It was all set up to be a day of celebration for table toppers Doncaster Rovers, as they eyed promotion to the Championship and the league title, but Notts County delivered a tireless performance that fully warranted the three points. Joss Labadie stole the headlines with a thumping drive from distance but a sterling defensive showing ensured that the Magpies spoilt the party with a 1-0 victory at the Keepmoat Stadium.
Krystian Pearce was a surprise inclusion in the starting 11, as he made his first Notts appearance since March 2012. He lined up alongside Dean Leacock at the heart of a four-man defence in place of Haydn Hollis.
Another unexpected change came in goal, with Fabian Spiess replacing Bartosz Bialkowski due to illness. This meant that goalkeeping coach Kevin Pilkington was among the seven substitutes, which also included one of last weekend’s star performers, Curtis Thompson.
The promising youngster was replaced by Alan Judge, who returned from a two-game ban to feature out wide. Enoch Showunmi missed out altogether through injury, meaning that Yoann Arquin, who netted off the bench against Colchester, partnered Tyrell Waite in attack.
Despite Doncaster’s lofty league position, it was County that looked the better outfit in the early stages. The Magpies made great use of the wide areas, though giant centre-backs Rob Jones and Jamie McCombe were tough to overcome and dealt with numerous dangerous deliveries.
Home goalkeeper Neil Sullivan was tested for the first time in the eighth minute, when Judge rounded off an intricate passing move with a 20-yard effort that forced him to clutch well underneath his crossbar. Two minutes later, Alan Sheehan’s swinging back-post corner saw Arquin lay the ball to Leacock, who placed inches past the angle of the goal.
On 14, the Magpies deservedly moved in front in quite spectacular style, after Judge was upended 30 yards from goal. From the resulting free-kick, the Irishman laid the ball to Labadie, whose stunning drive nestled into the top-right corner and left the fully stretched Sullivan with absolutely no chance.
The opening goal boosted the hosts and they immediately went in search of a leveller, which the home fans thought had arrived when David Cotterill’s knockdown was driven home by Dean Furman at close range. The linesman quickly quietened their celebrations with a flag for offside.
Jones nodded wide from Cotterill’s corner, as Rovers maintained the pressure. Then, on 40, following a quick exchange on the edge of the box, Coppinger’s low strike was turned away by a superb Leacock block, moments before Spiess palmed John Lundstram’s thunderous hit over the bar.
In the dying stages of the half, Jeff Hughes came to the rescue with an outstanding back-heeled clearance to prevent another Coppinger attempt from crossing the line. Spiess then made an impressive claim down to his left to keep out a second effort from Chris Brown.
After the interval, Rovers made their attacking intentions clear with two early efforts. Paynter cleared the bar with a header within two minutes of the restart and Cotterill fired high into the crowd with a hopeful set-piece punt.
A lot of Doncaster’s pressure came from high balls into the box but Spiess coped well by making a series of crucial punches. His defence was fully committed and played their part with numerous important blocks, including one from Gary Liddle that diverted Coppinger’s low hit narrowly wide of the left-hand post.
On 65, Waite, who had provided another intelligent display up front, was withdrawn, evidently carrying a knock. Francois Zoko was his replacement as Notts maintained a 4-4-2 formation.
At this point in the game, Bournemouth were leading Carlisle, meaning that, should the scores stay the same, the Cherries would end the day at the top of npower League 1. The home crowd grew restless as their team continued to be frustrated by the likes of Alan Sheehan, who threw his body on the line to block substitute David Syers’ powerful shot.
The wait for an equaliser looked certain to come to an end in the 76th minute, when Paynter got the better of Pearce and managed to carry the ball wide of Spiess. The striker’s finish was on target but Pearce made amends with a saving goal-line block.
From the following corner, Tommy Spurr watched a 25-yard volley dip onto the roof of the net. Failure to make the most of this pressure almost saw Rovers go 2-0 down.
Zoko showed great energy to burst forward and won a free-kick on the edge of the box, which Judge fired against the wall and behind for a corner. From this, Doncaster struggled to clear and, 18 yards out, Labadie swept agonisingly wide of the top-left corner.
In the closing moments, Rovers gave everything they had in an attempt to gain a share of the spoils. Coppinger kicked off a flurry of late efforts with a low free-kick, which Spiess kept out with a smart save down to his left.
Spiess was in action again with a reaction parry to push away substitute Iain Hume’s stinging hit from a tight angle. He then had to make another important save, when Coppinger fired through a crowd of players.
A corner followed and even the home goalkeeper Sullivan pushed forward, though Spiess commanded his area well with another strong punch. The final throw of the dice was a long throw from Spurr but Jones’ downward header grazed the post.
County made it back-to-back league wins for the first time since October and showed that they could cut it at the top of the table. It was an encouraging display looking forward to the new season and one that sends the Magpies into the final match of the season with plenty of reasons to be confident.