The unfortunate injury to Mason Bennett, prematurely ending a promising loan spell from Derby, has plunged Notts into the familiar position of scrabbling around for suitable strikers. With the ageing Stead and Ameobi struggling to meet the demands of two-game weeks the loan of Bennett, a player combining the intoxicating mix of both strength and pace (when it tends to be either/or in League 2) seemed the perfect solution.
And so it looked with a goal ratio of one in one after his 89th minute debut goal against Crewe. Yet 22 minutes into his full debut against Barnet, Bennett’s time in a Notts shirt was over after a serious hamstring injury resulted in season-ending surgery.
With the transfer window closed, Notts are forced to root through the bins instead. Only players who are currently unemployed are options now. Reports quickly surfaced of Nile Ranger, troubled former-teammate of Kevin Nolan and Shola Ameobi, to join the Geordie exodus at Meadow Lane. But such a move would prove to be more than a little problematic.
Notts clarified their position as a family-oriented club with their reaction to former manager John Sheridan’s foul-mouthed rant to match officials, so employing a player whose tag had prevented him playing evening kick-offs doesn’t seem a solution. Those pro-Ranger are quick to mention the redemption offered to Lee Hughes, still held in high regard at Meadow Lane, as evidence that we shouldn’t be quick to judge.
But the crucial difference for me is that Hughes sought forgiveness for that one, terrible crime and paid a heavy debt. Ranger has shown little determination to take one of the many second chances he’s been given. And I’m not sure I wanted my club to give him another one.
But the Hughes comparison is important for a very different reason, as neither his goal record nor his stature in the stands has ever been successfully replaced. Jon Stead may take some issue with that, given he’s scored an often-significant haul every season for Notts, but receives nowhere near the adoration Hughes did. Stead aside, Notts have continually failed to identify a striker who can do the business.
It’s too simplistic to look at Munto’s mythical millions as a reason for this, tempting Hughes to join Notts when he may otherwise have gone elsewhere. You only have to look at what has happened at the other end of the pitch to realise that we have regularly replaced our keepers whilst still maintaining a level of quality. Schmeichel to Bialkowski to Carroll to Collin and Fitzsimons shows that it is possible to find quality despite changing divisions and budgets.
Ironically, post-Hughes Notts have probably invested most heavily in their front line, only for them to frequently fail to deliver. Izale McLeod arrived for six figures but remained with a single-figure goal tally, despite playing 37 times. Leroy Lita arrived for an expensive and fruitless 6 game rescue mission in 2015, with a zero-goal return. Danny Haynes arrived with much fanfare in 2013 from Championship Charlton. 23 games resulted in 3 goals. Ben Burgess was lured to Meadow Lane from Blackpool’s surge up the leagues in 2010, only for him to stutter to 5 in 45 games.
The historic inability to find some who can convert chances consistently was confirmed by Ben Mayhew, whose @experimental361 account is worth a follow on Twitter. From 2015 we see a graph that demonstrates our underachievement in converting chances into goals, reaching its worst in the middle of the 2016/17 season before Nolan took over.
Recent results are definitely reflected in declining performances, so something worrying going on.
Can’t see an obvious cause but, looking at squad usage, the departure of Yates is a potential trigger. pic.twitter.com/6LJdjcMgh8
— Ben Mayhew (@experimental361) February 21, 2018
Whatever the problem is, Notts need to find a solution- and fast. Not only are Notts currently limited to rotating and rehabilitating Stead and Ameobi (as Jonathan Forte appears to be just behind my Dad in the pecking order) but, however this season ends, Ameobi and/or Stead need replacing long-term (unless Alan Hardy has a subsidiary company that is harnessing cryonics and time-travel).
But perhaps the past can offer something towards this much-needed solution. Some of Notts’ most successful strikers have been those hardest to predict.
Rarely, Hughes aside, have the big name strikers hit the net as well as they hit the headlines. Gary Jones scored 28 for Sam Allardyce’s promotion-winning side after uninspiring spells at Doncaster and Southend. Mark Stallard’s goals in a black and white shirt came about after being sold by Wycombe at a £90,000 loss. Jimmy Spencer, though not prolific, did more than most to lead the Magpies’ line on the back of six sporadic loan spells from Huddersfield.
So maybe, just maybe, there’s someone out there – probably with a less than glamorous goal-scoring record – who can finally fire us into the future.