So, here we are again. After a work induced absence since our last meeting on this platform, in the league it’s, wait for it… played eight, won zero, lost six, drawn two, conceded 24, scored 10, two directors gone, one technical director in, one new manager, one new assistant manager and six new players. Notts County FC, normal service resumed…
After two promising results in the league that have seen the stops put on two significant rots, losing and haemorrhaging goals, there was a quiet optimism around Meadow Lane (and it will continue to be called that regardless of what local business, shop or energy drink brand sticks their name before it for a range of pound notes…) that a first win of the season was on the horizon. With that in mind, Harry Kewell made one change to the side that grabbed the third point of the season away at Northampton which saw Elliot Hewitt preferred to Noor Husin in the heart of midfield.
As the afternoon whirred into life it was Rob Milsom, the most familiar to all of Kewell’s six signings, who got Notts started, finishing from close range after good work down the right hand side. Enzio Boldewijn picked up a loose ball on the half way line, drove forward at pace and slipped Kane Hemmings in down the side. Whilst Hemmings was momentarily held up by the wonderfully named Perry Ng, he shimmied away, whipped in a low cross that Jon Stead nudged into the onrushing Milsom’s path. He duly slammed the ball home. 1-0. Great start. Keep it tight. Kill them off.
Whilst Notts looked to press home their advantage, it was Crewe who grew into the game with some neat passages of play. Their midfield dominance paid off on 15 minutes as they shifted the ball out to Corey Whelan, roaming forward from right full back. His first time cross caused Jamie Turley to make no decision as he let the ball hit him and fall to Jordan Bowery who swept home from eight yards. It was a real gut punch for Notts who had looked bright in the opening stages. But, as has been the pattern this season, it was an individual mistake that had cost us a goal. It wasn’t a difficult ball to deal with. Even if it’s headed out for a corner, you’ve got time to regroup. Notts had a decent chance five minutes later but Hewitt fired over as Boldewijn laid him in.
After a promising opening, Notts lacked any sort of intensity for the remainder of the half as Crewe got on top. Ryan Wintle and Tom Lowery started to run things for Crewe as they displayed the sort of movement and ball retention I’m sure Harry Kewell cast an envious eye over at times. It could’ve been worse for Notts but Bowery’s effort was excellently stopped by Hewitt rushing out on the edge of the box and Lowery’s first time from a poor Ross Fitzsimon’s clearance sailed over the bar. Even though technically more difficult to execute, Lowery’s chance was probably better of the two, especially if he’d have taken a touch. As it was, going into the break it was 1-1 but Notts had plenty to do.
After a heartwarming half time penalty, Notts came out with a new shape and much more of an idea. A 4-5-1/4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid made an almost instant impact as Notts got to grips with the movement and positioning Crewe’s midfield three. Along with this came the intensity badly lacking for the last 25 minutes of the first half and Hemmings set the tone for all around him as he picked up the second ball from a Crewe corner, burst forward and drawing a foul 20 yards from their goal. Although it didn’t lead to a goal, it was one of those moments that can galvanise everyone, fans and players alike, and it seem to be just what Notts needed. Moments later Boldewijn and Stead fashioned an opening for Lewis Alessandra who took a split second too long to pull the trigger. The rebound fell to Hewitt who couldn’t divert his header toward goal.
It was evident that the shift in formation had given Notts the platform to control the game. Alessandra was deployed behind Stead whilst Hemmings and Boldewijn played wide to hold the width. This allowed Hewitt and Milsom to go man for man on the Crewe central two as Alessandra buzzed around James Jones, the deeper lying of the midfield three who’d dominated the first half so well. It was also good to see Milsom and in particular Hewitt given licence to get forward and support the front four. It paid off just after the hour as Boldewijn laid the ball off to Cedric Evina who whipped in a great ball to the back post. Hewitt beat his man and hammered his header past Ben Garratt for 2-1. It was a great move all round and nothing less than Hewitt deserved from a solid performance after a few games out of the side. It was obvious what that goal meant to everyone. All ten outfield players raced to Hewitt as the Kop went nuts. It was a huge goal. But it needed to be matched with a huge final 30 minutes.
For those final 30 minutes, both sides traded spells of possession but it was Notts who, on balance, looked the most likely to add to their tally for the afternoon. Crewe played nicely but lacked a real edge in the final third. In Jordan Bowery they have a lethal striker at this level, but getting the ball to him in dangerous positions seems to be their biggest downfall. The few times they managed to get the ball into the box Notts defended resolutely and Fitzsimon’s backed this up collecting low crosses when called upon. Fitzsimon’s was called into action for the final act of Saturday afternoon as he made a good save down to his left from a stinging, long range drive.
So, after ten games, the first win. A win that signaled the end of the third rot in as many games. After the rollercoaster start to the season, it feels like stability is finally settling in. What was good to see on Saturday is that Kewell is willing to change it up to get results. Not only changing the system at half time, but Saturday felt distinctly different to Stevenage a couple of weeks ago. I felt then that Notts were desperate to play this passing, patient, ‘attacking’ brand of football that Kewell is known for at all costs and it cost us two goals and a lack of a foothold on the game. On Saturday, we went pretty direct and played when we had the chance. That’s exactly what being effective in League Two is all about. It’s what Nolan built his success on and it’s what Kewell has realised we need to do in this moment. He needs points. He’s getting them too. He’s not sacrificed his philosophy, he’s playing the situation which is excellent to see.
Massive, massive credit should go to the players too, clearly. They executed Kewell’s changes brilliantly. Whilst individual mistakes and moments that made you hide behind your hands were still evident, there has been an improvement. The back five looks a better unit and in particular Ross Fitzsimon’s should take great confidence from the last couple of games. The midfield, second half in particular, looked a lot more balanced than previously. He gets plenty of hammer but Elliot Hewitt proved why he should be in alongside Rob Milsom for now. By no means is it perfect, but it looks a damn sight better than it did. Jon Stead battled manfully and was well supported by Alessandra, Boldewijn and Hemmings, who for me, was man of the match. For all of them, it’s a platform. There’s always room to improve, but they’re giving themselves the chance to do so.
Saturday marked the start of a massive week. Tuesday against Crawley has so much narrative around it the Football Ramble boys would be loving it and next Saturday, away at Macclesfield, now looks immensely winnable. There’s a real chance we could be an extra six points better off this time next week. Personally, I’d take four, but six isn’t a pipedream. This, if it transpires, could become a slight headache for Kewell. Does he stick with his pragmatic, adapted approach? Or with confidence high, does he try to implement what we’ve all been told he wants? Only time will tell. For now, there’s cause for even more quiet optimism.