Historically Speaking: In the fourth of his series of peeks at the past Mick Chappell recalls Notts County's ‘Great Escapes’ of recent years...
With the Maggies rooted to the foot of League 1 it’s hardly surprising that the Doom and Gloom Merchants have already chucked in the towel in so far as our chances of survival are concerned. Still, as my other half recently pointed out, we can’t go any lower; of course, after a thought-provoking pause, she couldn’t resist adding, “Until next season, that is!”
I suppose it just goes to show that she’s had a good tutor in the sort of dark humour that’s second nature to Notts’ fans, but at least it stands us in good stead at times like this. Still, let’s not forget that over the last couple of decades we’ve made quite a habit of wriggling out of trouble at the death after being neck-deep in the sticky stuff at this stage of the season.
The precedent was set in 1993 when Micky Walker’s Magpies escaped the drop from what we now know as the Championship on the last day of the season. After garnering just 20 points from 24 games the ’Pies were at the very bottom of the pile and heading for successive relegations when Walker replaced Warnock in mid-January.
However, after a couple of away draws, the tide started to turn during a memorable 5-1 mid-week win over Tranmere Rovers under the Meadow Lane lights. Those results set the trend for what was to come throughout the rest of Mick’s 20-month managerial reign as he went on to win eight out of 10 home matches whilst failing to pick up a single victory in 12 away matches by the end of his first season.
For that reason alone a midweek defeat at the Baseball Ground plunged County back into 21st place by the time fellow relegation ‘rivals’ Sunderland arrived at the Lane for the campaign’s grand finale on 8 May 1993. With both teams fighting for survival it was hardly surprising that a bumper 14,417 crowd turned up to see the Magpies put the Black Cats to bed early by racing into a 3-0 half-time lead thanks to goals from Reeves, Drapes and left winger, David Smith, who demonstrated his dedication to the cause by playing through the pain barrier of the long-standing knee injury that ended his career soon afterwards.
Understandably Sunderland’s fans were rather twitchy by the break, but everything was sweetness and light by the final whistle after other results turned out well for both sides and ensured that Notts finally finished in a rather flattering 17th position. Nevertheless the relief was somewhat short-lived as the Maggies subsequently embarked on a downward spiral that was only briefly interrupted by the record-breaking Division Three Championship triumph in 1998.
During that era Notts’ ultimate nadir almost came to pass in 2006 as their very survival as a League Club was under serious threat when Bury arrived to bring the Meadow Lane curtain down on 6 May. Strangely enough the campaign had started exceptionally well as new gaffer Gudjon Thordarson inspired County to the top of the League 2 table by mid-September; sadly it was all downhill after that as the ’Pies gradually slipped towards the basement’s relegation trap-door.
Even so Notts had never ventured below 18th place before a 0-2 defeat at Cheltenham in the season’s penultimate game plunged the ’Pies down to 21st position and left them just two points clear of the ultimate horror that awaited the bottom two teams. No wonder, then, that another bonanza crowd of 9,817 mainly Maggies’ fans turned up to witness an afternoon that might well have been the worst in County’s 118 years of Football League history.
Although Rushden and Diamonds were already dead and buried Notts’ opponents, Bury, were amongst six relegation candidates who were separated by just three points; consequently the Shakers clearly weren’t going to give County an easy ride and so it proved as the visitors snatched a 41st minute lead that left home fans nervously supping their half-time cuppa. With results elsewhere going against them the Maggies looked destined for the drop as a result of their inferior goal difference and Meadow Lane was stunned into an eerie silence when Youngs doubled Bury’s lead with less than 10 minutes to go.
However, cometh the hour, cometh the man, who, in this case was left-back, Dan Martin, who was thrust up front more in hope than expectation. Nevertheless, Danny Boy came up with the goods when he burst into the box to prod the ball past on-rushing Shakers’ ’keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Irrespective of what the future was to hold, the talented teenager then made his most significant contribution to the Magpies’ cause when he rashly conceded an 89th minute spot-kick that was calmly side-footed past the wrong-footed miscreant by cool-as-a-cucumber Frenchman Julien Baudet, who instantly became the Cantona of the County. At that point a late winner for Oxford could still have ruined the party that was breaking out on the terraces by sending the Maggies into non-league oblivion on goal difference, so no wonder trannies were clutched to nerve-racked ears until Uncle Colin finally delivered the good news concerning Orient’s injury-time winner at the Kassam Stadium.
So Rushden’s Diamonds and Oxford’s Dons were consigned to the Conference whilst County clung on to 21st spot by virtue of their goal difference advantage over Stockport. Of course such a low finish would result in relegation higher up the League ladder, so something better had been required during what’s generally recognised as the definitive ‘Greatest Escape’ four years earlier; once again a left-back and a ‘Danny Boy’ were instrumental in rescuing Notts from seemingly certain relegation.
That said, judging by the forlorn face of Danny Allsopp that peers out from the dog-eared poster that adorns my study door the uninitiated would never guess that the 19-goal Aussie striker was the catalyst for the major miracle that enabled the seemingly dead-and-buried Magpies to wriggle clear of League 1’s ‘relegation club’ in the Spring of 2002. Back then the ’Pies had been stranded in the bottom four from early November until mid-March so something special was needed to raise the Meadow Lane mood.
To give him due credit, the ultimately ill-fated and unpopular American ‘producer’, Albert Scardino, certainly came up with the goods on that score by inspiring the Hollywood-style treatment that was accorded to the events of Saturday 20 April 2002.
“The Great Adventure! The Great Entertainment! The Great Escape directed by Billy Dearden!” the iconic poster proudly proclaimed in the build-up to the Big Day. Apart from Steve McQueen’s alter ego, Danny Allsopp, County’s multi-national cast included Dutchman Cas, Scots Garden and Ireland, Irishman Heffernan and Zimbabwean Whitley, who stood-in for wannabe ’Welshman’ Brough, whilst Liburd, Fenton, Richardson (Leam, not Ian) and Caskey also featured alongside bit-part extras Stallard and Bolland.
Even so, the real show-stealer in that glorious black and white production, was the previously unsung, Kevin Nicholson. Anyway, let’s pause to consider the build-up to the only successful ‘Fairy tale’ scripted by the deceptively beguiling American with the black-and-white Doctor Who scarf.
Predictably enough, after Notts finished eighth in 2000.01, optimism was uncharacteristically high, but Maggies’ fans were brought to Earth with a bump after Jocky Scott’s team suffered a chastening 2-4 opening day defeat at Port Vale, thus setting the tone for what was to follow during the 2001.02 campaign. That said, by early October County were occupying a respectable 14th spot when Scott was abruptly replaced by his assistant Gary Brazil, after indulging in some touch-line argy-bargy with disgruntled fans during a home defeat against Wycombe.
Unfortunately the amiable Brazil was effectively on a hiding to nothing during his second spell in charge and the Maggies soon dropped into the relegation zone. Consequently it was no surprise when the ’Pies poached Billy Dearden from Mansfield at the turn of the year.
At that stage County had 23 points from 25 games, but, after a winning ‘debut’ at Cambridge, Dearden’s reign continued in disastrous fashion as six defeats followed to leave Notts in 23rd spot with 26 points from 32 games. What’s more, things got no better for Billy as four more games yielded two paltry points, thus marooning the Maggies just above bottom club, Cambridge who already looked doomed after chalking up only 25 points.
Immediately above the Magpies at the 36-game mark were Wrexham (33 points) and Bournemouth (35 points), whilst just outside the relegation zone stood Northampton (35), Bury (36), Peterborough (42) and Chesterfield (44). Worse still the ’Pies goal difference of -24 (F39-A63) did them even less favours than their current tally of -21 (F43-A64).
Comparatively speaking, however, despite earning only a single point from their latest home games against Leyton Orient and MK Dons, Shaun Derry’s Men remain three points better off than were Billy’s Boys in March 2002 when Notts entered a home straight that comprised 10 make-or-break matches with a 3-0 home win over a Tranmere Rovers’ side that included current ’Pies player, Gareth Roberts.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, a win over Tranmere also kick-started the Micky Walker 1993 revival, so the fact that County will again face Rovers, albeit at Prenton Park, in the 37th match of the current campaign next Saturday might just be the sort of lucky omen that straw graspers such as myself are seeking!
Nonetheless it would make an enormous difference if leading marksman, McGregor could find his shooting boots before the trip to Tranmere. Come to think of it, a repeat of the hat-trick that catalysed Allsopp’s goal-a-game finale to the 2001.02 season might even spark a similar scoring streak for young Callum who’s now got a new striking partner in the shape of Nathan Tyson alongside him up front.
To be honest, however, any away-day points will be a much-needed bonus for a County side that remains on course for one of their worst ‘road’ records of modern times after garnering just eight away points from 54 on offer so far this season. Consequently we shall just have to hope that County can emulate the remarkable improvement in defensive discipline that transformed Billy Dearden’s leaky colander into a water-tight rear-guard whose six clean sheets largely under-pinned the seven wins and a draw that ultimately saved the season in 2002.
Similar defensive resilience would undoubtedly help Derry & Co to accumulate the vast majority of the 20 or so points they need on home mud; furthermore a continuation of the outstanding support Notts’ fans have given to their favourites during the last couple of games could make all the difference to the season’s outcome. Anyway, don’t write the Magpies off just yet because another five wins and a draw or three will put them within touching distance of the 50 points mark that should give them a fighting chance of staying up on the final day of another eventful campaign.
Of course, back in 2002 an ebullient 15,618 Meadow Lane crowd saw Allsopp score the final day’s first half opener before unlikely left-back hero, Kevin Nicholson, netted the 61st minute goal that ensured Huddersfield gained nothing more than consolation from an 83rd minute penalty. So, let’s hope there’ll still be everything to play for at Oldham on 3 May because, in the absence of a ‘Danny Boy’, my money would then be on current number three and stand-in skipper Alan Sheehan to follow in Nicholson and Martin’s footsteps by scoring a decisive goal in an all-time nerve-jangler at Boundary Park.
Call me senile if you like, but history has a strange habit of repeating itself, so what’s the betting that even the Doom and Gloom Merchants might join me in dreaming about another ‘Great Escape’ if County come up trumps against Tranmere on Saturday?