Back On Track

Almost two months to the day since Notts County last won at home (dispatching Portsmouth from Meadow Lane with consumate ease), Paolo Di Canio’s traveling circus pulled up in NG2 hoping to heap more pressure on Keith Curle after another tumultuous week in the club’s recent past.

After last week’s 2-2 draw at Scunthorpe, hopes would’ve been high going into the new week having seen a glimpse of the old Lee Hughes. He would be unsurprisingly back on the bench for Tuesday’s game at Preston North End – only to be handed a three match ban later for an off the ball elbow back at Glanford Park.

Worse for many was to follow, with the news breaking on Thursday afternoon that Hughesy would be upping sticks in his quest for more first team football. Port Vale was to be his destination for a loan until January – with ominously a permanent move on the table by that point.

By Friday morning, the move was off. Meanwhile the club had also acted to bring in Chris Iwelumo (from this point, I’ll be naming him Elmo more often than not). Like Bartosz Bialowski before him, he arrived at the club with his own YouTube video nasty – a gaping miss from two yards on his Scotland debut some years back. This however was a player who played the vast majority of Watford’s games in the Championship last season. There was a distinct lack of goals from this striker, but to hold down a first team place in light of that obviously means there’s something about the big forward.

Swindon’s visit was just the latest in a quite hellacious run of home games. Previously unbeaten Stevenage Town, top of the table Tranmere Rovers, a born again Eddie Howe-helmed Bournemouth, and fellow play-off rivals Doncaster Rovers and Crawley Town had all come before with Notts snapping up a total of just two points from a possible 15. Were it not for the quite superb away from, Notts County would not be sitting sixth in the table this evening.

Notts began the game kicking towards the family stand and had their first effort on goal inside the first two minutes. Alan Judge found the ball at his feet, working himself space in the box to fire away. He can’t connect properly and his shot is easily saved.

It was a bright start from the home side. Inside the first three minutes, Francois Zoko had already taken two chances to run at players down the left channel, much to the excitement of an obviously anxious home crowd. Back in front of the Kop, a Swindon free-kick comes in – Julian Kelly (back in the side after injury) leaves it to bounce over him for De Vita to collect. He puts it back across but the ball goes wide from Collins’ slide. If it were Carl Regan making that mistake (and he did against Tranmere), we wouldn’t hear the end of it.

With six minutes played, the long ball is flicked on by Elmo into Zoko, he gets into the area but his cross falls to Bishop on the edge of the area who drives into a crowd box. It hits Jeff Hughes when almost certainly it was goalward! Note who starts the move? The new lad Elmo, winning one of countless balls all afternoon on a superb debut. If he wasn’t winning the ball, the match official was waving away our appeals of being manhandled!

Shortly after, Alan Judge wins a free-kick and Swindon’s John Bostock is booked. The crowd goes wild – possibly in light of the refereeing display last time out at Meadow Lane, but also for Di Canio’s histrionics! Sheehan’s free-kick is tipped over having been struck down the throat of Wes Foderingham in the Swindon goal. With 14 minutes played, Jeff Hughes’ shot in the area is deflected into the air or an easy save for Foderingham from Judgey’s cross.

Notts force the next opportunity as a goalmouth scramble sees Bishop’s goalbound shot blocked. The resulting corner results in a header flicked agonisingly wide by Jeff Hughes. This was as good a start as Notts made to any game this season anywhere.

A day removed from Notts nearly losing it’s goalscoring legend, the first “Lee Hughes is a goal machine” chants break out on 19 minutes. Happily, they die out after seconds and aren’t heard from again. No one needs reminding of what Lee Hughes is (I’m aware of the comments that could follow from me saying that), but perhaps they do need reminding that leaving Meadow Lane is entirely Lee’s decision?

With a quarter of the game played, Swindon arrive in the match. Their first chance falls from a distinct lack of communication in the area, it allows Andy Williams to fire off a shot but it’s brilliantly saved by Bialkowski. It’s not the last time Notts will be grateful for the massive Pole in this game. He again saves Notts, tipping Collins’ shot onto the post for another corner. After a good Notts start, it’s two Bartosz saves that have proved the difference.

With the visitors looking to turn the screw, it was Alan Judge who opened the scoring from 25 yards – Foderingham rooted to his spot! He doesn’t score tap ins does Judgey – another out of this world strike to add to his collection. A hint of handball in how he collected the ball though. Nevermind!

An off the ball tussle between Bishop and Swindon’s Matt Richie just off the half-way line sends Di Canio ballistic once again on 30 minutes, the crowd love it – it has it’s panto villain similarly to how they did last season with Brentford and Uwe Rosler. His players meanwhile at least appreciate the job they have to do – and they had the ball in the net through a Collins header. Bialkowski undone for the only time in the game – saved though thanks to a late, late offside flag.

By this point there’s a hint that the referee has lost control, Elmo is used for a bit of recreational climbing with alarming regularity but the official is having none of it.

With Notts relying on Judgey’s relentless energy levels, the Robins meanwhile have Richie – making his return to Meadow Lane. Having found the ball from Andre Boucaud’s chest down, Richie scuffs his effort wide on 36 minutes.

He at this point began a personal battle with Bialkowski in the Notts goal. In the 41st minute, Swindon nutmeg the referee with a free-kick, the ball drops to Richie again who’s drive is better this time – but Bartosz saves well down low.

As it was in the Crawley game at Meadow Lane, getting to half-time would be crucial if Notts were to take anything from the match. Where they failed against that Town, they succeeded against this one.

For all the excitement, and all the chances created by both sides in the first half, the second half would be a far scrappier affair. With Graham Westley’s “park the bus” comments still likely ringing in the ears of the Notts players, it was a backs to the wall performance in the second period. Possession swung far more in the visitors favour.

There were few chances created in total I’d hazard a guess at – but the ones that did fall were far more clear cut this time around. The first shot of the half would belong Swindon after a five minute spell in which Notts barely had a sniff of the ball. Danger is avoided though.

Straight to the other end and Alan Judge’s superb cross is stooped to by Elmo, but his diving header is fantastically saved by Foderingham. There’ll be no temper tantrum from Di Canio today about a goalkeeper he so painfully slated publicly some weeks back! Quick update: Elmo meanwhile is still winning nothing from the referee.

It’s Richie again who’s wizardry finds him firing in a shot at Bialkowski – it’s brilliantly saved again. Just after, a corner comes in with Notts’ number one more than equal to the header that comes in. By this point already, it feels like the easiest Man Of The Match decision you could ever hope to find.

It’s not until 80 minutes that new boy Iwelumo wins a free-kick for being fouled. The Kop and Pavis Stands rise in irony. Not quite the scenes we saw at home to Crawley – but quite frankly not that far off. Sadly it comes to nothing, such is Notts’ profligate attitude towards the ball in the second half.

Richie by this point is gagging even further for a goal – likely spurred by the County Reject chants that have now reverberated from behind Foderingham’s goal. His free-kick on 86 minutes is right down the throat of Bartosz who punches to safety.

With the 90 minute mark rapidly approaching, and despite earlier warnings from the referee, Paolo Di Canio makes his way onto the field – this time incensed that Notts’ Andre Boucaud is down injured. Looking to be in a fair bit of discomfort, he’s replaced by Yoann Arquin.

The fourth of official raised the board to reveal five minutes added time. There are understandably sizable groans from three sides of Meadow Lane. Richie seizes the opportunity to renew his battle with Bartosz. He fires another shot from distance but it’s the goalkeeper who comes out on top. For his sheer domination in-between the sticks, Swindon do almost get their equaliser when a cross from the left is dipping under the crossbar. Backtracking, Bialkowski tips it over his crossbar – it as good as wins Notts the game as the referee blows his whistle shortly after.

Such was the nature of Notts’ display, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d just added to our away run! No side has come to Meadow Lane this season and bossed a half of football like Swindon Town did – and in so many ways that suited County to the ground, it’s where they thrive! Three richly deserved points in the bag, and a win that lifts Notts back into the play-offs spots in sixth place – just two points away from second place. Getting back on track at home was always going to be an ugly affair but this was a huge three points against a side above them in the table.

Having disregarded the ego-maniacal rantings of Graham Westley last week, and now dealing with the theatrics of Paolo Di Canio, it’s the quite frankly repulsive Steve Evans and his Rotherham side standing in Notts way next week. A trip to the New York Stadium for an FA Cup Second Round tie might not come at the right time for Notts, but with potential third round reaches the prize it’s perhaps a more valuable away day than those that have come in recent months?

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