To say that the relationship between Notts County and Nottingham Rugby Football Club has been transformed over the last eighteen months or so would be something of an understatement. In July 2009, having just acquired the club (to say that they bought the club would be misleading – the level of debt accumulated by Notts County under their ownership would seem to indicate that those behind Munto never paid for anything), they promptly evicted the rugby club from Meadow Lane until a court ordered that they had done so unlawfully. Munto are long gone from the club now, and in July of last year Meadow Lane PLC, the company that finally emerged from the chaos of their time running the club, also took the ownership of Nottingham RFC.
It’s appropriate that this should be remembered on today of all days. Nottingham RFC still play at Meadow Lane, and their pitch markings are clearly visible today on a today that seems likely to send a shiver down the spine of Roberto Mancini. The rugby club’s use of Meadow Lane means that the pitch isn’t in the best of shape today. The contrast between this match and the Southampton vs Manchester United match is striking. Last night’s match was played on a Premier League pitch at a Premier League ground in all respects apart from the small detail of Southampton’s League One position. This match, however, feels different. Notts are in the same division as Southampton but this match has the feel of an authentic FA Cup tie. The smell of Bovril is in the air and ITV Sport can brush down their big book of football clichés.
Does the FA Cup matter to Manchester City? Well, they don’t need any reminding that it has now been three and a half decades since they last won a major trophy but defeat this afternoon wouldn’t of course be the end of their season – they may consider that there is still all to play for in the Premier League and they’re in the last thirty-two of the Europa League. The FA Cup would, however, give them something that their supporters haven’t experienced for a very long time. That big day out, the chance of lifting some silverware, one of those days that money can only buy up to a point. Some might say that finishing in the top four in the Premier League is “more important” for their development, but a major cup final (and City haven’t managed one of those in the three decades since they lost to Ricky Villa and Tottenham Hotspur in 1981) would surely be more than merely a welcome diversion for a club that has been starved of success in recent years.
So, to the matter of the pitch being “a great leveller”, then. It has become commonplace in recent years for the press to praise groundstaff at smaller clubs for the quality of their playing surfaces ahead of big matches. How many club owners and groundstaff, though, will be looking at Meadow Lane this afternoon and wondering if kicking up a few divots here and there might remove at least a small part of a bigger club’s comfort zone in the event of a cup draw such as this? Manchester City looked irked and uncomfortable here this afternoon, finding it difficult to come to terms with the playing surface and a tactical plan from the “up and at ’em” school of football theory.
By rights, this match should have been no contest. Manchester City are in third place in the Premier League while Notts County are eighteenth in League One. As it turned out, though, City are somewhat fortunate to be in the draw for the Fifth Round of the competition and have another replay to “look forward to”. Having fallen behind to a well worked goal just before the hour mark, Notts looked comfortable enough for much of the game afterwards before a little glimpse of Premier League class hauled City back into the game. Both sides had chances to win the match after City’s equaliser and a draw was a fair result. To say, however, that this is a sataisfactory conclusion for Roberto Mancini would be wide of the mark.
The two goals neatly encapsulated City’s strengths and weaknesses. Notts County took the lead with a goal of startling simplicity, a corner swung in towards the near post that was flicked in by Neal Bishop. City equalised with ten minutes to play, just as it started to feel as if they were going to be unable to find a way back into the match. Micah Richards’ dummy threw his marker and his low cross into the penalty was driven into the roof of the goal by Edin Dzeko from six yards out. Prior to this, Notts’ best player had probably been their goalkeeper Stuart Nelson, who had made outstanding saves from Toure and Barry. At the other end, Joe Hart had a quieter afternoon, but he still had periods when the defence in front of him looked unsteady and a free-kick with seven minutes to play squeezed through it and only narrowly evaded the attention of the onrushing Krystian Pearce.
Manchester City, then avoid a banana skin for now and, with a home draw in the quarter-finals and an eminently winnable match against Aston Villa ahead of them, a trip to Wembley could yet be on the cards for them this season in the semi-finals at least. Notts County, meanwhile, may feel as if they missed their window of opportunity this afternoon, though they will have seen little here today that will outright scare them ahead of the replay, especially if we consider that they have already beaten one Premier League team – sixth-placed Sunderland – away from home in this year’s competition. There will be all to play for at Eastlands the week after next.
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