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

Meadow Lane from the Kop

Even for Notts County, it is quite spectacular to be relegated in a season you started as the bookies favourites to win the entire division.

It is truly remarkable to spend upwards of £500,000 on transfer fees alone to improve a squad that had just finished 5th…and then end-up 23rd, deservedly down having been in the bottom two for well over half a season.

How has this happened? The fact that I – and, I suspect, many other Notts fans – had accepted relegation long before it was confirmed at Swindon doesn’t make this tale any less bizarre nor easy to accept.

From Twitter, one thing I’ve noticed is that people tend to give blame in isolation. How can it be in any way Neal Ardley’s fault when the almighty summer recruitment drive left an expensively-assembled but embarrasingly-imbalanced squad?

How can Kevin Nolan be mentioned in-passing when he oversaw five matches of a 46-game campaign?

Even the man at the top, Alan Hardy, while saying the buck stops with him…has deflected onto the managers and players, saying he wouldn’t have ‘signed off’ the signings he did, while noises from his camp have repeatedly said he’s not the one on the pitch etc.

The reality is, in such a catastrophic season, no one person or instance can take a squad like ours to relegation. Saying that Ardley should’ve done certain things differently doesn’t mean the summer recruitment and pre-season under Nolan/Hardy were fine.

It takes a multitude of factors and a truly almighty clusterfuck to take a club like ours to relegation from the Football League.

I’ve picked 12 reasons/instances that have, in my view, resulted in what I’d consider to be the most self-inflicted relegation I’ve ever known. These aren’t instances in individual games where we could or should have collected more points, conceding late goals or Jon Stead’s missed penalty in a rare dominant home display vs Bury, for example. Those sort of isolated on-the-field instances will play-out every season and, while we’ve lost plenty of points this season, we’ve also won ones we’ve scarcely deserved and had our own share of luck, such as John Akinde’s late missed penalty at Meadow Lane.

No – the 12 reasons will instead be looking at broader decisions, taken on and off the pitch, that in my view have led Notts County to relegation. I’d also highlight at this juncture that these are decisions that were all taken within the past 12 months; it would’ve been easy to go back further as there is clearly wider context that has gotten us to this point and – with the exception of 17/18 – this club has clearly been in steady decline for some time. But I had to restrict it to 12, and there could’ve been double the reasons of that from this season alone.

A theme of this campaign is that every bad decision/move was generally followed by another one which only made things much worse.

That’s why blaming one person or one thing just doesn’t the even begin to tell the story…

1. An unnecessary squad overhaul

It’s impossible to start anywhere else other than looking at what the hell happened last summer, when great money was spent to bring in a raft of attacking talent before even any pre-season fixtures had taken place.

In fairness, age and a dependance on loanees meant that last season’s squad – as successful as it was in reaching the playoffs – did need more work than probably your average playoff-finishing squad does. But that said even at the time the released list looked lengthy with the likes of Jonathan Forte, Shola Ameobi and Adam Collin all shown/heading for the door, and newly-crowned League Two title-winner Michael O’Connor’s subsequent departure to Lincoln after being offered heavily reduced terms only added to that feeling.

It’s easy to be wise with hindsight, but even in my pre-season squad assessment – written at the height of summer optimism – I flagged the clear holes in the squad. David Vaughan was brought in to replace O’Connor and Liam Noble to play alongside Elliott Hewitt but needs/needed a three-man midfield to get the best from him and at 35 was going to struggle to play every week and there was a real lack of cover. Vaughan’s had an excellent career but didn’t look a natural fit for Nolan at all, which rang alarm bells to me about who was driving these transfer decisions. But the manager himself seemed keen to shed the reputation and style which had brought so much early managerial success, memorably replacing Ryan Yates last Janaury with Noor Husin as he looked to (unnecessarily) alter the way Notts played.

The problem was, behind Vaughan was Shaun Brisley and last season’s defence. This back four had enjoyed success but had been put together at a different time, when the Magpies could defend deep and launch it long to Ameobi. You could scarcely get a bigger clash of styles within the same team. Brisley was never going to be a man comfortable with stepping out of defence, and neither he nor Richard Duffy had the pace to play a higher line. Meanwhile, Vaughan wasn’t the high-intensity, hard-running physical midfielder that Nolan had utilised in the past. The two didn’t match-up in the slightest and this muddled approach highlighted the confusing way this all-new team had been built.

And behind Brisley, well… we’ve still got 11 reasons to come so we’ll come to that later in the week.

Other issues were mentioned in my pre-season squad assessment, particularly the lack of cover/competition for Matt Tootle and Dan Jones – who had both suffered with injuries at times in the previous season – at full-back, which hit us very hard in the first half of the season, and the fact that, having had a wealth of options in midfield the previous campaign (Wycombe’s newly-crowned Player of the Season Curtis Thompson didn’t play a single game), only Elliott Hewitt looked capable of the central midfield options of playing in the two required to free-up the four attacking talents just bought at great expense. In reality, even with a very high-energy two man midfield, it was a huge stretch to expect to play the workshy Enzio Boldewijn and Nathan Thomas on the wings in a midfield four and not be left exposed at the back.

The other problem was Hewitt, who had suddenly become essential in midfield, was also seemingly the first-choice cover at right back and centre half too, with very little investment made in the defence. This meant taking a huge leap of faith that either Husin or the newly-acquired Tom Crawford, 19, or Will Patching, 20, would be fine to suddenly step into the heart of a League Two midfield in a set-up that at that stage wasn’t hugely different to Ricardo Moniz’s memorable 4-2-4 effort.

Over the summer, we rejoiced as we made the eye-catching signings of the likes of Kane Hemmings and Boldewijn, but it appeared not a lot of thought had gone into how these new signings were going to mould together into a functioning team.

Delving even a tiny bit deeper and the whole thing was clearly a complete mess.

Part two – and the other 11 reasons – will follow later this week.

Rob Davies

3 Comments

  1. In late 1988, a new manager arrived. Neil Warnock had previously led Scarborough into the Football League as champions of the Football Conference. At the end of his first full season, Warnock had led Notts County to promotion back to Division Two. The club anthem The Wheelbarrow song originated during this season, stemming from the club’s historic first game at Wembley Stadium in a 2–0 win over Tranmere Rovers. A famous 1–0 victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup booked them a place in the quarter-final, which they lost to eventual winners Tottenham Hotspur. Notts County also booked their second successive visit to Wembley and their second successive promotion. The Magpies defeated Brighton Hove Albion 3–1 in front of 60,000 spectators, 25,000 of which were Notts County fans.

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