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Jeff Hughes's stoppage time strike gave Notts County a 1-0 victory over Stevenage this evening at Meadow Lane.
In a goalless first half, Notts created the better of the chances. Alan Judge rattled the crossbar in the 10th minute and Jeff Hughes failed to react quickly enough at close range shortly before the interval.
Lee Hughes, Cristian Montano and Kieron Freeman all came close to putting the Magpies ahead in the second 45 but it looked as though they would be left frustrated. However, in stoppage time, Jeff Hughes finally broke the deadlock with an emotional late winner, getting Keith Curle's tenure off to the perfect start.
Fans welcomed Curle for his first game in charge, after being appointed as the new Magpies boss two days earlier. The former Mansfield chief had the task of helping Notts bounce back from a disappointing 3-0 loss to Hartlepool United the previous Saturday in front of a Meadow Lane crowd.
Two alterations were made from the side that faced the Pools, with Krystian Pearce and Jonathan Forte coming into the first 11 at the expense of Ben Burgess and Liam Chilvers. The switches marked Pearce's first start since the 1-1 draw with MK Dons a month earlier and Jonathan Forte's home debut, after he rejoined the club on loan from Southampton in the January transfer window.
Following his unveiling as manager, Curle expressed that he wanted his team to play free-flowing attacking football. In the early stages, Notts played it on the ground and threatened twice from the right flank.
Forte produced County's first effort, when he held off his marker, roamed inside from the wing and drove powerfully over from 25 yards. Rounding off a surging run, Freeman then stretched the visiting backline with a cross-field pass but the crossbar kept out Judge's placed finish.
In a quick break, Stevenage raced down the left flank, where full-back Scott Laird found space to get a shot away. However, Stuart Nelson was equal to his low drive, producing a smart save, before his defenders eradicated the danger.
Notts continued to create openings but were restricted to half chances. Lee Hughes' downward header was easily dealt with by Boro stopper Chris Day and Neal Bishop's attempt from distance rolled harmlessly wide of the target.
Statistically, Stevenage headed into the fixture with the second best away record in the division and were evidently a threat in the final third. From a period of pressure, Luke Freeman, deterred by Damion Stewart, struck wide and Darius Charles was unlucky not to see a low centre rounded off by one of his teammates.
On 39 minutes, Judge carried the ball past Laird down the right and delivered a delightful back-post cross that had everyone in the stadium off their seats. It appeared that Jeff Hughes was going to apply the finishing touch at close range, but he was unable to react in time and his eventual effort was fired straight at Day.
The closing stages of the half could have seen either side go in front. Chris Beardsley, capitalising on an error by Stewart, dragged wide, while, at the other end, Forte had a strong penalty call waved away.
In an even opening to the second period, Stevenage were first to threaten. Joel Byrom's corner picked out Freeman on the edge of the box and the midfielder almost found the bottom-right corner.
On 53, Montano, who had replaced Forte at the break, set Bishop free with a determined header. Bishop then threaded in Lee Hughes, whose left-footed finish was fisted away by Day.
The game sparked into life in the 64th minute, when substitute Don Cowan raced onto an overhead through-ball. The home faithful watched on nervously, outraged that an offside decision had not been given by the assistant referee, though they were able to relax when the striker scuffed wide.
With Notts' next attack, Judge had a teasing cross headed clear by centre-back Ronnie Henry - into the path of Freeman. The County full-back unleashed a stunning volley from 35 yards that looked destined for the top-right corner but Day was at his best to tip behind for a corner.
As the final whistle drew closer, the match transitioned into a tense affair that could go either way, as was highlighted in the 77th minute. Moments after Stewart mopped up the danger created by Gavin Mahon's stray pass, Freeman saw another long-range punt bounce inches past the post.
Stacy Long, moments after his introduction, nearly opened the scoring on his former stomping ground, but was denied by a strong parry from Stuart Nelson. In quick retort, Lee Hughes had a venomous volley tipped away from the top-right corner by Day.
Montano thought he'd won it for the Magpies in the 90th minute, when his driven attempt from the edge of the box grazed the bar. But, the winner was left to Jeff Hughes in the first minute of added time.
As County pushed Stevenage back into their own half, the ball made its way to the top-scorer 25 yards out, after a superb sliding challenge by Bishop. Hughes tricked his way into the box and struck low through a crowd of players, meaning Day could only watch on as the ball nestled into the bottom corner, sparking passionate celebrations in the stands and on the pitch.
There was a late scare from a late Boro onslaught, which saw Byrom volley narrowly wide. Elated cheers greeted the final whistle, though, as Notts deservedly had all three points in the bag.
Attendance: 5,733 (213 away supporters)
Man of the Match, sponsored by Chino Latino: Kieron Freeman