Despite a slow start to the season, Notts County had an opportunity to avoid relegation from League Two up until the last month of the season. However, despite gaining four points over the last two matches of April, they would’ve needed a miracle heading into the final weekend of football, needing a win and a Macclesfield Town loss to leap into the 22nd position… unless they could overcome an 8 goal deficit in goal differential in their final match against Swindon Town if Macclesfield Town ended in a draw.
The goal differential ended up not coming into play, as the Magpies lost to Swindon Town 3-1, sending the club to the National League for the first time in their history. They join Yeovil Town as the clubs departing the Football League for the fifth tier and hope for a quick return to EFL football after next season.
Here’s a quick look at how the Magpies ended up in this position:
What Went Wrong
The Magpies didn’t do themselves any favors in opening the season winless in their first nine matches (0-3-6). The six losses were by a combined 14 goals, digging an early hole for the club that they could not recover from. They would have another nine match winless streak (0-4-5) not long after, and would enter the relegation zone (the bottom two spots in League Two) for good after a 17 November loss at home to Cheltenham Town.
They pretty much split their wins and goals between home (5 wins and 23 goals) and the road (4 wins and 25 goals), but it was their defense that let them down on the road, leading the club to the worst goal differential (and goals allowed) in the league. They surrendered 84 goals on the season (1.83 GAA), including 50 in 23 matches on the road (2.17 GAA). Three or their four worst losses on the season were four goal losses on the road – 5-1 at Exeter City, 4-0 at Bury and Grimsby Town – not really helpful when you are fighting to stay off the bottom of the table.
What Went Right
Between the aforementioned nine-match winless streaks, the Magpies did manage to win three in a row, allowing them to end the first quarter of the season in 17th place. It didn’t last long – those three wins were immediately followed by three losses – but it can be viewed as a bright spot during a dark season.
Another positive could be their three wins on the season against eventual playoff clubs, including one that still has a chance to reach League One this weekend. They defeated Tranmere Rovers at home in mid-December, and then Forest Green Rovers and Mansfield Town on consecutive Saturdays in February. Sure, there was an eight -match winless streak (0-3-5) between the wins, but moral victories are still victories, right?
Recent English Football League History
Notts County has spent the past fifteen seasons shuttling between League One and League Two, with that past four seasons in League Two. They finished fifth during the 2017-18 season, a season that they spent all but two weeks in at least the playoffs, so their fall back this season was a bit of a surprise… or at least would be if they hadn’t finished on 17th and 16th place the prior two seasons. Maybe last season was the aberration instead?
This recent stretch in League Two followed a five season run in League One that averaged a 15th place finish, with the best result just out of the playoffs in 7th place after the 2011-12 season. They were back in League One after winning League Two outright in 2009-10, their best league finish this century.
Who’s Playing Elsewhere Next Season?
Relegation often results in a lot of team turnover, and complicating matters for the Magpies is that Alan Hardy placed the club for sale back in January. Potentially, the new owners could come in and shore up the club, hoping for a quick return to the Football League. Or the new owner could view the National League as an opportunity to get the club on the cheap, which could impact the budget in the offseason for transfers and other additions.
Eighteen players have reached the end of their contract, and 12 of those players have already been released by the club, with eight of them over the age of 30. The club will likely lean on younger (i.e. cheap) players for depth next season while leaning on returning players to try and return to League Two. Kane Hemmings (seven goals in 22 appearances) will be the leading returning scorer for the club with the release of Jon Stead, but scoring wasn’t really the club’s problem this season.
Chances of a Quick Return?
I tend to give relegated clubs a better chance to bounce back after one season than clubs going the other way, but with the club’s ownership up in the air at the moment, it’s hard to know for sure what kind of club will be stepping on the pitch in the National League in the late summer.
Per the illustrious FiveThirtyEight Global Club Soccer Ratings, Notts County is better than Yeovil Town, and though the rankings do not include National League clubs, I would imagine they are better than the majority of clubs there as well. However, the last two League Two clubs relegated to the National League – Barnet and Chesterfield – both finished mid-table this season, so relegation does not always mean that you are by default the best club. After all, Notts County spent the season dueling the Macclesfield Town to avoid relegation all season, and Macclesfield was the National League champion in 2017-18.
Either way, it may not be long before we see Notts County back in the Football League, but it may ultimately be dependent on the new ownership as to how long it might actually take.
Until next time…