It has often been said that football is a game played by twenty two players and watched by thousands of unqualified referees. Further, that decisions change matches.
But what cannot be disputed is that when people look back to Notts County’s campaign in 2010/2011, they’ll inevitably look back with great disdain and a huge sense of disappointment at a season that promised so much, but delivered so little for its supporters.
Wasted budget, ineffective managers, woeful performances, culminating in a nine month campaign saved on the final day of the season. For sure, whilst the season on the whole would be considered a failure – it certainly didn’t pass by without its share of good times along the way!
Optimism was high at Meadow Lane coming off the back of the previous season’s title winning heroics. The disappointment of Steve Cotterill’s departure was seemingly a distant memory as County legend Craig Short took the reigns, bringing in a host of players we were led to believe could quite happily have continued to ply their trade at a higher level.
John Spicer, Ben Burgess and Liam Chilvers were amongst a host of new players brought in as Short looked to stamp his own identity on the team. Pre-season was considered a success. A decent training camp in Austria, a win over championship opposition Cardiff, and holding eventual FA Cup finalists Stoke City at Meadow Lane. Optimism amongst supporters was high.
What was to follow for the entirety of the season was simply staggering and at times too much too take in.
League One simply put – was a terrible league, full to the brim with awful, ineffective teams. What this only says about Notts County’s efforts is open to interpretation. Either way it wasn’t pretty.
Defeat on the opening day to Huddersfield Town, many pundits tip for promotion, was seen as many supporters as the litmus test of how we would fare in a higher division. Their 3-0 win squeezed out every inability that Notts were to show throughout the season. In contrast to the previous season, where the side had overpowered anything in front of them, Notts seemed toothless in front of goal, afraid to push and press higher up the field, the over-reliance on hoofing it up the pitch as quick as possible, and more alarmingly, simply woeful defending.
Teams like Bristol Rovers, Exeter, Carlisle and Tranmere, who you would have fancied us to beat comfortably, all came and left with three points. Whilst the bigger boys of the division, Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton, were met with initial resistance on the day before more Notts capitulation in throwing away the points before the day was out.
Not to say of course there weren’t any good times at Meadow Lane last season – they were just spaced out a bit too thin for many people’s liking.
For how rocky the early season league form was, the 3-3 draw away at also-promoted Bournemouth came as a huge surprise. The home side raced into a 3-0 lead leaving County in their wake. There was no sign of improvement from a Notts side who in truth struggled all afternoon. A Burgess consolation (his only league goal of the season) on the stroke of half time did little to raise hopes for the second 45 minutes that was to follow.
What came next was another half of poor football from Craig Short’s team. A team who swept aside all before them last year now couldn’t even grasp the basics of the game. As the tannoy bellowed out there would be four minutes of added time, you could only wish the referee would end it right then. Somehow, within those four minutes though Notts struck twice through Craig Westcarr and Kevin Smith to take an unlikely point. You started to believe the club had held onto some team spirit after all.
A 4-0 win over Yeovil Town on the day the club celebrated the 100th year of it’s Meadow Lane tenancy with a pre-match legends parade was a true high point. The performance would not have looked out of place the previous as season as Notts attacked with vigour throughout and could so easily have had more than the four goals. It was somewhat fitting to see Lee Hughes, Craig Westcarr and Ben Davies supplying the finishes as this trio had been the main protagonists of the previous season.
Similarly a 3-2 win at free-scoring Peterborough was a performance that did much to keep spirits in the Nott camp high, a display that almost single-handedly did much to convince you early on that even without Hughes, Notts County could compete in the division. The ugly scenes afterwards that marred a great night though were enough at least to suggest the squad was unified in fighting together though. However, could they replicate more of this on the pitch when it crucially mattered? Ultimately, as the season wore on, the answer would be no!!
The “Battle Of London Road” was the certifiable highlight of Craig Short’s short tenure at Meadow Lane. His dismissal just 13 league games in was a giant bolt out of the blue. For sure, you could sense things weren’t going to plan. There was the all too familiar tale of games Notts controlled ending in defeat – but you felt his side were edging closer to where they needed to be.
Similarly to his eventual successor, Short found success via knockout football, in the Carling Cup. A first round disposal of Plymouth was the perfect way to (prematurely) bury the negativity that followed the opening day massacre. A win away at Championship outfit Watford set up a third round clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers in another match likely remembered for all the wrong reasons.
The fact that Notts had been seven minutes from knocking their illustrious Premier League opponents out mattered little. Attentions turned to Hughes’s choice of attire (adorning the slogan of Wolves’ bitter rivals West Brom) which went on display having given Notts the lead in front of the Molineux South Bank. Hughes, a lifelong Baggies fan who had led the line for their bitter rivals in many local derbies, by his actions, had once again lit the burning fires of hate amongst the Wolves fans. Subsequently, this foolhardy/boyish prank was seen (in less intelligent circles) as the catalyst for the bricking of a Notts’ supporters bus after the match injuring a female on board.
Not a particularly glorious moment in the season. A shame really as it overshadowed a brave County performance, one that could’ve been so much different were it not Liam Chilvers’ late concession of a penalty which saw him sent off for the foul. The Premier League outfit ran out eventual 4-2 winners. It was a great performance that Notts put in, certainly not one that warranted such a scoreline.
Short’s reign was cut short out of the blue the day after defeat at Colchester. Gone with him was also Dave Kevan, a man considered by many that had been the glue to keep the previous year’s squad together through its darkest days. Of course, we know now his removal was not a results-based decision so it’s impossible to speculate on whether it was the right call, but a season that suggested so much promise was on the verge of being derailed.
The Meadow Lane money men moved quickly to bring in Short’s replacement Paul Ince, a man overlooked in the summer for the position. To start with the results were no better than in previous weeks beginning with three defeats before a win over Swindon Town on a damp Tuesday night at Meadow Lane with a last minute Hughes goal.
Hughes’ place in the starting line up had come into question with the arrival of Ince, the manager struggling to see past the striker’s age, choosing to rest Hughes as often as possible. It led to rumour and counter-rumour of changing room unrest. Regardless of what was true or not, we’d see very little of Hughes for long stretches at a time under the Ince regime.
The loss of Hughes for large periods of the season is only one of many reasons why Notts struggled for the duration of the campaign. The fact that he managed to still be the top scorer for the second season running says much for the toothlessness that plagued the side throughout the League One campaign.
Whether such prolonged absences were down to injuries or rumoured fall outs with managers, Hughes was still on hand at some of the most vital times in the season – most notably in the two games with Swindon Town where he picked up late winners in each.
Ince’s reign will no doubt be remembered largely as a torrid one, However it would be germane to revisit some of the high spots that briefly lit up a truly miserable season.
His side’s form in the league at the turn of the year was the best in the division. A 3-0 home win against Hartlepool and defiant 0-0 draw at Southampton, a feat that no other visiting team could match for the remainder of the season at St Mary’s (with FA Cup glory at Sunderland sandwiched between), did much to suggest that there may be some glory to come by the end of the season.
One other loss that was felt was that of Ben Davies, whose departure to Derby County at the end of January was undoubtedly a turning point. Whilst Davies’ overall contribution across the field was not half of what we knew he was capable of, he was still putting the assists in. By the halfway point he’d already setup half as many goals as the previous campaign.
Davies’ exit came as part of triple blow that month, as the loan deals of both Thomas Ince and Lee Miller both came to an end as well. The trio had played a key role in Notts’ best form of the season into the turn of the year. Both Ince from Liverpool and Middlesbrough’s Miller both returned home, never to return again – such failures in the transfer market would be a key component in the season’s self-destruction.
Ince’s run as manager’s biggest contribution to an already flagging campaign was without question his FA Cup run, helming home wins over Gateshead (his first win) and Bournemouth, ahead of a trip to Premier League Sunderland’s’ Stadium Of Light where goals from Westcarr, and an impossible finish from Hughes saw his team take a 2-1 victory. Quite a remarkable result against a team sitting in sixth place in the top flight and not withstanding the result an impressive unbeaten home record, only one other team had won there in over a year.
Further, it was refreshing to hear Premier League Manager praise an opposing team for the win, rather than rely on the old adage of blaming poor refereeing decisions. Sunderland fielded international stars Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan, Anton Ferdinand, Kieran Richardson and Steed Malbranque, and eventual £20m starlet Jordan Henderson was to be a second half substitute. The wealth of quality that Notts County bludgeoned their way through was quite staggering – even for a not so full strength Sunderland.
The reward was a home tie with filthy rich Manchester City once they themselves had overcome Leicester City in a replay. What went before us there has been written about enough from every possible angle. A fantastic 1-1 draw, at a capacity filled Meadow Lane, in which Notts County stood 10 minutes away from beating the richest club in the world. In many respects, it was Edin Dzeko’s equaliser that was seemingly the end of John Harley’s season – possibly career at Meadow Lane.
Once the ball had slipped between his legs for Micah Richards to cross, Harley was never the same again. From being one of the better players for the season, in that moment he turned into the best scrum-half that League One had to offer.
Following the replay’s cruel 5-0 reversal, the proverbial wheel quite literally came off. Notts weren’t sitting comfortably in the league table, just four points clear of the relegation zone. With as many as four games in hand though on some teams, you almost took for granted that Notts would be safe.
What was to follow though was relegation form. 19 games remained, from which a combination of three different managers could only take four wins between them.
The Notts board dispensed of the services of Ince Snr following a miserable defeat at home to Oldham, five defeats into an eventual nine game losing streak. It’s hard to argue that it came at the wrong time really. The managerial revolving door at Meadow Lane was to take another spin.
Ince’s replacement, Chief Scout, Carl Heggs was to fare no better in two games in charge. The former, a much improved performance of character and spirit, the latter, a miserable and lifeless rollover against a team destined for relegation. Hegg’s tenure would ultimately read, two games, two defeats.
It almost seemed to break Heggs. From speaking of the positivity the players needed to hear, he certainly wasn’t short of criticism for his players after the second of those defeats at Dagenham & Redbridge. They were the words of a man dumbfounded at such a lack of basic ability. In his words, someone at the club needed shooting for the players on the books. Damning, but Justified. This was the day many point to as the one where you started to plan for League Two.
The stage was set and so entered Martin “Mad Dog” Allen whose first piece of tactical genius was a roadside training session en-route to defeat at Yeovil Town.
Did the asylum have the right lunatic to run it? With League One safety eventually secured on the final day, it’s hard to say no.
Not the most ideal of circumstances to first take charge of your players – but hey, whatever works! Two defeats were to follow his appointment ahead of a first win in ten games.
A backs to the wall victory that essentially mirrored Tranmere Rovers’ own smash ‘n’ grab at Meadow Lane earlier in the season was to the night Allen steered the season back on track and to many who travelled to Birkenhead, the night the fans, the Manager and the players united as one.
Days later and there was a second win secured away at Swindon (the first time Notts had come from behind to win a game since 2009), followed immediately by a draw at home to Brentford coming within mere seconds of the victory that would’ve assured League One status for another year. Quite the turnaround for a team even the most positive of supporters had started to question.
It was eventually to be the final day, against Champions Brighton & Hove Albion where that status would be secured. For a side in freefall when he came in Allen had done what some said was impossible and had restored the pride and passion into the players in such a short space of time. The achievement was quite impressive. The football had improved drastically. Not to overstate it and say Notts had become a total footballing side, but suddenly the players felt motivated again and confidence had started to spread throughout the team.
The scenes of relief at the final whistle on closing day did much to temporarily dispel the bitter taste that the season was in danger of leaving behind. The feel of dread leaving Dagenham & Redbridge was long gone, the dark late days of the Ince regime a distant memory, the feeling in the pit of the stomach as a late Brentford equaliser denied safety were all dispelled at approximately 5pm on Saturday May 7th 2011.
Much thanks to Sean Redgate for his assistance in producing this article!