Pre-Season Blues: Some Perspective

Whilst we’re all well aware that pre-season scorelines are amongst the least important of the season, that’s not to say that the downtime doesn’t bring with it it’s own concerns.

On Saturday, defeat at Hinckley United came on the back of a week filled with more discontent from the club’s supporters.

Days after they were forced into conceding defeat in their pursuit of Marlon Harewood, and barely 24 hours since the announcment that youth team coach Michael Johnson had left Meadow Lane, the limp performances of two more County XIs leaves more concern than you’d care to have at this time of year.

As with last week’s friendlies (read: training sessions), manager Martin Allan (dog Monty again making the trip) opted to play two different sides for each half – consisting once more of first teamers and trialists – dispensing of all but one from the youth squad. Scorer of last week’s winner at Hucknall Town Kyel Reid was a notable absence:

FIRST TEAM Rob Burch, Haydn Hollis, Jude Stirling, Ricky Ravenhill, John Harley, Charlie Allen, Ismel Demontagnac, Ben Burgess, Stuart Nelson, Krystian Pearce, Liam Chilvers, Julian Kelly, Alan Sheehan, Hamza Bencherif, Alan Judge, John Spicer, Craig Westcarr, Jeff Hughes, Karl Hawley TRIALISTS Nialle Rodney, Andre Blackman YOUTH TEAM Radi Jahidi

The opening frames were superb from Notts. Judge picked up where he left off last week at Ilkeston – pinging more sensational cross-field balls into his team mates whilst Hawley was a one man showboat when we dropped deep into midfield.

From the backline, Pearce was as formiddable as you’d imagine from the outset, with Kelly often found higher up the right flank in acres of space.

When Jermaine Clark gave the home side the lead though on 15 minutes though, the afternoon took a darker turn – more so at 2-0 after 25 minutes.

With the deficit at one, Allen had retreated from his position atop of the main stand to take the giving of orders into his own hands – being a third wheel between coach John Schofield and his team was no longer appropriate.

Without warning, the visitors enterprise all but evaporated for the afternoon, being restricted largely to speculative drives from distance. The desire for a goal scorer only exacerbated with Allen’s audible cry for Judge to move to centre-forward.

In fact had it not been for Nelson saving twice from distance you imagine the orders could have been a lot sterner at half time.

For the second half, Allen introduced Ben Burgess (sans treble chins in the gaffer’s own words) as the former Blackpool man continued his faltering mission to win the Notts fans over. The big man started slowly, losing the ball on occasion but like many of his second half team mates – he grew into the game. On one occasion it took the efforts of two Hinckley players to sandwich him off the ball as he surged over the halfway line, we hadn’t seen this from him in the past.

Having taken to the local media last week to stress he was still keen to play for his place at Meadow Lane, it was a cruel twist of fate to see Burgess pull up with a hamstring injury – taking him out of the game. The look of desolation on his face was there for all to see, this was a man visibly gutted to again not be living up to his own expectations.

You can’t fail to notice the weight he has lost in the last few months, to see him injured now further highlights County’s lack of firepower.

In the aftermath of Michael Johnson’s exit from the youth team setup, it was perhaps fitting for one of his former proteges to shine on an otherwise uninspiring afternoon.

Haydn Hollis’ second half showing at left back was extremely effective. Nervy perhaps, but there wasn’t one occasion where he didn’t get the job done. Recently signed on a professional contract, Jonno thinks Hollis is destined for big things.

As Martin Allen presses ahead with apparent plans to bring his “own guy” in to lead the youth team, Johnson can consider himself extremely unfortunate – you have to think his replacement will be under pressure from the start to produce the sort of results that saw four of last year’s youth squad pick up professional contracts by the end of the season.

Jonno leaves with the widespread appreciation from everyone at Meadow Lane.

After that slow start, Notts eventually (in a pattern not too dissimilar to so often last year) controlled the possession, but were still unable to break down their lower league opponents – often leaving themselves open for quick counter attacks. Stronger opponents would have seen Notts off long before.

It was still another half of few chances though for Notts County, restricted to a drive from distance from Demontagnac (which troubled a small child behind the goal more than Hinckley ‘keeper Haystead)  and a rising Edwards drive that nearly left the stadium. Aside from an Eddie effort disallowed by a flag-happy linesman on the far side, that was as good as it got. Stirling’s long throw showed their impact causing panic in the Hinckley box on several occasions, but the breakthrough wasn’t to come.

For all the protestations that Notts are in dire need of a goalscorer, said players need the chances creating to score goals. These were few and far between on the afternoon.

So pre-season is three games in, against (with all the respect possible) clubs that Notts would easily have expected three wins against, but yielding one win, one draw, and one defeat. So what of these fixtures? Morale is low amongst supporters currently, what do these sparring sessions do for supporters? Whilst Martin Allen can find them vital as he tries to find his first choice XI, scrappy displays like the three we’ve seen thus far in pre-season serve to only dampen spirits amongst the fans.

As supporters, you know deep down that they don’t matter, you tend to distance yourself from being bothered about their outcomes. But naturally when the paying public are spending money on attending them though, it’s only natural that a level of discontent will creep in. Would it be wise to hold such fixtures in future behind closed doors with a complete media blackout?

Still, we’re not at the point of panic stations just yet. Whilst we stand on the verge of Martin Allen having used 50 players in the space of three games, he inevitably edges closer to knowing who will and won’t feature in his plans for the start of the approaching campaign.

The season kicks off in 26 days, there are seven pre-season games left. Harewood has gone. You imagine it’s all hands on deck this week to find at least one striker.

Next up is a trip to Mansfield Town on Friday night in a fixture that irrespective of the lineup is important to fans – defeat certainly won’t help their confidence ahead of the new term. Saturday sees the squad take on a five day excursion to an army training base ahead of the two biggest games of pre-season, at home to Peterborough and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

We’re approaching the business end of pre-season for sure.

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