On November 23, 2018, Neal Ardley was appointed Notts County manager. Two years on he is attempting to reinstate the club formerly known as the “world’s oldest football league team” back where they belong.
I was at the game when Notts County were beaten in the semi-final of the Football League play-off in 2018. 4-1 was the final score line, though the numbers did not tell the whole story. County fell victim to two poor calls from the officials at crucial points in the second leg, having already been the receiving end of a bad call from the referee that awarded Coventry a penalty in the reverse fixture. Had it not been for those decisions, who knows, it may have been Notts County facing Exeter City in the final of the League 2 play-off’s that year. Coventry went on to win that final, gain promotion to League 1 and are now in the midst of a first season back in the Championship. The fortunes of Notts County could scarcely be any different. The club are now competing in their second season of non-league football.
Three months removed from County’s controversial exit in the play-offs, Kevin Nolan was sacked, replaced by former Liverpool midfielder Harry Kewell. It was an appointment that made little sense and indicated that the County board were not quite aware of the predicament that their side was in. With three wins from fourteen games, Kewell was let go after less than three months in the job: the side languishing 22nd in the table. If County executives were not mindful that The Magpies were in trouble before, they were now. The club realised they needed to bring in someone that could give them a good chance of avoiding relegation.
They went with Neal Ardley. A shrewd appointment many would agree given the situation County found themselves in, coupled with his experience of battling league 2 relegation. Ardley had spent six years coaching AFC Wimbledon, the club he made over 250 appearances for during his playing days. When he arrived at Wimbledon his side were attempting to avoid relegation themselves. He managed to beat the drop in his first couple of years and, having built a side equipped to compete, won promotion to League 1 for the first time in the club’s history in 2016. So, with County in a similarly unfavourable position to his former side when he took over, Ardley was appointed to do what he had done in those years at Wimbledon.
Sadly, having inherited a leaky defence and an ageing squad in dire need of an overhaul, he and County were unable to beat the drop that season. Despite battling on until the final day, a 3-1 defeat at Swindon confirmed County’s first ever relegation from the Football League. Consequently, on August 3rd, 2019, Notts County played Eastleigh away in what was their first non-League game in their (then) 157-year history.
Though a year later the Magpies suffered yet another heart-breaking end to their campaign, there were positives to take from Neal Ardley’s first full season at the helm. Their defensive resolve became a significant staple of their year. From conceding 84 goals in the 2018/19 season to just 38 in 38 games before the Coronavirus pandemic is testament to the effectiveness of his pragmatic 4-4-2 style of play. Whilst 2019 was a bleak year for the club, the December period garnered a manager of the month award for Ardely with three wins (including a 4-2 victory over fellow promotion hopefuls Halifax Town) and one draw. With 2020 on the horizon, the award indicated that results were certainly going in the right direction. In fact, following their defeat to Northampton Town in the FA cup second round on December 1st, 2019, County won ten and lost only two of their next sixteen games on route to the play-off final. If they can put a similar run together this season, they will be right up there come May 2021.
After a largely positive first season away from the football league, the boards faith in Ardley was agonisingly close to being repaid. County finished 3rd and, once football was to be resumed, a place in the National League play-offs awaited them. It started well enough, too. They bested Barnet 2-0 in the one-legged semi-final; practically wrapping the game up with two goals in the first half and limiting Barnet to few chances in the second. Ultimately, though, the season ended like the previous one – in disappointment. Defeat to Harrogate Town in front of an empty Wembley Stadium meant that the National League’s top two sides for the 2019/20 season were promoted to League 2.
Now eight games into his second full season, Neal Ardley’s men are mid-table with 4 wins and 9 points off fast starters Torquay United (albeit with a game in hand). Whilst it has not quite been the start Ardley was looking for, we have all seen how erratic results can be throughout all of football’s divisions during this Covid-19 football era. Last season underlined that Ardley is more than capable of putting a positive run of results together and as we head into the Christmas period and beyond, he will be hoping he can go one step further and return Notts County and their fans back to where they truly belong – the football league.
By Jack Thurlow