Notts County team of the decade

So, there we have it. Another decade as a Notts fan is all-but over. It’s never dull at Meadow Lane but, even by typical standards, 2010-2019 has been particularly eventful.

One promotion (in the first year of the decade), two relegations, three different owners and, in a decade that started in massive uncertainty as it became apparent that the ‘Munto millions’ weren’t all they were cracked up to be, the entire future of the club was in serious doubt no fewer than three times (early 2010, December 2016, July 2019).

Thankfully, although we enter a new decade no longer the World’s Oldest Football League Club, what we do appear to have is a future. And a future as a professional club, playing its games at Meadow Lane. A future, we hope, that is just beginning under studious, admirably low-profile owners with a particular interest in football (not property) at that. Back in the summer, it’s fair to say the Notts fanbase – many of whom had all-but accepted that the end was nigh – would have gladly taken that scenario.

On the pitch, it hasn’t always been a barrel of laughs as we’ve bounced between wildly different strategies and ideologies, generally in the space of a single season (Derry to Moniz anyone?), but we have witnessed our first playoff campaign in over 20 years, a season hovering around the League One playoffs, and three great(ish) escapes (thanks Mad Dog, Shaun Derry and Kevin Nolan).

Oh, and we’ve seen some decent players, many of whom have gone onto to bigger and better things.

Author Paul Smith, Gerrit Forward contributor Rob Davies and TMTM Blog’s Tom Nixey provide their best XI, subs and manager from the last 10 years, and we’ve also got your XI of the decade below.

Paul Smith (@psmithyjourno)

Subs: Bartosz Bialkowski, John Thompson, Marc Bola, Ryan Yates, Callum McGregor, Thomas Ince, Jimmy Spencer.

I went for Kasper Schmeichel over Bartosz Bialkowski – who has gone on to better things – and Stuart Nelson, who both played much longer for us in this decade than the man who went on to lift the Premier League title. But that spell, that clean sheet record, his shot-stopping ability and the force of his personality means Schmeichel is Notts’ goalkeeper of the decade, despite only playing for us for five months of it.

Right back Kieron Freeman was another to go on to better things, now starring in the Premier League with upwardly-mobile Sheffield United after a couple of promotions. Freeman looked the part on loan from Nottingham Forest as Keith Curle led a charge towards the League One play-offs. A classy performer who was an asset in attack, Arnold-born Freeman demonstrated during his Notts loan – particularly the first one at the back end of 2011/12 – exactly what Blades fans regularly see now at a loftier height.

There was a paucity of options at centre back. It’s shocking to see how badly Notts have had it actually, perhaps no surprise then that we end the decade in the National League! But Mike Edwards stands out for the longevity and consistency of his service, despite his best performances for the club coming before this decade, while Gary Liddle carried away all four Player of the Year accolades at the end of the 2012/13 campaign, demonstrating how consistent he was in a season that finished with a mid-table third-tier finish

There was an argument for Alan Sheehan – who brilliantly captained the team during the Great Escape of 2014 – to be included at centre back, but I stuck with him at left back (where he played most of his football for us) over Marc Bola, who starred in a similar vein to the aforementioned Freeman.

I’ve gone with a midfield three in order to include the wide range of attacking/wide options that simply have to make my team. Neal Bishop, for me, is a shout for Notts’ player of the decade. A proper heart-on-his sleeve midfielder who was great between both boxes. Player of the Year in 2010/11, captain, leader and yes, legend. Alongside him, I’ve switched Ben Davies inside to a central position where he could also perform with his passing range. Player of the Year at the start of the decade in Notts’ title-winning season and a free-kick expert who was sorely missed when he departed halfway through the following season as the title team started to break up all too quickly. As Player of the Year in 2011/12 and a League One Team of the Year member a season later, Alan Judge was another shoo-in and probably Notts’ best player in the 2010’s who has gone on to international recognition with Republic of Ireland.

I’ve gone for two loanees wide, with Jorge Grant – Notts’ outstanding attacking asset for 18 months under Kevin Nolan – and his endless goals from midfield helping us to League Two safety and a play-off place a season later. While Jack Grealish has a place in all Notts’ supporters’ hearts for his mesmerising skill on the ball, thanks to an almost season-long loan in 2013/14. Ended it with a key part in the Great Escape, five goals and seven assists. But the 18-year-old left an even bigger impression with Magpies supporters now watching his every move as the Villains’ skipper and number 10.

There was only one choice as centre forward; title-winning Lee Hughes’ legend is safe at Meadow Lane. As the decade began, he was the Magpies’ goal-getter and terrace favourite. Fifteen goals in the final half of the 2009/10 season spurred Notts to the championship. The Magpies’ top scorer in the decade – he finished with 48 before a shock departure at the start of 2013 – Hughes also scored as Notts memorably opened Juventus’ new stadium with a 1-1 draw against the Italian giants and in a fine FA Cup win at Premier League Sunderland. Hughes’ relationship with the black and white army remains strong – he was given a standing ovation in the away end at Solihull Moors in Notts’ 1-0 win there as the decade ended.

Manager: Keith Curle. A controversial choice, perhaps, given there are several who contributed. That’s a surprise given the turnover of managers but in Martin Allen you had someone who avoided relegation and took Notts to Juventus. In Shaun Derry the Notts fan done good who masterminded the Great Escape and Steve Cotterill got the Magpies over the line as the third manager of the title-winning season. Kevin Nolan had a great 18 months, too. But Curle had the club at its highest league position of the decade, just on the cusp of a League One play-off finish in 2012. Moreover, the brand of attacking football was exceptional and the long unbeaten away run impressive.

Rob Davies (@RobD97)

Subs: Schmeichel, J Thompson, Yates, McGregor, J Hughes, Grant, Ameobi.

This is a bit of a contradiction in that I’d name Schmeichel alongside Darren Ward as the best Notts keepers I’ve seen in my lifetime. But for teams such as these I’d always put longevity/consistency over a long period of time above everything else, so I’ve gone for Bialkowski in-goal, who gave us two outstanding seasons. He was a brilliant signing in that he was completely unproven, but quickly showed himself to be a fantastic all-round stopper as well as adept playing it out with both feet. In my view, he was let go far too cheaply as a cost-cutting exercise and has deserved all the success that has since come his way as a top-end Championship stopper.

The other controversial pick is probably Jamal Campbell-Ryce, who after two good years beats strong competition from the likes of Jorge Grant, Jeff Hughes and Callum McGregor for the final midfield spot. Campbell-Ryce wasn’t every Notts fans’ cup of tea but alongside Judge he was a joy to watch as the creative forces in Keith Curle’s playoff chasing side and followed that up with some brilliant displays under Shaun Derry as part of a very different kind of team in the 13/14 Great Escape, where he was favoured to McGregor in the XI.

Often labelled a ‘flair player’ for his endless stepovers, Campbell-Ryce put in some outstanding defensive shifts and was even used as a wing-back as Notts ground out some of the wins they needed under the grit of Derry to somehow preserve their League One status. Two goals and two assists in a 4-2 win at home to Port Vale and a gritty away win where he managed a teenage Curtis Thompson through the game at right back sticks in the memory as key contributions from someone who in my view was underappreciated. As far as talented lower league wingers go, he was as close as you could get to a consistent performer.

Defensively, there was an embarrassing lack of choice – particularly in the centre where a number of players such as Dean Leacock, Damion Stewart and Kristian Pearce enjoyed good starts before their form dropped off a cliff – but the right back spot was a hard selection. I’ve gone with Freeman, who won the League One Player of the Month award with us during one of three separate productive loan spells at Meadow Lane, just ahead of League Two title-winning skipper John Thompson and the under-rated Julian Kelly, who alongside Alan Sheehan – a shoo-in at left back – was a key part of Martin Allen’s 11-12 side, which was surprisingly good to watch.

In the case of Freeman and the other loanee in this team, the brilliant Jack Grealish, it’s always good to see a teenage player with so much promise demonstrate their potential at Meadow Lane, and then go on and fulfil it at the higher level it deserves.

Manager: Keith Curle. I see Paul’s stole my thunder here; I thought this would be a controversial one. Again, it comes down to longevity for me; otherwise Steve Cotterill – whose role in guiding a team 7th in the league containing none of his own signings to the League Two title has since been massively underplayed – would have been a certainty. But Cotterill, after four months, got out on a high and avoided the potential downturn that the other candidates for this accolade, Martin Allen, Shaun Derry, Kevin Nolan and Curle, all suffered from.

In the end I’ve opted for Curle because he guided us to a 7th placed finish in League One, generally got more from the players he inherited, such as Bishop, Sheehan, Jeff Hughes and particularly Judge, and added quality of his own such as Bialakowski, Leacock, Liddle, Andre Boucaud and Campbell-Ryce to a very strong squad that looked destined for the League One playoffs; that was until supporters got bored of the possession football at home and alleged higher interference led to the then-manager forced into changing his preferred way of playing to accommodate two out-and-out strikers. Allegedly.

This saw a downturn in results and yet another premature sacking, but Curle’s record really does stand the test of time – and he took us to as high as we got this decade. The decision to replace him with Chris Kiwomya and the inevitable downturn that followed is perhaps the best illustration you could get of where things have gone wrong this decade, and how easily our tumble down the football pyramid could have been avoided.

Tom Nixey (@tmtm_blog)

Subs: Bialkowski, Freeman, Ravenhill, Jackson, J Hughes, Spencer, Ameobi.

Kasper obviously picks himself. Remember when he first came in and people thought he was awful because he simply wanted to throw the ball to his full backs and get us going? Lol. Sheehan, Edwards and Liddle were three fine servants of the club, Edwards especially. He’ll certainly go down as a club great. Sheehan and Liddle were excellent footballers, hence why they could play in more than one position. That night at Anfield, Gary Liddle was like a man possessed; wonderful absolutely wonderful.

Then, we start to get to the part of the team that would do BITS given a chance. Bishop; skipper. He was a colossus at Notts. Yes, he did the dirty work but he knew what to do with the ball at his feet. That header against City; marvellous scenes. McGregor was sadly let down by those around him, but boy could he play. He was phenomenal in the run in under Derry. Maybe my controversial pick is Ryan Yates owing to the fact he only stayed 4 months. However, and I 100% stick by this, if he’d have stayed we’d have won the League. He had that much of an impact. He was simply that good for us. He’ll play in the Prem one day. Just hopefully not for them…

The front three is led, expertly, by Lee Hughes. Quite simply, he was one of the best strikers we’ve ever had. Certainly one of the best I’ve ever seen. That goal against Rochdale at home was outrageously good; it epitomised him as a striker. Awareness and ability in abundance. Half the reason he was so good was Ben Davies. Set plays or open play, if a ball needed putting on a plate, Davies was your man. Unbelievable quality in that right peg. Finally, Jack Grealish. He’d be in every Notts fans team of the decade. He is simply put the most gifted footballer I have ever seen play for Notts and he was only 17. It’s criminal to think he’ll probably never get the amount of England caps he should.

Manager: We’ve had enough. This is probably the most controversial decision of the lot. Honourable mentions for Shaun Derry and Kevin Nolan. Both had their flaws but both  united everything about the club when it was most needed. Keith Curle should also be highly commended for this time here. He should never, ever have been sacked when he was. Ultimately, my manager of the decade was the first of it; Steve Cotterill. Controversial! In 4 months he turned us into a winning machine. “14 points and you fucked it up!” Cotterill made that happen.

He had all the pieces and he put them in the right places. Yes, he then completely shithoused us by ultimately ending across the river but no one can doubt what he did in those 4 months.

Your Team

Via the wonder of Twitter polls, this was the side you selected from the four available players for each position.

Full disclosure: The restrictive nature of Twitter polls did mean that this process was slightly weighted to include the best players. For example, taking the position they played for Notts – as left wingers coming in off the flank Grealish, Davies, Judge and Grant would have all been involved in the same (hugely competitive) poll for a single spot.

As such, creative license was used, which gave meant the likes of Shola Ameobi, Jimmy Spencer and long-serving Jon Stead didn’t have much chance going head-to-head against Lee Hughes, but there you go. The hardest task of all was coming up with eight centre backs suitable for nomination.

Manager: To avoid any pre-set anger, we decided to included all fourteen permanent managers the club’s had this decade in qualification polls. The winners of these four heats then met in the final and there was a clear winner…

Here’s to the next 10 years!

What do you think? Who have we missed? Who is your manager of the decade? Get involved in the fun over on Twitter @GerritForward.

Rob Davies

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