Everyone knows the old paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously dead and alive. The Austrian physicist who devised it probably didn’t see the parallels that could be drawn with English football decades later, but here we are. The English lower leagues have become that cat. Dead and alive. Vibrant yet stagnant. Successful but doomed. It’s a paradox that no club embodies as well as Notts County.
If you only scratch the surface, the Football League looks to be in perfect health. The Championship is one of the best supported leagues in world football. All three divisions are unpredictable to the point of lunacy and have a level of interest that no other pyramid system in the world can come close to. Get to the fourth tier in Spain and the matches are played in front of little more than a lonely old man called Juan who thought it was a bullfight.
There is almost no fourth or even third tier team in any country other than England that can match the historical significance and the supporter base of Notts County. There is the odd exception, such as Germany’s Alemannia Aachen or the demoted Parma in Italy, but the point generally stands.
However, as we know, Notts are at a historical low point. Crowds have dwindled to the point where they only dwarf what is on offer in similar leagues abroad, John Sheridan was wildly unsuccessful in turning Ray Trew’s stricken cruise liner around and we’ve had our fingers burnt after some unwise summer transfer dealings with Port Vale. The Football League as a whole is plagued by unsustainable ownership models and unscrupulous owners. Almost everyone is running at a significant loss. It’s a situation that has to change if lower league football is going to survive.
Now that the ownership wrangling at Meadow Lane has been resolved, with Alan Hardy taking on a particularly cyanide-laced chalice, Notts are in a unique position to try something different. It’s time to stop merely defining ourselves by whether we happen to have a good team this year or not. The nature of football is that you usually won’t – and that is how you end up where Notts are now. There’s nothing left.
In a city where the competition looks set to move from a megalomaniac fridge magnate to a profit-driven baseball nut, Hardy needs to shout about his local connections. He needs to make football at Meadow Lane affordable and he needs to reach out to people who have been lost because we aren’t offering an alternative to Forest beyond being about three quid cheaper and two divisions shitter.
He needs to strengthen the club’s community work, both directly and through the excellent Football in the Community organisation, and give Nottingham a club that genuinely represents the city in which it sits. You can’t promise to be good at football every year, although the occasional non-terrible season would probably help, but you can ensure that the seats aren’t covered in cobwebs and bird shit, that the pies aren’t lukewarm and gloopy and that you don’t have to remortgage your house to sit in the Main Stand. At least sort out the things that you can control.
People have always defined us against Forest. Defined us by what they are and we’re not. It’s time to own that badge and turn it around, to start defining ourselves by what we can be and what Forest and other clubs aren’t. That doesn’t necessarily have to be in wins and trophies but what we’ve not had in the entire time that I’ve been supporting the club – a common goal, purpose and identity.
To his credit, Hardy has been making the right noises in the embryonic stages of his reign. Reducing ticket prices to £20 for the Mansfield game may not be a huge drop, but it is symbolic to be able to get in with one note, whilst he has hinted at a greater sense of community and investment into the club’s academy. These are the right priorities for a new owner to have, at least beyond the immediate concern of preserving our league status.
Things have reached such a nadir that any new era is going to have to be bold, brash and ambitious just to re-enliven a fan base struggling to muster up the energy to boo the worst team in our history following the recent Meadow Lane humiliations. But, as we’ve learned time and time again, bold proclamations about being a Championship club in five years or signing an ex-Premier League striker usually end in ridicule or disappointment. So let’s be bold about something else. I’m not a marketing guy, but let’s start being Nottingham’s Football Club.