Football: New hope for the league's oldest boys

Forest are not the only Nottingham side enjoying a vintage season. Phil Shaw finds Notts County poised for an historic rise
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The Independent Online
THERE were no balloons or banners, no swarms of schoolboys clamouring to mob their heroes, and the loudest cheer came when "Birmingham 1 Forest 0" was flashed up several minutes after Pierre van Hooijdonk had made double Dutch of that scoreline. If promotion fever was in the air at Meadow Lane, it was the mildest of strains.

Notts County's 0-0 draw with Colchester brought them their 50th point from the last 57 in the Third Division. England's oldest club have won nearly half as many matches again as Manchester United, lost fewer than anyone except Arsenal and can still become the first team ever to gain promotion in March if they beat Leyton Orient at home next Saturday.

And yet this mixture of romance and records drew barely 6,000 to the compact, all-seated stadium that defiantly faces the red and white citadel across the Trent. County may be upwardly mobile again, but those citizens of Nottingham not committed to Forest remain distinctly underwhelmed.

The impending change of status will be their seventh in nine seasons, which sounds like the antithesis of dullness. However, some of the support lost during a five-year fall from the embryonic Premiership to the former Fourth Division is clearly waiting for signs that County's revival under Sam Allardyce can be maintained before returning.

"Considering there were only 300 from Colchester here, that was a pretty good gate today, one of our biggest this season," said Allardyce, their seventh manager of the 1990s. "We've encouraged a few more to come, and the way things are going we could have Manchester City and Stoke here in the Second Division, and Fulham, who are the Manchester United of that level.''

The former Bolton and Coventry defender took over 15 months ago when County were already doomed to the drop. Last June, he and his assistant, the ex-Sheffield Wednesday player Mark Smith, brought the squad back for training earlier than any club in the country to work on stamina and spirit.

With few additions - Dennis Pearce, Mark Robson and Andy Hughes might almost have been signed for the awe inspired by their surnames - they have amassed 85 points and a lead of 16. "There's no pressure on us, which is both nice and unusual for this stage," Allardyce said. "Pressure is a very tiring thing and it's been a long season for me and the boys. So to have that cushion is vital.

"I always think the hardest thing is to win from the front, but that's what we look like doing. You only have to look at Manchester United in recent weeks to realise what an achievement our run of 16 wins and only one defeat in 19 has been.''

Allardyce's wish now is for patience in the boardroom, where County have a history of acting in haste, and for funds to strengthen his side. Sacked by Blackpool after taking them to within a point of the First Division, he is under no illusions as to his likely fate should the loaves-and-fishes act fail next season.

"We know that if we're nowhere near after 10 games, it'll all change and the pressure comes back on. We have to live with it and guard against it, because the longer we stay the better job we'll do.''

Tony Lock, whose name suggested he might have been happier in tandem with Jim Laker at Trent Bridge than with the lumbering Mark Sale in Colchester's attack, had chances to inflict a unique double on County. But even on an off-day, there was evidence to suggest that at least one flock of footballing Magpies can look forward to some much-needed stability next season.

Notts County (4-4-2): Ward; Hendon, Strodder, Dyer, Pearce; Finnan, Hughes (Cunnington, 84), Robinson, Robson; Jones (Lormor, 84), Farrell (Jackson, 84).

Colchester United (3-5-2): Emberson; Greene, Skelton (Haydon, 90), Wilkins; Dunne, Buckle, Gregory, Abrahams (Duguid, 62), Betts; Sale (Forbes, 76), Lock.

Referee: E Lomas (Manchester).

Bookings: County: Hendon. Colchester: Betts.

Man of the match: Robinson.

Attendance: 6,284.