Anyone But Curle?

As the dust begins to settle and people start to accept that Martin Allen is a figure of the past, it was quite the relief come Wednesday evening to be able to watch some football again.

Unsurprisingly it was Keith Curle taking charge for the first time at Meadow Lane against a Stevenage side already beaten by County in the league this season.

Since the Mad Dog era came crashing to a halt on Saturday, we’re still not much clearer to the full details behind the dismissal. Stories of trashed hotel rooms, transfer requests and blocked moves for key men such as Alan Judge continue to do the rounds but you’re only left to ponder which is reality and which is fiction.

We’re likely to never know – after all the stories surrounding the firing of Craig Short never made it into the public domain.

Martin Allen can at least walk away head held high for some of his achievements and Notts – whilst also being in the unique position of being a sacked County boss who will be held in great regard for years to come. The board may view things a little differently, but he’ll be welcome back at Meadow Lane anytime.

In the present, it was the man I mentioned right at the very end of my blog on Saturday – Keith Curle – who has been appointed manager. A scary appointment for many, particularly when it’s on a two and a half year contract. The track records of both he and Ray Trew suggests we won’t get anywhere near the duration but let’s reserve judgement.

After all, for all the unanswered questions about the choice of Curle, it’s only on the football field where things will ultimately mean anything.

And so Stevenage Borough came to play – fresh from their draw in the FA Cup on home to Saturday to take Tottenham Hotspur back to White Hart Lane. Notts fans only know too well how much the cup can take out of the gas tank having last year seen an entire season derailed on the back of those two huge encounters with Manchester City.

Borough, in sixth look comfortable in the playoff zone having games in hand over the teams above them so this was a huge test for Curle to face up to – but the starting XI did much to lift spirits.

Gone, and not even on the bench was Ben Burgess. Krystian Pearce came back into the team to accompany Damion Stewart in the middle of defence whilst Jonathan Forte made his first start since returning to Notts.

The opening frames of the match offered further encouragement too. Forte, Kieron Freeman and Alan Judge getting forward and linking up well – one ball on the run in particular from Judgey was an absolute peach, how it wasn’t prodded home to give County the lead will remain a mystery.

It was Judge himself who was to come closest though as he once again rattled the woodwork from just inside the box. It was Kieron Freeman’s ball into the box who found Judgey in space, his first touch may have let him down just slightly but you still would’ve expected him to score.

The visitors rarely threatened meanwhile, offering up the odd scuff from outside of the box.

At half time, Forte made way for Cristian Montano in a like for like switch.

Faced with a resolute defence in the second half Notts too were restricted to trying their luck from distance.

Firstly, a Kieron Freeman drive on the volley from 35 yards produced what will surely be the save of the season at Meadow Lane from visiting stopper Chris Day. The ball looked all the way like it was due to dip in under the crossbar, but it was Day’s fingers that put it over for a corner.

Freeman was the night’s Man Of The Match by a considerable distance – that’s how untouchable he was. Just as capable going forward as he is in defence, if he keeps these performances up for the rest of his loan spell then there’s the very real danger that Notts County’s player of the season could actually be a Nottingham Forest player!

Lee Hughes was next with another volley from closer in, Day equal to the effort once more turning it around the post for a corner. Second half substitute Cristian Montano also tried his luck, driving narrowly over the upright.

For these efforts though, the Borough were largely in control and for the whole second period they looked the more likely to break the deadlock. The passed the ball well in Notts half, but found themselves lacking in the final third.

With the game dropping into two minutes of stoppage time, Notts pressed forward. Captain Neal Bishop – not having the best of nights himself – regained possession of the ball on the edge of the box and found Jeff Hughes. At this very point, the referee appeared to put his whistle to his mouth!

Played continued though, and Jeff’s speculative effort bobbled through the legs of one, and past a goalkeeper rooted to the spot. For the second time this season – Jeff had struck in injury time at Meadow Lane to give Notts three points.

There were fantastic scenes with the relief on the players clear for all to see as they all piled on top of eachother. The game still needed to be secured though – we were still looking at maybe a minute or so to play.

Curle brought Liam Chilvers onto the field in the place of Judge.

Stevenage pressed and threw up the Hail Mary into the Notts box where the ball would fall to Joel Byrom who struck towards goal. The ball bobbled it’s way towards goal and struck the outside of the post and out for a goal-kick. Incredible relief felt all around Meadow Lane bar the pocket of 200 or so Stevenage travellers.

Nelson cleared the goal-kick up field, referee Roger East blew the final whistle.

Notts had won, a second Meadow Lane victory for February having previously gone without since the end of November. It also signals nine points from the last four games – more than the 13 games previous.

Has a corner been turned? Have Notts put that near-disastrous run of form behind them? Too soon to say, obviously. But this is the first time Notts have beaten a top six side – and a team above them in the table since October – that’s enough in itself to draw positives from.

As it stands, Notts have taken six points from a Stevenage side this season who in my opinion will still occupy the final playoff spot.

That said – it’s tight up there. We currently sit five points adrift off the playoff positions- and could quite easily be two points outside come 5pm Saturday. Each defeat spells the end of your playoff aspirations – but then just one win puts you right back in the fold. On paper it’s far from an impossible task for Keith Curle’s new side.

It’s Chesterfield on Saturday. Another side beaten on the road during this campaign. And a chance at four wins in five.

That would be the time to believe the poor form can perhaps be a distant memory. But can you already sense amongst the support that maybe our guard’s have been let down? Chesterfield of course sit second bottom with an eye on a Wembley final next month but being a derby game it’s always harder to pick an outcome.

Two wins out of two for Keith Curle though would certainly go some way to justifying this week’s appointment though.

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