Notts County fans may have arrived at Meadow Lane with little hope of avoiding relegation but they left with plenty of reasons to believe that their team can complete a Great Escape. Although a scrappy opening, the Magpies established a grip on the game and kick-started a vital run of fixtures with a 4-1 triumph over fellow strugglers Carlisle United.
Haydn Hollis opened the scoring with his first ever Football League goal, before Ronan Murray doubled the lead ahead of the interval. Hollis added his second goal with a fantastic header just two minutes into the second period to make it 3-0 but James Berrett pulled a goal back for the visitors.
Gary Liddle saved the best goal until last – an outstanding overhead kick. This put the points out of question and closed the gap on 20th to five points ahead of two more six-pointers.
After signing a one-month loan from Bolton Wanderers, Josh Vela was put straight into the starting 11 alongside Gary Liddle in midfield. This was one of two changes from the side that faced Tranmere Rovers the previous weekend, as Jack Grealish replaced Nathan Tyson to take up a place on the left flank in a 4-4-2 formation.
Carlisle were first to try their luck, when, following a quick throw, Brad Potts’ right-wing cross was headed over by Sam Byrne. Notts threatened in the 14th minute after fine work by Jimmy Spencer in attack gave Jamal Campbell-Ryce space on the right, only the wideman’s high delivery dropped just wide of the far post.
To put things simply, the game was a scrap. There were very few chances and very little to get excited about as hopeful punts forward were easily handled by both defensive units.
Former Notts loanee Lee Miller was the first to test one of the goalkeepers when he was presented with an opportunity on the edge of the box. The striker looked to punish the Magpies for hesitant defending but Bartosz Bialkowski smartly stopped his low drive with a save down to his left.
On 33, County moved in front after Jimmy Spencer beat the giant Sean O’Hanlon to connect with a long free-kick into the area. The frontman’s header across goal found Murray, whose shot on the turn was excellently blocked by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford before Hollis scooped the ball over the line on the rebound.
Murray doubled Notts’ lead and rounded off an excellent team goal to spark Great Escape chants in the Kop Stand. Spencer had held up play to find Liddle, whose low centre was touched home at close-range by the Irishman.
The visitors almost struck back immediately from Byrne’s corner. David Amoo rose well to target the near post with a decent header but Vela stayed on the post to divert wide.
In first half added time, Hollis came within a whisker of adding his second goal of the afternoon. The centre-back met Alan Sheehan’s driven corner to send a thumping header that flew inches wide of the near post.
After the break, it took just two minutes for Notts to make it 3-0 and it was Sheehan and Hollis that combined again, after Grealish had won a free-kick on the left wing. Sheehan’s pacy, in-swinging delivery allowed Hollis to glance across goal and there was not chance of Pickford preventing the ball from finding the top-right corner.
On 54, another dangerous Sheehan free-kick found Spencer, who fired across the face of goal. Murray tried his best to add his second goal but Pickford pounced to bravely smother the loose ball.
Away skipper James Berrett gave his side hope of a comeback with a 25-yard hit. A heavy deflection made it difficult for Bialkowski and he was unable to keep out the effort, despite gaining the slightest of fingertip touches.
Campbell-Ryce was presented with a golden opportunity to restore the three-goal deficit, following a floated Murray centre from the left byline. The wideman had time to take a touch but opted for the half volley, which cleared the bar.
Campbell-Ryce was involved in Notts’ fourth, when he picked out Mustapha Dumbuya’s overlapping run. The right-back’s cross found Liddle, who applied an spectacular overhead kick to find the bottom-left corner.
It is very rare that you see an overhead finish at Meadow Lane but the midfielder nearly did it again, just moments after his initial Goal of the Season contender. After two charged down attempts, Campbell-Ryce delivered an inviting cross but on this occasion Liddle’s extravagant effort bounced just wide.
The fourth goal had knocked the stuffing out of the Cumbrians and Notts looked like the only side that was going to add another. Campbell-Ryce delivered another dangerous ball onto the head of Grealish but Pickford made a tremendous point-blank save.
A perfectly weighted overhead pass by Vela then found Murray on the right. The striker drilled across the face of goal to find Tyson, who had replaced Dumbuya moments earlier, but the on-loan Blackpool man’s finish skewed off target.
The chances kept flowing and Sheehan was prevented from scoring his second free-kick in as many games by Pickford’s reaching save to tip the ball onto the bar. Grealish later rifled across the goalmouth and evaded the chest of Tyson by a matter of inches, but it did not matter because Notts had the points in the bag.
In 2001.02, Notts had 34 points after 38 fixtures – the same as the team’s current total – and went on to achieve safety with 50 points. This performance gave the County faithful every reason to believe that history might just repeat itself – but, first of all, on to Crewe Alexandra.