Notts County will be playing one of the biggest games in their recent history when they take on Harrogate Town in a National League play-off final at Wembley tomorrow.
At stake is a place in the Football League – somewhere County feel they belong, having played over 4,000 times at that level. Their opponents, on the other hand, have never featured outside of non-League.
The Magpies booked their place at Wembley with a 2-0 win over Barnet at Meadow Lane last Saturday, in changeable Nottingham conditions. It was a stunning Cal Roberts goal, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lionel Messi highlight reel, that put the game to bed in the 67th minute.
Notts boss Neal Ardley said: “After the game on Saturday we were keen to emphasise to the players that beating Barnet was just getting the first part done. I couldn’t really celebrate. I drove back to London to see my family in thunder, lightning and pouring rain on the M1 and then had glass of red when I got home, so that’s about as good as it got for me.”
The Magpies defeated Harrogate 2-0 when the two sides met on August 13, just the 353 days ago. This was County’s only victory in their first nine games as they got off to a troubling start. Ardley said: “That game is irrelevant. It was just an end-to-end, 100-miles-an-hour game and we weren’t the same team we are now.”
A victory on Sunday would see County return to the Football League at the first attempt, an achievement that can’t be understated. Bristol Rovers were the last team to do so, back in 2015, but they needed a penalty shoot-out in the final.
The achievement would be a particularly notable, the state the Magpies found themselves in at the end of the last term having been relegated and staring down the barrel of deep financial trouble.
They were relegated in front of 2,300 loyal County fans, away at Swindon Town. Ardley said: “I felt like a failure that day and going on the track record of Notts managers I didn’t fully expect to keep my job.” They were saved when Danish brothers Cristoffer and Alexander Reedtz brought the club on July 26, 2019. “To give the owners the success that they deserve in their first year would be fantastic,” said Ardley.
This season has been nothing if not testing for County, and although they do have a chance to bounce back at the first attempt, a loss on Sunday shouldn’t overshadow how far the club has come in the last 12 months. “A win on Sunday, really would be the icing on the cake, but regardless I am really pleased with how the season has gone. We can’t let Sunday define the work that we have done,’ said Ardley.
Ardley has led a team out at Wembley before when he was manager of AFC Wimbledon. On that day he came out on top against Plymouth Argyle. “When I was a kid all I wanted to do was lead my team out at Wembley. The fact I have done it before and been successful at Wimbledon is an advantage. I worked a lot with a sports psychologist then and it helped me understand that I can win the game as a manager, but I need to make sure I am the coolest man in the stadium.”
This will be County’s first visit to the new Wembley, in fact they have not visited the famous North London postcode since 1996 when they were defeated 2-0 by Bradford City in third tier play-off final.
The prospect of a penalty shoot-out is not something that either side will be looking forward to, but Notts have been preparing for every eventuality. “We did have shoot-outs after our friendlies before the Barnet game, but we are keen not to overload it. Whatever you do you can’t recreate the pressure of a shoot-out,” said Ardley.
He said: “I expect a high-tempo game, they [Harrogate] play with great intensity, but we have to play our game as well and I am sure we will do that.”
As for Ardley’s last words to his players: “Stay calm and stay together” something all County fans will be hoping they do come 3pm on Sunday.
Harrogate Town v Notts County (3pm) Sunday August 2, BT Sport
By Alex Brinton