500, effectively double the crowd achieved by the previous regime. The San Sirrel is bouncing again due to a winning combination of cute ticketing initiatives, including giving freebies to local schools, paired with improved performances on the pitch. To draw firm conclusions as to the extent to which one drives the other requires considerable mental dexterity, however something is clearly working.
As with all walks of life however, there is always a counter view. Following Notts in the aftermath of the Munto whirlwind has been a largely miserable experience, the club becoming more shambolic by the season as the farce played out in-front of ever-diminishing numbers of spectators. Those hardy souls who stuck with it week-in-week-out, refusing to ‘pick and choose’ games deserve great credit and are essentially the life blood of the club. Among these supporters, it is clear from comments on social media that there is an undercurrent who are less than impressed with the free ticket initiatives and associated new faces.
This goes beyond simple economic envy. Some years ago there was a competition, probably in America, where contestants were offered the opportunity to win a new car by sitting on an ice cube. The rules were simple, the person able to withstand posterior frostbite for the longest won the keys; however the organisers underestimated the capacity of the general public for self-abuse and a significant proportion of contestants ended up in hospital. The parallel here should be obvious, the perception being that the noobs are effectively getting to admire the rainbow without getting wet.
If that sounds irrational it is because it probably is. Football is an emotive sport and hardened Notts fans are now experiencing the loss of their uniqueness in belonging which comes with being into a band prior to them becoming famous, or fancying someone at school before they blossomed.
Nevertheless, to mount a sustained assault on the league and get the club to where his aspirations lie, Hardy needs an army. For too long, Notts, including during the (recent) glory years under Neil Warnock, have lived in the shadow of a well-run and successful Forest just across the river; making it a tough sell to entice the as-yet uncommitted fan across Trent Bridge. However with Forest continuing to suffer at the hands of their own negligent owner, slowly choking the life out of the club in conjunction with his dubious entourage, a unique opportunity presents itself to sustain the upturn in our attendances long term.
This will only be achieved by recruiting new fans, those to whom past European success across the river belongs in a bygone era; as irrelevant a concept to the present day as public pay phones, playing out until it got dark or Noel’s House Party. Like it or not, the promise of a free ticket for the kids will get the turnstile spinning and, while only a small proportion may later return of their own volition, it is worth speculating to accumulate.
As has been proved throughout history, should young minds be indoctrinated at an early enough age, you can have them perform any number of self-destructive and logic-defying acts. Only time will tell whether this includes signing up to a lifetime watching Notts.