There were tears along the way but Notts County did it – they completed The Great Escape with a final day 1-1 draw with Oldham Athletic. At one stage in the game, following Adam Lockwood’s opener, the Magpies were in the bottom four but captain marvel Alan Sheehan secured safety with a penalty in front of the Black and White Army.
A convoy of coaches dressed in black and white followed the Magpies to Boundary Park and 3,361 away fans filled the majority of the away section behind the goal. The atmosphere was electric and it was just what Notts needed – a home-style backing to help them take their Meadow Lane form on the road.
Hayden Mullins’ loan recall meant that regular central midfielder Gary Liddle dropped back into the heart of defence alongside Haydn Hollis. The void left in the County engine room was filled by Josh Vela, who partnered Curtis Thompson in a 4-4-2 formation.
Oldham – one of the division’s form teams – started well and first threatened through wideman Gary Harkins, whose curled effort was batted away by Bartosz Bialkowski. Liddle and Hollis were later called into excellent last-ditch challenges, before an unmarked Lockwood glanced wide from a Harkins corner.
Jimmy Spencer created Notts’ first opening of the 90 when he held off his marker to chest the ball into the path of Ronan Murray but the Irishman’s shot was deflected behind. Sheehan’s second corner in quick succession found Jack Grealish, only the winger’s side-footed attempt failed to hit the target.
The Magpies looked most dangerous in the wide areas and Jamal Campbell-Ryce turned away from two Oldham players to find Murray at the near post, though the resulting shot lacked power and goalkeeper Paul Rachubka gathered easily. Similarly, at the other end of the pitch, David Worrall skipped into space inside the area but fired straight at Bialkowksi.
News had filtered into the away end that both Crewe Alexandra and Tranmere Rovers were winning, but, at 0-0, County remained outside the bottom four on goal difference. The away fans had one eye on the game and another on their smart phones – hoping for a Notts goal or that Preston or Bradford would to do them a favour in the fixtures against the relegation threatened duo.
On 37, the Magpies almost eased the tension, following a near-post delivery by Campbell-Ryce. Murray connected but his volley was diverted over via a deflection.
In contrast, the Latics should have moved in front after Jonson Clarke-Harris escaped the Notts backline to force Bialkowski into a smart save down to his left. Harkins’ searching corner was nodded across goal by giant defender Adam Lockwood and Clarke-Harris was denied a certain goal by Hollis’ vital saving block at close range.
Notts started the second half on the front foot and Jimmy Spencer presented Murray with a golden opportunity following a hopeful forward header. The striker only had the goalkeeper to beat but Rachubka reacted well to keep out his low drive with an instinctive save.
Moments later, Campbell-Ryce thought that he had the ball in the net when, following a direct run into the right channel, his cross looped over the home goalkeeper. The ball connected with Connor Brown’s shin on the goal line but the right-back was able to hack clear before Murray could prod home.
In the 68th minute, County dropped into the bottom four after Oldham gained the lead. From a Harkins free-kick, Lockwood rose highest in a crowded box to send a dipping header inside the left-hand upright.
Newly introduced substitute James Dayton nearly doubled the hosts’ lead when he latched onto a Clarke-Harris flick-on. Bialkowski came to the rescue with a vital block to keep out the wideman’s low hit.
Notts were handed a lifeline when Campbell-Ryce earned his side a penalty, as his low cross was handled inside the area. The skipper Sheehan stepped up to rifle into the top-right corner in front of the County supporters, who almost spilled onto the pitch in delight.
Three minutes later, Oldham were down to 10 men when Lockwood was dismissed, after he dragged Spencer to the turf. Sheehan’s free-kick was curled inches high of the top-left corner.
Campbell-Ryce was involved again with a dangerous centre across the face of goal. Spencer connected at the back post but could only direct over with a toed finish at full stretch.
As County went in search of a decisive second, another Campbell-Ryce cross was half cleared. Murray collected on the edge of the box and was prevented from finding the corner of the net by a tremendous reaching parry.
The fans broke into the song of the day – ‘the Pies are staying up’ – as Bradford turned things around at Prenton Park to claim a 2-1 victory. After a tense five minutes of added time, the full time whistle was met by an almighty cheer, emotion on the bench and then celebrations befitting of the accomplishment.
The Great Escape. Mission complete.