Weekends are seldom so eventful for most Football League clubs. When they are, good God they’re special.
I’d said just last week why there was little reason for any travelling Notts fan to be worried ahead of the weekend’s trip to Sunderland’s Stadium Of Light. This was not arrogance, but belief.
But that wasn’t to make Saturday’s events any less special.
In truth the game was a welcome distraction following Friday’s embarrassing events.
Late Thursday evening, the club announced they had convinced Middlesborough’s Lee Miller into extending his stay at Meadow Lane until the end of the season. A fantastic piece of news just as supporter’s were coming to terms with the idea that four departed loanees were gone for good.
One down, three to go you were thinking.
By Friday morning though, it was all unravelling as news broke on the BBC website that Miller was in fact still training with his parent club, and that an extension had not actually been signed. By the afternoon, Notts had issued a retraction on their website. It had all gone very tinpot.
How could such a mistake possibly be made? Either he has put pen to paper, or he hasn’t surely? It was a baffling own goal for the club, one that may even have cost them any chance they even had of bringing him back, only time will tell.
Just maybe Miller will find his way back to Meadow Lane should no Championship club come knocking for him this month?
Yet as supporters tried to hide their embarrassment, the club was still working hard behind the scenes in securing Alan Judge’s services. Albeit on an emergency loan deal in time for Sunderland, but a permanent deal will be signed in the coming days.
One step back, two steps forward perhaps?
So Saturday came with Judgey back in the squad, not a bad start to the day.
Again, it wasn’t with a chip on our shoulder that we all travelled north knowing we could get a result, but we at least thought it would take a lot of hard work. Sunderland sit sixth in the Premiership having only lost once at home this season, and we were in the bottom half of League One having lost of our most pivotal players of the past few months.
Still, i personally had woke up that morning thinking at least let us have one goal to cheer!
Yet, we somehow still knew.
You’re given an idea of the task facing the side the moment you walk into the stands. The Stadium Of Light is just magnificent, an enormous arena well deserving of it’s top flight status. Sure, some of the gloss was taken off the atmosphere by 30,000+ stay away supporters, but you could hardly blame them.
So it’s a great relief that it takes a lot more than a lot of seats to put our players off. But dealing with the likes England international Darren Bent and (apparently) the third best player in the world Asamoah Gyan was to be slightly harder to deal with.
The game started brilliantly with Notts getting the better of the first few minute’s exchanges. Sunderland never really stepping out of third gear. They were made to pay as County had a lead within five minutes.
Craig Westcarr flicked on a Davies cross in their area for Lee Hughes to challenge, only for home ‘keeper Mignolet to conspire with his own Kieran Richardson to bundle the ball into their own net. Calamity for the Black Cats, euphoria for the Magpies.
Not much was to change for the next 40 minutes, as looks of confusion were to be passed amongst the away support that our opposition was from the top flight. “Premiership, you having laugh” had never sounded so appropriate. Notts had a lead at a Premiership stadium for the third time in the space of year, but never had such leads looked so comfortable.
Not to say the home side didn’t have chances to level the tie of course.
Andy Reid with the first real effort came just short of the half hour, as his sliced effort from inside the box swerved wide of the out-stretched Stuart Nelson, whilst Gyan (with LITERALLY his only telling contribution of the afternoon) could only strike nothing but fresh air from six yards when all that was required was a little composure.
For all of Notts’ hard work though, it took a big slice of fortunate as the returning John Thompson might’ve considered himself lucky to have not conceded a penalty following a sloppy challenge on Richardson.
Such rust was perhaps to be expected when facing the former England-international’s pace, but Notts were lucky this time for the ineptitude of Premiership referee Stuart Atwell.
At half time, you would figure that Sunderland manager Steve Bruce would ring the changes to his side, but it wasn’t to be. None the less, Sunderland came out a (slightly) more efficient side and began to turn the screw on Notts as they outnumbered the visitors high up the field.
As County tried to cope with the pressure, the performance at times was reminiscent of an early game in Craig Short’s management reign, plenty of composed, precise passing…before smashing the ball long to invite more attacks.
Fortunately on this day though Sunderland were having an awful day in front of goal, with both Steed Malbranque and Bent being wasteful in front of goal.
The changes were to come for Sunderland, as Henderson, Elmohamady and Bardsley were to come on to the field. For all the talk of the hosts playing a supposedly second string team, the odds were firmly against Notts now holding onto this one goal lead as the field filled out with more first teamers.
But on one of the few occasions Notts pressed forward in the second half though, a moment of true genius.
As Lee Hughes ghosted his way through the defence, his slotted effort was saved and the ball spooned up into the air for Alan Judge to head back towards Hughes again.
The angle was impossible to score from, but you thought the goal was coming based purely on the two Notts players available for a pull back.
Hughes on the half volley somehow squeezed the ball between two defenders, the most ridiculous finish of his Notts career you’d have to say. Just under 3,000 County fans behind the goal erupted following hundreds of eager glances across to the linesman, who stood static as Hughes celebrated with his team mates.
I think deep down, we all knew it was offside. We cared very little. This was an impossible goal had it fallen to anyone else on the field.
As the eleven on the field began to picture fourth round ties though, just five minutes later, Sunderland had a penalty, as Reid was felled by Ricky Ravenhill. Bent converted the kick by sending Nelson the wrong way, and we were left with ten minutes to hold on…plus stoppage time.
Hughes was to make way for Chelsea’s Michael Woods with five minutes remaining. Perhaps a risky strategy when you consider Hughes’ substitution against Wolves was the turning point in the League Cup.
But Paul Ince doesn’t seem to be doing too badly in his management of Hughes so far does he? We’ll let him off on this occasion.
Was Hughes done? Course not! Rather than wait to warm down with the squad after the game, he was to make his way towards the Notts fans (passing by some home fans, naturally) for his warm down, no doubt wanting to soak up more of our adulation.
But that wasn’t going to stop him racing alongside a ballboy to delay returning the ball to Ben Davies for a throw in was it?
Some (admittedly goading) stretching exercises later, and and panto villain Hughes needed to be given a steward’s escort back to the Notts bench. A welcome distraction for the travelling fans who had mostly given up their seats to see in the final moments on their feet.
Meanwhile on the field, Sunderland pushed on, capitalising on the scrappy yet dogged defending on Notts’ part.
As the minutes passed by, the biggest remaining question was how many minutes of added time Atwell would decide to play. After all, stoppages were minimal, we certainly couldn’t recall any injuries. At best we were looking at two minutes, unlucky to have to play three.
We get five. Although in reality, seven were played.
Wasn’t to matter obviously. As Sunderland kept up their wasteful theme for the afternoon by squandering more chances, and that was it, the whilstle actually blew, we were in the fourth round again.
Notts County, had knocked out Sunderland, on their own patch.
The scenes were incredible. Not just amongst the travelling support, but also the players who celebrated the moment in front of us. In truth it could’ve been milked for some time.
In fact it was, as the players came out for their post-match warm down and celebrated once more. Amazing. No one wanted to leave as the seats up and down the stand were packed with people still celebrating the moment.
The likes of Mike Edwards and Krystian Pearce in defence, and Neal Bishop in the middle had been true beasts all day long for County, and you’d be tempted to offer all three Man Of The Match, but this was a team effort.
Credit also to Nelson who was making his first start in a Notts shirt since Rob Burch took his place back at the end of September. A solid, confident performance which was just what was required on such an occasion.
It’s a massive cliche, but you don’t travel to Sunderland and win with just one standout. Each player gave their all on the pitch and deserve praise in equal measure.
As the dust settled you were left with the realisation that we were in the draw the next day for a fourth round tie. You again dare to dream of the ties that might be possible.
When the draw came, Forest were inevitably a popular choice, ball number 30.
So when Notts were drawn at home, and their opponents number is drawn: “Number thirt…” it looks like that’s who we’ve got. But no. Number 13 was drawn, so only Leicester City or Manchester City who were just kicking off in their fixture at the Walkers Stadium.
Wait. ONLY Leicester or Man City? The side helmed by Sven, or the mega-rich superstars with Roberto “not good enough for Notts last year” Mancini? Could we have even got a better draw in our wildest dreams?
Of course, both teams played out a 2-2 draw and will try again next Tuesday, but Meadow Lane will be bouncing in the fourth round no matter who stops by! And you better believe all eyes will be on ESPN for that replay.
In truth it’s a win/win situation for Notts County. Either tie would undoubtedly be played out in front of the biggest Meadow Lane attendance for many years. Be it for the apparent romance of Sven Goran Eriksson’s return to Meadow Lane, or just to see the filthy rich superstar XI of Manchester City.
Supporters seem fairly split on a preference, but truth is not many expect Leicester to come through their replay. It’s not personal, it’s just the way it is when you look at things rationally.
But then, that’ll be what people thought about Sunderland. But besides, who wouldn’t pay top dollar to see Neal Bishop put Carlos Tevez or the odious Mario Balotelli in the back rows of the Kop?
The only thing certain as we are right now is that the story of the Innaugural Sven Tournament is only just beginning!
Quick note at the end to say thanks to my good friend and part-time chauffeur Sean for the lift to Sunderland, was a wicked day in his and his girl’s company.
SEANY SEANY WHAT’S THE SCORE?!