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…