From title favourites to non-league: 12 reasons Notts County’s season went so badly wrong – part two

2. A pointless pre-season

Looking back, it seems incredible that Notts started as bookies favourites for the League Two title, given pre-season results had given such little room for optimism.

Alan Hardy had made a big play on getting players through the door early – more on that unnecessary recruitment drive as reason #1 here – but once the new, expensively-assembled squad was in-place, there was little on-the-field which gave room for such major optimism (unless you count the 17-0 away win at Rolls Royce).

The fixtures organised were ill-thought out in that they were either too hard (Derby/Leicester at home and Luton away) or too easy (local non-league opposition) to get a gauge for where Notts were at, and there didn’t seem to be as many matches as there had been previously, which led to the Magpies bizarrely still playing a split squad (half in Luton and half in Carlton) just to get 90 minutes in the legs seven days before the season’s opener, when surely it was time to at least try and establish a semblence of strategy, patterns and style of play.

Underpinning the whole thing though, was a number of niggling injuries – notably to newly-signed trio Kristian Dennis, Andy Kellett and Kane Hemmings – and ultimately a clear lack of fitness across the squad which was cited as a problem thoughout the season (and backed-up by the stats, which showed Notts very rarely scored late in games, but often conceded).

Elsewhere, the preperation just didn’t seem to be there. There were no patterns of play emerging to integrate the likes of David Vaughan, Enzio Boldewijn and Hemmings, with Notts very much looking like a muddled side caught between the direct approach of last season and the sudden desire to move away from this. Two days before the season started, Kevin Nolan said when asked that Richard Duffy would remain captain ‘for now’ but he wasn’t definitely the permanent skipper. It symbolised the lack of clarity over what was happening.

As a big Nolan fan, it’s hard to say but he’d clearly taken his eye off the ball – and the whole thing wreaked of complacency from the owner down, with the expectation that Notts would just walk their way to promotion.

3. A Sunday sacking

In-spite of the above, I am one of many who will always believe that had Nolan been left in-charge for the season, relegation would never have been a realistic proposition. I mentioned in part one that all of the main protagonists involved had to at least accept some culpability for taking this great club out of the Football League, and Nolan is included in that, but he surely still had enough credit in the bank to be allowed to continue in his job after just five games of the season.

The former Orient manager was the first Notts manager in a decade to start and finish the same season in-charge the previous year. He took over a squad which had lost a club record 10 defeats in January 2017 and they were safe by March. He built on that the following season and led Notts to the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. He was – is – a natural leader who had galvanised a squad which was on the worst losing streak in its history when he arrived and was loved by his players, even those who weren’t regular starters under him.

People – including the owner – cited the downturn from January to the end of last season as a reason for his dismissal – the Magpies going from second to fifth – but surely the subsequent season and relegation has put that in perspective (that ‘downturn in form’ would’ve been comfortably enough to see Notts survive from when Neal Ardley came-in, for example) and to get that Notts side to even finish in the playoffs was a huge achievement. There really wasn’t a whole lot of individual quality and the team’s talisman and most naturally gifted player, Jorge Grant, wasn’t even ours and most recently couldn’t get into Mansfield’s XI. The rest were either top pros on the way down – front two Shola Ameobi and Jon Stead – or solid lower league professionals.

For a more detailed argument against Nolan’s dismissal, read what I wrote back in August.

Like many, I’d hoped we’d left these premature, Sunday sacking days behind us with the change of owner but this crude decision proved that we were still a basketcase of a club bouncing between managers with no clear strategy or direction. The fallout of this was massive too, with Directors Darren Fletcher and Jon Enever – both of whom were friends of Hardy and appointed to the board by him – stepping down in protest.

The worst thing about this decision, though, was the timing. It was still August but with injuries (perhaps owing to the poor pre-season) racking-up, Notts were desperately in-need of reinforcements, particularly in the centre midfield and goalkeeping areas they’d neglected to bring-in wingers and strikers at great expense in the summer.

Nolan had agreed deals with Karl Henry, who would’ve provided the midfield with the leadership and tenacity it was so desperately lacking, and former Forest stopper Dimitar Evtimov, who then went to spend the season in League One with Burton and Accrington and would’ve at the very least provided some respite for Ross Fitzsimons. The management change scuppered those moves and indeed any incoming transfers, and Notts were left to continue with the confidence-shattered Fitzsimons in-goal for half a season. Meanwhile Rob Milsom was brought back instead of Henry, who didn’t suit the supposed Barcelona-lite ideology of Nolan’s successor…

4. An angry Aussie

If there was some debate among Notts fans that sacking Nolan was the wrong choice, very few were sold on the identity of his replacement. The young, relatively unproven, recently-retired Premier League player was replaced with….the young, relatively unproven, recently-retired Premier League player.

After an ok-ish first season in League Two, Harry Kewell was poached from Crawley at great expense in a typically brash and unnecessary move by Hardy. The motivation seemed – again – to be style of play, with a real desire to get away from the style which had brought great success previously.

As someone who’d played at the very highest level and was used to the media spotlight, Kewell spoke very well in his unveiling but lost his first proper game in-charge 5-1 at Exeter and immediately entered excuse mode, blaming the whole thing on having to play new addition Milsom ‘out of his position’ at left back.

A formation switch to 4-2-3-1 and back-to-back home wins against Crewe and Kewell’s former club seemed to have sorted things out, but a red card to Milsom in the latter of those two games led to a series of events that meant everything started to unravel very quickly.

Kewell, who remember opted against signing Karl Henry, replaced Milsom in midfield with Shaun Brisley – whose picture appears in the dictionary if you look up ‘head it and kick it lower league centre half’. For the second game of Milsom’s ban, he then replaced him for a tricky away tie at high-flying Bury with Lewis Alessandra – who had been excelling in the #10 role but is definitely not a deep-lying midfielder for a tough away match. Notts were ruthlessly picked apart and Kewell’s brand new back four shipped another four goals. He was sacked less than a month later.

His decision-making didn’t get any easier to comprehend. There were no signs of building towards this much-vaunted footballing style of play when he ended the 2-2 draw at Port Vale with four centre backs and six defenders on the pitch. Three days later in a 0-0 home draw with Oldham, he repeated the Brisley in-midfield experiment as a result of the most infamous substitution of the season – lone striker Kristian Dennis replaced by centre back Duffy on the hour mark to a chorus of boos.

The style of play myth was well and truly busted and so too was the other main reason for paying a six figure compensation sum to hire him, with his supposed training ground skills also not in evidence; the vast majority of the squad weren’t enamoured with his methods and a number of senior pros had been ostracised completely.

After only lasting eight weeks, Kewell is the least discussed of the three managers Notts had this season, but undoubtedly played his part in such a shambolic season.

5. Caretaker woes

After overseeing a Checkatrade Trophy win over Doncaster following Kewell’s sacking, Steve Chettle was described on BBC Radio Nottingham as ‘a safe pair of hands’ but in reality he was anything but. That comment preceded a 3-0 home loss to Cheltenham which, in a season of lows, was as bad as anything I can remember at Meadow Lane.

Chettle followed that by risking the team’s (then) best player ahead of a 1-1 draw with Morecambe. Enzio Boldewijn picked-up an injury in the warm-up, was clearly not able to play but was rolled-out to struggle for the first eight minutes anyway, which ultimately led to an operation and nearly three months on the sidelines during the busiest part of the season.
Boldewijn ended the campaign on the bench and under-fire from his own fans, but it’s fair to say he never properly recovered from the injury sustained here that, at least in terms of its severity, was completely avoidable.

In the back-to-back draws at Morecambe and Carlisle, Chettle’s complete inactivity with his subs arguably cost the club four points, as Notts let 1-0 leads slip late-on on both occasions.

It wasn’t just Chettle, though. Between Nolan and Kewell came Mark Crossley and a dreadful 3-1 home defeat to Forest Green, which Crossley said afterwards he’d told the squad beforehand was a ‘free hit’. A week earlier, Nolan was sacked for losing at Champions-elect Lincoln. Six days later, Crossley was rolling-out the squad and telling them they had nothing to lose as Forest Green – a side with less than half of our playing budget – came into town.

The tone – and ambition – had changed beyond recognition.

6. Neal Ardley and half a season of excuses

There’s a school of thought amongst many Notts fans that the undoubtedly likeable Neal Ardley inherited an impossible task. He was taking the wheel of the Titanic when it was already destined for the iceberg.

Frankly, that is absolute nonsense.

No-one should underestimate the disruption behind-the-scenes, not least at owner level, that Ardley had to contend with, while inheriting a shell-shocked squad on their third manager of the season by November was hardly the easiest situation to come into. But to label getting this club from 23rd to 22nd in League Two with over the half the season to play an ‘impossible’ task is understanding in the extreme.

Even if we discount his first two months, the fact he was backed with eight first-team signings in January, including the vastly experienced Michael Doyle, Jim O’Brien and Craig Mackail-Smith meant that, by the time January was out, the manager had no excuses remaining.

We’ll go into Ardley’s January transfer window and love for draws down the line, but his new look team hit the ground running with seven points from games against Lincoln, Forest Green and Mansfield. By mid-February, they were one positive result away from getting out of the bottom two. But they never did make it out and Ardley’s new charges were unable to complete the rescue mission they were brought in to do.

Meanwhile, Sol Campbell – derided by all including myself – arrived at Macclesfield with the club seven points behind Ardley’s Notts. Their budget was less than a quarter of ours, and for the past few months of the season their modestly-paid squad weren’t even getting paid at all. But despite considering striking in their own do-or-die clash with Cambridge in protest at their lack of wages, they picked-up the result they needed and secured survival.

While Ardley – even having signed the eight players he wanted – repeatedly talked of an ‘impossible’ task and asked his team to slow-down and play for draws at home to lowly League Two teams, Campbell built a siege mentality to lead Macclesfield to an improbable survival they undoubtedly deserved.

Still unconvinced? Second in-line when Ardley took the job was rumoured to be the former Forest boss Colin Calderwood, someone who would hardly have been a popular appointment. Calderwood instead took charge at Cambridge, who were in 22nd and just a point ahead of Notts in the table at the time.

Despite an end-of-season slide, Calderwood comfortably guided Cambridge to safety – finishing six points clear of the man who beat him to the Notts job.

7. The goalkeeping gamble x2

The goalkeeping situation this season illustrates the self-inflicted nature of this relegation. There is an argument that releasing the vastly-experienced Adam Collin – who, though he doesn’t like to talk about it, won the Player of the Season award at Carlisle – was the right decision.

There is an argument that, having shown huge potential in his two month stint between the sticks last season, Ross Fitzsimons was deserving of a regular chance to stake his claim. What undoubedly made no sense was not replacing Collin at all, even with someone to compete with Fitzsimons for a place in the sticks.

This meant an unproven keeper promoted to be undisputed first-choice behind an all-new attack-heavy team lacking organisation and solidity. Even last season’s defence – containing four players more-than proven at League Two level – was badly struggling under the strain this sudden switch put on them. Fitzsimons never really stood a chance, his confidence dipped and by the time Kewell arrived he was starting to become responsible for a goal a game in-between the sticks, with the assurance and shot-stopping abilities he’d showcased behind a more stable unit the sesaon before sadly deserting him.

As mentioned above, Kewell and the club eventually opted against signing free agent Evtimov, who had been training with the club, but then didn’t get anyone else either.

Though Fitzsimons showed great resilience to recover to an extent, it was undoubted the situation still needed addressing, with panic at every corner and another mistake coming in the crucial Boxing Day defeat to Macclesfield.

As Ardley approached January, the priority should have been an experienced goalkeeper. Someone in the mould of the Russell Hoult signing 10 years ago; not necessarily needing to be the most exceptional goalkeeper, but an experienced head who had been around the block, who could come in on-loan, organise and lead things when defending set-pieces.

Instead, Ardley plumped for a 19-year-old who’d never played in the Football League. Ryan Schofield will probably go on to have a very good career, but he was exactly what you’d expect of a talented teenager playing in the unforgiving world of League Two. Instead of fixing the issue, the goalkeeping area remained an obvious weakness for the opposition to target in the latter half of the season.

Part 3 – the final part – will be out later this week.

Read Part One here

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