Notts County met Chesterfield in the National League promotion final at Wembley on Saturday seeking to re-establish their place in the Football League at the fourth time of asking. Chesterfield, meanwhile, having finished 23 points behind County in the regular season, were looking to spoil what most expected to be a Magpies promotion party. Rhys Thomas was at Wembley to watch that County victory unfold, although it was not straightforward.
Despite lagging behind County in the league, the Spireites are no strangers to the play-offs. In 2021 they lost to the Magpies at the quarter-final stage, and last season exited in the semi-finals against Solihull Moors. They had already made it a step further by reaching Wembley, but could they go all the way and cause an upset?
County’s misfortune in not achieving automatic promotion has been written about extensively. A scenario in which they have found themselves in, having to dig deep in one-off all-or-northing ties to beat teams they finished 35 and 23 points above to secure promotion does seem unfair. But perhaps that’s the best way to do it. Certainly not the most straightforward way, though.
It was time – one match to decide who would return to the Football League
County’s semi-final victory against Boreham Wood at Meadow Lane was anything but straightforward. When trailing 2-0 at half-time, I doubt many County fans would have been thinking that this play-off route was much good.
Come full-time, though, the feeling could not have been anymore jubilant. Thousands of ecstatic fans flooded the pitch as if County were up already. Of course, there was still another game to go, but for those moments, after all the drama, that was a world away. Now though, the day was finally here. County fans made their way up Wembley Way, gleefully able to support their precious Pies in the capital after COVID-19 restrictions barred them in 2020. The red seats turned black, white, and blue as supporters descended on the home of football. It was time – one match to decide who would return to the Football League.
Notts fans were immediately cursing the play-off route once more as they watched their side get off to a simply horrific start. Chesterfield sprung out of the blocks and immediately worked an opening for Colclough, but he fired over the bar.
In the County net, Slocombe began what would be a horrid few minutes by conceding an indirect free kick. Somehow, he had managed to pass a goal kick to himself, something I’ve never seen before and doubt I’ll see again. Fortunately, he made amends by smothering the resultant shot, but the worst was yet to come.
Literally seconds later, Dallas raced in behind the County defence and the English keeper wiped the striker out in the box. Slocombe looked a nervous wreck in all aspects, despite his experience and 15 clean sheets this season. The shot-stopper was lucky not to see a card for the challenge, but when Dallas converted the spot kick it seemed enough torture had been placed upon the keeper just five minutes into the match.
Finally getting into the game, County looked to move forwards
There were now nerves every time Slocombe got on the ball. Goalkeeping at the best of times looks a joyless task, even more so in a final, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player have a worse start to a game.
Finally getting into the game, County looked to move forwards. Nemane did well down the right to try and generate County’s first chance of the game and very nearly did so, with a teasing delivery that Langstaff could only get a faint touch on.
Attacking was not really the issue for Notts. Their defensive frailties, which have become slightly problematic since the loss at Wrexham, were exposed seconds later as Chesterfield played a simple ball behind the offside trap and won a corner. The offside trap is an effective tactic with the right players. County though, don’t have an especially speedy backline and relying on the assistant to flag marginal infringements is extremely risky against good sides like Chesterfield. That said, it’s not really a tactic you can just abandon midway through a game if you want to sustain pressure on the ball.
By the half hour mark, County were still looking vulnerable at the back and failing to penetrate the Chesterfield defence. They were, at least, probing more now. Nemane continued to be the danger man and registered Notts’ first shot on target with a decent effort, which Fitzsimons was equal to. That was Notts’ best action before the break, when it seemed another big team talk was needed from manager Luke Williams.
Today, it seemed it wasn’t meant to be for Notts
County started the second half strongly but again were lacking the crucial final pass, as Nemane remained the main threat. On the other flank, semi-final hero Jones replaced Chicksen after 55 mins, with Notts fans hoping for a repeat of his heroic antics against Boreham Wood.
As the game crossed the one hour mark, Notts had all of the ball. Chesterfield still looked fairly comfortable, though. They continued to press high and keep Notts away from their box, whereas Boreham Wood invited pressure by dropping virtually onto their goalline last week. Then, a goal felt inevitable. Today, it seemed it wasn’t meant to be for Notts.
Just as County were fading, somehow, they rose from the dead again! John Bostock’s smart free kick snuck past the Chesterfield keeper at the near post to send the Notts fans delirious! Bostock’s story is an incredible one. Signed in December 2022 as a free agent, the Trinidadian was once Crystal Palace’s youngest ever player and even turned down a 10-year offer from Barcelona aged 14, when he was seen at the next big thing.
From there, his career sadly spiralled downwards. From death threats on leaving Palace as a teenager, to a litany of minor league loans, Bostock never discovered his potential. But now, in the National League, he may just be writing his own happy ending. His free-kick had saved Notts in normal time, and now the extra period of 30 minutes awaited.
In the final, he looked a little lost, unable to keep the ball
Perhaps Bostock’s dramatic equaliser was all in vain, though. Within three minutes of the restart, Chesterfield’s Dobra curled a beautiful effort into the corner to restore his side’s lead. The party in the Chesterfield end had well and truly resumed. It was a great show of character to go ahead again having conceded such a gut-wrenching goal when they were just minutes from glory.
Notts refused to give in, though, and earned an equaliser in the 108th minute when Ruben Rodrigues’ volley bounced over Fitzsimons and nestled in the net. It was his 19th goal of the season, but he has had a difficult play-off campaign. In the semi-final, he missed a host of golden chances, including a penalty. In the final, he looked a little lost, unable to keep the ball. Even so, Williams persisted with the Portuguese, trusting his quality would come good. When it did, Rodrigues limped over to the technical area to celebrate with his manager.
Had he just given a window of hope to Chesterfield?
County then piled on the pressure, suddenly camped in the Chesterfield half with all of the momentum. With a minute to go and the score still level despite countless penalty area scrambles, keeper Slocombe was replaced by 22-year-old Archie Mair in preparation for the penalty shootout. Slocombe would not get the chance to redeem himself, and Mair appeared a more imposing figure.
In the end, it was a tale of two keepers for County. Mair was the hero in the shootout, making two huge saves to put Notts in pole position. As fate would have it, Bostock stepped up with the chance to score the winning penalty. But no! What had he done? Trying to recreate Zidane’s 2006 panenka, Bostock’s chip hit the bar but stayed out! Had he just given a window of hope to Chesterfield? Hope they might, but Cedwyn Scott took the pressure of the final kick and converted under huge pressure to return England’s oldest club to the Football League!
The Notts half of Wembley erupted in jubilation. After three successive play-off failures, 107 points, and 117 goals, County had finally overcome every obstacle in their recovery mission. There was a mixture of emotions, with pure joy the standout. But also, relief. A massive weight had been lifted off the shoulders of the players, staff, and fans. County were back in the EFL, and hopefully for good.
It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to cover Notts County this season. From freezing winter nights at Meadow Lane to a slightly warmer Wembley in May, it’s been fantastic to share a tiny part of their upward journey. An adopted fan, I’m truly glad they were able to navigate the seemingly endless hurdles. It was a true rollercoaster ride, and I hope whichever writers cover the side in the next years can have a similarly enjoyable experience in the Football League. Maybe they’ll follow Wrexham all the way up…
Featured image courtesy of Rhys Thomas. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
In article image 1 courtesy of @nottscountyfc via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.
In article image 2 courtesy of @nottscountyfc via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.
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