Notts County promotion can draw a line under an unhappy 20 years

Ian King
Notts County goalkeeper saves a penalty during his team;s National League play-off win against Chesterfield

Notts County are back in the EFL and deserved their promotion, even though they cut it fine after play-offs after coming so close in the league.

The biggest irony of all is that even though one of the clubs finished 23 points ahead of the other, by the end of the National League play-off final they couldn’t be separated until forced apart by a penalty shootout.

There will have been times over the last few weeks when Notts County supporters have felt that as though the stars were aligned against them, from having a last-minute penalty save by the Premier League quality emergency goalkeeper at the club owned by the Hollywood stars, who they’d matched almost all the way all season, to chalking up what would at any other point in the history of English football’s fifth division have been a record points tally of 107. None of this is… normal.

Then, in their play-off semi-final with Boreham Wood, they required an equaliser seven minutes into stoppage-time to force an extra 30 minutes at 2-2 after having already missed a penalty, and won the game in the 120th minute.

And then in the final they fell behind, equalised with three minutes to play, fell behind again in extra-time and equalised later in extra-time. And then, at 3-2 up in the penalty shootout and already knowing that if they scored one more from their last two they were promoted, John Bostock attempted a Panenka, misjudged it, and hit the crossbar. FortunatelyCedwyn Scott was on hand to convert their second attempt at finishing off the match.

Falling over the line at the end of the most gruelling of seasons, Notts County are back in the EFL. Hollywood wouldn’t have, etc. 

When they fell out of the League in 2019, it was the first time that one of the 12 founding members had left since Accrington in 1896. It was the end of a lengthy story, but also of an ongoing struggle that this club had been in for much of the previous 20 years.

When the club fell into administration in June 2002 after the collapse of ITV Digital cost them £1.3m, one of the more peculiar pieces of news to emerge from the wreckage that was their accounts was that then-chairman Derek Pavis owned the West Stand at Meadow Lane, in conjunction with former chairman, Football League Secretary and local MP Jack Dunnett.

In May 1987, while Dunnett was still the club’s chairman, he arranged for the West Stand to be rented to his company, Park Street Securities, for nothing. Pavis then sub-let the stand’s executive boxes back to the club, as well as rooms inside the stand, and a social and sports club. He bought the lease in 1999 for £500,000. The West Stand at Meadow Lane remains The Derek Pavis Stand to this day.

The following year, Pavis sold up to an American businessman and journalist called Albert Scardino. Scardino needed to borrow £3.5m to secure the purchase of the club but only made one payment of £565,000 before defaulting.

In the meantime, Peter Storrie had arrived as the chief executive and had started spending money that the club didn’t have on wages, aiming for promotion to the First Division (Championship). With none of the money promised from Scardino coming in, administration was inevitable.

Notts remained in administration for what was then a record period of 534 days. With no buyers on the horizon there were times when it felt as though liquidation was inevitable, but a supporters trust was formed in 2003 and they raised £300,000 to pay for a 30% shareholding in the club.

The biggest shareholder was businessman Haydn Green, who bought a 49% stake in the club and the Meadow Lane lease from the administrator for £3m, leasing the ground back to the club on a peppercorn rent.

In January 2007 Green sold his stake, which made the supporters’ trust the club’s majority owner with more than 60% of the shares. Green, himself a trust member, arranged to give the trust his shares, with the trust to pay him for them only if they subsequently sold any shares on. He died four months later.

But by the end of the 2008/09 season,  patience with the Trust was running out. The club had only finished above 19th place in the league twice in the previous eight seasons – and those were 13th and 15th place – and money was tight to non-existent. When a company called Qadbak Investments, acting as a vehicle for a company called Munto Finance, pitched up making big promises in the summer of 2009, supporters were ready to listen to their offer.

Chairman John Armstrong-Holmes argued that the trust should hand its shares to Munto for free, as well as write off an earlier loan of £170,000. He also stated that,  that as the shares were to be “gifted” to Munto rather than sold, the trust would not have to pay Green’s estate. Some members objected, asking if it would not be “the honourable thing” for Green’s estate to be paid for the shares, but Armstrong-Holmes could only offer in response that “Haydn Green’s position in the club’s history is acknowledged and will be honoured by Munto.”

Notts County went large, bringing in Sol Campbell to captain the team and Sven-Goran Eriksson to manage it. Kasper Schmeichel, who would end up a Premier League title winner with Leicester City, kept goal.

Notts County won the League Two title at the end of the season, but Campbell and Eriksson were long gone by then. Schmeichel agreed to cancel his contract.

A few weeks into the 2009/10 season serious questions had already started to be asked about who these new owners actually were. A former Everton commercial manager, Peter Trembling, was brought in as CEO, but the identity of the actual owners of this organisation remained highly opaque, hidden behind a flurry of company names and suspiciously large looking bank guarantees.

In the third week of October they somehow passed the Fit & Proper Persons test; less than five weeks later, the Football League had to reopen its investigation into who they actually were.

Trembling was sold the company for a nominal sum on the 12th December, and in turn sold it on to Ray Trew at the start of the following February. By this time Eriksson and Campbell had gone and the club was £7m in debt. Finding a new owner and getting promoted had saved the club, but the question of what had been going on with these previous owners was thrust back into the public eye with the broadcast of a Panorama episode called The Trillion Dollar Conman in April 2011.

Panorama explained how the entire operation had ultimately ended up under the management of a convicted fraudster called Russell King, who set up a network of businesses with the intention of exploiting natural assets in North Korea before his house of cards fell in upon itself. Notts County had been a tool to lend the operation credibility.

Trew stayed at Meadow Lane for six years. Three years into his chairmanship, having claimed to have put £12m into the club, he stated that he couldn’t put any more money into the club because of salary cap restrictions and blamed supporters for falling attendances. Bad move.

Attendances might well have been falling, but a point at which a chairman needs bums on seats doesn’t sound like a good time to start criticising people who aren’t going, if you actually want them to return. Notts were relegated back into League Two in 2016. Trew quit in the February, reinstated himself the following September, and then finally sold up to Alan Hardy in January 2017, with the club third from bottom in League Two.

Notts survived relegation with comfort that season and continued the momentum into the 2017/18 season, ending it in fifth place before losing to Coventry City in the semi-finals of the play-offs. But the 2018/19 season saw a return to the club’s previous decline, only this time at an even more accelerated rate than before. By the time Hardy exposed himself on Twitter in January 2019, it was doing little more than reinforcing the idea that the club was out of control. He put the club up for sale shortly afterwards.

At the end of the season during which the EFL celebrated its 130th anniversary, Notts County were relegated from League Two alongside Yeovil Town. Hardy sold up to Danish brothers Alexander and Christoffer Reedtz a week before the start of their first National League season.

Getting back into the League hasn’t been easy. In 2020, they were beaten in the play-off final by Harrogate Town at an empty Wembley. In 2021, they were beaten in the play-off quarter-finals by Chesterfield. In 2022, they were beaten in the quarter-finals by Grimsby Town. Even this season, despite those 107 points, they did not make it easy. 

And this season ends with a hint of sadness, following the sudden and untimely death of popular CEO Jason Turner at the end of March. A flag in his honour was laid across seats in the top tier of Wembley Stadium to see the team back into the League. After the final whistle, club captain Kyle Cameron had a picture of him on display. He’d surely have been immensely proud of this team, and he’d be right to be. They cut it fine, but over the course of the season they’ve been exceptional, as their points record demonstrates. Notts County fully deserve their place back in among the top 92, and they’ve been through a lot