After a summer where 23 footballers, a man in a waistcoat and most people’s favourite football song united a nation, it was time for the bread and butter; the Football League. The 46 game slog. The cliché fest where we take it one game at a time, respect the point and don’t mention the ‘P’ or ‘R’ word just yet. As joyous as England’s World Cup campaign was, with it’s love train, inflatable unicorns and ‘Slabhead’ rising at the back post, it’s the first day back really excites football fans. Even at the ripe old age of 28, travelling to the ground, hearing the beep of the new Season Ticket and seeing the carpet of green that adorns my second home was quite wonderful. Christmas morning.
After weeks of speculation, previews and educated (some uneducated…) guesses, 2pm on Saturday gave us the first glimpse of what Notts County would look post-Coventry. Post-disappointment. Post-‘what-could-have-been’. What transpired in Kevin Nolan’s first selection of the new season wasn’t overly surprising. New signings Enzio Boldewijn, David Vaughan, Nathan Thomas and Kane Hemmings all made home debuts whilst Kristian Dennis, the other marquee summer signing, had to make do with a place in the bench due to a lack of a proper pre-season; his place was filled by Jon Stead. Sigh. The other talking point pre-season was who would be dropped for Ben Hall in the heart of the defence? Richard Duffy or Shaun Brisley? What came to pass, was neither were dropped. Nolan, again unsurprisingly, stuck with the back four that played the majority of last season together with Ross Fitzsimons taking his place between the sticks.
So. Solid back four. Two wingers. David Vaughan. A bit more movement up front. Hello…
And hello it nearly was as Notts started brightly and new boy Boldewijn knocked life into proceedings. He picked up a second ball from a booming Fitzsimons clearance, took a couple of touches and curled an effort from 25 yards. It was bottom corner bound but Dillon Barnes got down well to his right. An early sighter. Promising. However, after that initial chance, the first 30 minutes slid by with both teams looking solid yet unspectacular. Notts tried to do the right things but lacked the movement in front of Vaughan and Elliot Hewitt to really hurt Colchester. When loanee Thomas did drift inside there was a little more of a threat but in turn that left Dan Jones exposed and Colchester made decent ground down that side. Man mountain Franck Nouble flashed a header harmlessly wide but it seemed Notts hadn’t quite got to grips with the 3-5-2/3-4-3 hybrid Colchester had deployed.
As the half drifted into nothingness, Boldewijn and Thomas switched flanks which seemed odd as the former looked to have the legs on the right wing back. What it did ensure was that Jones had a bit more cover and this gave him the confidence to step out with the ball, rather than play long. He made good ground but lacked quality with his final ball. It was Boldewijn, cutting in from the left, who had Notts’ next best chance as he wriggled away from his marker and slapped an effort wide of the angle of bar and post. Whilst it never trouble Barnes in the away goal, it was another clear indication of the impact Boldewijn could and should have on the rest of the season.
The half time whistle came with Notts lucky to have 11 men on the field. Ex-Notts loanee Aaron Collins slipped away from Duffy and whilst the official Twitter feed called it a trip it looked more like a stamp on the calf of Collins. There was an audible groan from the home fans but it was only to be a yellow. 0-0. Solid. Unspectacular.
Notts were badly lacking movement by this point. Especially given the fact that they couldn’t get Boldewijn into the game as much as they needed too. Hemmings and Stead didn’t look at the races. I found it odd that Stead dropped off and Hemmings looked to stretch the back four given the fact that Hemmings will be joining the play together when Dennis is fit. Stead has neither the legs nor intelligence to play that role and his selection was a safe option. If Nolan doesn’t want to rush Dennis, which is completely understandable, then I feel he should still be looking to play in his preferred style, rather than shoehorning Stead in. I’d have started Lewis Alessandra or even young Remaye Campbell. Both would’ve allowed Hemmings to play in his more natural position. Even with Alessandra not being an out-and-out striker, you’ve got the option of him and Hemmings rotating between both positions and keeping Colchester guessing.
Again, unsurprisingly, Nolan didn’t change it at half time and Notts got right on the front foot from the off as Hemmings and Thomas pressured the Colchester back three into a mistake. The latter broke at pace but could only force a corner. On 55 minutes Hemmings got his feet moving well in the Colchester box, danced away from a couple of tackles but saw his shot blocked and spray off for a corner. Fitzsimons, largely unemployed to this point, had to be strong in the air as he tipped an Aaron Collins cross out for a corner. It was a strong paw from Fitzsimons and something he certainly needs to continue to do on a more regular basis.
On 67 minutes, the real moment of quality came. Duffy strode out from the back, looked up and spotted Thomas dart in from the left. The clipped ball was cushioned with the chest and then flicked goal ward with the outside of his left foot. It looked for a split second that it would beat Barnes but he comfortably tipped it over. It was a filthy bit of play by Thomas and probably would’ve wrapped up ‘Goal of the Season’ there and then.
The game could’ve been decided either way ten minutes later as both sides traded chances clear chances. Firstly, Tom Eastman waltzed through the lines, picked up a neat through ball and curled an effort past the on looking Fitzsimons. All around held their breath as the ball cannoned off the crossbar and bounced to safety. Seconds later, Boldewijn flew down the right hand side and whipped in a glorious cross. Dennis, now on as a second half substitute, ghosted between the Colchester centre halves and made contact five yards out. Instead of just hanging his foot out, he tried to do to much, put too much on it and ballooned the chance over the bar. That was it. That’s got to go in. Nothing about match fitness. That’s a goal. Bastard. Chance gone.
The final 10/15 minutes saw Notts huff and puff but no house was blown down. They looked to create but failed to get Boldewijn into the game. Matt Tootle, solid defensively, looked nervous when he came forward. He dithered in possession and too often played sideways. Hewitt and Vaughan worked hard but were careless in possession, Hewitt in particular. Vaughan had a good game but is 15/20 yards to deep. Hewitt needs to be picking the ball up off Dufy and Brisley and feeding Vaughan. From there his quality will shine. It’s so much easier to slip a 10/15 yard ball into a runner rather than a 30/35 yard ball. Added to the fact he’s always on the move after passing too, if he can click with Hemmings dropping short and Boldewijn, Thomas and Dennis can keep on the move then we’ll be in business.
The final whistle was greeted with a sort of nothingness from the faithful; a few clapped, a couple shared their frustrations and most just got up and toddled off. It summed up what was a frustrating afternoon. Let’s get this right, if you expected Notts to be firing on all cylinders on Saturday then you’re mad but if you expected a little bit more than what as eventually offered up, then you’ve probably hit the nail on the head. By no means did I think we’d be seeing 20 one touch pass moves that pulled Colchester apart but I expected a little more in the way of a pattern of play to get the wingers into the game with some regularity and to utilise Vaughan more efficiently.
What was pleasing was that Notts restricted Colchester to very few clear chances, Duffy and Brisley did the defensive basics very well. Head. Kick. Lovely. Something to note however was the poor distribution of Ross Fitzsimons. Too often balls went out of play or were knocked into the general vicinity of Stead and Hemmings. Add to this a moment of madness where one clearance was chased down by the onrushing striker and nearly led to a goal, then you’ve got an obvious area to continue to work on. Fitzsimons, like the side, is absolutely a work in progress, but I fear that his stock has been held at such lofty heights due to some of the nonsensical shit that surrounded Adam Collin last season, that this may come to bite him (through absolutely no fault of his own) and some fans on the arse.
Overall, I’d file Saturday in the below par draw. We lacked the forward movement, both on and off the ball, to worry Colchester. Hewitt and Vaughan need a switch of position when we’re in possession and we most certainly need to utilise Enzio Boldewijn a hell of a lot more than we did on Saturday. On the positive side we looked strong defensively, especially at centre half, Boldewijn looks a genuine threat even though he was semi-starved of the ball and we don’t have a fucking boiler for a mascot…