It’s safe to say that many years and many seasons just roll into one for many a Notts fan. In my 22 years of following Notts I’ve sat through plenty of seasons that I’ve filed under “Do Not Enter”, seen many an average, below average and Alan White come and go and of course, lots of managers that have been shown the door either rightly or wrongly. But what can be said is that the last year, from March 19th 2016 to today, March 19th 2017, has seen one of the most dramatic turnarounds I can remember in those 22 years.
On this exact day last year the atmosphere at Meadow Lane was at absolute rock bottom and the two men at the head of it all were the two most blindingly obvious sources of that. Firstly, we were treated to a 4-1 home defeat by Exeter under the stewardship of Jamie Fullarton; a man who should never have been given the opportunity to manage our club. That afternoon I sat behind the dugout and watched the Meadow Lane faithful crucify him from all angles – even the Family Stand whipped out a ‘Fullarton Out’ banner. What made it worse was that he seemed to have no ideas or energy to do anything about it, he simply stood deadly still on the corner of the loneliest technical area in the world of football. Later that night a year ago he was sacked by the man who was killing our club; Ray Trew. We’ve been down this road before, so I’ll be brief and frank – Notts County Football Club were dying under Trew. Attendances, morale and interest was at rock bottom and Trew was directly responsible.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2:59pm today. We finally have the owner that is showing the leadership qualities, desire and willingness to turn us around that we have lacked for the last few years. Whilst Alan Hardy may not have got all decisions and Twitter posts right in the eyes of some fans, there is no doubting he wants the best for the club and all of those connected to it and I for one hope he continues to show all of these qualities and more to be the public focal point of the club he has become. Alongside him Kevin Nolan, his first managerial appointment, has masterminded a somewhat miraculous turnaround of the on the field matters. One of his biggest achievements has certainly been turning the likes of Richard Duffy, Haydn Hollis and Michael O’Connor from the derided to the worshipped along with dragging us 8 points clear of the relegation zone.
When the clock struck 3:00pm, Notts had a real chance of turning that 8 point gap into an 11 point gap and all but mathematically putting themselves safe. However, that chance looked like a distant dream on only 10 minutes as Keith Stroud dismissed Mark Yeates after a clumsy looking tackle on half way. From the Kop it looked a poor tackle, mistimed rather than malicious. On second viewing and a few more after, it’s clear Yeates caught the Barnet defender knee high with a full set of studs showing. Much to the dismay of the Meadow Lane faithful, Notts had to sit out the next 80+ minutes with 10 men – but oh how they did.
What proceeded the red card was something quite phenomenal; it certainly galvanised the whole ground and drove the Notts players on. From that point forward, Notts were much the better team. They pressed well, kept their shape and attacked when they had the chance. Marc Bola had Notts’s best first half chance, firing just wide from 20 yards after a Jorge Grant free-kick had come back off the wall. But what really impressed me was how organised and resolute we were. Shola Ameobi, surprisingly, played wide on the left after the red card and it was a stroke of genius by Nolan. It allowed Jon Stead to hurry the back four and when Barnet’s ‘attacks’ broke down in midfield, Ameobi was an easy option to find and he brought us time to get around him and mount attacks at the right time. He really showed his class today and I for one hope to see him here next season.
Half time came and Notts were in control. At the beginning of the second half, Notts made that control pay. After a contested header went high but not out, Jon Stead flicked onto Grant who in turn nicked the ball to the advancing Matt Tootle. He then superbly controlled the ball and lashed it into the top corner on his left foot. It was a stunning finish that sent all of Meadow Lane into delirium. After that, Barnet had the majority of the ball but did barely anything with it. Their two main tactics were long diagonals from the centre of midfield to the advanced full backs or a long ball to Jon Akinde. Neither worked and Barnet failed to worry Notts in any way. Rarely have I seen a team play so poorly against 10 men.
The whole team, especially the back four, stood firm and were led superbly by Haydn Hollis who again won every single header that came his way, played simple when he needed and cleared his lines at other times. His and Ameobi’s display was matched by Rob Milsom in the heart of the midfield. When he signed for Notts, Milsom was seen as a real asset but injuries and indifferent form have hindered him at Notts so far, but today he was tremendous. His sheer energy made up for the loss of Yeates and he covered every blade of grass to protect the back four and help build attacks. On a day where every single player made you proud to be a Notts fan, Ameobi, Hollis and Milsom really gave us the foundation to hold onto all three points.
If anyone was going to score again, it seemed most likely to be Notts and Grant could and on recent form maybe should have slotted home when played through by Ameobi but his curling effort slipped wide of the upright. It came to pass that Notts didn’t need another goal and after 4 minutes of injury time, Mr. Stroud finally used his whistle constructively and brought proceedings to an end. Whilst the crowd delighted in the win, at least half of the team instantly hit the deck, exhausted from their afternoon shift. That sight, captured nicely by Hardy on Twitter, really summed up what they’d been through over the course of the game.
A year ago, we’d have lost that 5-0, crucified Fullarton and Trew and wondered where our club had gone. Today, we looked out over the pitch and gave every player a heroes reception. Days like today are exactly what being a fan of a football team is all about. They played with pride, passion and sense. Each player should be as proud as each fan after that today; Notts County finally feels like the club we all fell in love with however many years ago. A year certainly is a long time..