Saturday, March 3rd 2012 – the day when our playoff dream became very much a reality?
Three consecutive 1-0 wins under Keith Curle had given Notts a fighting chance of hitting the top six again, and against his stiffest competition yet KC delivered the goods – and with one of the best displays from a Notts side in months.
In a contest between the sides in seventh and eighth at the start of play, it was goals from Jonathan Forte and Alan Sheehan who clinched the fourth straight win and clean sheet of the Curle era. And not one player in pinstripes (can we go back to black and white yet?) put in a poor performance either, there were positives up and down the length of the field.
Cristian Montano missed the game, limping away from Meadow Lane around 2.30pm having failed a late fitness test – if he even took one, his hobbling would suggest it wasn’t worth the effort.
It was the visitors though who forged the first opportunity when Jeff Hughes needed to be at his sharpest on the line as Lee Miller rose to head a corner towards goal. It was turned around the post by Hughes, the importance of having men on the post never being more evident.
Forte’s second goal of his latest tenure at Notts came courtesy of a peach of a cross from Alan Judge on the right wing, nodded back across goal for 1-0. Forte was outstanding all afternoon. As strong as an ox, full of pace and a right pain in the proverbial all afternoon. It wouldn’t be stretching the point to say it was amongst the most complete performances from a striker we’ve seen all season.
Minutes later and it was 2-0. It was Sheehan this time curling a free-kick in from a few yards outside the area. Just as good a dead ball strike we’ll see all season.
The game was more or less killed off at this point in the contest. Carlisle toiled to get back into the game but found no way past the County defence. For all the anxious moments of their possession, chances were few and far between.
Just a minute into the second half though, they should’ve got their goal.
At times this year, Notts’ concentration levels have been questioned at the restarts – none more so now as Paddy Madden found himself in space inside the box only to scuff his volley to the right of Nelson’s goal.
With an hour played, Curle made a substitution, one which did raise the odd question.Gavin Mahon came on for the brilliant Ben Burgess who had put the kind of shift in that he does all too rarely – that sort that makes you understand why so many managers keep the faith with him, but which we don’t see enough of.
2-0 up at home, and we were going defensive. Shades of Martin Allen almost.
But fair play, it worked! Just another moment that makes you appreciate how much Curle has been learning in his years next to Neil Warnock. Is it too soon to start saying the appointment of KC has already been justified? I’d suggest so, but we do seem to be approaching that time at a frightening pace.
The win (coupled with Stevenage’s 1-1 draw) pushes Notts into sixth place – back inside the playoff positions for the first time since the beginning of December. You need only look at the table to appreciate already how far we’ve come this season. Just look at the company we find ourselves in within the playoff positions – Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons and Huddersfield.
If the entire division hadn’t been lumbered with some right behemoths this year – those would usually be your top three.
And now compare tomorrow’s trip to Tranmere Rovers to last seasons for a second. Last year we were heading for League Two at record speed on the back of nine straight defeats – in the present we stand a very realistic chance of extending our season beyond May 5th. This is a journey that Martin Allen started that night in Birkenhead.
Tranmere however will be doing the completely illogical thing where a change of manager somehow spurs you on and helps bury your dismal form of recent times. One win in twenty they may be, but fan favourite Ronnie Moore has returned and will take charge against Notts.
They’re only one point outside the relegation zone – but have only lost three games at home all season, only one more than us. There’s easily enough talent on the Notts County books to take three points, but complacency could easily prove to be the biggest enemy tomorrow night.
We’ve entered the top six, but now we need to stay there ahead of a chasing pack of two – each with two games in hand (come Wednesday evening, Stevenage will have three). What a change it makes for County to not be the team with games in hand though.
To add to this though, is the potentially very harsh run of fixtures.
Saturday is a trip to the team who are winning League One quite comfortably – Charlton Athletic. It’s the first of three games we face during our run in that’ll be in the country’s capital – and the Addicks possess one of only two unbeaten home records in the Football League.
At the time of writing this – these are the two form sides of League One.
After a week off, Notts head back to Meadow Lane for a Sheffield double header – beginning with Wednesday on Saturday, and United the following Tuesday. Two of the bigger sides in the division obviously, but we saw little in the away fixtures to suggest Notts should be scared of picking up some points in these.
It’s because of those next three games that victory at (don’t laugh) Fortress Prenton is so vital. It might have been considered hard work to get back into the playoff picture – but staying there now will be the bigger test.
Keith Curle has already said he’s targeting fifth place which makes perfect sense. Why put a run of form together like this only to settle for sixth?
The longer we string results together, the more belief it encourages out of the supporters that the playoffs and beyond might just be within our grasp.