If you watched Friday night’s League One Play-Off Semi without a slight hint of jealousy then I applaud you.
But for me, watching Stevenage and Sheffield United, the feeling that overcame me the most was quite simple – it should have been us.
Bitterness. Jealousy. Anger. All emotions that I felt before I turned the game off at half time. I’m happy to admit it – of course i’m jealous, of either club truth be told! Not that I would wish to take anything away from Stevenage’s achievement though. I’ve been saying for weeks that be it them, Notts County or Carlisle in the Play-Offs then they’ll have earned that right and deserved to be there.
But as the time ticked slowly by, you couldn’t help but pictures the likes of Lloyd Sam and Alan Judge tearing through Sheffield United’s defence. It was hard to picture the demolition job the Blades performed at Meadow Lane not that long ago. They’re a team mentally spent, this wasn’t simply down to the absense of just that one player. They would’ve been there for the taking and you knew it. I’d bet Keith Curle knew it too if he were watching.
It all adds to a most frustrating end of season. Whilst Curle’s side was clinching a 4-1 victory, Bury were substituting three of the standout players from their Meadow Lane victory just two weeks ago. Bury concede two further goals to condemn Notts to another year in League One.
Not saying for a second there’s a conspiracy – but it certainly must add to the annoyance? Or is it simply that we’re still trying to pin down where it all went wrong and why we didn’t have a game on Friday? And if needs be we’ll look away from our own flaws?
If Notts are to grow from the experience, they’ll be looking far closer to home.
What of the dropped points throughout the rest of the season? Three of the four defeats that led to Martin Allen’s dismissal had come from games when Notts were in a winning position – and all away from home. Not that County weren’t guilty of dropping points under Keith Curle either. In injury time and with five straight wins beckoning, Tranmere Rovers’ equaliser at Prenton Park cost what could’ve been a vital two points.
After successive defeats against the two Sheffield sides, County only went on to drop points in three games. Of those you can’t really look at Brentford as much of a failure. That was simply a great point against one of the division’s most in-form sides.
So maybe it’s Scunthorpe – where Lee Hughes smashed a header against the crossbar from six yards out, or Alan Judge put the ball into the stands when faced with an open goal from 25-yards. That was a day when the side did everything but score though. By far the better side over the 90 minutes it was harsh to come away with no more than a point.
And so we’re left with the easy answer – Bury at Meadow Lane. That 4-2 defeat in the early kick-off ensured Notts would lose their place in the division’s top six whatever happened in the 3pm starts. We all know by now it could’ve been a very different outcome had Lee Hughes’ header after 16 seconds found the back of the net.
But what character Notts County showed in those two remaining games to keep themselves in the picture. Trailing three times at a side fighting for their League One status before finding a winner in added time. Then having the nerve to ensure Stevenage would spend the final day of fixtures looking over their shoulders as Notts put the game to bed early against Colchester.
To come back with such heart after the abject failure against Bury should offer us much hope in the close season.
When Curle replaced Martin, he only one had objective laid out for him – get to 50 points and clinch League One football for another year. It was a task he passed after just four games, but the play-off charge was certainly never on the agenda. Three defeats in 16 later and Notts ended the season as the fourth most in-form side ahead of three of the four sides competing in this weekend’s semi-finals, and scoring more goals than any other side in the process.
His second task was to oversee a wholesale clearout of overpaid and underachieving wasters, inexperienced youths or simply those he considered to be not good enough for where Notts County want to be.
There weren’t all that many surprises really were there? Many expressed their surprise at the release of Stuart Nelson (an ever present in the season just passed) who was always going to be rated as a 50/50 chance of being offered a new deal. Meanwhile Liam Mitchell was retained, alongside the youth and experience of Haydn Hollis and Mike Edwards. Gavin Mahon also joined them in being offered new terms.
In amongst those unsurprisingly shown the door were Ben Burgess (himself indulging in a spot of play-off action this weekend with Cheltenham), Karl Hawley and John Spicer.
One other player on a decent wage being moved on was Liam Chilvers. Despite being amongst the first names on the teamsheet in the final third of the season, it was too little too late for the player who came back from Port Vale rejuvenated earlier this year.
Krystian Peace has also been transfer listed with Derby County thought to be sniffing around. A player so obviously out of favour yet still commanding a six figure fee? Makes all the right kinds of sense.
Is anyone else set to leave? Sad to say that Notts will face a massive task on their hands this Summer to keep a hold of Alan Judge beyond this Summer. Leicester and Sheffield Wednesday have both been linked with moves for Notts’ Fan’s and Player’s Player Of The Year. Could some of the freed up finances of the clearout and Pearce’s potential transfer perhaps find their way into Judge’s bank balance perhaps?
If the worst does happen – don’t expect to be told of the transfer fee (see also: Ben Davies and Craig Westcarr), but anything less than six zeros is quite simply too derogatory.
And so the rebuilding process begins and with all the right noises being made in the press and on the rumour mill. Kieron Freeman has suggested he would be open to returning next season, Daniel Bogdanovic is said to be preferring to remain in England whilst Lloyd Sam is reportedly considering an offer that Notts have put on the table for him. Immediately the only other loanee I would want to see back is Johnny Forte who surely won’t stand a chance of getting into his parent club’s squad with them having just been promoted to the Premier League?
The League One landscape next season is likely to be a very different one to that which stood this year.
Gone already are the behemouths of Charlton Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday – joining them shortly could be Sheffied United, Huddersfield or MK Dons. In their place coming down from the Championship are the crisis-ridden likes of Doncaster Rovers, Coventry City and Portsmouth.
Curle’s squad is down to the bare-boned essentials as we stand with only seven men (out of a possible 13) who played in League One last year confirmed as being part of the team. Having trimmed the fat though he’s able to build now towards a smaller, more competitive squad to launch an assault on automatic promotion in 2012/13.
It’d be far too cliched to end off by mentioning how bright the future is, but the facts are it’s been a great end to the season, there’s been some successful squad trimming, and it all goes towards taking on a potentially weaker League One.
Just take stock of that for now and let it wash away any residual disappointment going into the pre-season break and realise – these are good times.