"This has been a summer of heavy transition for Notts County Football Club. The players who filled the side that performed so admirably at Ashton Gate towards last season’s conclusion have largely vanished. The unanswerable trickery of Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jack Grealish, the midfield steel of Josh Vela and Gary Liddle, and the defensive roadblocks (Ashton Gate aside!) of Bartosz Bialkowski and Alan Sheehan – all moved on.
What does remain are the two men who assembled a team and a system that steered us away from a relegation that appeared a certainty for too much of last season. Whilst Shaun Derry and Greg Abbott I’m sure worked on retaining the services of some of those above, they’ve been given a clean slate free of a dressing room element who too often tried to derail any progress we were making. We’re told of rebels not buying into the new backroom’s ethos, we’ve all got our own opinions on who contributed to that.
With an absurd 16 new additions made over the summer months however, we were never going to hit the ground running. Instead we march on, knuckles scabbing over from dragging them towards seven points in four games. It took us ten last year to reach such a tally so it’s quite the upturn. But we right now are the footballing world’s equivalent to Neanderthal man – a unit as ruthlessly effective as it is disgusting on the eye.
The opening day at Preston North End was a joy. A shaky first half excepted, we had a Preston side - hotly tipped by many – chasing shadows for such long periods. On the face of things a draw was one we should have been delighted with, but such was the balance of play that I’ve still not quite come to terms with just getting a draw! A week later, and the visit of Fleetwood Town was somehow even more dire than some of the dross served up under Chris Kiwomya last season. We lost 1-0 having barely strung together a passing move all game. Comparisons were quickly drawn with a never ending list of sub-par Notts squads over the past two decades. We don’t do patience very well in Nottingham, you see.
Whilst an improvement at least in the effort department saw us through to a 2-1 victory at home to Colchester, things only got better with a win last weekend at Port Vale. Yes we rode our luck massively, and certainly we faced a barrage quite unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time – but victories are seldom more hard earned than this.
There’s a cynicism in how we go about grinding out results that won’t make us many friends. In fact we’re likely to end this year making Graham Westley look like Santa Claus if things continue in the vein they are.
I’m at a point personally where time wasting doesn’t bother me – it’s a part of the game now and I wish more people would come round to my way of thinking. Every team does it, so why get precious about it? Should things start going Notts’ way on Sunday though, you’ll likely think that a line needs drawing somewhere!
It’s been a good start to the season really, particularly in comparison to last season. I thought it might take a lot longer for us to pick up points. We’ve done that though through blunt force, even if things aren’t quite gelling at a pace Derry and Abbott may prefer. But this is a squad with balls, with more character or spine than we became accustomed to for much of last season.
In goal, Roy Carroll has been inspired. Replacing Bialkowski (he who gifted Sam Baldock the winner at Ashton Gate) was supposed to be a daunting task but the Northern Ireland international is yet to put a foot wrong. In front of him it’s been great to see Hayden Mullins return over the Summer having been a key element of last year’s survival - Haydn Hollis will only continue to improve further with such experience around him.
We’ve been hit by a deluge of central midfielders – perhaps too many – but each is finding their feet nicely. Evergreen Gary Jones was a slow starter but ran the show last weekend at Vale. It’s fantastic to see a man like Alan Smith in the middle for us too, whilst Noble (top scorer with two) and Nicky Wroe were both great additions in my opinion this Summer.
We certainly appear to have gone for quantity over quality for yet another Summer, but things are coming together quite nicely. Up front we brought in Jake Cassidy and he has been a real threat in place of our new golden boy Jimmy Spencer, cruelly ruled out for the season after just 20 minutes of pre-season. It was Cass’ strike that gave us the lead at Preston on the opening day, and whilst he’s not found the scoresheet since, he’s been an absolute menace.
For all the positivity though, there are still those who doubt Shaun Derry. What more can he do to earn people’s trust? In signing on loan another midfielder – Reece Brown from Birmingham City – there are still questions regarding the recruitment. Brown himself was a standout performer against us in a pre-season hammering so I don’t particularly see the issue whilst we press on struggling to find creativity down the wings. Striker Shaun Harrad’s short term deal is certainly one that raises my considerable eyebrows however.
Derry has this week been linked with a move to the Premier League as Neil Warnock’s number two at Crystal Palace. I’m not buying it. Derry – one of our own – has spoke all Summer long about stability, integrity and making Meadow Lane a special place again. To walk away now would go against everything the man has preached to us since arriving last November. No one would blame him if he did make the switch, but I genuinely don’t see it happening.
For all the positive vibes around the club at the moment, of course we’re going to be cautious about the visit of City on Sunday. We may be delighted to see the back of Baldock who almost always managed to score against us, but that of course only tells half the story of the threats we’ll face.
We shan’t be a team perturbed though, intimidated by one of the greater challenges in League One. I don’t expect anything other than an ugly spectacle to be honest. If we take something though, even at this early stage in the season I think we just might be able to put together something special this season."
Many thanks to Stu for this fantastic piece. I particularly like the line about Neanderthal man and the reference to Graham Westley being Santa Claus!