Notts County were cruelly beaten 2-1 by Bristol City thanks to a penalty awarded to the visitors in injury time at the end of a fast-paced and highly competitive Sky Bet League 1 fixture at Meadow Lane.
Despite taking the lead in the opening half and holding it until the hour mark, a well taken equaliser and a late penalty awarded by referee Dean Whitehouse deep into injury time at the end of the game would condemn the home side to a defeat that will be hard to take after another gutsy performance.
Manager Shaun Derry made two changes to the side that had started in the 2-0 win over Port Vale the previous weekend, with new signing Reece Brown and full-back Cieron Keane coming in at the expense of Ronan Murray, who dropped to the bench, and the injured Blair Adams.
A well-contested opening half saw the visitors enjoy plenty of possession and carve out more opportunities to score, but it was Notts who made the all-important breakthrough in the 13th minute.
The best of the early exchanges had seen Gary Jones fire over with a half-volley after City had struggled to clear a corner and Liam Noble’s cross was punched out to the edge of the area, offering itself up to Jones, who couldn’t quite control his effort.
There was another worrying moment for the visitors shortly after when Kieran Agard, making his debut for City, was caught by Jones in an aerial collision, which won his side a freekick but saw the striker have to leave the field to receive medical attention for a cut to the head.
It was only briefly after Agard had rejoined the action four minutes later that Notts broke the deadlock, with a long ball forwards by Haydn Hollis not dealt with by the City defence, allowing Zeli Ismail to latch on to it, beat his first man and hold off the attentions of a second defender to get just enough on to a shot from the edge of the area that rolled into the bottom right-hand corner of the net past a despairing Frank Fielding in the visitors’ goal.
Luke Freeman, who joined Bristol City in the summer, would be a key figure for the visitors as they looked to get back into the game after the early setback, first controlling the ball well inside the area, only to see his cross find no teammates in the box, and then winning a freekick for a foul by Alan Smith that would see City presented with a great opportunity as Aden Flint headed the ball back across goal at the far post but over the head of Derrick Williams.
Further attacks would come to nothing for City as they continued to press, with Agard flagged offside as he got a shot away on the turn inside the area, which Roy Carroll had already got down well to save, before Mark Little made a great break down the right that would see him cut inside and get a shot away that once again the Notts keeper had covered comfortably enough.
The closest the visitors would come to getting back on level terms was in the 28th minute, when Noble gave away a freekick for a foul on Aaron Wilbraham that Freeman took, struck the ball well, beat the wall, but saw his effort cannon off the upright and behind.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic though, with Noble capitalising on some great play by Mustapha Dumbuya to win the ball on the left for Notts, with the midfielder seeing a well-struck effort from the edge of the area fly just over the bar.
The only other moment of note in the opening period saw City’s captain Wade Elliott fed in by Little but his shot was never really troubling Carroll, who collected the ball at his feet.
HT: Notts County 1 Bristol City 0
After a high-tempo and action-packed first half, it was little surprise that the second period got off to an equally fast-paced start, with Bristol City seeing a dangerous cross by Bryan well gathered by Carroll and then a freekick for Notts delivered in well by Jones to find the head of Hollis, but his connection wasn’t a clean one and it was easily collected by Fielding.
Little then showed the threat that he posed for the visitors, latching on to a through ball down the right after some good build-up play between Elliott and Luke Ayling before getting a shot away that flashed across the face of goal and behind for a goalkick.
That would be a warning sign of things to come for Notts as it was Little who would be pivotal to City getting back level, as he broke once more down the right on the hour mark, leaving his marker in his wake before getting a dangerous cross in that came through to Wilbraham, who had plenty of space to tap home and make it 1-1 with his fourth goal of the season.
Shortly before that, Noble had made another surging break upfield for Notts before playing in Ismail but although the winger’s well-struck shot was only parried by Fielding, there was nobody following-up to punish the City keeper.
Derry reacted to going behind by sending on two strikers, with Ronan Murray and Danny Haynes, who was making his first appearance in a Notts short since January, coming on to replace Reece Brown and Alan Smith in the 64th minute.
Keane, who had been left in the wake of Little in the build-up to City’s goal, would then be the third and final player to be replaced five minutes later, making way for Curtis Thompson, as the game looked to catch up with him slightly after a decent first half performance in only his second appearance for Notts.
Having re-established parity in the game, City looked determined to press on for a winner and efforts from Elliott, from some way out, and then another freekick by Freeman, after Mullins was adjudged to have handled the ball on the edge of the area, saw them twice come close.
Having hit the post from a similar distance in the first half, Freeman once again stepped up when the freekick was awarded in the 74th minute and although he again beat the wall, this time he was denied by a fine save by Carroll diving to his left.
It was the visitors’ turn to make changes as the game entered the final quarter of an hour, with Agard replaced by Jay Emmanuel-Thomas which preceded the first yellow card of the game, as Williams was penalised for a handball that brought an end to a dangerous break down the right for Notts 10 minutes from time, earning the City player a place in the referee’s book.
Murray looked to capitalise on the attacking opportunity offered by the resulting freekick, getting a great cross in from right on the line that was cleared out to Noble on the edge of the area, but his effort flew over the bar.
A further change for the visitors saw Greg Cunningham come on to replace Joe Bryan in the 84th minute and moments later the visitors thought that they had taken the lead, when Wilbraham found himself through one-on-one with Carroll, rounded the keeper and slotted home only to turn and see the flag up for offside.
In taking his time over the freekick that followed, Carroll would become the second player to see a yellow card, despite claiming he had been struggling to do his gloves up in preparing to take the set-piece.
As the final minutes ebbed away, City had another good chance to seal the victory, with a dangerous cross from Freeman, after a short-corner routine with Emmanuel-Thomas, finding Cunningham pretty much on the line, but he could only guide his header over.
That looked to be it for both sides as the fourth official showed four minutes of stoppage time were to be played, but there was one final twist in the tale, as Freeman, who had been dangerous all game, broke into the area, was challenged by Thompson that saw the City man throw himself to the ground and the referee point to the spot.
Emmanuel-Thomas stepped up to take the spot kick and casually slotted it home along the ground slightly right of centre of the goal to deal a crushing blow to Notts that they wouldn’t have time to recover from.
Derry must now pick his side up from this difficult encounter as they take on Mansfield Town in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy here at Meadow Lane on Tuesday evening before having a weekend off, due to the postponement of our scheduled trip to Crewe Alexandra in the league.
Having opened the scoring early on for Notts, the winger continued to look a threat throughout the game, with his pace and movement causing the visitors problems.