Notts County: Putting the wheel back on the barrow
Notts County lost their unbroken record as the world's oldest football league club this year. After that, they nearly lost everything else...
Notts County supporters have a song about a broken wheelbarrow.
Its origins are disputed, but many are in agreement that it started in the away end at Gay Meadow on a Tuesday evening in April 1990. Attempting to cement a spot in the old Division Three play-offs, the Magpies, then managed by Neil Warnock, had found themselves two goals down to Shrewsbury Town when a chant - to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey - went up from the home support.
The Shropshire accent making it difficult for them to decipher the exact words, the County fans responded with their own nonsensical version: ‘I Had A Wheelbarrow, The Wheel Fell Off'.
Were it not for what followed, it's possible the song would have long been forgotten. But within minutes, goals from Tommy Johnson and Kevin Bartlett helped Notts salvage a 2-2 draw. They went unbeaten from that point on, clinching the first of two successive play-off promotions at the end of the season.
And so, the song stuck, becoming synonymous with the club's ascent to the top flight of English football. In the time since, it's taken on a different meaning altogether.
"We’re the only club in the world that has an anthem about something going worse," says Colin Sisson, a lifelong fan and a contributor to the Gerrit Forward fanzine. "The wheelbarrow and the wheel falling off - that’s typical of Notts. There’s a dark humour about supporting this club.
"I suppose it typifies what it’s like to be a Notts fan. The wheels - or in this case the wheel - can fall off. You kind of know and expect things can go wrong.
"This year, though, it’s been worse than it’s ever been."
Sisson, like most County supporters, is immensely proud of the club's rich history. Founded 157 years ago, Notts are a year older than the Football Association itself and a founder member of the Football League. Famously, the club inspired Juventus to adopt their black and white stripes. There have been plenty of low points along the way, but nothing has come close to the depths the club has plummeted to in 2019.
Succumbing to relegation from League Two on the final day of last season, Notts lost their unbroken status as the world's oldest football league club. Few County supporters can argue the team deserved better after a wretched campaign.
Having lost to Coventry City in the League Two play-off semi-finals in 2017/18, the club were among the favourites for promotion. But such lofty expectations were soon adjusted. Kevin Nolan was sacked as manager in August after a winless start; Harry Kewell, Nolan's replacement, failed to turn things around and was dismissed after just ten weeks. Neal Ardley saw out the end of the season but was unable to steer the club away from the inevitable drop into non-league.
"It was Macclesfield on Boxing Day," Sisson says. "We lost that game and I just knew we were done, even then.
"Macclesfield were struggling too, but we just weren't good enough to get a badly needed three points. It was obvious we were doomed, even with half a season to play."
Like 2,500 other County supporters, Loz Clough, appointed as the club's Supporter Liaison Officer last October, made the journey to Swindon for the final game of the season, clinging to the faintest of hopes that the team might pull off a miraculous escape. She had already walked out by the time the final whistle blew.
"I spent the last ten minutes in the car park," she tells JOE. "I sat in my car crying because it was inevitable.
"Fifty years I’ve followed this team - 1968 I saw my first game. My grandfather, who was born in 1880, was also a Magpie. This is a club where histories of following run deep. It was devastating - I honestly can’t tell you how devastating it’s been."
As heart-wrenching as it was to watch Notts plummet out of the Football League, a disastrous season on the field tells only half the story. Throughout their recent history, Notts have been blighted by financial woes. Nothing, however - not even the infamous Munto Finance fiasco of a decade ago - quite eclipses the events of this year.
With County already in the grips of a relegation battle, owner Alan Hardy put the club up for sale in January. Soon after, it was reported that one of the businessman's other companies, Paragon Interiors, had been placed into administration. Despite Hardy's assurances that this would have no impact on football matters, County were issued with a winding up order over an unpaid £250,000 tax bill in April.
A series of hearings at the High Court were adjourned to allow Hardy time to sell the club, with the fear of liquidation increasing with every passing day. The club's financial worries stacking up, relegation was followed by the news that staff hadn't been paid.
"One of the things I love about Notts is that it’s a community club," Sisson explains. "We understand there’s more money to be made doing the same jobs at other clubs higher up the football pyramid or even across the river [at Forest].
"So much of it runs on goodwill and some of those people who haven’t been paid have been at the club through thick and thin. It’s really hard to stomach that those people who made that commitment to Notts and could have been earning more elsewhere are suffering as a result of what’s going on.
"That, not the relegation, was the real low point."
74-year-old John Terrington began attending games at Meadow Lane as a boy. Now chairman of the Notts County Football Club Official Supporters' Association, he and other supporters have helped raise £25,000 for the club's academy system over the last five years.
"We’ve also bought the club a minibus and helped fund a kit van," he says, proudly. "We help out wherever we possibly can.
"This summer, sadly, it’s reached the point where we’ve had to raise money for staff while they’ve been unpaid for two months."
Terrington has helped coordinate a bucket collection for staff outside the turnstiles prior to the preseason friendly with Ilkestone Town, with a dedicated bank account set up for further donations to be received. Having witnessed first hand the impact of club staff going without wages, he is grateful to all that have donated - including Nottingham Forest, who held bucket collections of their own at the preseason meeting with Real Sociedad last week.
"It’s beyond local people and County fans who have helped. We’ve had donations from all over. Whether it’s been a pound or £100, it’s all been gratefully received.
"In total, we've raised £8,500 and, though it's been a pleasure to help out, it’s been heartbreaking at times to see some of the staff crying and upset."
Although the last few months have undoubtedly been the darkest chapter in this famous old club's long history, there is at least - finally - cause for cautious optimism.
With another High Court hearing looming on July 31, it was announced last week that Hardy's sale of County had been finalised. Danish brothers Christoffer and Alexander Reedtz - owners of analysis business Football Radar - have taken control, alleviating fears of liquidation or a 12-point deduction.
Avoiding the same grand promises made by previous owners, the Reedtz brothers have prioritised paying staff their wages. After that, they will turn their focus to addressing the imbalanced squad left behind by the shambolic final months of the last regime.
"Notts fans have been understandably cynical about takeovers and predictions to awaken this sleeping giant we supposedly are since the Munto days," Sisson says.
"They’ve hit the right notes in that sense but also, for the first time, we seem to have someone who can offer a definable footballing philosophy and use data and analytics to identify players.
"It would be helpful - currently we have one centre-back and no left-back whatsoever!"
Though Notts County have never started a season in a lower position on the English football pyramid, the sense of relief that they can begin the campaign at all is palpable among the fan base. Some might pin their hopes on an instant return to the Football League but most are simply content with still having a football club to support, irrespective of finding themselves in the unfamiliar territory of non-league.
Having watched their club come perilously close to oblivion this summer, supporters are acutely aware that other teams - namely Bolton Wanderers and Bury - may not be as fortunate in the coming days and weeks.
"From what’s happened to us of late, I genuinely don’t think the authorities have a modicum of idea of what these clubs mean to fans and to local communities," says Clough.
"People asked me, 'What will you do if Notts is no more?' I mean, it's not like I could simply change my allegiance and go buy a season ticket at Forest, is it?
"I was born a 10 minute walk from Meadow Lane and walked past it every day to school for eight years. My grandad told me stories of watching [Tommy] Lawton play there and of huge, 47,000 crowds. I’ve grown up with those stories.
"I was never going to go to the other side of the Trent."
Like many others, Clough will be renewing her season tickets due to the arrival of the new owners. This, she says, would not have been an option had Hardy remained in control.
"I sincerely hope Alexander and Christoffer Reedz take the opportunity to engage with fans," she adds.
"I don’t want it to be just about football and stats.
"There’s so much more that comes with being the owners and guardians of a very proud, extremely well-supported, 157-year-old, club.
"Please don’t forget about us, the fans."