Kevin Nolan’s Notts County top of League Two and set to stay there

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NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 07: Kevin Nolan of Notts County congratulates Shola Ameobi after the Sky Bet League Two match between Notts County and Forest Green Rovers at Meadow Lane on October 7, 2017 in Nottingham, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Kevin Nolan’s Notts County made a return to the top of SkyBet League Two on Saturday after a 2-1 home victory against Barnet. Goals from Shola Ameobi and Mark Yates sealed the victory, and ensured the Meadow Lane club leapfrogged Exeter City into first position.

It was 36-year-old Ameobi’s birthday in midweek, and he celebrated by scoring with a header on 16 minutes after a Rob Milsom corner. Yates also scored by the same means, glancing in a Mark Tootle cross in the second half. Jorge Grant and Ameobi also missed glorious opportunities to consolidate County’s lead, whilst Jon Stead looked a little off colour considering his recent form.

Simeon Akinola scored with an instinctive finish on 81 minutes to cause a nervous conclusion to the game, and former Magpie Jamal Campbell-Ryce was a threat throughout for the away side. Regardless, Notts never looked like giving the result away.

After the match, Kevin Nolan said his side have yet to reach their full potential even after topping the table. The 35-year old admitted that the ‘pies also rode their luck at times during the game. Fortune has little to do with County’s current league position, however. The Grecians are indeed breathing down their necks in second place, but nobody expected the Magpies to be where they are at the start of this season.

Nolan took over at Notts County in January. Under John Sheridan, they had lost ten consecutive games, were 23rd in League Two and were staring at the relegation trap door. The player-manager has turned County’s fortunes around completely, and they can be expected to stay at the top of the table for many weeks to come.

A tactical blend

35-year-old Nolan has got Sam Allardyce’s tactics in his DNA. This is understandable, having played under the former England boss at three different Premier League clubs. There is an element of grit in his philosophy, which is sometimes a necessity in lower league football.

The astute Liverpudlian gaffer has done much more than advocate ‘route one’ football, however. Nolan’s side have won nine league games so far and have dropped just ten points out of a potential 39. Their style of play going forward is undoubtedly a blend of possession-based football and a more robust, Allardyce-esque approach.

Forest loanee Jorge Grant has bagged seven league goals already this season. Grant, along with Lewis Alessandra and new signing Tony Hawkridge, have provided a cutting edge which has been lacking in recent seasons. Up front, veteran targetmen Jonothan Forte, Jon Stead and and Shola Ameobi have also netted a combined seven goals. All three would struggle to get on the pitch at the same time, but provide the experience which is needed at this level.

33.3 per cent of County’s goals have come in the last 15 minutes of matches. This is just under double the number compared to any other period in games. They are also the third highest scorers in League Two.

Defensive Core

Defensively, they are robust and organised. Goalkeeper Adam Collin has kept six clean sheets and is having an excellent second campaign at the club, whilst Shaun Brisley and Richard Duffy have played every league game together at centre-back, providing a solid platform for keeping it tight at the back.

The only area which could do with some improvement is at full-back. Matt Tootle is faultless going forward, as demonstrated by his rampaging runs and crossing ability, and has produced three assists in his last five games. On the other side, left-back Carl Dickinson also hit a belter of a 25-yard free kick against Mansfield Town. The pair’s defensive capabilities, however, have been called into question recently against Barnet and Forest Green Rovers. Both were at fault for the late goals conceded and often fail to track back in games.

Nolan also needs to settle between Tootle and Nicky Hunt at right-back with regards to who is first on the teamsheet. Yet he’s certainly made his teams incisive in attack and difficult to beat defensively. He has acquired the necessary equilibrium between youth and experience in his squad.

A strong partnership with the chairman

Nolan and chairman Alan Hardy have reinstalled the feel-good factor around Meadow Lane which had been absent for years. In press conferences, the admiration between the pair is evident. Nolan is grateful for being given the financial freedom to sign 12 players during the transfer window; the latest arrival was Forest Green’s Liam Noble last week.

Hardy has also invested heavily in the academy and often coaches the youth teams. The Nottinghamshire Golf Club owner also saved non-league side Ilkeston F.C from extinction by taking over ownership at the New Farm Ground.

That 3-0 win in Devon three weeks ago proved Nolan’s team can beat anyone in this division. With their recent form and the buzz around Meadow Lane, County certainly have the ability to remain at the summit for the rest of the campaign.

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I am primarily interested in and write about lower league English football, I support Bristol City and follow Nottingham Forest and Notts County. Cricket, in particular Somerset and England as well as Bath Rugby include some of my other sport writing interests as well as European and Premier League football. In terms of previous and current sports journalism experience, I was sport editor of my university’s radio station and magazine last year, have been nominated for Student Publication Awards and Student Radio Awards and have had work experience at two regional newspapers. I am also currently studying for a masters degree in broadcast journalism.

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