A Sad, But Not Unexpected End

Keith CurleOne year on after defeat Hartlepool cost Martin Allen his job, Keith Curle suffers a similar fate.

Yesterday’s embarrassing defeat up north proved to be the last straw for Notts’ top brass in a decision which can’t really have surprised too many people who have seen County play in the last few months. And let’s be honest – patience isn’t something you can really associate with our club over the past couple of decades.

The reaction to Curle’s appointment nearly 12 months ago was barbaric. Notts County had sacked a popular manager for whom many believed had helped re-established their bond with the club, and replaced him with a man who had left nothing but disappointment in his wake in previous managerial positions.

Slowly though, he would win people over. Just a day after his appointment Notts played host to Stevenage who at the time were fighting for Play-Off spot. Sadly, after months of indifference on the field under Allen, County couldn’t say the same. Many Notts fans turned their backs (momentarily) and wouldn’t even consider giving Curle a fair crack. Thankfully, there more people willing to give him a chance irrespective of whether they particularly liked the appointment.

Jeff Hughes’ last minute winner sent everyone home happy that evening though. It was the first step in attempting to win over a paying crowd for whom the knives were already sharpened. The slightest mis-step was going to be highlighted in the extreme, you could almost sense that it might not be long.

But the start he made at Notts far exceeded the expectations of I would imagine just about anyone. What was a lost season would very quickly become a very real charge at the play-offs. His tenure began with five wins out of six – denied a 100% start only by a last minute Tranmere Rovers equaliser at Prenton Park. The run was capped with an incredible, quite unbelievable 4-2 win away at runaway League One leaders Charlton Athletic.

Consecutive home defeats would follow to Sheffields Wednesday and United. As it would come to pass, it would be the home form that would prove the most costly in the run-in the year – a 4-2 defeat at home to Bury is cited as the day we blew our chances of promotion.

We can’t exactly say the warning signs weren’t there when we look back.

Away from home, things couldn’t be more peachy. But whilst a 0-0 draw in a game dominated at Scunthorpe was a brief stumbling block, the penultimate game of the season will live long in the memory. That was a day that gave everyone the belief that the season could still be extended slightly. Alan Judge’s last minute winner that day has been written about enough – it’ll live on in memory as the high point of Curle’s Notts career.

Ultimately, we’d fall short on goal difference in spite of a 4-1 win at home to Colchester on the final day. The players and management knew they were facing an uphill task that day, but having seen skipper Neal Bishop and Curle at different moments after the final whistle, the disappointment on their faces was obviously visible. They certainly deserved more given the effort they had put in up until that point.

You couldn’t not have built up a respect for Curle for the work he had done in such a short space of time. Our season was dead and buried and he turned us into the form side in the division, and no one can take that away from him regardless of their feelings of him today.

This season however has been a mixed bag, one which over the past few months has gone off the boil horribly. The team has been thoroughly uninspiring on the field for months – it’s little short of a miracle that we still remain within touching distance of the play-offs.  Having started so well, we were told by supporters from other clubs every week that our club would be “up there” at the end of the season. I think back to the opening day against Crewe and how I remember watching us thinking the pieces had fallen together kindly and that we looked like a team that has picked up all the tricks of the League One trade since getting promoted.

With the dipping form, came an alarming drop in attendances – down by 1,500 on average compared to this point last season. Many went to the length of saying they wouldn’t return to Meadow Lane until Curle was banished. In reality – attendances will be down because of a number of factors. At £24, our tickets are amongst the most expensive in the division. The recent weather conditions have had fixtures postponed – some will have given up on attending games even when the pitch passed inspections! But certainly, the lack of value for money offered on the field will certainly be a factor.

It sadly has rarely got so good ever since that first game of the season though. Conversely, what brought about Curle’s downfall can possibly be pinpointed as happening back in the Summer. When the Notts squad numbers for the new season were announced – there was only one talking point. One that personally, I didn’t think would be that big a deal. Lee Hughes had his number nine shirt taken away from him, and saw it handed to Enoch Showunmi. As much as many didn’t feel it to be that big an issue – it was pretty much unanimous that it was unnecessary at least.

From this point, it was evident that relations between the two might become strained. There was talk of Hughesy talking with supporters at pre-season friendlies of how Curle was forcing him out, a loan move to Port Vale would collapse at the very last minute, meanwhile he was limited to playing the role of a squad player for Notts.  What grates for me most – is that Hughes as a squad player was working from Notts County’s perspective. Keith Curle spoke post-match after a game at Scunthorpe that there were “situations” where he could get the most of the 37-year-old striker – and given the majority of his goals would come against sides struggling in the division, I do think KC had a point.

Hughes would eventually get the exit from Notts that he had wanted and would have his contract terminated at the club, freeing him up to get his move to Vale where he has since scored three goals – including two yesterday against ten man Accrington Stanley. Back at Meadow Lane whilst this was rumbling on, top scorer Yoann Arquin was misfiring badly. We had essentially lost goals from two of our most important resources, and this would begin to take a mental toll on a squad of players just petrified in possession of a football as they tried their hardest to protect slender leads.

A failure to sign a natural successor dates back even to the day Hughes came to Meadow Lane. And such an impossible task was always going to go against the manager. Enoch Showunmi has only just begun to show signs of improvement, only to be dropped by his manager for the last two games. Francois Zoko has begun to vanish from games like many Carlisle fans warned us, whilst Yoann Arquin yesterday at Hartlepool looked desperately bereft of confidence when through on goal.

Which is a shame at the end of the day, because much of Curle’s other transfer business is most impressive. Bartosz Bialkowski in goal from Southampton makes League One look easy, Dean Leacock is coolness personified, Gary Liddle has been out of position for all but one half of football this season and is the star signing, and Jamal Campbell-Ryce is a born match-winner on his day. But the Hughes debacle undermines all that, as do questionable singings like the abhorrent Tom Williams.

Players are often given a lift by a new manager being appointed – whether the Notts’ players will have that happen remains to be seen given the lengths they have gone to in interviews and on social media to stress their support for the manager. Perhaps most interestingly, yesterday’s defeat at Hartlepool is possibly the first game in a while that the players haven’t come out in support of their manager.

Maybe that’s unsurprising given that Curle spoke after yesterday’s Hartlepool embarrassment of the difference between “those at the top level”, and “lower league players”. If the limitations of his players has come as a surprise to him, I’d suggest he should’ve made the decision long ago to leave, rather than leave it to Ray Trew this morning? Regardless, his comments yesterday were like reliving those rare post-match Paul Ince interviews.

It is without doubt however that Curle has been let down badly by his players. To a man, I still believe this is one of the best squads in the division – but they’ve been under-performing for months. Yet it’s Curle, the manager who has inevitably bore the brunt of this. They owe it to Curle to see out the rest of the season playing at the levels of ability we know they’re capable of.

There’s no way though that you can dress up today’s firing as anything other than harsh. That we’ve come so far in such a short space of time to be able to sack a manager who has us within five points of the play-offs speaks volumes of how the club is being run now. I wish we could be a club that keeps faith in it’s managers during such an alarming dip in form – but success is vital given the club’s financial position and this is certainly a season that can be salvaged currently. The appointment of the right full time replacement is vital.

Chris Kiwomya has stepped up to take caretaker charge having according to Chief Exec Jim Rodwell discussed the offer with his family. Given that he only lost a son a few months ago, and to my memory hasn’t been back in a working capacity at Meadow Lane long, his braveness is to be commended – but any Notts fan knows the masses won’t be all that sympathetic if he doesn’t hit the ground running. Kiwomya will be no fool and will be more than aware of that though.

The irony that for a second season defeat to Hartlepool has brought in a new manager in time for Stevenage is brilliant (certainly better than Hartley and Poole scoring yesterday for Hartlepool!), whether further lighting can strike twice and we see another run towards the end of the season remains to be seen. Chris Kiwomya will have extensive knowledge of the club’s backup given his time with the development squad as well so that certainly counts in his favour in the respect that he knows what untapped, rarely tested talents Tyrell Waite and Haydn Hollis are actually capable of.

It’s a sad day for the club regardless. Keith Curle came in and was fighting against the tide for the duration of his time in charge and won many people over along the way. Sadly there would come a time when those fighting his corner were outnumbered. The messages of support from Curle have been plentiful as the day has progressed – but where was such support when Keith Curle so desperately needed it?

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