SPY IN THE CAMP: Top six finish is a step too far again for inconsistent Notts County
Meadow Lane Kop regular BOBBY GAMBLE tells the Scunthorpe Telegraph why, despite looking a better team than a year ago, the Magpies may finish in a worse league position than they did in 2012/13.
Notts are nine points off the play-offs going into the final weeks of the season. Has their chance of a top six finish gone?
In my opinion, yes. Our poor home form this season has cost us plenty.
Our run-in looks as tough as anyone’s as well given we play six out of the current top seven in our last seven games.
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I don’t believe we’re good enough to get promoted based on our overall ability this year against teams above us in the table.
We’ve only won two games this season against ‘better opposition and they were in November and October respectively.
It would be a fair assessment to suggest we’ve under-performed this season, too.
Man-for-man you’d argue we’re a lot stronger than last season, with at least six of our summer signings, including Gary Liddle and Bartosz Bialkowski, all being mainstays in the first XI.
It is looking increasingly likely though that we’ll miss the play-offs by further this season than last.
They seemed to be in contention for promotion during the early part of the campaign. Why haven’t they been able to kick on?
I’m not exactly sure why we haven’t been able to kick-on beyond our positive start, that at one point left us only three places in the Football League behind Forest!
This year has been a carbon copy of the 2011/12 season, too, with a mid-season lull leading to the sacking of the manager.
I think it may be down to teams working us out quickly and us not responding in turn.
It became apparent against Doncaster early on that we weren’t good at closing down quick passing play and were suspect on the break.
Rob Jones’ presence in the heart of Donny’s defence probably didn’t help us either as any attempt to get out of jail by hoofing it up-field lead to the ball being nodded straight back.
Last season ended positively though, with a late play-off push leaving us only narrowly out of the money slots.
Here’s to hoping Chris Kiwomya can lead a late charge, albeit one that is possibly too little too late.
Goals look to have been shared around this season, but have they scored enough?
Goals have been an issue, for sure.
For most games, our starting 11 has less than 15 goals between them, when we all have hopes that one striker can push for 15 goals alone.
Yoann Arquin started positively, but really seems to have plateaued and has barely appeared on the score sheet since October.
Poor loan signings like Chris Iwelumo didn’t help either and although Francois Zoko has impressed on the ball and in open play, I think he’d be disappointed himself with his goal tally.
I suppose I should mention the elephant in the room as well.
In my opinion, letting Lee Hughes go to Port Vale was a huge error.
He was my favourite player, so in my biased and distorted viewpoint, he guarantees goals and already has a handful to his name at Vale.
Gate receipts have dropped since he has left as well and while there may be no relationship between the two factors, he’s a box-office footballer.
The decision to sack Keith Curle a month ago seemed to surprise most people outside of Meadow Lane. Was it the right one in your book?
I don’t believe Curle deserved to be sacked.
Results weren’t great at the time of his departure but from what the Twittersphere would have you believe, his man-management skills were excellent.
Dean Leacock described him as the best manager he’s ever had, which was seconded by left back Alan Sheehan.
During 2012 we averaged something like 1.7 points per game, which was the 10th highest in England. That suggests he was doing a good job.
The one thing I didn’t like about Curle’s leadership was his reluctance to try to punish opposition once we‘d taken a lead. Instead, we would put on a holding midfield player like Gavin Mahon or Hamza Bencherif in an attempt to protect our precious advantage, even if we‘d scored half an hour in.
Other than that, I thought he was doing good things for the team and the club and certainly hadn’t lost the dressing room despite a poor run of results.
They’ve gone through a few managers in the past few years. Are the Magpies too trigger happy?
Chris Kiwomya is our eighth permanent manager since October 2009, not to mention caretaker managers like Dave Kevan.
You‘d say yes, that’s too many, and although I wouldn’t quite describe Ray Trew as being in the Abramovich mould, he doesn’t seem shy to shake things up if the team aren’t performing.
On the other hand, you could argue that Keith Curle’s was the only sacking that was unjustified.
Martin Allen appeared to have completely lost the dressing room, Paul Ince didn’t impress many of the fans, nor did Craig Short.
Plus, our crazy Munto season where we lifted the League Two title included the left-field appointment of Hans Backe, which didn’t last, and then a brief spell from Steve Cotterill, where it became apparent early on that Cotterill didn’t seem to harbour long-term ambitions with the club.
Has Chris Kiwomya changed much since taking charge?
The most noticeable change is that we have reverted to playing four across the back whereas towards the end of Curle’s spell, we‘d begun playing 3-5-2.
What I liked about Kiwomya was that although four at the back may have been in his plans since the word go, he was patient in implementing it, bearing in mind the team would have spent the previous weeks in training acclimatising to a 3-5-2 formation.
Despite our game plan of keeping possession remaining the same both home and away, Kiwomya seems to be utilising Jeff Hughes for away games.
He has found himself on the bench lately in home fixtures, although his second half performance against Leyton Orient earned him a start against Preston on Tuesday.
Since Kiwomya has taken over, Andre Boucaud and Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s performance levels seem to have dropped.
Keith Curle instilled the term ‘express yourself’ into Notts’ play during his term in charge and although this seems like quite an ambiguous and indirect phrase, Boucaud and JCR seemed to flourish under it by playing with a lot of freedom and flair.
Does he deserve to get the job beyond the end of the season?
In all honesty, I don’t know yet. However, our lacklustre performance against Preston on Tuesday has influenced me slightly.
My concerns over whether Kiwomya can motivate the players have intensified, although Keith Curle is a tough act to follow on that front.
A lot will really depend on how we end the season.
We’d only lost once since he took over prior to Tuesday, albeit that most of those games have ended as draws.
I see no reason why he can’t take the reins into next season and beyond, providing he can turn draws into wins before the end of this term.
Steve Evans has been linked with the job and I’d settle for Kiwomya if he’s our alternative.
Karl Hawley returns to Meadow Lane with the Iron. What sort of reception will he get?
He should receive a good reception.
He was a good servant to the club and I think he was the only player we actually paid for in our promotion year.
Hawley always contributed well in open play, but rarely threatened enough in front of goal.
He was in competition with Luke Rodgers for the second striker’s spot alongside Lee Hughes for much of his time with us and Rodgers received the biggest ovation of the game when he returned to the lane with Portsmouth before Christmas.
Where will Saturday’s game be won or lost?
Notts should have enough quality to beat Scunthorpe if they are allowed to settle on the ball.
Where Scunny can hurt us is by pressing quickly and putting our back five under pressure, as we like to bring the goalkeeper into our play.
In the fixture earlier on in the season, Scunthorpe looked most threatening on the break I thought.
I remember a fantastic last-ditch tackle from Gary Liddle saved us when we were caught three-on-two from our one of our own corners.
Lee Hughes scored twice in the fixture last time to save us, too. He won’t be there to inflict the same damage this time round, though.