What a difference a year makes…

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..



Discount or no discount?

It would be hard to argue against the general consensus that ever since Alan Hardy took over the reins at Meadow Lane the outlook has been very positive. With little hint of hyperbole the club was on its knees, lacking energy, drive or any form of leadership and most alarmingly we were staring non-league football full on in the face. After only 3 months of his tenure, Hardy has addressed a lot of those issues and more. However, as most football fans know the latest drama is never far away and if Notts County Football Club is one thing, it’s a club that drama finds easily.

It’s clear to see Hardy has made a massive impact on the club but most fans also knew that the wave of optimism and rapturous acceptance of all decisions made couldn’t stay at the same level forever. Suddenly, most have realised that Hardy will have tough and at times unpopular decisions to make. In the past week that first decision has reared it’s head; season tickets for next season and in particular season ticket renewals for next season.

The discussion, anticipation and expectation started when Mr Hardy emailed or wrote to all current season ticket holders. My old man got his in letter form; I doubt he knows what an email actually ‘does’. The correspondence starts with a thank you to the ‘lifeblood of the club’ and an admission that some ST holders have ‘voiced concern that their package is being devalued as a result of reduced pricing.’ Both statements would ring true with most of the readership; a good start Mr Hardy. Then, the real meat on the bones came;

“I would therefore like to assure you that 2016-2017 season ticket holders will benefit from an exclusive discount on season tickets for the 2017-18 campaign. I will confirm full details in due course.”

Hello… discount. Not only that; exclusive discount. Music to the ears of Notts fans. After waiting for the news, a week ago it came when Mr Hardy announced via Twitter that season ticket prices had been FROZEN for renewals until April 30th. Easy to say the announcement wasn’t met with the mass love in most decisions thus far, mostly justified, have been. After some classic Twitter ping pong, it was revealed the FROZEN renewal price would be last seasons early bird price and after April 30th season ticket prices will go up. From what price they will go up from I’m not sure; I don’t think that’s been made very clear but I assume they’ll be going up from the standard, post early bird price. Again, this didn’t go down very well with a decent percentage of the faithful.

For me, the biggest bone of contention has been with the assurance of discount and the use of the term discount itself; that’s the sticking point. Going back to my old man; he brought his current season ticket at the early bird price and will do the same this year; before the April 30th deadline. Now, when pitched against those who don’t take up this offer or who buy a non-renewal season ticket (possibly myself) he HAS and WILL have had a discount; definitely. However, based on his expenditure last year he has had absolutely NO discount due to the fact he’s paying the same amount; no two ways about it. This is why fans are annoyed/angry/upset because there will be plenty of fans who don’t get any form of discount based on their own personal spending pattern from last season. When you also twin this with their dedication to the club I don’t feel many those renewing season tickets will be truly rewarded. My old man and plenty of others will buy before the 30th deadline because they love this football club and always have and always will support them and NOT due to a fallacy of discount. Mr Hardy has defended his stance, which he has every right to do, but this does not hide the fact that some fans feel very misled by the wording of the assurance and subsequent context of the offer. I can see it both ways, but if I were renewing, I’d feel aggrieved by the whole thing.

Another bone of contention that could and probably will see a percentage of renewing fans not get a discount, but a price hike, is the April 30th deadline simply because there is no guarantee by this date we’ll still be a League Two club. After Saturday’s win and in turn moving 8 points clear of trouble it seems improbable we’ll get relegated but this is football after all and I think Hardy is asking fans to pay good money based on a lot of good will and tweets containing the hashtag ‘faith’. How will the lifeblood feel if they renew before the 30th April deadline then we get relegated? Conference football at League Two prices? No thanks.

The final bone of contention, not as widespread but worth a mention, reared its head the day after ‘discountgate’ when Mr Hardy revealed the club were looking at purchasing a big replay screen for Meadow Lane. Now I think they’re great things – seeing my name flash up on one at Bramall Lane on Cup Final days a few years ago was quality – but letting fans behind this particular curtain not 24 hours after the annoyance of the season ticket announcement? Again I don’t think that will go down as one of Mr Hardy’s best Twitter related decisions. Like I mention, I like replay screens, but personally, with the position we as a club find ourselves in, I’d rather invest that money in more pressing matters such as club infrastructure or more importantly the playing staff for next season. It’s an added extra that in the current climate I don’t think we need.

Like I’ve mentioned and have been happy to mention to plenty of people, I’m delighted with a lot of things Mr Hardy has done for the club and I guarantee he will make plenty of very positive and successful decisions in what I hope are many years to come at the helm. But I am worried that the ambiguity in the season ticket renewal ‘discount’ will annoy plenty of people he’s looked to appease and I also think the lack of public acknowledgment of the annoyance and fobbing it off as negativity will only compound this ‘backlash’.

Like my favourite skipper said recently said, just because your told it’s shiny doesn’t mean it is shiny.


Notts vs Hartlepool

One thing that certainly can’t be levelled at Notts at the minute is the amount of talking points fans have to debate, shout and tweet about both on and off the pitch. Whilst issues off the pitch will be dealt with at a later date, the talking points on the pitch had definitely multiplied since Notts bump to earth with a chastening 3-0 away defeat at Stevenage last Saturday. By all accounts we were beaten by a better team but didn’t do too much to inspire the travelling faithful.

So the first big question yesterday was how, if at all, would Kevin Nolan shake up the starting eleven? What came to pass was that Josh Clackstone, Jon Stead and Curtis Thompson dropped out, the latter two all together, and in came Matt Tootle, Richard Duffy and Jon Forte. Due to the changes, Elliot Hewitt somewhat surprisingly, moved into central midfield to partner Rob Milsom whilst Tootle slotted in at right back and Duffy in next to Haydn Hollis. Forte provided the foil to Shola Ameobi as Nolan stuck with his favoured 4-4-2 formation.

Notts started with real intent and looked to get on top early on and tried to force the issue down the left hand side with the energetic Marc Bola providing a real outlet supporting Mark Yeates and it was the winger who had Notts’ first chance to trouble the score sheet when he beat a static Hartlepool defender to the bouncing ball and forced a smart save at the near post. At the time and also after subsequently watching the highlights, Yeates should’ve looked up and laid in Jorge Grant for a tap in. Sorry, Nottingham Forest’s on-loan ace and single handed season saviour Jorge Grant…

The game ebbed and flowed up to the 30 minute mark with the only real moment of controversy seeing Notts denied an obvious penalty when Grant battled well and was seemingly tripped by a sprawling Hartlepool defender. Nothing given. However, minutes later Notts were given a penalty when Yeates corner was bizarrely handled by Nathan Thomas. After halfhearted appeals Shola Ameobi spotted the ball, aimed for the keepers bottom right but didn’t put enough power or placement into his penalty and saw it saved and via the post be cleared into touch. Obviously no amount of top level experience can prepare you for a penalty in front of the Family Stand.

That seemed to knock a little bit of wind out of the Notts sails and half time came without much of note happening. The same can’t be said of the beginning of the second half when Ameobi finally opened his Notts account, latching onto a fine first time through ball by Grant and slotting in calmly past the keeper to send the Kop into raptures. For a man earmarked as the target man we’ve sadly lacked all season, Shola showed excellent nerve and quality on the deck to slot home, especially after the penalty miss. There seems to be a bit of a fallacy surrounding Shola that his real strength is his aerial prowess and whilst he is a nuisance in the air the real danger comes when we get the ball to his feet and allow him to bring others into play with sharp, neat touches in tight areas; that’s where he shows his real top level quality.

If the penalty miss hindered Notts in the first half then the goal really got Notts ticking and saw them dominate large parts of the second half and that pressure told on 71 minutes when Grant, Nottingham Forest’s Jorge Grant, collected the second ball from a Yeates corner, took one touch to get the ball out of his feet and then rifled a 25 yard bullet into the roof of the Hartlepool goal for 2-0. It was an outstanding goal from Grant who really has added the quality and guile we’ve lacked most of the season. I’d much prefer him to ‘single-handedly’ save our season than another notable Nottingham clubs season.

All seemed well with the world until, somewhat inevitably, Notts made their lives hard by conceeding with 10 minutes to go after Duffy blocked a shot on the line, only for the ball to hit Hollis and bounce in. For the final 10 minutes, Notts dropped far too deep and allowed Hartlepool to pressure Notts heavily but it was all to no avail as Notts and in particular Adam Collin held on tightly and subsequently a much needed three points.

Overall, Notts deserved the three points and after a week that showed many, many people connected with the club that there is a lot to still get right, they are three very welcome points. Special praise should go to two much maligned figures of the season so far; Haydn Hollis and Elliot Hewitt. Whilst Ameobi and Grant will get the plaudits for their contributions, Hewitt and Hollis have epitomised the turnaround on the pitch under Nolan. Both men performed their roles yesterday with efficiency, calmness and most importantly; their brains. They did the simple things well and tried to do all the right things when given the opportunity. I for one was dubious when Hewitt lined up alongside Milsom but he provided real energy and industry in the centre of the park and Hollis was again a colossus at the back, especially at moments when Richard Duffy took up some questionable positions under the high ball.

Donny away on Tuesday will provide a stern test, but with Michael O’Connor available after suspension and the buzz of a hard earned three points fresh in the memory then anything is possible.