It may be hard to believe when you know the calamitous chain of events that followed it, but 2011 started in pretty excellent fashion for Notts. In fact, in true 'all downhill from here' fashion, it was probably the best month of the year for performances, results and general excitement. Of course, with Notts nothing is quite as it seems and January's off the field shenanigans probably set up the rest of last season, but whilst the first month of the year was still in full swing everything seemed pretty good.
Things started off exceptionally on New Year's Day, with a trip to Walsall that NCM was too hungover to attend. Some paracetomol and Magpie Player was still enough to enjoy the 3-0 win at the Bescot Stadium though, where early goals from Craig Westcarr and loanee Lee Miller effectively wrapped up the game inside sixteen minutes, before Krystian Pearce powered home a second half header to put the icing on the leftover Christmas cake.
Indeed, we didn't just win one game 3-0 at the start of this year, but followed it with another victory of the same scoreline just two days later when Hartlepool United visited Meadow Lane. Scarcely believable I know, but the division's form team were put to the sword thanks to goals from the irrepresible yet nepotistic young loanee Thomas Ince. Miller and Westcarr added their own strikes courtesy of Ben Davies' sumptuous right foot to complete an opening salvo consisting of two wins, six goals and none conceded. There really was no better way to set up an FA Cup tie at Premier League Sunderland...
...which didn't go too badly either, all things considered. We may have feared the worst when the Black Cats lined up with international star Asamoah Gyan and international sub Darren Bent, but with the backing of a 2,500 strong away following from Nottingham the Magpies were quickest out of the blocks. It would, however, be churlish to try and class the opening goal as one to remember, at least for not aesthetic reasons. Davies' cross was bizarrely looped goalwards by Westcarr and looked comfortable for Belgian 'keeper Simon Mignolet, until he was randomly bundled into his own goal by a hapless centre back. The Premier League hosts huffed and puffed but failed to blow down the door and, when Lee Hughes hooked in a fantastic second, Notts were on the cusp of a giantkilling for the second successive season. We didn't make it easy for ourselves, of course, but even Bent's penalty wasn't enough to save the day for Sunderland.
With Manchester City awaiting in the next round, the players could perhaps have been forgiven for taking their eye off the ball in the league, but that proved not to be the case in the slightest. Next up was a trip to automatic promotion hopefuls Southampton, but a gritty performance to secure a 0-0 draw at St. Mary's only cemented the sense of optimism hanging over the club. In fact, until Blackpool's draw on the South Coast a fornight ago, that game was the last time an opposition side had taken anything from Nigel Adkins' fortress in the league. A week later came the only blot on January's copybook from a Notts point of view on a frustrating afternoon against Carlisle United at Meadow Lane, when a host of missed chances allowed the enigmatic Francois Zoko's goal to be the winner for the visitors. That was followed by a creditable 1-1 draw on a dark, cold night in Hartlepool to set things up nicely for Manchester City and their oil money to role into town.
With the squashed face of Adrian Chiles watching on, Notts nearly did it as well. Despite a posse of superstars led by the wily creativity of David Silva lining up for City, Notts held their own until captain Neal Bishop headed home a corner from Alan Gow (remember him!?!) to send Meadow Lane into a frenzy of joy. That was tempered eight minutes from time when City's new £20,000,000+ man Edin Dzeko tapped home his first goal in English football from a Micah Richards cross, but Notts held out for a replay and nearly nicked it when Mike Edwards was inches away from connecting with another set piece.
Unfortunately, it was events just prior to the thrilling cup tie that were to define the rest of Notts' season, rather than the month's impressive performances and results. The sale of Ben Davies to Derby, following a late transfer request, ripped the creative heart out of the side and, unfortunately, Gow never really came close to replacing him despite the impressive showing against City. Just as much of a blow, however, was the failure to land Lee Miller and Thomas Ince on loan for a longer period following their impressive performances. Ince was being held ransom by Liverpool, but the Miller farce is well documented, with Notts seemingly deciding that they'd signed the Scotsman without actually consulting either his parent club, Middlesbrough, or indeed the player himself. Like any good Shakespeare play, the foreshadowing of impending doom was clear for all to see.