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Left Magpie: Notts Await Kewell Intentions

3 September 18 words: Colin Sisson

Notts County’s revolving door took another rotation last week as Kevin Nolan, months after leading a near-successful promotion push, was sacked following a string of poor performances.

A pre-season of promise, with chairman Alan Hardy investing in an estimated £500,000 of new talent to supplement the squad, had descended into despair before August had even ended, with Notts languishing at the bottom of League 2 and looking a shadow of their former selves. Uncharacteristically beaten in the air and bullied off the ball, Notts did not look like a ‘Kevin Nolan’ side. And in his post-match post-mortems, we often heard the sort of half-hearted defence that his team was fast becoming renowned for. Even Kevin Nolan was not Kevin Nolan this season.

Those in defence of Nolan felt that five games was just too early to fire a man who had galvanised a Notts County side that had been on their worst run in their history just 18 months ago and reshaped it into an organised and effective unit.

But it was perhaps his recent reshaping of the team that had ultimately been his downfall. Troubled by criticism of Notts’ direct and one-dimensional approach last season, with echoes of hoof still reverberating around Meadow Lane from the Coventry fans, Nolan attempted to refashion Notts into a much more fluid and flamboyant formation. Our once-drilled defence was now required to offer more than their bodies on the line, and struggled to live up to the new expectations. Our midfield lost its bite and became easily smothered by aggressive opposition, while our heavy investment in attacking options were starved with a lack of supply to feed off.

It’s perhaps with bitter irony then, that Nolan’s last game in charge of Notts was away at Lincoln City with a  side that looked every bit like Nolan’s Notts from last season. So much so, that former captain Michael O’Connor lined up for The Imps in a formidable midfield trio that dominated proceedings.

Notts fans were desperate for someone to see what they saw - a side failing to grasp a new style of play that needed to get back to the rough-and-tumble of lower league football. Fans wanted Gary Bowyer - promotion-winning manager with Blackpool, more than accustomed to difficult circumstances; or Darren Ferguson, a man who had put together four promotion-winning sides built on solid foundations.

But what Notts have got is Harry Kewell, a former Premier League star who had been experiencing some success in his first managerial appointment, to replace Kevin Nolan...a former Premier League star get the idea. Kewell’s arrival is certainly telling about Notts’ commitment to the new style of play they’ve attempted since the season started, as one defining aspect of Kewell’s Crawley was their determination to play an attractive, attacking football that almost saw them enter the playoff fight late last season.

Some question Kewell’s credentials while others question Kewell’s sanity at taking a job with one of the shortest expiry dates in England. But beneath the surface is a foundation of solid logic, particularly if rumours of Paul Hart’s arrival as Technical Director come to fruition. Hart, former Academy Director at Leeds where a young Harry Kewell graduated, could act as a mentor for the fledgling manager as well as being a reliable resource in the roller coaster ride that is League 2. Hart performed this mentor role well at Luton, helping Nathan Jones lead the side to glory last year and Alan Hardy must hope that he can work his magic again. Warren Feeney, Kewell’s assistant, was also a Leeds graduate so it’s hoped that the new management team will have at least some understanding and shared philosophy to rely on as they try and turn Notts’ preseason promise into a promotion reality.

But there’s also a long-term necessity for whoever the Technical Director is. Notts need to provide a better pathway to their first team for young and promising players, from both a sporting and financial perspective. Too often Notts rely on ageing stars looking for a final swan song in The Football League instead of offering opportunities to younger players to kick their careers off. At no point was the drawback of this policy more evident that last season’s playoff loss to Coventry where Notts’ ageing side were outclassed by a team boasting five academy graduates well above the usual League Two standard. A Technical Director can ensure that these lines of progression are kept open by monitoring the progress of young players and recommending they get their chance in the first team.

While this has a sense of footballing romanticism to it, it also makes crucial financial sense; as Dongda He’s move to Wolves demonstrates, promising young players excite fans and attract transfer interest - a necessity at a club that loses approximately £1m pounds a season. If Notts are ever going to seriously progress, they’ll need to become far more self-sufficient for talent and able to generate the funds necessary to be self-sufficient through transfer income.

While Kewell’s first official game was a 3:1 defeat against Forest Green Rovers on Saturday, it’ll take some time before Notts truly reflect what the new manager wants - especially if his aggressive arm gesticulations from the Director’s Box were anything to go by.

Perhaps a better reflection of what Notts can expect from Harry Kewell’s tenure came in his first press conference, where he was quick to remove excuses from Notts’ recent poor performances and made it clear that he wouldn’t be accepting any in future either. For Kewell, issues like low confidence or a lack of a tactical plan are not justifications for simply not trying hard.

Actions speak louder than words though, and Notts fans have heard these platitudes plenty of times before. So it was some relief, and with some significance, that experienced centre-back Elliot Ward arrived at Meadow Lane as a symbol of Kewell’s understanding of Notts’ soft centre. Something that will certainly be tested on Tuesday night away at Grimsby.

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