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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

Why are the oldest professional football club in the world staring into the abyss?

In the latest of our Football's Front Lines series, we visit Notts County as they sit on the brink of relegation from the Football League for the first time in their history

In the summer of 2019, a terribly sad task in could take place for the first time in football history.

Across the top of the Jimmy Sirrel stand at Notts County’s Meadow Lane stadium runs a huge banner emblazoned with the words ‘THE OLDEST LEAGUE CLUB IN THE WORLD’.

In a few months’ time, on a Monday morning no doubt, the sign may have to be removed by a member of the club’s maintenance staff.

Six points adrift at the bottom of League Two, Notts are staring into the abyss.

“The World’s Oldest Football League Club” – but for how long?

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“The World’s Oldest Football League Club” – but for how long?

The historic club are showing few signs of reversing their decline, with only four wins under their belt in 28 this campaign.

131 years after they helped create the first football league in world football, the Magpies have 18 games to stave off the threat of non-league football — something they’ve never experienced in their unparalleled history.

“To fall out of the league and lose that title would be disastrous,” says Paul Smith from the Gerrit Forward blog.

“Financially, for attracting new supporters, but also the standard of football will be difficult. It’s such a hard league to come back from.”

Proudly displayed in the reception of the club, Notts helped form the Football League 131 years ago

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Proudly displayed in the reception of the club, Notts helped form the Football League 131 years ago

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it’s gone wrong for Notts.

They were relegated from League One in 2015 but have remained a very steady League Two side since then — they finished fifth last season.

But since being humbled in the play-offs by Coventry, it has been a sharp downward spiral for the East Midlanders.

Some fans say the recruitment has been poor, with big new signings not performing.

Others blame the high turnover of managers at Meadow Lane — the club have welcomed and waved goodbye to 16 in the past decade.

Harry Kewell was supposed to be the man to provide the consistency and push Notts towards a second successive title tilt.

Instead, as is the way of those before him, he lasted just 15 matches, with only three wins to his name.

He was sacked merely 16 days after he claimed management was ’10 times better than playing’.

Meanwhile, some fans blame owner Alan Hardy, who has learned a few tough lessons in his first two years in the football industry since buying the club in January 2017.

Kewell was not the Messiah, nor a naughty boy… just not quite up to the job

PA:Empics Sport
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Kewell was not the Messiah, nor a naughty boy… just not quite up to the job

“It’s very disjointed from top to bottom – there’s been a few changes in directors and changes in management haven’t helped,” says Smith.

“There’s ability on the pitch, but the new signings haven’t fitted the system and that’s where it’s gone wrong.”

It’s not a heady cocktail of wrong decisions and mismanagement, more a weak squash.

Nor is it a spectacular bombing out of the League, akin to the likes of Leyton Orient, York City and Chesterfield in recent years.

Simply put, Notts County are sleepwalking towards the cliff edge and, try as they might, can’t wake from their doomed slumber.

The fans haven’t given up.

Over 15,000 supporters took advantage of a £2 ticket deal last Saturday against fellow strugglers Cambridge United, who themselves sit perilously close to the drop.

15,000 fans suggest Notts are thriving, but on the pitch is a different matter

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15,000 fans suggest Notts are thriving, but on the pitch is a different matter

With so much at stake, you would have expected the home side to come out swinging, using the crowd to their advantage.

Instead, it was an insipid, toothless, uninspiring display that convinced me only a miracle would ensure their future in the Football League.

A looping header from Greg Taylor in the first half was enough for the visiting side — one-nil to the U’s, see you in a couple of seasons’ time, perhaps?

To most football fans outside the city of Nottingham, it’s easy to forget just how influential Notts County have been on the world’s favourite game.

From helping create the first league in history, to lending their black and white colours to Italian giants Juventus, the threat to their ever-present status in the Football League is growing greater by the week.

35-year-old Jon Stead has scored nine goals this season, but will it be enough to keep Notts up?

PA:Empics Sport
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35-year-old Jon Stead has scored nine goals this season, but will it be enough to keep Notts up?

“If we get relegated I think I’ll actually cry, I’m not joking,” says Colin Metcalf outside the bustling Meadow Lane turnstiles.

“It’ll be horrific. We’re very proud of our status as the oldest professional league club. It’ll be disastrous… financially, for the community, for the fans, it’ll be a total disaster.”

Notts have four months to preserve a status they have maintained for 131 years.

Following their defeat to Cambridge at the weekend, the PA system blared out Temper Trap’s ‘Sweet Disposition’ – deliberately so, I’d like to think.

As the crowd flooded out of Meadow Lane, the lyrics ‘won’t stop ‘til it’s over’ rang around the stadium.

While the management and players haven’t given up yet, it’s hard not to think Notts County’s time in the Football League may finally be coming to an end.

Proof that nothing in football is guaranteed to last forever.

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