The Playoff Charge Continues

Five minutes deep into injury time, and mere seconds away from League One safety for another year, Jeffrey Schlupp strikes for Brentford to ensure there is still relegation to worry about in our two remaining games.

That was Easter Monday 2011 – fast forward to this year, and a Lloyd Sam hat-trick has just lifted Notts into the last remaining playoff spot. It’s been that good a 12 months!

Monday’s 3-1 home win over Yeovil Town marks a third straight win following victorys over Oldham Athletic and Leyton Orient. Starting with the goalless draw away at Scunthorpe, the response to the Sheffield United mauling has been bang on.

Oldham last weekend was a largely pedestrian affair. Very little to separate either side and Alan Sheehan’s winner certainly looked out of place in the occasion. His screaming drive from the edge of the box in the last minute saw the game off late in a game that looked destined for a second Notts stalemate in succession.

It was also yet another goal of the season contender – we’re certainly spoilt for choice this year as opposed to last year when Neal Bishop’s header versus Manchester City won almost by default.

One of the bigger talking points though was again the crowd’s acceptance of Keith Curle.

Booing rang out around Meadow Lane at the replacement of the as-ever dangerous Alan Judge for Gavin Mahon. With five minutes to go and deadlock on the cards, it was a puzzler even for those firmly behind KC.

But we won, 1-0. Surely a justified substitution? Whether the switch had that big an impact on the game is open to interpretation – but the fact is we won. Is Keith Curle lucky? Or unbeknownst to many it still seems – perhaps he actually does know what he’s doing? The people wanted a change, they got it. Just because it wasn’t the one they’d have expected doesn’t make it any less appropriate.

Notts sat in seventh place, four points behind Carlisle who were beating Huddersfield Town the same afternoon. Backing up a win the week previous against MK Dons, their apparent “easy run-in” was proving to be less so.

The Good Friday fixture in east London at Leyton Orient was another game of tactical chess it would appear for Notts.

A largely dour first half in which Notts were grateful for Stuart Nelson passed by with very little threat from County. Though by the end of the game it maybe felt like 3-0 was a bit flattering. Soaking up any pressure that Orient were able to sustain, Curle’s team struck with opportunistic strikes in the final 20 minutes from Damion Stewart, Jeff Hughes and (not for the last time this Easter) Lloyd Sam.

Sam’s 97th minute goal came just moments after news broke of a Wycombe equaliser against Carlisle – their lead in sixth place had been cut to two points. Just for once a late goal in a Carlisle fixture was to Notts’ advantage!

By Monday evening, Keith Curle had led his squad to six points over Easter – only one of four sides in the division to do so (the other three currently occupy the top three places). We also served out retribution for a third straight game in which we’d lost the reverse fixture.

But it’s no understatement to suggest a bullet was dodged.

Early doors, Yeovil’s game plan looked quite simple and above all else, cynical. Anyone that scouted the games against both Sheffield sides will know if Notts are muscled off the ball then they struggle. But not on this day. No amount of late tackles made an ounce of difference other than a few bumps and bruises the next morning!

The first half lead of 1-0 was likely as comfortable as we’re going to see this season. Sam again on the scoresheet quite fortuitously considering Jeff Hughes who played him in was offside. Not that we’re in a position to care really though!

The second half began as a slow affair with Notts rarely under any pressure. If a substitution was even necessary, it’d be to chase more goals.

But a double-switch of Lee Hughes and Daniel Bogdanovic for Gavin Mahon and Dele Adebola had a shade of the Martin Allens about it though.

Dele, in his first game since his debut against the Blades of Sheffield United started slowly taking time to get into it.

Ten minutes later and Yeovil had their equaliser when Liam Chilvers had lost his man on the byline. The ball came in and Julian Kelly, seemingly caught in two minds put the ball squarely into the path of Jonathan Franks who buried the ball in the roof of the net. A complete calamity.

It was then (again like under Allen) County kicked up a gear and pushed for the winner having been pegged back. But the thinking was that they might have left it a little bit too late. Again.

As has been the case in these last three wins though, get up and leave early and you’re likely to pay for it.

Lloyd Sam’s late brace saw him complete a hat-trick, the first at Meadow Lane since Craig Westcarr’s against Hereford in February 2010.

Again, more good fortune came his way for the second where just maybe Yeovil goalkeeper Walker had the ball under control. But still with an open goal, the time it took for Sam to roll the ball home felt like an eternity sat behind the goal!

His third there was no doubt about though, curling home beautifully from a tight angle. A much deserved hat-trick, and a fifth goal in five starts since coming in on loan from Leeds United – a quite brilliant signing.

Elsewhere though things were even better than we realised for Notts.

Scunthorpe United had held Carlisle to a goalless draw, as had Hartlepool with the division’s form team Brentford. 12 months on from fearing relegation, thoughts now turned to the very realistic chance that we’ll be extending our season beyond May 5th. The playoffs are very much within touching distance.

Notts now head to London this coming Saturday for another of those “biggest games of the season” – Brentford away, scene of a horror show last year in which Paul Ince’s County somehow came home with a point despite finishing with nine men and being pummelled for 90 minutes.

The Bees sit in eighth place knowing full well that a win would see them leapfrog Notts County by means of their superior goal difference. A win though for KC and the ‘Pies cements sixth place ahead of Carlisle’s crucial game in hand next Tuesday at Stevenage Borough.

Of slightly less significance would be that three points this Saturday would make Notts the only side to win all three London fixtures in League One this season – an above acceptable turnaround from no wins there last year.

The treble is most definitely on!

THE RUN-IN – 25 DAYS REMAIN

Whilst Notts move into the top six with four games to spare, it’s worth remembering that Carlisle do still have a game in hand against a suddenly-less threatening Stevenage next Tuesday.

Keith Curle’s team have four games left, starting with the trickiest of course this Saturday: Brentford a, Bury h, Wycombe a, Colchester h.

Carlisle’s five remaining fixtures do include two of the current top three sides in the division – and they may be without top scorer Lee Miller for the remainder: Charlton h, Stevenage a, Sheffield Wednesday a, Exeter h, Oldham a.

Uwe Rosler’s Brentford still have Sheffield Wednesday and Stevenage in their near future also – their trip to Hillsborough could prove to be pivotal in the playoff chase: Notts h, Stevenage a, Sheffield Wednesday h, Chesterfield a.

Trailing now by six points despite one defeat in their last nine are Stevenage – but that run includes seven draws! Their game in hand with Carlisle comes next Tuesday, but they could in truth be out of the picture by then: Yeovil a, Carlisle h, Brentford h, Sheffield United a, Bury h.

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