In football, even clubs with a long history are not immune to tumultuous patches. Of course, Bury and Bolton are two of the first clubs thatspring to mind with their most recent travails. But there is one club who has had its fair share for a few lifetimes, the oldest professional football club in the UK, Notts County FC.
In July of 2009, Munto Finance, a Middle Eastern backed consortium purchased the club, with supposed links with the Qatari royal family, Sven-Göran Eriksson was even installed as the director of football, with Sol Campbell and Kasper Schmeichel joining the playing staff. In October of that year, the owners had passed the notoriously strict ‘fit and proper’ persons test, but a mere month later, the league reopened investigations. A new owner was in place by December, so much for false dawns. Come February of 2010, after two winding up petitions were served another new owner was in place, this time, Ray Trew.
Fast forward to 2017, a raft of managers and relegations in between, Alan Hardy became the new owner of Notts County and installed Kevin Nolan as player-manager in January 2017. Less than 18 months later, Nolan is sacked and Harry Kewell is appointed in August of 2018, who then leaves in November 2018. A few days later, current boss Neil Ardley is appointed. Still with me?
On the 27th January 2019, Hardy “accidentally” posted a picture of his genitals on twitter, and as Nottingham is the UK’s only city with a Hooters, this is appropriate as the owner made a tit of himself. It’s a Trouble Town as Jake Bugg, musician and lifelong Notts fan would say. A mere few hours after and this illustrious club was back on the market, starting to resemble a commodity that can be traded as easily as one of their players.
It is at this point in their history that Notts County’s luck started to turn. Despite unpaid tax bills and more winding up orders, in July 2019, Alexander and Christoffer Reedtz completed a takeover for an undisclosed sum. The Danish brothers also own Football Radar, a data analysis company, which they are planning on using some of the resources within the club. This truly was the last roll of the dice before extinction. Notts County Talk, the fan channel of the club who told KAISER “The owners seem incredible so far and have managed to sort almost every issue and regained stability in the club” and that’s all any fan can truly hope for. What does your club do during pre-season? Maybe sign a few players, some warm weather friendlies, tweak tactics perhaps? Not if you are Notts County.
The pressure Neil Ardley faced to piece together a squad for the upcoming National League season with whatever was leftover from their relegation squad and the last few weeks of the transfer window, and the small matter of getting sponsorship for their kit. Fans in the early few weeks just had a rectangular placeholder for where a company logo should be. So perhaps you can forgive them for the slow start as they adapted to their new life outside of the football league. Their first month was what you could kindly describe as a mixed bag, with one win and three draws from eight. Awaydays to unfamiliar territories such as Ebbsfleet, Eastleigh and Sutton United was perhaps not what fans hoped for, but it seemingly didn’t dampen their loyalty, as 437 made the journey to Sutton near Croydon. They are still adjusting to this level as I overheard one fan in the stadium bar saying “the toilets at Sutton were awful…but the chips were nice!”. The joys of the lower leagues.
I had the privilege to attend a match in mid September during the last days of summer and on first impressions, Nottingham is a wonderful city full of independent coffee shops and bars with a straightforward tram network. If you are planning on attending a game, I can highly recommend a particular watering hole (in every sense of the word) The Canalhouse, with an actual canal inside, with boat and a bridge to get to the bar, that stocks a gargantuan range of craft beers. Meadow Lane is a mere ten minute walk from Nottingham Central station, and walk a further 270 metres and you reach the City Ground, home of Nottingham Forest, and also the closest distance between two stadiums in England, and Trent Bridge cricket ground is a few minutes further down.
Meadow Lane just drips of history, a truly glorious stadium that has been home to County since 1910, and from my seat high up in the Derek Pavis stand, I am presented with views above the opposite side of the rolling, tree covered Nottinghamshire hills. Today’s opponents are yet another club with a trouble history (spotting a pattern?), FC Halifax Town, a phoenix club who replaced AFC Halifax who entered administration in 2008, an eerie reminder of what could have been for the hosts.
Before the match, the mood amongst fans seemed mixed, and Notts County Talk, supported this up by telling us “it’s a big reality check for the club”, “It’s an opportunity to get to some new grounds and play new teams”. And play new teams they are, with this particular meeting was the first meeting between the two since 1973. Despite the poor results the manager still has most of the fans onside with the fans showing faith in the ethos and philosophy of the club with Notts County talk telling us they are “100% behind both owner and manager. It will take time.” That last line would prove to be prophetic of the match ahead. For a match at this level, attendance was 5118, large and no doubt swelled by the ‘Bring a Friend’ initiative, similar to the £3 ticket price for the next home game, all designed to create a fervent atmosphere.
That’s exactly the result, although the 646 Halifax fans in attendance initially did that with passionate drumming pre-match, but as the match approached kick-off, Notts decided to join in the party with their own capo, generating a Germanic trance like sensory overload that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Bundesliga.
Notts County started with a 4-4-2 formation and despite this no longer being in vogue they raced out of the blocks, dominating the first 15 minutes, leaving Halifax to play hopeful counter attacks. 30 seconds in and Kyle Wooton performs a Cruyff turn, and shot towards the corner which is well saved. Incidentally, Danny Rose’s brother, Mitch was playing for the home team and also started bright.
County’s Wes Thomas was a ball of energy on the wing, turning the opposition defender inside then out and firing off a great shot from 25 yards that is well saved. Having seen a good first half from NCFC, what can be expected of them this season? Notts County Talk think “The hopes are still high for the playoffs but it could all change in the space of a few games”. One can only imagine the frustration that Ardley felt after coming out of the dressing room for the second half, because 2 minutes after the restart, Captain Doyle was given a straight red card for a horrific, studs up challenge. That’s the team talk out of the window.
With Notts County down to 10 men, perhaps even the playoffs is too high to aim? Normally, perhaps that would be the case, but somehow they seemed galvanised and actually played better with a man down. On 56 minutes, a wondrous defence splitting pass from O’Brien found Thomas whose shot was parried into the waiting path of Kyle Wooton, who finished. The crowd sang “We’ve only got 10 men”, factually correct but one of those is Wooton, who had been fabulous all day. He had a touch of Thierry Henry about him, also wearing 14, with deceptive upper body strength and a wicked turn of pace, and judging on this game, has a very bright future ahead of him. A few minutes later, Wooton came out with the party tricks, splitting two defenders with a back heel, which sadly Thomas could only blaze over the bar. FC Halifax Town offered nothing in return other than a few failed counter attacks, and as the final whistle was blown, the home fans, who have been through so much, let out a visceral roar of relief and pride.
Notts County were the better side, and with their passionate and loyal support, the oldest club can have a bright future, even outside of the football league.