Notts County opened the npower League 1 campaign with a 2-1 triumph over Crewe Alexandra. An intense, yet entertaining affair at the Alexandra Stadium, the Magpies had to battle hard for the points, especially the in final 30 minutes when they were down to 10 men.
Crewe opened the match brightly and would have taken the lead had Bartosz Bialkowski not produced a number of fine stops to deny the likes of Ashley Westwood and Mathias Pogba. This gave Notts a platform to move in front on the 40-minute mark, when Francois Zoko converted Alan Judge’s superb cross.
Shortly into the second half, Alan Sheehan maintained the Magpies’ lead with a stretching goal-line clearance to deny Max Clayton’s low drive. And moments later, Notts made it 2-0, with Yoann Arquin driving home from another Judge delivery.
It was a mixed afternoon for Arquin because two minutes after his goal he was given his marching orders for an off the ball incident. This left the 10-man County with 30 minutes to defend a two-goal lead.
Mathias Pogba pulled one back for the hosts on 73 with a forceful header, setting up a tense finale to the fixture. The closing stages provided scares for the Magpies but they were able to hold on for the win, sending an impressive away following home with plenty to be positive about.
Newly promoted Crewe provided a stern test for Keith Curle’s side, as they had been unbeaten on home soil since the beginning of January. The confidence that came from such an impressive run was on show during the opening stages of the first half and Notts stopper Bialkowski had to be at his best to keep the game level.
Westwood was first to force a save out of the County number one, when he unleashed a drive towards the top-right corner that had to be palmed around the post. The hosts maintained the pressure by bombarding the Notts box with crosses and Bialkowski had to block Harry Davis’ close-range strike, moments before Julian Kelly diverted A-Jay Leitch-Smith’s drive away from the bottom corner with an outstretched toe.
Notts were by no means pinned back and threatened themselves early on through Arquin’s long-range hit, which flew marginally wide of the mark. Jeff Hughes also came close, when he headed over after connecting with Judge’s in-swinging centre from the left wing.
On 13, Keith Curle had to make an alteration to his side, following an injury to centre-back Tom Williams. Gary Liddle was subsequently moved into defence, with Joss Labadie filling the vacant midfield berth.
Moments after the substitution, Davis escaped the County backline and the home fans thought that he had managed to find the net with a chipped finish over Bialkowski. However, the goalkeeper managed to stay on his feet and quickly retreated to prevent the ball from crossing the goal line.
As the pressure continued, Byron Moore picked out Pogba with a lofted pass. The powerful frontman held off Kelly inside the area ahead of a turn and shot that Bialkowski turned away with a reaction save.
The Magpies grew into the game as the half ticked away and they were able to take the lead prior to the interval, when Judge’s right-wing cross picked out Zoko at the back post. The forward escaped his marker and proceeded to volley into the corner, showing exactly why the club was so eager to secure his services in the summer.
Early into the second period, Alexandra almost grabbed an equaliser, as Notts struggled to clear the danger. A block from Neal Bishop presented Clayton with a fantastic opportunity, only his low drive was heroically blocked on the line by Sheehan.
Arquin almost doubled County’s lead with a curled effort from the edge of the box. Still, the striker did not have to wait much longer for his first competitive goal in a Magpies shirt.
In the 58th minute, the Frenchman tore open the home defence with an incisive, first-touch pass into the right channel. This enabled Judge to provide a low centre, which Arquin fired home via a deflection off the back of defender Adam Dugdale.
The goal celebrations had barely settled when Arquin was involved again, though this time it was an off the ball incident involving Davis. Against the protests of the Notts faithful, Arquin was shown a straight red card.
This prompted another switch to the away line-up, with Lee Hughes introduced at the expense of Zoko. Judge moved to the left side of midfield.
Making the most of the extra man, Crewe pulled a goal back on 73. Westwood’s deep corner evaded Bialkowski and was met by the run of Pogba, who headed powerfully into the bottom corner.
With the 90 almost competed, Notts fans had their hearts in their mouths, when Mark Ellis headed over from another delightful Westwood corner. There was also six minutes of added time to deal with.
During this additional play, the Magpies nearly restored the two-goal deficit on the break, after Kelly set Judge free with a patient through pass. Goalkeeper Alan Martin produced a reaching parry to keep out the Irishman’s stinging effort and then tipped over Jeff Hughes’ long-range rebound with an acrobatic save.
Lee Hughes, who has so often won games with his finishing, had a big part to play before the final whistle, but on this occasion it was in a defensive capacity. Westwood looked certain to snatch a point for the hosts with a low strike into the bottom-right corner but Hughes, facing his own goal, somehow managed to divert the ball around the post, meaning the Magpies would take all three points.