Four league games ago we were as good as promoted. All the signs pointed towards it – we had a young, up and coming manager with 18 months of relative success behind him. We had gone as far as a playoff semi-final with a team not expected to do so. Money was being splashed on exciting additions in the final third to make us more clinical, our owner openly admitted promotion was everyone’s intention, the bookies believed it and the fans were on board too.
Yet here we are, the first month of the season not even completed, and the death knell is preparing to ring. Nolan’s head, prematurely for this supporter, is being called for, we’ve certainly gone backwards instead of forwards, the expensive attacking signings can make no difference because of what’s happening at the other end of the pitch, and it would seem the League Two table – going by all the pre-season talk – is actually upside down.
But it’s not. Winless Notts are rock bottom of the entire Football League. Four games in, yes, but the hole the club is already in appears too gaping to retrieve our hopes and ambitions for the season. Supporters have seen some bad campaigns at this level, it means we know the feeling all too well. Worryingly, we don’t usually see it quite this early, though.
So what has gone so badly wrong? Was the hangover of the tumultuous second leg playoff defeat to Coventry – poor refereeing aside, the Sky Blues looked every inch a promotion side compared to Notts that night – so strong that it caused complete meltdown among the coaching staff? I’m saying that because there has been such a large shift in philosophy over the summer. Nolan as a player, and the managers he played under (notably ex-Magpies man Sam Allardyce), as well as in his first season-and-a-half at Meadow Lane, had sides that were difficult to beat and to play against. Big, physical, a little ugly at times, but last year nobody rolled Notts over in the league. Experienced, direct, willing and with a precocious talent in Jorge Grant. The Nolan blueprint worked. Notts became such a competitive side that even lacking for talent in some areas mattered little, they dug in for results. They got late winners time and time again. They came from 3-0 down with 15 to play to draw with Cambridge. The complete opposite to what has happened this season at Newport and the U’s.
Now Nolan, admirably it should be said,seems to desire a team that plays it out from the back. That values keep-ball over long ones. That wants to pass teams off the park and not bully them. But it is such a departure. We made the playoff semi-final with his own philosophy. We needed just tweaks in the summer to go one further step…. signing Kane Hemings and Krystian Dennis seemed to be those crucial tweaks. As well as Enzio Boldewijn – the one bright spark for us so far this season, with three assists and a goal already – to replace Grant. Just a new centre back, plus not keeping Richard Duffy, would surely have done?
I can’t remember any Notts fan moaning about how we played. Opposition managers did, sure, but what a compliment that was! Just winning football please is all of our desires. And, at home especially, we had that.
So where do we go from here? Of course, it’s only four games in. Sacking the manager is not the answer, it’s too early for that. We have been there before, we have been burned before and we will never learn repeating the same mistakes of chopping and changing. Nolan saved us from a 10-game losing streak, the club’s worst ever, when he first arrived and has credit in the bank. Of course, impatient fans and an ambitious owner who has backed his manager considerably, will not stand for this much longer. But only in the summer Nolan was seen as the club’s biggest asset with a bright future. A possible England manager perhaps, even owner Alan Hardy has said. He’s the country’s youngest boss with a forceful personality and should be backed to turn it around.
But he needs help. Hardy, perhaps reluctantly given he has already supported superbly so far, needs to go again in the loan market. I’d argue four players – all to start – are still required and at this stage of the window that is highly unlikely. It’s absurd we’re in that position now but the transfer philosophy has been a disaster.
Ross Fitzsimons isn’t up to it as number one goalkeeper – and before anyone says it, neither was Adam Collin. He can’t catch, doesn’t command his area, and not only takes an age with his kicks but usually just booms them anywhere. A new, experienced keeper, please.
We need a leader at the back, a physical warrior, but one with a turn of pace too. And he should partner Ben Hall once back from injury with Duffy and Shaun Brisley jettisoned.
Dan Jones needs competition at left back, and dropping when it arrives to help him restore his form.
And a hard-nosed, get the ball and think after, drag your teammates everywhere, type of midfielder is crucial. I hate to say it but someone of Michael Doyle’s ilk. David Vaughan, gifted as we are led to believe he is on the ball, is not the answer right now. And probably won’t ever be given his advancing years.
Then it is back to classroom, the place Nolan got much right and was praised for his work there by his players last season. Drilling the current lot time and time again, he must prove his worth as a coach. He certainly hasn’t proved capable in the transfer market. Can he deliver from his manual instead?
Promotion, already, seems an impossible shot with the current team. And relegation is far more likely given the rag tag nature of the three games since a dull start at home to Colchester, remarkably our only point.
Crowds could start to fall. It’s Lincoln away next and a trip to Exeter soon after. All the hard work and good will around the club is going to suffer. It has to change quickly to give fans some hope again.
These are the players, after all, who many observers and bookies tipped to win the league. They must have something. Nolan, with some extra help in the transfer market beyond what he should expect, has to get it out of them. Pick a team not individuals. And go and be the manager we all expected him to be.