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Hardy/Nolan: One year on

We look back at the past 12 months under Alan Hardy and Kevin Nolan

12 January 2018

When Alan Hardy and Ray Trew reached an agreement over the sale of Notts County Football Club on Monday 19 December 2016, few would have anticipated that it would be the start of an unbelievable journey to give the club an incredible future to go with its unrivalled history.

The Magpies had just lost their sixth successive league game to slip to 20th in the Sky Bet League Two table, one point above the relegation zone, when the sale was agreed. A further four defeats followed before Hardy's purchase of the club was sanctioned on Thursday 12 January 2017.

In his introductory press conference, Hardy said he was humbled to have become owner and promised to bring the club back to the community of Nottingham.

The immediate priority, however, was to appoint a manager and prevent Notts from falling into the oblivion of non-league football, from where so many other clubs - Tranmere, Wrexham, Stockport, Kidderminster, Darlington and countless others - have failed to come back.

The man entrusted with consolidating the club’s status as the world's oldest Football League club was Kevin Nolan, who Hardy described as an "outstanding leader".

Nolan, a former Premier League midfielder from his time with Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United and West Ham United, was a relative rookie in management. His only previous managerial role, at Leyton Orient, was brought to an abrupt halt despite winning seven of his 15 games in charge.

The Scouser's remit was clear and, although the club remained under a transfer embargo, he was confident of keeping Notts in the division, even without adding to the squad.

Nolan's first game could hardly have been much bigger: Mansfield Town came to Meadow Lane looking to inflict more damage on the Magpies. A goalless draw against the Stags immediately stopped the rot and that clean sheet became a platform on which to build an encouraging run of form, despite Notts dropping into the relegation zone due to results elsewhere.

That upturn in fortunes was helped by Notts exiting the transfer embargo with two days left of the transfer window and, with due diligence complete, Hardy and Nolan set to work on bulking out the squad, ensuring it was capable of surviving the relegation battle.

Josh Clackstone, Tahvon Campbell and Mark Yeates all checked in, but it was the additions of Marc Bola from Arsenal and Jorge Grant from Nottingham Forest which were the key to Notts' eventual survival.

Nolan also bolstered his backroom staff, bringing in Richard Thomas, formerly academy manager at Leyton Orient, who the 34-year-old had become close friends with during his time at Brisbane Road.

But it was results the Magpies needed above all else - and the first win arrived in Nolan's third game in charge, against Crawley Town.

Curtis Thompson's red card looked detrimental to Notts' chances of victory, but Thierry Audel's header three minutes later gave the Magpies the lead. James Collins' thunderbolt brought the Red Devils level, however, and it looked as though the spoils would be shared until Jonathan Forte pounced in stoppage time to send Meadow Lane berserk at a first win in 14 league games.

With the club now a more attractive commercial proposition under new ownership, a deal was agreed with one of the world's leading sports brands, PUMA, to become the club's new kit supplier from the 2017-18 onwards.

While deals were being agreed away from the pitch, on it the addition of Nolan's former Newcastle team-mate Shola Ameobi brought an extra buzz to the club, as well as affection and interest from the Magpies of the north east.

February began with a defeat and a win before a home game against Exeter City really showed what Nolan and his team were made of. The Magpies found themselves 2-0 down going into stoppage time but rallied to produce a remarkable comeback to take a point with goals from Grant and Richard Duffy.

It was the start of a stunning run of form at Meadow Lane which would see Notts lose only one league game on their own turf in the calendar year.

The acid test for the manager was a return to his old stomping ground as County took on Orient in a proverbial six-pointer. Another goal from Grant and a brace from Jon Stead, who had spurned interest from America to remain at the club, secured all three points in the capital.

A five-game unbeaten run saw Nolan nominated for the Manager of the Month award but momentum was halted by a 3-0 loss at Stevenage. In what would become typical Notts fashion, the squad responded tremendously as, despite going down to 10 men in the opening stages against Barnet, they ground out a 1-0 win thanks to Matt Tootle's stunning strike.

The victory over the Bees sparked a run of four straight wins heading into Easter, when Notts suffered their only home league defeat of 2017 as eventual champions Portsmouth secured promotion with a 3-1 win. The game, which saw Nolan's team secure survival thanks to results elsewhere, was overshadowed by captain Michael O'Connor suffering a ruptured ACL, sidelining the midfielder for the best part of a year.

The season ended with a 2-1 loss at Newport, meaning Notts ended the campaign in 16th while the Welsh side completed an incredible escape at Hartlepool’s expense.

But, despite that defeat, few connected with Notts could forget the situation the club had found itself in four months earlier. It was therefore a relief to still be looking at trips to Barnet, Stevenage and Wycombe in 2017-18 rather than Boreham Wood, Sutton and Woking.

Summer recruitment was going to be vital in order to make the new season a successful one and the Magpies acted quickly, swooping for Terry Hawkridge and Lewis Alessandra before the end of May, while Elliott Hewitt and Rob Milsom penned new deals.

The month was tinged with sadness as Derek Pavis, the club's former chairman of 13 years, passed away. Hardy said of the devastating loss: "I can only aspire to get close to being the wonderful man Derek was - a visionary and an outstanding leader and chairman."

June saw the announcement of an innovative sponsorship deal as Notts offered the chance for local businesses to be the front-of-shirt sponsor on a month-by-month basis. It was an offer which was quickly snapped up by the likes of sports PR company Macesport and timber company Bassingfield Woodyard, while Clifton-born musician Jake Bugg also stepped forward.

New contracts for Duffy, Stead and Ameobi were agreed and a new board of directors was appointed, bringing expertise from different fields within business and sport.

Preparations for the new season could begin in earnest with the announcement of the 2017-18 fixture list midway through the month. An opening day trip to Coventry would be a stern test for Nolan's charges as they sought to push for a play-off place, while four of Notts' first seven games were against teams relegated from League One the season prior, presenting a difficult start to the new campaign.

As pre-season friendlies began, more signings came as Dan Jones, Shaun Brisley, Ross Fitzsimons, Pierce Bird, Branislav Pindroch, Nicky Hunt, Elliot Hodge, Callum Saunders and Ryan Yates all put pen to paper.

But the acquisition of Grant on a season-long loan from Nottingham Forest was undoubtedly the marquee signing Notts fans were craving.

In a bid to make Notts County a forward-thinking, progressive club with firm foundations, Hardy funded the renovation of the club's dressing rooms. The final result would not look out of place in the Premier League. Similarly, a state-of-the-art training surface was installed in the Family Stand thanks to funds raised via the Lifeline membership scheme.

The new season began with hope and optimism which was punctured on the opening day as a Jodi Jones hat-trick condemned Notts to a 3-0 defeat. However, a creditable 3-3 draw against League One side Scunthorpe United in the Carabao Cup was the perfect response and it was followed up by a first win of the season as a brace from Grant saw off Chesterfield.

The board was strengthened with the addition of Professor Edward Peck, the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University as Nolan's side ended the month in fourth place - a solid start.

And September was arguably one of the best months of the Hardy/Nolan tenure as the Magpies rattled off six straight wins, keeping clean sheets in five, to rocket to the top of Sky Bet League Two, a 2-0 win against Morecambe propelling Notts into the top three and a 4-1 thrashing of Lincoln City sending them to the summit.

Such form had to be rewarded and Nolan was duly handed a new three-year contract by Hardy - a tangible reward for the outstanding job the Scouser had done in his first eight months at Meadow Lane.

A 3-0 win at Exeter City with a much-changed team underlined the quality of the depth of Notts' squad and cemented their place as serious contenders in the division, although a 3-1 defeat at local rivals Mansfield ended an 11-game unbeaten stretch.

Despite that, Nolan had done enough to be named September's Manager of the Month and Notts were terrifically backed for the first game of October as 13,267 fans, the highest attendance under Hardy’s stewardship, descended on Meadow Lane for the match against Forest Green Rovers. A last-minute Milsom equaliser epitomised the never-say-die attitude which would become prevalent in the weeks that followed.

With eyes on the January transfer window, Liam Noble agreed a return to the club after leaving Forest Green but the midfielder would have to wait until January to pull on the black and white stripes again.

In the meantime, his team-mates set about bedding themselves into the automatic promotion places and went top of the league for a second time as Barnet were beaten 2-1 at Meadow Lane. A 2-0 defeat at Crewe brought a reality check and the squad kicked on from there, reclaiming first place with a 3-0 win against Newport to close out October.

After a strong showing against League One opposition in the Carabao Cup, there was no fear when Bristol Rovers came to town in the first round of the FA Cup. At 2-0 down, Notts' cup run looked as though it would end at the first hurdle but an impressive comeback saw the Magpies emerge 4-2 victors to book a place in round two.

A succession of wins at Meadow Lane and draws on the road kept the Magpies up in the top three while, off the field, Colin Slater was named as an honorary vice-president of the club after covering County for almost 60 years in his role as a local journalist.

Nolan's side looked set to drop points at home to Colchester when the U's equalised in the 89th minute but that resilience, heart and desire which was now a staple of the Notts team came to the fore as Yates headed in a winner in stoppage time.

It was the same story in the second round of the FA Cup against National League South side Oxford City as Grant slammed home in the 93rd minute to send Notts into round three dreaming of a money-spinning tie against a Premier League giant. The Magpies would be handed a trip to Championship side Brentford, with few expecting a positive result at Griffin Park.

Hardy issued a rallying cry to supporters to fill Meadow Lane and cheer the players on in their push for promotion and Nolan was again nominated for the Manager of the Month award as progress continued apace.

The proud home record came under serious threat from Cambridge United, who stormed into a 3-0 lead in the final game of 2017 at Meadow Lane. However, Nolan's Notts are made of stern stuff and produced a stirring comeback, scoring three goals in the last 15 minutes to rescue a point.

The year ended with a 1-0 defeat at Swindon, leaving County second in the Sky Bet League Two table, which was a remarkable turnaround from 12 months earlier when the Magpies were a point above the drop zone and staring into the abyss of the National League.

There would be no worries about relegation this year, though, as a 1-0 win over Port Vale on New Year's Day took Notts to the magical 50-point threshold, which usually guarantees safety. Considering it took 41 games for County to reach that landmark in 2016-17, doing so in 16 fewer fixtures was a stunning achievement.

However, there was no time to celebrate as an FA Cup third-round date with Brentford was quick on the heels of the Port Vale victory and, when given little chance, Notts pulled off a superb upset as a stunning goal from Stead gave Notts an unlikely win and a place in the fourth round, where they will host Swansea City or Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The cup draw brought to an end a whirlwind 12 months for Hardy, Nolan and everyone connected with Notts County Football Club.

The transformation has been beyond recognition and the wildest dreams of any Notts fan when Hardy took on custodianship of the Magpies on this day last year. He, and Nolan, have breathed life into a club which was described as being "on life support" when the local businessman walked in.

The club has well and truly been taken back to the community with ticket prices lowered, a renovation of the Family Stand completed to encourage more junior supporters to attend games and a number of schemes rolled out to ensure the next generation of Notts fans are embedded into the club from an early age.

From second bottom to second from top. From despair to delight. From the darkness, comes light.

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