Sunday, 5 November 2017

03/11/17 Review: Notts County vs Bristol Rovers

Notts County 4-2 Bristol Rovers (FA Cup First Round)
Meadow Lane

For the second time this season, Pint of Football and Partizan Bristle were meeting-up for a weekend of football, beer and laughs galore as we made our separate ventures over to Nottinghamshire's County town for a Friday night FA Cup tie. Tom and his platoon of blue and white Gasheads had left from Bristol in the mid-afternoon and I set-off at a more leisurely time of 5pm from Stoke-on-Trent, with the plan to meet at the ground somewhere between 6:30 and 7pm. Knowing the the end of week traffic would be pretty hectic, I instead parked-up in Beeston and jumped on the 5 minute train into town in search of Notts County's Meadow Lane.

Next stop, Nottingham
Just over a year has now passed since Tom and I carried out our infamous weekend of madness in which we visited 4 games, in 4 days, in 4 countries and our British Isles conquest still goes down as our best tag-team effort yet. Having done Dundalk on the Friday for their title-winning final clash, before heading up to Belfast for a League game at Cliftonville's Solitude ground, we then flew back to England in time to make a Sunday trip to world-record holder TNS in Oswestry and then completed the stint with a Halloween outing to Keys Park, Hednesford. None of our exploits together have since matched, but with an FA Cup encounter pairing-up with a Saturday afternoon in Willenhall to see Sporting Khalsa at one of my all-time favourite grounds, this was still bound to be a great couple of days. This was coincidentally also my second time watching Bristol Rovers this season, sixth overall, and I was still yet to see a victory for the Gas- my record before the game was 5 draws 1 loss (after 90 minutes) and even though I would be seeing Rovers face a side from the division below, it was be bound to be a toughy as their opponents sit top of the League Two pile. Yes it is true that Notts County ended the 2016-17 campaign in a very uninspired 16th place, but with former Premier League forwards Jon Stead and Shola Ameobi up top you just never know what to expect. Ameobi, who scored 43 goals for Newcastle United in his 14 years at Tyneside and has also amassed 10 caps for Nigeria between 2012 and 2014, is a player I'd admired during my introduction to the game and I must admit I've probably seen many of his goals if not all of them on Match of the Day over the years. Additionally, County also had another veteran striker on the bench in the form of 37-year old Alan Smith and they also boast two of my favourite former Silkmen players as Shaun Brisley and Elliott Hewitt lined-up for what was bound to be an FA Cup Classic. I made my usual pre-match prediction and went for a 3-2 home victory, whilst Tom used his experience of traumatising and unsatisfactory away displays to predict a 2-0 loss for the Gas.

The bright lights looking ready for a night of FA Cup action
Back to my trip and I'd made it into the city centre, which I had familiarised myself with over the Summer as I spent a night here on a Stag-Do for my mate Sam. Knowing little of this part of the city apart from the train station, the hotel we'd stay in and Hooter's, I headed over to the latter for a pint whilst waiting for the lads to arrive. From the bar I was able to see Meadow Lane and soon enough I got the call from Tom to say that they'd arrived. Even from the outside, Meadow Lane didn't quite look like it should be the home of England's oldest Football League club and the modern style of this twenty thousand capacity ground seemed like many a generic ground I've seen at this level. Having had the delights of visiting the country's oldest ground, Hallam's Sandygate, during the FA Cup Qualifiers back in August, you must forgive my snobbish attitude towards stadia like this. I soon met Tom and the gang after arriving and we headed into the Jimmy Sirrel Stand with half an hour until kick-off.

7:45pm, game time
The view of the pitch was excellent and for an away day this was a very good place to be in my opinion. I know that a lot of visiting fans prefer to be behind the goal where they can huddle together and get the chants going as a more menacing crowd that comes close to the kop end at their own ground, but for me I prefer to be near the half-way line and getting an even view of the whole game. I'm obviously a typical neutral fan. The game started off with a very high-tempo and it would set the tone for a chance-filled evening at both ends with Rory Gaffney, supposedly the most deadly striker in Europe if you believe the weird and wonderful "Expected Goals" formula, going close in the first minute. Despite the horrid kit clash on display, there was no confusion amongst the away side when popping the ball about in the early stages, with a goal coming as early as the 8th minute. Joe Partington set the tone with a scrumptious cross from right-back and Liam Sercombe would be there to head the ball in and give Rovers an early lead to the delight of the few hundred surrounding me. Notts Co 0-1 Rovers. This positive start may have settled a few pessimist's nerves but not all of them, and table-topping County would look to get back level as soon as they had the chance- however it would be a two-goal deficit that they would need to chase as Rovers scored again in the 12th minute. A corner was taken on the left-wing by Chris Lines and the minuscule midfielder Stuart Sinclair found a gap in the Notts defence which allowed him to head home for his second goal of the season. Notts Co 0-2 Rovers.

It's all Rovers so far
Could it be that I was finally going to see Bristol Rovers win a game? Don't speak too soon. Despite their brilliant start, The Magpies would certainly not be beaten with just 12 minutes gone and they soon made their first meaningful chance- with former Bristol City striker Stead having his close-range header saved at point-blank range by Adam Smith in the Rovers goal. Kevin Nolan and his lads soon grew into the game and the fans eventually began to shout from the Spion Kop. The drums soon began to play from the home end and a cocky selection of Rovers fans aptly responded with a verse of "you only sing when you're drumming, sing when you're drumming", but the smiles would prove to soon be wiped off of the faces of the travelling Bristolians. On the half-hour mark Ryan Yates, on-loan from neighbours Forest, got his head on an expertly-placed free-kick and the comeback was on. Notts Co 1-2 Rovers. Just a minute later County gained themselves a corner and after some sloppy defending it was the 19-year old Yates in the right place again to grab the equaliser. Notts Co 2-2 Rovers. The match remained at 2-all until the break and it was during the half-time pint that we discussed another crumbling Rovers defensive display. Notts County, who remind me of the sort of team that I'd build on Football Manager when the game was 4 or 5 seasons in and all your old favourite players were old free agents, were truly matching up to some of their other impressive displays this season and for the Gas it was largely the same in terms of inconsistency and goals a plenty. During a pit-stop at the urinal, one half-cut Gashead proclaimed to me that Darrell Clarke should change from the largely disappointing 4-1-2-1-2 formation to a 4-5-2. I couldn't tell if he was making a humorous comment about not bothering with a keeper or if he just couldn't count to 11, so I just nodded in agreement.

12-man Rovers take to the field for part two
The second-half started with Notts continuing to dominate and with DC refusing to take on the advise of the drunken toilet fan, things didn't look likely to change on the field. Tom nicely summarised the display of Sinclair, the attacking point of the diamond, by stating that he had the positional play of a sausage roll and I couldn't really argue with his point- although I did now feel hungry for some pastry goodness. The inevitable fifth goal of the day was soon scored and it was Jon Stead who finished off his fourth goal of the season. Notts Co 3-2 Rovers. A flare was released from the kop end and even with over 30 minutes left, there was a distinct feel that the pendulum would not be swinging back around in Rovers' favour. A bunch of County Stewards emerged in their hi-vis jackets looking like a bold bunch of extras from Lord of the Rings, but there was no trouble at all amongst the very well-behaved away fans on this occasion. Ellis Harrison came on towards the back-end of the game, but aside from a couple of runs around the halfway line and an assist for a chance, he was as ineffective as the others surrounding him. In the 87th minute Rovers fan Gale got his wish as he got to see Alan Smith come off the bench, shouting "how does this compare to playing in a Champions League Semi-Final?" as he trotted on, but the former England international would only play a cameo role in his side's joy as he was on the field for an injury time fourth for County. Terry Hawkridge headed past a sleepy Rovers defence and Jorge Grant had no difficulty in passing the ball around the away keeper and into the net. Notts Co 4-2 Rovers.

Cue mass exit from the Rovers faithful
Full-time soon came about and after heading back to the car with the lads Tom had travelled up with, we went our separate ways as we wandered back into town for a post-match beer and an eventual trip on the tram back to Beeston- the result of us missing the last train by one minute. Overall I would say that Meadow Lane, which is a cross between Molineux and Vale Park in terms of layout and style, was as decent albeit generic as a ground you'd expect to see in the fourth tier of English football and with an attendance of just over 4,000 in tonight I was hardly blown away by the volume of either set of fans. The fact that it is a ground within walking distance of the railway station and the game itself was a great one for the neutral made it one that I'll certainly remember, but on a weekend that also involves a trip to the Aspray Arena it is always come to come in second-place!

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