How do you go about bringing in a manager to take charge of a side that’s on the back of seven straight defeats?
For a start, what kind of mentalist would even be remotely interested in such potential career suicide?
To be fair to “the Dog”, when he came in Notts County were in the relegation zone, coming off seven straight defeats, with most likely ZERO self-confidence from the players. His first two games were to end in defeat, thoughts were to quickly turn to how did the club rebuild next season in League Two.
Those defeats were harsh, and it’s particularly unfair for him to shoulder responsibility for a the first of those two losses. It came on the same day he’d first met his new players – and his one training session just so happened to be on the side of a motorway!
That night’s 2-1 defeat at Yeovil was an early indication that there was every chance a corner could be turned. The performance was much improved on the awful display shown three days previously at Dagenham & Redbridge. John Spicer’s 51st minute volley had gotten Notts back into the game, but just six minutes later, Yeovil had their winner on the back of a defensive mix-up. Disappointing.
Allen was quick to pick up something that needed changing, already he’d noticed the supporter’s unrest and pleaded with the Notts faithful to get behind the entire squad, including one un-named player who had become fearful every time he’d come onto the pitch in Notts’.
The atmosphere the next Saturday at Meadow Lane for the visit of Bournemouth was fantastic, from beginning to end. That the players were to be applauded from the field in defeat was a sign that Mad Dog was winning people over early on. And had Lee Hughes had his shooting boots on on the day, it would’ve been a very different story.
Top scorer in both of his seasons now at Notts, Hughes was found wanting in front of goal on a number of occasions before two second half strikes were to kill the game off. The positives were there though, the Notts XI had put so much effort into the 90 minutes, and in doing so played some of their best football of the season. The performance was greeted by a standing ovation at the final whistle – not many times you were able to say that during the year.
For all the looking on the brightside though – on the back of a club record nine straight defeats, you were hoping for miracles to stop the rot.
The following Tuesday’s trip to Tranmere’s Prenton Park was to give an indication though that said miracles might just be possible. Notts spent much of the game under the hammer but still managed to sneak a 1-0 win – in similar fashion to the result Tranmere took at Meadow Lane earlier in the season. A Craig Westcarr penalty was enough for the three points in the end.
The likes of Karl Hawley, Ben Burgess and Liam Chilvers all put in their best performances of the season to keep Tranmere at bay. Ricky Ravenhill’s late sending off did little to sour the occasion, the quite special scenes at the final whistle showed the evident relief of the Notts players in front of their travelling support.
Plus, County seemed to have been made the mortal enemies out of the Tranmere fans in the aftermath. Not bad a for a night’s work!
Notts were to come from behind to take victory in a game for the first time in two years the next weekend. Goals from Alan Judge and Hughes were to keep County in 19th, four points clear of the relegation zone. Swindon were as good as doomed to relegation, a mere 12 months after being one game away from promotion to the Championship. Notts were very much alive and kicking again though.
Former Notts-loanee Matt Richie gave Swindon a first half lead, one that for much of the game looked to have sent Notts on another downward spiral. But a fortuitous goal from Judge, bouncing in from his left-wing cross – and Hughes’ late rounding of the Swindon goalkeeper were to save the day.
A Bank Holiday Monday visit of Meadow Lane by 11th-placed Brentford was so nearly the day that the safety was sealed, and had it not been for Jeffrey Schlupp’s FIFTH minute of injury time leveller it would’ve been.
Notts had taken the lead from a Hughes penalty – his side’s second of the day having seen a Westcarr spot-kick (awarded for handball, despite the ball giving Karleigh Osborne a concussion) saved. Hughes couldn’t not retrieve the ball quick enough following a contentious handball. That he scuffed the kick down the middle was irrelevant. Safety was in touching distance.
Had Schlupp not gone on to level, County would’ve been safe. But that would obviously be all too easy for Notts. The Brentford man’s drive past a despairing Nelson was agony, but with other results at the time going our way (Bristol Rovers and Walsall both conceded late goals, whilst Dagenham & Redbridge also lost), it wasn’t panic it could’ve been. Two games remaining, just one point needed. Survival was still in Martin Allen’s player’s hands.
Not the easiest two games though – at playoff-chasing MK Dons, and at home to the Champions Brighton on the final day. Two points clear of the relegation zone, no one was resting easy.
Beautiful sunshine was to greet the sort of Notts performance though that had started to become a distant memory under Martin Allen. MK Dons dominated the afternoon’s events, with recently improving Liam Chilvers particularly at fault for one goal, whilst Ben Burgess was simply looking like a man not at all bothered.
When Lee Hughes is first to a ball having had a 30 yard headstart over you, the game is up.
It was a goal awarded to Lee Hughes (actually touched home by Hawley) that was scant consolation. But John Spicer could so easily have clinched a point in the last minute had his injury time drive not gone down the throat of MK Dons ‘keeper Martin.
The display was a let down, but you need to take into account that MK Dons had been pushing hard for the playoffs all season. Defeat might have been expected, it was the limp resistance that disappointed the most.
So, it was to be the Football League’s very own Survival Saturday, as ourselves, Daggers and Walsall all stared down the barrel of League Two football. With Champions Brighton the visitors to Meadow Lane, Daggers visiting free-scoring Peterborough and Walsall away at already-promoted Southampton, the odds were somehow (vaguely) stacked in County’s favour.
Brighton had spent the week in Spain celebrating their fantastic campaign so hopes were high that they might be nursing a hangover. 12 minutes in though and you were fearing the worst as Ashley Barnes was to curl from 20 yards beyond an outstretched Nelson to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
On 35 minutes though, a resilient Notts display got it’s reward when Westcarr’s cross was to be sliced home into his own net by Gordon Greer. 1-1 at half time, the future looked a bit brighter. Once more, the football was positive, barely recognisable from much of the season’s showings at Meadow Lane.
The game would end 1-1,the point that Notts County required.
But celebrations had started much earlier than final whistle. A second half deluge of four unanswered goals in a 5-0 win for Peterborough meant it would be Dagenham & Redbridge who would be making the immediate trip back to League Two, and not County. That Walsall were to also lose on their travels had become an irrelevance.
League One safety had been clinched on their own merits and not based on other results. Not to say that Brighton were giving it 100% having been on their jollies for much of the week, but a month or so previous you’d have pictured even a Brighton side at 50% condemning Notts to relegation.
Martin Allen had done it. He’d help Notts cling on to their League One status, and played a massive hand in keeping Barnet in the Football League in his three games in charge. A doubly sweet day for Mr Dog.
Notts County would be somehow playing League One football next season. He’d done it losing three games (two of which were to sides who qualified for the League One playoffs – the other coming in his first day in charge). He won two games. The first, a hard-fought backs to the wall job at Tranmere, the other being the first time Notts have come from behind to win a game in two years. Some accomplishment!
On the final day we drew against the Champions. A team who had swept aside much that was put in front of the this term, a team who had beaten us just six weeks previously. Survival had been quite the achievement for a team in the middle of nine straight defeats and severely lacking in goals at the time Mad Dog took over.