Notts County will host Barnet at a quieter than usual Meadow Lane on Saturday for their National League play-off semi-final.
It will be just the 133 days since they last took the field – yet they are still pursuing the same prize.
A win will not only secure them a chance to return to the Football League at the first time of asking, but it will also give them the opportunity to walk out at Wembley on August 2.
For some weeks it looked like as if County’s hopes of promotion would be dashed by COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown. On April 22, the National League announced the suspension of the competition, to the frustration of the Magpies. But on June 18 the play-offs were given the go-ahead, with County finishing third on an unweighted points-per-game system.
Barnet, who finished eleventh squeezed into the play-offs through that system, before beating Yeovil Town 2-0 last Saturday in the eliminator. County manager Neal Ardley said: “It’s always going to be unfair on someone no matter what the decision you made was, the worst thing that could have happened was for the season to be null and void.”
The Magpies were flying before lockdown, winning their last four league games, and sitting top of the form table. “Prior to lockdown, I felt we had a real momentum, and it is always going to be difficult for that to still be there,” Ardley said. The gap between fixtures is longer than the gap between seasons so trying to recapture that form might be an impossible task. County midfielder Jim O’Brien said: “that form counts for nothing now.”
The players have been back at Meadow Lane for several weeks preparing for this fixture. “The first day back felt a lot like the start of pre-season,” said O’Brien. During lockdown the players had to make sure they kept their fitness levels at a high standard. O’Brien bought himself a spin bike and ran 5Ks regularly. Each player was supplied with fitness programme by the club. Ardley said: “Some have taken a bit of time to get up to speed and others have been flying from the outset.”
Playing a competitive game at Meadow Lane without the support of their loyal supporters will be a new challenge for the players, and one that Ardley has been trying to prepare them for. “This is something new for everyone involved, we will definitely miss not having the support of our fans, but we have to adjust,” Ardley said. But O’Brien was clear that motivation would not be a problem. “If you can’t bring it for a semi-final than you probably shouldn’t be playing,” he said.
Barnet, having won on Saturday, have already played a game behind closed doors and are already up to speed. Ardley said: “The loss of our faithful supporters and the fact Barnet have already played probably gives them a slight edge, but we’re not going to make excuses.”
Barnet did defeat County, 2-1, the only time that they’ve met this season and one of only two games that the Magpies have lost at Meadow Lane this term. Ardley was bullish though: “I don’t think the previous loss to Barnet has any bearing on what will happen on Saturday”
With County’s pedigree and squad depth and higher finishing position it is easy to make the case that all the pressure is on them, but the manager has been keen to deflect that. “Notts fans should be excited for the long-term plan. It is important we get promoted soon, but it is not all about this season,” he said.
Ardley emphasised that the club had been plunged into disarray by last season’s relegation from the Football League and that they started this campaign with just one win in their frist 12 games.
The aim for County on Saturday is simple, Ardley said: “Bring smiles to faces in Nottingham.”
Notts County v Barnet (5pm), Saturday July 25, BT Sport.
By Alex Brinton