So, a rather uneventful 2010 is in the history books, what will 2011 offer us? Well, plenty if the festive period that Notts have just negotiated is anything to go by!
On paper it was an ideal run of games. Ignoring the postponed Boxing Day fixture with Rochdale, Notts faced up to potentially tricky away trips to Plymouth and Walsall, before finishing at Meadow Lane for the visit of Hartlepool United.
County had already beaten Plymouth on two occasions this year home and away, through the home fixture in the league, and a Carling Cup first round tie.
Despite the confidence the squad would have against their opponents, Plymouth were to take the lead through Zubar’s early header.
Whilst a Notts side some months back at the start of the season might have cracked, the current team under Paul Ince is seemingly made of tougher stuff, as Lee Hughes knocked home a rebound just minutes later.
Both teams had decent opportunities as the game went on to win the game, Notts most notably through Thomas Ince, a player quickly making a name for himself in a Notts shirt.
The draw was the fairer result in the end, certainly a decent point if you take into account that Plymouth boast the division’s leading goalscorer in Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The son of Arsenal legend Ian might well find himself on the way out of Home Park in the January transfer window. Notts fans can keep dreaming though.
So in a make or break period in the year, County start unbeaten. The trip to Walsall, the shortest that Notts County will have to make this year certainly looked like three points for the taking. Walsall find themselves in a right mess struggling for their League Two status.
Their New Years Day offering made it clear to see why.
Notts had raced into a 2-0 lead inside the first twenty minutes, with strikes from Craig Westcarr (more than likely in an offside position, but Walsall stopper Brain should really have done better) and Lee Miller (finishing off a fantastic move for his first goal in black and White colours).
Krystian Pearce was to add further gloss to proceedings with a stooping header from a Ben Davies corner, and it was four points from a possible six.
Had Notts turned the corner under Paul Ince? Regardless, Notts were still enjoying the best form of the campaign going into the home clash with Hartlepool.
Hartlepool, seven wins in eight games, were the division’s form side. Last season, eating up the form sides became second nature to Notts. This was to be the biggest test under the Ince and Alex Rae regime.
The game started very scrappily with Hartlepool getting the better of proceedings, with Rob Burch being called into action early on for two smart saves to keep the scores level.
John Harley though would consider himself a relieved man as he took a tumble inside the Notts penalty area. For whatever reason, his hands connected with the ball and it seemed like an eternity as you looked over to the referee’s assistant, waiting any moment for him to raise his flag.
Nothing came. Massive relief, not least for Harley who could barely contain his grin for a following corner. Notts were still in the contest.
On half time things were to get even better for the home side, as Westy and Ince Jnr combined on the left for Tommy to rifle high into the roof of the net. A 1-0 half time lead, just the tonic for Notts side that was visibly tiring.
The beginning of the second was a scrappy affair. Hartlepool were pushing constantly as the guy became physical in the air, whilst most Notts attacks were let down by sloppy passing going astray.
As Notts weathered the storm, Lee Miller finished off another fine move, heading home a perfect cross from Davies down the right. Might well be of concern that we’re now in the January transfer window and Davies put himself once more in the shop window, but we’ll reap the benefits whilst we can!
Whilst things look rosy in the final third of the field, defensively, Notts look massive. It was as if the “you shall not pass” mentality was running wild through the team. For all Hartlepool’s pressing, Notts looked solid, and replacement goalkeeper Stuart Nelson’s output for the afternoon was kept to a minimum.
Craig Westcarr was to fire home a third to add further gloss to the scoreline after a neat turn and shot just inside the penalty, and Meadow Lane was rocking like it hasn’t rocked for months. The sounds of EI EI EI O were to echo through Meadow Lane, how it had been missed!
As the game progressed though, thoughts turned elsewhere. Crys of “Bring on the Sunderland” went up, the Lane was a fantastic place to be once again after weeks of unrest.
Notts had reached 13th in the table on the back of three great results. Seven points from a possible nine, seven goals scored, just the one conceded. A new found ruthlessness, and perhaps more importantly some consistency.
Taking all this into consideration, County and over 2,500 supporters will travel to Sunderland’s Stadium Of Light for the FA Cup Third Round with no fears at all, for we know just how good the squad can be on their day.
But of course, which Notts County squad assembles on coach for Sunderland is the important question now as the aforementioned transfer window threatens to derail the club’s momentum.
County have lost some fantastic talent due to expired loan deals, four of which have played a huge part in our current run.
Thomas Ince has shattered all expectations since his arrival, a true talent for the future, a player who’s every moment in possession is greeted with huge anticipation. A player who carries the unfair burden that should he have in even remotely poor game, then he’s only picked because the manager’s son. And now he’s gone.
Dad Paul and son Tommy have already began extension talks with Liverpool this week, but what impact might the current Anfield crisis have on such proceedings? Will the Ince Jnr’s future be a priority when they need to be looking for a new manager? Either way, Junior wants to stay, Liverpool stand in Notts’ way.
Also returning to Liverpool is Stephen Darby, who’s performances have seen Stephen Hunt demoted to the subs bench. Notts fully expect Darbs to sign a new loan deal, the race is on to get him back to Nottingham in time for Saturday.
Hunty might not agree. A player so instrumental in last season’s FA Cup win at Wigan, he’ll be desperate to prove his worth to Ince and Rae if Darby isn’t back in time.
Returning to the Premiership also is Alan Judge of Blackburn Rovers, but for how long? A permanent deal is expected to be wrapped up shortly though. Again, speed is the key!
The aspirations of Lee Miller however lie elsewhere. Whilst Middlesborough were happy to have Lee extend his stay, Miller wants to play at Championship level. Whether anyone else comes in for him remains to be seen, but maybe he might’ve seen enough in recent games to suggest that’s just where this club might be next season?
Notts of course do have a fit again Ben Burgess to fill in for Miller if he’s not to return though. Hopefully Big Ben will take his opportunity to show some of the form we saw from him in pre-season.
Which leaves the three youngsters. Hotly tipped Chelsea starlet Michael Woods has returned to Stamford Bridge having not done enough to impress the Meadow Lane faithful, or more importantly, the gaffer Pal Ince. And Luke Hubbins and Jake Jervis, who were returned to Birmingham City last month, in spite of Notts still having to pay their wage until their deals expired this month. Tells you all you need to know really!
Back on the pitch, and this weekend, pundits everywhere will be busting out all the well known cliches for FA Cup weekend, as the Stadium Of Light in Sunderland awaits us.
No Notts fan needs reminding of the club’s recent exploits in the cups.
Just last season, Notts had the better of Premiership Wigan for 180 minutes of football, most notably the win on Wigan’s turf in a fourth round replay.
And during Craig Short’s tenure, the fantastic performance that came at Wolves, a display that deserved so much more than the 4-2 scoreline suggested.
On Saturday, once more we’re expected to fulfil the role of the tinpot club, a group of face-painted supporters just looking to enjoy “our cup final”. The team isn’t expected to get a result either, this is first division versus third after all.
But Sunderland aren’t without problems of their own either with personnel. Lee Cattermole, the dangerous Danny Welbeck, and David Meyler will all be ruled out of the tie in due course. Maybe Steve Bruce will go second string on Notts to rest his first team?
If he does, you’d have to believe the game is there for the taking. Be it a Notts side similar to that which has been on fire in recent weeks, or one more closely resembling that of last season’s league winners.
There is every reason for each Notts fan travelling north on Saturday to feel confident.
If not for the one off cup tie, then at least for the remainder of the season that lies ahead.