“We’re all Notts aren’t we?”

Well this feels much harder to sit down and do than I thought it would and even with a weekend between now and the event it feels terribly disappointing sitting here to reflect on what most certainly could have been for Notts on Friday night.

Everything that happened prior to kick off set the tone superbly. A fine day of sunshine was complemented with a full ground, an impressive display of black and white t-shirts adorning the Kop and a buzzing atmosphere. The Coventry fans played their part in that too. Much like Notts’ away contingent a week earlier, Coventry were fantastic. Plenty of noise and a sea of sky blue from the away end. The big bonus for Notts was the inclusion of Jon Forte. After hobbling off in the first leg, he looked a big doubt. But there he was. Leading the line. Matty Virtue dropped to the bench and was replaced by Lewis Alessandra in the only change. With the Sky cameras rolling, everything was set to go…

Apart from Notts. What a complete shit show of a first half. The biggest game of the season and the biggest game some of those lads have ever played in and they turned that out. Come half time the mixture of disappointment, frustration and sheer anger was a strong mix. From minute one, Coventry were right at it. They looked fit. They looked sharp. They looked quick. They looked like they were right up for it; they knew what was at stake. They got the ball down and carved Notts up at will. After six minutes the early pressure told. Brisley got a decent header in at the back post to put the ball up rather than out. A Coventry head won the second ball and Max Biamou turned in a superb overhead kick. That was the tone. Notts less than convincing, Coventry winning every ball going. The finish is excellent, but no-ones close enough to him. Get tight, make it hard and don’t turn your back.

On 22 minutes, after another spell of Coventry dominance, it should’ve been two but Tootle did well to deny Shipley from 12 yards. Chaos reigned. Notts couldn’t get near anyone in sky blue. On 29 the impressive, but given way too much freedom, Marc McNulty was denied by a strong Adam Collin save. It could’ve been three within 30 minutes and game over. On 38 it was 2-0 when that man McNulty, given the freedom of the penalty area, stroked home unmarked from eight yards out. Another quick break and a couple of decent passes later and Notts were all over the place. A good pull back and easy finish. 3-1 on aggregate and Notts sinking without trace.

Just before half time Notts got a goal they didn’t deserve but badly needed as Jorge Grant lashed in after a couple of flick ons from a Elliot Hewitt long throw. After getting better it nearly got worse as Brisley got unnecessarily involved with McNulty in the corner. The prevailing opinion was that Brisley came out of the scuffle a very, very lucky boy after overreacting and pushing his head into the general vicinity of McNulty’s. Silly all round.

The half time whistle came. Time to regroup. I know that dressing room looks nice but I bet Nolan went to town on it. It was a completely abject performance from Notts. They looked scared to get near Coventry. Liam Noble and Hewitt never effected the game; they were passengers. Alessandra and Grant never got chance to get involved because the ball was aimlessly hammered up to Forte and Stead who battled but were always up against it. We looked raggedy at the back; no-one knew who should pick McNulty up and no-one took any responsibility for doing it. We just never showed up. All the talk before the game was how the fans needed to back the team, sell the ground out and put your t-shirt on in the Kop. We were doing our bit and more. It was time do fucking do your bit lads. They needed to be brave. Get a foot on it, look for feet. Look forward. 45 minutes to show us something lads.

Although most of them could have been replaced at half time, only Liam Noble was. Michael O’Connor came on in his place and from that point everything changed. Within two minutes O’Connor had done more than Noble’s done all season. He put two massive tackles in, sprayed a couple of balls to either full back and got every single Notts fans going. Bravery. Maybe he thought he had nothing to lose; no-ones really expected anything from him after his injury and they were that shit in the first half he couldn’t do any worse. Whatever it was, it paid off. The final act in his first two minutes was to go to ground and stop a Coventry break away and set Notts off the other way. Superb. Bravery. Quality.

For the first 30 minutes of the second half Notts were a different side. Grant made himself a good chance from the edge of the area but only stung the palms of Burge in the Coventry goal. Notts went between playing to feet and going long; Coventry were on the ropes. On 65 minutes, Brisley flicked on to Stead who took the ball down well, took a couple of touches to get into the Coventry area, aimed, fired… Corner. What a save. Burge looked like he was going the other way but flicked his right arm out to push it wide. If Stead hits the corner, which  he should really have done, its 2-2 on the night, 3-3 in the tie and its chaos around Meadow Lane. From the resulting corner, it should have been 2-2. Hewitt recycled the clearance, stead flicked on and Forte looped his header over the keeper. GOAL! The comeback! No. Offside… Three texts in 30 seconds with the same message; Onside. It looked tight and there was no question; Forte was onside. Another shitty decision to add to the ‘penalty’ in the first leg.

Notts continued to pile on the pressure and as they chased the equaliser, they left the back door open. A long ball found Biamou over Jones’ shoulder, a neat one two with McNulty saw Biamou collect the ball on the edge of the box, chop back in on his left and sweep into the bottom corner. From the Kop, that felt like that to me. 4-2 with twenty to go. Massively uphill. Notts kept asking the question but Coventry stood up well. Burge made a bit of a meal of an Ameobi header before Tom Bayliss wrapped it up on 86 when his shot deflected past Collin. Notts kept going until the end but even for the team that never gives up, three in 10 was a step too far.

Finally, that was that. Deflated, the Notts players made their way around the ground to rapturous applause as Coventry celebrated in front of their faithful. Pompey last season, Coventry this… Horrible.

To get it out of the way, let’s address the officiating. Clearly, we were on the end of two poor decisions over both legs. The penalty at the Ricoh has never been a penalty and the disallowed goal on Friday is clearly onside. Rightfully, many feel aggrieved by both decisions. They’re incorrect and it is sickening. Going into Friday 1-0 up makes a difference. Even starting level, getting to 2-2 with Forte’s header, with the momentum we had at that moment, I think we go on to win it. Coventry were on the ropes and the tide was very much with Notts. Don’t get me wrong, they’re devastating decisions at absolutely key times in the game but after a few days of reflection, if you ask yourself did we do enough over two legs? No. I really don’t think we did.

Away at Coventry, for 30/35 minutes of the first half we were nowhere. Coventry ran all over us. Eventually, we got a foothold. We got our precious goal and had 10 minutes… Then we sat in. I know we’re away and the home side will come at you and we defended superbly, but we had chances to break and get a second. We never took them. We misplaced the final pass, made the wrong run or weren’t clinical enough. Did we deal with the phase before Tootle makes his tackle on Bayliss? No. We have to look at ourselves first and foremost in the aftermath.

Then we come to Friday. At half time, I was furious. How on earth, in the biggest game of the season, can they produce that? Yes, Coventry were up for it, but Notts were a million miles off the pace. It could’ve been 5-0 at half time. We were that poor. I probably put that down as our worst 45 minutes of the season. Again, they came out and played. They showed a bit. But overall, we tried to force the issue for about 45/50 minutes out of 180. Is that enough to take you to Wembley? I can’t say it is.

My overriding thought about both Friday and the season as a whole is one nagging question… What could have been? I’m tremendously, tremendously proud of what we’ve done this season but I’ve said it before and I stand by it… There’s a tinge of disappointment. We were seven points clear. We lost to 92nd, 91st and 90th in the final stretches in the season. We didn’t do enough in January in the recruitment department to keep our momentum going. The reason we don’t get our day at Wembley is not down to referees. It is down to us. The play offs were a step too far after what has been a great season to be involved in. I’ve not subscribed to the “look at where we were last season…” for a while and refuse to change my tune now. I’m an ambitious boy, we should have been promoted.

When all is said and done, watching Notts will never be a chore; that rhetoric gets on my wick too. We’ll all be there in August. Nolan’s got an interesting summer ahead. I don’t think we need wholesale changes, but we need to really focus in on what we’ve lacked for years; pace. There are some big decisions for him to make. We’ve got the nucleus of a good side; evolution rather than revolution. Mr Hardy has already said promotion this season would have been ahead of schedule so next season is the season. All roads lead to League One…





Coventry vs Notts

Wow. What a night. When football is like that there is nothing that really gets close to it. Every emotion you feel throughout a season you felt in 90 minutes at the Ricoh. Pride, passion, tension, delight, disappointment and anger. Plenty more on that particular emotion later…

At 28, my life of supporting Notts has consisted of plenty of ups, plenty of downs and lots of absolute shit. I went to the Bradford play off final as a young boy, only to be told years later I slept all the way through the game; first whistle to last. From what I know of that afternoon it seems as though I had the best idea. This time around I was excited and most importantly awake, to see what turned out to be a pulsating game. Kevin Nolan made the changes most thought would be made, Richard Duffy and Liam Noble came in for Ben Hall and Michael O’Connor whilst Shola Ameobi had to make do with a place on the bench.

With both followings in fine voice, one factor most had not considered too much in the build up looked to be having the biggest impact on proceedings; the rain. A torrential downpour, starting at about 5 o’clock, had hammered the Ricoh pitch and the Notts end in particular was struggling. The ball was holding up and Notts looked indecisive to go with it. Coventry settled well and ran at Notts at will early doors. On 9 minutes, a raggedy back four was opened up and Jordan Shipley raced through only to fire his shot off the post. Shaun Brisley did well to block the rebound but it was nervy stuff early on.

After the initial wobble, Notts regrouped and found decent territory with the long ball. On 17, Jon Forte stole a march on his marker and flashed a Jorge Grant header over the bar. It was a sharp chance, but a good one. He saw it all the way and could’ve done better. 10 minutes later, after allowing Coventry to have the ball in front of two solid and much more composed banks of four, Forte had another good chance that was this time well cleared after he diverted Dan Jones’ free kick goal wards. Coventry had the best chance to go into the break 1-0 up as Marc McNulty sent racing into the box only to see his pull back hit the retreating Brisley and squirm to Adam Collins front post. Collin got down smartly as Maxime Biamou slid in to try and take the ball into the back of the net. All in blue went up but Gavin Ward’s watch didn’t want to know. Play on…

Both sides traded half chances before the half time whistle went. After a dodgy opening 15 minutes or so, Notts regained their composure well to find a foothold in the game. The pitch and the conditions played their part but Notts dug in well and just about kept Coventry at bay. It was clear to all that Notts needed to show more bravery on the ball, especially in midfield when the chance came. All too often the ball was being dumped into the corners or simply hoofed forward. Jon Stead battled admirably and Forte chased willingly but Grant had shown glimpses of quality when the ball was on the deck. He dished out a couple of nutmegs and tried to link with Stead, finding himself in decent areas more than once. We’d stood up defensively, it was now time for the rest of the side to show the same bravery.

Coventry had a good early chance from a corner, Jack Grimmer heading over from 5 yards out and minutes later, Grimmer was in the heart of the action, this time for the wrong reasons. Notts played out nicely, Matt Tootle fed Matty Virtue, Virtue played square to Hewitt who flicked a ball out to the marauding Dan Jones. The ball held up ever so slightly on the surface and Grimmer tried to take a touch instead of getting rid. This gave Jones the chance to slide in and win the ball with a tremendous tackle. Two touches later he whipped the ball into the front post where Forte had ghosted in. As the ball came to him, Forte flicked in with the inside of his left foot as the ball whistled past his standing foot. WHAT A FINISH! Pandemonium. There were unbelievable scenes in the away end. Unbridled joy. You Pies! The thing that made it better was the finish. It was audacious but perfectly executed.

From then on in, Coventry laid siege to the Notts 18 yard line. Notts continued to sit off but stay compact and Duffy and Brisley in particular were phenomenal. They headed everything that came their way and didn’t give an inch. More importantly, Liam Noble and Elliot Hewitt started to impose themselves. Instead of dumping it long, they took a touch, looked up and found feet. Lewis Alessandra was introduced on the hour and brought a real sense of calm to proceedings. He offered feet. Passed when he had to and carried when he had to. He took a lot of pressure off and seemed to instill confidence in the rest of the side.

For all of Coventry’s possession and pressure they never tested Collin. Notts had them at arms length and still looked a danger on the break with Alessandra, Grant and Forte working hard both ways. But then, controversy. Dominic Hyam hit a hopeful ball into the 18 yard box and Collin rushed out to punch and only half cleared. The ball fell to Tom Bayliss whose heavy touch took him to the byline. Tootle came across and nicked the ball away for a corner. The Coventry fans went up for a hopeful penalty shout and Gavin Ward fucking gave it. WHAT?! I was 100 odd yards away, saw the ball go one way, due to Tootle winning it cleanly and that was that. Corner. Not for Gavin Ward. Joker. I originally thought he’d given a goal kick. But no. Penalty. Scandalous. Within seconds I’d had three message, all from those watching on Sky, along the same lines as my initial thought; no penalty. After a couple of minutes of nonsense, Marc McNulty stepped up and slapped an excellent penalty into the bottom corner. 1-1.

There was one final scare for Notts but a late, late chance was skewed wide of the upright and that was that. Full time at the Ricoh and half time in the tie.

As the Notts players and staff headed over to the away end, they took in a fully deserved and rapturous standing ovation. The game plan was obvious from about 10 minutes in. Do not lose. Do not lose and try and nick a goal. Up until 87 minutes we’d done it perfectly. By no means were we fantastic all across the pitch. For decent periods we sat off Coventry too much, didn’t get close enough to Doyle and Kelly and allowed them to build pressure but fair play we defended superbly. Getting to half time at 0-0 seemed to reassure them. They showed a bit more bravery and control on the ball. It wasn’t a no look dump into the corner and chase that Jonny Forte. It was considered. It was brave. It was counter attack rather than all out defend.

They would have executed the plan perfectly had Ward not intervened. I was furious then and I’m still furious now about it. How you can give that, from the position he was in is absolutely baffling. It’s a nonsense. But, again, we’ve put ourselves in that position. I’ve defended him recently, but Adam Collin has to either clear with that punch or collect it. Neither. It was a soft punch that put us back under pressure. If you’re coming you have to be decisive and strong. That punch lacked all of that. All round it was a sickening way to end proceedings.

On reflection I’m immensely proud of them all, but I was low leaving the ground. Absolutely fucking robbed.

Same again Friday boys. Stand up strong. Pass to feet. Take your chances. Wembley.