Sometimes seeing English soccer games feels like watching Single-A baseball. Such was the case when I visited Notts County (then) of League Two in December, 2015.
After catching a Boxing Day game at Brentford in London, I rolled into Nottingham on December 27 sick as a dog – head cold, migraine, exhaustion, the whole thing – so I gave in, skipped the planned game at Nottingham Forest and took a long nap, then went to bed!
Then the next day I dropped about 40-something places down the football pyramid to see a game at the “other” club in town, Notts County.
I should first explain that Notts seems a completely acceptable nickname for Nottingham. I’ve seen forest referred to as Notts Forest, and in the case of “County,” as they’re known, it’s the official name.
Their main, perhaps only, claim to fame is that they are the oldest still-running professional football club in the world. Seriously. They were formed in 1862, were original members of the Football League, and they stuck around. They haven’t won much — FA Cup 1894! — but they are still here.
When I visited in January 2016, Notts County was 16th in League Two, which translates into 84th out of 92 professional clubs. Their opponent for the day: Morecambe United, was the No. 86 team in the land.
(Update from 2020: Notts County have, since my visit, been relegated out of the Football League for the first time in their history and are now in the National League at tier 5 of the pyramid.)
County’s ground, Meadow Lane, is closer to their better-known neighbors than are any two other grounds in the country, as you can see in this overhead shot from my walking tour the morning of the game.
And yes, they are rivals, but with Forest three leagues ahead, they don’t play each other too often. Apparently Mansfield Town is the big game down where County is now. The River Trent flows between Meadow Lane and Forest’s City Ground, by the way. The proximity is even more stark in this shot from the County ticket office queue.
This should give you some idea of what it’s like to go to a game at Notts County. Where Forest wouldn’t sell me a ticket over the phone or online (security, they say), at County I just walked up the office and said, “One for the main stand, please.” I spent 25 pounds, which was more than necessary, but I like a good seat.
It’s really a small-town, old-fashioned feel. I woke up, decided to go catch a game, and walked along the canal …
… past the Hooters …
… got my ticket, and went into the ground. Simple!
Considering the team is so far down the leagues, Meadow Lane is a heck of a stadium – 20,000 seats or so, and a nice modern place. Of course, there were nowhere near that many people around for the big Morecambe match.
Even fewer folks had made the 160-mile trip from Morecambe for a festive season Sunday afternoon tilt – though one of them did bring a big drum to cheer on the Shrimps. Yes, the Shrimps.
I grabbed a pie and a Sprite, my usual pregame meal, and checked the lineups with the other blokes – not that I could name a single player for either team, of course, but it seemed the thing to do.
And … we’re off!
From the start, several things were obvious to me. First, these players seemed actually human, as opposed to the intergalactic stars you see at Premier League clubs. They were in all different sizes and shapes, and it was clear many of them would never “make it,” any more than most guys at a Single-A baseball team in, say, Topeka, are going to make it.
Second, the County manager seemed a bit of an odd bird, with super tight pants, a fur-collared jacket, and a constant array of shouts and gesticulations.
Morecambe got a quick goal for a 1-0 lead, then they were awarded a penalty. I took a video of it – a classic case of “Yay!” turning quickly into “D’Oh!” And the Morecambe Dozens went berserk.
Notts got one back before halftime, which limited the cursing and bitching a little. I stepped out for a Twix bar among the drinking and smoking locals …
… and considered popping into whatever Lawtons is – though I didn’t want to be stared at. I actually looked it up, and Tommy Lawton was England’s No. 1 center forward in 1948 when he signed with Division 3 County — because he told somebody he’d sign with them wherever he got a manager’s job! Like one blogger put it, imagine Wayne Rooney signing for Accrington Stanley in 2016.
Anyway, I went back out and watched the Kiddie Football Halftime Show, wondering if perhaps I was seeing the peak experience of some little tyke’s life. A sweet idea which, one hopes, isn’t really true.
I don’t honestly recall much of the second half, except that County scored again, the game ended 2-2, and there was a general harrumph at the final whistle. For County fans it was, at least, a point, which wasn’t bad after being down 0-2 in half an hour. The Morecambians (I guess?) went home a bit more disappointed, I would assume.
Here are the official highlights — and check out the celebration after the penalty! I was too busy scanning the Morecambe fans, and I missed it … well, see for yourself:
In the morning, by the way, the local paper told me I had seen the Crazy Manager’s final game in charge. They sacked him right after the game! Makes me wonder where he’ll wind up next, if he wasn’t good enough for this little club. (Update from 2018: the answer is Randers FC in the Danish Super League … for nine games.)
As is my way, I hung around afterwards, as long as the stewards would let me, to take some empty-stadium pictures.
And then I walked back up the canal to the city centre, popped into a nice little Indian place for dinner, and went back to my place to relax. Such a simple thing is football, really. I enjoyed having a little break from the “all that” of upper-league clubs. Sometimes you just want a pie and a nice afternoon at the ground.
Still, I left Nottingham in the morning full of anticipation for my trip to Leicester — some 82 spots up the leagues! (Read about that magical evening here.)