GILLINGHAM 2-1 NOTTS COUNTY
"Things can only get better..." - D:Ream, circa 2003.
Pop music lies, then. Who'd have thought it? Not even the Spice Girls could provide the slightest sweetener to this vile season that continues to redefine the parameters of catastrophe, like a dystopian disaster movie set in Accrington. Notts had an extra day's rest for this Tuesday night trip to deepest, darkest and particularly arctic Kent after their spineless decision to agree to Swindon's request for the extra day in bed - switching that match to Friday night did little for Notts after their international players arrived at the County Ground from the furthest corners of the globe (well, Serbia) dead on their feet, a pattern that continued into this latest defeat to a side who looked fitter and hungrier throughout a horrible night for Chris Kiwomya and his struggling side.
The alarming trend of Notts' team selections correlating with logic about as much as the lottery numbers continued, as Kiwomya again dropped Danny Haynes for never being given a chance by his pedestrian midfield, whilst Marcus Haber remained consigned to the bench despite actually looking and playing like a centre forward. Just as Adam Coombes appeared to have been selected at Swindon after winning the Meadow Lane version of lotto, Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Yoann Arquin were given the task of being dragged through the game by Notts' very own beacon of hope - Callum McGregor. In midfield, the suspension of Joss Labadie had been noted with little more than an apathetic shrug by everyone connected with Notts and Greg Tempest was saved from his own personal nightmare at full back by being given a first start in midfield since the Carling Cup tie against Fleetwood Town back in August. Captain Dean Leacock was still ill, meaning that Manny Smith also returned to a side that he had consistently failed to establish himself in.
For their part, Gillingham were still adapting to the comparatively serene post-Martin Allen life - Charlie was nowhere to be seen (Nando's, maybe?), but ex-Notts men Myles Weston and Stuart Nelson both started for Peter Taylor's side. Predictably it was the Gills who were quickest out of the blocks, Weston having the first shot in anger that was spooned wildly into the scaffolding/away end behind the goal. Notts reacted to this, though, and twice constructed attacks of their own before the quarter hour mark, Yoann Arquin holding the ball up and feeding Campbell-Ryce who fired off target and Alan Sheehan smashing a shot straight at Nelson. It was a frenetic, end-to-end opening, that then saw Bartosz Bialkowski called into action for the first time, diving away to his left to save a Charlie Lee shot that had skidded across the greasy turf.
Notts were, as tends to be the norm, dominating possession, but their painfully slow build up play was restricting them to long shots and allowing Gillingham to get back into their 4-5-1 shape quickly and solidly - Campbell-Ryce, Fotheringham and Tempest all failed to seriously trouble Nelson with no obvious pass available. Then, almost laughable, as in the opening game at Sheffield United, Notts contrived to create disaster from their own attacking corner. The delivery was comfortably collected by Nelson, who quickly hurled the ball downfield towards Weston. There appeared to be little danger, but Gary Liddle somehow contrived to allow the ball to bounce over him before falling over, allowing Weston a free run to pick out Chris Whelpdale. The former Peterborough man still had plenty to do, but confidently smashed the ball into the bottom corner leaving Bialkowski with no chance.
Thus the Notts heads dropped and the self-inflicted collapse begun. I'd love to know how this Notts team would manage to cope with some of life's other tasks - in fact, it's a wonder they manage to feed themselves without it ending up on their own heads. This time Whelpdale, who probably would've been the smallest man on the pitch if it wasn't for the presence of Campbell-Ryce, was allowed a free header. Again there appeared no danger, but again a Notts defender allowed the ball to bypass them without clearing it, controlling it or really trying to do anything with it. Manny Smith the culprit this time, allowing Danny Kedwell to escape and smash the ball past poor old Bialkowski. Notts did react to this second blow, though, with Campbell-Ryce skipping past two men and clipping the bar from the corner of the area. He looks all the better for having given up attempting to pass or cross the ball entirely.
The same, tedious pattern continued for the rest of the first half with Notts controlling possession of the ball but Gillingham looking far, far more likely to score - Bialkowski again proving the only thing stood between Notts and a battering, saving from Weston and superbly from Whelpdale. Half time came and went, with the Notts players trudging off to the same scenario that they had faced just four days earlier in Wiltshire - a mostly self-inflicted two goal defecit. At Swindon the start of the second half seemed to entirely pass Notts by as the hosts piled on the pressure, something that was threatening to happen again in the freezing Medway air. Charlie Lee could somehow only head the ball straight at Nelson from in the six-yard box after Adam Barrett headed a corner back across goal and Leon Legge also came close from a Gillingham set-piece.
The next chance came when Liddle again randomly lost his footing, but one of Notts' few bright lights, André Boucaud, charged down the effort from Harriman. Another of Notts' more promising players, the lively Greg Tempest, then released McGregor with a lovely pass but the Scot's effort was snuffed out by a well-organised home back line. Normal service was soon resumed, though, as Notts' Polish 'keeper had to be at his stunning best to keep Notts in the game, somehow touching Whelpdale's powerful twenty five yard drive over the bar when it seemed destined for the top corner. With over an hour gone, Kiwomya finally threw on some substitutes in Haynes and David Bell, but the decision to withdraw the lively if ineffective Campbell-Ryce led to howls of derision and chants of "you don't know what you're doing" from the home fans. He wasn't that good, but they might just have had a point.
Notts continued to cross the ball into the box from deep having allowed Gillingham to organise and with their one striker capable of attacking a ball twiddling his thumbs/gloves on the bench, although Manny Smith did come close to making amends for his horrific header but somehow managed to head an inviting Sheehan delivery straight at Nelson when all he had to do was guide it to either side. Notts' pressure, if not number of chances, was beginning to build and they were given hope - yet again from the magical left boot of McGregor. He dipped inside a poor Gillingham challenge in midfield and arrowed a fantastic effort into the corner from twenty five yards. It's scary to think how bad things might be without him. The final few minutes carried out the story of the game, though, with Gillingham comfortably repelling hopeful balls into the box, despite the trademark nervy goalkeeping of Nelson, with David Bell coming closest to rescuing a bittersweet point for the visitors. As the final whistle blew, the feeling amongst the 169 hardy souls who had made the long journey to the South East was that this had to be the end. It just had to be. But, somehow, it wasn't.