Help the aged: The decline of Notts County, the Football League’s oldest club

Tom Simmonds looks back over the ongoing decline of Notts County, the world’s oldest football league club – and asks if there’s any hope of a brighter future.

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Notts County fans have a chant which beautifully captures the thick hide of self-deprecating humour Meadow Lane patrons have had to grow as a misery-resistant defence mechanism in recent years. The ditty is an epigram which sums their club’s fate much better than any amount of statistical analysis can. It is:

“I had a wheelbarrow. The wheel fell off”.

Magpies fans who have endured their team’s recent travails would be forgiven for questioning the chant’s accuracy. Rather than a wheel-less barrow, County have had no sturdy container, wheels or no wheels, in which to transport their loads of late, rather resembling somebody in the throes of an undignified, drunken juggling act on a stagger home.

The way County have been run recently is a textbook example of how irrational behaviour at the top of institutions can frazzle the nerves of those further down the hierarchy. Jamie Fullarton’s sacking and his replacement by Mark Cooper has given the Magpies their 26th permanent manager since the days, 25 years ago, when they played in the top division for a single season under Neil Warnock in 1991-92.

That Fullarton was only appointed in January after Ricardo Moniz’s sacking is another example of how this managerial churn has become the norm at Notts. You need to go back to Ian McParland (sacked in October 2009) to find a gaffer who has overseen more than 100 matches.

While there have been islands of relative stability and success even amongst this tumult in the form of a couple of promotions from League Two in this time, it has been largely downhill all the way for County since their relegation from the top table the season before the Premier League began.

Even their 2009-10 League Two title was beset by controversy, after the surreal episode of their ‘takeover’ by Qadbak Investments and Munto Finance, a shadowy Virgin Islands-registered consortium. The not-unjustified accusations of financial doping from divisional rivals dogged them all season, and the Magpies faithful must have wondered if a large dose of hallucinogenic drugs had been placed in the tea when Sven-Goran Eriksson turned up in the dug-out, and the likes of Kasper Schmeichel and Sol Campbell (for one game) pulled on the black and white stripes adopted by Juventus. Munto’s money was as real as unicorn dung, and a winding-up order was served on the club’s parent company five months later.

Their expensively assembled squad managed to see that County won the title by 10 points, but the story since has been a familiar one. A near miss with the League One play-offs under Keith Curle’s management in 2011-12 was a mirage amongst five seasons of almost perpetual struggle; a struggle they lost last season, at the end of which they were dumped back into League Two, where they have underwhelmed and alarmed their fans in equal measure.

Of further concern is the state of the club’s off-pitch affairs. County have previously had near-death experiences at the hands of the banks and HMRC, in 2003 and in the aftermath of the Munto affair. Ray Trew, who bought the club in 2010, resigned as chairman and put the club up for sale following a 1-0 home loss to Leyton Orient in late February, citing “foul and mindless abuse” from fans as his reason.

County sit in 19th place on 41 points after Easter Monday’s 0-0 home draw with Wycombe, and should be safe this time, given how far behind them York and Dagenham, who occupy the relegation places, are. However the club is in ownership limbo yet again and something about this decline in playing fortunes feels inexorable. Couple that with the likelihood that there is something seriously structurally wrong with the organisation given the amount of upheaval it continues to absorb, then it seems sadly inevitable that the oldest league club in England will not be a league club for very much longer without root-and-branch reform.

Notts County fans – do you see any cause for hope in your club’s immediate future? What do you think needs to be done to get things looking up again?

Read more from Tom here!

Follow Tom on Twitter @TallulahOnEarth

1 Comment on Help the aged: The decline of Notts County, the Football League’s oldest club

  1. As someone who’s supported Notts (often from afar) since childhood in the 1950s I’d say that this is a pretty fair summary of the last few years. The key sentence includes the phrase “irrational behaviour at the top of institutions”, and makes a polite reference to the old proverb, apparently repeated by Mao Zedong “a fish rots from the head”. Personally, I’m relieved that the club is more or less safe this season and very pleased to see that it’s up for sale. Whoever buys it will be under no illusions, and it’s hard to imagine that they will make such a poor job of it as the current owners (Mr & Mrs Trew) and their hangers-on (like the now-departed Rodwell and Winter, and the current Branston).

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