Notts kicked off their season with a 2-1 opening day win at Crewe Alexandra – marking the first time since the late 90s that the club has won on the first day of the season two campaigns in a row.
With much still being made of the selection of Tom Williams after the League Cup horror show last weekend, it was a relief to see Julian Kelly brought back into the side in the place of Carl Regan. Certainly he would turn in the sort of performance we all knew that he would.
Regarding Williams though – dare I say Keith Curle got lucky? At times last season, KC would make substitutions that would more often than not swing games in our favour. Yesterday though his hand was forced by an early injury to Williams. Joss Labadie came on, taking a space in the middle of the park whilst Gary Liddle reverted to centre back.
And his partnership with Dean Leacock would be one of the stories of the afternoon, both players looking the established pairing for the afternoon. So much so I’d argue it’s already solved our defensive problems for the time-being – Damion Stewart certainly shouldn’t be waiting for a phone call any time soon.
Looking largely comfortable for long periods in the first half, it was a debut goal from Francois Zoko that saw County go in at half time a goal up. Superb linkup play from Yoann Arquin, Jeff Hughes and Alan Judge saw Julian Kelly run loose down the right before his cross was volleyed in by Zoko. Five minutes before the interval, it was no less than Keith Curle’s side had deserved.
With quarter of an hour played in the second period, the game was to be put further out of the hosts reach when Judge’s cross was diverted into the path of Arquin who slotted the ball home with home goalkeeper Martin left wrong-footed. There had been nothing to suggest Crewe could get back into the game – and elsewhere with Crawley and Doncaster Rovers putting goals away for fun, you sensed Notts could do the same and make things a little bit more interesting. An opening day top position didn’t feel that unlikely.
Certainly the attacking play between Arquin, Judge and Labadie suggested there was more to come.
Until Yoann’s quite stupid red card. When he joined from Hereford in the Summer, we were warned of his temperament and it only took an hour to see why. His kick out at Alex’s captain Ashley Westwood was one of huge petulance – but Westwood’s reaction was vile, taking a good two or three steps before hitting the deck like a sack of the proverbial.
Regardless, by the letter of the law Arquin had to go – the theatrics certainly won’t have helped matters with a referee who never had control of the game at any point in the afternoon.
This was the cue for Notts to sit back and invite pressure. Different manager, same old Notts.
The last half hour of the game was to be one where County would need to hold their resolve – and bar one sloppy goal from a corner, a back post header from Pogba which goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski should have done better for was all Crewe would have to show for their possession. Pogba shouldn’t have even been on the field following a high challenge on Kelly in the first half.
It was that prat Westwood again who so nearly got the equaliser in the last minute – but his drive from the edge of the area was somewhat awkwardly cleared off the line by (of all people to be back there) substitute Lee Hughes. It was the second time Notts had to deny Crewe with last-ditch on the line defending – Alan Sheehan also mucking in earlier in the half.
A draw would’ve been harsh though on County, this was a fully deserved win in a game where they imposed a physical dominance which we hadn’t seen previously. It obviously wasn’t lost on Curle how the only games we lost under him last season were those in which we were bullied off the ball at every turn – yesterday’s Gresty Road victory was merely the result of what our players have picked up in their two years at this level.
Crewe though should take pride in their display. They’ll have complaints about how the game played out, particularly the match official (I should point out, he was awful for both sides). But League One is not easy to get to grips with – only two of the seven sides new to the division picked up wins yesterday. It’s taken us long enough to acclimatise in the third tier, that’s all Crewe are going through now.
For Notts, it’s a great start ahead of two consecutive home games in the next seven days. Hartlepool (beaten 5-0 last week at Crewe) are the visitors Tuesday night, before hosting Walsall (lost 3-0 yesterday) next Saturday.
The quality, attacking football is in place. The physicality and strength on the ball certainly is. And thus far, the signings look to have added plenty. Without going overboard with one win, things are shaping up pretty nicely. Ending Crewe’s 20-match unbeaten run is certainly an ideal statement to make in the first game of the season.