The last days of the season. Promotion at stake, survival on the line. A day when the game unfolding in front of you may be less significant than news from the other end of the country. In Nottingham, it was a day of intense anxiety.
Notts County, founded in 1862 and justly proud of its claim to be the oldest league football club in the world, was potentially 90 minutes away from being stripped of that status. Bottom of the league, two points adrift of safety and hit with a goal difference that left them effectively a further point back, the Magpies were up against it. Failing to match Macclesfield’s result would spell the end of an unbroken spell of league football dating back to 1888.
The pre-game chat wasn’t encouraging. The situation might be an improvement on the nine-point gap to safety back in January, but it had been a long, hard slog of a season and catastrophe was uncomfortably close. In the club shop, while staff urged kids to wave their newly-purchased foam hands loud and proud, older voices spoke of nerves, of nausea. Football may be entertainment but on days like this it’s an emotional wringer. The entertainment factor is retrospective at best; once the season is over and done, then those little game highlights can be enjoyed with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, they are based watched through splayed fingers.
Meadow Lane has been County’s home since 1910. The club’s best days – FA Cup winners in 1894, third place in the top flight twice as the 19th century ticked into the 20th – were already in the past when it moved in, but the Lane has been the scene of decades of action shuttling up and down the four divisions of the Football League. It doesn’t look much like a historic ground, though. Reconstructed in the 1990s as a 20,000 capacity all-seater stadium for a club relegated from the top flight in the final season before the Premiership arrived, only a decorative gable atop the Jimmy Sirrel stand nods to the past; the rest could be home to a smaller club in Holland or Scandinavia with its four separate stands, visibly related but not identical.
The Lane, even the contemporary version, has witnessed great escapes before, most recently the heroic two-goal comeback to secure league status just four years ago. For 45 minutes, though, there was little evidence of another dramatic recovery. Grimsby arrived in lower midtable, eminently beatable and far from fired up. County responded sluggishly, chances at a premium. In the club shop they were selling T-shirts quoting Jimmy Sirrell – legendary promotion-winning manager who lifted the club from the fourth tier to the top flight – dispensing the simple wisdom that ‘If ye dinnae score, ye dinnae win’. The ‘Pies had already fired 19 blanks in 44 games and it wasn’t hard to see why. The half-time chat focussed on where a goal might come from, most were viewing the game through glasses half empty. News that second-bottom Yeovil were 2-0 up at Northampton didn’t enhance the mood.
That all changed after the break. First, Craig Mackail-Smith tapped home Mitch Rose’s cross early in the second half. Then came word that Northampton had made it 2-2. Once the scores would have arrived via the crackle of a transistor radio, complete strangers craning their necks to hear the latest from that bloke in the row in front. Today’s smartphone generation gets it silently, a gentle buzz in the back pocket prompting frantic scrolling to get across the latest permutations. The end result is the same: excited fans loudly alerting the team to the situation. Here, with County off the bottom, an innocuous foul in midfield was greeted with rapture and chants of ‘We are staying up!’. The ritualistic anti-Forest jibes of the first half were forgotten, at last Meadow Lane had its own story to shout about.
A second goal, given as an OG from Harry Clifton, kept the party swinging … until another fateful beep from the phones. Almost as soon as County went 2-0 up, Dave Fitzpatrick put Macclesfield in front at Port Vale. Survival edged two points further away, next week’s trip to Swindon became even more of a must-win. Nobody noticed, amid the anxiety, that Yeovil were now relegated. Grimsby pulled back a goal in stoppage time through Alex Whitmore while the Meadow Lane Kop implored Port Vale to score. But it didn’t happen. Departing fans discussed plans to travel Swindon and unpicked a simple equation: County must win in Wiltshire, Macclesfield must lose at home to Cambridge. Anything else means Notts County saying goodbye to the league it helped to create.
Meadow Lane, Nottingham, England
Apr. 27, 2019, Football League 2.
Notts County 2 (Mackail-Smith, Clifton og) Grimsby Town 1 (Whitmore)