Rewind briefly to the last weekend of October.
Southampton were the visitors to Meadow Lane, and were witness to the type of performance that had come to typify Notts’ season up until that point. The comfortable display had become a regular thing for County but holding leads was the hard part. The capitulation in defence similarly had become too common an occurrence also.
This was a team going nowhere fast in League One. It all seems so long ago now.
But this was a group of players who the week previously had seen their manager Craig Short sacked, and were playing in front of their new manager Paul Ince for the first time, the slates were wiped clean away as the new gaffer looked on from the heights of the Pavis.
Fast forward just two and a half months and we perhaps have ourselves the biggest indication yet of how much of a difference Ince’s appointment has made.
The work of The Guv’nor and his number two Alex Rae has already shone through in the past month or so, but this was the first time both had seen their team take on a side who has turned County over previously this year.
But for all the pair’s hard working in the changing room, getting the defence organised, giving the forwards the confidence to kill games off, any pep talk their team needed was done for them as the teams exited the St Mary’s tunnel, as the tannoy announcer boomed across the stadium that Southampton could be top if results went their way on the day.
So, motivation taken care of!
In truth, both sides are drastically different from that first match. Southampton themselves that day were a largely ordinary side and owed their victory largely to Notts’ own inadequacies across the field than their own urgency for a result on the day.
In fact our hosts themselves were coming off FA Cup heroics last week against Blackpool, and were the division’s form side fresh off a 6-0 away win.
County started the day once more without Lee Hughes, who suffered a calf strain on Thursday in training. It’s an occurrence so regular that Notts are now accustomed to still competing with their opponents, maybe the same was questionable at the beginning of the season?
The first half was perhaps shaded by Ince’s men and they carved open the best chance as Alan Judge (a permanent signing just last week) forced home ‘keeper Davis into a save low to his right. Judge was a pain throughout the half.
The home side were largely speculative despite the better of the possession, with Notts’ Stuart Nelson making one, maybe two saves all afternoon. They’re a fantastic passing side, some of their long crossfield balls were superb but all too often these would be easily mopped up by the Krystian Pearce and Mike Edwards in the centre.
Judgey continually threatened when he had the ball down the left, same couldn’t be said for the possibly departing Ben Davies on the opposite flank.
Davies again is linked with a move to Nigel Clough’s Derby County during this transfer window. It’s known they have tabled a big of £250k, simply derisory in the eyes of the Notts board. And so, the inevitable game of cat and mouse begins over a fee.
Super Ben has already said he’s happy to see out his contract though.
Ray Trew insists the club doesn’t need to sell Davies, but acknowledges that every player has his price. If Derby come in with silly money, it’ll be goodbye to the man with the most assists in last year’s title winning charge.
Unfortunately, Davies was rarely a threat in this game, as has so often been the case this season at League One level.
Fact is that whilst the performances have rarely reached last season’s heights, with seven assists (halfway to last season’s tally) and five goals to his name in the league alone, Ben Davies is a key asset to Notts as they chase (suddenly, quite realistically) Championship football.
He’s a lower league David Beckham in that it only takes one swing of a boot and the game is changed. We need that.
In contrast, another new signing Alan Gow was making all the right noises on the pitch. Gow currently lacks match fitness and made his way off the field with 15 minutes remaining. A decent debut for the Scot, a glimpse of what’s to come. We liked.
The second half was pretty much a backs to the wall job. Southampton continually pressed hard but still found themselves toothless in the final third. When they finally did have clear sight of Nelson’s goal, Ricky Ravenhill was on hand to put in a goal saving lunge.
Gow’s replacement Ben Burgess instantly impressed as he began rebuilding the opinions of so many Meadow Lane doubters. His appearance was a game changer, suddenly Notts might sneak it after soaking up so much Saints possession.
For all off that pressure, Southampton ended the game fortunate to take a point when inside the three minutes of added time, Notts came close to snatching the game. It was in almost too similar fashion to the Meadow Lane reversal back in October in fairness.
A swinging Davies free-kick from the left was misjudged by Davis in goal, who needed to tip the ball over at the last second for a corner. From that, Mike Edwards’ goalbound header needed to be cleared off the line by Frazer Richardson. The smash and grab was so nearly complete!
The final whistle was warmly greeted by the 600+ travelling supporters, it wasn’t lost on anyone how far Paul Ince and Alex Rae has taken the team in such a short space of time. The unbeaten run now dates back to late November (owing largely to postponements, but we’ll keep that quiet) and the table looks fantastic despite our 16th place position.
his was a point we had no right to take. Southampton had scored 17 goals in their last four games, so it also marks a massive turnaround for a once beleaguered defence also. Eddy and Krystian at the back are simply irreplaceable right now.
So for all of the positives we see on the field, what of the man who got the ball in motion, Ray Trew?
This was the man who took the decision (rather abruptly perhaps) to displace Craig Short and Dave Kevan. Opinion was largely split on whether it was too rash a decision, particularly as there had been glimpses of an improvement in the weeks leading to the sacking.
For the shaky start Paul Ince made, look at us now. We’re six points adrift of the playoffs, with two (in some cases three) games in hand on most teams. Who could possibly look at the situation and believe for a second that Ray (and his board) made the wrong decision to strike when he did?
Much like last year, the backlog of games is rising all the time. Next week, we make amends against Carlisle United, another fixture thrown away from a strong position.
For want of a less dramatic closing sentence, Redemption Season is upon us.