While there is a certain inevitability about this home victory, it's only August and these two clubs have very different expectations and requirements from a season in League One, writes Julian McDougall
Away, at Hillsborough. In the days leading up to and following this match, it is in the news again with speculation about relatives of the 1989 disaster victims getting access to crucial documents and Billy Bragg releasing a song about the phone hacking scandal called Scousers Never Buy The Sun.
Leaving the tram at Leppings Lane, it is impossible not to reflect on the fact that Sheffield Wednesday play at a ground which is known worldwide for a game they didn't take part in. That is a shame, for while Notts County fans like myself might scoff at the "sleeping giant" label the Owls share with Forest among others, the city is full of blue and white stripes on this August day.
Being in the third division means very different things to the two clubs. For Wednesday, promotion is mandatory. Indeed, the general wisdom is that even playing at League One is somehow beneath both Sheffield clubs. For County, bizarre and unethical business practices, in the form of the Munto Finance affair, have led to something of an identity crisis. The 2009-10 season saw a shady group of financiers and a Swiss holding company take over the club, claiming to have Premier League budgets and ambitions.
Sven-Göran Eriksson and Sol Campbell followed the dream, the latter for one match, and by Christmas it was all over. But, by then, Notts had assembled a team that would go on to win the league and attract a takeover from local tycoon Ray Trew. That promotion, survival and a good start mean the oldest League club sit in fourth place in League One, after years at the lower reaches of the next level down.
Other supporters seemed to have a soft spot for County previously. Has this now been replaced by hostility due to perceived cheating on the way to that surreal promotion? Not according to the Wednesday fans I speak to today, who are sympathetic, seeing their guests as the victims of a scam. Notts' supporters, meanwhile, are reflective – angered by Munto's deception but happy to concede that it turned out well in the end with a new benefactor and promotion.
In the dugouts are two managers with chequered pasts. For County, there is Martin "Mad Dog" Allen, in his seventh job in eight years, all but one of which were in the lower leagues. The travelling fans see him as a vulnerable employee of a trigger-happy chairman and would be happy with mid-table mediocrity. But, as more than one fan comments, "knowing Notts, it won't work out like that".
On the other bench is Gary Megson, conceivably aggrieved at having fallen down the ladder since his heyday at West Brom. Home fans have faith, though, he's "Wednesday through and through", as was his father. While a new striker is wanted, there is praise for Megson's style of football and summer signing David Prutton has impressed in early games.
Allen and his striker Lee Hughes place flowers on the Leppings Lane End and are completely ignored by the home supporters. Hughes will be reminded of his crime – he was jailed for killing a man in a drink-driving incident and fleeing the scene – throughout the game. Thinking of Wednesday in the present tense is made harder when they run out to Simple Minds' Waterfront. From the kick-off, it's obvious that the hosts can pass and that Notts will have to try to stop them.
Prutton is the key man. At 29 years old, and having appeared for Forest, Southampton, Leeds and Colchester before being relegated with Swindon, he is unrecognisable from the player I saw last season. Notts play the long ball and there's a sense of inevitability about the Owls scoring. Nicky Weaver in the Wednesday goal, surely playing below his real level, has good reason to look relaxed. Then a dodgy penalty is awarded out of the blue for a Chris Lines handball and Jeff Hughes puts the visitors in front, scoring in the bottom right-hand corner, despite Weaver choosing the right direction for his stretching dive. It's unjustified and there's a sense of familiar dismay in the ground. Megson, according to the away end will be "sacked in the morning".
Wednesday spread the ball around through to half-time with a background of parping from the opinion-dividing brass band. But the strikers are inept, as though they want to remind Prutton of his lowly new status. Notts labour and toil – the plan seems to be to let the home side dampen the crowd's enthusiasm and then feed on the spoils. The black and white army are easily pleased – one passing move and a wide shot from 30 yards and "it's just like watching Juve". That comparison will be more pertinent in a few weeks time, when County travel to Turin to take part in the first game in the new Juventus Arena. The invitation is due, as pub quizzers will know, to County having loaned black and white striped shirts to Juve in their early days.
Hughes provides his usual semi-fit but irksome presence, seemingly boosted by his villainous status with the home crowd. In the first half, Megson seemed to want his team to pass it more in League One than he ever did in the Premier League. The home supporters maybe agree with me that they're trying to play too much football by offering the loudest support of the day for a clattering late tackle. Prutton is clearly the best player on the park but his swashbuckling invention is muffled by Neal Bishop's industry – artistry versus mixing it.
The fourth official offers a solitary minute extra "in association with Specsavers" and there's loud booing on the whistle. Wednesday fans are in a black mood, with constant reference to a home win against Rochdale on the opening day, which was followed by two away defeats. Megson's programme notes and the comments in the pie queue cite this performance as a benchmark. I dare not suggest that maybe Rochdale just aren't very good, or had a poor pre-season.
After five minutes of the second half, I know Wednesday will win ugly. Megson has clearly seen the problem and his team are now combining neat midfield play with aggression and urgency. Notts need to respond but they lack control and composure. When Mad Dog goes berserk over a wrong throw-in decision, that fatalistic sixth sense of the long-suffering fan of a crap team kicks in.
Sure enough, 20 seconds later Hillsborough is rocking in celebration. Like a sulking teenager, Notts' defence had responded to the injustice of the throw-in by refusing to clear the ball. After a looping cross from the otherwise terrible Clinton Morrison is ignored by the opposition, Julian Bennett volleys crisply into the roof of the net. There is far too long left. Now Wednesday can relax and go back to the neat passing and movement, but with the luxury of impetus.
Allen brings on Cristian Montano but, when put through on goal, he can't compose himself to cut inside. Prutton maintains a walking pace, like a poor man's Zidane, refusing to slum it with Bishop, waiting for a chance to raise the tone. Or perhaps he's just unfit? Then it happens, one turn, a look up and a pass that takes five County players out of the game. Lewis Buxton's overlap meets this wonderful dissection and his low cross is hammered in by Gary Madine. 2-1. And if it wasn't game over at that point, it is a few minutes later when Bishop is given a second yellow card for diving, fouling or both. Wednesday are firmly in control.
Craig Westcarr, who five days later will leave County for Chesterfield, comes on and misses two good chances within the four minutes Specsavers give us. Yes, we need a striker. Moments like this make me feel sorry for a manager. He brings on a sub who blazes over two sitters. If the player scores one, it is an inspired change. I am enough of an idiot to feel better slightly because Mad Dog is jumping up and down like a maniac. Megson is not, and is winning.
Untypically, the home fans save the first cries of "scabs" until just ten minutes to go and even then there's little conviction, as though it was just a box to tick, a legacy to observe. (Sheffield fans still hold a grudge based on Nottingham miners breaking the strike in the 1980s, although actually the strikebreakers were from Mansfield.)
Waiting for the interviews, I hear Westcarr confirm to Bishop that his sending off was "fucking ridiculous, by the way", but he seems amazed when the club's website reporter suggests he might have equalised. "It's a great day out, great atmosphere, they're much bigger than us but we come here to win," says Allen. "We're proper full on, we give everyone a game." The interpretation is that Notts pushed the home side all the way, were unlucky and there wasn't much to distinguish the two sides. I do not concur. The team are constantly referred to as "great lads" which seems like a marked and deliberate contrast to the allegedly cold and alienating manner of Paul "the Guv'nor" Ince who, anecdote has it, routinely rescheduled training around his golf and made players abundantly aware of their shortcomings.
By contrast, the victorious Megson wants to take the credit for his management of Madine, who hadn't scored in the first four games but was told to simply get closer to the goal. "Right in front of goal, not near, not far, just keep going in there all the time because the ball eventually drops there. If he keeps doing that, he will get goals." And then, like a sitcom character who can't stop talking of past glories, he compares this to similar instructions given to Kevin Davies at Bolton. Davies had never scored double figures in a season, he says, until he gave him this same advice. "That season he scored 13. Not being Alf Ramsey, but all we told him was whenever the ball's coming across go into that area where it's difficult to miss."
On the tram Wednesday fans declare that the second-half response was more appropriate to the level at which they find themselves. Notts are seen as a typically physical away team seeking to stop them playing. For County it is still a good start to take six points from the first available 12, given that they only stayed up on the final day in May after Ince presided over a spectacular freefall after drawing with Roberto Mancini's millionaires in the FA Cup. (Bishop was the hero that day.) Mid-table stability is desirable for Notts but unacceptable to Wednesday. It's a matter of faith.
From WSC 296 October 2011