In his latest peek at the past Mick Chappell provides a timely reminder that the Maggies don’t have a monopoly on season-defining ‘Great Escapes’...
As footballing nail-biters go they don’t come any worse than the 99 ‘minuter’ that 6,116 Maggies’ fans endured at the Lane last Saturday. Although Notts nosed ahead early on when ‘Captain Cool’, Alan Sheehan, rifled an inch-perfect, ninth-minute cross-shot inside the far post from the corner of the box, what followed was pure purgatory as the ’Pies struggled to create an all-important, nerve-soothing second goal in a fiercely fought encounter with visitors, Swindon Town.
At times the two teams seemed to be competing to see who could squander most chances, but thankfully it was County who finally put the crucial one away thanks to the welcome reappearance of Callum McGregor, who brought down the curtain on his impressive Meadow Lane career with his 14th goal of the campaign. Even so, Callum’s clincher didn’t arrive until mid-way through nine minutes of stoppage time that referee Clark conjured up as a consequence of the mega-melee that erupted after Jimmy Spencer was floored in an off-the-ball incident with Troy Archibald-Henville.
Consequently frayed nerves weren’t settled until the Robins put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, by throwing their nine remaining players into the Maggies’ box in the hope that one of them might capitalise on a last gasp free-kick. Hardly surprisingly, then, there was a communal sigh of relief when Nathan Tyson made what was thus far his most significant contribution to County’s cause by lashing the resulting loose ball up-field, thereby instigating a race for possession between Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Luongo.
Even unprofessionally partisan Press Box pundits were on their feet as the Ferrari easily out-paced the milk-float before squaring the prize orb into the path of McGregor, who took a touch to tee it up before sliding home a killer goal that sparked the most frenzied Meadow Lane roar of approval since the ’75 season’s opening day when the legendary Stubbsy dropped his shorts as a cheeky show of protest against indifferent refereeing. The final whistle that meant the Magpies had reached the 49-point mark that leaves them in control of their own destiny at Oldham this coming Saturday.
So, the easy part of The Great Escape has been accomplished, but our pragmatic gaffer will leave nobody in any doubt that the hardest bit is yet to come at Boundary Park, where Oldham will be no push-overs. Anyway, crunch time is on the horizon and speculation over the Magpies immediate future is understandably reaching fever-pitch as talk of Great Escapes both past and, hopefully present, is escalating to the extent that it almost seems that the Maggies have had a monopoly on such season-defining moments of truth.
In actual fact, however, most football clubs have a tale or two to tell about wriggling out of seemingly hopeless situations and none more so than the Latics who will provide the final obstacle in Notts protracted fight for survival. Although Oldham currently languish alongside County in League 1 time was when they and the Maggies both rose to the dizzy heights of the top tier of English football after Joe Royle’s team clinched the Division Two Championship whilst Neil Warnock’s fourth-placed ’Pies sneaked up alongside them, albeit via the back door provided by the Play-Offs.
Sadly Notts only survived amongst the elite for a single season and thereby missed out on becoming founder members of the Premier League whereas Oldham managed to enjoy the privileges of the ‘Promised Land’ for a couple of campaigns before re-joining the mere mortals of the Football League in 1994. Nevertheless it seemed Athletic had been on borrowed time since enjoying more than their fair share of good fortune at the end of the previous season when Joe Royle inspired a Great Escape that almost puts Derry and Abbott’s Houdini act in the shade.
When the penultimate Sunday of the 1992.93 campaign dawned, Oldham were eight points shy of safety with three games remaining; to make matters worse their ultimate salvation depended on them beating the likes of Championship-chasing Aston Villa and high-flying Liverpool, whilst fellow potential fall-guys, Crystal Palace, picked up no more than a single point from their remaining couple of fixtures. In the event Oldham snatched a 1-0 Villa Park victory that effectively handed the title to Manchester United, before turning around a 0-2 deficit to beat the Liverpool 3-2 at Boundary Park.
Meanwhile the Eagles had purloined a precious point at Manchester City to ensure there’d be a tense last Saturday afternoon which ultimately culminated in Palace being thrashed 3-0 at Highbury whilst Oldham duly completed their own minor miracle by seeing off fellow strugglers Southampton to the tune of 4-1 on home soil. Even so, as Jimmy Cricket would have said, “There’s more!” because the real bonus to this little tale is that our nearest and dearest neighbours over the river were amongst the trio of teams that the Latics consigned to Division One football and, after a season that’s been a mirror image of our own, that’s hopefully where they’ll remain until such time as County catch up with them again!
Still, let’s finish off with probably The Greatest Escape in which Notts themselves have been involved, albeit as the ‘victims’ rather than the beneficiaries. I speak, of course, about the events of April 1958 when the Magpies were relegated from Division Two as a result of a remarkable upturn in the fortunes of Lincoln City, who’d stagnated at the bottom of the pile throughout an 18-match winless streak that stretched back to 7 December 1957.
Consequently, at the beginning of the month the Imps were four points adrift of Notts and seemed virtually down and out with just five wins and 19 points to their name. Amazingly Bill Anderson’s Boys suddenly found form as they went on to win each and every one of their last half dozen games, which were worth two points each apiece in those distant days, and thereby finished on 31 points.
Although Notts still had their noses four points in front of Lincoln with four games to go they subsequently accumulated just three more; consequently they finished one behind City due mainly to a catastrophic 5-0 Meadow Lane drubbing by bottom dogs, Doncaster Rovers, that was totally at odds with the 1-0 Easter Monday win that County had secured over eventual Division Two Champions, West Ham United, in their previous home game. To rub salt into the wounds Lincoln were allowed to play their final fixture against Cardiff City four days after the season should have officially finished because the original game at Sincil Bank had been abandoned due to bad weather two months earlier with the Imps trailing by three goals, if memory serves me aright.
Unbelievably the Bluebirds, or should that read Redbirds in modern parlance, succumbed to a 3-1 defeat in the re-match; naturally there was neither radio nor TV coverage of mid-week games back then so just imagine the agony of awaiting the news of the outcome in the following morning’s Guardian Journal! That brought the reality of relegation home to a tearful 13-year-old so hopefully pay-back time is due to arrive 56 years on because the crying game is unbecoming to someone as long in the tooth as me!
Anyhow, it’s 106 since County last squirmed out of the relegation mire with a 12th hour victory at Chelsea so a similar away-day escape is long overdue. In that pre-sponsorship era the lads were probably empowered by wearing the traditional black and white gear both at home and away, but sadly that’s no longer possible even on a one-off basis; still, let’s hope the current away strip has a purple patch next weekend!
Unfortunately, I’m duty bound to attend the 65th birthday party of one of my best mates who is selfishly refusing to re-arrange his Big Day despite having rather boringly celebrated it on 3 May for the last 64 years. Consequently I shan’t be amongst the 3,000+ Notts’ fans who will, in any case, turn Boundary Park into a Black and White home from home for the ’Pies on Saturday.
Still, my trusty tranny (radio that is) will enable me to follow almost every kick of the game via Uncle Colin’s commentary. “Lucky you!” many may say, but I’d sooner settle for a case of ‘lucky Notts’ if that’s what it takes to achieve a Great Escape that will surely rate as the best in the club’s long history.
Like most sensible Magpies I’m certainly not counting any chickens before they hatch, but in Derry we do believe, so bring it on I say!