Head over heels: Notts County (h)

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

11 August 2007

Welcome to the camp, I guess you all know why you're here: his name is Buckley and he came back again last year.

Grimsby Town 1 Notts County 1

It's back! The greatest league that Town are in this year. Everything is new! Everything is clean. Everything is beautiful, in its own way. New hot chocolate in the snack shacks, new mown grassland and curious gaps in the advertising boards. Whither Crofts Estate Agency? I suppose he has to pay for them now.

Around 1,300 Piemen and Piewomen fish and chipped themselves into the Osmond stand brimming with clichés. A new year, but is it a new Notts County, or do they still play rugger at Meadow Lane? Ah, I spy with my little one-eyed eye, Jason Lee.

Town lined up in a 4:5:1 formation as follows: Barnes, Bennett, Fenton, Whittle, Newey, Till, Bolland, Hunt, Boshell, Toner, Rankin. The substitutes were Montgomery, North, The Lump, Bore and Clarke. Who can stand in the shoes of Macca? The experiment with Clarke has ended, for he turned the litmus paper bright red with embarrassment; so now it's Bennett's turn to turn like a wheel within a wheel under the gloomy gaze of the Lower Frozen Beer people and those making a late dash for the toilet.

Some teams 'retire' a shirt from a favoured son; have we 'retired' a position? It's awfully difficult to think without any socks. While we're waiting for kick off here's a thing: are they Piemen or Men of Pie? Does it depend on which side of the Trent you were born?

And now starts the next year of your lives.

First half
Summer lovin' happened so fast, will we have us a footballing blast? Town kicked off towards the Osmond with a flap up the right for Till to chase. Sigh a bit, for this was simply a set up for County to do their thing. Mayo intercepted and wellied the ball down the touchline. Town were forced to concede a throw in, then a corner and a corner, and free kick. County lovin' it, for they wanted a set piece. They needed a set piece: they are a set piece.

It's football played by a bunch of muggers. Hassle, hassle, bustle and muscle. Their tactics? "Where's Lee?" Till clobbered a corner away, but the pressure piled on. They flung it forward and Lee conned the referee into giving a kick that was free at about three minutes past three. Would there be County glee and Town misery? The intricate patterns weaved by the flying wheelbarrows came to naught as Town's defence determinedly stuck to the plan. The ball curled through the area, arcing achingly close to goal, drifting, drifting beyond the far post. Whittle grappled and groped and followed his man to noodle the ball out for a corner.

A piece of humdrum ordinariness, an unexceptional moment told to you in exceptional detail. Why? Because it told you what you need to know about Town's defending. They concentrated, they fought, they did what they had to do. With a never-ending story of hoofs and humps, Town were unflustered.

After eight minutes of yo-yo yawning Town finally unshackled themselves from this throwback football. Boshell induced a foul way out on the right after some tippy-tappy happy-clappy passing. Newey wandered over and the kick was taken early, taken short. Like an over-eager teenager at the school discotheque (do they still have such things in these days of modern living?), a defender thrust himself forward. Newey stepped inside him, then inside another spotty oik before slicing a shot nicely high and wide. Close enough for an early season 'ooh', to clear the throat for future 'boos', but that's all. One should always plan ahead.

Rankin kept being given offside. County thumped it forward.

After about twelve minutes Town managed to string another couple of passes together down the left. Newey raided and was tripped by that dirty hairy Parky about 25 yards out on the touchline. Toner beautifully caressed a dipping, whipping cross deep into the dark heart of the County area. A kaleidoscope of bodies bundled towards the same spot, in the centre six or seven yards out. Bennett ducked and bazoomed a sliding header low into the centre-left of the net. The whole Town team ran up and hugged him like he was Gregory's Girl. The moment? Bella, bella, with those Notts outlaws beaten at their own set piece-obsessed game.

What a lovely stroll in the park. We've no need to concern ourselves with the hanging baskets, they're being dealt with.

Boshell and Hunt started to wind the clock up and Town started to tick over nicely. There were many moments of almostness, with passes slightly overhit, control slightly lax and a linesman slightly bonkers, with a Pavlovian response when any monochrome was free. But not here: Rankin, tireless and strong, wiggled free of his markers, shivered his timbers past three defenders and waggled a low shot straight at Pilkington from 20 yards. Alright, less waggled than bedraggled, but it was a shot: you can't take that away from Isaiah, our less than profitable striker.

Oh dear, back to normal service. Rankin kept being given offside. County thumped it forward.

Town were steady, Town were cool, Town were really comfortable with their factor back four sunscreen slabbered all over their exposed bits. A bit of slap and tickle down the left saw the ball rebounding off Bolland and behind the defence. In one leap he was free, on the bye-line and crossing low through the centre of the six-yard box. No-one there.

Where's Parky? Wahey! Look, their action man has real hair! Does he squeak if we press his belly button? Old Parky – splash him all over the park. Talking of brutes, you aren't missing anything. County are humping long balls and Lee is entering from stage left to clatter Fenton. Interesting, Lee's avoiding Sgt Rock. Lee elbowed Fenton and the referee had a little chat and pat on the back. He's a coward when it comes to County.

Have you noticed? Those simple Piemen haven't had a shot.

Near the half hour Town were quick and slick, tearing the County curtain down. Rankin magnificently turned and muscled his way goalwards, drawing the final defender. Bolland lurked to his right on the edge of the area and, receiving a cute pass, relayed the ball further on to the unmarked Till. As Till drew back his right boot Mayo hurtled across the great void, threw himself to the turf and closed his eyes as the shot ballooned off his gentleman's particulars and out of the area.

County wasted no time in wallying the ball upfield. Two lumps of sugar later and they were stirring their cup of tea. The ball was helped on to Lee, just inside the Town half, who turned and stroked the ball into the centre. MacKenzie strode forward a yard, then another, then another, before shrugging and, you know, just trying something as Newey stood near, but not close. From way out in the centre their blond bombshell crackled a low drive goalwards and the ball clipped Newey's heel, swerved away from goal, then produced some late reverse swing to curve around the stretching Barnes and into the very bottom left corner. From 2-0 to 1-1 in ten seconds. County, you lucky clods.

Nothing changed. Rankin kept being given offside. County thumped it forward.

Town were in control but not penetrating, with the final pass, the final cross, the final thought awry. Till and Toner were hanging back, a little too far away from Rankin, and Barnes' insistence on drop-kicking just kept returning the ball to the opposition. The centre was rock solid, an impenetrable wedge of black and white with Hunt quietly sweeping up in front of the centre-backs.

Ah, those tremendous centre backs. Fenton standing up to a beating, Whittle ushering the ball through to Barnes with his curling broom.

You almost missed it. A throw-in down the Town left was tickled hither and thither, with Rankin suddenly spinning and shinning the ball to Toner, on the corner of the penalty area. Boom! Toner smackerooned a first-time shot a foot or so wide of the near post, with Pilkington plunging and clawing with his safety goggles on.

That was about it, apart from, well, nothing else. You're as bored as the rest of us by the miserable mundanity of these midlands maulers. Ugly and ineffective. Yes, I know they've scored, but have you noticed? Those simple Piemen only had one shot, and that was deflected past the rather unfortunate Barnes. That was absolutely their only attempt at goal, not even a weak header or random mishit whack from their goalie which went through to Barnes.

At half time it was a bit galling, but that's better than being appalling. What a difference a year makes.

Second half
Neither team made any changes at half time.

From the off Town were up and at 'em. Newey cutely tweaked a free kick into the left side of the County penalty area, when they expected it to the right. Whittle rose above a little Pie and bonked the ball into the centre of the area onto Rankin's big toe, on the penalty spot. Isaiah rattled his moneymaker and had a moment all to himself. He pondered and shook his bottom again, and his shot was blocked, straight to Whittle, who tackled the ball into the waiting arms of Pilkington.

Big Bertha boomed the ball downfield and there was some kerfuffling, with Parkinson lobbing meekly from deep inside the penalty area. No-one anywhere was remotely concerned when they saw Parky free. Even the Countyites remained seated, motionless and silent. They've had him a season, they know too.

Mmm, this isn't what we ordered over the internet. The Pie-people were getting animated as their forceful, aggressive rugby team started to pile forward. Balls were cracked high down the centre, higher still down the sides. Town were conceding the initiative, allowing Pilkington to walk to the halfway line before bazooka-ing towards Lee. Some Tibetan chanting and Mongolian nasal flute music was not enough to stem the tide. The ball skimmed off knees and foreheads for corners and throw-ins. Lee kept collapsing into Fenton and winning free kicks. The Town area was sprayed indiscriminately with a shotgun by a blind, one-legged old lag. Bolland hooked a header away from near the line, then headed another one away. Ping-pong, how long can this go on before there's another deflection?

Another corner cleared, a throw-in hurled from their right; Lee chested a flick into space 20 or so yards out in the centre-left. Unmarked, Butcher steadied himself and simpled a searing volley towards the right-hand corner. Barnes appeared frozen like diced rabbit. The ball wobbled up, waffled down, then Barnes plunged and parried aside in spectacular fashion. Ah, he has bright eyes.

Three minutes later Rankin was replaced by North. Pilkington wasn't allowed to advance so far again. Town lost strength but gained pace, and County were troubled by the extra movement, with Till having a five-minute purple patch. Doh, don't mention the purple patch – for Mr Purple had been festering for 53 minutes, before finally exploding at the substitution of one striker for another. He wanted, well, something else. He always does.

A Town break! Fast and furious, Till zipping and zazooming past two, hitting the bye-line and dinking delicately into the six-yard box. North stooped at the near post and flicked a looping header a few feet high. Till again, a cross blocked, a moment wasted, and again. Town starting to flirt with football, County creaking.

With about 67 minutes gone Hunt was replaced by the Lump, with Town moving to a 4-4-2 formation. Mr Purple was now happy in his unhappiness at being happy. You know there's a golfer called Boo Weekly. Was his mum a Town fan, perhaps?

The last 20 minutes were frenetic, end-to-end, biff-bang-wallop football. With Town denuded in midfield, spaces opened up and basically Hunt wasn't around with his dustpan and brush set. County's basic approach to hygiene was being looked upon kindly by the environmental health officer, but even he, finally, had to admit that something had to be done about the maggots in the fruit. Jason Lee was booked for persistently being Jason Lee.

Right, close your eyes and hold your breath.

Town broke and Boshell stroked a sumptuous pass between centre-back and right-back. North raced clear, into the area, feinted right and dragged the ball left, drifting majestically past the final defender. Pilkington crouched as North approached. North feinted again and flicked the ball with the outside of his right boot from four yards out, four yards wide of goal. Pilkington had already fallen to his right but just, by the smallest amount of justness, managed to raise his left arm and divert the ball down and out an inch from his right post.

The corner was curled into the box, half cleared, half cleared again and fell to Boshell, 20 yards out in the centre. Two defenders rushed forward; he side-stepped them and swayed to his right. Another big block of blue approached and the Mighty Bosh slashed a shot goalwards. The ball dipped and swerved and Pilkington squirtled the ball to his left, clutching at the second attempt as North and the Lump arrived like peckish but polite vultures.

More Town, more roistering and rolling of the wobbling Blueboys, but Bolland's shot was charge down, and County charged off to inflict some more damage to the aesthetic reputation of fourth division football. Anchors away! Here comes the hurricane. Whoosh and swoosh, the ball ducking and diving in and through the Town area. A header goalwards, a black sock volleyed from somewhere inside the box. Barnes hopping, clutching and punching, the men of steel in front protecting with courage, with skill, with distinction. Another corner, another swipe away from near goal. And again, a block and a quick look at the clock.

Aaagh, hold your breath... release it again. Butcher momentarily free with Town temporarily undermanned on the right but a striped warrior rode to the rescue on a winged chariot of fire.

Get up off your seat... get down again. Town, brilliantly breaking and achingly close. The Lump: dainty and sweet, turning and cleverly burning a hole into the County heart with an old magnifying glass. He tickled North free down the centre-left. Go on, go on! North waited, rolled his boot over the ball, swished his cape and disappeared from view, emerging a second later inside the area on the left. His shot blocked, the ball rolled to the unmarked Toner ten yards out with his back to goal. Toner turned and levered a left-foot shot towards the near post. The ball hit a diving defender on the chest and deflected straight into the midriff of the plunging Pilkington, who'd gone the wrong way.

A minute or so later North was again released behind the defence; he penetrated on the left, deep, deep inside the area. Pilkington came off his line and North flicked his right boot, attempting to lob the keeper, but succeeding in lobbing the ball to him. Town pressed and pressed, retaining possession, and a cross was flung beyond the far post from the right. The Lump rose and ducked to allow the ball to glide to the unmarked Toner, who from six yards out volleyed backwards, clearing for County.

Did I tell you Bore came on for Till with just over ten minutes left? I didn't? Well I have now.

The football was hectic and the County sub, Hectic Sam, missed a sitter. A long punt from somewhere dragged the whole of the Town team to the right. Lee drifted to the centre and acted as a wall for Sam, who drove his pink Cadillac across the face of the defence and into a humongously large gap on the left corner of the Town area. He was free, he was alone, he was 15 yards out, he passed the ball to Barnes. Lovely.

Here they come again – wind up the air raid siren. No it's not a flood, but a flock of ducks are flying overhead; put on your tin hats, you won't like what's dropping from the sky. Lee had some kind of weak shot, someone else a header. The ball shot across and through the Town area, but there was always a Town head there to glance away any heartache, to glance away any tears. They probably had another one knocked off the line at this point – it was all so blurry and frenetic down the Osmond End that it wasn't possible to tell. They appealed for a penalty when someone fell clumsily, but then again we appealed when a cross hit an arm. This ref wasn't going to give that sort of decision; they all wasted their breath.

I haven't bothered to tell you about their subs. Who cares? They brought on some scurrying fast lads who did nothing, to replace scurrying slower men who did less. Hairy Parkinson was one of their sacrificial lambs, so that did increase their threat, purely by dint of his absence.

The thousand bomber raid went home with a couple of minuets left, and Town chased 'em off towards the sea. There were three minutes of added time and in the first of them Bennett sidled up to Bore and swished a perfect cross over towards the far post. The Lump serenely glided across the earth, stretching, stretching and stretching again to guide a header towards the top left corner. The ball kissed the outside of the angle of post and bar as we kissed goodbye to the win.

Or did we? North was suddenly free, chesting the ball beyond the defence from just inside the County half. The Lump rolled up in support and was teased through. Onwards, onwards, the crowd rising, hoping, demanding and expecting a coup de grâce. Time slowed to the Lumpspeed, who mesmerised the final defender with his shimmering hips. A dozen yards out, the keeper transfixed, Lump prepared to... pass inside to the unmarked North. As North waited for the ball, Mayo waited for no man and toe-poked a scraggly clearance a yard wide of the left post. The Lump and North were on their knees, limbs and pride injured.

That was the end.

The game was far from dull, with something always likely to happen. Barnes made only one save of any consequence, and rather splendid it was too. He only conceded because of the tiniest of deflections throwing him a googly. In days of yore a Town team would have capitulated under intense physical pressure. But this Town team didn't and never looked likely to. There was control in the 4-5-1 formation and chances created when the pace came down to the Lump's level. Town were inches, and seconds, away from victory. A year ago we beat Boston; today we drew with Notts County. We're feeling better now than we did then. It's just a question of balance.

Town are still desperately in need of some stranger's hand in this desperate land of rugger-muggers. Just a couple of pieces left in the jigsaw, they must be here somewhere...

Everybody be cool. This wasn't a robbery.

Nicko's unsponsored man of the match
No-one played badly. The midfield three were solid, with Bolland the lesser of our three devils. Rankin worked hard, played hard and deserved his ovation. He never looked like scoring, but looked like he'd create the opportunity for someone else to score. But this performance was built from the back. They were magnificent in doing an un-Town like thing, standing on the burning bridge. Whittle led like a lion, Bennett was no longer just a boy, but a man, but overall, simply for surviving trial by elbow, Nick Fenton. He kept his cool.

Official Warning
The Kabbadi Kid, Mr M Thorpe, was his usual weak, weak self. His wilful refusal to deal with Jason Lee meant that Fenton's nose was subjected to unwanted reconstruction. He looked unwilling to make a big decision, happy to give fouls in the middle of the pitch, but a little loose closer to goal. I don't feel like wasting any more of my life on him. He hasn't changed: 4.7886.

The Others
Same manager, same 'style'. It keeps them in the division I suppose. As nothing has changed here's what we said last season. It, like Nick Fenton, still stands.