The nineties were a mixed decade for Notts to say the least, starting with two trips to Wembley and a return to the top flight. However, the five years after relegation from the first division were marked by bewildering sackings, even more bewildering managerial appointments, a cost-cutting drive overseen by Colin Murphy and, finally, relegation to the fourth division in 1997 (at that time the third division, now known as League Two. I know).
This was our first relegation to the fourth division for almost three decades, since the early days of Jimmy Sirrel. To my 17-year-old self at least it was almost as unimaginable as our relegation of 2019. We hadn't played many of the teams in that division in many years and were perceived by other clubs' fans as fallen giants (we had been hosting Manchester United and Liverpool five years before, after all). We were Everybody Else's Cup FinalTM.
The team was managed by Sam Allardyce, who had been appointed in January 1997 a few months after his sacking at Blackpool. Allardyce had failed to keep us up – in fact, we had embarked on a club-record winless run of 20 games, most of which were on his watch. He wasn't blamed for relegation, however, with most fans acknowledging that he had inherited a demoralised and bloated squad.
Allardyce had already thinned out the squad the previous season, and the sole pre-season additions were Dennis Pearce and Mark Robson, who beefed up the left-hand side. Gary Strodder, in his third season at the club, formed the heart of a sound defence and was partnered by Graeme Hogg, Matt Redmile and Ian Richardson at various points. The previously hapless Ian Baraclough moved into midfield and was given a new lease of life. Phil Robinson was another regular, giving us plenty of strength and tenacity in the centre of the park. The team was captained by Ian Hendon, a very steady right-back and a sublime taker of penalties.
Following a nervy but important win over Rochdale on the opening day and a comfortable win at Hull, we encountered our first setback at home to John Beck's “industrial” Lincoln side. After harshly showing Devon White the red card, the referee failed to spot that ex-Notts striker Phil Stant's winner for Lincoln was approximately seven miles offside, sparking furious scenes. But that was to remain our last defeat until November, with Notts establishing themselves near the top of the table in what looked like a close fight for promotion.
During that time we recorded what was to be our last home victory over Mansfield until last season, with Gary Martindale scoring the only goal (which also had a strong whiff of offside about it). The match was rather more low-key than our more recent encounters with the Stags, however.
On 3 December we won 1-0 at Brighton (who were groundsharing at Gillingham at the time) in front of a now-unimaginable crowd of 1,279. It was to be the start of a record-breaking run. The following week we moved to the top of the table for a final time after a 5-2 win over a dreadful and relegation-bound Doncaster side.
This was also the time that Gary Jones came to life. The hard-working striker scored just five goals before Christmas, but finished the season on 27 goals and in the form of his life – form he would sadly never replicate at Notts or any of his subsequent clubs.
We travelled to Lincoln during January with a score to settle and a club-record ninth consecutive win in our sights. In excess of 2,000 Notts fans made the short journey, myself incuded, and accounted for nearly half the crowd. And we were to be rewarded with a bombastic first-half performance and a 3-0 half-time lead – we were cruising, the only question seemed to be how many we would score. Just a couple of minutes into the second half, keeper Darren Ward attempted to clear a back-pass up the pitch but succeeded only in kicking thin air, and moments later the ball was in our net. Suddenly Lincoln came alive and ran us ragged. Just thirteen minutes after Ward's miskick, they were level.
Seconds after the restart, Notts were back in the lead. And ten minutes later the Lincoln keeper attempted a clearance, but the tireless Jones charged it down. Instead of being allowed to tap the ball in the net, Sean Farrell sprinted ahead of him and claimed the goal for himself, much to Jones' annoyance. Not that the travelling fans cared. Notts were now well on their way.
A 2-0 win at Mansfield the following week (with hundreds of Notts fans locked out outside the ground) extended the winning run to ten, before it finally came to an end with a draw against Shrewsbury. But by now the chasing pack were melting away; it already seemed a matter of when we won promotion, not if. Shaun Derry left for Sheffield United after the Lincoln match, with Andy Hughes replacing him days later.
With every passing week it became apparent that we really were going to be champions by Easter. Promotion would have been possible with a win over Colchester on 21 March if other results went our way. We drew 0-0 and they didn't. So it was on 28 March 1998 that we became the first Football League team to win a championship in March, when we beat Leyton Orient 1-0 in front of a crowd of 8,383. Mark Robson scored the only goal and Sam Allardyce led the festivities on the pitch after the match, grabbing the microphone and “treating” us to a rendition of “We Are the Champions”.
The club organised a “gala day” on the final day against Rotherham United, who had play-off ambitions of their own, but it was probably the prospect of another round of celebrations that drew a season-best crowd of 12,430 to the Lane. The team duly obliged with a stylish 5-2 win after falling behind in the first half. Notts finished the season on 99 points – we were simply too good for the fourth division.
And so we returned to the third level at the first attempt. We had the wind in our sails and a proven, popular manager at the helm – hopes were high that we could enjoy a successful era with Allardyce at the helm as we had under Sirrel and Warnock before him. Although those hopes were to be dashed, the 1997-98 season still left us with lots of happy memories.
On the up:
Steve Finnan – Signed permanently during the previous season, Finnan disappointed and ended up warming the bench. He blossomed during 1997-98 though, making the right wing spot his own. Finnan was sold to Kevin Keegan's Fulham the following season and subsequently made over 100 appearances for Liverpool, featuring in their Champions League victory over AC Milan.
Doncaster Rovers – Doncaster were in dire straits in 1997-98, with a chairman who tried to set fire to their own ground and a team made up of his relatives and youth-teamers. They were relegated on a goal difference of -83. After a takeover the following summer, they returned to the League in 2003 and have never looked back.
Swansea, Cardiff, Hull and Brighton – These clubs all finished in the bottom five of the basement division in 1997-98, and all have played in the Premier League since. In the twenty-odd years since 1997-98, the bottom five teams from this season have fared rather better than the top seven...
Disappearing from view:
Devon White – The popular Nottingham-born striker, who played most of his football for QPR and Bristol Rovers, had returned for a second spell the previous season. He scored his final Notts goal in the farcical defeat at home to Lincoln City and was harshly sent off ten minutes later. He joined Shrewsbury just weeks later as Gary Jones and Sean Farrell consolidated their place in the team.
Z block – At this time the Kop still belonged to away fans, often giving them an acoustic advantage. The vocal Notts fans were in the side of the Sirrel stand closest to the Family Stand, meaning that the songs and chants could often only be heard across half the pitch.
Scarborough FC – The Seadogs made the play-offs this season, losing to Torquay in the semi-finals. However, the following season they were dramatically relegated to the Conference on the final day courtesy of a Jimmy Glass goal for Carlisle, and were never to return to the League.