By Michael Callander
Notts County have scored two goals for the first time in six league games. Praise be.
Wednesday’s win over Solihull Moors was by no means an instant classic. Like the 0 – 0 draw with Torquay on Saturday, for much of the game it looked like being anything but.
Neal Ardley expected James Shan’s side to “play a good brand of football”, as they came into Wednesday with the second-most average possession in the National League.
When Solihull arrived at Meadow Lane, though, they somewhat tore up Ardley’s gameplan by sitting deep, allowing Notts to pass in front of them but restricting the space available for the hosts to dictate proceedings through possession.
Notts fans were surprised to see Ruben Rodrigues rested after an impressive performance against Torquay, especially for a game most expected to be open, yet intricate and played on the ground. Silky smooth in possession at times, the Portuguese seemed a shoo-in to start on Wednesday night. Early in proceedings, Ardley found that he could use Rodrigues from the bench to change the dynamic.
Speaking to the media post-game, Ardley said “we needed a bit of magic to break down a 5-4-1”. Rodrigues came on in the 68th minute and, with Enzio Boldewijn on the opposite flank, produced just that.
Boldewijn’s jinking run down the left provided the “1v1 domination” Ardley had asked for at half-time, and when Kyle Wootton slid in Notts’ opener after a short through ball from the Dutchman, things opened up all over the pitch.
From then on Solihull were chasing a result, both literally and figuratively coming out of their box to challenge higher up the pitch. This left more space for Ruben Rodrigues to show his quality in possession and, when he got on the end of a short ball into the box from Jimmy Knowles, he showed why Notts fans have waxed lyrical about him since his arrival in summer.
With the confidence to take two touches in the penalty area and to take himself away from goal, in the 85th minute, then pick out Wootton for his and Notts’ second of the evening, Rodrigues proved his worth yet again and has surely written his name back on the teamsheet for Saturday’s trip to Weymouth.
Provided, that is, that Notts have to travel south at all. This season has been played out against a backdrop of postponements up and down the divisions, as clubs manage positive COVID-19 cases within their squads. With England in national lockdown, there is fresh concern that the National League season may be suspended or even concluded before every club has played half their games.
If the season ends before Saturday, it would either be called null and void or the “final” league table would be calculated on points-per-game (PPG), as was last season, crowning Barrow as champions, confirming the playoff places as well as the relegated teams.
That’s problematic. At time of writing, league leaders Torquay have played 19 games and have 40 points, giving them (allowing for my bad maths) 2.10 PPG. However, second-placed Sutton United have played just 16, with 31 points (1.93 PPG). Having played three games less, should the season be called here, each of Sutton’s wins and losses will have more of a bearing on their average PPG.
Add to this the prospect that, if the season is called before halfway, or maybe even before two-thirds distance, some clubs might not have played each other once, while having played others twice.
Imagine the uproar if Notts missed out on a playoff place by virtue of having played runaway leaders Torquay twice (supposing they drew or lost the second meeting), and not having played bottom-placed Barnet (for example) even once. They would understandably feel a likely three points had not been factored into their PPG total, while sides around them may have already played and beaten the bottom sides at least once.
But enough maths. Back to the football.
Kyle Wootton was quiet until the last ten minutes against Torquay last weekend, turning a great chance past the far after getting on the end of a devilish Jim O’Brien cross as the game ticked over into injury time.
He, like new strike partner Inih Effiong alongside him, was similarly starved of service for much of proceedings on Wednesday night. Effiong was able to chase lost causes and press Solihull with surprising intensity not matching what I expected from him, but Wootton was largely isolated until Rodrigues came off the bench and switched up the way Notts looked to work their way up the pitch.
Once he got the service he thrives on, the 24-year-old did what he does and got the two goals to take Notts above Solihull in the table. He said after the game
“It shows how good a goal it is when you can just tap it in from a few yards out. For the first goal Enzio was brilliant, driving past a few players and putting it on a plate for me.
“For the second one, it was a nice bit of build-up play and again, Ruben took a great touch and could have had a shot himself to be fair, but put it on a plate for me again and it’s another great team goal.”
As well as three points, Wootton’s goals provided a much-needed breakthrough in a game the visitors had probably edged until Notts went ahead. Solihull came into Wednesday night having conceded just 13 league goals so far, the same as Notts but in one less game.
Finding a way past Ryan Boot was never going to be an easy task, and so it proved until Ardley’s late substitutions offered a different challenge to a resolute Solihull defence which kept its shape frustratingly well until the opener.
When Neal Ardley saw how the visitors were setting up at the back, he might have feared the worst. His side hadn’t scored two or more goals in a National League game since their 3 – 0 home win over Wealdstone on 27 November, a spell of six games in which Notts won two, drew two and lost two. In their last five in the league, they had scored just four.
Of course goals win games, but just as important sometimes can be making sure you don’t lose them. If Notts can get back to scoring two regularly, it gives the opposition twice as much to do if they’re to take the three points away from the Magpies.
As Jimmy Knowles, Ruben Rodrigues and Enzio Boldewijn proved their creative worth with a late, late show against Moors, maybe they’ve shown Neal Ardley the formula to improve Notts’ form in their coming games.
The whole squad will have been relieved when Wootton doubled their advantage and put a three-point haul almost beyond doubt. That’s the feeling they have to chase if they’re to continue their progression back towards the playoff places.