Let’s get one thing straight: the progress Notts have made as a club in the last 12 months has been nothing short of remarkable. Though Accrington will likely grab the headlines for their dramatic ascent to the top, credit must go to all at Notts for defying expectation this season on the pitch and raising standards off it, in the form of new facilities, increased crowds, innovative initiatives and ambitious backroom changes.
And as a seasoned Notts fan, I’ve been here before and am delighted to be back in the politics of the playoff and promotion places: watching three games simultaneously, checking the various ramifications of each significant result. It’s amazing to be even part of the conversation after so many years with only survival to play for.
But I can’t escape a strange sense of anxiousness and unease as we get closer and closer to May. I know I shouldn’t be feeling this way. As Alan Hardy rightly said in his Post article, we never, ever expected to be in this position. But for some reason, I can’t simply enjoy the ride as much as I should. There’s something bothering me and it’s taken me a long time to figure out exactly what it is. But thanks to Ben Mayhew of www.experimental361.com and his excellent data analysis skills, I’ve managed to pinpoint my paranoia precisely.
Unlike previous promotion-winning Notts sides, this one feels as though it is playing at near-maximum capacity. And credit goes to Kevin Nolan and his team for getting them to function at such levels for so long. But Notts have the third oldest squad in League Two, with an average age of 28, behind only Grimsby and promotion-rivals Wycombe.
Take out the 421 minutes of total action by the likes of Bird, Hodge, Bennett, Saunders and Virtue and you’re closer to the real first team average of over 30, as 6 of our most frequently selected first teamers fall well into this bracket: Jones (who has played 45.2% of games), Ameobi (53.3%), Dickinson (55.2%), Collin (57.1%), Stead (83.3%) and Duffy (92.7%).
Of course, that level of experience could prove vital in the weeks to come, as it probably has done over the duration of the season so far, with many having been through play offs and promotion challenges before. But for me it also raises questions about the sides longevity should we realise our promotion dreams ahead of schedule or fall at the final hurdle, only adding to the pressure that’s starting to build.
How many of these players, that have got us to such an impressive position, will be here again next year? Aside from the 17,500 minutes of football played by the over 30s at Notts, 7,274 minutes of football this season (so far) have been played by players we don’t own. If www.transfermarkt.co.uk is to be believed, 20 of our current squad are out of contract this season, including eleven of our sixteen regular performers. I know this is very much ‘wheelbarrow half-empty’ thinking, but it all adds to my growing feeling that Notts will be left, whatever the outcome, with a lot to do in the transfer market next season - whichever league we find ourselves in.
And how do you find replacements for the likes of Ameobi or Stead? Such experienced and reliable performers don’t come easily or cheaply into lower-league football. Add to that the seemingly impossible task of recouping the 18+ goals provided by Grant so far this year and the magnitude of year two of Hardy’s five year plan looks almost impossible before we even know which division we’ll be in. To even replicate this season’s current situation could take some serious investment.
Admittedly, this type of issue isn’t an uncommon in L2, but only Wycombe of the top seven share anything like our particular circumstances of needing an ageing squad in the last year of their current deals to see them over the line into L1. Coventry, Exeter and Accrington could easily go again with an average squad age of around 25, if this isn’t to be their year. Mansfield only recently extended the deals of key performers like Pearce (27), Benning (24) and Sterling-James (23) and Luton have six of their most consistently used twelve players already contracted for next year.
I don’t doubt that Nolan is prepared to respond to this. In his short tenure (though positively long-serving by Meadow Lane standards) he’s proven himself more than capable of spotting a player. Almost every new addition has been a success, with his latest recruitment leaning much more to younger and more long-term solutions. Noor Husin in particular is an impressive addition with the capacity to improve enormously under Nolan’s tutelage. And Notts’ recent recruitment of Darren Robinson as Head of Talent ID shows that Notts are more than prepared to support Nolan in bringing the best we can to Meadow Lane.
But for now we have to hope that the current Notts players, who may have a limited shelf-life as a squad, can squeeze every last drop of commitment, experience and expertise into one massive and unexpected push for promotion. And I guarantee that if this season does become their last in a Notts shirt, they’ll be leaving Meadow Lane with not only a medal but the knowledge that they have defied the odds and put this proud club back on its path to where it deserves to be.
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