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After having no kit and no players, Notts County have a shot at redemption

Gregor Robertson talks to manager Neal Ardley about an extraordinary couple of years before their big clash with Harrogate

Saturday August 01 2020, 12.00am, The Times
Ardley was in charge when the club dropped out of the Football League last season but has turned them around in just over 12 months
Ardley was in charge when the club dropped out of the Football League last season but has turned them around in just over 12 months

Just over a year ago, Notts County could not even afford to pay for a new set of strips. England’s oldest Football League club had just lost that famous status after suffering a painful relegation from League Two.

Funding had dried up and the club was on the brink. Players and staff had not been paid for two months. A fourth hearing in as many months at the High Court over unpaid tax was approaching. The club’s plight was raised in parliament by MP for Nottingham South, Lilian Greenwood. Greenwood was even moved to ask Juventus, who County furnished with those famous black-and-white striped shirts in 1903, if they would consider returning the favour. Oh, and the new season was little more than a week away.

Fast-forward 12 months and victory in tomorrow’s National League play-off final at Wembley, where Notts meet Harrogate Town for a place in the Football League, would complete a remarkable turnaround.

“From where we were last year, how broken we felt the place was, my message to the players has been how proud I am of them to have come so far in a short space of time,” Neal Ardley, the manager, says. “They’ve brought the club together, back to feeling like a proper football club again. If they can put the cherry on top on Sunday, then great.”

Ardley has more than played his part in dissipating the cloud which had engulfed the 158-year-old club. Green shoots of hope finally appeared on July 26, 2019, when Danish brothers Christoffer and Alexander Reedtz — owners of Football Radar, a football analysis company — bought the club and their calm, discreet and professional approach has been most welcome after the tragicomedy that unfurled towards the end of Alan Hardy’s tenure.

Hardy, the former owner, was never far from front and centre when the cameras were rolling, and a prominent voice on Twitter until, you may recall, he accidentally uploaded a rather intimate picture in January 2019 when Notts were staring at the abyss.

Hardy had boldly claimed that Notts would be challenging Nottingham Forest, their neighbours across the River Trent, in the Championship within five years and labelled manager Kevin Nolan, who led County to the 2017-18 League Two play-offs, a “future England manager”. Nolan was sacked five games into the following season and his successor, Harry Kewell, was hired and fired within 74 days. When Ardley arrived, in November 2018, he found a club saddled with a squad of 38 players, filled with passengers, and a £3 million wage bill.

“I’m quite an honest guy, quite a proud guy,” Ardley says, reflecting on relegation at Swindon Town on the final day of last season. “I want to go into a club and make it better. So when I came in to do a job — albeit a tough job with loads of different things I was firefighting — and you don’t achieve that, you feel like you’ve failed. To stand in front of people in tears in the crowd, crying because it’s the first time they’ve experienced [relegation from the Football League], you feel like a failure.

“It took me a while to get over it. And I did think I might not get the opportunity to [continue]: 25 managers in 20 years at Notts — you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know the likely outcome. But here we are now, and hopefully there’s a story there.”

The Reedtz brothers paid staff within days, cleared debts and, once a transfer embargo was lifted, helped Ardley sign 13 players in the space of a “mad” two weeks. “We had to act quickly,” Ardley, the former AFC Wimbledon player and manager, says. “I think we had 14 games in the first 54 days of the season. And any players we were bringing in hadn’t had a pre-season. We were literally trying to get them fit as the season was going on, and trying to bring a group of players together.”

The Reedtz company, which has offices in London, Liverpool and Bulgaria, provides analysis to betting companies and has access to in-depth data from leagues around the world. “They’re very knowledgeable,” Ardley says. “We’ve put together a recruitment structure, which I’ve never had before. I’ve always had to do the recruitment myself. But between us we funnel through a pool of players to see who would improve us, and how.

“I could see a player I like, we go through it, we analyse it, and if it’s not one the owners feel is going to improve us after looking at the data and the stats, then we don’t do it,” Ardley says. “On the flip side, they’ll put forward some that look strong, but if I don’t like them, we move on and find another one. When everybody is part of that process and everyone says, ‘Yes, this is someone who can improve us’, then it’s great, because we’re all in it together.”

Ardley cites Kyle Wootton and Callum Roberts as two examples of the success of their approach. Wootton, 23, joined from Scunthorpe United and is the club’s leading scorer with 13 goals, while Roberts, also 23, scored a wonderfully nimble-footed goal in County’s 2-0 win against Barnet in the semi-final last week. The former Newcastle United winger, plucked from Blyth Spartans in January, has been a revelation.

Ardley is also quick to praise the value of experienced pros such as Michael Doyle, Ben Turner and Jim O’Brien who drove standards relentlessly after a start in which County won only two of their opening ten games.

O'Brien has provided experience, which has been key for County
O'Brien has provided experience, which has been key for County

“The club’s come so far in a short period of time,” O’Brien, the former Barnsley and Coventry City midfielder, says. “I was out of contract, the club weren’t in a position to offer anything, but I came back for pre-season, because I wanted to be at the club. It was tough. We were having meetings with the staff, the office staff, the chefs, the ground staff, everybody — and we got to know what people were going through. I think having that togetherness, in the long run, has helped us.

“Then when the owners came in we had a get-together, a barbecue. They made a speech, very brief, thanking us for sticking with it through some tough times, talking about how they want to move the club forward. You could see the relief on people’s faces. Everyone could finally take a deep breath, and get on with their jobs.

“There’s definitely a feeling of ‘let’s right the wrongs of last season and get us back up’, and hopefully all will be forgotten with the supporters. The club have really engaged with the fans this season though and it’s been a great atmosphere. I really hope we can get it over the line for them.”

Harrogate, who finished second, a place and three points ahead of Notts when the season was curtailed, stand between Notts and an immediate return but have their own bit of history to create. “There are two really good stories here,” Ardley admits. “Harrogate have never played a League game, and are trying to get there for the first time; and Notts County, as the oldest football league club previously, are trying to get [that status] back at the first attempt.

“For us to get that [status], which means so much to the club, back would be fantastic. To give the owners the success they deserve in their first year at the club would be fantastic. And after all the adversity we’ve had to overcome in the last 18 months, a celebration would be fantastic.”

● Harrogate Town v Notts County. Tomorrow, 3pm, BT Sport

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Very good article, it makes a change to read something positive in the papers for a change. it shows that Neal Ardley must be doing something right.

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i hope this season is the first of many good ones, good article. it does make a change to see something positive.

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