Notts County made it back-to-back home victories with a hard-fought display against Carlisle United. Alan Judge’s outstanding 35th minute lob was the decisive moment in a 1-0 win, though Bartosz Bialkowski’s second half display was just as important.
The goalkeeper made three remarkable saves to keep out former Magpies’ loanee Lee Miller, midfielder James Berrett and defender Sean O’Hanlon. This ensured that Judge’s first half finish was enough to see County close the gap on the Play-Off pack to eight points.
A calf injury to full-back Julian Kelly saw first team manager Chris Kiwomya switch the formation from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 – a system that helped the Magpies to fight back from a goal down in the midweek draw with high flying Tranmere Rovers. Jeff Hughes returned to the starting 11 on the left wing, meaning that Judge moved inside to his preferred central attacking midfield role.
Notts had gone behind in the previous six matches and Carlisle appeared eager to make in seven in the opening exchanges. The Cumbrians tested Bialkowski twice, as the stopper gathered midfielder Liam Noble’s curled effort, before preventing John-Paul McGovern’s corner from dipping into the top corner.
County threatened for the first time in the 11th minute, when Neal Bishop added a neat touch to Francois Zoko’s clever lobbed pass. The ball looped perfectly into the path of John Cofie but, rather than apply a first-time finish, the striker opted to take an extra touch and lost possession.
Moments later, Zoko was involved again, as he burst away from full-back Frank Simek on the left wing. The former Carlisle forward cut the ball back to Alan Judge, whose chipped centre towards Cofie was well intercepted by away goalkeeper Mark Gillespie.
On 14, midfielder James Berrett found the wrong side of the post with a long-range shot. Gary Liddle then made a superb saving challenge to deny Noble, who had looked certain to score, after finding space eight yards from goal.
For 20 minutes, the game was locked in a scrappy midfield battle and neither side was able to gain the upper hand - until Cofie picked out Judge with a delightful overhead pass. The Irishman, closely chased by three Carlisle defenders, showed great composure to carry the ball into the area and lifted tremendously over Gillespie, who had strayed off his line.
As the half time loomed, the Cumbrians almost drew level, after Bialkowski failed to claim a cross wide of his goal. The visitors managed to work the ball to Berrett, whose shot was kept out by Alan Sheehan’s goal-line block.
During added time, the Magpies could easily have doubled the lead, with Judge firing wide with a decent effort from distance. From a short corner routine, Zoko came even closer, when he latched onto Sheehan’s in-swinging delivery to nod inches wide of the bottom-left corner.
Notts started the second period as the better of the two teams but struggled to find the important final pass. This almost proved to be costly, as the visitors slowly got on top.
On 57, series of errors gave McGovern time to pick out Miller with a pinpoint cross from the right. Six yards out, the former County loanee looked certain to find the top-left corner but Bialkowski somehow leapt across goal to palm away, before Paul Thirlwell struck into the side netting.
Three minutes later, the Polish goalkeeper was at his best again, after a hopeful low cross was helped along towards O’Hanlon, who was left unmarked at the back post, just a yard from goal. The defender prodded into the corner, only for Bialkowski to scurry across his line to make an outstanding block that was applauded by supporters of both clubs.
Rory Loy tried his luck from range, with the Cumbrians’ next attempt. Having roamed into space in front of the Notts’ backline, the striker drilled narrowly past the top-right corner.
With 10 minutes remaining, Berrett thought he had finally beaten Bialkowski, when, after Hughes was dispossessed, substitute David Symington found McGovern with a searching cross. McGovern headed into the path of Berrett but his powerful hit inside the left-hand post was bundled behind by the County number one.
Boucaud thought he had killed the game off for Notts with a stunning 30-yard piledriver. Gillespie was beaten but the ball did not dip enough and rattled the crossbar.
Notts remained organised in the dying stages, helped by the fresh legs of Jacob Blyh, Joss Labadie and Yoann Arquin and frustrated Carlisle. This was evident in the actions of Miller, who was shown a straight red card for a head butt on Labadie.