Notts County earned a battling 1-0 victory over Coventry City at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday, to climb up to fourth place in the Sky Bet League 1 table, thanks to a well-taken Garry Thompson goal in the second half.
Both sides enjoyed extended spells of domination in the game, with Notts having much the better of the first half and Coventry on top for large parts of the second period, but it was the clinical finishing of Garry Thompson that proved the difference between the two sides on the day.
Roy Carroll travelled back from Romania, where he had played for Northern Ireland in a 2-0 loss the previous evening, to take his place between the posts for the game at the Ricoh Arena, meaning that Notts only had to make four changes to the side that drew with Accrington Stanley in the FA Cup last weekend.
With Mustapha Dumbuya and Michael Petrasso still away on international duty and Louis Laing and Hayden Mullins both sidelined with injury, Shaun Derry decided to go with wing-backs for this game, bringing Curtis Thompson in on the right and keeping Blair Adams on the left against his former club, with Mike Edwards, Taylor McKenzie and captain Haydn Hollis, who returned after serving a one-game ban, the back three.
Gary Jones, Liam Noble and Stephen McLaughlin lined up in the middle, behind Ronan Murray and Garry Thompson, with Youth Team player Colby Bishop called up to the substitutes’ bench alongside Fabian Spiess, Jordan Cranston, Nicky Wroe, Elliott Whitehouse, Drissa Traore and Shaun Harrad.
Both sets of fans joined players and officials in respecting impeccably a minute’s silence to mark the anniversary of the Coventry Blitz, which took place on 14 November 1940.
When the action did get underway, it became clear early on that the condition of the Ricoh Arena playing surface could play a part in proceedings, with well-worn areas around the centre circle and in various other parts of the pitch causing bobbles and disrupting the distribution of both sides early on.
It was Coventry who had the best of the rare early chances, with Adam Barton given space to shoot from distance, but his effort whistle past the upright in front of the travelling Notts supporters.
As the game began to open up a bit, Notts came into it more and more, with Murray winning a freekick wide on the left that McLaughlin delivered well, but nobody could get a clean touch on, instead only able to direct it comfortably into the hands of goalkeeper Ryan Allsop.
Then two minutes later, after Hollis had put in a fine block to deny Barton on the edge of the area, Notts broke straight down the other end and this time it was Adams who swung a telling ball in, with Murray controlling well on his chest before laying it off to McLaughlin, but his shot took an untimely deflection that made it easier for Allsop to collect than it perhaps would have been.
Another scrappy period of play followed, with neither side able to forge any real chances, before Coventry were forced into an early substitution, when full-back Jordan Willis had to go off to be replaced by Aaron Phillips in the 23rd minute.
Notts then came close to breaking the deadlock in the 28th minute, when Aaron Martin was forced to play the ball behind for a corner under pressure from Garry Thompson and McLaughlin took it, swinging the ball across to the far post where Edwards was arriving, but with Murray in front of him he couldn’t get enough on his close-range header and Phillips was able to clear off the line.
Having been on top for much of the half, Notts continued to press for the all-important opening goal, but they could only manage two half chances before the break, with a decent ball over the top from the left edge of the area by Murray just too high for the jump of McLaughlin, who was well placed to head home, and the ball sailed harmlessly behind for a goalkick.
Then with just three minutes of the half remaining Noble did brilliantly to win the ball in the challenge just inside the Coventry half, but having opted against a long-range shot from much closer in earlier in the game, he seemed caught in two minds whether to play it forward or try an audacious chip and the result was something in between that saw the ball drop harmlessly inside the area, where Allsop was able to deal with it.
There was still time for one last flashpoint before the half-time interval, as Carroll went down under a challenge by Phillips that saw the goalkeeper require treatment from the physio and the Notts fans behind his goal were dismayed to see referee Michael Bull show only a yellow card to the Coventry player, for what they felt was a sending off offence.
In the seconds that remained once play resumed Notts were able to get one more break in, with Noble’s effort from the edge of the area blocked well, prompting the referee’s whistle and sending the teams to the dressing room with Shaun Derry surely the happier of the two managers based on their sides’ performances throughout the half.
HT: Coventry City 0 Notts County 0
The second half started in a similar vein to the first, with a quiet early spell giving way to a more open affair, although this time it was Coventry who were in the ascendancy and it was the home side who had the first real chance after the break, when John Fleck spread the ball wide on the left to Ryan Haynes and Notts had to be alert to block his low cross behind for a corner that would eventually lead to a foul on the edge of the area bringing an end to the attack.
Buoyed by this attack, Coventry were on the front foot once more minutes later, when another good passing display saw them moving the ball around quickly and as it came to Jack Finch just outside the area, his well-struck effort flew just over the bar.
Finch was involved again in the 62nd minute, but this time it was his loose final ball through that led to a Coventry attack breaking down, after a clever back-heel by Frank Nouble had set his team-mate away through the middle.
Having enjoyed much the better of the first half, Notts found themselves very much on the back foot in the second period, with Coventry looking the more likely to break the deadlock at this stage, particularly when they were gifted a freekick on the edge of the area when Noble fouled Jim O’Brien, but Gary Madine could only loop the resulting set-piece high and wide of the target.
Having ridden out that storm of attacking play from the home side, Notts set about turning the tide in the 70th minute, when McLaughlin was set away down the left and got a good cross in, looking for Garry Thompson, but Allsop did well to come out and smother the ball at the feet of the Notts striker.
It would prove a warning sign for Coventry, as a similar break two minutes later would lead to the opening goal, as this time Garry Thompson picked the ball up just left of centre and did brilliantly to bring it forward before slotting home in the far corner past a helpless Allsop to give Notts the lead.
Coventry boss Steven Pressley reacted to going behind by bringing off first half substitute Phillips for Danny Swanson, but it was Notts who would be on the attack as the game entered the final 10 minutes, with two freekicks from similar positions out on the right, midway inside the Coventry half, both delivered well by Jones, the first of which was headed just over by McKenzie from close range and the second headed further off target by Hollis from just inside the area.
Then came a moment of controversy, shortly after Noble and Finch had both been booked in the 87th minute, the ball was played over the top into the area, where Hollis put in a challenge on Madine that the home crowd were convinced should have won their side a penalty, but the referee was happy to allow to continue, leading to a corner for the home side that Barton would head only narrowly over into the top-netting.
As the match entered the four minutes of added time indicated by the fourth official, it was the Notts fans’ turn to voice their disapproval, this time when the referee refused to stop play to allow Murray receive treatment when he was down deep inside the Coventry half and then when he still refused to allow any attention even when the ball went out for a throw-in.
Murray was eventually replaced by Shaun Harrad for the closing seconds of the match, but it only really remained for the referee to blow his whistle and bring an end to proceedings, sending Notts home with all three points after a battling display.
FT: Coventry City 0 Notts County 1