Notts County produced a dominant display at Ashton Gate but somehow left empty handed. Bristol City struck twice against the run of play to claim a 2-1 victory, which saw the Magpies drop back into the bottom four – three points adrift of safety with just three games remaining.
Sam Baldock gave Bristol the lead with a close-range finish in the 13th minute. Haydn Hollis pulled Notts level with a well-placed header and it looked as though they would go on to at least take a point from the fixture.
A host of fine attempts followed in the second half but County could not get the ball over the line. They were then punished for a defensive mix up late on, as Baldock added his second of the afternoon to clinch all three points for the hosts.
Following Hollis’s one-game ban, the defender returned to the starting 11 to partner Hayden Mullins at the heart of the back four. This allowed Alan Sheehan to return to his regular left-back slot, as Gareth Roberts dropped to the bench.
Notts applied much of the early pressure but it was the hosts that carved out the first opening of the afternoon, when Sam Baldock escaped Hollis to latch onto a long punt forward. From the right by-line, the striker’s cutback found Martin Paterson but his curled effort flew inches high of the top-left corner.
Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Curtis Thompson both had decent attempts blocked before a tremendous move in the left channel presented Notts with a fantastic chance to take the lead. Picked out by Alan Sheehan’s lofted pass, Jack Grealish wriggled free of his marker and found Ronan Murray, whose shot was superbly charged down by Karleigh Osborne.
On 13, Bristol moved in front against the run of play. Paterson found space on the left side of the box and his low drive across goal was touched home by City’s top-scorer, Baldock.
After the goal, County switched from a 4-4-2 formation to 3-5-2, which saw Thompson move from right-back to a defensive midfield role. The Magpies continued to push forward and, as City struggled to clear, Murray watched a dangerous cross from the corner of the area narrowly evade the head of Gary Liddle at the back post.
Notts came close again in the 26th minute when Sheehan’s free-kick around the wall looked certain to find the net, only for Derrick Williams to guide the ball over with a vital header. After excellent work by Campbell-Ryce, Sheehan then tried his luck with a thumping 30-yard strike that forced home goalkeeper Simon Moore to tip behind at full reach.
It was from the resulting corner that Notts equalised. Sheehan’s arrowed delivery was met brilliantly by Hollis, who guided the ball into the far bottom corner with a glancing header.
In the 40th minute, City thought they had moved in front, when Marlon Pack’s exquisite 40-yard diagonal pass found Baldock on the right. The striker’s outstanding first touch took him away from Sheehan but his low finish was kept out by Bialkowski’s outstretched left boot.
Notts started the half on the back foot and almost conceded when Paterson struck over. However, the Magpies soon regained their dominance and applied pressure on the home defence.
Spencer’s tricky footwork to cut between two defenders on the right wing resulted in him being upended and a free-kick awarded. The frontman then connected with Sheehan’s pacy delivery with a forceful header that cleared the bar.
More great work in attack by Spencer created County’s next opening of the second period, as he skipped away from two challenges into space on the edge of the box. The frontman’s shot was weak but Moore almost fumbled into his own net and had to make a remarkable one-handed recovery save to prevent Liddle from prodding over the line at close range.
Manager Shaun Derry made his first substitution of the game in the 67th minute, as Josh Vela was replaced by top-scorer Callum McGregor. The on-loan Celtic forward almost set up second goal for the Magpies eight minutes later with a lay-off for Liddle, whose rifled effort skimmed the roof of the net.
McGregor was involved again when he combined well with Grealish to get a shot away himself. Moore reacted sharply down to his left to make the parry and his defence cleared the danger before a County player could get a sniff of goal.
The chances continued to flow for the Magpies and Spencer provided Grealish with the ball 20 yards from goal. The winger fired through a crowd of players, inches wide of the bottom-right corner.
There only looked to be one winner but the spectators were shocked to see City take the lead, after Hollis, in an attempt to deal with a long ball forward, headed the ball back to his goalkeeper. The pass was a little short and Bialkowski’s clearance was mishit, leaving Baldock with the easy job of placing into an empty net, despite the best efforts of the retreating Mullins.
This proved to be the killer blow but the quality of Notts’ performance was highlighted by their fans’ applause at the end of the game. It appeared that all of the impressive away supporters stayed behind to pay tribute to their team, who now face a massive final three games.