Whilst many at Meadow Lane continue to be taken a hold of by that “FA Cup fever”, Paul Ince’s sights have been firmly set on righting a few early season wrongs for Notts.
Away from this Sunday’s visit to the Lane of the TV cameras and Manchester City in the FA Cup, Notts’ current run of league fixtures is massive, and realistically you might expect a good few wins at the very least if you look at the side’s recent run of form.
The three points of course would be most satisfying when you consider some of our upcoming opponents and our previous encounters this term.
On Saturday though, County tasted defeat for the first time since November, as Carlisle United capitalised on a relatively lacklustre display. Heads somewhere else perhaps with City on the horizon?
When you ask supporters what they think of current position in the League One table, many will look towards some of the early season performances and point towards far too many games that were lost (or thrown away) after performances that had deserved better. Carlisle was certainly one of those, where (the recently departed elsewhere) Gary Madine settled the game with 20 minutes left having seen County dominate for much of the game.
So it was quite a bitter pill to swallow then that on Saturday Carlisle became the first side to a do a league double over Notts since Dagenham & Redbridge in 2008/2009 by way of Francois Zoko’s second half volley.
Alan Gow made a great impression on his home debut, seemingly at times on a one man mission to drag Notts into the game. So confusion reigns currently as to why he was absent, even from the bench for last night’s fixture at Hartlepool United.
Indeed it was Gow with the best three chances on the afternoon, not least including one of the most agonising misses we’ll see at Meadow Lane all season. On other occasions, the visitors will be grateful for their goalkeeper Adam Collin’s heroics.
Carlisle were worthy of the three points though. In fact had it not been for their wastefulness in the first half they’d have been out of sight.
With that first defeat in nine, it was vital for Paul Ince and Alex Rae to get the team flying again. But their preparations were somewhat hampered by injuries to Ricky Ravenhill and Mike Edwards. Brief respite was to come on the bench, offered by the return of Lee Hughes.
Ben Burgess was to receive his first start since August, but it was yet another disappointing performance from the big man. The man seen as an ideal replacement for Lee Miller might now find himself filed next to Karl Hawley in the “how many more chances?” drawer.
That’s not to say Big Ben was alone in putting in a poor shift, as the first half display rarely mirrored anything that Ince’s side has offered in recent weeks.
Things were to get better in the most unfortunate of circumstances though, as Krystian Pearce was removed from the field with a head injury. This forced Paul Ince into changing the team’s shape, with Karl Hawley coming on in his place, with Lee Hughes replacing Burgess at half time.
Notts were back to playing with the vigour we’d started to become used to. And it was Hughes, it just had to be, that equalised for Notts, knocking home a header across goal from Hawley. From giving so little in the first half, the game was there for the taking and the Magpies were now the better side.
Chances were yet to fall to Hughes and Alan Judge, but no breakthrough was forthcoming, and perhaps the draw was the fairer result after the old cliched game of two halves.
County stayed in 18th, so the away point from home is a decent return on a night’s work having seen that no other teams around them picked up points last night.
After some brief respite offered by our more glamorous Premiership opponents this Sunday, just three days later Walsall will come to Meadow Lane, no doubt with somewhat fresh memories of their 3-0 New Years Day humiliation on their own patch.
Our guests currently sit bottom of League One, some nine points away from safety. You have to believe they’ll come to Nottingham looking to start the run that will haul them up the table.
Next up (Saturday, February 5th) will be a game that Ince and Alex Rae will certainly want to atone for, Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park. For all of those points that slipped away, the home match with Rovers stands out above all. County dominated proceedings throughout, but lost 1-0 through Showunmi with Tranmere’s only shot on target all game. A genuine low of the season.
Not to mention the moment many turned on Paul’s son Thomas Ince as only being at the club for being “Daddy’s boy”. How times changed, how much we’d love to see him back now!
Exeter City are the next team County will host (Saturday, February 12th), another side that hold a win over us this term. A Lee Hughes goal to bring the scores back to 2-1 did very little to stir his team onwards as we lost 3-1.
You’d at least like to think things won’t be as easy this time. Paul Ince’s second defeat in charge came at a time when we were starting to think the wheels were really coming off our season. The previous week’s glimpses of improvement seemed such a distant memory.
Back in September, in one of the high points of Craig Short’s tenure, Yeovil Town visited Meadow Lane on the day the club was celebrating 100 years at the famous ground. To make the day even more special, the visitors lay down for another and let us tickle their bellies for a 4-0 victory.
Notts head south on February 19th for the return fixture at Huish Park with Yeovil sitting fourth from bottom, two points from safety. On home soil, Yeovil will be wanting to put up more of a fight as they scrap for their League One status with the season quickly approaching the business end.
And then the TV cameras return, this time with Sky, for the visit of Charlton Athletic.
The first game was another bitter encounter. This was another of those games that got away, one where victory would’ve been Notts’ had Lee Hughes been a little more composed with a penalty kick just 15 minutes from time.
Such was how things were at that time that ten minutes later County would concede the winning goal. At a period in the season when the team were trying their hardest to stamp their authority on the division’s bigger teams, this would’ve been a hammer blow to the squad’s confidence.
But these previous encounters are in the past now, and this is a different Notts County this set of opponents will face. The team’s 18th place tells nothing of the recent form or speak of the improvements Paul Ince and Alex Rae have made following their rocky introduction.
With two (in some cases now, three) games in hand on teams above them, the playoffs are not as distant a dream as some might think.