If a week is a long time in football, three weeks is an eternity. That’s effectively all it took for all of the pre-season optimism to evaporate, for the League Two pre-season favourites to slide to the very bottom of the division and, from starting the season with such high expectations, for Kevin Nolan to lose his job.
Judging by Twitter at least, Notts fans are pretty much split down the middle as to whether Alan Hardy was right to dismiss the first manager he appointed on Sunday morning:
— Gerrit Forward (@GerritForward) August 26, 2018
With strong feelings either side, Simon Patrick and Rob Davies argue for and against whether Hardy made the right call.
Was Alan Hardy right to sack Kevin Nolan?
Yes – Simon Patrick (@sjp_magpie)
I, like many Notts fans I suspect, am sick and tired of the revolving door for managers that has been seemingly permanently installed at Meadow Lane. That said, sometimes a change is unavoidable and having suffered through Notts defeats at home against Yeovil and at Lincoln it certainly appears this was case here.
Putting aside rumblings of discord off the field, Notts results in 2018 hardly matched the lofty and well publicised ambitions of the chairman. Sitting second in League Two on January 1st, Notts form has tailed off dramatically over the past 8 months. Since, narrowly, beating Port Vale at the turn of the year Notts have won only 7/25 league games, and only two away from home (and that’s discounting the play-off games). When extrapolated over a season the 28 league points gathered in this time would see Notts finish uncomfortably near the bottom of the table, an unacceptable return on the considerable investment made in the squad.
Perhaps of greater concern than the statistics, however, is the manner of many of the performances during this spell. Few who bore witness to defeats at Barnet, Chesterfield and Grimsby last season will find much to support Nolan’s case of a side progressing and moving forward and while the attacking signings of the summer may have been an attempt to address some of the issues raised, Nolan seemingly ignored the fact that in each of those games our true downfall was a lack of defensive concentration, leading to the concession of late goals (an issue unaddressed that has cost us big time). Recent defeats at Cambridge and Newport have shown this pattern to be continuing. During the transfer window the defensive side of the team has if anything been weakened with the loss of experienced pros and literally no “new” defensive players coming into the club.
Even if we take the latter half of last season as being a “regression to the mean” the start to this season has been alarming. Winless, Notts are bottom of table, despite a relatively benign looking fixture list up until this past Saturday. The side looks woefully unbalanced and is clearly struggling with a new style of play, radically removed from what they were asked to do last season. Performances have been listless, devoid of intensity and most worryingly, teams have so far found us a soft touch and easy to play against. Furthermore, Nolans team selection and substitutions have become increasingly those of a manager more interested in making points than winning them.
The squad as currently assembled doesn’t seem capable of playing the style of football that Nolan was successful with in the first year of his tenure, and I simply don’t understand why he felt the need for such a comprehensive tactical overhaul this summer when a few tweaks and improvements in key positions was probably all that was required.
Some may point to the fine margins that haven’t gone our way, in the play-offs and in some of our early season games. Dennis scores against Colchester, Hemmings at Cambridge and Notts are sitting mid-table. Fine margins add up though and when they are all going against you it is indicative of bigger problems and ones that there is very little evidence to suggest Nolan was capable of solving.
Ultimately something (beyond the wheelbarrow) at Notts has broken since the end of last season and it’s the manager that inevitably carries the can. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is and for that reason Nolan’s time was up.
No – Rob Davies (@RobD97)
This feels like a sacking that would’ve happened at this club six years ago, in what I’d hoped was a bygone era.
No-one is happy with the way things have started this season and, as the man picking the team, Nolan definitely has to take his share of the blame. But to sack him five games into the season is, to my mind, absolutely ludicrous.
My view is Nolan has more-than enough credit in the bank to be given time to put things right. He arrived when we were at our lowest ebb, nosediving towards the Conference after ten successive defeats. He stabilised things – galvanised the players who’d been at rock-bottom – and guided us to safety within two months.
He then led us to a fifth-place finish last term, becoming the first Notts manager to start and finish the same season in-charge in a decade, and the first one to take us into the playoffs in over 20 years. We lost four league games at Meadow Lane in his 19-month tenure; we won three in the entire calendar year before he arrived.
Win percentages (in most recent jobs):
Nolan – 41.7% (29% since Jan)
Kewell – 31.6%
Grayson – 21.4%
Bowyer – 36.5%
Flynn – 41.9%
Hasselbank – 23.8%
Ferguson – 37.9%
Curle – 38.2%
— Education Is Key Pie (@ItsMeJoeJackson) August 27, 2018
Nolan’s man-management skills really were outstanding and he remained popular with the squad until the day he left. In stark contrast to John Sheridan, the tweets from those who played under him came rolling in on Sunday. Footballers can be a fickle bunch and, while it would be easy to dismiss these, this one from Carl Dickinson really said it all to me:
Sad to see kevin Nolan go. But even though I didn’t play as much as I’d have liked he was was always brilliant and honest with me and created a great dressing room when I was there and I class him as a mate and I wish him all the best with whatever happens next.
— Carl Dickinson (@carldickinson_3) August 26, 2018
This was a player who had started everywhere he’d been in his 10+ years as a professional, including at some major clubs. He’d most-recently captained Port Vale, where he remains popular, in League One prior to joining us. Nolan came in, replaced him in the team with a teenager from Arsenal, then signed Dan Jones as his first choice in the position. In the 18 months he played under Nolan, Dickinson was never really first choice. And yet he still publicly supported him in this way. That says an awful lot about Nolan (and, in fairness, of Dickinson).
True, Hardy – and the fans who agree with the decision – are looking beyond the five league games of this season, going back to January. But in my mind, the spirit in the dressing room was the strongest asset we had last season – as opposed to any individual brilliance on the pitch. Notts were, effectively, greater than the sum of their parts and, despite a better first-half than second-half to the season, there were few qualms (that I could see) about starting another season with him at the helm.
Which brings us back to the summer and the start of this season. Looking from the outside, my opinion is that despite having a shared goal and excellent working relationship, Nolan and Hardy are very different characters with different views about how football should be played. Nolan was often very disparaging about social media in his pre-match press conferences, Hardy was keen for Notts to establish – quickly – a pathway for the youth to arrive in the first-team, but last season’s first-year pros generally didn’t even train with the first-team and were released without a trace. Nolan learned his craft under Sam Allardyce – and it showed on the pitch, whereas Hardy wanted to provide entertainment and give floating fans a reason to come to Meadow Lane.
We’ve gone from having six midfielders – Ryan Yates, Elliott Hewitt, Michael O’Connor, Rob Milsom, Liam Noble and Curtis Thompson – who could fit into that high-energy 4-4-2 last season, to one – Hewitt – this season. Seeing Noor Husin, 21, and Tom Crawford, 19, go up against O’Connor and Lee Frecklington in Nolan’s last game in-charge was an apt summary of how things had changed. It’s hard to believe this is what Nolan wanted.
Adam Collin has publicly said the manager didn’t want to release him. There never looked to be a way of fitting all of the high-profile additions in the same team, whilst maintaining any sort of defensive balance.
The weaknesses and gaps in the squad were obvious from the outset. And I don’t think Nolan is the only one to blame for this.
Newly-appointed coach Steve Chettle is listed amongst the favorites to become the new boss, but without delving into each of the candidates, none to me looks a guaranteed upgrade on Nolan. He may or may not have been able to turn things around, but in my opinion he deserved to be given the chance to try. Particularly with additions desperately needed and just four days left remaining of the loan window.
But this is where we are. Hardy, as an owner, has put his money where his mouth is. It’s been great to see the infrastructure at Meadow Lane receiving heavy investment. Great to see the focus on the academy and getting homegrown players into the first-team squad. Great to see the improved PR and social media emanating from the place. As supporters, of course we have little choice but to accept things. We’ll still go whatever happens. And we’ll be right behind the team and the new man on Saturday.
Football really is ruthless and, as Notts County fans, we have more experience than most of moving on quickly as managers come and go. But, this time, in my opinion we really shouldn’t have to.
What do you think? Was Hardy premature, or after a poor 2018 was it time for Nolan to go? Get involved in the debate @GerritForward.