Heroics in goal by Bartosz Bialkowski and a sublime 42nd minute finish from Callum Ball gave Notts County a hard-fought 1-0 win against Stevenage. Although the Magpies came off the pitch battered and bruised from a physical encounter, the post-match scenes between the fans and players were a great sight, as they celebrated climbing out of the relegation zone for the first time since October.
The Magpies were unchanged following the previous weekend’s victory over Sheffield United, as they aimed to make it three consecutive wins. Stevenage were also on a high, having recorded an impressive 2-0 win over Swindon Town four days earlier.
Both outfits looked dangerous in the wide areas but it was the hosts that were first to test one of the goalkeepers, when wideman Luke Freeman cut between two Notts players on the left flank to deliver a back-post cross. Filipe Morais rose well to head downwards, only to be denied by Bialkowski, who reacted sharply to push away from the bottom corner.
Morais was involved again moments later, after Jimmy Smith found him on the edge of the box with a low corner. The winger drove through a crowd of players but Bialkowski produced another instinctive parry.
Beyond the two early scares, County dictated the play and enjoyed large spells of possession. However, Boro retreated in numbers to make it difficult for the likes of Jack Grealish and Jamal Campbell-Ryce to find the killer pass.
On 28, a quick turn and shot by Michael Doughty saw Bialkowski scramble across his line to tip away from the bottom corner. As Stevenage maintained the pressure, a low Lucas Akins centre found Zoko but Bialkowski made a brave save at the frontman’s feet before the ball was hacked clear.
Akins looked a big threat in attack and came close himself in the 31st minute, when, from the left, he cut inside his marker into the area and forced Bialkowski into another top save down to his left. The striker later controlled a long punt forward on his chest but the County number one remained unbeaten a fine block inside his near post.
County were forced into a first half substitution, following a series of knocks to Grealish. Ball replaced the on-loan winger and Ronan Murray switched to the wide left berth.
Notts tested home goalkeeper Chris Day for the first time in the 40th minute, after Enoch Showunmi found Campbell-Ryce in space with a cross-field pass. The tricky wideman targeted the top-left corner with a fierce strike and Day had to be at his best to acrobatically tip over.
The Magpies moved in front a minute later, as Boro struggled to clear their lines. 12 yards from goal, the newly introduced substitute, Ball, controlled well on his chest and rifled inside the left-hand post to give Notts a half time lead.
Zoko attempted to pull a goal back in the early stages of the second period with a quick-fire shot on the turn, which Bialkowski smothered on his line. More fine work by the Ivorian then gave Akins space inside the box but Manny Smith and Mark Fotheringham charged down his powerful hit.
On 60, a poor header by defender Luke Jones saw Ball race forward into the area, only his low finish was kept out by Day’s outstretched leg. The resulting corner was headed away as far as the taker, Sheehan, who blasted just over.
When a Zoko header finally beat Bialkowski, his defence came to the rescue, as Freeman made a vital goal-line clearance. The right-back then made another important block steer Luke Freeman’s strike wide of the mark.
Notts should have doubled their lead from a Sheehan corner that fell to the feet of Showunmi, eight yards from goal. The striker’s powerful effort looked destined to find the roof of the net but Day somehow tipped over.
Boro skipper, Jon Ashton, was next to be called into action, after Campbell-Ryce sliced open the home defence with a slide pass into the path of Andre Boucaud. The midfielder’s finish across goal was certain to find the net but Ashton produced an outstanding slide challenge to keep his side in the game heading into the final 10 minutes.
The dying minutes brought some pressure but bodies were thrown on the line and large periods of the added time was spent deep in the Boro half, as Notts played down the clock. The final whistle meant that County continued the perfect start to 2014 and finished the day 16th in Sky Bet League 1.