One of the most cacophonous reactions to this season’s many managerial changeovers in the Football League followed Martin Allen’s departure from Notts County and Keith Curle’s installation as his successor. Here, Luke Williamson sheds light on the situation at Meadow Lane and the generally buoyant form Notts have shown since the swap.
A little over four weeks has passed since the Notts County board dismissed Martin Allen from his post after a 3-0 defeat on the road at Hartlepool United. Amid fears of a further slump and potential capitulation towards the relegation zone, fans spoke out even louder than normal as Keith Curle stepped into the managerial hot seat with just sixteen games left of the 2011-2012 campaign - the jury seemingly unanimous in their anger at his predecessor’s sacking.
Yet now, with just seven games left in the fixtures booklet, Notts followers are comfortable with their very much changed outlook on both Curle and the possible fortunes of their club heading into April.
Martin Allen, for those that do not know, was a very popular man down at Meadow Lane just six weeks ago. He was an expert at keeping the fans onside, a master at giving supporters a positive self-portrait, and he had seemingly worked well with what was said to be a limited budget and a so-called average squad left to him by Paul Ince around a year ago.
When Allen’s sacking was announced on the Saturday evening after that crushing reverse, so strong was the opinion that the club had made a mistake, that many of the vocal online supporters were questioning whether or not they would visit Meadow Lane again this season.
‘The club has treated Allen in a disgusting manner’ said some message board users, whilst others were bewildered at a chairman that had just rid himself of yet another manager and was now tasked with the job of appointing our fifth permanent manager in the two years since we sealed the League Two title.
Therein lay the problem for Curle and as rumour of his pending appointment gathered pace, so did the views from the stands. The volubility of the support for the outgoing boss was coupled with the irate feeling that Curle, who’d so far enjoyed little more than several relegations with lower league clubs, was being lined-up to replace the man that had saved us from certain relegation last season.
At the time of his appointment I wrote of Notts fans needing to give Curle a chance, fully aware that a potential backlash from the supporters was nothing more than a heavy defeat or two away for the club.
In the days that followed the appointment, so bad was some of the abuse aimed towards the club’s owner and his family, it was said that they were questioning their involvement for the first time since they had saved the world’s oldest Football League club from administration.
Along with personal insults aimed at the board, Curle and chairman Ray Trew’s family, some small sections of Notts fans were apparently threatening to never attend a match with the new man in charge. Talks of boycotts and protests were mentioned and if these were taken with a pinch of salt, some regulars in the Kop for the first home game under the former Mansfield Town manager were suggesting the best way forward was to sing ‘Mad Dog’s Black and White Army’ throughout the game as a reminder of their love for the now unemployed Allen.
In Curle however, Trew clearly had faith and saw something that would help Notts County in the future as opposed to reports that were suggesting Allen had hindered the club’s transfer ambitions, that some players simply didn’t want to play for him and that current squad members were handing in transfer requests.
Add to that rumours of him trashing a hotel room on an away day and his attempts to sell our best and most creative player, Alan Judge, and suddenly one or two fans began to understand that the reasons behind Allen’s sacking may not have been all football related – contrary to their initial knee-jerk assumptions.
On his Meadow Lane debut, Curle did himself no harm with the Notts faithful, guiding the club to a last minute winner over Stevenage, a side destined for the play-offs, and suddenly the doubters began to fade a little.
Three days and another 1-0 win later, Notts had now made it six points from a possible six under Curle after Chesterfield arrived at Meadow Lane and left with nothing and as others around Notts faltered, hope began to spring eternal suddenly.
Another 1-0 win, this time on the road at Rochdale, coupled with a more convincing 2-0 win over play-off hopefuls and promotion rivals Carlisle, and County had started to show the form that all clubs aspiring to a top six finish would wish for.
In fact it took until Curle’s fifth game, a mid-week away trip to Tranmere Rovers, for any negatives to be found in the manager’s honeymoon period at the club. The Magpies battled out a 1-1 draw on Merseyside with the home side netting a last minute equaliser to deny a fifth straight win without conceding. However, as the form books now show, Tranmere have since been on the rise and the point gained at Prenton Park appears to be one gained rather than two lost.
Curle hit unexpected heights four days after that trip, this time seeing his so far economic eleven steam roll into a 4-0 lead away at top of the table Charlton Athletic. Despite the Addicks grabbing two back after the break, Notts held on to a memorable 4-2 victory which, rather than being viewed as a shock to the system, was now regarded as a solid performance by a team intent on being in the shake-up at the business end of the season.
Heading into the Charlton game I was conservative in my hopes, knowing full well that we had home games with Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United in the week that followed. Had someone offered me three points from the three games I reckon I would have snapped their finger off but after winning the first of theose games against the top side, the disappointment was very much apparent when Wednesday arrived with 5,000 fans in tow and beat us 2-1 at Meadow Lane.
A further defeat, this time against their local rivals United, saw a Notts side torn apart in a poor first half and now we knew how Charlton felt some ten days earlier when they trailed 4-0 at the break in a home league game that had carried high hopes and expectations.
More recently, Scunthorpe have been the latest to thwart Notts on the road, with Curle’s men drawing 0-0 despite dominating the game for large periods and hitting the wood work on numerous occasions - and yet, once more Notts were greeted by the fact that after 90 minutes, neither Stevenage nor Carlisle had managed to take three points from their respective games either.
Five wins, two draws and two defeats is nothing to be sniffed at however. After nine games in charge Curle has managed to acquire the same points total that had taken 18 games to rack up prior to his appointment and suddenly there is only one direction Notts fans are looking.
The most noticeable change of late has been a freshness, a new style and a clean slate for those players that had seemingly lost their way under Allen. Back in the first team has been Notts’ longest serving player Mike Edwards who has recently made his 300th appearance for the club after not featuring on the pitch since 2011, whilst in the loan market Curle has been a busy man bolstering Notts’ squad with his contacts in the game.
Jonathan Forte has arrived on loan from Southampton and has netted five goals to date whilst Lloyd Sam has been brought in from Leeds United, now stewarded by a Neil Warnock for whom Curle spent several years working at QPR and Crystal Palace.
More recently Curle has secured loan deals for Arsenal youngster Nico Yennaris, Wolves midfielder Louis Harris, Blackpool’s Daniel Bogdanović and Hull City’s former Forest man Dele Adebola. Notts County have added depth in areas that for much of the season fans have been crying out for more options.
So what is the fate for Curle and Notts? Well even the most optimistic Notts fan would not have expected to be talking about a potential Wembley trip come May when Curle was first announced as the new man at the helm. But with Stevenage’s form slipping (nine points from the last nine games) and Carlisle set to play five clubs from the current top eight in their final nine games, County have every reason to be hopeful despite having played twice more than their rivals.
If Notts can maintain the form since Keith Curle took over, I think a similar points-to-game ratio will be enough to secure a top six place. Regardless, of whether we finished 6th or 7th however, the second half of the season will be reviewed as progress after last season’s close shave with relegation to League Two.
Once more Notts are in a position where stability will be uttered and fans may even clamour for the current boss to be given time despite their initial anger. Either way, if those protesting fans are still staying away from Meadow Lane, it’s hardly been noticeable.
Luke can be followed on twitter at @LukeWilliamson