Welcome to (another…) new era in the life of Notts County Football Club. Saturday marked Neil Ardley’s first game in the home dugout after consecutive away defeats against Sunderland in the Checkatrade and Mansfield last weekend. Whilst the Mansfield result did little to inspire the faithful, the first 35 minutes, up until CJ Hamilton’s first goal, did show that Notts looked like they had an idea of how to function properly. Moving forward from Mansfield, Radley made two changes with Keston Davies and Kane Hemmings coming in for Shaun Brisley and Will Patching. Those changes saw Elliot Hewitt slot in at right back and Davies play in front of the back four. Hemmings took up a position wide on the left and it was a delight to see him on the team sheet. Pre-injury, he had been one of Notts’ best players and his quality in possession and ability to carry the ball have been badly missed.
The first 10 minutes passed by with both sides feeling each other out. Notts sat in and looked to hit Tranmere on the break whenever possible. Their first chance came on 11 minutes when Hemmings, carrying the ball from deep, clipped a well weighted pass into Nathan Thomas. Thomas, darting in from the right, took the ball on his chest and fired a volley wide of the left hand upright. It was a good move from Notts and showed although they were happy to sit in, they’d try and take their chances when they came on by.
Both sides looked evenly matched up until Notts struck first blood on 35 minutes. Dan Jones picked out Hemmings in a good position. Hemmings drove at the retreating Tranmere backline and eventually popped it off to the marauding Jones. He flashed an excellent ball across the six yard box and Jon Stead was on hand to poke the ball into the gaping goal. Relief. On the balance of things, it was a deserved lead. What was vital now, was to hold onto that lead.
No fucking chance. Within five minutes Notts were pegged back. An excellent diagonal was pinged out to Jonny Smith who cut in and ran at Jones. Jones back-pedaled and allowed Smith to shoot. After a couple of bobbles, the ball squeezed into the far corner. Jones was hammered for allowing Smith to travel so far with the ball. His original positioning was fine, but as soon as he runs at him he has a choice to make. Show him inside expecting reinforcements or engage. Jones plumped for the former and lost. There were a couple of half-hearted attempts at blocking the shot, but nothing remotely strong enough. For me, Jones has to engage before he hits the penalty area. It’s been a real characteristic of Notts’ full backs this season, just letting people run at them as they retreat. Infuriating. This brought about a weird 5 minutes or so as people screeched their discontent at Jones’ positioning whenever Tranmere had the ball. Fuck knows what they expected. Jones’ positioning was fine. You don’t stand on the wingers toes as a full back when the ball’s out on the other side of the pitch. You move as a unit and then go out when you have to.
Instead of imploding, Notts stuck to it and reclaimed their lead just before half time as Stead pounced on a defensive lapse and swung the ball across the six yard box to an unmarked Hemmings to helped the ball on its way for 2-1. Again, it was just what Notts deserved. They’d soaked up decent pressure and looked to go forward when they could. Defensively, they still looked shakey, but better than in many, many a week previous.
After a freezing half time, in which the choice of a Pepsi over a Bovril was schoolboy to say the least, it took just under 15 minutes for Notts to be pegged back for a second time. Larnell Cole slid a nice ball into Oliver Norwood. He recycled the ball back to Smith who swung a decent cross into Connor Jennings who had been given the freedom of the penalty area and duly nodded in from seven yards. Again, infuriating. Turley had been pulled out by Norwood but of those watching the situation unfold, Hewitt, Vaughan, Ward and Fitzsimons, nobody took control. No talking. No responsibility. No nothing. We’ve conceded that goal too many times now. That will be one of Ardley’s biggest tasks, sorting us out when the ball comes in from wide positions.
From that point on, the game became stretched as both sides looked for the winner. Shouts for penalties were traded before Notts were given one in front of the Kop as Thomas cleverly came back in from the byline only to be cleared out by a silly sliding tackle. The referee took an age to give it, but give it he did. Up stepped Stead to sweep home an excellent penalty. Scenes in the Kop. Now, could we hold on for a third time?
No fucking cha… Oh, they did. They bloody did! With Tranmere sitting seventh before play started and boasting the leagues top scorer in Norwood, it was surprising how toothless Tranmere were as they searched for an equaliser. In fact, Notts looked the more likely to add to their tally, with Kristian Dennis going close from an improbably tight angle.
Tranmere’s feeble effort came to an end with the final whistle and their was relief all around Meadow Lane. Jon Stead personified that relief as he pumped his fits in the direction of the Kop. He’d spoken eloquently in the pre-match presser about the want and need of the squad to put things right and they’d made a start on that journey in a battling performance in awful conditions. Stead himself led the line manfully. I’ve always said at times that he’s lacked quality and that was evident in moments on Saturday too, but I’ve never questioned his commitment and desire for the cause. He’s exactly what we currently need. He is the tone setter. The bar raiser. The standard bearer for everyone else. You can just tell he’ll drag most of them along with him and if they can’t do it, he’ll let them know. Bravo Steady.
Another mention, for somewhat an unsung hero of Saturday, should go to Keston Davies. The last time we saw him in a Notts shirt he was pulled to pieces by Hallam Hope of Carlisle and looked like he couldn’t cope. On Saturday, deployed as a sitting midfielder he grew into the role tremendously. As a centre half, it’s so difficult going into midfield. At centre half, the cast percentage of the game is played in front of you, you can see it developing. In midfield, it comes from everywhere. Whilst he wasn’t flawless, he put his body on the line, won headers and swept up well. Yes there were times he hesitated for second balls but he was willing. He worked hard and he stuck at it.
Overall, Saturday was just the performance the players and the fans needed. The conditions were woeful but they dug in, ground it out and were rightly victorious. Ardley knows we aren’t going to be the finished article yet, not by a stretch, but that on Saturday was a great reaction after Mansfield. In context, with Macclesfield winning and Cambridge and Yeovil drawing, it was important for varied reasons, but to get a few fans back behind the players it was priceless. Wins like that mean that little bit more.