There is something determinedly of the old school about Aldershot Town’s home, The Recreation Ground. It’s all in the detail – the 1960s design office block that peers over the top of the main stand, the barrel-roofed East Bank and the squat, traditionally shaped floodlight pylons. The red and blue paint might be fading a little in places and there is a slight hint of rust about the place, but this is one of the more engaging venues to watch football at in the south of England. The original Aldershot Football Club offer a cautionary tale to the list of football clubs facing winding up orders at the High Court.
Aldershot were the last Football League club to go bust during the season, and it is perhaps appropriate that Notts County, who have taken the concept of boom and bust to absurd new heights this season, should be their visitors this afternoon. They are in court on Wednesday over an unpaid tax bill, but even surviving this could just turn out to be the start of a long, hard slog for the club. Their debt was stated to be £1.5m at the start of last month but is now believed to be in the region of £5m, and they have been fortunate that Sven Goran Eriksson isn’t demanding the reported £2.5m that he wasn’t paid during his time at the club. It remains legally possible, though unlikely, that this could be their last match.
The likely outcome of Notts’ hearing is that they will go into administration or cobble together the £325,000 required to stave off the order. In the short to medium term, however, something has to give. Kasper Schmeichel is still at the club, although it seems unlikely that he will stay beyond the end of the season at best, considering that he is said to be earning £1m per year. This sort of financial doping is unlikely to be allowed by the club’s new owners or by any administrators that may end up in the offices at Meadow Lane. Lee Hughes isn’t playing today, though. He’s suspended after getting himself sent off in Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw against struggling Grimsby Town.
The snow that has started to fall again to the north of London hasn’t reached as far south as Hampshire, but it is still a crisp and cold afternoon at The Recreation Ground. Both sides are in the chasing pack for a place in the play-offs at the end of the season, but Aldershot have only lost one of their last seven matches and their nervousness is apparent in early exchanges, which are evenly-matched but dislocated. Luke Rodgers has a shot blocked by the Aldershot goalkeeper Stephen Henderson whilst, at the other end, Anthony Straker has a shot deflected over the crossbar by the Notts defender Graeme Lee after Straker takes advantage of some chaotic defending.
On the whole, though, it’s pretty even fare, but Aldershot start to pile the pressure on towards half-time. With five minutes left to play in the half, a deep free kick is flicked on by Chris Blackburn and is touch in by Marvin Morgan. The ball probably would have sneaked in at the far post anyway, but Morgan was about a yard and a half offside when the ball clipped off him. The referee doesn’t help the mood of the crowd by deciding to confer with his assistant before awarding a free kick, but this was careless positioning by Morgan. Right on half-time, though, Aldershot finally get the advantage that their recent pressure has deserved. Kirk Hudson (who, with a name like that, may in a previous life have been a B-movie star in Hollywood) finds himself in space on the left hand side and smartly cuts the ball back for Ollie Bozanic to place the bal tidily past Schmeichel.
In the early stages of the second half, Aldershot seem likely to, if anything extend their lead. Morgan stretches for a cross from the right and misses it by a fraction only for Straker to shoot from an optimistically narrow angle into the side netting, before tripping the offside trap and rolling the ball past the oncoming Schmeichel, only to see the ball roll a yard wide of the post. Without the hustle and bustle of Hughes upfront, Notts don’t look particularly likely to score, although Matt Hamshaw brings another comfortable save from Henderson and Hughes’ makeshift replacement up front, Craig Westcarr, mis-kicks from six yards out and manages to miss the target when it may have been easier to score.
It looks as if all three points are heading to Aldershot, but more sloppiness a minute into injury time at the end of the match brings Notts level. A free-kick twenty-five yards out by Ben Davies seems to have been smothered to safety by the Aldershot, but the referee calls play back for encroachment by the defensive wall. Davies steps up a second time and curls the ball up, over, side of Henderson and into the top corner of the net. It’s an exquisite goal and sends the travelling supporters into unsurprising raptures, and it’s also the last significant action of a match which finishes with honours even and Aldershot possibly rueing what seemed to be a tactical decision to try and run the clock down in the closing stages.
It’s a point apiece, then – not a result that does either team any massive favours. Aldershot remain just outside the play-off places in tenth place in the League Two table. Had they held on for that last free kick, they would have leapfrogged Burton Albion and Accrington Stanley into eighth place. Notts County, meanwhile, remain better placed on the pitch than their league position would suggest, at least. They sit in the seventh place in the table but have games in hand on all the teams above them and have the second best goal difference in the division behind leaders Rochdale. For the next few days, however, the focus at the club will not be on what happens on the pitch. Notts County have their biggest match of the season on Wednesday, and they may yet lose ten points as a result of it.