Well the dust has just about settled on another season of highs and lows, joys and sorrows for the world's oldest league club. It's been a rather strange season. It sounds very cliche but it really has been a season of two halves - one spent watching our promotion hopes go down the drain, and the other half spent fighting the unthinkable in relegation out of the very league we helped establish. But we've come out the other side, and now seems like a good time to look back on a real rollercoaster of a ride. So this is my season review. Nothing special, no real plan. Just me waffling in the hope that somebody somewhere has enough time on their hands to read said waffles, and hopefully - raise a smile!
Despite an awful end to the 2015/16 season, the appointment of the experienced John Sheridan seemed a real statement of intent from Notts, and with players such as Jonathan Forte, Michael O'Connor, Richard Duffy, Matt Tootle, Adam Colin etc all signing from higher league clubs, there was reason for quiet optimism going into the new season.
Not that that hope lasted very long. All of 16 minutes in fact before Adam Collin introduced himself to us with a howler to gift Yeovil the lead at Huish Park. A second followed soon after, and in the end the 2-0 scoreline probably flattered Notts, who were second best all over the park in the West Country sunshine. Still, at least we got a nice sun tan! And from a purely selfish point of view, I was home and tucking into my takeaway whilst the Notts fans were still trying to find their way back to the M5!
Failiure to win either of our first two home games of the season did little to raise enthusiasm, and it wasn't until the second half of our fourth game of the season at Hartlepool that Notts' season finally kicked into life. Trailing 1-0 until the 65th minute, loanee Louis Laing would change the game - netting the equaliser himself before setting up veteren striker Jon Stead for the winner ten minutes later, to the delight of the hardy souls who made the long trip to Scotland, and to me and some other Notts fans enjoying Twenty20 Finals Day at Edgbaston!
Back-to-back away wins were recorded thanks to another terrific second half display that saw us win 3-1 at Crawley, and set us up nicely for what promised to be a tasty home game with Grimsby Town. The Marriners brought a large and boysterous following, and when Omar Bogle (Omaaar, Omaaaarrr) latched onto a pathetic back pass from Aborah to double their lead early in the second half, they appeared to be cruising. But Johnny Forte halved the defecit with eleven minutes to go, and barely a minute later the travelling army of "Fish" were stunned when Notts won a penalty. Maybe it was the adrenelin, or maybe it was just a c*ap effort, but O'Connor smashed it wide to the disbelief of the Notts crowd.
But to their credit, the players didn't let the setback get to them, and after launching the kitchen sink at Grimsby for the final ten minutes, Aaron Collins lifted the roof off of the Kop end when he equalised a minute from time. Vadane Oliver almost stole all 3 points moments leter when his looping header was tipped onto the crossbar by the keeper. If that had gone in I think there would have been a few broken bones in the Kop!
We couldn't repeat the trick a week later as we slumped to a dreadful 2-0 reverse at home to Accrington Stanley, but our away form came to our aid again, with back-to-back away day successes again, this time at Cheltenham Town and Exeter City, either side of a first home win of the season over Leyton Orient.
Those 3 straight wins had us briefly up to the dizzying heights of 5th, but we came crashing back down to earth with a bang, with a gut wrenching defeat to Mansfield Town at Field Mill, conceeding two stoppage time goals.
Another home defeat followed, this time to Morecambe, before, once again - our away form kept us in the mix, and saw us achieve arguably our best result of the season - winning 2-1 at eventual champions Portsmouth, thanks to two Adam Campbell goals. An incredible result, and a brilliant day for the travelling fans. Little did we know, it would end up being 14 long, excruciating weeks before we had that winning feeling in the league again.
A frustrating goalless draw at home to Luton followed, before we just about avoided FA Cup embarrassment to non-league opposition again, coming from 2 down to rescue a draw at Boreham Wood. There's a first time for everything, and that was the first time I've found myself watching a game from the toilet block door to stay out of the rain!
An utterly calamitous 4-0 trouncing at Bloomfield Road put a slight dampener on what was an otherwise cracking weekend in Blackpool, before bottom side Newport came to the Lane and tore us a new one. Shaun Derry was then on hand to rub salt into the wounds 4 days later, before another masterclass in defensive ineptitude handed Barnet 3 points at The Hive, in a game where Notts should have been 3 to the good by the time Barnet got on the scoresheet.
Some degree of pride was briefly restored in the FA Cup second round, as we fought back from 2 down to earn a deserved replay with league one Peterborough, but the losing run in the league was stretched to 6 games as we threw away the lead at Colchester.
By this stage, the atmosphere was starting to turn toxic, not only against the manager and the players, but the owner. The clear chants from the crowd for Trew to leave at Colchester proved to be much closer to the mark than any of us imagined, as the following Monday Trew announced that he had agreed a deal with Alan Hardy to sell the club.
This meant that the army of Notts fans who travelled to Peterborough the next evening for the FA Cup replay were in good spirits, and with the prize at stake being a trip to Chelsea, there was a cracking atmosphere in the away end. It wasn't to be as we were comfortably beaten on the night, but it was a fantastic evening in that away end.
The optimism was short lived as two more home defeats over the Christmas and New Year period left us just one place above the relegation zone, and 4-0 humbling at Cambridge in the first game of 2017 signalled the end of the road for yet another manager. John Sheridan was relieved of his duties, but we were still yet to hit rock bottom.
That would come with an embarrassing surrender to ten man Morecambe, making it an unwanted club record of 10 consecutive league defeats, during which we shipped just the 27 goals!
But thankfully, things were about to change for the better. Alan Hardy officially completed his takeover of the club, and wasted no time in appointing Kevin Nolan as manager. Some wondered if we were in a position to be able to afford to gamble on another rookie manager, but it was obvious that he and Hardy had already struck up a strong relationship, and quite frankly, many of us thought "sod it he can't do any worse".
A bumper crowd of over 11,300 descened onto the Lane for the pairs first game at the club, and Notts finally stopped the rot with a hard fought goalless draw against local rivals Mansfield Town, who's fans seemed more interested in setting off flares than watching the game. We never did find out if any lifeboats actually responded...
The next home game finally brought us our first win in what felt like an eternity, and in typical Notts fashion, it came in the most dramatic way possible.
For the most part we had been all over Crawley, but try as we might we just couldn't find that all important goal, and when Curtis Thomspon saw red midway through the second half, after all of the chances we'd missed, you couldn't help but feel that a sucker punch was inevitable.
But if anything, the red seemed to galvanise Notts further, and the home fans roared them forwards. Sure enough, with just 15 minutes remaining Thierry Audel headed Notts into the lead. Just ffteen minutes to hold on for that long awaited victory. Crawley had created nothing all game, surely this was it?
Well this being Notts there had to be a sting in the tail, and when James Collins let fy from some 30 yards and his effort flew in off the underside of the bar, everyone's heart sank. Just typical, we had been the better side and had been hit with the sucker punch. "Watch them nick it now" I remember thinking to myself.
But once again, the setback only seemed to strengthen our resolve, and when Crawley's keeper spilled a shot, Forte was on hand to smash the rebound home, sparking scenes of utter delerium around Meadow Lane.
Those five minutes of injury time were five of the longest minutes of my life, but the sheer release of emotion at that final whistle will live long in the memory. There were grown men in tears. Unless you suffered through those 14 weeks of hell since the last win, you can't even begin to understand just how much that win meant to us, and the way in which we won it made it even more special. Moments like that are why we stick with our clubs through thick and thin.
The joy was short lived, as a frustrating defeat at Accrington Stanley (I'll let you say it...) followed, and set up a relegation 6 pointer at home to Cheltenham. It was a game of huge importance for both sides, but by now Nolan was really starting to stamp his mark on the side, and wth the embargo being lifted at the 11th hour, he was able to bring in some useful signings for the run-in, and in particular Jorge Grant and Shola Ameobi would prove invaluable.
Notts beat Cheltenham 2-1, and the never say die attitude Noaln had instilled was emphasised days later when Richard Duffy and Jorge Grant struck in injury time to rescue a dramatic draw at home to Exeter. This set up yet another relegation 6 pointer in East London against Leyton Orient. It proved not to be one for the faint hearted!
Normally games like that are tight and nervy, but this was anything but. Both sides seemed to decide that the best form of defence was attack. Jorge Grant gave Notts a 35th minute lead which they would just about hold onto into half time. It looked like Jon Stead had settled the nerves when he doubled the lead early in the second half, but in typical Notts fashion, we allowed Orient straight back into it a minute later, to set up 40 of the most nail biting minutes those of us in attendance would experience all season.
Orient threw everything at us, and the defending at times was desperate. We were beginning to edge towards a massive victory, but then ten minutes from time Notts failed to clear their lines, and Mezague struck an absolute rocket into the roof of the net to lift the roof off of Brisbane Road.
Other scores were against us at the time, and now we were just hoping to hang on for the point. But some great skill from Bola carved open the Orient defence, and he pulled it back for the unmarked Jon Stead on the edge of the box, and the veteren frontman cooly rifled the ball into the bottom corner to spark utter chaos in the away end.
We just about held out for the 6 minutes of injury time, and secured one of our most important wins of the season, and what a game it was too!
A slightly less exciting goalless draw with Yeovil followed, before another memorable away win, this time in deepest Devon at promotion chasing Plymouth, on a Tuesday night. Ultimately it was a goalkeeping howler that let Grant in for the decisive goal midway through the first half, though any of the 163 hardy souls in the away end that night would tell you Notts were genuinely the better side on the night, and Plymouth wouldn't have had much ground for complaint if we'd won 3-0.
The young Forest star (as the local chip paper loves to point out) was having quite an impact, and he slammed home one of the goals of the season to seal a 2-1 win over Hartlepool in another six pointer at Meadow Lane. Quite a contrast in the home form since the arrival of Nolan.
A batting 3-1 loss at league leaders Doncaste followed, but so good was the run we had been on that we now had an 8 point cushion over the bottom 2, neither of whom were showing any signs of dragging themselves out of it.
Safety was all but confirmed over the weekend of the 18th and 19th of March. Results went our way on the Saturday, but when Mark Yeates saw red for a rash challenge early on at home to Barnet, it looked like we might be thankful for those results going our way. But under Noaln we're a different animal, and this team doesn't know when it's beaten. We limited Barnet to very few openings, and Matt Tootle's goal early in the second half gave us something to defend. A combination of Notts runing themelves into the ground, and Barnet being a bit toilet meant we held on for a massive 3 points that took us 11 clear of the drop zone.
The pressure of the dogfight was now off to some extent and we were able to enjoy the run in.
Shola Ameobi's goal was enough to earn 3 points in a rather uneventful game at Wycombe, before we put in arguably our best performance under Nolan when comfortably seeing off play-off chasing Colchester at Meadow Lane.
Four straight wins were notched up with Jon Stead and Matt Tootle scoring in the last 5 minutes to seal a dramatic comeback win at Carlisle, before an entertaining, if somewhat frustrating draw at Crewe.
But by now we were already starting to look to next season, and not even the unbeaten home run under Nolan coming to an end against Portsmouth on Easter Monday could wash away the feel good factor.
The final home game of the season saw us sign off with a hard fought and scrappy win over Blackpool, and it just brought home how much things have changed in the last year.
12 months ago we lost 5-0 to Carlisle on the final day, and the club was in complete turmoil. Now we're revitalised, and everybody is looking forwards. The feel good factor is back in the club. Watching Notts has gone back to being fun again.
It was actually nice to go into that final game at Newport and be in a position to just enjoy the day. It was a shame we lost but credit to Newport, what a way to survive. I'm just glad it didn't hold any relevance for us, as it was only a few months ago that we were starting to look at that game as a potential do or die game!
It's been another topsy turvy season at Meadow Lane, but we've come through it. I know we've had more false dawns than we care to remember at Notts, so I say it with extreme caution, but there is genuine cause for quiet optimism.
I really do think that Nolan could build something special here if given the right backing. It's obvious him and Hardy have a special bond, and that's crucial. Look what it did for Derek Pavis and Neil Warnock.
We need to be patient though and give him time. And I mean proper time. Don't panic and go and get rid of him at the first sign of things not going according to plan. We've been through a frankly embarrassing number of managers over the last few years and look where it's got us. Now more than ever we need some stability, and I trust Nolan to take us forwards next season.
I really don't think we're that far off challenging at the right end of this league. The gap between the top and the bottom isn't that great. We beat 5 of this season's top 7 this season, so we know we can compete with the big teams.
We'll see what happens come August. But as with any Notts season, it sure as hell won't be dull!