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Remembering Notts County’s PL near-miss

Notts County

There are many teams who feel resentful of having never graced the Premier League after its establishment in 1992.

Some have more of a right than others to feel this way. Notts County, who were demoted to non-league oblivion last season after 157 years in the EFL, arguably fall into that category, dropping from the top-flight in the year the Premier League began.

As the final year of the 1980s dawned, Notts County existed as just another club without any real sense of purpose. On New Years’ Day 1989, the Magpies lay 18th in a league of 24, and far closer to the relegation zone than the playoffs. They began that year with two straight defeats, against Port Vale and Swansea City, lurching them even closer to trouble, but the turnaround was not far away.

General view of the ground before the game

Promise flourishes in a new decade

Had County managed to survive in 1991/92, and become a founder member of the Premier League in 1992, they may well have found themselves today among the most popular teams within sports betting markets on key events. As it was, their relegation undid three years of hard work, the start of which was marked by excellent form in the first half of 1989/90, which led to County leading the third division by Boxing Day.

County were unable to stay at the top for long, and eventually finished third. That led to a nerve-wracking playoff semi-final with a strong Bolton team powered by 25-goal Tony Philliskirk. He duly scored the opener in the first leg at Bolton’s Burnden Park, but Gary Lund equalised to give County a 1-1 draw to take into the home leg, which they won 2-0 through goals from Tommy Johnson and Kevin Bartlett.

The following season saw Notts County begin the campaign in strong form, and never once drop below the top ten. They paid the price for a spring slump, finishing fourth and facing Middlesbrough in the playoffs. The Teesiders entered the semis as favourites, but after a 1-1 draw at Ayresome Park, Notts County took full advantage of home turf in the second leg, winning 1-0 via a goal from Paul Harding. 

Brighton were then dispatched with ease in the final, via a 3-1 scoreline, to send the Magpire into the topmost division:

An odyssey for a lifetime

Notts County were always amongst the favourites for relegation in 1991/92, and their introduction to life in the top flight saw a baptism of fire at Old Trafford. Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson won it 2-0 for the Red Devils with expected ease, but Notts County would emerge as an early surprise package.

Their first home game of the season yielded a 1-0 win over Southampton courtesy of Dean Yates, but just four days later came the ultimate reality check, with County’s being thrashed 4-0 at home by rivals Nottingham Forest. Not deterred, County took seven of the next nine points available, to go into the first weekend of September fifth in the league.

Classic goal: Kevin Bartlett scores a memorable strike against Sheffield United in September 1991

After a barren run of just four more wins up to New Year, County slid to 18th – a safe spot in a league of 22. A good Christmas yielded a Boxing Day win over Chelsea, with Yates and Johnson sealing a 2-0 win, and the completion of a league double over West Ham. A 1-0 defeat at Selhurst Park on the first day of 1992 marked the beginning of a death spiral.

County took just six points from the next 45 available, making a a late flurry of wins inconsequential. In the final matchday programme, Chairman Christoffer Reedtz simply said: “I’m sorry that we have failed to match up to expectations. But no one is more disappointed than me and having had a taste of the big-time, I can promise that I will do all in my power to get back there as quickly as possible.

Denied the opportunity to become founder members of what is now the world’s most lucrative domestic league, the Magpies have come nowhere near a return since that demotion. Their thrust for the pinnacle in the early 1990s reeks of a busted flush in hindsight, and with many lower league and non-league clubs now facing an uncertain future, the chance another great adventure on the north side of the River Trent appears remote at best.

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