Relegation is tough for any club to take. It’s especially tough for teams in League Two, as the bottom two clubs face the ignominy of falling out of the Football League and into the ‘non-leagues’ of the National League.
The National League is not only a massive step down in terms of prestige, and of course, revenue, but it’s also a notoriously difficult league to get out of at the first attempt, and some teams can get stuck in there for years after falling out of the Football League.
For one club through, the idea dropping out of the Football League is especially galling, as their league status is woven into their identity. That’s because they are the world’s oldest league club.
Nottingham side Notts County (Notts being short for Nottinghamshire) have been around since 1862. That means Notts County predate the Emancipation Proclamation. They also predate the FA, which is the world’s oldest Football Association.
They were playing for over 25 years before there was a league to play in, with Notts County being one of the founder members of the Football League.
For most of their existence, Notts County have bounced around in the lower leagues and have been in a near-state of flux for a long time. They have had 30 managers in as many years. I have a personal connection to Notts County as my grandfather had a very brief spell there as a player in the 1950s.
Ten years ago, Notts County were at the centre of a bizarre episode where they were taken over by what was said to be a Middle-Eastern consortium, who installed former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson as director of football, signed Premier League players Sol Campbell and Kasper Schmeichel, with the promise of more stars to arrive.
As it turned out, the whole thing was little more than a scam and one that plunged the club into financial difficulites.
Notts County have also been almost-literally overshadowed by neighbouring double European Cup winners Nottingham Forest, with the two clubs’ stadiums only being 270m apart.
The last time Notts County were in the top division in England was 1992, and had the misfortune of being relegated in the final year before the Premier League was formed, after Neil Warnock had managed them to successive promotions in the two prior seasons.
Perhaps the biggest impact Notts County have had on football is that Juventus play in black and white because Notts County donated shirts to them in 1903.
But, their status as the world’s oldest league club, which is such a huge source of pride for the club, is under threat.
On Saturday, Notts County will go to Swindon Town in the knowledge that anything other than a win will mean they go down alongside already-relegated Yeovil Town. Even if they do win, they need Macclesfield Town to lose at home to Cambridge United, otherwise it will be Macclesfield who avoid relegation. In an ironic twist, Macclesfield are managed by Sol Campbell, who was one of the players signed following the ill-fated takeover.
That Notts County could drop out of the league is especially shocking to their fans, as they were one of the favourites for promotion this season, having missed out last season when a late collapse sent them from the automatic promotion places into the playoff, where they lost in the first round.
Much of the blame for Notts County’s demise is being placed at the feet of club owner Alan Hardy, who took over in 2017. Maybe that’s true, but if it is, it’s true in a different way to other clubs that owe their downfall to an owner.
English football is littered with stories of club owners that have bought a club in the hopes that they could sell it for a profit, and have loaded it with debt before walking away. Bolton Wanderers being the latest club to have their existence threatened as a result of bad ownership.
In Notts County’s case, it seems that Hardy may have had good intentions when he took over the club, saving it from liquidation in the process, but massively underestimated the amount of work it takes to run a club, and just assumed that throwing money at the problem would mean success would follow.
Part of Hardy’s problem is that he seems to be a man with a big ego, a thin skin and someone who isn’t afraid to voice opinions publicly that he shouldn’t on Twitter.
Hardy, a native of Nottingham, started to get a bit chippy with Nottingham Forest. He made remarks about how his club was the true club of Nottingham (alluding to Nottingham Forest having Greek owners), getting into arguments on social media with Forest fans and saying stuff about what Notts County will do to Forest when they get to the same division as them.
That proved to be especially unwise, as last season, Notts County’s best two players were both on loan from Nottingham Forest. Unsurprisingly, Forest were no longer inclined to do Notts County any favours, and, in January 2018, recalled one of those players, Ryan Yates, and sent him to another team on loan.
That coincided with Notts County’s collapse that took them out of the promotion reckoning and eventually they failed to be promoted at all. Hardy went on the warpath and publicly criticised Nottingham Forest for recalling Yates, which led to Forest stopping any of their players going there on loan.
Forest haven’t been drawn into anything publicly, but you can tell they are freezing Notts County out. The traditional pre-season game between the two sides didn’t happen this season, and Forest having been sending players on loan to another Nottinghamshire side, Mansfield Town, including Jorge Grant, one of Notts County’s stars from last season. Mansfield currently occupy one of the promotion places in League Two.
Even so, Notts County were favourites for promotion this season. They have a massive budget for a team at that level and were expected to be fighting at the top of the table, not about to fall out of the bottom.
Instead what has happened has been a turbulent season. Following a poor start, Hardy sacked manager Kevin Nolan, who he had tipped to be a future England manager previously. Hardy acknowledges this was a mistake too.
Nolan was replaced with former Leeds and Liverpool player Harry Kewell, who had done a solid job managing fellow League Two side Crawley Town. Kewell lasted only 72 days before he was fired. Hardy asked Nolan to come back, but that didn’t happen so Notts County turned to former Wimbledon player and manager Neal Ardley.
Ardley came to a club in total disarray. And then things got worse.
On the day an article came out on the Guardian website criticising Hardy’s ownership, Hardy sent out a tweet. The tweet was supposed to be a commentary about the fickle nature of fans, as it showed tweets from the same person praising Hardy for saving the club, then another one criticising him for ruining the club.
The problem was, Hardy did this as a screenshot from his phone, meaning that his camera roll was visible. And he’d recently taken a picture of his penis.
Hardy put the club up for sale. Instead of being remembered for taking Notts County back up the divisions, he’ll be remembered for a dick-pic and for being the man who owned the club when it’s league membership ended. He reckons he’s lost about £5m in the process too.
Notts County also faced court proceedings over an unpaid tax bill, which got deferred as the club say a takeover will happen imminently.
But all this may come too late to save their league status. Notts County will still be the world’s oldest professional club, but, gallingly the title of the oldest league club in the world may end up going to Nottingham Forest. On paper, Stoke City are next in line, but their history includes a liquidation and a merger so the next club with unquestioned league lineage is Nottingham Forest.