Historically Speaking... In the third of his series of peeks at the past Mick Chappell completes his look at ‘Festive Fixtures’ and Meadow Lane attendances over the years...
So, the 1981.82 season dawned with the Maggies back in the top flight for the first time in 55 years and their day-dreaming fans really found themselves on Cloud Nine when Notts began the campaign by beating reigning Division One Champions and that season’s eventual European Cup Winners, Aston Villa, 1-0 on their own turf. The situation became increasingly surreal when a 1-1 draw with Manchester City and a 2-1 win over Coventry at the Lane literally took Notts to the pinnacle of the Football League, but it couldn’t last, of course.
Even so, the Maggies were never in any real danger of surrendering their hard-earned, new status as they finished the campaign in 15th position, a feat they duly repeated the following year. Meadow Lane gates initially improved on the 9,551 figure for the 1980.81 promotion campaign as an average of 11,627 saw Notts comfortably survive the 1981.82 season, but subsequently average attendances fell to a 10,264 in 1982.83 and 9,463 in 1983.84 when, without the inspirational ‘Wilko’, who’d decamped to his beloved Owls, the cash-strapped ’Pies were relegated.
Disappointing First Division Christmas crowds had failed to top up County’s coffers to any extent as a frozen-off game in 1981 preceded a 2-2 draw at West Brom in 1982 and a 0-3 home defeat against Luton Town that was watched by just 9,789 fans in 1983. Worse still the Reds over the River retained the lion’s share of local derby gates (26,158 for a 2-0 win at Forest and 19,304 for a 1-2 defeat at the Lane in 1981.82, 23,552 for a 3-2 County home win and 25,554 for a 1-2 City Ground defeat in 1982.83 and 26,657 for a 3-1 City ground defeat and 18,357 for a 0-0 home draw in 1983.84).
No wonder the ageing Mr Dunnett was running out of patience and pennies long before the Magpies suffered successive relegations that plummeted them back to the relative obscurity of Division Three, where they remained for three reasonably successful, but rather poorly supported seasons that culminated in the 1988 play-off defeat against Walsall. That unfortunate set-back eventually prompted Dunnett’s successor, Derek Pavis, to part company with manager John Barnwell and replace him with Neil Warnock, who steered Notts to promotion just 18 months later.
Prior to Warnock’s arrival Christmas fixtures had provided a bit of a mixed stocking that contained a 2-3 defeat at Wimbledon in 1984, a 4-0 home win over Wolves that attracted only 5,264 fans in 1985, a 0-0 home draw against Mansfield that was watched by 8,820 locals in 1986, a 2-0 home win over Chesterfield for which 8,677 turned up in 1987, and 1-4 home defeat against Sheffield United that produced a rare five figure attendance of 11,590 in 1988.
Although promotion and a 29,252 crowd for the 1990 Wembley play-off Final triumph over Tranmere provided some welcome financial encouragement for chairman Pavis, Warnock’s first Festive Fixture, a 4-0 win over Shrewsbury, had attracted only 7,819 fans, thereby emphasising just how much County’s everyday support had been eroded by Forest’s rise to fame. Indeed, during Derek’s first two seasons in charge average attendances had dwindled to below 6,000 and only improved marginally to 6,151 during the promotion campaign.
Still, like those proverbial London buses, another promotion via the play-offs came along immediately as Maggies’ fans amongst a 59,940 Wembley Play-off Final crowd celebrated a 3-1 victory over pink-shirted Brighton (who on earth would condone such colours, one wonders?) that elevated County into the Football League’s Elite once more.
What a pity it was that more of those who went to Wembley hadn’t been sufficiently enthralled to boost Notts’ average gate of 8,164 earlier in the campaign, though at least a fair few must have travelled to see County confirm their promotion credentials with a 1-0 Boxing Day win at Blackburn. Predictably enough the Magpies’ largest home attendance during their solitary season in the top-flight was the 21,044 early season gate that witnessed a 0-4 second half local derby demolition job that merely reaffirmed Forest’s supposed superiority amongst potential converts to County’s cause.
In telling contrast 30,168 watched the Maggies secure a valuable, but ultimately futile, 1-1 January draw over the River to emphasise how much average City Ground crowds of 23,721 put Meadow Lane’s norm of 10987 well and truly in the shade. Clearly the Cloughie European Cup factor was still alive and kicking 10 years after, so to speak!
Nevertheless that hardly eased the frustration of watching Notts miss out on the treasure trove that the fast-looming Premiership promised to be; as it was Notts dropped back into football’s second tier after being belatedly dragged into the relegation battle during a disastrous, 15 match post-Christmas winless streak. That said, at least the ’Pies had given us something to celebrate over the Festive season as 11,933 fans enjoyed a 2-0 Boxing Day home win over Chelsea before West Ham were sent packing after a 3-0 hammering in front of 11,128 spectators two days later.
Thereafter Meadow Lane attendances slumped alarmingly and five figure gates became increasingly rare during a series of bleak mid-winters that followed as County went into rapid decline after the Warnock era; most notable amongst them, however, was the 17,911 Meadow Lane crowd that saw Notts beat Forest 2-1 on ‘Sir Charlie Palmer Day’ 1994. Even so, 26,721 had previously watched Forest win 1-0 at the City Ground and, although Notts were always in the hunt, they finished seventh in Division One whilst the Reds bounced back into the Premiership at the first time of asking, thereby putting paid to local derbies for at least 20 years!
Hardly surprisingly, therefore, Christmas attendances starkly reflected the Maggies’ increasing financial woes during the final decade of the 20th century; in 1992 6,982 watched a 1-1 home draw with Brentford which was followed by a 2-2 draw at Grimsby and a 0-1 home defeat against Millwall that sparked off a pitch-side confrontation between Chairman Pavis and protesting Sirrel Stand residents who’d stayed behind long after most of a 6,758 crowd had departed. Perhaps, therefore, it was fortunate that the 1995 Boxing Day encounter with Hull was postponed due to bad weather!
A goalless draw at Watford followed in 1996 before the winless sequence was finally ended by a 2-1 1997 victory over Scunthorpe at Glanford Park, where a couple of Gary Jones goals kept Big Sam’s County on the road to their runaway Division Three Championship triumph. A second Christmas win rapidly ensued thanks to goals from Grant, Tierney and Ricco which saw Northampton lose 3-1 in front of a 6,131 crowd at the Lane in 1998.
Such crowds had become the norm for Festive Fixtures so it was doubly disappointing that a better gate of 8,176 was sent home unhappy after visitors, Wigan, won 2-0 in 1999; subsequently Christmas Cheer was hardly improved by a 0-0 draw at Rotherham and a 1-2 defeat at Wrexham. Nonetheless goals from Stallard, Baraclough and good old Ricco again finally guided County to their first Festive 21st Century victory as 7,413 pleasantly surprised spectators saw Barnsley nail-bitingly beaten 3-2 in 2002.
Another Boxing Day home game followed in 2003, but this time Heffernan’s hat-trick wasn’t enough to prevent QPR snatching a point thanks to another goal from Ricco, albeit at the wrong end, and a last-minute equaliser in a 3-3 draw in front of 7,702 fans. The weather had the last word in 2004 when Northampton’s visit was called off late on and defeats at Oxford (0-3) and Stockport (0-2) then preceded the last Festive occasion that the ’Pies played at the Lane, when 5,106 decidedly disenchanted fans watched MK Dons win 2-1 in 2007.
Consequently Notts had endured a six-year wait for another Yuletide victory before Delroy Facey proved to be the man to bet on as he scored the only goal of the game at Grimsby in 2008. Although the Mariners were due to reciprocate with a Boxing Day visit to the Lane in 2009 the game was frozen off, but a trip to Burton two days later provided a more than adequate Christmas consolation present as a rare goal from Ricky Ravenhill and a Hughesy hat-trick gifted the ‘Munto’ Magpies a 4-1 win that kept them on course for the League Two title.
Unfortunately there’s been no Christmas party at the Lane since then as the seemingly biased fixture-makers have seen fit to keep Notts on the road with eminently forgettable trips to Plymouth Argyle (1-1), Sheffield United (1-2), Shrewsbury (2-2) and, finally, Vale Park, where the 2013 Boxing Day game served up a 1-2 defeat. So the new Millennium has provided little Christmas cheer for the Maggies who have won just once in three attempts at the Lane and once in nine on the road!