Jacob Daniel3 Comments

WHEN THE CIRCUS CAME TO NOTTINGHAM

Jacob Daniel3 Comments
WHEN THE CIRCUS CAME TO NOTTINGHAM

We all remember where we were when the circus came to town. That is, when Sven-Göran Eriksson came to Notts County, his long Swedish overcoat swishing through the corridors of Meadow Lane, lured by the promise of cash that was never actually there. I was at a pre-season friendly in Arnold as Notts beat a local non-league team 7-0, with Chinese whispers buzzing around the huge crowd that stood below a beautiful summer sunset. The strangest month of our lives was becoming even more of an intoxicating dream.

A few weeks earlier I’d become the editor of Notts County Mad, a club website and messageboard that held the same quirkiness of any other lower league forum. I wasn’t up to much, having spent the previous few months largely asleep after quitting sixth form because they seemed to expect that I might actually do the odd piece of work. When the former editor offered me the chance to take on the role I was pretty grateful for just having something to whittle away the hours.

The first couple of weeks were normal, a signing here, a libellous messageboard bust-up there. Then, just before I went to bed one evening, someone had posted a cryptic thread simply saying that “tomorrow will be the best day of your lives”. I thought nothing of it. 

The next morning we woke up to the news that the club were to be taken over by a shadowy Middle Eastern consortium fronted by new chairman Peter Trembling, a man previously most well-known for holding up a really big credit card, like one of those comedy cheques from Children in Need, on Everton’s website. The place went into meltdown, there were promises of untold riches and gold-filled troughs just waiting for us to wallow in at the other end of the Munto Finance rainbow.

There were still formalities to be sorted out – namely a vote by the current owners, the Supporters’ Trust, to hand over ownership of the club to the consortium. This was always likely to be a formality, however, with the rudderless trust having broken all of its promises to run the club for the fans, with the current chairman an individualist megalomaniac called John Armstrong-Holmes. He was in the midst of a very public and very messy slanging match with former members of the trust, with the fanbase at large keen to move on from an undignified spectacle as the club languished at the foot of the fourth tier.

Armstrong-Holmes led what was essentially a propaganda night in a packed bar at Meadow Lane, shouting down anything that seemed to be a slightly probing enquiry and imploring fans to vote the takeover through. They did, despite the fact that Munto Finance wanted the shares in the club to be gifted, rather than bought, apparently as a show of faith from the club’s supporters in their new masters. I stood at the back of the room with a notepad, writing as fast as I could with no knowledge of shorthand. Armstrong-Holmes rang me afterwards to correct a couple of things and, to this day, I still have no idea how he got my number.

Trembling soon got to work, lavishing the fans with outrageous promise after outrageous promise. The signings of Ben Davies and Lee Hughes were certainly impressive for a League Two club, but the statement of intent from the new owners came with the arrival of Eriksson. Announced through a short statement on the official website just as I went to bed after the Arnold match, I woke up feeling as though the eyes of the whole world were on our humble club.

I wrote some articles before lying down in bed with Sky Sports News, usually such a monotone, depressing soundtrack to an afternoon, seemingly playing a loop of anything to do with Sven. They might as well have had Kool & The Gang on repeat, it felt as though Notts were suddenly relevant. I was getting emails from all over the world, our views were through the roof and I even wrote an article that was published in the next day’s copy of The Independent. It wasn’t very good, looking back on it, but I was sixteen and my gran liked it enough to cut out and keep her copy.

Eriksson’s first appearance at Meadow Lane was on the Saturday, during a pre-season friendly against bitter rivals Nottingham Forest. My parents were away the night before and I had some friends over, meaning that I approached the match with all of the enthusiasm that you might expect of a kid who reeks of stale cigarette smoke and a potent mixture of vodka and Red Bull. We won 2-1, though, with Sven gratefully acknowledging every request for a wave from the crowd, with Trembling quietly flanking his prized racehorse in the director’s box.

The next day they changed the club’s badge to what would’ve been an entirely reasonable design were it not for the big purple ‘H’ that sat right in the centre of it. Apart from a few strange suggestions that it was something to do with history, heritage and Robin Hood no one had any idea what it was there for. So we just ignored it.

By the time the season proper kicked off, Notts had become the undoubted talking point of the summer. Camera crews seemed like they’d been stationed in the streets around Meadow Lane for days by the time the opening game against Bradford City came around, pouncing on every Notts fan that passed as though we were celebrities who’d just been caught having an affair.

As it was, the opening game developed just like it’d been meticulously planned from Munto’s offices in the Middle East. We weren’t entirely sure which country they were from, but Qatar seemed to be the most popular choice. Notts won 5-0, demolishing a meek Bradford side who seemed to have accepted their role as cannon fodder from the moment they fought their way past the Football League Show and into the ground.

The next big signing was Kasper Schmeichel, a young goalkeeper from Manchester City better known for being the son of Peter than for anything he’d done with his own gloves. Nevertheless, when we reportedly broke our transfer record to sign him, it was seen as further proof that the growing list of broadsheet journalists who were sceptical as to the legitimacy of Munto Finance were making things up. Or possibly just bitter.

When we signed Sol Campbell, the prevailing feeling was that they were just mental. The first sight we got of Campbell was a photograph taken by a fan who was at the ground, as a former England international tried to smuggle his way into the offices with a coat over his head. There had been plenty of rumours that big, global names would be joining, with Luis Figo being a popular choice, but I’m not sure that anyone quite believed it until Sol arrived.

It took him a few weeks to get up to full fitness, with him finally making his debut away at Morecambe on a balmy September afternoon. Notts’ season was largely going to plan up until this point, as the League Two globetrotters swatted aside most sides despite coming unstuck in narrow defeats to Barnet and Chesterfield. The latter was particularly notable for the away terrace at full time, littered with discarded monopoly money that was slowly being trampled into the cracks of the crumbling Saltergate. It would become a neat metaphor for the whole charade and a birthday that I’d spent largely drinking cheap champagne in a Derbyshire car park.

Campbell’s one and only appearance in a black and white shirt will go down as one of football’s most absurd events. It all started, for me at least, in a pub behind Christie Park, when I finally got some respite from the local UKIP councillor who seemed intent on dragging me into the home end with him to leave me alone when it was announced that Sol was on the teamsheet.

He was a disaster, slow, cumbersome and utterly confused. Notts lost 2-1 and were lucky to get away with that, just as Campbell was lucky not to be sent off for an awful challenge on Emmanuel Panther. Sol took heed and was out of Meadow Lane quicker than a big cat, barely pausing to sign his gagging order.

It was under these conditions that me and a friend interviewed Peter Trembling, having been invited in by the club. He was a largely affable man and extremely welcoming, but my one real memory of the hour that we spent in his office is when he heard a noise from the corridor. He abruptly stood and marched outside, taking a look around before slamming his door shut. “Just checking there aren’t any Guardian journalists out there”, he told us. He also said that the club’s financial situation was far worse than they had been told when they bought it, and that their time spent at the club so far had largely been spent fighting fires. He neglected to inform us about the ones that they were lighting.

On the pitch things were going swimmingly, with a 3-0 win in a frenetic local derby at Lincoln City being illuminated by a fine hat-trick by Luke Rodgers, a striker who largely found himself hidden in the considerable shadow of the controversial Hughes. It was my personal highlight of the season, coming just after my granddad had fallen seriously ill in hospital. Whilst Rodgers celebrated by beating up a bouncer, I celebrated each goal not by grabbing whoever was closest, or tumbling down a few rows of seats, as was customary – but just staring at the sky. It seemed unfair that he’d been with me just three days earlier when we beat Port Vale and now he appeared to be gone.

I had, however, just received my first pay cheque from editing the website. This was a perk that wasn’t really relevant due to the small number of views that a run-of-the-mill League Two club generates – that is until they’re bought out by a mysterious consortium of billionaires, appoint a former England manager as director of football and sign Sol Campbell. We were getting hundreds of thousands of views a day and I had more money than I ever had before. I celebrated by spending it on a trip to Rotherham, just days after the club had decided to sack manager Ian MacParland after drawing 2-2 with Torquay United live on the tele.

His replacement was Hans Backe, another Swede who was brought in seemingly entirely on the basis of being a good friend of Eriksson. He ditched the high-tempo attacking football that had been the trademark of the team under MacParland and brought in a more methodical, continental system that seemed to confuse the players. It was the team’s patchiest spell of the season and he left a few weeks later as the Munto mask began to slip.

By this time Trembling was becoming more and more desperate in his defence of Munto, as stories began to surface about unpaid bills and spiralling debts. I remember him ringing me whilst I was in a business studies lesson, now back at college, from New York. He told me about some investment that they were seeking out and wanted to do a personal question and answer session on the messageboard. I imagine that I’m still the only sixth form student to have left a lesson to take a phone call from a Football League chairman.

As we entered 2010, the Munto dream was largely in tatters, save for in the minds of a few people who still clung onto the chariaman’s words. Trembling was actively seeking investment from other sources, whilst Sven continued to hang around, possibly because he didn’t really have anything better to be doing. The FA Cup provided some distraction, as Notts stunned Premier League Wigan Athletic away from home in a replay. I was listening on the radio and remember celebrating Stephen Hunt’s crucial winning goal by piling on my dad and two friends on the stairs as we converged from different listening points, with cans of warm lager spilling their contents all over.

This win came just days after a 3-0 win at Dagenham & Redbridge, before which the players had reportedly been told that the club had secured its future through investment from Norway. I remember hearing this news in a chip shop outside Dagenham East station, picking up my chips without paying in all of the excitement and then being chased down towards the ground by an irate kebab proprietor. As it turned out, the investment was non-existent, but Notts’ players were galvanised enough to win the game.

When Notts were beaten 4-0 by Fulham in the cup at Craven Cottage, in front of the noisiest away section I’ve ever been a part of, the club was changing hands to local businessman Ray Trew, previously involved with Lincoln City. His plan had been to put the club into administration, but apparently buoyed by the incredible support in West London and a late night conversation with his wife, infamously known as poundpie on the messageboard due to the £1 that the club cost them, he chose not to.

Former Burnley and Cheltenham Town manager Steve Cotterill was installed as a replacement for caretaker Dave Kevan – and Notts never looked back. We won 11 and drew 2 of their first 13 games under Cotterill, clinching promotion to League One with a thumping 4-1 win against Morecambe at Meadow Lane, this time with no Sol Campbell in sight. Three days later we beat Rochdale at home, Hughes scoring the decisive goal that completed a 13 point turnaround on the previous league leaders, managed by Keith Hill, a particularly vocal critic of Notts’ precarious financial situation.

When the league title was clinched with a 5-0 win away at Darlington, I was in a pub near my house in Leicester, celebrating each of the goals that went in with an underage shot of Goldschläger before walking home singing the wheelbarrow song and embracing my dad. It would’ve been the season’s finest moment if not for the next home game, when my granddad was able to make it back for the first time as we beat Cheltenham 5-0 before captain John Thompson hoisted the trophy aloft. 

The final game, a 0-0 draw at Torquay, will live long in Notts folklore as drunken, delirious fans invaded the seaside town and the new chairman bought drinks, seemingly, for all of them. Not me, though - we had to take a taxi to a late night Boots at an out-of-town retail park because I’d forgotten my inhalers. It was somehow a fitting end to a bizarre season.

Since that weekend on the South coast Notts have reverted to becoming a normal football club again, with a normal chairman and normal problems. We don’t really talk about Munto Finance, though, which is why I’ve written this as a sort of cathartic experience. It was the most important year in my formation as a football fan and as a person, but I, along with most Notts fans, still don’t know what to think about it. Should we be ashamed at having been hoodwinked by Russell King, later exposed by the BBC’s Panorama, or grateful for a year of highs, lows and hilarity that no other club is ever likely to experience?

The feeling of other clubs’ fans is, understandably, largely of disdain for a club who appeared to break all of the rules and get away with it. This does, however, do an injustice to what, by the end of the season, was a team of barely more than eleven players, who were performing vastly beyond the sum of their parts. The likes of Graeme Lee, Mike Edwards, Stephen Hunt, John Thompson and Jamie Clapham were honest professionals who have not come close to hitting those heights since and they deserve to be remembered for it. As does Ray Trew, who could’ve proven Keith Hill right and allowed the Magpies to be “caught by the taxman”.

I don’t edit Notts County Mad any more, although I still write about football, and as far as I’m aware no current Football League chairmen have my phone number. In a sad tale of almost Shakespearian foreshadowing, Eriksson lost much of his wealth to an unscrupulous accountant, although he remains as life president of Notts County. Ray Trew is still chairman, but there are less free drinks these days and Notts have come closer to being relegated back to League Two than anything else in the years that have passed. John Armstrong-Holmes has, to his credit, admitted that he was duped. I’m not sure what Peter Trembling is up to, I might have a look to see if I’ve still got him in my phone book.

Sadly, however, none of the title winning team are still at Meadow Lane. They were largely broken up by new manager Craig Short and, with the exception of Ben Davies, Kasper Schmeichel and Luke Rodgers, who went on to partner Thierry Henry in New York, never hit the same heights again that they did during those dizzying two months under Steve Cotterill.

You can follow Jacob on Twitter @JaconNCM.

Picture credit to StadiumGuide.

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