AWAY MATCH SPONSORED BY
Notts County came from behind for the fourth game in a row to claim a 1-1 draw with automatic promotion contenders Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park. The hosts held the lead at half time but at the final whistle, Notts were the most disappointed not to take maximum points.
Tranmere arguably edged the opening 45 and tricky winger Abdulai Bell-Baggie opened the scoring in the 29th minute. Notts had chances to go into the break on level terms but they had to wait until the 74th minute for an equaliser.
That came via skipper Neal Bishop’s header from Alan Judge’s well-hit free-kick and County very nearly went on to make it 2-1 late on. Substitute Jeff Hughes came closest with a stunning hit that cannoned back off the foot of the post but the Magpies settled for the least they deserved – a point.
Following his brace off the bench in Friday’s 4-1 triumph over Bury, Francois Zoko was deservedly handed a start at the expense of Yoann Arquin. This was the only change, as Notts looked to make it back-to-back league wins for the first time since the beginning of September, when they overcame Bury and Shrewsbury Town.
Tranmere, who had been classed as Notts’ toughest opponents this season based on the Meadow Lane encounter, created the first opening of the 90, when target man Jean-Louis Akpa Apro added a valuable flick-on to a direct punt out of defence. Striker Michael O’Holloran wrestled free of Dean Leacock inside the area to get a shot away but Bartosz Bialkowski narrowed the angle well to make a fine block.
Both sides looked lively in the opening stages and produced some neat offensive football. However, only Rovers were able to find an end product, with their next attempt supplied by Akpa Akpro, who drove harmlessly over from range.
On 22, Notts should have taken the lead, when Alan Sheehan’s corner was kept alive by Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s left-wing centre. Zoko applied a mishit finish, which Dean Leacock nodded back across goal towards the unmarked Ivorian, whose low strike was prevented from finding the bottom-right corner by midfielder Paul Corry’s superb block inside the six-yard box.
In quick response, defender Ash Taylor tested Bialkowski with a downward header, as he latched onto Max Power’s back-post cross. At the other end, Alan Judge cleared the bar with a hopeful 25-yard hit.
The hosts gained the lead in the 29th minute, after O’Halloran met Bell-Baggie’s diagonal run into the box with a delightful low pass. The tricky wideman’s pace allowed him to escape the County defenders and he proceeded to slot the ball home, past Bialkowski.
Notts pushed for an equaliser ahead of the interval and were unlucky not to find it through Alan Judge’s left-wing free-kick. The Irishman targeted the top-right corner but home stopper Owain Fon Williams palmed clear, before Campbell-Ryce and Zoko had efforts blocked in quick succession.
Julian Kelly later had a golden opportunity to net for the second game running, following Zoko’s cutback from the byline. The full-back made a late arrival into the area but could only sting Fon Williams’ palms with a powerful drive.
Rovers almost doubled their lead on the stroke of half time, when Cole Stockton showed great strength to turn into space on the edge of the box. The substitute rifled towards the bottom-right corner but found the wrong side of the post.
County had come from behind in the last three fixtures and more of the same was required in the second half. But, it was the hosts that started off the second period as the better of the sides.
Inside the opening 10 minutes of the half, Notts were fortunate not to concede, as a result of a mix-up between Andre Boucaud and Judge in midfield. Stockton ran at the Magpies’ backline, with Akpa Akpro in space to his right, though he opted to go alone and Gary Liddle was able to get his body in the way of the shot.
From a long free-kick to the back post, Taylor then volleyed into the arms of Bialkowski. Notts needed more and this prompted two changes, as manager Chris Kiwomya swapped Julian Kelly and John Cofie for Jeff Hughes and Yoann Arquin.
County pushed more men forward by switching to a 3-5-2 formation and could have been level within moments of the 63rd minute substitutions. One of the new introductions, Hughes, managed to get on the end of a lofted Campbell-Ryce delivery but Fon Williams was able to pluck the midfielder’s header out of the air.
Notts did not have to wait too much longer for the leveller, which arrived in the 74th minute, when Bishop rose well at the near post to guide Judge’s free-kick delivery into the far top corner. It was the skipper’s sixth goal of the season and his first since November.
Zoko nearly made it 2-1 straight after, after he got the better of Fon Williams. With the goalkeeper stranded, the forward attempted to free up space to apply the finish but was crowded out as the home defence retreated.
On 84, Hughes had the away fans on their feet, when he escaped the offside trap to get on the end of Judge’s sublime chipped pass. The Northern Ireland international cut back on himself and fired towards the bottom-left corner, only to be denied by the woodwork.
With a minute left, Judge curled wide of the right-hand upright, which meant that the Magpies had to settle for a share of the points. The result did close the gap on the Play-Off pack to nine points ahead of the weekend’s clash with Carlisle at Meadow Lane.