This season came off the back of a truly calamitous campaign in 1996-97 that saw Notts County embark on a record 20-match winless run and suffer relegation to the basement division for the first time since the 1960s. The manager was Sam Allardyce, who had inherited Colin Murphy's rudderless team part-way through that awful run.
Allardyce made only modest changes to the previous season's squad in the summer. Dennis Pearce and Mark Robson arrived from Wolves and Charlton respectively, with the outgoings including Paul Rogers and Tony Agana.
The season began with back-to-back wins over Rochdale and Hull before a controversial defeat at home to Lincoln in which Devon White took an early bath. This was followed by draws against Cardiff and Hartlepool as the Magpies started to look in danger of losing their early momentum. However, their position at the top end of the table was cemented by four straight wins including a 1-0 win over Mansfield featuring a possibly offside Gary Martindale goal.
By this time Notts had a settled and confident team, something that eluded them in the previous campaign. Darren Ward held down the number one jersey, the talismanic and slightly caveman-like Gary Strodder was partnered at centre-half by Matt Redmile and Ian Richardson at different points of the season. Ian Baraclough, who in the previous season had played at left-back and had famously been voted the worst player in the club's history, was moved into midfield and did sufficiently well to attract the attention of QPR, who he joined in March. The Notts midfield also had its share of young talent in Steve Finnan and Shaun Derry, while Gary Jones partnered Sean Farrell up front. The team was captained by reliable right-back Ian Hendon, still probably the best taker of a penalty I have seen. While lacking the subtlety of the class of 2010, Allardyce's team offered just the right blend of guile and muscle to succeed in the fourth division.
Notts rose to the top of the table with a 5-2 home win over a farcically bad (and relegation-bound) Doncaster Rovers team in December. Not on the score sheet that day was Doncaster native Gary Jones, who by that point had only netted five times. However, Jones would go on to score 23 goals in our final 23 games!
The win over Doncaster was the second of what proved to be a club-record run of ten consecutive wins stretching from the beginning of December to the end of February. This record was clinched in a memorable 5-3 victory at Lincoln in which we raced into a 3-0 half-time lead. Early in the second half keeper Darren Ward missed the ball when attempting a clearance, leaving the Lincoln player with a tap-in, and 15 minutes later the hosts were level. However, Notts were determined. Seconds after the restart Jones charged down a clearance by the Imps' keeper and eventually a ninth straight win was secured in front of well over 2000 travelling fans. The tenth win was secured at Field Mill, with hundreds of Notts fans locked out.
By the time the run ended, Notts were clear at the top of the division by a big margin and promotion was just a matter of time. Promotion and the title were clinched in a tight 1-0 win over Leyton Orient on 28 March, with six matches to spare. This made us the first team ever to win a championship before the end of March. The curtain came down on the season with a 5-2 home win against Rotherham in front of over 12,000 spectators, as well as the obligatory pitch invasion and an “interesting” rendition of "We Are The Champions" by Allardyce.
The record-breaking team was broken up soon afterwards. We went into the following season with a raft of new signings to replace the likes of Phil Robinson, Shaun Derry and Ian Baraclough. And although both remained at the club, the Jones-Farrell partnership was also not to last. Sean Farrell suffered a long-term injury early in the following season, and Gary Jones never recaptured his form and eventually left the club for Hartlepool. By the end of 98-99, only five of the first 11 had featured in the championship-winning campaign. However, the 97-98 season remains a masterclass in turning a failing team around.
Disappearing from view (sorry WSC)
Following a stint at Lincoln City in the mid-80s, the physical, Nottingham-born striker drifted back into non-league until Gerry Francis took him to Bristol Rovers, where he scored 53 goals in 202 appearances. Francis then took him with him to QPR in 1993, where he scored nine goals in 26 Premier League appearances before joining Notts for the first time in 1994. White had rejoined Notts from Watford in early 1997 but left again in September after losing his first-team place. After a subsequent spell at Shrewsbury, he returned to non-league football and is now an electrician.
Went on to greater things
Steve Finnan originally arrived as a young loanee from Birmingham City in the 1995-96 season and became a fixture in the team that reached the play-off final in what is now League One. He joined permanently the following season and was a key supplier of goals from the right wing in 97-98. Kevin Keegan then signed him for Fulham for £600,000 in November 1998. In the 2000s Finnan mainly played in the right-back position and became part of the Premier League furniture for Fulham and subsequently Liverpool, where he became a Champions League winner.