Can Neal Ardley's Notts County pull off the Great Escape?by Gabriel Sutton / 12 February 2019, 11:26Tweet
Notts County have a proud status as the World’s Oldest Football League club.
They have a grand history in the game, including the inspiration for Juventus’ black and white shirts and being one of 35 clubs in current professional football to have won the FA Cup.
They are not therefore, in what we might regard as a normal relegation battle - they are in a fight to preserve something bigger.
Plus, after chairman Alan Hardy produced one of the division’s biggest budgets to fund a push for promotion, the prospect of going down a division is unthinkable from a financial perspective, as well as an emotional one.
The challenge is a big one - but there are recent signs that Neal Ardley and co. might just be up for the fight.
Encouraging February so far
The 1-1 draw with Lincoln City with which County kicked off this month might yet prove a turning point.
A heavy defeat to the local league leaders could have compounded their misery at the bottom, yet in fact the players delivered a brave, competitive performance.
Neal Ardley settled on a 4-2-2-2 system that is likely to be his template for the rest of the campaign, with an effective balance to the display.
The Magpies were sufficiently combative where necessary yet equally, they played enough football on the deck to fashion high-quality chances, rather than hopeful balls to target man Jon Stead every time.
After opposing striker John Akinde failed to convert from the spot late on, Ardley’s side could take both a point and renewed hope to Forest Green Rovers.
In Nailsworth, the East Midlanders won 2-1 thanks to fine strikes from midfielder Jim O’Brien and enigmatic wide forward Enzio Boldewijn, with the latter’s return to fitness last month proving a significant plus.
Half-volley on weaker foot: ✔️— Notts County FC (@Official_NCFC) February 10, 2019
Knee slide: ✖️
Jim O'Brien went from hero to zero at Forest Green yesterday! ???? pic.twitter.com/YHexqZjYCP
Prior to Boldewijn’s winner, the hosts had a goal ruled out for offside, so while County have fully deserved four points from their last two games, they can also be thankful to have found themselves on the right side of fine margins at key moments.
Those two merited slices of fortune, they hope, might act as a springboard.
Battlers have joined
O’Brien’s tight-angled strike at the New Lawn came as a very pleasant surprise to Ardley, who could not resist a smile when it was put to him post-match that goals like that were not expected when he signed.
Instead, the former Barnsley battler was brought in to add tenacity in midfield; a willingness to put challenges in, trigger the press and set an example to his teammates.
Michael Doyle, who has already adopted cult hero status on Trentside, was signed for similar reasons.
Doyle and O’Brian are bossing this team! Must be a dream for Ardley having these two in charge the dressing room and bossing it on the pitch! #Notts— Tom (@magpie_gunner) February 9, 2019
The veteran, who skippered Coventry to promotion last term, provides not just set piece quality and reasonable ability in possession, but fundamentally outstanding leadership qualities.
The Irishman has a unique ability to almost single-handedly drive his team through difficult games, regardless of his own individual performance, through sheer iron-will.
Craig Mackail-Smith, a similarly strong character, has also impressed from an advanced right-sided role and can cause problems on the counter-attack.
Barclay and Stubbs
Given that Ardley’s best teams have been jam-packed with leaders and battle-hardened pros, one might have expected him to go for experienced centre-backs in the mould of Paul Robinson and Darius Charles, who led his AFC Wimbledon side to promotion in 2015-16.
Instead, he has bravely opted for a younger profile in central defence.
After Brighton loanee Ben Hall returned to his parent club to treat a long-term injury, Benjamin Barclay came, also on loan, in the other direction.
Then, on Deadline Day, Ardley found a partner for the 20-year-old in Sam Stubbs, who joined on loan from Middlesbrough.
The stereotype of young players with limited experience in the senior game is that they can be slightly timid, having been used to an environment in which the result was not all-important.
The duo however, and prior Boro Under-23s captain Stubbs especially, challenged that stereotype with aplomb, showing a willingness to put his head in where it hurts and also bark orders to ensure the team shape stayed intact.
The advantage of having young defenders, as Ardley mentioned in his post-match interview in Nailsworth, is that it enables his side to play a higher-line.
Mitch and Milsom muck in
Over a difficult half-decade for Notts County, Rob Milsom has been among the more reliable performers when fit, either side of a brief stint at Crawley this season.
The utility man always puts in maximum effort and can dependably cover various positions, most recently left-back, despite being a central midfielder by trade.
Mitch Rose, meanwhile, has made a positive impression since joining on loan from Grimsby in a swap deal involving Kristian Dennis.
Rose would also consider himself a midfield ball-winner but he too has put in some solid shifts away from his natural position, namely at right-back.
If County did stay up, the full-back areas would perhaps need addressing, but that’s a long, long way off – for now, it’s vital that they have players willing to get stuck into roles they would not necessarily choose for the sake of County’s survival prospects.
Gomis makes his mark
There had been some suggestions that Notts County’s relationship with Forest had broken down slightly, with key young players like Jordan Smith, Jorge Grant and Tyler Walker all going to Mansfield this season rather than Meadow Lane.
The arrival from Virgil Gomis from across the Trent might not have been quite such an exciting addition initially, considering that the ()-year-old is further down the first team pecking order than the aforementioned trio.
However, Gomis has settled in very quickly, injecting pace, skill, raw energy and youthful exuberance into County’s counter-attacks.
It has taken Ardley a while, but maybe – just maybe – he has a side he believes can beat the drop and preserve the club’s proud Football League status.