On a day more notorious for it’s cup upsets rather than the more routine performances of it’s bigger clubs, the FA Cup First Round threw up no unpleasant surprises for Notts County.
Instead, Martin Allen’s side saw off League Two’s Accrington Stanley with a professional display in a game that rarely looked in doubt.
Notts welcomed back Gavin Mahon and Neal Bishop to the first knockout fixture at Meadow Lane since Manchester City’s all-stars graced the turf back in January.
Missing this week in a game you would think would be ideal for him was Lee Hughes. The talismanic striker failed a late fitness test on the pitch with two hours to spare before kick off. Holding the back of his thigh, you might think Martin Allen’s hand has been forced in whether to make a move for Christian Montano or Luke Rodgers in the next week or so.
Certainly the rumour mill on Saturday suggested that both are on the verge of returns.
Notts started well, playing some composed football along the deck whilst not particularly threatening much.
Ben Burgess saw two of Notts’ better chances spurned in a tense first period. First, heading towards goal for a comfortable save from visiting Stanley keeper Murdoch, before heading inches wide with the goalkeeper beaten.
It was Karl Hawley who was to ease some of the increasing tension inside Meadow Lane with a delicate finish over an onrushing keeper who could consider himself unfortunate to have not saved the finish.
It should have been 2-0 at half time as Hawley again prodded the ball home on a rebound from a Krystian Pearce header. In the referee’s opinion though Burgess was seen to have fouled a defender in the build up. Soft, but it wasn’t to matter ultimately.
Whilst a goal later in the frame would’ve been nice to settle the game before half time, County were left to rely on Alan Judge who squeezed in a goal at the ‘keeper’s near post with just a minute played in the second. Meadow Lane could relax a bit more now, this much was apparent in some of the play that was to follow.
The game was effectively over as a contest on 64 minutes when Stanley saw Proctor sent off following a tangle with Karl Hawley who was through on goal. An obvious red card offence from where I watched – quite why the referee took so long to make the decision baffled, but we got there in the end.
The card was this week rescinded by the Football Association. Make of that what you will!
Neal Bishop was to be replaced ten minutes later after a largely average afternoon from the captain, returning from a one game suspension. He could quite easily have earned Notts a penalty in the second half had he been able to knock the ball wide of an on-rushing goalkeeper. Bish went down, but the ball had been safely gathered already.
Notts pressed home the man advantage, and began to dominate as they added to the scoresheet with a deceptive free-kick from Alan Sheehan. The type of dead ball that evades everyone, and the second time that Sheehan has done so following a similar effort against Tranmere Rovers earlier this season.
Game over, and so Gavin Mahon was brought off – another exemplary performance and a great relief he’d come through unscathed with Huddersfield looming on the horizon.
With maybe a Notts foot off the pedal and one eye already on next weekend’s trip to the Galpharm, Accrington Stanley were afforded a way back into the game through a well taken Luke Joyce half volley.
It was Hawley though who was to get the cliched last laugh, with another beautifully dinked finish following a fantastic ball over the top and through the middle from Burgess.
The whistle blew shortly after on what had been a very professional performance from Martin Allen’s side. Accrington being the only side to win at Notts in their 09/10 title winning campaign meant nothing, but the tense opening stages up until Hawley’s opener were enough to keep you on your toes.
Ultimately though County were too strong, as you’d expect with 34 league places standing between the two.
Sunday’s draw has thrown up a second round tie at Sutton United – them of 1989 Coventry giant-killing fame. This and Notts’ league status has seen the game given ESPN airtime on December 4th at 5pm – with a nice £72k just for the privilege. On top of the £18.5k first round winning bonus and an above-expected attendance on Saturday, it’s already quite the financially profitable cup run!
The timing ensures that Notts (and Sutton of course) will be aware of their potential opponents in the next round with the draw occurring earlier in the day.
Anyway, the FA Cup is already old news for the time-being, back to the league.
And Huddersfield, the team with the 42-game unbeaten streak! Well, in league games at least. You see the Terriers themselves are coming off the back of their own 4-1 in the FA Cup – only this was a defeat, to League Two’s Swindon. You’d assume Martin Allen is studying the tape from that match intensely!
Notts still occupy a spot within the table’s playoff positions as they have since October 9th – but that might just change this weekend.
The four sides immediately below Notts are one win away from leapfrogging County into their sixth position. Stevenage will fancy their chances the most with a trip to Leyton Orient (18th), whilst Brentford, Carlisle and Tranmere all face Charlton (league leaders), Sheffield United (fifth) and Sheffield Wednesday (third) respectively.
A busy weekend for the top half of the table, with Notts’ away trip probably giving a huge indication of what the rest of the season holds in store.