The Proverbial Game Of Two Halves

At half time on Wednesday night, there was a scary sense of deja vu – a sense that told you we were in or another hellatious ride with Notts County for the upcoming season.

Fast forward to round about midnight though, one rousing second half show of defiance, and a rumoured transfer later and things are already looking a lot rosier. How quickly things can change at a football club.

Peterborough United were the visitors on a cloudy Meadow Lane evening. A Posh side who Notts were almost left to rely on just a few weeks ago on the final day of the season when our survival hopes were hanging in the balance. Also a side who had smashed in over 100 goals through the course of the season – to see them promoted to the Championship eventually was of no surprise.

Darren Ferguson’s side was the first to play on the new Meadow Lane surface – worked on tirelessly through the summer by Greg and Trevor amongst others. The putting green-like surface was nothing short of spectacular.

Like the grass, the Notts starting lineup was taking shape also. For the moment at least, we were done with experimental sides that would change at half time. Fast approaching the business end of the schedule, Martin Allen was going for as strong a starting XI as injuries would allow.

The game started evenly enough, both sides seeing enough of the ball whilst not creating the openings. Alan Sheehan for Notts was linking well with Julian Kelly from left across to right flank. Karl Hawley was covering every inch of grass that he could manage also – a theme that would continue for the entirety of the 90 minutes.

One man not enjoying the proceedings so much was Sam “The Salmon” Sodje.

On no less than three occasions was the self-proclaimed future-Meadow Lane legend found wanting, giving passes away directly to the opposition. Coupled as well with Allen pulling him up for constantly being out of position – Sodje’s work here was done. Substituted after seven minutes of play. Savage.

You would speculate that obviously something more was going on behind the scenes than a simply poor opening few minutes. Allen is a man who was spoke of the need for confidence in his players, rallying the fans for their backing of Hawley and Ben Burgess in the past – such an early replacement goes very much against all of that.

To see Sam brought up in Thursday’s Manager’s Message (saying he was on the transfer list, effective immediately) was no great shock.

You wouldn’t be surprised (nor saddened) if Wednesday was Sodje’s last game for the club. He’s a man who came with a history of injuries, something that blighted his time at Meadow Lane considerably also – but he’s a man that most definitely played his part in the club’s survival campaign. From his woeful performance in defeat at Dagenham & Redbridge, things only got better for Sam (not that they could get worse) and he certainly mucked in well away at Tranmere and at home to Brentford.

For such an even start, it was perhaps strange that Sodje’s substitution (on came Haydn Hollis) was a turning point. Peterborough began to dominate the possession for massive periods – the gulf in class beginning to show. Trialist Alex Wall became more and more isolated as the evening wore on, the step up from his non-league side to a Championship side was proving too much maybe.

The visitors started to back up their possession with a few range-finders from distance – the goal was coming and were it not for Stuart Nelson in the Notts goal things would’ve been a lot worse! The biggest positive to come from Peterborough’s opening goal (a lovely free-kick from Grant McCann) was that it gave the men in black and white a chance to touch the ball. Not for long though.

McCann, George Boyd and Lee Tomlin began to run the show and looked threatening everytime they had the ball. County weren’t getting a sniff of the possession as Darren Ferguson’s side put on a first half footballing clinic.

By half-time the scoreline was 3-0 through goals from Tommy Rowe and Boyd. Peterborough were out of sight. In truth, it was an extremely generous score to Notts and Martin Allen.

Both sides rang the changes at half time. For Notts, youth team member Curtis Thompson came on alongside Neal Bishop and Jeff Hughes in a positive switch. The game hadn’t been given up on just yet.

Within just two minutes of the restart, Bish combined with Thompson via beautiful high dropping ball for Westcarr to get on the scoresheet – Curtis’ deep cross eluding everyone in the area for Westy to poach at the back post.

It wasn’t rocket science, that early goal was always going to be vital. It had given Notts an impetus that would see them through the entirety of the half. If the first half was a story of Peterborough’s dominance, the second was of County’s resilience.

Thomspon was having the time of his life down on the right wing, a constant threat whenever he had the ball at his feet – but it was to be his fellow substitute that would cut the Posh defence up

Hughes (the Jeff variety) was the one with a delightful chip into Alan Sheehan who crossed for Hamza Bencherif to net his second goal in a pre-season week.

For all the character shown in their comeback though the equaliser wasn’t to come. Hawley, Westcarr and Hughes all found themselves with glorious opportunities but all found themselves denied in a mixture of goalkeeper and woodwork.

Hawley in fact had a number of chances in his quest to break his goalscoring duck that stretches back 18 months now. You can (well, you almost have to) sense that one goal might just set Karl off. Until though you’re dying to see him just put his laces through a football and drive at goal rather than over-thinking the situations he finds himself in. That might be the key now for Karl.

So whilst a 3-2 defeat is the headline, the story is one of more positives than negatives. You’d have never envisaged such a close finish after that first 45 minutes. The introductions of Bish, Jeff Hughes and Thomspon were masterstrokes. Notts were breaking down their opponents with relative ease, the passing game that has been worked on so rigourously in the close season working so well.

Upon leaving Meadow Lane, rumours (confirmed the next morning) are spreading of an accepted bid for Charlton Athletic’s Paul Benson. On the back of that second half, the talk of a striker on the verge of signing is just the tonic.

Planet Meadow Lane suddenly seemed a much more optimistic place.

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