After the week that had everything (as well as a little bit too much) in it, it was finally time to get down to the real quiz; the fight for survival. Before Daniel Taylor’s ode to the mighty Nottingham Forest hit the screens of many a Notts fan, now two Saturday’s ago, the outlook was bleak. Eight points adrift. A squad bereft of the fight necessary to stay up. Relegation looming large. However, after a Transfer Deadline Day topped off with the Michael Doyle shaped Cherry, the optimism had returned. Could it be done?
The start of the answer to that question came at home to Lincoln. Over 4,000 away fans. Clear favourites to win the league. Balls.
Neal Ardley, fresh from a tremendous Transfer Window, had no less than seven recent signings in the starting XI; Ryan Schofield, Mitch Rose, Ben Barclay, Sam Stubbs, Michael Doyle, Jim O’Brien and Craig Mackail-Smith. They were joined by Rob Milsom at (oddly) left back, as well as Lewis Alessandra, Enzio Boldewijn and Jon Stead. The final three finding more obvious roles in being deployed on each flank and up front respectively. That selection left striker Virgil Gomis on the bench alongside Ross Fitzsimons, Matt Tottle, Pierce Bird, Elliot Hewitt, David Vaughan and Kane Hemmings. Options. Lovely.
With a lively atmosphere building, Notts raced into life as they got their foot on the ball and looked to be brave. O’Brien swapped passes with Mackail-Smith 30 yards out, O’Brien then found Rose who swung a poor looking cross into the first man. Stead nipped across Harry Toffolo, nicked the ball and went to ground as the defenders follow through seemed to catch him. Penalty. 35 seconds in. Wow. Here we go. On first viewing it seemed nailed on. With further reflection, I’m not so sure. Stead spotted the ball. The faithful could have been forgiven for being nervous after Stead’s last penalty sailed into the Kop. But, like a man who’d never missed one, he strode forward and slammed the ball into the GK’s bottom right hand corner. Delirium. Brave Steady, brave boy! Bravo!
From then on in, many thought Lincoln might lay siege to the Notts goal but to a man those in the famous black and white stripes held strong, worked hard and showed some real quality going forward. Enzio carved a shooting chance out for himself after some neat passing on five minutes but it was straight down the GK’s throat. Promising. 15 minutes later, Enzio nearly put Bruno Andrade into the away end with a ‘tackle’ he could never pull out of due to the pace he was moving at but it signaled the intensity Notts were at for the majority of the first half. They were superb. They thundered into tackles, closed spaces brilliantly and made Lincoln look ordinary. John Akinde was an obvious out ball but Barclay and Stubbs marshaled him superbly, looking to meet the ball first when they could and sit just about in his shorts when they couldn’t. Tremendous.
With such a team performance unfolding, it was O’Brien and Doyle who were running the show. They were both magnificent. They covered ground, won tackles and passed forward and to feet when they had the ball. They were brave. They set the standard. O’Brien is undoubted quality, but my word Michael Doyle is some player. One of the best moments of the game was actually during a break in play. Whilst a Lincoln defender lay prone, Doyle, O’Brien, Mackail-Smith and Mitch Rose went around every other outfield player to have a word. Talkers. Leaders. It may sound simple, but it was phenomenal to see.
In the 10 minutes before half time, Lincoln looked a little more like the side top of the table. Jason Shackell had a tame header saved before Andrade levelled things up on the stroke of half time. He cut in from the left, was afforded too much time and space by Enzio and O’Brien before slapping one past Schofield. I think Schofield will be disappointed not to keep it out, but it was a decent strike.
Two weeks ago, the second half would have been met with sheer dread by most Notts fans, but not Saturday. Saturday felt different. Lincoln grew into the game but Stead had the first chance. His looping header evaded Grant Smith in the Lincoln goal but it bounced on and over the bar.
Both sides traded chances as the game went on. Lincoln broke on Notts, but the break down in communication wasn’t punished as the move fizzled out with Harry Anderson sticking his shot straight into the Kop. Enzio stung the palms of Smith but it looked like honours would remain even. Then, two Notts chances in five minutes. Firstly, a lovely move down the left involving Rob Milsom and Kane Hemmings saw the latter slide the ball to Gomis seven yards out. Gomis was slightly off balance and his touch ran away from him. Oh, for a better first touch. Moments later, Enzio picked the ball up in his own half and strode forward at pace. He skipped over the ‘tackle’ of “one greedy bastard…” (The Kop’s opinion, not mine) Michael O’Connor, fed Stead on the right and carried on his run. Stead found Enzio with the return ball, but it was a fraction behind him and he could only shovel an effort onto the post. Agonising. A fraction further forward and it’s an easy sweep home.
Two minutes later, Notts’ world came crumbling down around them. Akinde brought Andrade into play down the Lincoln left and as he burst into the box, he nudged an inch in front of Sam Stubbs. Legs collided. Bodies tumbled. The finger pointed. Penalty. Stubbs lay agonised on the turf. Heads went into hands. Nightmare. Akinde spotted the ball and trotted up to it. He looked at Schofield hoping he’d dive early but he didn’t. Akinde stroked his penalty harmlessly past the corner Stead had hit with such power earlier in the day. Relief. Scenes. Limbs.
There was one final moment of debate as a neat Notts move saw Mitch Rose get into a shooting opportunity six yards out but the next thing we knew he was on his arse. “PENALTY” resounded around Meadow Lane, Ardley went ballistic but nothing was doing.
The final whistle came and the faithful rose to their feet. To a man, everyone who turned out in black and white on Saturday was phenomenal. Ardley has spoken at length about getting the right characters in and he has delivered that in buckets. He’s also spoken about taking the shackles off and allowing the players to play. They did that Saturday too and it wasn’t just the responsibility of the forward players. Ben Barclay and Sam Stubbs battled manfully against John Akinde, but when they had the chance, they brought the ball down, had a look and hit feet. Bravery. Rob Milsom, underwhelming since his return, had an excellent game at full back. Never out of position, never ghosted past, never shirked a tackle and got forward to support. Fantastic.
Jim O’Brien and Michael Doyle have taken most of the plaudits since the final whistle and that’s fully deserved. Not only are they experienced and ready for a fight, but those boys can play too. They both pick a sweet pass. We’ve gone from having no midfield to that. Wow.
Up front too there was pace, movement and ability. Having Enzio back is a real plus. Even after three months out he caused Lincoln all sorts of issues. On his day, he’s one of the best attacking players in the league. He needs 16 more of his days. They all do. If they do that 16 more times, they’ll win more than they lose and they might just do it. We all hoped they can. They shows us they can. They’ve got 16 games to prove it.