NOTTS COUNTY 1-2 SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY
SAM '88 LOWE '53
Being on an unbeaten run is an odd sensation. Somehow you seem to completely lose perspective and forget that football teams actually loses matches now and again, no matter how good they are. The fact that, in the grand scheme of things, Notts aren't actually that good should only add to the impressive nature of Keith Curle's impact at Meadow Lane. Even Steve Cotterill's short reign at Notts had one blot - a defeat to a hard working Port Vale side, that came in a similar fashion to the one suffered to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday. Not that i'm suggesting this season will finish anything like that one two years ago did, but sometimes you can just be beaten by a better football team. I think that was the case against Wednesday.
It is sort of ironic that Curle's first defeat came on the first occasion he named an unchanged line-up, with the same side that put Charlton to the sword a week earlier tasked with beating another of the division's promotion challengers. This left new signing Lloyd Sam consigned to the bench, whilst Jon Harley continued in an unfamiliar midfield role. Wednesday lined up in the most conventional of 4-4-2 formations, with Gary Madine partnering Ryan Lowe in a formidable looking strike force and Mike Jones and Michail Antonio providing the width. Almost from the first whistle, it was Wednesday's midfield that was the defining factor in the game.
Rarely do Notts lose the physical battle in the centre of the park, but Saturday was one of those occasions. Where, seven days earlier, Notts had bullied the league leaders, they found themselves under the same pressure from Wednesday. Jose Semedo and Chris Lines closed down unrelettingly, whilst Antonio's pace out wide made him a constant threat despite his wildly erratic ability on the ball. Despite this though, the first half was generally extremely cagey with neither side able to really create. Jon Harley fired a hopeful effort over for Notts, whilst Rob Jones headed off target from a corner before going off injured to be replaced by Spaniard Miguel Llera.
The first true chance of the half didn't materialise until the game approached half time, when Antonio bundled his way past Kieron Freeman but showed just why he is in League One by hopelessly toepoking the ball into the side netting when baring down on Stuart Nelson. Another chance quickly followed though, when a long Antonio throw found its way to Julian Bennett at the far post, but he was brilliantly denied by a block from Freeman that was the very definition of 'last ditch'. Notts' closest effort of the half came in the closing seconds, as Sheehan bent a free kick over the bar from a similar position to that he scored from in the previous home game against Carlisle.
One of the more frustrating features of Notts' season has been their inability to come out for the second half in anything other than a complete coma, something which reared its head again as they fell behind early on. Antonio rampaged through the Notts midfield, with Neal Bishop possibly wary of just fouling him as he is one yellow card away from a ban, but in truth the Notts captain had to take one for his teammates. He didn't though, and Antonio darted past Sheehan and squared for Ryan Lowe to tap Wednesday into a lead that was thoroughly deserved.
Brilliant defending at the far post by Bennett denied Notts' best player on the day, Jeff Hughes, before Notts fell further behind. The defence seemingly completely fell asleep, allowing Madine to collect a throw, complete bamboozle Liam Chilvers, and fired the ball into the bottom corner. In truth, Wednesday ruthlessly exposed Notts' centre back pairing of Chilvers and Damion Stewart. 'Solid' is the operative word for describing the two of them - but they are only 'solid' in the most pre-school of senses. Give them a tin of red paint and you'll end up with plenty of red handprints on the walls, but you aren't going to get Picasso from them. Against teams who do little but knock the ball forward aerially, they are fine, but against a team with a bit of craft in the final third they can be found wanting.
Lloyd Sam did find his way onto the pitch for Notts though and represented a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, firstly through his pace and energy and then when he bundled Judge's inswinging free kick over the line to set up a grandstand finish. At least, it would've been had it not all been spent with Wednesday holding the ball in the corner with Notts unsuccessfully flailing at it like a bunch of drugged cats. The ref blew and that was it, Curle's side had finally lost. Not that it's a huge blow to our play-off hopes, particularly as neither Carlisle or Stevenage were able to win. Sometimes in football you are beaten by the better side, and Wednesday were up there with the most impressive opposition to visit Meadow Lane this season. Certainly, they had the least obvious weaknesses. There are areas in which we have to do better - the support for Jonathan Forte just didn't arrive quickly enough or in enough numbers, whilst we struggled against a physical and talented side throughout the spine of the side. Neal Bishop, in particular, struggling horribly against the presence of Semedo and the craft of Lines. The lessons are there to be learned - Sheffield United tomorrow night will prove to be a tough examination of Notts' improvement under Curle.