Opening Day

It’s that time of year again where football actually means something again! Sure, friendlies have their own level of importance – but business really begins to pick up right here!

Tomorrow Notts County start their season away at Carlisle United, a side we lost to on two occasions in League One last year. A good chance to see then what improvements have been made you’d imagine!

The fixture comes on the back of a busy, mixed bag of pre-season friendlies – the time has come to see who was right: the doom and gloom merchants who can only foresee another relegation dogfight, or those content with the changes that Martin Allen has made throughout the Summer insisting mid-table is not beyond the realms of possibility.

If you looked at the pre-season results – certainly, there was little to impress. But you really do need to look beyond the results. Look at the starting lineups – and certainly look at the XI that finished games!

We started with 40 players – consisting of first teamers, youths, trialists – and transfer listed talent.

The programme began little over a month ago, with a double-header at Ilkeston FC (a 2-2 draw) and a 1-0 win at Hucknall Town. Two games, effectively four completely different sides for each half -coming in the first week that Notts had resumed training for the new season.

These were no more than glorified passing sessions, doubling as a chance to get the Notts County brand into the community and to let the supporters get closer to the players. In that respect it was a fantastic day for the club as the sun shone down from above.

New boys Alan Sheehan and and Jeff Hughes were amongst the stars of the day, with Alan Judge picking up where he finished the previous term – bang on form! Goals from an un-named trialist and Craig Westcarr got the job done at Ilkeston, whilst trialist Kyel Reid (in his only appearance) netted the winner across at Hucknall.

Certainly there was disappointment in some quarters that the paying public hadn’t been treated to a public demonstration of a FIFA Street videogame, but that wasn’t something which was important to Allen and his backroom.

The next weekend’s fixture with Hinckley United followed suit in being two different sides. The first, perhaps not inspired by the influential Judge and one-man-showboat Karl Hawley lost the first half 2-0.

During the week previous, maligned forward Ben Burgess took to the press to stress the efforts he had been making throughout the close-season. To his credit, you could see the weight he had shed – so the hamstring injury he pulled up with in the second half was just poor timing all round really! “His” second half side failed to breakdown Hinckley.

Notts had lost 2-0 in the end.

A visit to Kettering Town was next on the schedule, where a 1-0 victory thanks to trialist Alex Wall’s goal was just about as uninspiring a game as you can imagine.

Most notably it was a game where even more serious doubt crept in about what sort of club might be interested in taking a liability like Liam Chilvers off our hands – such was the calamitous nature of his performance.

A 1-0 win at Mansfield Town to end the week did much to impress though in the first fixture in which Allen chose to go full strength. A returning Neal Bishop’s deft flick header, followed Hamza Bencherif’s tap-in did much to restore some pre-season faith amongst the County camp.

Sadly, the game will be remembered by some for being the game in which promising youngster Charlie Allen was taken out unceremoniously by Louis Brisco of Mansfield Town ¬†Charlie didn’t make a comeback from the injury until the last game of the Summer.

That’s when the Summer really heated up, with the first and only matches to be played on the new Meadow Lane carpet.

As one of the sides to suffer the bog-like pitch at the tail of last season, Peterborough would certainly have been able to appreciate the efforts made by Trev & Greg in the downtime.

The first half was just an unmitigated disaster though, as the visiting Posh tore into County at will – taking a 3-0 lead into the half time break. Allen’s side just weren’t at the races. Were we watching a prelude of the season to come?

The half-time introductions of Bish, Hughes (of the Jeff variety) and youngster Curtis Thompson turned the game on it’s head though. Goals from Craig Westcarr and Hamza’s second for Notts saw the game finish 3-2.

For massive periods of the second half, it was the home side who appeared to be the only ones who might get the result! Thompson was on fire, there was excitement whenever he picked up the ball, a real threat given the opportunity to run at players.

Three days later, on the day the club launched it’s new (controversial) home strip, Premier League Wolves came to Meadow Lane.

This was to prove to be the pinnacle of the Notts County pre-season. If you needed hope in what a Notts County side might be able to produce this season, then this is the game to reflect back on.

In a tight first half in which Matt Jarvis give the visitors a half-time lead, Notts were still the side to force the better chances – particularly a Hawley thunderbolt that bounced off the top of the crossbar, and a Judgey effort only narrowly blocked whilst goalbound.

Krystian Pearce meanwhile was a rock, putting in a performance that was massively missed towards the end of last year.

The second half was a different affair altogether though – this was Notts’ time to shine. Mick McCarthy’s men barely had a sniff.

Karl Hawley, my personal man of the match ran things. Our more illustrious opponents had no answer to the Hitman as time after time he cut open their defences.

Chances fell all afternoon long. Judge, Westy, Bencherif – that no one could force an equaliser until the last minute through Neal Bishop perhaps only highlighted further what we were missing (a clue: see previous blog).

Bish’s equaliser at the death, and the briefest of cameos from Lee Hughes to get under the skin of the travelling Wolverhampton contingent were more than enough to send people home happy.

A team largely built of rejects, standbys and youth-teamers then went down 2-0 the following Monday evening at Corby Town on the day they opened their new ground.

The most alarming result of the warmups came at Macclesfield, where it was stronger side that was to go down 1-0. Conflicting reports on this range from the perhaps not so sublime but adequate to the ridiculous. Either way, that striker still wasn’t on the books yet.

Aaand so things finished up with a random trip to Maidenhead, just days out of the big kick-off at Carlisle United. Again a youthful side (noted for the return also of Charlie Allen), save for the addition of one last mystery trialist for speculation to mount over.

That said, the game hadn’t even finished and the name of Billy Mehmet was already in the public domain. His performance did little to impress despite hitting the crossbar.

A move to Hearts was to collapse later in the week – perhaps suggests the lad might be worth a second look?

Either way, at the time of writing we’re still without that missing piece of the jigsaw going into tomorrow’s opener – and with the biggest striking asset Lee Hughes facing a late fitness test, there’s a real concern of who’ll lead the line currently.

Bish and Judgey are also facing late examinations to see if they can start also. Fact of the matter is you’d struggle to name three players you’d want in the side more as Notts County look to hit the ground running.

To discuss the fixture further I had a quick chat with Carlisle blogger John McGee from Bring Me The Head Of Keith Mincher to get his thoughts on their own pre-season, the last year or so, and their hopes for the season!

What have the last 12 months been like you as a Carlisle fan?

Pretty good. The Abbott regime has settled with time and the brand of football is now less functional than it has been.

We’ve flattered to deceive though, we beat Wednesday, Southampton and Charlton last year and gave Brighton their closest fright at the Withdean. But then we had the double done to us by Walsall and Dagenham and our away form remained flaky.

We finished twelfth, which was fair but certainly had the potential to do at least a little better.

The JPT was a boon emotionally and financially, putting to bed last year’s horror show and re-making the legend of Peter Murphy. Some fans, perhaps fairly, felt our season petered out after that.

I’d take a first round exit and a more sustained league push this year instead.

How are expectations of the season ahead of you? Much activity this summer?

Quietly optimistic with the usual undercurrent of discontent. We’ve retained last year’s core with key players James Berrett, Adam Collin and Francois Zoko staying put and added sagely with exprienced hands Andy Welsh from Yeovil and JP McGovern from Swindon coming in to shore up the wide areas and offer more options.

Ste O’Halloran joined from Coventry having played little due to injury – he’s settled in wonderfully in pre-season and looks to be a great foil for Lubo Michalik at centre half.

I think there’s still one more movement – goalscorer was the number one target and it remains so.

Abbott’s been stung here before and appears to be playing a waiting game for one or two ‘A list’ players who may become available once the circus starts up next week.

January signing Rory Loy has looked a hell of a lot sharper in warm up games than last season and could surprise a few though.

Which of your players should Notts be most wary of in the match?

Berrett has carried last year’s form into the warm ups scoring three goals fit to grace any highlights reel. His set piece delivery is key to a lot of our goals too and his influence on ‘the game proper’ continues to improve.

McGovern has looked back to the player of Swindon’s play off season playing at the head of a diamond formation – he was the standout in front of Martin Allen against Middlesbrough; his ability to find space and read the game looks a real asset.

And then, any perceived weak links in there?

Apart from scoring goals…

I’m loathe to say it but left back. We went through 6 incumbents last year due to Sean McDaid’s injury and have settled on Matty Robson our hitherto out of form left winger. ‘Robbo’ showed flashes of brilliance marauding from the back but occasionally left his colleagues exposed due to poor positioning.

In pre-season he’s been revelatory and played like Roberto Carlos but a test from a pacy outside right is needed to prove the flaws of his conversion are history.

Similarly, how much do you know about Notts? Who would you consider the danger men and who are you not too concerned about?

A little. I know that your manager has performed open heart surgery on the squad for starters; we’ve been there and it can take time to settle.

I’ve always liked Krystian Pearce who I know is vital to your defence and Ishmel Demontagnac will be lively if Allen can works his psychological magic on him.

Of the players you’ve brought in Jeff Hughes stands out, he always impressed for Bristol Rovers and I know we came very (and I mean very) close to signing him before plumping for Welsh. Let’s hope he does’t bear a grudge.

Of course, I couldn’t not mention the artist formally known as Karl ‘The Hitman’ Hawley. The ‘Samson’ of lower league football has been denied a happy ending to his goal drought against us twice already. What price third time lucky?

Finally, a prediction for the game?

I’m not a superstitious chap but score predictions are one thing I like to avoid – but of a personal quirk. I’d like to hope we can set off the season on a solid footing though; win or draw would do.

Just to close, a quick pointer in the direction of a few season previews I did this Summer.

Firstly, for The Guardian where myself and bloggers (including John, above) from the rest of nPower League One discussed our club’s chances for the next season.

Then there’s the absolutely TITANIC effort from The Two Unfortunates and The 72 who punlished this .pdf file going under the skin of the entire Football League, again with the help of the many bloggers out there.

And to finish. As a kid growing up playing football, Match, 90 Minutes and World Soccer were the publications of choice. To have been asked by World Soccer then to contribute for their Football 2012 spin-off was an incredible honour. It’s available in all good and bad newsagents right now.

I’d appreciate it if you checked all three out!

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