September 11, 2012 by mapperleystag1
A look at the unexpected pace-setters in League One, Notts County, and their chances of maintaining their early season form throughout the year.
For supporters of Notts County, the oldest professional football club in the world, the last few years have been a turbulent yet exciting period. There was the Munto Finance embarrassment (cast your mind back to the infamous solitary appearance that Sol Campbell made for the club, the saga over Sven Goran Eriksson’s role, and the shameful fraudulent actions of the mysterious investors), promotion as champions in the same season, and the revolving door of managers at the club in this period, which saw a list of McParland, Backe, Cotterill, Short, Ince and Heggs all relieved of their duties in the space of approximately 18 months. So when popular manager Martin Allen was sacked in February 2012 with the Magpies solidly in mid-table and replaced with former Mansfield boss and QPR assistant, Keith Curle, many supporters and neutral observers were sceptical to say the least. However, fast forward seven months and Notts County are the early leaders in League One and are tipped by many to be one of the favourites for promotion, with Curle credited for this transformation.
Under Curle, the style of football at Meadow Lane has been praised by a number of commentators, with their retention of possession and technical ability on the ball commended in particular. Recent news that the club is training at the English National Football Centre at St George’s Park, Burton is a huge plus in allowing Curle to promote this style of play without being constrained by the lack of or quality of training facilities which have hampered County in the past. Moreover, his summer dealings have added quality and competition to the squad, with the surprising stand-out performers being midfielder Gary Liddle from Hartlepool, who has been a revelation employed in central defence due to a mini injury crisis, and Andre Boucaud, on loan, and seemingly surplus to requirements from Conference side Luton Town, who has impressed in the centre of the pitch, combining tough tackling with composure on the ball rarely seen from a non-league player. Added to this, the core of the side from last season has remained, with the likes of Neal Bishop, Jeff Hughes and Lee Hughes all producing consistent good performances, the latter still with his knack for scoring goals at this level. This, combined with keeping highly rated attacking midfielder Alan Judge, despite reported interest from lower Premier League and Championship sides, has been a key factor in their excellent start to the season, with his performances in the hole being consistently impressive and integral to their attacking play.
In a competitive league, with many big clubs vying for promotion, can Notts County sustain their impressive start to the campaign? Whilst their early form has led to optimism in some quarters, it is easy to forget that we are only five games into the season. Many clubs are still adjusting to the demands of this league, and are still fine-tuning their squads. Moreover, the Magpies have already played and beaten two of the newly promoted sides from League Two. Tougher tests are around the corner, with trips to Sheffield United and MK Dons in the next few weeks, sides who are much more fancied for success and have bigger budgets and larger fan bases than Notts County. These clubs are sure to test a new backline, which despite working well so far, is still developing, with the personnel only beginning to forge an understanding of the way each other plays. Equally, the inability to bring in another proven goal scorer may come back to haunt Curle. At the age of thirty-six Lee Hughes cannot be expected to play three times a week in some cases. Summer signing Yoann Arquin from Hereford has potential, but is in no way proven at this level having only scored eight times in League Two last season and his lack of discipline has already become apparent. Players such as Francois Zoko, Judge and Jeff Hughes will all provide and score goals but are unlikely to do so prolifically. In some games, such as already this season at home to Walsall when they dominated but lost 1-0, the Magpies may regret not having another option up front. Therefore, I find it unlikely that Notts County will gain automatic promotion, let alone finish where they are now. A more realistic ambition would be to try and better last season and finish in the playoffs. However, this is easier said than done, with many teams fighting for so few places.