The greatest of great escapes

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What an outcome for Notts County Football Club. Words fail to describe the sheer emotions felt during the final stages of the season, but I’ll give it a try.

March began with arguably the most horrendous result of the season – a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Rotherham, with four goals shipped in the first 30 minutes.

A creditable 0-0 draw against high-flying Leyton Orient followed, but then two consecutive defeats, against MK Dons and Tranmere Rovers, saw us at our lowest ebb.

Following the 3-2 defeat away at Prenton Park, the Magpies were seven points from safety, having played a game more than four of the teams in the bottom six, with just nine games to go. It truly appeared to be game over. Even the most hardened, optimistic fan had to be somewhat delusional to honestly believe that the club could still survive.

However, that wasn’t to be the end of the story. As has happened many times this season, a poor run of results gave way to a spell of form comparable to that of a title-winning team.

First, Carlisle United were dispatched 4-1 at Meadow Lane thanks to a double by young defender Haydn Hollis and a stellar display by Gary Liddle, who had recently returned to the squad after a long-term injury.

The veteran midfielder then struck another goal in a 3-1 win away at Crewe Alexandra as young Irishman Ronan Murray announced himself to the league with a brace, before struggling Colchester United were beaten 2-0, with youngsters Murray and Hollis again responsible for getting on the scoresheet.

At this point, talk of The Great Escape was well and truly underway, as the Magpies climbed out of the relegation zone. However, there was still a lot of work to do if Shaun Derry’s side were to survive, not least a trip to high-flying Brentford.

Fate dealt us a very cruel card that day, because lining up against us was none other than Alan Judge, the stellar ex-Magpies midfielder, a player who should have been plying his trade in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers, but instead found himself in the Bees starting 11. And sure enough, his brace proved the difference between the two sides, and down we went again into the drop zone.

A 4-2 defeat of Port Vale – and another latecomer to the squad making the headlines, two-goal Jimmy Spencer – was followed up by another daunting fixture and another loss, 2-1 away at Bristol City. Cue more despair. Three games to play, three points from safety, Carlisle United above us with a game in hand.

But rather than give up at the final hurdle, Notts went on to secure two wins from their next two games, home advantage proving crucial against Crawley Town and Swindon Town. Carlisle subsequently drew their game in hand against Crawley, and thus the stage was set. Win or draw, and we would be safe. Even a loss wouldn’t be catastrophic – unless Crewe and Tranmere won both their respective games.

Now, don’t forget, this is Notts County we’re talking about. Things are never simple for the Magpies. Come the final match, Crewe and Tranmere take the lead. Notts, playing Oldham Athletic, concede in the 68th minute. The permutation we dreaded was coming true. We were relegated.

Or were we? With 15 minutes to go, Jonathan Grounds of Oldham handled in the area. Penalty to Notts. Would we score? Alan Sheehan stepped up – and blasted home. We were level. We were safe, as things stood.

Things would get even better for the Magpies, as Adam Lockwood was sent off after getting a second yellow card, and Tranmere conceded twice in the final ten minutes to lose 2-1 to Bradford. The Birkenhead outfit were down. Carlisle were down. Notts were safe – and this time, it was official. The Magpies would remain in League One next season.

So there you go. After nine months of pulling my hair out, fretting, giving up hope, finding hope again only to lose it a few weeks later, it all worked out in the end.

A lot will need to be done in the close season – the team will need to be rebuilt. Too many players just didn’t have the fight in them. Former captain Dean Leacock will be leaving. Other players on the way out include Manny Smith, Enoch Showunmi, Adam Coombes, Mark Fotheringham, Andre Boucaud, and Gareth Roberts.

In addition, it remains to be seen whether the players who have been offered new contracts – Alan Sheehan, Gary Liddle, Jimmy Spencer, Jamal Campbell-Ryce – will take up those deals, what with the lure of the transfer window appearing on the horizon, not to mention the status of a certain Polish goalkeeper who’s been exceptional this season.

Whatever happens, Shaun Derry – who has admitted that he’s willing to lace up his boots and take to the pitch once again for the Magpies – and Greg Abbott will surely do their utmost to either retain the existing players or sign some new ones and take the club to the next level, having already worked miracles this time round and achieved the greatest of great escapes.

Written by Giuseppe Labellarte, We Are Going Up’s Notts County blogger

Giuseppe tweets at @JoeJonesHome

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