Time to Stick or Twist at Notts County
“Giant-killers Notts County” were involved in one of the festive games I managed to take in around 2010’s tail-end. I had my own thoughts on County’s look and shape after seeing them draw at Plymouth, but I thought that I’d contact Stu Brothers, our friend over at Wellypie, to get a clear-cut picture of how things have been going at Meadow Lane.
Lloyd: Before the game, someone asked whether “that money group” were still involved at Notts. Although I understand that Munto Finance is long gone, I must admit that I don’t know too much else. What’s going on behind the scenes these days?
Stu: Yes, we actually had another owner in-between Munto Finance and the current group: Peter Trembling, who was essentially the public (or near enough only) face of Munto Finance. He spent weeks post-Munto telling people he was scouring the world looking for the multiple-million pound investment that we’d been promised.
One night last season, he even had Sven tell the players before a game that such investment had been sourced and that everything was back on track. Mere days later and he’s selling the club for a pound to a former Lincoln City board member.
It was good to see the back of Trembling, although the majority of fans had bought into his vision. As time passed, however, it became clear that he’d bought into it too; essentially his sheer naivety had taken the club to the brink. Businesses both locally and nationally were owed huge amounts, most notably Nottingham Rugby Club who also reside at Meadow Lane.
When Ray Trew and Chief Executive Jim Rodwell arrived there was unrest. The latter came in with the baggage associated with his time at Boston United, whilst Trew suffered from the disadvantage of simply not being the mega-rich investor that Trembling had harped on about for so long. What would become of the £2m debt hanging over the club seemed inevitable.
Administration was simply a matter of when, and not if. Even the most biased would have told you it was the only sensible decision to be taken. It would’ve meant writing the season off, forcing the departures of key players Lee Hughes, Ben Davies and Kasper Schmeichel, but it was a necessary evil.
Yet, one late night cuddle with the missus later, and the outlook had changed completely.
New manager Steve Cotterill had turned up knowing full well that he would be under the restraints of an administration-induced points penalty, but when he arrived Cotterill was simply told to crack on. Administration wasn’t happening and all debts would be serviced in due course. This despite the aforementioned £2m debt eventually turning out to be £7.7m; enough to make you question whether Trembling was callow, or simply on the take.
A League Two title on, and the future looks rosier than it has for decades. The debt has been reduced to “just” £700k, and the club are currently on the rise in League One (although dwindling attendances are a worry). Moreover, Trew and his wife Aileen are now a huge part of the club. Just recently, both spent three hours answering supporter’s questions on the messageboard, with very few stones left unturned by the end of the evening.
Lloyd: Brilliant stuff. So how exactly did that £7.7m of debt shrink to just £700k?
Stu: Trew owned a number of companies prior to his arrival at Meadow Lane, including recruitment consultancy firm Lorien Connect. These have been sold on to raise funds, much of which has gone towards paying those debts.
It’s important not to forget that on top of that expenditure, improvements continue to be made to Meadow Lane, including significant renovations of the executive boxes and supporters’ bar. This summer will also see the installation of under-soil heating. You figure that this constant investment has to end somewhere.
Lloyd: With all this in mind, do you think that Paul Ince will be backed in the transfer market? Or will he have to make do with bringing in family members only?
Stu: This January’s transfer kitty is a topic for concern; it really could go either way. If Trew thinks with his business hat on, you wouldn’t begrudge him being a little more prudent, particularly on the back of a largely wasted budget last summer.
But if the supporter in him shines through and he considers our recent results, perhaps he’ll green light some pretty decent moves for us.
That said, if anyone else in Paul’s family is even half as good as Thomas, then sign him up! Tommy has been a revelation at Notts; as soon as the ball reaches his feet you get this overwhelming sense that magic is about to happen.
He and Stephen Darby (both loanees from Liverpool) have been superb. There’s talk about an extension for both, which would be a massive boost and probably one of the priorities for the transfer window.
Lee Miller has said his goodbyes as he chases another loan move, but he wants to play at Championship level. Perhaps it’s too much to hope he’s seen enough during his spell to convince him that’s where we’ll be next season. Meanwhile Alan Judge should arrive back at the Lane shortly after his current loan deal, possibly on a permanent contract.
Ince Snr has his own shopping list aside from these players, but with a bit of luck they’re all deals that could be sorted out this month. All four have been massive in the recent resurgence and hopefully Trew will be able to budget for them for the rest of the season.
Lloyd: I saw Ince Jr’s potential for myself at Home Park, and I agree that he looks like a prospect. I must admit, though, that all your play seemed to go through Lee Hughes. I’ve heard good things about Ben Davies, but he was pretty quiet in all honesty and was easily muscled off the ball several times. In summary, I would have been very surprised to see Notts get a point if Hughes wasn’t on the park. Do you think that’s a fair call?
Stu: I think it’s very fair! In the past we’ve been a completely different side without Hughes, but there’s been the odd recent hint that we’ve maybe turned the tide. Yet again though, based on which loanees we’re able to reacquire, we might end up being back at square one.
Hughes’s presence is huge. He brings so much more than just goals; his touches all over the park border on the sublime some weeks. He just manages to lift the side, from defence right through to attack. When Hughes leaves the field, we’ve seen the heads drop and the foot is taken off the gas.
Most notably at Wolves the League Cup a few months back. He’d given us the lead, and we looked comfortable. But the home side were level within minutes of his substitution, and it was barely a contest from there. The team has improved considerably since then, so hopefully moments like that will be isolated in the future.
Ben Davies is liable to go missing some weeks, but he’ll always be amongst the first names on the team sheet simply because you know he has such fantastic delivery. It took Davies some time to get into his rhythm this season; it was only when the transfer window shut and the talk of a move to Derby subsided. We’re hoping this window doesn’t disrupt things too much now.
Lloyd: Glad to hear that I wasn’t completely off the mark! So, summing up, it sounds like it could go either way at Notts. Invest in a middling team and you could emerge as play-off candidates; focus on the off-field development of the club and it’ll probably be a season of consolidation. In these times of financial precariousness, would you be inclined to do the latter and play it safe?
Stu: The old question of stick or twist. Obviously any club that gets promoted is expected to aim for consolidation in their first season; you need to find your feet first. To be honest our season hangs on the return of the four loanees. If we can secure their services, then we can push on.
If we don’t, then the squad will need to regroup ready for a push in 2011-12. That obviously wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world considering the poor start we made this season.
With that said, a little bit of greed has kicked in and we’ve all got one eye on bigger things. With the exception of Huddersfield, we’ve made the division’s bigger sides look ordinary when we’ve played them; for whatever reason though we’d conspire against ourselves and take nothing from games.
We’ll be more confident when we play those teams again. We were only missing the ability to finish sides off before, and I think we’re better equipped to do that now. So it’s only natural that we’re going to want to continue rising. It really is difficult to resist having a go at the play-offs now.