Notts County’s Thirty Years of Hurt
Thirty years ago this month, John Barnwell left Meadow Lane after an unsuccessful eighteen months trying on the shoes of his predecessor, Notts County legend Jimmy Sirrel. He was replaced as the manager of the club by a young manager taking a step up after having, two years earlier, made the Scarborough the first club to win automatic promotion into the Football League. Three decades on, Neil Warnock is managing Cardiff City in the Premier League, whilst the club that gave him this opportunity sits one place off the bottom of the Football League, staring relegation into non-league football in the face.
These are tough, tough times for Notts County, the oldest professional football club in the world. At the end of the 1989/90 season, Warnock took the club up from the Third to the Second Division, and the following year he repeated the trick, getting promoted into the top flight via the play-offs. That stay, however, lasted for just the one season and Notts were relegated back as the Premier League loomed on the horizon. Four points was the margin between Notts and safety that season. How different might the club’s future have been had they found that handful of points down the back of the sofa?
Warnock was sacked in January 1993, with the club struggling in its first season back in the second tier. At the end of the 1994/95 season, they were relegated again. They have not bothered the top two divisions of English football since. Neil Warnock turned out to be the first of thirty managers to have passed through the revolving door at Meadow Lane over the last thirty years, and some familiar names – Howard Kendall, Sam Allardyce, Sven Goran Eriksson (as director of football, with Ian McParland managing), Martin Allen and Keith Curle, for example – amongst them.
There have been small blips of success. Under Allardyce, they won the Division Two title in 1998 by nineteen points, becoming the first club since the end of the Second World War to win promotion in March. In 2010, with the fallout of the Munto Finance “buyout” of the club still swirling in the wind, they won the League Two title, finishing ten points of second-placed AFC Bournemouth. Whilst both Warnock and AFC Bournemouth have soared since their respective entanglements with Notts County, though, Notts have continued to stagnate. The 2011/12 season saw the club miss out on a place in the League One play-offs to Stevenage on goal difference, but after that, the downward drift continued again, culminating in relegation back to League Two in 2015.
Two seasons of struggle followed, before Kevin Nolan led the club to a play-off semi-final defeat at the end of last season, after the club had finished the season in fifth place after having spent much of it in the automatic promotion places. After having failed to win any of his first six matches of this season, Nolan too was fired. There was a flurry of media attention when Harry Kewell was appointed to replace Nolan, but he was unable to stop the rot, despite a five match unbeaten run from the middle of September which indicated that the club might finally have turned a corner. A four-nil defeat at Bury in October, however, marked the resumption of what Notts supporters might by now consider to be normal service, and in the middle of November Kewell was also relieved of his duties, replaced a couple of weeks later by the former Wimbledon manager Neal Ardley, who marked his first match in charge of the club last weekend with a two-nil defeat away to local rivals Mansfield Town. Ardley has, therefore, become the club’s thirty-first manager in the last thirty years.
There comes a point, surely, when one has to wonder when those running the club might start to wonder whether revolving that managerial door until it’s spinning in a blur has failed as a policy. There’s no continuity at Meadow Lane, and goodness only knows how much money has been effectively thrown on a bonfire and ignited in paying up the contracts of former managers who’ve been replaced in an atmosphere of cold, blind panic over the years. Change can be effective for a football club under the right circumstances, but if a football club is structurally drifting in the wrong direction, repeatedly sacking the manager can start to look like little more than a series of exercises in scapegoating whilst deflecting blame from those who ultimately make the decisions over the directions that the club should be taking.
There’s no one owner that can be held responsible for this, either, and Notts County have had their fair share of those over the last thirty years, as well. It happened under Derek Pavis, who named the club’s new main stand after himself and then rented executive boxes to the club whilst retaining his own, free-of-charge. It happened under Albert Scardino, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, under whose somewhat surprising ownership the club collapsed into administration in 2002. It happened under the fan ownership of the Notts County Supporters Trust, who played a role in saving the club from Scardino’s near-death experience. It happened under the effectively non-existent Munto Finance and under Ray Trew, who bought the club once the Munto scam was fully out in the open. And it’s continued under Alan Hardy, who bought the club from Trew after two winding up petitions were brought against the club within twelve months by HMRC over the non-payment of tax.
So Notts County have had the old-fashioned patrician owner. They’ve had the brash foreign investor whose boasts ended up amounting to nothing. They’ve had a “consortium of local business working with the supporters themselves.” They’ve had the local businessman trying to lift the club back to something approaching its potential in order to make it profitable to sell on. They were even used by a convicted fraudster who was at the same time trying to secure exclusive gold mining rights in North Korea. It might be argued that, over the same thirty years in which they’ve hired more than thirty managers, the club has also tried out just about every model of football club ownership except for having a skilful owner with money who can lift the club from its seemingly perpetual state of gloom.
That gloom has come to manifest itself in – what looks from the outside, at least – like a complete lack of strategy to actually lift the club up in any way. The club has been fire-fighting its way through two or three managers every season, with changes in playing staff coming at such a dizzying rate that it’s small surprise that the team has so frequently played as though the players have only been introduced to each other in changing room beforehand. As we’ve seen, numerous different owners with numerous different motives, from the genuinely well-intentioned to the outright criminal, have tried, yet the club has continued a slow and inexorable-looking slide towards the trapdoor.
Compounding the sense of frustration regarding the club’s apparent inability to break out of its slow motion tailspin is its obvious potential. Despite being one place off the bottom of the League Two table, with just three league wins from twenty-one matches so far this season, Notts’ average home attendance for this season has been only a little shy of 6,000, the fifth highest in the division, and even this figure represents a drop on recent years. Meadow Lane, meanwhile, retains a capacity of just over 20,000, which is plenty sufficient to host Championship football at least. In other words, the basic building blocks upon which a thriving club could be built are in place, but Notts County have resembled a jigsaw puzzle with its pieces scattered all over the floor for so long that it’s starting feel as though perhaps there isn’t anybody who can construct those parts into something coherent.
Should things not improve at Meadow Lane over the coming months, we can likely expect a slew of poignant articles next May because Notts County, as one of the founder members of the Football League and the Oldest Professional Football Club In The World™, do continue to hold a special place at the heart of the history and culture of the game in this country. Those twelve members have proved to be surprisingly hardy. Of that original dozen, only Accrington FC are no longer with us, and they folded in 1896 – the original Accrington Stanley were their local rivals in their final years – and of the other eleven, Notts are the only club currently in the bottom two divisions of the Football League.
The introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between League Two and the National League came about thirty-one years ago, but even this hasn’t been enough to relegate any of the founding twelve clubs yet. A couple have come close-ish. Burnley needed a win against Orient on the last day of the 1986/87 season to avoid the drop, whilst Preston North End and Wolverhampton Wanderers have also both had spells in the bottom division. At the time of writing, Notts County are three points adrift of Cambridge United, who sit one place above them, with an inferior goal difference, and only Macclesfield Town below them. Despite his recent departure from Wimbledon, Neal Ardley proved himself a capable manager in League Two by getting that club up through the play-offs in 2016. But will he be given the time and resources to turn things around at Meadow Lane? There’s little in the club’s recent history to suggest that he will but the clock is ticking, if Notts County are to maintain the Football League status that the club has now held for a little over one hundred and thirty years.