Just four points clear of the relegation zone as Notts crashed out of the FA Cup, Paul Ince would’ve been desperate for his squad to pick themselves up quickly following the 5-0 reversal at Eastlands.
So what he and assistant coach Alex Rae will have seen in the two games since should be just what both men had ordered. Going into today’s game at Leyton Orient, County find themselves with eight points between them and the relegation zone. Incidentally it’s the most breathing space the club have been afforded all season long under either Craig Short or Ince.
This comes on the back of a dogged home win, and most likely the best point the team will earn for many seasons to come!
Starting with the home win against Charlton Athletic eight nights ago, and the debut of the more recent (at the time) loan signing Karl Regan from Bristol Rovers. Regan was to settle in quickly – almost teeing up Craig Westcarr for a goal inside two minutes and by and large Regan was to look comfortable for much of the night.
Take the defender’s debut, add John Thompson being drafted in following John Harley’s late pull-out, and Stephen Darby missing having limped out of the Manchester City replay, and it was a much changed lineup defensively. With all that taken into consideration the clean sheet that came with the win would have felt even sweeter. Krystian Pearce and Mike Edwards both played out of their skins as we’re used to now, surely amongst the best central-defensive partnerships in the Football League?
Stuart Nelson in goal might possibly have considered himself fortunate to have not seen red on the quarter of an hour mark having raced out of his area and taken out Joe Anyinsah about 25 yards out. A dismissal might have been harsh, but you see referees give them all the time so it obviously came as a relief for Nelson.
It was Neal Bishop who was to give Notts their winning goal, off his ass. Alan Gow (who is fitting perfectly in the role of dead ball specialist) took a free-kick from the left wing that was to deflect off Bish’s backside (and via a Charlton defender) to squirm past the outstretched palm of Rob Elliot and into his net.
About 15 minutes later though and Edwards was to gift the visitors the chance to draw level having again seen Anyinsah smashed to the ground by a rash challenge.
Via combination of an awful penalty and Nelson’s death stare though, Bradley Wright-Phillips was to miss the spot kick as Nelson guessed correctly, smothering the ball as it bobbled along the Meadow Lane turf. For those keeping score, that’s four games against Notts this season for the division’s second highest goalscorer, and no goals. Pretty decent return for County!
With the three points though came more complaints of the playing surface. There’s no hiding from it unfortunately, but the pitch is an outright embarrassment to the club. With the game being played out live on Sky Sports, even Jack Wilshere saw fit to pass judgement on Twitter. With the positivity of TV exposure in recent weeks, has has come the negativity of more people than necessary saying the state of the turf.
What matters though is that the club have acknowledged the situation and are taking the measures necessary to fix it in the close-season by whatever means. In the meantime it’s going to be a case of just getting on with things. Not ideal, but that’s just how it is. Expect several more frustrating Meadow Lane afternoons and evenings for now.
The pitch however is now in the middle of a ten day rest though, with Notts’ next two fixtures being in London, starting this past Tuesday at Brentford’s Griffin Park. Hopefully time for some parts of the pitch to heal – it even finds itself free of fresh abuse from the rugby club who will continue their playoff schedule on March 20th at Meadow Lane.
On a freezing cold Tuesday night though Notts offered very little in their opponents half, except one Gow free-kick that bounced off the bar that nobody reacted to, and maybe one brief foray into the final third that led to Westy giving County the lead.
It was a match that had played itself out very similarly to the visit of Tranmere Rovers to Meadow Lane back in November. A match in which the home side dominated the possession, posed little threat in the final third yet still found themselves a goal behind.
Brentford pressed constantly in a midfield that at times felt two steps off the pace, the maligned Miles Weston on the flanks a particular menace. One man in particular to be off the pace on the night was the unfortunate Harley who picked up two yellow cards in the space of five minutes, with only 25 minutes gone. Perhaps harsh on Harley who on another day might’ve been confronted by a referee happy to let off at least one of the challenges with a warning.
Gow was the man to be sacrificed for Thompson to come in to shore things up for the evening. You could sense it was going to be a long shift from that point.
Yet somehow on the verge of halftime, Westy was to pop up with his goal, slotting home at the second attempt after a slice of comical defending from the Brentford backline. In truth, it was easier to believe that 1-0 lead against Manchester City all those weeks ago. Notts had offered little to the contest yet still led with ten men!
The second half was much of the same really. Constant pressing, but the likes of Pearce, Edwards, Thommo and Regan stood firm throughout. Mostly.
But on the hour mark Brentford were to change things up. Weston was to be replaced in a double switch, met by a chorus of “Cheerio” from 298 (sub-zero temperatured) travelling Notts fans. Part of the exchange was to bring on Robbie Simpson also.
For all of County’s meanness in defence, it was to be an error of judgement on Nelson’s part that would allow Brentford back into the game – the goalkeeper left nowhere near the ball as Karleigh Osborne crept in to nod home a Sam Saunders free-kick.
Brentford obviously went pushing for the winner, but against the ten it wasn’t to come. Not without the want of trying by the night’s match official Iain Williamson at least. Mike Edwards was the second Notts player of the evening to pick up a second yellow card as we crossed the 90 minute mark. But in the midst of five minutes of added time, you figured County would do just enough to keep the hosts at bay.
Then again, as you come to expect in the lower leagues, very rarely do things pan out as you’d expect and referee Williamson threw one more twist into the mix, having adjudged Pearce to have pushed substitute Simpson over in the box From our central view of the incident, contact looked minimal. From television replays, non-existent.
Penalty to Brentford, and for how strict the referee had been surely Pearce too would see red? No, apparently not. Another baffling decision from an official who even saw fit to ignore a headbutt from goalscorer Osborne on Lewis Gobern right in front of him.
Simpson was to pull rank over his team-mates to take the penalty for himself but smashed his effort against the post – having already sent Nelson the wrong way in the Notts goal. A thrilling end to an incredible contest, just a shame it had to be incredible for all the wrong reasons from a Notts County perspective!
A return of four points from two games were the perfect FA Cup hangover cure it would seem. Eight points and three places inbetween us and the relegation zone, can’t complain really!
Next up is today’s trip to Leyton Orient though, themselves a team who may be smarting from a 5-0 FA Cup mauling to far more illustrious opponents in Arsenal, and the Notts squad has rarely been so threadbare!
On top of the one match bans being served by Harley and Eddie, Regan too in defence will be missing having limped off at Brentford, Darby is continuing his recovery back at parent club Liverpool, whilst both Lee Hughes and Karl Hawley are also nursing injuries.
So it’s obviously of great relief that Paul Ince has strengthened the squad further this week with two further loan signings. Firstly Njogu Demba-Nyren, a Gambian international striker who was most recently seen playing in Denmark. The big targetman has been training with Notts for nearly two months so obviously Ince and Rae know what they’re doing with this man. He joins on a deal until the end of the current season.
And then Ivan Sproule from Bristol City on a month’s loan, the sort of pacey winger the side has been crying out for in recent weeks. Deemed by many as one of the best wingers in the Championship, it’s a fantastic addition, and a player whom like Kevin McDonald finds himself out of contract at the end of the season with his parent club.
Obviously you’d speculate about the chances of permanent moves for both in the summer.
The impressive signings continue to walk through the doors at Meadow Lane. The likes of Connor Clifford, McDonald, Sproule, David Martin and Darby should all arguably be playing their football at a higher level than League One – but then, there was a time we said the same things about some of Short’s summer acquisitions also!
17 games left to make a push lads!