By Michael Callander
Notts County have had an unremarkable first half-season in non-league football following relegation from League Two last term.
The Magpies struggled with instability on and off the pitch for most of 2018/19, with Kevin Nolan and Harry Kewell both losing their jobs in the space of just a few months. Neal Ardley arrived at Meadow Lane in November 2018, following a six-year spell at AFC Wimbledon. Ardley had steadily progressed the club from League Two relegation strugglers to promotion winners in 2015/16, but admitted “the chance to manage Notts County is one I couldn’t let pass.”
Despite bringing in several promising players, such as former Manchester City youth Will Patching and experienced forward Craig Mackail-Smith (on loan), Notts were unable to break out of a season-long relegation battle which had surprised many fans after they reached the League Two playoffs the season before. The club’s first relegation from the Football League was confirmed on the final day with a 3-1 loss at Swindon Town.
The club was embroiled in controversy and uncertainty at board level, as owner Alan Hardy accidentally posted intimate images on Twitter in January and promptly put the club up for sale. No buyer was found until July when football analysis company Football Radar‘s owners, Christoffer and Alexander Reedtz acquired the club.
The Magpies’ first foray outside the Football League in their 157-year history hasn’t necessarily yielded the results fans would have hoped for so far. Notts sit 11th in the Vanarama National League with exactly half of the league season gone, but are only six points off the playoff places.
The supporters might have had cause for concern after three games as their side only picked up one point from a possible nine. Results have been mixed since, as they have put some three to four-game unbeaten runs together but haven’t been able to keep them going for long enough to mount a proper assault on the playoff places.
Ardley has bemoaned a lack of intensity in recent games, particularly at the back:
“As a team we have to be better defensively,” he said after Notts’ FA Cup exit to Northampton Town on Sunday. “It’s twos and threes regularly and that has to change.”
It goes without saying, but history indicates that Notts will want to regain their place in the Football League as soon as possible. The National League is fiercely competitive and many a former League side has found themselves mired there for several seasons after relegation, including Lincoln City (six years), Luton Town (four years) and Tranmere Rovers (three years). York City’s story is even more remarkable, as they were relegated from League Two in 2015/16 only to go down to the National League North the season after, despite winning the 2016/17 FA Trophy.
Coming up to the festive period, where games come thick and fast, Notts will want to put an end to a poor run of form which has seen them without a league win in November. Saturday’s visitors, 20th-placed Sutton United, might present an opportunity but the hosts will have to be switched on from the first whistle.
“As a team we have to be better defensively… It’s twos and threes regularly and that has to change.”
Neal Ardley, Notts County manager
They have fallen into a nasty habit of conceding early goals and having to chase the game, as happened in their 3-0 loss to Barrow and their 3-1 FA Cup exit at Northampton Town last Sunday.
The hectic Christmas schedule holds a mixed bag for County, as they host Sutton United on Sunday 7 December, before an FA Trophy trip to Chesterfield. Notts then visit 6th-placed FC Halifax Town and 3rd-placed Solihull Moors, with a home encounter against struggling Maidenhead United sandwiched in between.
Notts need to break out of mid-table quickly before the sides currently in the playoff positions break away. Can they get some favourable results in December, momentum may swing their way.
The question then will be consistency. If they can turn Meadow Lane into a fortress again as they did in September and October, the Magpies could, fittingly, find themselves soaring towards the top of the tree and aiming for silverware.