What has the epic conclusion to the 2022/23 Vanarama National League got to do with the legendary authors Dame Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle and Raymond Chandler? Stay with me for the full ninety minutes, plus added time, a wedge of extra time, and penalties, and I’ll reveal all.
But first, I’d like to take a health check. Being a Notts County fan since I was a kid has had its fair share of stresses. Some may say that picking the black and white army over our noisy red neighbours across the River Trent (with arguably a slightly bigger trophy room) is where it all started. My decision was made, aged ten, when my dad took me to my first game ─ so cut me some slack! As if to edify this notion, in 2007 The Telegraph newspaper revealed that Notts were the most stressful team to support; and even though I have physically strayed from my city of birth, the emotional ties have remained strong. Being a season ticket holder facing a five hour ─ or more ─ return journey for each home game surely qualifies me as insane; I counter this claim by stating the obvious – this club is part of my roots. My heritage. My elations (at birth my two kids were enrolled as junior Magpies). My losses (I miss my dad). It’s part of my DNA ─ and this isn’t just an idle assertion.
In 2020, research published by the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion at the University of Oxford, scientifically proved the synthesis of devoted fans with their football clubs. The field study took place during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where the saliva of a control group of fans was taken prior, during, and post match ─ including the home nation’s semi-final loss to Germany.
Researcher Dr Martha Newson revealed, “Cortisol rocketed during live games for the fans who were highly fused to the team.” She also concluded, “Fans who are strongly fused with their team – that is, have a strong sense of being ‘one’ with their team – experience the greatest physiological stress response when watching a match.”
This fifth tier title race was akin to a classic whodunit. Twists and turns aplenty before FC Hollywood (aka Wrexham AFC – co-owned by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney) deservedly took the crown with a title winning tally of 111 points, four ahead of Notts. By any previous established rules of engagement County – who scored 117 goals, led by the League’s all time record goal machine Macaulay Langstaff – would have been champions. Yet this wasn’t your standard storyline and the playoffs beckoned.
These sudden death battles are great if your team has already secured promotion and you can watch from the comfort of your armchair, but when you are in them form often means nothing; it’s all down to passion, pride, fate, and fortune. Collectively, the named classic mystery writers couldn’t have penned anything more theatrical.
The semi-final against Boreham Wood, from whom Notts had finished a clear thirty-five points ahead, arrived at Meadow Lane with nothing to lose. They were 2-0 up at halftime and no doubt – had he been there ─ horror writer Stephen King would have commenced his next book. But the English novelist William Shakespeare grabbed his quill and busily finished the script. An Aden Baldwin piledriver from distance on 47 minutes made us dream, and his last gasp equaliser made over fifteen thousand hearts beat that much faster. In the last minute of extra time the final line of this poetic pleasure was written, with the local hero known as Jodi Jones, as his screamer of a shot sent the Magpies to Wembley for the playoff final.
My cortisol levels had reached celestial heights, but Notts still had the final to negotiate with perennial foes Chesterfield. Entering the historic arena dominated by its awesome arch, each fan knew of the ultimate consequence: one of the best or worst days. Blinding light or dramatic darkness. Joy or anguish. The playoffs never offer an in-between.
Cue a stage show that defied the law of gravity. The Spireites took an early lead with an Andrew Dallas penalty and, as the second half ebbed ever closer to the end, up stepped John Bostock to drill home the equaliser on 87 minutes. Extra-time kept the ultimate cocktail of raw emotions alive.
Chesterfield did it again. With an almost arrogant disregard of aching limbs Armando Dobra spectacularly carved out an utter masterclass in finishing from distance. Was this going to be another horror show? Not quite, as Rúben Rodrigues embodied the never say die mental fortitude of Notts remarkable team spirit with an exceptional equaliser.
Penalties it was, and all those not so latent doubts resurfaced as my stress response reached fever pitch. Having come on as a substitute late in the second half, Archie Mair had spectacularly saved two spot kicks – meanwhile I couldn’t even compute if we had another chance of victory ─ the astonishing miss by John Bostock had caused my internal fight or flight syndrome to simply subside. I was emotionally spent. A gaze at the scoreboard brought it home. A successful attempt by Cedwyn Scott would propel us back to the promised land – the English Football League ─ and we would reclaim our rightful title of the world’s oldest football league club. He did it and my cortisol careered like a Catherine wheel around my body, attaining levels I’d rarely reached before. There was only remedy ─ who cares if people saw me crying!
As for our gallant opponents, spare a thought for those loyal fans who left well in advance of the on-field celebrations. Dr Newson made an ominous cortisol overture, “It was particularly high during games where their team lost.”
Anyone who says it’s just a game simply doesn’t get it.
Come on you Pies!
© Ian Kirke 2023 and all photographs / @ianjkirke