Much Improvement Sought & Found

Maybe just one game (a defeat no less) is too soon to start speculating over the negative impact Paul Ince had in the changing room at Notts.

But that won’t stop me. Tuesday nights performance against Rochdale was the performance that supporters have been crying out for for weeks. In fact compared to Saturday’s horror show against Oldham, the side looked like world beaters!

Saturday was an awkward day, dubbed the biggest game of the season so far like so many games will be before the season has run it’s course.

Defeat was unthinkable at the start of the day, particularly with the heavily rumoured “Ince goes if we lose” line that was echoing throughout Meadow Lane. But at least Ince’s team were faced with a winnable fixture – against a side who were somehow in worse form than Notts.

The atmosphere before kick off was fantastic, the crowd knowing they were needed behind the team for the whole match. An early goal was required not only to ease any nerves the team might have had, but also to keep the crowd on-side.

It just wasn’t to come though, as has too often been the case this season.

For the entirety of the first half, all that was to come of Notts’ possession was one Craig Westcarr drive that dragged a good few yards wide. The crowd’s enthusiasm had already dwindled at around the 20 minute mark – it had become easy to forget you were at a football match.

Febian Brandy, making his first start in the black and white looked fantastic throughout, the only legitimate candidate for Man Of The Match all afternoon. On countless occasions he would pick the ball up out wide to make in-roads through the visitor’s defence, you felt that danger loomed for the opposition whenever the ball was at his feet.

When the whistle blew at half time, it was in fact Notts who were lucky to still be on level terms.

Another calamitous moment in defence saw Oldham with the chance to knock home into an empty net having seen Stuart Nelson well out of position. Somehow though, the ever-impressive Stephen Darby somehow managed to get a blocking foot in the way to deflect the ball over his own bar.

Words won’t do the goal-saving challenge any justice. It was just that good.

The second half was to prove marginally better, but not by much. You’d struggle to say Oldham weathered a storm, but the wind had started to pick up a little bit. Notts had controlled the possession for much of the frame, with so little to show for it. Again, the County side had succumbed in the final third.

Karl Hawley and substitute Nyogu Demba-Nyren (let’s just call him Brian) squandered two Notts’ two best openings.

First Hawley, with space at the back post chose to blaze his shot for the near post when the back post surely beckoned. As is just too predictable for the out of form Hawley, his shot troubled only those in the mid-to-high seats of the Kop.

And next Brian, who found himself with a chance to shoot amidst a crowded penalty area. But the ball wouldn’t drop kindly for the big Gambian who’s effort skewed wide. Those taking refuge behind the goal that were threatened by Hawley’s shot were again ducking for cover.

Things just refuse to click for the big man. After an impressive debut against Peterborough and several somewhat normal (certainly no worse than those around him) performances, he now finds himself out of favour amongst the Meadow Lane crowd and now faces an uphill struggle to win them over. We approach a time for heroes in the season though so the fickle public won’t be short of opportunities to appreciate his efforts a bit more – assuming he features in the plans of Carl Heggs and Alex Rae.

Then comes the point where you’d think it would just be easier for me to copy and paste any one of a dozen match reports from this season. The point where County were served their just desserts.

Oldham’s Chris Taylor was to pick up the loose ball and make a charge into the penalty area, only to be upended by captain Mike Edwards – unfortunately the last man. As is often the case, it felt like an eternity before the referee was to point for the penalty spot.

Obviously this was to mean the dismissal of Eddie via straight red, his second dismissal in little over a month. My pick for Player Of The Season could have no complaints from where I was sitting.

Notts were up the proverbial creak, and as Lowe dispatched the penalty past a despairing Nelson (death stair rendered futile on this occasion), the paddle was nowhere to be seen.

That’s when things got ugly. Fans left their seats and headed for the exits in huge numbers, many screaming their grievances with Ince upon their departures. The patience of the masses had finally ran out for Ince’s tenure.

So at 1-0 down, normal Meadow Lane service had been resumed. A ninth Meadow Lane defeat of the season beckoned, memories of last season’s “fortress” had been decimated.

With 10 men Notts tried to commit players forward in search of an undeserved equaliser, but instead found themselves 2-0 down on the back of a delightful turn and drive inside the box from Reid. The stoppage time goal was merely an exclamation point to the afternoon’s events – minds had long been made up, knives readily sharpened for a backlash.

The players were roundly booed from the field, it was nowhere near good enough and had continued a frightening trend of performances somehow getting worse as the campaign progressed.

And the players were fully aware of it also. Their body language as they left the field told it’s own story. It’s easy to say in retrospect to speculate that Paul Ince had lost the changing room, but it was just so evident on the day. These were the expressions of players who had seen all the enthusiasm drained out of them over the preceding days and weeks, maybe even months.

And so came Sunday’s dismissal, covered in my previous post. There was always an air of inevitability about it from the moment the final whistle had blown a day previous.

Previous chief scout Carl Heggs was to be given control of the side going into the Tuesday evening visit of Keith Hill’s Rochdale – them of “14 Points” fame last season. Taking into consideration just how much that term’s title winning run meant to Chairman and owned Ray Trew, you figured he wouldn’t have chosen Heggs lightly for this fixture.

Pre-match, and Heggs was ticking all the right boxes that Notts wanted to hear. Sure he would bust out the time-honoured cliches you come to expect from a man trying to win people over, but there was a passion, an honesty that stood out from the man’s words.

Most confusingly for me was the decision to keep on Rae though, Ince’s assistant. Alex has long been the most vocal of the previous managerial tag-team on the touchline (not that Ince had offered much in the way of competition), so I’d wondered what would really change in terms of performance.

I can vouch from personal experience that the squad all get along really well with the Scot though, and the ensuing Notts display was enough to dispel any concerns. Interestingly enough, Alex was to take a back seat to Heggs for much of the night on the touchline.

County started brightly, showing enough even in the first five minutes to show that a weight had been lifted from the player’s shoulders. The crowd were as vociferous in their support as was required and it looked like a corner might have been turned – even at that early stage. Such was the early optimism.

Yet for the brave new approach, it was the old defensive mistakes that found County 2-0 down inside the first 15 minutes.

From a Nicky Adams corner, Craig Dawson rifled home the loose ball having found himself unmarked in the box. Same Notts, different manager. There’d only been eight minutes played.

When Will Atkinson had headed the ball past a despairing Nelson for 2-0, you genuinely feared the worst. A new defence (missing three first choice defenders) of Chilvers, Darby, and the returning duo of Graeme Lee and John Thompson (one of many players who’ll be delighted to see the back of Ince) had began the evening looking disorganised but become a slightly more cohesive unit by the final whistle.

You thought for all their best efforts that Notts had put in, we might’ve been looking at a rout.

Not to be the case, Captain Lee Hughes and Neal Bishop led by example and put in the shifts which were required from them. Brandy was to carry on from where he left off on Saturday by terrorising the ‘Dale defence. Craig Westcarr chipped in, but it felt like another laboured performance in truth.

It was in fact Westcarr with the two best Notts chances in the first half though. The first of which just typified just how much luck County had seen recently.

On the half hour mark, a neat passing move between Westy and Brandy saw Craig slot right footed towards goal, past an outstretched Hughes, but also beyond Owain fon Williams in goal. The ball hit the post, agonisingly falling behind Hughes on the deck. All the signs were there that it wouldn’t be our night once again!

And with minutes remaining in the first half, Westcarr was to clear the crossbar for 10 yards out. In truth it was probably the clearest opening that Notts have forged at home in a long time. And had it found the net, the game would’ve taken on a much better complexion for managerless Notts County.

At half time the Notts side was applauded from the field, a stark contrast to the scenes on Saturday afternoon. The home crowd was witnessing the sort of fight that had rarely been seen recently. Still losing (nothing had changed there), but at least there was some bite to the team.

Again the early goal was the requirement if we were going to see a contest, and on 54 minutes it came. A goal. A first goal from open play in way too long. No surprise it was to be Hughes who put it home from a Chilvers knockdown.

Game on then. The crowd found it’s voice to the tune of “Hughesy’s Army” and were unrelenting throughout the second period, Meadow Lane was bouncing like it hadn’t since Manchester City’s visit – such was the relief!

Notts pushed and committed numbers to attack but were unable to find the breakthrough. The ever dangerous Brandy being a constant thorn in particular with his runs in from the wing.

The little man is an exceptional talent, right now I think I’d even choose Brandy over Thomas Ince given the choice. But whilst I praise him I do worry that if he doesn’t find a goal soon and results continue to slip then he might find himself in the sort of position that Alan Gow now finds himself in.

Gow came in to the Notts side with some fantastic performances. Confident with the ball at his feet to take on players, not afraid to shoot (in the early stages at least), and fantastic with a setpiece.

Yet aside from a penalty and a thunderbolt in an abandoned game, Gow hasn’t scored as of yet and finds himself yet another scapegoat for the Meadow Lane audience.

Brandy’s linkup play with those around him continues to impress for the timebeing. Whilst he proceeds to try and find a way through to goal though that run will almost certainly come to an end soon against some of the lesser defences we still need to play.

Rochdale were quite simply the best attacking team to play at Meadow Lane, which in many respects puts into perspective how frustrating a season it has been. Simply put ‘Dale stand out by a mile because very few teams have actually performed well on our own turf, bar Huddersfield on the opening day.

Each time they gathered the ball up you feared a third goal was on the way, and many times in the second half Notts were thankful for the efforts of Nelson, saving brilliantly with his left leg at his near post on one occasion, whilst denying Rochdale by trapping the ball between his legs on another.

It was Gow who was to be given County’s last chance of an equaliser with a free-kick – awarded amongst deafening silence from the ground whilst we waited for the decision.

His effort floated harmlessly just over the crossbar, and the chance had been lost.

At the final whistle, the players were given a much deserved standing ovation from those who had stayed until the final whistle. Even in defeat the paying public had seen from Notts what had been missing for weeks. Thoughts quickly turned to possible reality that Paul Ince really had been doing more harm than good.

But the keyword here is defeat. And Carl Heggs, with his appointment being extended for one more match still faces a massive task to turn the season around with some enormous games on the horizon against similarly relegation-threatened sides.

We question now which players will be available for selection from here on in. Do we envisage Lee Hughes only being available for selection every other week? Will Thommo be sitting fewer games out than in recent weeks?

For the positives that you take from the performance, it all still equates to six straight defeats – a run that needs ending immediately. Saturday against Dagenham & Redbridge would be a fantastic place to start!

Notts travel away this weekend to one of only four sides sitting below us in the table, with realistically five sides battling it out to avoid two places in the relegation zone. Whilst every remaining game is just as big as the other, Notts face four sides for whom relegation is a real possibility, and these are the games which will need putting away.

Eight games remain, but the last two are a visit to playoff-chasing MK Dons, and a home game with League One Champions (without question) Brighton. So picking up points as soon as possible is the order of the day now!

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