Love or loathe Joey Barton, his role in BT Sport’s TV adaption of Michael Calvin’s excellent book ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ has been almost prophetic for Notts County. Critical of the comfy circumstances many Premier League academy players find themselves in, Barton questioned scholars and their desire to step out of the comfort zones of plush green training pitches, formulaic u23 football and take his first team shirt.
His advice? Don’t be afraid to drop down the divisions.
“I don’t see kids from big clubs saying ‘Well I’m not playing here, I want to play. I want to go and get a load of League Two games under my belt’. They’re scared to go down the divisions”.
So credit to the likes of Noor Husin and Will Patching who have done just that. Husin arrived at Meadow Lane from Crystal Palace in January on the back of 11 loan appearances for Accrington Stanley the previous season, making 13 appearances for Notts in 2018 and claiming the club’s Goal of the Season. His composure and eye for a pass was enough for fans like myself to see him as an exciting addition to the workmanlike midfield Nolan had established in the early part of 17/18. With arguably a more mobile front two to supply, Husin’s attributes could be even more important as the new campaign begins.
Patching joins Notts on the back of 12 years at Manchester City’s academy and international honours at u16 and u18. Though not as experienced as Husin, his interview after signing suggested a determination to prove himself on the professional stage having never had even a loan move previously.
Notts’ own retained list supports Barton’s assessment that game time is much more crucial to player development than simply the day-to-day development in training. Elliot Hodge and Callum Saunders were both released with only a handful of appearances to show for a season at Notts, while the likes of Bird, Osborne and Howes can look forward to at least another season thanks, in part, to loan moves to the likes of Alfreton and Grantham. One former Notts employee was very vocal on social media about the drawbacks of loan spells in the lower divisions, but clearly such experiences have done these players the world of good. Osborne in particular earned rave reviews for his role in helping Grantham achieve a play-off final place and can only have increased his thirst for more.
Not that we always get it right. Luther Wildin’s move to Stevenage via Nuneaton and a spell at Jamie Vardy’s V9 Academy, as well as international football for Antigua, is seen by some fans as a regrettable decision when we are looking to support Tootle’s position at right back. But it again supports the assertion that players simply need to play. And that’s where we as a club need to be brave.
It’s incredibly easy to sit here in June and extol the virtues (pun intended) of playing youth in the hope of developing a quality player, but last season’s fifth place finish has only heightened expectations. And when the stakes are high, fans’ tolerance for a player still learning his trade is tested. Matty Virtue’s inclusion became questioned as points became increasingly linked to the promotion prize. Should Notts stutter in September, fans will need to remain resolute in their support for the likes of Fitzsimons, Husin, Patching, Crawford and any other promising player who joins the promotion-chasing squad. Because if Notts are going to make themselves viable, both in a sporting and financial sense, they need to exploit the potential offered by these players.
The evolution to a more youthful Notts side will be an interesting dimension to Kevin Nolan’s management too. Thanks to Ben Mayhew’s excellent data via @experimental361, it became clear that Notts boasted one of the oldest squads in the division, with an average age of well over 30 for its most used 11. And even when substitutions were made, cameos from Alan Smith and Nicky Hunt or the redemption of Jonathan Forte only increased that reputation – much to the delight of Bet365 every time one of our aged campaigners appeared.
In his defence, Nolan can point to giving regular game time to young players like Grant, Yates and Virtue. But chances were not quite as available for Notts’ own young players – with only Elliot Hewitt playing what can be considered as consistently, despite fans’ desire to see Fitzsimons displace Adam Collin in goal.
One outcome is that Grant and Yates are likely to move on to bigger things this season and have Notts to thank for the experience that will open these doors (not that our Red cousins will afford us any) when opportunities at their own club were given to their own raft of loan signings. Notts seem determined to learn from this experience and rely on themselves far more for sustainable success, filling seasonal minutes played by Grant (86%) and Yates (60%) with the likes of Kellett, Crawford, Patching and Husin in the hope of achieving similar transformations that the club can benefit from.
And one suspects there will be similar incomings as we look to replace departed, experienced players like Adam Collin, Shola Ameobi and Carl Dickinson who all played over 50% of game minutes available this season, and captain Michael O’Connor too following his move to Lincoln.
At the time of writing, names like Marc Bola immediately spring to mind after his release at Arsenal following a successful loan spell at Notts, offering exciting competition for Dan Jones at left back whilst fitting the mould of having the potential to step up a division. Though his arrival at Wigan on trial seems to make this option a long-shot at best.
Demeaco Duhaney, recently released by Manchester City from the same cohort as Patching, would be another mouth-watering addition on right side of the defence, having been on the bench vs Shakthar Donetsk as recently as December and offering similar dynamism as Player of the Year Matt Tootle.
22 year old Jordan Houghton from Chelsea is a third option with huge potential, having played over 30 games for Doncaster in the last two seasons on loan, who could follow the likes of Patching, Husin and Tom Crawford as seeing Notts as the ideal place to launch their professional careers.
It remains to be seen if Joey Barton, newly appointed manager of Fleetwood, practices what he preaches but his former teammate certainly seems ready and willing to put it to the test at Notts next season.
📺 #Notts fans’ reaction following a great week or so that’s seen @MattTootle and @R_fitzsimons agree new deals, and @T_Crawford0, @AndyKell13, @Krisdennis90 and Kane Hemmings sign for @Official_NCFC… pic.twitter.com/1NvHZG2uma
— Gerrit Forward (@GerritForward) June 1, 2018