On the day that Yaya Toure joined Leyton Orient’s pre-season training prior to heading back out to join up with his Chinese Second Division side Qingdao Huanghai, Notts find themselves just over 24 hours away from a behind closed doors play-off semi final vs Barnet. For a moment, let’s cycle back…
A year yesterday we lined up in a pre-season friendly against Ipswich Town; Fitzsimons, Ox, Bird, McCrory, DKE, Ried, Rose, Kellett, Doyle, Rose, Enzio and Tyson. Three days later a youthful Notts lost 1-0 away at Alfreton. The better news that day was that finally, finally, the take over of the club had been completed. Four days later, July 30th, the transfer embargo was gone but the season was just around the corner. Prior to Eastleigh away, August 3rd, we’d signed Ben Turner, Zoumana Bakayogo, Sam Slocombe, Damien McCrory, Dion Kelly-Evans, Nathan Tyson and Jim O’Brien. By the end of August they were joined by Connell Rawlison, Sam Graham, Regan Booty, Wes Thomas and Kyle Wootton. By September 5th, Richard Brindley and Sean Shields were also in town and that was just about that. Eastleigh would not only start our league season, but also be our last game of it. Saturday March 14th: 4-0. 4,942 (the largest crowd in Europe that day…) saw Notts absolutely bop a pretty woeful opposition which helped us climb to third in the table.
Then, as we all know too well, that was that. With all things Covid-19 flooding the national consciousness and permeating every inch of our lives, everything else, all the noise and bluster, seemed so pointless for so long, football included. We have all faced difficulties, some of those far bigger than others can ever even comprehend. If you have struggled, you won’t have been the only one and you are not alone. If you have lost loved ones, I pray you cherish the memories you have of them. The last four months have been woeful. But there is light. At times it may feel feint, but it’s there…
For many, football has always been that light. During the lockdown, Notts County have been a beacon for many. The way things have been handled, from the outside looking in, has been exemplary. The sheer amount of phone calls from the players and management to vulnerable fans is simply heartwarming to hear of. And these have not been quick, throw away phone calls. People have listened, engaged and cared. In times of such hardship, the fans have been phenomenal too. Over £2,500 (and rising…) has been raised for AgeUK. In such times, the kindness of people can be so affirming. Last May, May 4th, the day we were relegated, I wrote about The Collective Soul. The Collective Soul that sang through Swindon’s third and the final whistle. The Collective Soul that hurt so badly but loved so much. A year and a bit later, it’s still here: The Collective Soul.
After all that’s been there is now a chance to put last season to bed. To return at the first time of asking. Yes, there will always be an asterisk next to it if we manage to do it but this is the hand we’ve been dealt. In some ways, we’ll never have an easier chance: just two games instead of the extra seven league games that were scratched from calendars. In others, this may be the hardest way to go up: two games, both with no fans after four months off with most of the squad have about 60 minutes of ‘competitive’ game time inside them. Who knows? Barnet will be the opponents but frankly, it makes no difference. Unlike the Premier League, the vast majority of the National League is much of a muchness. Barnet’s extra game probably won’t make too much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. I can see Saturday being a game of fine margins. Whoever is fitter and keeps the ball better will win out. Form is irrelevant. All stats that have been have been and gone.
It must be nice for Neal Ardley to have the vast majority of his squad to choose from. The biggest headache will have been both McCrory and Booty missing out. McCrory will surely have started at full back and Booty would’ve been good quality off the bench and cover for McCrory. I do not see Ardley going too far away from 4-4-2. It’s tried and it’s trusted and the players know it well. I don’t see a lot of boat rocking tactically, especially after four months off. His biggest decisions will be on a personnel level:
In goal, it’s Slocombe or Joe McDonnell. I can see Ardley going for Slocombe. He oozes calm and that’ll be vital.
Full back positions is an interesting one. At right back, you’ve two excellent choices, DKE and Brindley, both more than capable. At left back, its Zoum or Joel Bagan, back on loan from Cardiff. I think Ardley will go with experience in both positions; Brindley and Zoum. I also think Zoum’s sheer athleticism and pace could be a huge bonus on Saturday as another attacking outlet.
Centre half, it’s realistically two from three; Alex Lacey, Rawlinson and Turner. Again, I see Ardley sticking with tried and tested; Lacey and Rawlinson. They compliment each other nicely and it’s imperative Alex Lacey is fit and plays. He allows those in central midfield to play 10 yards higher as he’s so comfortable on the ball.
Arguably the biggest choice Ardley has to make, if he sticks with 4-4-2, is who his two in the middle will be. Well, who will partner Michael Doyle is actually the question. The skipper plays. Simple as. Who else would you pick to set the tone in an empty ground? Again, realistically, it’s one from two; Mitch Rose or JOB. Tough one. I think if we’d have had a traditional run in, Ardley would probably have rotated the two to play alongside Doyle anyway. I think he’ll go for Rose, with JOB primed to be first sub on. JOB on the bench gives us a lot of room for manoeuvre tactically should there be a need for it. Rose gets plenty of stick, but he’s a warrior. He’ll give it everything. Again, his athleticism could see him run all over Barnet and he’ll join in well with the front two as well. He makes clever runs forward and has quality.
As well as Doyle and Wootton up front, the other two simple picks are out wide. Enzio and Cal Roberts. Enzio on the left, Roberts on the right. The message should be clear: get the ball to those two as much as possible. As much as possible.
Up front, like Doyle, Wootton plays. His partner will be interesting. In a slight change from the tried and tested above, not that Dennis and Wootton isn’t tried and tested, I think he’ll go for Dennis. I think he prefers Wootton and Thomas, but this is a knock out game. We have to score and Dennis gives us that. He can pull a chance from nowhere.
I think he goes; Slocombe, Brindley, Rawlinson, Lacey, Bakayogo, Roberts, Rose, Doyle, Enzio, Wootton and Dennis. I’d be more than happy with that. If there is to be a tactical ‘surprise’, a 3 man central midfield say, I think he’d drop JOB in for Dennis. JOB to push on. That also gives JOB, Enzio and Roberts decent fluidity.
Whatever happens, try to enjoy it. Unless it turns out to be a massive clusterfuck like Forest in the week, then get ready for some serious STICK! If we don’t do it, it won’t be for the lack of will, preparation or desire. They’ve barely kicked a competitive ball for four months.