Jesus, Alan, Just… Put It Away

The coincidence of the timing was so extraordinary that one could be persuaded that he did it deliberately, were such an idea not so preposterous to start with. Last Saturday, the Guardian ran an article by Daniel Taylor on the subject of the, shall we say, quirkier aspects of life at Notts County FC under their current owner, Alan Hardy. It did not paint a complimentary picture of Hardy. At one point, Taylor wrote witheringly:

“Hardy appears to be very fond of publicity, takes advice from Peter Ridsdale – “Just learnt more in the last hour than in the last 12 months!” he tweeted after one audience with the former Leeds supremo – and tends to opts for the scattergun as his form of Twitter artillery, whether it be messaging the editor of the Nottingham Evening Post to point out he expected to see Notts, not Forest, on the following day’s back page, or his recent jousting with the followers of Mansfield Town, Nottinghamshire’s third professional club.”

Now, we understand that we may be condemned as part of the “fake news media” for saying this, but there was little to disagree with in the article or its conclusions. Notts County have been up and down like a little bit of a yo-yo over the last few seasons, up from League Two with their hearts in their mouths as the Munto disaster unfolded, almost reaching the League One play-offs before beginning a graceful arc back down, swinging back the once, just last season, before spinning back down again, and quite possibly out of the Football League altogether.

And Notts County are not just any football club. This is The Oldest Professional Football Club In The World™. Even those who may not agree that such a claim amounts to much (some believe that the real honour in that respect comes with being the oldest football club of any description in the world, and clubs such as Sheffield FC and Hallam FC are both older, they just weren’t professional clubs) would have to agree that losing a founder member of the Football League would likely be a sad moment for the game in a general sense, in this country.

This has only ever happened twice in any way before, both times comfortably outside living memory. In 1890, Stoke were voted out and played a season in the Football Alliance, the ill-fated “alternative” to the Football League which ended up making the Football League’s Second Division a couple of years later, winning the title and then returning straight back, but in 1908 went bankrupt and dropped down into non-league football for a while before returning. The only club of the twelve founding members of the Football League to drop out and not return was Accrington FC, who resigned their place due to financial problems in 1893 and folded four years later (neither the Stanley club that resigned its Football League place in 1962 nor the club that currently plays in League One are related to them).

Being a member of the original twelve clubs that founded the Football League does confer some degree of status upon a football club. What happens when one of those clubs loses that status, what effect it has on its psychology, we don’t know. This eventuality – and Notts are eight points adrift of safety at the foot of League Two at the moment – might well end up feeling like a poignant moment for a lot of people. In literal terms, of course, it’s just another relegation. Division Five rather than Division Four. The problem is that line at which the marker is set football in England. Until the late 1980s it was more visible, with the League being a club that you had to be voted into. However with automatic promotion and relegation, the line is fuzzier, although it still exists. Just ask Leyton Orient supporters. Or AFC Wimbledon supporters. Or any of the other clubs who have fallen through that trapdoor.

The following morning, Alan Hardy accidentally tweeted a picture of his penis on Twitter.

The morning after an article in the sports section of the website of a national newspaper which had appeared, criticising him over his social media use.

If history does indeed repeat itself the first time as tragedy and then as farce, the two events have surely never been witnessed so closely together before. Curiously, Hardy (having not seen the photograph in question, we cannot confirm whether he is a case of nominative determinism in action or not) chose not to close down his Twitter account, but did instead put the club up for sale. This won’t get him out of any FA sanction, of course, but we can say for certain that we would very much like to be in on the conference call when the FA contact Hardy to “ask for his observations over the incident.” Just don’t make it a video call.

But none of this undoes the fact that losing one of the founder members of the Football League for the first time in one hundred and twenty-three years is likely to be a poignant moment. We’ve noted on here before that Notts’ revolving door managerial policy – the club has had more than thirty managers over the last thirty years – is unlikely to have had a stabilising effect on a club, but the decision to offload Harry Kewell felt like the right decision to make and that his replacement (Neal Ardley, the manager who took Wimbledon into League One) was experienced enough to take on this job. He did his time in this division, and got Wimbledon into the play-off places and up. If anyone could turn this team around, he felt like a good fit.

At the time of writing, Neal Ardley has won one of his first twelve matches in charge of Notts County, in all competitions.

These situations sometimes do make for unusual bedfellows, though. Consider the case of Peter Ridsdale at Plymouth Argyle, or Sven Goran Eriksson at… umm… Notts County. On this occasion, though, Notts have gone big budget, with Harry Kewell, Neal Ardley, a host of players (the club has an unwieldly, expensive squad), a penis, and a Penis. And there seems little doubt that Notts supporters would take the penis jokes that they will inevitably be on the end of from the supporters of other clubs for the rest of their lives if it meant survival this season and stability after that.

But there’s a feeling that the rot at Notts County runs far deeper than any one manager could ever address. The atmosphere that hangs over the club is in itself a toxin, eating away at it from within. There have been clubs that have considered dropping out of the Football League to be like a cleansing bath, breaking habits of just doing enough, but it’s difficult to imagine that this club would be one of them. They have big support and and they are of the scale that could probably sustain Premier League football, with considerable car and attention. They are founder members of the Football League, alongside Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers. Names that you may or may not like but are almost pre-programmed to respect, even if only grudgingly.

The new manager dice have already been rolled this season. The January transfer window is about to close, with Notts County’s overpaid, under-performing squad intact and little desire on the part of anybody to further fuel the bonfire made of wages that the club is currently burning. And now the owner, having been torn off a strip in the national press, has now put the floundering club up for sale. It’s difficult to say how Notts County can pull themselves out of this mess without relegation into the National League, but at the same time such a relegation doesn’t necessarily have to mark the end of a club’s woes. Just ask supporters of Stockport County. Or York City.