#DeadlineDay

So the Sky Sports Deadline Day Wank-A-Thon is finally over for another few months and it’s time for us to all get back to normality. Whatever that constitutes in football…

This time last year, Deadline Day down at Meadow Lane had a completely different feel to it for various reasons. After managing to lift a transfer embargo and staring down the barrel of League Two, Kevin Nolan charged into the transfer market and came up with five signings. Mark Yeates, Marc Bola, Tavhon Campbell, Josh Clackstone and Nottingham Forest’s Jorge Grant all put pen to paper on six months deals and gave the squad a much needed injection of both bodies and quality. To the delight of all associated with the club the ship steadied and Notts finished the season in tremendous form.

This January, the landscape is very different. Sitting an unprecedented third in League Two and awaiting a FA Cup fourth round replay against Premier League Swansea we are most certainly a club on the up. This January the window and in turn deadline day has been viewed as a chance to strengthen, push on and achieve what this time last year seemed a million miles away.

The window kicked off for Notts fans as far back as October 12th as it was announced we were to re-sign ‘red card machine’ Liam Noble from Forest Green Rovers, more on that later…

As January 1st came around it was clear to many that the squad needed strengthening with the main priority for most being another forward. Despite Notts continuing to score goals, a clinical finisher would clearly improve any squad, let alone ours. The second area of the team that needed looking at was at centre half. With Haydn Hollis out of the picture, as the window opened, only Shaun Brisley and Richard Duffy were our recognised centre halves. Elliot Hewitt had deputised in absence, but that knock on the the stability of central midfield also had its implications.

As it does with Notts, the transfer window started quietly until January 10th; the day the transfer window got really serious for Notts.

After rumours had circulated days earlier, it was eventually announced that Ryan Yates had been recalled by Forest, given a new contract and sent to League One Scunthorpe for the rest of the season. Bollocks. The role Yates played in the first half of the season cannot be underestimated. Whilst Grant banged in the goals, Yates was the man. The heartbeat of the team.

All of a sudden, we needed to look at the whole spine of the team. Not only due to those who had departed, but also due to those who were out of the picture all together. Again, more on this later. As fans took to various outlets to voice their opinions, Mr Hardy tried to reassure. 

Big talk indeed. So, are we? Are we stronger now than at the beginning of January?

 

 

Out: Haydn Hollis (Forest Green Rovers)

In: Ben Hall (Brighton and Hove Albion)

Like previously mentioned, centre half was seen as the key area to strengthen purely because of Nolan’s reluctance to even have Hollis on the bench, let alone deputising for Duffy or Brisley in the case of absence. It felt odd at the time to allow Hollis to leave when he did when no one came the other way. Add to this Pierce Bird heading on loan to Alfreton Town and for a few weeks you’ve got horrifically thin defensive options, especially centrally.

This came to a head at home to Exeter when Hewitt went to centre half and we lost continuity and quality both at centre half and centre midfield. With Yates gone and numerous new personell in that position, Hewitt has to be the fixture in central midfield from now on.

Ben Hall arrives from Brightion and Hove Albion with a good reputation and some first team experience in Scotland with Motherwell. For the last 18 months or so he’s played under-23 football at Brighton and with that comes positives and negatives. Clearly he’s played and at a decent standard but as we’ve seen with Matty Virtue, the transition from under-23’s to first team football is a challenging one. Will the fitness be there? Will the ability to manage a game, the pressure and the expectation be there? Only time will tell.

On the balance of things I think I’d be happier to have Hollis deputise for the odd game when needed; someone who’s been there and done it and could slot in with ease Saturday if the situation necessitated it. Let’s hope Hall has more of the impact that Marc Bola did last season rather than Josh Clackstone.

Out: Ryan Yates (Recalled) and Curtis Thompson (Wycombe Wanderers)

In: Liam Noble (Forest Green Rovers), Matty Virtue (Liverpool) and Noor Husin (Crystal Palace)

Most would argue that in the first half of the season, the midfield was the key component of the side. It looked well balanced whether it was Rob Milsom or Hewitt alongside Ryan Yates whilst Terry Hawkridge proved realiable going both ways down the right. Obviously the headline maker was Jorge Grant. The man who’s scored all the goals and created a fair few others.

But the real headline maker was Yates. For such a young man to have such an impact on a side is quite remarkable. The way he knitted the team together was superb. Strong in the tackle, positionally brilliant and calm and controlled in possession. I’ve described him as the heartbeat of the side and as soon as he was taken out we noticed. We noticed big time.

As Yates left, his midfield berth became another area of the team that needed a body or two. In fact, we had three; Noble, Husin and Virtue and all were given their chance to shine against Exeter. There wasn’t much shining. Whilst you’ve got three nice footballers there’s very little bite and defensive capability. Husin, deployed in the CDM role can clearly pick a pass, as was supremely evident against Swansea (in a 4-4-2 mind…), but was at fault for the first Exeter goal by not tracking his runner. Hopefully, if he is deployed with Hewitt he can complement his work rate and energy and provide that quality on the ball that he’s shown real glimpses of so far.

Virtue got around well but looked knackered after an hour, both against Exeter and Crawley. Against Crawley he actually grew into the game, but only when we went to 4-4-2 and Hewitt was played alongside him centrally. He played on the floor, looked forward and hit feet, very encouraging. His evening was soured with the red card and many seem to have written him off; I wouldn’t be so quick too. He looks like a lad whose got the attributes to make it in the game. Similar to Husin, if he can be used centrally in a two then he should and looks to have enough about him to make a contribution.

The odd one for me is Noble. I never wanted him back in the first place. Tactically I never saw how he fitted into Nolan’s system and style. He cannot play in a central two because defensively and positionally he’s weak. There also seemed no way Nolan would change from the 4-4-2 that has served him so well. Against Exeter he had a fine second half, dictating play and picking passes from a deeper lying midfield role. Fast forward to Crawley, the 4-5-1 was persisted with and Noble played like an absolute drain. Hooked after 60 odd minutes.  The baffling thing is that he’s been here three months integrating. Surely they’ve worked on how he can fit in to the system? Maybe he was destined to slot in with Yates but with him gone, it feels like we’ve tried to accommodate him because he’s here. For someone who is so tactically inflexible he seems to be the biggest gamble of the three.

The other midfield departure of the window was the opinion splitting Curtis Thompson. I’ve championed Thompson’s cause on many an occasion and as soon as Yates left, it was clear Thompson should’ve been utilised. Especially when Hewitt had to be moved to centre half and Rob Milsom, the other engine room we possess was out injured. He’s more than good enough to play at this level and the next; his physical attributes suit the lower leagues. He’s tenacious, good in the tackle and strong as an Ox. He can play too; he give is simple and allows others to shine, but that’s not his limit. Many have maligned Thompson, but given a run he’d have delivered; exactly like he did every time he’s been given a chance in the team beforehand. Clearly, he wasn’t in Nolan’s plans and found himself at Wycombe Wanderers. A day or so later, he found himself on their bench against top of the league Luton. 80 odd minutes into that game, he found himself coming on, in central midfield with Wycombe 3-2 up. About 10 minutes later, Wycombe had seen the game out, taken three points and leapfrogged Notts into second spot. Wonderful. Loaning him to a direct rival is absolutely absurd. He’ll only strengthen Wycombe. I’d much rather have CT than Noble.

Overall, I think the jury is out on whether the midfield is stronger than it was at the start of January. Losing Yates is a nightmare. He’s been our player of the season so far, despite Grant’s goals. Husin and Virtue look to have great potential, but potential against tried and tested? Give me Yates and CT’s experience any day. As for Noble, I said I didn’t see how he fit in and both Husin and Virtue have started ahead of him when he’s been available to be picked and we’ve started 4-4-2. Telling.

In: Mason Bennett (Derby County)

Although it came awfully, awfully late in the day, it happened. We signed a striker; the position everyone wanted. Mason Bennett comes in from Derby County with a lot of backing, especially from his parent club. Many have been quick to Tweet his goals and appearances ratio from Wikipedia but that’s just lazy. When you break into a Championship side at 16 you’ve clearly got something. Even though he’s short in stature, Bennett is built like an absolute house; he looks ready for League Two football on Saturday against Crewe. He’s quick, works hard and will provide a real handful. His movement will cause an array of issues for defences in the next six months. I firmly believe that with a run in the side he will score goals and be a real asset. He’s different to what we’ve got and should compliment Stead and Ameobi well. He should also hit it off with Grant, two clever footballers with hopefully too much for some backlines. I’d have him in from the start on Saturday. Up alongside Stead. He’s been around the derby first team and made appearances recently, so he’s fit. Let’s not wait. Get him in and let him run. What makes his signing even better is that, at the time of writing, we still have Jon Forte too. Four frontline strikers; great scenes.

As was expected, Mr Hardy tweeted his satisfaction at the clubs dealings and confirmed that he had delivered on his promise to have a stronger squad post transfer window. Clearly yesterday was frenetic and behind the scenes we worked tirelessly to strengthen where necessary but I’d stop short of proclaiming we are stronger than we were a month ago. Up front we are certainly stronger, no doubts. But in defence in midfield, whilst in numbers we are stronger, we’ve swapped a lot of experience for a lot of potential. Last year we saw the huge impact Bola and Grant made and we really need Husin and Virtue in particular to step up. We do not need a repeat of Tavhon Campbell.

The party line will be ‘only time will tell’ if we are stronger or not. If I had to decide, I do not think we are stronger overall than we were a month ago.

Notts vs Swansea

“There’s s new chapter waiting to be written at professional footballs oldest club… This club.” The stirring words aired on BBC’s Football Focus from the ever noticeable tone of Notts County’s very old Father Time, Colin Slater.

Whilst the latest chapter has been a real page turner, the last two home games has thrown up a real plot twist in the form of the evil protagonist; 4-5-1. On the day you would maybe expect the 4-5-1 to live another day, Kevin Nolan went back to basics; 4-4-2. Wonderful. Elliot Hewitt was resorted to his rightful place in the centre of midfield and was partnered with Noor Husin; a brave move and a damnining indictment on Liam Noble for many… Terry Hawkridge came in for Lewis Alessandra whilst Shola Ameobi was restored to the front line along side FA Cup goal machine Jon Stead. The final, surprising change was Carl Dickinson coming in for Dan Jones. It looked a workman like side and my they got through some work. 

The opening 10 minutes really set the tone for the game as a whole. Swansea dictated play and kept hold of the ball with supreme patience but Notts carved out the best chance of the opening exchanges on eight minutes. After some neat interplay down the right, Jon Stead whipped a low cross across the penalty area as Hewitt, making good ground from midfield, threw himself at the cross but to no avail. It was a half chance, but a clear indication that Notts had a real chance against the possession machine that was Swansea. 

After that opening skermish, the game settled into its most regular pattern; Swansea keeping good possession but keeping it relatively simple and manageable for Notts. There was lots of sideways play and with Renato Sanches and Leroy Fer sitting very deep in midfield, all the play was in front of Notts’ two banks of four. Swansea’s real joy came down the sides, especially the right as Swansea’s tactics and quality paid real dividends. 

In a 3-5-2, both Alfie Mawson and Mike van der Hoorn saw a lot of the ball and were pushed into high, conventional wing back positions for large parts of the first half. This gave Swansea an overload down both wings and at times Notts’ wide men looked lost between, in particular down the Notts left. It was clear Swansea were targeting Dickinson with the ball in behind but by deploying Hawkridge in front of him, rather than Grant and Husin working well defensively, Notts soon got to grips with the movement. What also never helped Swansea was Wilfried Bony and Tammy Abraham’s reluctance to go beyond and run in behind Notts. Bony was excellent as a target man all afternoon, but Abraham looked lost between two tactics; Carlos Carvahal’s possession play and his natural instincts to stretch a defence and run in behind. 

All of this culminated in Swansea being restricted to long shots that the returning Adam Collin collected with ease. The half played out with plenty of Swansea possession and only one real chance. Luciano Narsingh got the better of Notts’ organisation and dinked a cross to Bony, who’d strolled off marker Richard Duffy, only for him to smash his header straight at Collin. It was a good reaction save but either side of him and that’s a goal. A big let off.

Notts’ defences were eventually breached moments later when the ball fell to Ki Sung-Yeung outside the area, Hewitt hesitated in closing him down and as he strode forward Dickinson gravitated toward the ball and Ki slipped the ball to the unmarked Narsingh who smashed his shot past Collin and into the net. 1-0. Just before half time. Bollocks.

With a couple of resounding ovations from the Notts faithful behind them and probably a few words from Nolan, both teams came out like different animals. Notts got straight into their usual second half stride an the tone was set by Jorge Grant who saw a free kick deflected just wide of the upright. Moments later, Dickinson and Hawkridge worked a short corner well and Grant found himself 12 yards out, on the angle. He fired a bullet toward the top far corner only for it to sail agonisingly wide. A gnats bollcok as it were.

The biggest chance for Notts and Grant himself came on 54 minutes as Hawkridge made space and crossed to Grant who found himself eight or so yards out. He put his header back where it came from but not quite where it needed to go. His header flew past the same post and all around the ground held their heads in their hands. That was the chance. You don’t get too many against Premier League teams. Was that the chance? 

As it happened, two more glorious chances came and thankfully one was taken. The first, not taken, saw Duffy head a Hawkrdige ping across the goal mouth only for Shaun Brisley and Ameobi to fail to make any contact. It looked a good chance at the time and on further viewing was actually a bit of a tap in for Brisley. He makes a great move to get there first but then just flicks the outside of his boot at it. Any contact and it’s 1-1, game on. Gloriously, Notts found themselves on level terms minutes later. Grant fed a ball down to Hewitt whose heavy touch ran him to the byline. He managed to sweep his foot around the ball and find Ameobi on the edge of the six yard box. Whilst Swansea defenders stood like statues wanting a goal kick, Shola held up the ball, fed in the on rushing Grant who in turn played a magnificent ball across the goal to the back post for Mr FA Cup himself, Jon Stead, to tap in. ABSOLUTE PANDAMONIUM AROUND MEADOW LANE! 

What a moment. If you could bottle up what being a football fan really means you can’t look too much further than that minute or so on Saturday. Pure, unfiltered joy. A joy that would’ve been completly spoiled by VAR. I don’t think that ball goes out of play after Hewitt’s first touch. There’s only one angle that makes it look out but because the ball is bouncing and the angle it’s inconclusive. Imagine having to wait two minutes to find out that’s a goal. Football’s the ‘product’ it is because of the drama, atmosphere and passion it generates. VAR will kill an element of that. A big element.

The goal seemed to be the kick up the Richard that Swansea needed and not long after they managed to regain their composure and control of the game. But, much like the first half all of the play was in front of Notts and we coped admirably. Huge credit has to go to Hewitt and Husin in the centre of the park. They got through a tremendous amount of work both centrally and supporting the full backs. They complimented each other beautifully. Husin had a calm head in possession and looked assured on the ball, even on the edge of his own box. As for Hewitt, apart from a split second of hesitation for their goal he was superb. Easily my man of the match. He took his place back and showed Nolan he belongs. Since Ryan Yates has gone we’ve missed our heartbeat. Elliot Hewitt was exactly that on Saturday. What an afternoon, well played boy. 

The final 20 minutes drifted by with no real chances until seconds before 90 minutes were up. After an outrageously patient bit of play by Jordan Ayew and Tom Carroll, the latter picked out Bony who headed inches past the post. Phew. What a let off. That was good night.

As it was, Notts made the final whistle and we had our name in the hat. The fifth round draw. You fucking pies!

After a difficult two games Notts were tremendous Saturday, tremendous. To a man they did their job and more. The tiniest part of me was tinged with disappointment because on the balance of clear cut chances created we had much, much the better of it and in particular Jorge Grant should’ve been the hero for another weekend.

There was plenty of discontent around me and on Twitter about Notts’ approach after equalising. Granted we were firmly on top but if we had knocked on the door for the whole second half like we were then we’d most certainly have been picked off by Swansea. The ‘game management’ on display from Notts was superb.

COYP x

Notts vs Crawley

Wow. Where on earth do you start with that shit show? On a night when a real reaction was needed after Saturday’s first home defeat of the season, it didn’t quite go according to plan; not by a long shot.

On the stroke of team news time, the key thing on everyone’s mind must’ve been the formation. After 4-5-1 bombed on Saturday surely the tried and trusted Kevin Nolan way of 4-4-2 would be reinstated. Not on your nelly. 4-5-1 with only one change. Richard Duffy replaced Elliot Hewitt at centre half and Hewitt found himself on the bench. It was clear Duffy should be brought back in, but Hewitt should’ve been put into the three man midfield, that was an absolute no brainer.

The first 15 minutes last night was like a highlights package in itself; it could’ve been 3-2 Crawley as chances flowed for each side. Matty Virtue was first up when his late run into the box saw him connect about 8 yards out only for Josh Lelan to clear off the line. Five minutes later, after a scramble from a Liam Noble header, the ball fell to Lewis Alessandra six yards out who blazed over the bar. He was leaning back but he snatched at the chance and only found the Haydn Green stand.

In the first 15 minutes Notts actually played very, very well. They got the ball down on the deck, found feet, looked to dominate possession and pressed Crawley back into their penalty area. Four corners and those two missed chances were the sum amount of the pressure applied. But a lack of a clinical edge hurt us again. An argument laid at the Notts door has been that we’ve scored plenty of goals, do we need to bring in a striker? Absolutely we do. For the amount of chances we created in that 15 minutes, if you’ve got a goalscorer out there, something goes in and you get that start you need. It’s clear to me we’ve actually got a goalscorer, but Nolan will not entertain Jonny Forte as a key piece of his jigsaw, to the teams detriment sadly.

After Notts’ early flurry, Crawley came back strongly and really exposed the weaknesses through the centre of the Notts side. The lively Enzio Boldewijn drove through the heart of the midfield, slipped in Thomas Verheydt who smashed an effort just wide of the post. This would become a common pattern until Crawley took the lead, after having a header cleared off the line too, midway through the first half. A throw in to Verheydt was cleverly flicked into the path of Jimmy Smith and the midfielder slotted into the bottom corner. It was chronically poor defending form Notts. Duffy was nowhere near contesting for the first header and Noor Husin let Smith wander off like a toddler chasing a ball across a road. The simple things we’ve done prior to Saturday seemed a dim and distant memory.

Therein after the rot set in. Notts completely abandoned the possession based play they’d worked so well in the first 15 and resorted to knobbing a series of long balls into the vecinity of Jon Stead. Now I’ve been critical of Stead at times this season but he was given no chance last night, no chance at all. We all know he’s not a target man. He’s not effective when the balls around his head. Not only this, but neither Virtue or Noble got anywhere near him. The three also seemed at a loss to their real roles. At one point, Nicky Hunt had the ball at right back and instead of coming to offer and make a central two with Virtue, Noble turned, ran to go and stand next to Jorge Grant wide on the left. Inexcusable. If he’s our creative force then he needs to go and get the ball, demand it, run the game; not turn, put his head down and sprint 30 yards in the opposite direction. Imagine if we’d have paid £100,ooo for him…

After a half time vent, generally consisting of “why is he playing fucking 4-5-1”, the same eleven strode out for the second half. Eh? Really? Okay, here comes the reaction.

Notts did exactly what they’ve done all season. They came out looking sharp and camping out in the opposition half but to no real avail. Whilst territory was gained, chances were few and far between until the 55th minute. Up until then Crawley, quite admirably and pretty effectively, had played out nicely from the back until a terrible, no look pass to the right back went straight to Stead. With a touch and a look, from eight yards Stead buried the ball… Against the outstretched arm of the goalkeeper; chance gone. Goal scorer? Yes please…

Two minutes later, Stead partially redeemed himself from the spot. From a high looping ball, Josh Lelan outrageously flicked the ball away from Grant with his arm. Clear penalty. Great penalty. 1-1. Let’s go.

Minutes later Nolan saw sense and hooked Husin for Shola Ameobi. 4-4-2 hallelujah and for a time we got hold of the game, not before Ross Fitzsimons made a fantastic double save at his front post. Virtue suddenly seemed to find a sense of purpose, his ability to pass and with two to hit up front, suddenly a foothold became evident; funny that. The thing you’ve done all season working again. The foothold further increased as Hewitt replaced the lost Liam Noble in central midfield.

In the final 20 minutes, both teams traded goal line clearances without ever looking as though the outcome would change. Enter stage left; the shit show. On 90 minutes, following  a complete breakdown in communication between Duffy and Grant, Mark Randall skipped away with the ball only for Virtue to stick out a leg and chop him down. Virtue didn’t even look at the ref, his head went down, the second yellow and red came out. It was frustrating at first because Crawley have got to travel 90 yards to have a goal scoring opportunity but, having found myself in a similar position it’s the only course of action you can take. You play the game you can see and with 90 on the board you break the game up. I’m also not having this bollocks that Nolan should’ve taken him off. You cannot always take off a player whose on a booking and he’d started to grow into the game. He was more effective than Noble and Husin. He’s a young boy, he’ll learn.

As if that wasn’t frustrating enough, the final act in last nights tragedy was about to play out. After a corner that never should have been, Fitzsimons came out and claimed the corner brilliantly. As he made his way to the edge of the area, a Crawley centre half brushed past him and Fitzsimons kicked him. Kicked him. Fucking kicked him! Watching it from the Kop I saw it and called it instantly. He’s fucking kicked him! As a melee ensued, Fitzsimons was sent off and a penalty was given. As the drama died down (Hewitt was booked for kicking the penalty spot to death) Branislav Pindroch had the chance to become an instant hero. Sadly, although going the right way, the ball found the back of the net. 

The encore of the night was Duffy being absolutely clumped with a leading forearm by a Crawley defender. It should’ve been another penalty, a clear penalty, but when your lucks down…

As the final whistle came the boos rang around Meadow Lane but the vast majority of them were aimed at the officials. Nonsense. As frustrating as they were last night we let ourselves down badly. Nolan’s shift away from 4-4-2 to accommodate Liam Noble isn’t working and it’s letting us down. We’re missing an engine room. A player who can get around the opposition, break up play and do the dirty work. For all the will in the world that isn’t Noor Husin. Lovely feet, not a battler. It’s astounding Hewitt isn’t in there. Having grown into the role superbly in the last couple of months, and losing Yates, consistency in the middle is key. He’ll do the dirty jobs. If not Hewitt, it’s time to build bridges and get Curtis Thompson in the team. He’s exclty what we need. Energy, legs, getting around people, making life hard and doing the simple things properly. As with the change to 4-5-1, is he too stubborn? Only time will tell.

We were let down by the players last night. After a bright first 15 everything was thrown by the wayside. Hoof. Hoof. Hoof. I don’t want ole football every five minutes but I want to see professional footballers pass to feet, offer an option and go again. What do they do in training? Noble’s had 3 months to become intergrated. To what end? He’s whacked two kids in with him. Odd.

Along with this, a lack of discipline cost us dearly. I can deal with Virtue’s red, but Fitzsimons really cost us. I’m glad Nolan didn’t defend him, he dealt with that perfectly on the radio last night for me. In three games time you’d assume Collin will be ready. He’s done well deputising, but I think he’s written his own script with that last night.

Look at Brisley and Hewitt too. Two needless bookings. Brisley spent the second half bollocking any official in ear shot and Hewitt’s line of team wins up merchant is boring. He looked a right twat when he walked into Lewis Young and flung himself to the ground after pushing him over minutes earlier. Go and play the game. Do the simple things again.

You know, we’ll probably best Swansea and play like a dream. See you Saturday boys and girls.

COYP x

Notts vs Exeter

After illness, and nearly 250 English reading papers, a first visit to Meadow Lane of 2018 was an exciting prospect especially after what can only be described as a phenomenal 2017. Starting the day in second was clear testament of the work done by Kevin Nolan, the staff and players.

Sadly, one player we’ll see no more of in 2018 is Ryan Yates and the replacements for the heartbeat of the first half of the season all got the chance to impress on their home debuts. To accommodate the new boys Nolan, very surprisingly, changed to a 4-5-1 formation with Noor Husin, Matty Virtue and Liam Noble all deployed centrally. With no Richard Duffy or Matt Tootle, Elliot Hewitt switched to centre half whilst Nicky Hunt came into the right back berth with a few murmurings that Tootle may also be joining Yates at Championship chasing Scunthorpe.

The early midfield shape saw Husin deployed in a deeper lying role with Noble and Virtue in front but before any of them could get going, Exeter took the lead through a Jake Taylor tap in. After an Exeter free kick, a definite Exeter free kick, was only half cleared, a smart volley cannoned off the post, shot across the six yard box and Taylor pounced from six yards. The Kop bayed for offside but a stationary defence clearly played Taylor onside; 1-0. Time for a reaction. An early reaction.

For a while after, Notts looked to get the ball down and used the midfield three to good effect. Husin looked tidy but needed to command the ball more consistently in his withdrawn position. He was afforded the space in front of Exeter to dictate the play but never really got going. Virtue and Noble worked hard in front but only sparingly knitted passages of possession together. When it happened, it looked slick but it happened far too often to cause Exeter any great worries. Notts’ pressure never told; Lewis Alessandra came close with a curled effort to the far post that was smartly handled by Christy Pym before Hewitt’s clever flick from a Dan Jones corner failed to find the target or a black and white shirt. Just under a minute later, Exeter dealt what would turn out to be the killer blow in the form of an excellently taken goal by Jayden Stockley.

Virtue had looked to play forward to Jorge Grant, but the ball never really helped Grant out, who in turn failed to protect it. After a good win, the ball fell to Taylor who fizzed an excellent pass across field to Stockley who was isolated one-on-one with Hewitt. Stockley controlled well, chopped back in onto his left foot and let fly from the centre of the ‘D’ on the edge of the area past the diving Ross Fitzsimons. Many around me and on social media bemoaned Hewitt and he certainly should’ve got tighter to Stockley on his second touch to come back inside, but the goal stemmed from losing possession in midfield. It’s also interesting to watch the goal back and see as soon as the ball is played by Taylor, there’s no-one within a country mile of Hewitt. It’s baffling to think you’d leave a striker so dangerous one-on-one. Whoever would’ve been there with Stockley, be it Hewitt, Brisley or Duffy they’d have been in the same boat. Take into consideration he’s hit it earlier than most anticipated, you’ve got a pretty damn good goal on your hands there.

After a pretty lackluster first half but a half time pie coined ‘Pie of the Season’ by myself, Notts came out with the intensity that has become a feature of the season. In a clear switch of tactic, Noble and Husin were deployed in more withdrawn roles with Virtue charged with plugging the gap between the midfield and the isolated Jon Stead. Notts made much better use of the ball and really brought Jones into the game as he careered on from left back to join in the attack. Whilst territory was gained, Notts failed to really stretch Pym in the Exeter goal; many a cross or pull back were snuffed out by the impressive Troy Archibald-Henville.

The afternoon then nearly swung both out and then back into Notts’ favour on the hour mark when firstly, Elliot Hewitt made a tremendous block from a Lee Holmes effort and Stockley smacked a curling effort off the crossbar. Following those scares, Alessandra had a golden chance when he met Jones’ deep cross on the volley but only managed to fluff an effort into the ground that cleared by Dean Moxey. It was a golden opportunity to get Notts right back into the game and Alessandra should’ve done much, much better.

On 71 minutes, Notts were given their life line when substitute Shola Ameobi was clearly pulled back by Archibald-Henville at a free kick and Notts were awarded a penalty. Stead stepped up and expertly swept the penalty home to set up a hopefully fascinating final 20 minutes. With the goal came a surge of energy from the Kop and Notts continued to camp out in the Exeter half. Jones became a real threat down the left and Grant started to see much more of the ball. It was no real surprise that the introduction of Ameobi and the re-introduction of the 4-4-2 saw Notts gain a real foothold in the contest. Virtue had a decent game, he looks good on the ball and isn’t scared to put a foot in, but he seemed caught between two roles on Saturday. Was he bolstering a midfield three or was he supporting Stead? He did the latter more effectively in the second half and it was a surprise to see him withdrawn on the hour. Not so much of a surprise to see Husin follow him off a few minutes later.

The big positive of the afternoon was that as time went on Liam Noble, on his homecoming, really impressed himself on the game. He looked lost in the first half but in a more withdrawn role in the second he picked some really good passes and got Notts ticking; he showed exactly what Husin should have been doing earlier on. Notts’ big chance in the final act of the afternoon was a rasping drive by the bewilderingly obscene choice of man of the match Nicky Hunt which flew past the upright. For all the huffing and puffing, Notts couldn’t blow the Exeter house down and a first home league defeat of the season was confirmed.

In what was a frustrating afternoon a sense of perspective prevailed for most, but a few questions quite rightly came to the forefront of people’s minds; why did we abandon the 4-4-2? With Yates going, shouldn’t Hewitt have maintained his midfield role to provide some consistency? Was three debutants a little too much twinned with a change in formation? We were already thin at the back, why let Haydn Hollis go with no real replacement in the building? It seemed odd to drag Elliot Hewitt from his midfield slot, especially in the absence of Ryan Yates. It’s clear that with Duffy injured Hewitt was the natural successor in that position but Hollis could quite easily have slotted in and kept the consistency in midfield with Hewitt, Virute and one other addition. You’d hope there’s an experienced centre half on the way, too much upheaval could have a real knock on effect. With the old footballing adage not far from the lips of many around the ground on Saturday, it’ll be good to get another game in the legs on Tuesday night; I wonder if we’ll see a return to the 4-4-2 that has served us so well so far this season. I for one hope so.

COYP x