Sudden Death Defeat

Four days removed from the most incredible Nottingham derby that many will ever witness, and the words still don’t come any closer to doing Tuesday’s game any justice.

It eventually took sudden death in a penalty shootout for our apparently more illustrious neighbours to see off the challenge from a spirited Notts side, where victory was snatched away with literally the last kick of the game.

Kicking on from Saturday’s opening day win at Carlisle, this was another display from Martin Allen’s men that went some distance again ramming home the fact that pre-season means nothing. Two away games have yielded six goals so far and this without having brought in a new striker.

To be fair, I was content with the squad Allen had assembled – but even I didn’t see a start like this coming.

Tuesday was always going to be a special day for the Notts fans. Not their cup final as has condescendingly been suggested, but a big day (or evening) none the less. Supporters filed into the Meadow Lane Sports Bar many hours before kick-off to catch up with associates lost over the close-season – but just as many were there to wave the team’s bus off as it departed home territory on it’s way to Nottingham Forest’s City Ground.

Slightly of more interest though was the rumour quickly circulating the bar that the previously injured, and ruled-out Lee Hughes was starting the game. Many had figured that the ankle injury we’d heard of might not be all that genuine – after all he was withdrawn from Saturday’s game in the heat of battle – not an injury.

By the time the teams were announced at just before 7pm, Hughes was in. News spread around the bar and the already excited crowd now couldn’t get across the bridge to Rushcliffe fast enough to take their seats.

Upon entry, many were greeted by the sight of Sir Charlie Palmer walking across the turf to welcome the “travelling” support. You couldn’t help but wonder who might be the next Notts player to bestowed the honorary Meadow Lane Knighthood.

When you looked at the lineup, you weren’t short of names. Certainly Hughes was a frontrunner, could Karl Hawley break his barren spell at our bitter rivals, would either Hamza Bencherif or Craig Westcarr return to their former clubs to gift County a win, or maybe the ever dependable Neal Bishop would be the one to settle things?

Mike Edwards’ name might be one the last names you’d think of – but as he gave his side an early lead you dared to dream at least little.

It was a fantastic started by County spurred on by the travelling 6,000+ Notts fans who had succeeded in drowining out the Forest rendition of Mull Of Kintyre prior to kick off. Hughes was denied by a great save from Smith, Bish hit the bar in a melee moments later. Notts were in the ascendancy but were somewhat fortunate to see an Anderson effort from six yards slide wide of the Stuart Nelson’s right hand post.

It was Edwards though who was to capitalise on a goalmouth scramble following a cross from Alan Sheehan. Pandemonium ensued.

Lewis McGugan’s free-kick was a thing of wonder though to bring the hosts level. Struck with the inside of the right boot, Nelson never had a chance.

The tie was well poised at 1-1 going into the half time break.

Whilst Nels’ distribution seemed back to it’s most concerning, his shot stopping was incredible – denying Forest on several occasions throughout the night. But it’s debatable whether he should have left his goal line (another question mark to his all-round game) to block Robbie Findlay’s volley though as the American made it 2-1. Forest were leading 2-1 and a gradually quietening Notts crowd were left to ponder the mountain left to climb.

With just under 20 minutes of play left, Allen introduced Westy to the mix – a substitution that paid off within five minutes as his instant control and volley pulled Notts level from the edge of the area. Incredible scenes as Craig ran the length of the field to mock the home faithful who had jeered his introduction.

Those in attendance cheering on the players in a new blue striped away kid were back in full voice having received the shot in the arm they’d been longing for. Now Notts pushed hard and tried to finish the game before extra time, something they would have achieved had it not been for an incredible fingertip save from Smith from the deftest of flicks from Hughes.

Going into extra time, you genuinely felt only one team was going to win the match – how true that nearly was when Hawley’s inch-perfect ball into Hughes was converted off the post, behind the goal was bedlam amongst the County fans – almost unrivalled scenes.

You began to celebrate Sir Lee Hughes Day prematurely – if people despised our hero-like worship of Hughes previously, God only knows how we’d have been looked upon after this one. Not that we cared at that moment in time, or now.

The final 15 minutes of extra time were just about the longest you could ever experience. Forest were laying siege on Stuart Nelson’s goal without really over-stretching him. Karl Hawley, filling in at right back was in complete control though mopping up everything that came his way with the level of assuredness we’re fast coming to expect.

When the tannoy announced there were to be a further (minimum) two minutes of stoppage time, you were already at the point thinking the referee was mere seconds away from blowing his whistle. That we had at least another 120 seconds to endure was agony.

We all know what happened next by now. It’s an image I saw sat directly behind the goal l that i still can’t shake. Wes Morgan’s wonderstrike past a fully stretched Nelson was a moment that no one saw coming. Literally the last kick of the game saw Notts denied. The most unbelievable of moments to end a fantastic game of football.

So, the overly-cliched lottery of the penalty shootout beckoned. Played out in front of the Trent End, I gave us no chance of progressing any further in this year’s Carling Cup. But when Forest’s first penalty sailed wide – we were daring to dream again.

Westy and Hawley put away two beautiful penalties either side of our host’s first successful kick, we had the advantage 2-1.

As Hamza Bencherif stepped up for the third kick, I couldn’t watch. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that things were to take a turn for the worst. Which they did. Not that I saw it, but the kick was blazed over and we were level once more. Findley netted for the reds, whilst Sheehan converted his kick – unsurprising for a player quickly becoming the next big thing in dead ball situations for Notts.

When George Boateng saw his penalty saved by Stuart Nelson – sudden death had come to us one kick earlier than expected.

Lee Hughes stepped up. This was fate. The man who had been one kick of a ball away from winning us the game earlier now had one last kick at goal to put Notts County into the second round of the Carling Cup. Or more importantly – give us a win over our rivals from across the river.

Obviously it wasn’t to be. Hughesy, an average penalty taker at best skied his effort high into the Trent End. Gutted isn’t the word. We had them. Twice, we had them.

Luke Chambers put away the next kick for Nottingham Forest, and Neal Bishop missed County’s next. Game over. You can’t really say much more than that about what happened next – nor do I really care to. Victory had twice been snatched away from us, there’s no denying that our hosts for the evening had got away with it! Whilst we all walked away with an enormous sense of pride in the performance we had seen.

For some, myself included, there’s still that little hint of resentment that resides.

What a game though, the most emotionally draining match you could possibly imagine.

Nottingham Forest are the perennial slow starters in the Championship. Whilst they might not be firing on all cylinders just yet – they will eventually. Not many sides will visit the City Ground this season and take three goals.

Whether the Notts performance hinders to a degree the Notts players going into this weekend’s Meadow Lane fixture with Charlton Athletic remains to be seen. 120 minutes and penalties, especially under such circumstances will take their toll on anyone.

Eyes will undoubtedly be on Lee Hughes to see if he can manage to play a third game in a week – if he can, that’s massive for us this season, maybe signs that we’ll be able to look to him more often than we could last year. If not, both Westcarr and Christian Montano will be pushing hard to start the game following impressive cameos on Tuesday evening.

To get a view from Charlton, Bryan from the Charlton Life forums got in touch to answer a few questions ahead of the game.

How was your pre-season? Happy with your activity in the transfer market?

It is fair to say that the Addicks are very excited about the new season after a long period of decline.

The pre-season was pretty good overall. The new owners have hardly spent a fortune but have backed Sir Chris Powell (SCP) in signing some of the division’s high performers from last season (Hollands, Stephens, Wiggins, Green to name but four). At the same time they have “released” enough dead wood to build an 18th century battleship.

SCP took the squad to Spain for a bondage session which by all accounts worked quite well and Bristol City were defeated on that tour.

So we have a completely new look with a total of 15 new faces in the squad and it should really take quite a while to gel, but after one swallow in the form of a 3-0 home win (Bournemouth), it’s summer at The Valley. Incidentally I really can’t remember the last time we won 3-0 at home. So I’m excited.

Obviously both of us made great starts to the season last weekend – what were the strengths and weaknesses (if any) you took from your performance?

We started 2010-11 against Bournemouth at home too. Two of their best players took the field for us this time. The biggest difference was that we are playing some football rather than hoofing the ball which was my biggest disappointment (of many) in the Parkinson era.

We have competition for places now. Alonso may not even be on the bench on Saturday and there is a big debate about whether Waggy or Green should start on the right wing. Waggy gets my vote as he is one of our own and is the man in possession of the shirt. Did you see his goal on the box?

With your game being called off this week, I imagine at least you’d have been delighted to see us put through 120 minutes and penalties on Tuesday?

The County/Florist game was followed on Charlton Life and it is fair to say that we were a) sad that you looked like winning it b) delighted that it went to extra time and c) over the moon that the much unloved Hughes missed a penalty.

Who’re the key players that Martin Allen needs to be aware of on Saturday? And who are the perceived weak links?

I am not going to give Mr Allen any insights – partly because I have only seen most of this squad once or twice.

As you will soon figure out, the fans are a bit concerned at a possible lack of speed and agility at the back in the middle but, hey, the much vaunted Danny Ings didn’t do much so fingers crossed. I’m not expecting a 0-0. We have got plenty of goals in our side.

And who from Notts are the dangermen, and the ones to exploit that you know about?

Hughes. People you really don’t want to score have a habit of doing so. I’ll have a fiver on him getting on the sheet.

The Paul Benson transfer was a confusing one for us at Notts with THREE different sides to the story as to why it collapsed. Was it a move you wanted to see completed or do you still have hopes for him?

Benson is a bit of enigma. I think it is fair to say the fans are split. My view which I think is the majority is that we did not want to lose him for a paltry sum.

If he had gone he would have scored against us (they always do). Having brought his old mate Danny Green in from Daggers with his legendary crossing ability and long throw it seemed odd to let him go as we expect him to get on the end of a few with decent service (which he didn’t get last year but still notched a few).

The reason he was given the opportunity to go was that he wanted a two-year deal. He is knocking on a bit and SCP wasn’t putting that on the table this summer. I’m not sure of the real reason he stayed. “Fighting for a place” sounds good but it may not tell the whole story. I’m happier he is on our bench than starting against us on Saturday. I predict he will get double figures this season.

And finally – a prediction for the game?

My heart says we can win this, probably 2-1. My head tells me not to be too optimistic. I was there last season and I’ve rarely seen so many chances go begging. So this is a hard one to call. I boldly predict we will either win or lose.

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