Identity is football’s currency. Everything from the badge, the shirt, the ground to the community it represents is valued and weighed against the opposition and used to measure each other’s worthiness.
Everyone knows Notts’ value in this market as the world’s oldest football league club. In terms of infrastructure it is – and has been for some time – well above its fourth division status.
But, you don’t need to tell Notts fans that there’s been a mismatch in Notts’ identity for a very long time. Every new manager and player through the Meadow Lane door over the last twenty years has been quick to recognise that they’d joined a side whose footballing stock was high. But, save a few flashes, have not helped it realise its market potential in real terms on the pitch.
I can’t remember a season where this mismatch has been more evident than the one we’re currently experiencing. Ambitious investment was used to enhance an already capable squad with access to amazing facilities, so fans can be forgiven for banking on better times: increasing season ticket sales, shirt sales and having flutters on shortening pre-season odds of a title win.
So the fact we are rooted to the bottom of League 2 with one solitary point in September smacks somewhat of an identity crisis. Just who are we now if not promotion hopefuls? We’ve become football’s own Rorschach Test.
A few games ago, this could’ve been dismissed as a blip – a freak fluctuation that would be an amusing footnote in our eventual promotion story.
But, with every stumbling defeat, our stock is dropping and we have now reached a point where we have to seriously reconsider who we are going to be this season. Our identity. For the good of everyone.
If we continue to enter Meadow Lane and expect us to suddenly hit promotion gear, it just makes every mistake loaded with extra significance and the tension is already so palpable we’ve seen two red cards in two games.
One group who particularly suffer from this mismatched identity are the young players. Notts have made the necessary decision to find space in their starting line-ups for players with the potential to develop beyond our current League 2 confines. Crawford, Patching and Oxlaide-Chamberlain made their Notts debuts this season while Fitzsimons, Husin and Bird continue their development as professionals. But tolerance for a mistake, which will always be a possibility with young players, is diminishing quickly as points become increasingly precious. Ross Fitzsimons and Noor Husin have been two particular casualties of this predicament, as every poor decision or perceived flaw is seen far bigger than the folly of youth but as a visual testament to fading promotion hopes.
The clamour for more experienced players is therefore understandable. Fans want to close the gap on our promotion promise as quickly as possible with ready-made replacements from the free agent market. But a return to the tried-and-tested narrative of last year only delays our transition to the ultimate goal of becoming a financially viable football club. No-one will pay fees for fading stars, who only add to an already bulging budget. And as the performances from experienced pros like Brisley, Vaughan and Jones have proven so far this season, trusting experience is hardly money in the bank, either.
For me the promotion narrative has to change or better, simply banned, to create a realistic context to judge this side in. We aren’t a contender and shouldn’t be judged as one for the rest of this season.
Safety is the primary objective. That’s obvious. And if it takes another two experienced pros on short-term deals to come in and get this side’s shape and solidarity right, then so be it.
But at some point we will need to reintroduce the likes of Husin, Patching, Crawford, Bird, Oxlaide-Chamberlain and even Fitzsimons back onto the pitch if we are going to develop them as players – or we’ll simply face destroying them. And they must be judged on the current context – not still baring responsibility for their perceived role in our downfall from preseason promotion favourites.
The one person who can set this tone for Notts’ new identity is newly appointed Technical Director, Paul Hart. With vast coaching experience at his disposal, having recently supported Nathan Jones’ success at Luton, I only hope he can provide the supportive shoulder for Kewell to provide our primary objective of safety. But can also identify the opportune moments to reintroduce those younger players back into the first team fold, once we have stabilised and are without the stigma of supposed success.
Because I’ve been waiting for Notts to finally live up to their true identity for a very long time. For them to make long-term decisions that have an even longer-term impact, after what feels like a lifetime of lurching from one short-term disaster to another. I guess I can wait another year.