Notts County played out the majority of the 90 minutes with 10 men against a strong Sheffield United outfit and almost came away with a point when Enoch Showunmi came off the bench to cancel out Kevin McDonald’s first half finish. The Blades went on to make their numbers count and Harry Maguire wrapped up the points with a well-taken header in the 67th minute.
The showpiece fixture kicked off the 2013.14 campaign and opened the Football League’s 125th Anniversary celebrations live on Sky Sports television. The historic nature of the match was evident, as The World’s Oldest Football League Club, one of the league’s 12 founder members, trended across the UK on Twitter.
County lined up at the Football League’s oldest stadium, Bramall Lane, in a 4-5-1 formation that saw summer signing Danny Haynes spearhead the attack, with Yoann Arquin and Jamal Campbell-Ryce either side of him in the wide areas. Mark Fotheringham, Andre Boucaud and Joss Labadie filled the central midfield berths, whereas the defence consisted of full-backs Mustapha Dumbuya and Alan Sheehan and centre-backs Dean Leacock and Liddle.
The hosts started at a fast pace and Notts were required to soak up the early pressure. Jamie Murphy was first to threaten for the Blades with a free-kick that beat the wall but not Bartosz Bialkowski in the County goal.
In the sixth minute, former Notts forward Febian Brandy was sent tumbling inside the area but calls for a penalty were waved away. Then, as United continued to push forward, Murphy curled wide of the bottom-left corner from range.
The Magpies gradually settled and were able to push United deep into their own half, where Campbell-Ryce caused a number of problems with his crosses, the best of which forced a corner. The resulting delivery was met at the near post by Haynes and only an instinctive save from home goalkeeper George Long prevented the Magpies from taking a 1-0 lead.
On 13, it became clear that it was going to be a difficult evening for Chris Kiwomya’s side, after Liddle was shown a straight red card. The centre-back, who had not missed a minute of league action in 2012.13, had attempted to cut out a breakaway attack but his high lunge on another former Magpie, McDonald, was seen as dangerous play by referee Keith Stroud.
The dismissal resulted in a shuffle of the pack, as Sheehan moved inside to centre-back. Dumbuya switched to the left side of defence and Fotheringham dropped from midfield to right-back.
Notts got forward when possible and Long was called into action again by Arquin. The Frenchman rose well to direct a downward header at goal, only the stopper threw himself across his line to tip clear.
As expected with an extra man, the Blades maintained most of the possession and they made it pay in the 30th minute. Full-back Darryl Westlake was played into space down the right and McDonald connected with his low centre to place into the bottom-right corner.
Five minutes later, County nearly levelled from a fantastic Sheehan set-piece delivery, which caught out the Blades’ backline. Labadie escaped his marker to apply a headed finish on the edge of the six-yard box but he failed to hit the target.
The remainder of the half was a battle and the Magpies showed great determination to keep out hosts with superb blocks from the likes of Sheehan and Labadie. After the break, it was their goalkeeper that was next to keep Notts in the game with an excellent reaction stop down to his left, following a quick turn and shot by United skipper Michael Doyle on the edge of the box.
On 57, Notts almost equalised, after Labadie was tripped near to the byline on the right flank. Sheehan fired another dangerous delivery across goal, which almost crept inside the far post.
Showunmi was barely on the pitch for two minutes when he made it 1-1 with a brilliant 20-yard strike. Space opened up for the big striker, who had replaced Arquin, when a long free-kick from the back was not dealt with by the Blades’ defence and he was able to send the ball into the bottom-left corner to send the impressive away following into hysterics.
The buoyant away section was almost silenced, when Stephen McGinn rifled inches over. Neill Collin later whipped the ball across the face of goal from the left, though nobody was able to apply a decisive touch.
Hopes remained high in the away section but with 24 minutes left on the digital scoreboard, United struck from a set-play. McGinn targeted the back post from deep and imposing centre-back Maguire headed across goal, out of Bialkowski’s reach, to make it 2-1.
Bialkowski had to be at his best to prevent it becoming 3-1 in the 79th minute, as substitute Lyle Taylor drilled a free-kick through the wall. The Pole reacted well to his left to bat the ball clear.
Notts fans thought that their team had secured a point late on, when Campbell-Ryce’s long throw into the area was headed away as far as Fotheringham. The midfielder unleashed a stunning volley that skidded marginally wide of the left-hand upright.
As the Magpies continued their hunt for a goal, the hosts were able to create a series of late opportunities, as they attempted to confirm maximum points. Brandy tricked himself into space in the box, only to be denied by a Bialkowski block, substitute Conor Coady was then played into space, one-on-one, but placed wide with the outside of his right boot and Westlake watched a low hit narrowly miss the outstretched foot of Lyle Taylor.
Another goal was not needed and County were left disappointed at the final whistle. The team showed great determination throughout but it was not enough against the 11 men of United.