During four years in the National League, we finished third, fifth and fifth again. Each time we made the playoffs before losing. Then this amazing season came along. However, there was always the concern that missing out on top spot would mean disaster.
Even the Wrexham owners felt for us. No doubt still hurting from the previous season when they finished second only to suffer playoff disappointment. The script seemed to be written. Finish top and go up. Finish second and lose out in the playoff “lottery.” Not that we would have complained had we gone up through the playoffs in any of those three previous seasons!
No doubt everyone knows what happened this year. And you may be forgiven for thinking the highlight was that moment Cedwyn Scott’s penalty in the Wembley shootout crossed the line. Yet for me, the whole four years has been a bonus. Not a bonus I wish to repeat, mind you.
And yes, there have been frustrations, disappointments, heartbreak even. But after the misery of relegation from the Football League in May 2019, worse looked set to follow as the threat of being wound up was very real. Just a week before the season was due to start, the Reedtz brothers completed the purchase and paid HMRC.
So the trip to sunny Hampshire the following weekend was THE highlight. Yes, we had two men sent off and lost 1-0 at Eastleigh. But at least we still had a team to support! It took until our fourth game to pick up the first win (2-0 at Harrogate – who were to beat us in the playoff final a year later!!!)
After that, the expectations of many supporters increased. Could we bounce straight back? It was fun seeing the team run out at various new grounds. Ebbsfleet, Bromley, Dover, Woking (a wonderful 4-0 win). Bright sunshine accompanied us on so many of those trips.
But a 3-0 home defeat by league-leaders Barrow tempered expectations. We looked great at times, but I felt manager Neal Ardley undermined his team by building up the opposition too much. March provided fresh hope with four league wins on the bounce, including a 2-0 win at table-topping Barrow, but COVID came along, and the season finished early.
When playoffs did take place we lost behind closed doors at Wembley to Harrogate. The following season was very frustrating as we watched live streams with mixed results (and higher expectations) and in March Ian Burchnall took over from Ardley.
Ten points from our last four games saw us squeeze into the playoffs, and we finally got to see the team play in person when restrictions were eased for the visit of Chesterfield. The atmosphere was phenomenal and a 90th-minute header from Mark Ellis gave us a 3-2 win.
A week later though defeat at Torquay ended another season.
Season three saw a team which dominated possession in most games. At times goals flowed though results were still variable. We beat Barnet 6-1 in February, yet the following weeks included defeats at Chesterfield (3-1), Stockport (3-0) and Torquay (5-1). However, we made the playoffs quite comfortably - only to suffer a 2-1 loss to Grimsby. When they equalised in the 96th minute and grabbed a winner in the 119th minute did anyone imagine we’d be doing the same ourselves a year later?
And so to the 2022-23 season. Burchnall left, and some fellow called Luke Williams arrived. Pre-season was less than impressive yet behind the scenes, the most meticulous preparations were under way. The fittest Notts team I remember went on to win 5 and draw 3 of their first 8 games.
Whilst I enjoyed the weekend in Dorking our first defeat left us trailing title favourites Wrexham. We went unbeaten for 25 games until losing at home to Dagenham on 25th February. When we travelled to Wrexham in April, both teams had 100 points, though they had a game in hand.
We lost narrowly and couldn’t close the gap in our remaining games. So it was playoffs again for the fourth year in a row. Nobody needs reminding what happened! As we celebrated at Wembley it seemed somehow even better than finishing first!