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

8. Bulk buying in January

It may seem harsh to pinpoint a transfer window that did also see a number of good additions arrive at the club, but Neal Ardley put all his eggs for survival in a January-shaped basket and, ultimately, Notts failed so questions have to be asked. The previous summer saw too much change, but Ardley still fell into the trap of so many of his predecessors of wanting ‘his’ players and wanting them en-masse to add to an already bloated squad.

This sort of ‘lots in, lots out’ approach very rarely works – particularly mid-season – and despite a promising start with the eight new signings all in the starting XI, the on-field improvements weren’t enough and by and large Notts still looked like the bottom-of-the-table side they had previously. Our Great Escape bingo card initially had a square which contained ‘takes time to gel’ excuse wheeled out (we opted against to keep it 100% positive) and inevitably this line was trotted out as an excuse post-relegation, as though it was forced on Ardley to bring-in 8 players and thrust them all immediately into the team.

“But the squad we had was bottom, they couldn’t be any worse.” Well, in some cases they were. How many points were potentially lost while loanees Ben Barclay and Virgil Gomis – neither of whom ever looked ready – were preferred to proven League Two players Richard Duffy and Kane Hemmings for over a month?

Who genuinely believed on first watch that Gomis was better than Hemmings or Kristian Dennis, or Barclay better than Duffy, Shaun Brisley or even Pierce Bird?

Goalkeeper, meanwhile, was the January priority – but it was a position where we desperately needed a strong organiser, a vocal presence capable of dealing with crosses. Ryan Schofield will probably go onto have a good career but, right now, has all the same weaknesses as Ross Fitzsimons and didn’t exude any more calm in claiming crosses so wasn’t a marked enough upgrade. More on that here. And thinking that a loanee trio aged 19, 20 and 22 could play in-goal and as the two centre backs in League Two and shore things up was never a sustainable model.

Protected by senior midfielders Michael Doyle and Jim O’Brien, things started well but as soon as other teams watched this all-new team it was very easy to pinpoint frailties. Following the win over Mansfield, direct Newport came into town, pumped balls into the box and ruthlessly exploited the inexperience in the Notts defence in a 4-1 battering which the team struggled to recover from.

Meanwhile, Doyle was the most logical of additions and a real coup so no criticism should be attached to the manager for bringing him in, but then playing him for the duration of every single match, putting him on set-pieces and building the whole system around him to have two runners either-side in midfield (ironically the same set-up the club should’ve employed from the very start of the campaign if they wanted to get the best out of David Vaughan) should be questioned. Doyle’s arrogant, smirking interview after the MK Dons defeat in late-April offered proof, as if it were needed, that he hadn’t been the leader we expected.

Although Mitch Rose, Jim O’Brien and Sam Stubbs were undoubtedly good additions, 3 from 8 isn’t a good enough ratio. Craig Mackail-Smith did well right at the end when, for the first time, he was played in his actual position. Had the club opted against bringing-in the raw Gomis, Mackail-Smith could’ve started upfront rather than the right wing and things may have been different – illustrating again that bringing in so many players in the same month was counter-productive, and there certainly wasn’t a need to start them all.

It was – in keeping with the season as a whole – a mess completely of our own making.

9. A lack of overall direction

In fairness to Ardley, he was only following the example set at the very top in having no consistent plan and bouncing around wildly between approaches as he went along. A failing at boadroom level has underpinned a number of these reasons, but it’s worth delving into on its own.

When Kevin Nolan’s tenure as Notts boss was brought to an abrupt halt in late August, Alan Hardy cited the downturn in fortunes from January to explain that this wasn’t a snap decision based on the first five games of the season. But the media (listen from 44 minutes here) have told how Hardy was telling everyone that would listen at the Coventry playoff game in May that the then Notts manager would one-day manage his country.

What made even less sense than removing Nolan and Harry Kewell, was the lack of a succession plan each time. Instead, Hardy’s railway tour kicked-off on each occassion, as he tweeted several pictures on his way to interview over a dozen candidates for the next Notts manager. This was particularly bizarre in Kewell’s case, as he was the initial bookies favourite and had allegedly been Hardy’s guest at a home game earlier in the season so was clearly in his thoughts. The messing about cost Notts a week they could ill-afford with new recruits essential in the last week of the transfer window.

No-one needs any reminding of our sacking culture and long-standing reputation with managers – Nolan was the first in a decade to start and finish the same season in-charge in 17-18 – and the mess this causes to the squad, as managers arrive and insist every player already there is useless, bring-in their own raft of signings of equivalent ability of those now discarded, then themselves get sacked within a few months. Repeat cycle.

It had been hoped that this would be different under Hardy, but the pattern played out at breakneck speed over the space of a single season, and there was no consistency or continuity in terms of the managers recruited.

10. No youth…or leaders

One of the things the regular changing of managers also did was bin-off the entire summer strategy of reducing the average of the squad. Those brought-in with an eye for development – Tom Crawford, Will Patching etc – were largely ignored, as the whole thing was ripped-up just a month into the campaign when Kewell brought-in three quarters of a new, experienced back four of free agents.

Having let so much experience out the door last summer, it was ironic to see Notts at the bottom of clubs in League Two who’d given playing time to under-23s. Notts lacked legs and energy throughout the campaign, and by the end of the season were fielding a team with an average of over 29 and a midfield trio of Doyle (37), Vaughan (36) and O’Brien (31).

Sam Osborne, 20, looked lively in cameos under Kewell and scored for fun in the reserves from the wing but never even got a chance in the first-team after signing a pro deal in October. Injuries meant Bird eventually got a shot in the defence in the last few games, but he’d been excellent when he first broke into the side in December and should’ve kept his place, rather than again following a long-standing club trait of blooding other club’s youngsters rather than our own.

In any case, Notts ended-up with the worst of both worlds because, while they opted for experience, there was still a serious lack of leadership on show on the pitch, something which will need to feature highly on the priorities if player recruitment is eventually looked at ahead of our first season in the non-league, to avoid the downward spiral continuing.

11. “Respecting the point”

The Magpies ended-up being relegated by three points, meaning had they converted two of their many draws in the second half into wins, they’d have been safe. I said at the start of this piece that I wouldn’t cite individual games and ‘what ifs’, but the whole ‘respecting the point’ issue was an ongoing tactics problem, as opposed to simply drawing the matches in question. The mindset in games following the 4-1 mauling at Cheltenham in March really was bizarre, and grew increasingly frustrating as time ran out.

Following the Cheltenham loss, it made sense for Ardley to bring-in an extra midfielder and sacrifice an attacker in what had previously been a very open 4-4-2, but what didn’t make any sense was what appeared to be a clear instruction to slow down the tempo, take time over set-pieces, and effectively get men behind the ball and hold the clean sheet…. in home matches against other teams struggling at the bottom of the table such as Port Vale, Morecambe and Northampton.

In the Easter Monday draw at Crawley, Barclay’s red card early in the second half with the scoreline at 1-1 saw Ardley throw-on forgotten man Elliott Ward, switch to a 5-3-1 and cling desperately to a point. In isolation, at other points of the season, this would make sense – but this was with two and a half games remaining with Notts two points in the relegation zone – knowing Macclesfield’s two remaining games were against teams in 20th and 21st. In any case, had Macclesfield, playing 15 minutes behind, scored in their game, Notts would have been as good-as down at that point.

It was as though Ardley and his staff were completely ignoring the league table.

In the match before, at home to MK Dons on Good Friday, Notts’ coaching staff on the bench were telling Schofield to slow down on goal-kicks as early as the 15th minute. They were sticking with the draw-at-all-costs approach right to the end, in-spite of the table and the club’s perilous position.

With the score in the last home game with Grimsby predictably goalless at half-time but results around us not in our favour, a more positive team emerged after the break and two goals quickly followed. But by this point it was too late and you could only wonder what might have been had Notts played in a similar manner, on the front foot in various matches in the months preceding this.

12. Mass squad underperformance

I’ve pointed blame in direction of the owner, the three permanent managers and even the two caretaker bosses over the space of this article, so it’s only fair the final reason is reserved for the 41 players entrusted with wearing the black & white this summer.

There were obvious errors in recruitment, poor selections and negative tactics but, of course, the players themselves have to take responsibility. They are very well-paid by League Two standards and the vast majority should have done more.

If anyone doubts that there was individual quality in this squad, watch how many are picked-up by EFL clubs this summer and thus will be playing higher than us next season. The talent is there – we just didn’t see it often enough.

Many senior players let us down.

Although put under more strain, the individual form of the back four from last season inexplicably fell off a cliff in the first few weeks of the season, which in-part led to the shattering of confidence of exposed novice keeper Fitzsimons and an all-new defence brought in by September. Dan Jones, a player with all the physical attributes to excel at this level if not higher, never played under Harry Kewell but when he came back into the side under Ardley was completely unrecogniseable from the left back who had been so influential the previous season and an easy weakness for opposition to target.

Doyle seemed as much of a guarantee as you could wish to get but somehow went from proven leader to surly, over-indulged ego. All the fight and niggly tendencies that have been the staple of his career and made him so horrible to play against gradually faded which suggests there were other issues beyond time simply catching-up with him.

Vaughan was never a good fit for the division or the team but what was surprising was the lack of quality and accuracy in his passing. He didn’t score or register an assist all season. He was in and out the team pretty much throughout but in fairness there was a reason; his displays made him an easy player to drop. His MOTM performance in the 0-0 draw with Bury just after Christmas showed what he was capable of, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

For a reported fee of £300,000, Enzio Boldewijn can’t be described as anything better than a disappointment. Another with all the attributes but was unable to apply them when it counted. Nathan Thomas was gone by January but was an absolute disgrace; yet another with ability – as he then proved at Carlisle – but threw his toys out the pram when substituted by both Nolan and Kewell; the reality was he was lucky to be on the pitch in the first place, such was the abject, lacklustre nature of his displays.

These are all more-than capable players at this levels who disappointed. And there were more. I could go through them all. This was the one season I can remember when picking a Player of the Season was nigh-on impossible. But one thing is for certain, while last summer’s squad overhaul was unnecessarily large – if/when new owners ever do arrive, this one is going to have to be even bigger.

So that’s that. 12 reasons, blame apportioned, approximately 7,000 words and yet there’s still more I could have said. Surely the most self-inflicted relegation of all-time, with Macclesfield – whose players were unpaid for the past two months of the season and who were running on less than a quarter of the Notts playing budget – deservedly staying up at the expense of the (once) World’s Oldest Football League Club.

Blame shouldn’t be considered in isolation. No-one, outside of the club’s fanbase who backed the team in good numbers home and away throughout a dreadful campaign, comes out of this sorry mess in credit.

Now, we look nervously towards a future that has rarely looked less clear. The hope was that, with relegation seemingly inevitable for so long, at the very least we could look forward to a new owner and a fresh start this summer.

That is still the hope – and today’s announcement from the South African consortium brings some optimism – but it’s clearly by no means certain and Notts, even in a bear-case scenario, are losing ground on teams around them every day. The club were unable to offer any of those players out of contract fresh terms, haven’t got any pre-season friendlies and haven’t been able to do the annual relaying of the pitch due to a lack of funds.

Fixing the scoreboard? Ha. It’s a pipe-dream.

The sooner the bigger picture is clearer, the better. Then, we hope, we can at least begin to move forward and forget one of the worst seasons in the club’s history.


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