Notts County v Crawley Town
Meadow Lane / League One / 21st April 2014
Lost Boyos hit the big time of BBC Radio Nottingham in February, as I was asked to appear on their drive time show to talk about my recent trip to Nottingham and more specifically the City Ground, home of Nottingham Forest. Obviously, I visit a lot of football grounds, so what made this trip so special that the people at BBC Nottingham felt it was worthy of publishing to their listenership? Well, as many that read this blog may already be aware, I hadn’t actually planned to visit Nottingham at all that Sunday and I had only ended up in the city after falling asleep on a night-time Nottingham bound train from Liverpool on the Saturday night and missing my stop at Manchester. Oops! Safe to say though, the mishap turned out to be a glorious one, as coincidentally Forest happened to be playing at home that Sunday afternoon for some strange reason and I had one of the best days out of my travels this season. Also, the impromptu trip was a reminder of how brilliant a city Nottingham actually is. It reinforced the idea that I needed to visit more often.
Fast forward around three months later and having enjoyed a pretty spectacular Easter weekend (read my Whitley Bay blog here), I found myself back from Tyneside and searching for a football match to attend on Easter Monday. I thought I would save another trip to Nottingham until next season, but on noticing that Notts County were charging just £12 a ticket for their home game versus Crawley Town and plus the fact there would be the added drama of County continuing their bid to make ‘The Great Escape’ from relegation, my mind was made up: To Nottingham! And this time I was going intentionally.
Clearly I dressed in the dark as as I was walking through Manchester Piccadilly station I looked down to see I was wearing a navy blue hoody, green-checked shorts and red trainers, as well as an ambitious sunglasses/cream flat cap combo. Not to worry though, the sun was shining in Manchester and all was good.
However, on arriving at Nottingham around 11:30am, the summer attire looked a tad optimistic with a greyness overhanging the city, but soon enough the sun caught me up from Manchester and all was good again.
Unlike my last visit, I decided not to delve into the heart of the city centre this time around and instead explore the streets nearer the station. Some suppose that Nottingham has the highest amount of pubs per 1000 people in Britain, so there was never any worry of me not finding a pub and soon enough I found myself outside my first drinking establishment of the day: Fellows, Morton and Clayton. I found myself in one of those real ale moods, as the place was celebrated by CAMRA. Having spotted me eyeing up the taps, the kind gentleman behind the bar began describing each ale to me and I nodded as if I knew what he was talking about, before selecting the one that sounded the nicest.
Pub number 1 was certainly lovely, but pub number 2…well, just wow. All I need to say is that it had part of the Nottingham canal extending inside to the bar itself (complete with moored canalboat), meaning that I had to cross a bridge from one part of the bar to the other. It was certainly a unique touch and you’ll be unsurprised to hear that the bar is called the Canalhouse. Throw in the fact that the place had a large range of continental beers and you are onto a winner. I enjoyed some German lager in the beer garden alongside Nottingham Canal, whilst listening to some students play Noah and the Whale songs on their ukeleles on the opposite bank, before heading back out into the street. I thought I would begin moving closer to Notts County’s Meadow Lane home, so that meant that there was only one place to go next.
“Hello again! How are you mate?” I debated whether being recognised and greeted by the manager of Hooters was a good thing, before warmly replying back and informing him that I had actually planned to visit the city this time. For those unclear why I was recognised, it’s not because I sneak off to Hooters in Nottingham regularly to enjoy the…fine food…, but because I had somehow ended up drinking with some Welshmen who were friends of the manager on my last visit there. Beer may be a little bit higher in there than some places, but you can’t fault the service! I was quite surprised that there were not more football fans in here, but soon enough a small gathering of Crawley fans popped in for some hot wings and as I sipped away at my pint slowly more County fans began to appear. Anyway, I had seen plenty of Hooters last time (that’s a funny sentence taken out of context) and I decided to head towards a pub I had been informed about nearer the ground and more of a hotbed for County fans.
After a bit of navigation around Meadow Lane itself, I found myself at the Navigation pub. The pub is practically on Meadow Lane’s doorstep, so I was expecting the place to be rammed, but fortunately I had arrived early enough that there was no such congestion at the bar (yet). On arriving at the bar, which was dominated by the black and white of County, a man-made a beeline for me and I thought my red #lostboyos t-shirt and red trainers may have offended someone with their County’s rivals Forest being famous for their red and today’s opponents Crawley being known as the Red Devils. Fortunately, the man approaching was friendly as he shouted “Lost Boyos!” I gave the usual shocked look I give when people seem to strangely recognise me, but it soon turned out that this County fan, Dave, was pals with James Sutton and his Dad – the young Forest academy player I befriended in the stands of the City Ground just months before. After a chat about County and their relegation plight and a pint, Dave headed off to the ground and I was left by myself at the bar. But no need to worry, all the County fans I encountered were very chatty and I’m not sure how many times I recounted the “I fell asleep in Liverpool and woke up in Nottingham a few months ago” anecdote.
As the bar began to get more and more crowded, I opted to go enjoy the weather out in the beer garden. Whilst out there, after being recognised by a couple of people already, I recognised someone myself: ‘TheStu’ from instagram – a guy who clearly travels everywhere watching County judging from his photos. With beer in my system, I went over to say hello and after initial jokes about what the hell a Swans fan was doing watching Notts County today, I was warmly welcomed with a touch of ‘banter’ on the side.
“Landy has gone somewhere,” declared Stu. I said I recognised that name and I debated whether I followed him on Twitter. When Landy turned up, I realised I did know him from Twitter, but I was more surprised to see a familiar face with him. It turned out that he knew Bolton fan Lee Rowlands, who I’ve attended games in the past with at Atherton Collieries and Warrington, and who had also randomly decided to come to Notts County today with his two Bolton mates Sam and Jake on the way back from an away day watching Bolton at Charlton a few days previous.
After the incredulity of coincidentally bumping into each other and with some other of the lads knowing me and some of the others off Twitter, Stu stated that it was a bit like ‘Football Fan Speed Dating’. Soon joining us and adding to the cocktail of football fans was Crawley fan Craig Bratt. I had encountered Craigs on Twitter a few weeks before and I had immediately taken a liking to the challenge he has set himself: Craig is trying to collect all 92 Football League clubs’ shirts. When I realised the night before that he was also coming to Notts County, I told him that I was quite happy to give him my old Swansea shirt from the Paulo Sousa era (I wanted to forget that season to be honest). He mentioned that he was also heading to the Navigation prematch too and so I arranged to meet him there for the shirt passover.
After initially being shell-shocked by the mish-mash of football fans around him who had randomly all come together in a beer garden outside Meadow Lane, Landy handed Craig a County shirt and I eventually handed Craig my Swans shirt, although I did make him pose with it in the style of a new signing. So if any random football fans of the 92 are reading this and want to give him a club shirt, give Craig a shout (@craigybratt).
After enjoying one last pint, which was paid for kindly by Craig in return for my 2009/2010 Swansea home shirt, me and Lee decided to head down the road and do a lap of the ground before heading through the turnstiles. The thing that struck me most about Meadow Lane was that it isn’t quite as enchanting as its City Ground neighbour, but the place seemed to be huge from the outside, as it took us a good trek to circumnavigate its outer shell. It sounded like the place to be was the ground’s Kop stand and that’s where we headed to enter the ground. I passed over my £12, a bargain for third tier football in this country, and headed through the turnstiles and into the Kop.
Time for a spot of history now and when it comes to Notts County there is a quite a lot of it, as the club is the oldest professional club in world football having been formed in 1862. It is perhaps unsurprising that Meadow Lane has not always been their home with their formative years being spent on the grounds of the old Nottingham Castle at Park Hollow, before calling several grounds home including the Castle Ground and Forest’s old Town Ground and eventually settling more permanently at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground. The club would go onto become founder members of the Football League and win the FA Cup in 1894 before they would eventually settle at Meadow Lane in 1910. The next 104 years would consistent of the club dropping and rising between leagues with the most successful spells coming under legendary manager Jimmy Sirrel, who turned the team from Fourth Division strugglers to a First Division club in three separate spells between 1967 and 1987.
Sadly, the 2000s have been less kind to the club with a series of relegation dogfights in the bottom two tiers of the Football League and financial meltdowns being a constant theme for County. The 2013/2014 season looked to be a particularly gloomy season for County as they looked doomed for relegation even before Christmas under Chris Kiwonya. However, after an indifferent start to his first job as a manager, former QPR and Palace midfielder and now current County manager Shaun Derry, who is also a County fan, has quite miraculously started to turn around the club’s fortunes over the past few months. Despite being in the relegation zone before kick-off, a win and some favourable results elsewhere would see County be right on the cusp of safetyat 5pm with 2 games left to play of the 2013/2014 season. ‘The Great Escape’ would well and truly be on. I think a drink was going to be needed for such a big game – to the bar!
We walked through the tunnel-like concourse underneath the Kop, until we re-emerged in the corner of the ground with the bar. With beer in hand it was nice to enjoy the sunshine out on the open air corner of the concourse with people enjoying a prematch cigarette at the bottom of the steep steps heading up from the turnstiles to the open air area we were residing on.
Kick-off was fast approaching, so I quickly sank my beer and headed up to the side of the Kop where the County fans we had befriended prematch had told us to go to stand. As we walked out into stand itself, there was only going to be one tune ringing out around the ground: the theme to the Great Escape. With the tune crescendoing, I was almost waiting for Michael Caine to come hurdling over a stand on a motorbike.
Me and Lee took our place amongst Landy, Scott, Dean and Stu, plus Boltonians Jake and Sam, on the far side of the Kop just before the teams entered the arena. Whilst the teams walked out onto the pitch, I began to take in my surroundings and although not exactly the most innovative of stadium designs, I found myself very impressed with Meadow Lane’s blend of traditional and modern. Easily the most impressive stand in the ground is the Kop, where I was standing for the game. The ground is fairly modern-looking from inside and it was unsurprising to learn that the ground was practically rebuilt throughout the 1990s. The whole ground is made up of fairly large single-tier stands with the Jimmy Sirrel Stand (empty today apart from the small pocket of Crawley fans in the far corner) and the slightly larger Derek Pavis Stand (complete with Director and Executive boxes) flanking both sides of the pitch. At the far end of the ground, directly opposite the Kop, is the Family Stand, which does what it says on the tin really.
Noise emanated from the Kop as the game got underway and I was quite surprised that there seemed to be a lack of nerves coming from the County fans for such an important game. Confidence seemed high amongst the fans, but on the pitch the County players started poorly and perhaps predictably looked nervy.
One player I particularly had my eye on was Crawley’s Gwion Edwards, the young Welshman on loan from Swansea. After some initial good pieces of play, he faded away and instead it was to be another young player who would really leave a lasting impression on me at the final whistle. That player was to be Jack Grealish, a player on loan from Aston Villa and a player I believe will go on to have a very good career.
Nerves eventually settled and by the 34th minute, Notts County had grabbed an opener. A great ball in from an Alan Sheehan freekick saw Jimmy Spencer rise above everyone else and place a powerful header downwards and into the goal past Paul Jones. 1-0 to County and cue scenes of chaos behind me, as a passionate pile-on ensued amongst our County friends.
Half-time: Notts County 1 – 0 Crawley Town.
Having eyed up the queue for beer and deciding that it was too long for my liking, I headed back up into the stand to enjoy a bit more of The Great Escape theme before the players re-emerged onto the pitch to a massive roar from the home fans.
Crawley started the half the better team and when County keeper Bartosz Bialkowski made an error, he looked to have given Matt Tubbs a chance to score for the away team, only for the Polish keeper to recover with a superb save. Aside from that mistake Bialkowski would have a superb game, as would the defence in front of him, who put their bodies on the line on countless occasions to stop anything that came their way going goalwards.
As the tension mounted, I looked around at the County fans around me who were now looking increasingly nervous with a lot of nail-biting going on. Keith, the County fan sitting next to me, looked like he may keel over any minute due to the stress of it all. I promised Landy that if County won he could keep my flat cap as a lucky charm for their relegation fight.
Undoubtedly, the outstanding moment of the game was left to Bartosz Bialkowski. Crawley’s Gary Dicker looked to have certainly scored with a powerful header, but somehow Bialkowski got a hand on to the header with a full stretch save to turn the ball away from goal. When you see a save like that, you just know that that team is never going to concede.
Crawley’s attack seemed to blunt as the game approached the 90th minute and the impressive Grealish was having more of an influence in controlling the game as the game slowed down. He really was very good, although not the most conventional-looking footballer I have ever seen with his distinctive lanky figure and socks rolled down around his ankles; I’m not even sure he was wearing shinpads – rebel!
After a nerve-shredding final few moments for the County fans, although there was nothing really to worry about as County kept the ball in the corner for a good 5 minutes, the final whistle blew and COunty had won. The Great Escape was looking very much a possibility now.
Full-time: Notts County 1 – 0 Crawley Town.
Shaun Derry came over to the Kop to clap the home fans and he looked delighted with the three points – he is clearly a man who is very passionate about his club. I stuck to my word and passed my flat cap to Landy, but he just would not accept the gift (I don’t think he realised how many flat caps I own). I said goodbyes to the rest of the County contingent, who had been great company on the day and having taken some photos, I realised I was virtually the last person left in the ground. Having spent the game in the lower half of the Kop, I wanted to get some photos from the top of the stand, so I decided to hurdle the barrier seperating the lower and upper sections of the Kop, much to the annoyance of the stewards. I persuaded them that I meant no harm, as they clearly tried to suss out my distinctively un-Nottinghamshire accent, until they figured I was trustworthy enough to take some quick photos.
Minutes after exiting Meadow Lane, I found myself back at the Navigation. Once again, the County fans were very friendly and chatty and once again the ‘falling asleep on the train and waking up in Nottingham’ story came out for about the 10th time of the day. I figured if I was ever an after dinner speaker, for whatever reason, this would probably be up there as my headline anecdote.
It took a lot of willpower, but I decided not to head back to Hooters this time and instead I worked my way through the housing estates just opposite the City Ground and Meadow Lane towards the city centre. I was making my way back to the city centre, as on my other visits to the city I had wanted to visit one pub in particular, but I had never quite got around to it. Having visited the oldest professional club today, I decided that it was only fitting to also visit the supposed oldest pub in the country (although I’m sure that there are many that claim that crown): Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem.
After a 15 minute stroll through some rather suspect looking places, before arriving back near the city centre, I found myself at the foot of Nottingham Castle with Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem tucked snuggly below its high walls. The Trip, as it is known locally, is claimed to have been established in 1189 AD and was apparently popular as a watering hole amongst the knights who heeded the calls of Richard I to join the 12th Century Crusades in the Holy Land – hence the pub’s name. More importantly for me, they sold my favourites:’Real Handcooked Jalapeno Pepper Flavoured Potato Chips’ – or just Jalapeno crisps to you and me.
With my crisps devoured and having enjoyed a pint within the famous cave-like rooms of The Trip, I decided that it was time to call an end to my day out in Nottingham and head back to the station. What a day it had been again! I had spent the start of my Easter weekend in Newcastle and I still cite that as my favourite city in the country. However, if there was a ‘Matthew Harrison Favourite UK Cities’ award, then I’m fairly sure that Nottingham would make a big claim for the runners-up spot. And with that in mind, I realised I didn’t quite want to leave yet and instead I made sure to squeeze one more pint in the Canalhouse before I headed back to Manchester.
As well as being a great place, Nottingham really is a great football city. I’m still a bit in love with the City Ground with its good looks alongside the Trent, but I’m a big believer in that fans make a club and the fans I met today were all friendly, welcoming and good fun. Cheers County. (Walks off into the Nottingham sunset humming the theme to The Great Escape).
Highlights: intending to go to Nottingham this time, The Canalhouse, The Navigation, meeting various people from social media in a a spontaneous football fan speed dating style, Meadow Lane was nicer than I expected actually, Jack Grealish’s performance, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem.
Low Points: a predictably nervy and scrappy game, I’m still not sure whether being recognised by the manager of Hooters is a good thing.