UNTANGLING NOTTS

David McVay on Notts County’s present – and the past...

The Football League Paper - - NEWS -

WHILE high and pun­dits look down and marvel at Gareth Southgate’s for­ma­tion or sali­vate over Chelsea’s vi­tal statis­tics, lesser mor­tals back on Planet Foot­ball may be cast­ing an ad­mir­ing glance in the di­rec­tion of Meadow Lane.

A deep de­pres­sion hung over the home of the world’s old­est Foot­ball League club as the new year plod­ded into life. A club record ten con­sec­u­tive de­feats had stranded Notts County just one point above the rel­e­ga­tion places, their fans de­sert­ing a side in tur­moil and the hugely unloved stew­ard­ship of owner Ray Trew.

Formed in 1862 and founder mem­bers of the League, County ap­peared des­tined to start their 156th year in ex­is­tence out­side the top four di­vi­sions for the first time in their his­tory.

But, as en­dur­ing Mag­pies fans know, times can change. Dra­mat­i­cally.

When Kevin Nolan re­placed John Sheri­dan, fol­low­ing Alan Hardy’s takeover from Trew in Jan­uary, opin­ion was di­vided on the man­age­rial ap­point­ment, some won­der­ing if he was in­deed a long-lost brother that the singing sis­ters of the 1970s never knew.

Nolan, how­ever, has proved to be in the mood for more than just danc­ing, guid­ing a hith­erto ram­shackle and in­sipid squad to ap­par­ent safety, a healthy dis­tance and points above the bot­tom-two drop zone that leads to the Na­tional League. Fun­nily enough, a sim­i­lar pat­tern emerged at Meadow Lane just as a new sea­son dawned 40 years ago in 1977. While Trew hired and fired 11 man­agers dur­ing his seven-year stint at the Lane, Notts re­quired just two dur­ing the same pe­riod from 1969: Jimmy Sir­rel and Ron­nie Fen­ton. Ron­nie suc­ceeded Jimmy when he left for Sh­effield United in 1975, but he did not have the same con­fi­dence in me as his pre­de­ces­sor. Thus, with ex­pec­ta­tions high as the 1977 cam­paign be­gan, he sent me on loan to Torquay United. Geo­graph­i­cally, spar­ing the ex­pense of a long-haul flight to Syd­ney or a slow boat to China, this was as far as he could jet­ti­son me with­out at­tach­ing me to the bar­rel of a can­non and sign­ing me up for Fred Karno’s Cir­cus as Davido: The Hu­man Tor­pedo.

Then again, since Ron­nie al­ways felt my foot­ball acu­men was more suited for the Big Top, per­haps Torquay was, af­ter all, sec­ond choice.

Still, he could not con­tain his de­light in telling me to leave, along with all of my boots.

Es­teemed

“What both pairs? The studs and moulded, boss?” I asked, cor­rectly as­sum­ing the train ticket to Torquay was also of the one-way va­ri­ety. Who could blame him?

Shortly af­ter, with Notts ma­rooned in the rel­e­ga­tion places of what is now the Cham­pi­onship, Ron­nie was sacked, al­low­ing the es­teemed Sir­rel his sec­ond com­ing to Meadow Lane and my own re­turn to the fa­mous old club from ex­ile on the Devon Riviera.

What fol­lowed from that Oc­to­ber re­union was a strug­gle to avoid the drop, cul­mi­nat­ing in a sig­nif­i­cant draw at Stoke City on the last full week­end of a long sea­son, our next-to-last game of a bruis­ing sea­son.

There was more than a touch of the old guard on pa­rade at the Vic­to­ria Ground that day. Stoke, in eighth, were safe, but just four points above us in a league ta­ble that had be­come tighter than County chair­man Jack Dun­nett’s pay rises. Howard Ken­dall lacked pace, but he could still a pass a ball as el­e­gantly as the best at that level. Terry Con­roy, Viv Busby and Garth Crooks added pace to their guile and Bren­dan O’Cal­laghan’s height up front. De­servedly, we went in front, but then Crooks, from a hashed clear­ance, zoomed down on goal­keeper Eric McManus and lashed the equaliser from close range. A game we were coast­ing had sud­denly be­come a siege. Sir­rel was fran­tic

Rest­ful

Blackpool, who in Fe­bru­ary were on the fringes of the pro­mo­tion po­si­tions, were rel­e­gated to the third tier for the first time, on 37 points. Above them were seven teams one point bet­ter off. Black­burn Rovers, who fin­ished fifth, were just seven points ahead of that pack. It was a crazy league in a re­mark­able sea­son. Of course, there was a down­side. A month ear­lier, the en­emy across the River Trent, known to many as Not­ting­ham For­est, had clinched the First Divi­sion ti­tle, man­aged by one Brian Clough. Things would never be the same. Nolan’s Notts County play Blackpool in their penul­ti­mate game of the cam­paign. By then, sup­port­ers of the old­est League club in the world should be en­joy­ing rest­ful sleeps. Long be­fore then, the play­ers should also be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the eu­pho­ria of a job well done and safety guar­an­teed. If so, I will know how they feel. on the bench. “David, David, get back and tuck in, son. Get be­yond (Ray) O’Brien. Je­sus, Jack­son, eh son, it’s sim­ple enough eh!” and (physio) Jack Wheeler con­ceded yet an­other slap on the thigh with his cus­tom­ary good grace and nod of the head.

“You f ***** g beau­ties.” Sir­rel was ec­static in the dress­ing room, giv­ing ev­ery player a hug and kiss.

With Mans­field and Hull City al­ready down, the point was enough to keep County up.

PIC­TURE: Dan West­well

MIS­SION (nearly) AC­COM­PLISHED: County man­ager Kevin Nolan is steer­ing the Mag­pies to safety, with the help of Alan Smith, left ON THE CHARGE: County’s Steve Carter. Inset: Jimmy Sir­rel

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