It is the relegation that has robbed a club of its identity.
No longer are 157-year-old Notts County the “world’s oldest football league club”.
Next season, for the first time in their history, the Magpies – a founding member of the Football League in 1888 – will be a non-league side.
The team that gave Juventus their famous black and white stripes and who helped the Italian giants celebrate the opening of their new stadium with in an exhibition match less than eight years ago will next season be playing in the fifth tier of the English game.
Signs that have long adorned Notts’ Meadow Lane home proclaiming their place in the game will now have to come down ahead of visits from the likes of Bromley and Dover Athletic – sides they have never before played competitively.
‘A tragic relegation’
After 130 years in the Football League “it will feel like a drop into the abyss”, says sports historian Dr Andrew Dawes.
“It’s not just sad for Notts fans – they will be distraught, no doubt – this is one relegation that the general football fan, anyone who loves the history of the game, will also feel.
“They were there at the birth of the professional game.
|Who are the next oldest football league club?|
|Who will claim Notts County’s mantle is one for debate. Stoke City’s record books say they were founded in 1863, but even they admit “many details remain sketchy”. The next oldest after them are Notts’ cross-river rivals Nottingham Forest, formed in 1865.|
“Their story is very important because not many teams went from being purely amateur to completely switching and going professional. When professionalism was legalised in 1885, Notts were there developing the game as it became more serious.
“To lose their Football League status after so long is tragic, but they have their oldest professional club mantle to cling to.”
- Notts are a club that have experienced more ups and downs than any other, with this their 17th relegation. It would take winning promotion for a 14th time to see them return to the EFL.
A decade ago they were named English football’s most stressful club to support.
Joyous moments, such as winning back-to-back play-off finals at Wembley under Neil Warnock to reach the top-flight in 1991, are intertwined with years of financial hardship.
A history of on and off-field trouble
Even moments of almost fairytale fortune have resulted in nightmare endings.
Sven-Goran Eriksson, just three years after leading England to a World Cup and months after leaving Manchester City, was lured to Notts by their historical significance – the romance of taking them to the Premier League from the depths of League Two was “a unique project”.
Sol Campbell, who has consigned Notts to relegation by leading Macclesfield Town to safety on the final day of the season, was the star recruit, the face of a rich new era.
The money to pay the box office additions, however, never materialised.
Former striker Mark Stallard, who played for the club while it was in administration for a record 534 days in 2002 and 2003, says the Magpies have a “compelling case to be top of the tree” when it comes to stressing out supporters.
“They really are put through the mill time and time again,” said Stallard, who works as a summariser for BBC Radio Nottingham.
“If it’s not trouble on the pitch, then it is financial, a takeover or threat of administration.
“But this is a real low point.
“It means just about everything to be the oldest professional league club. Even during the hard times, when money was being raised and the club were close to extinction, it’s that moniker and history that got people from around the country and world to put their hands in their pocket to help out.
“To lose it is devastating and it will hit the club hard.”
And all this at the end of a season which started with Notts among the favourites for promotion.
Kevin Nolan, who took the Magpies to the play-off semi-finals last season, was axed after five league games and was replaced by former Liverpool and Leeds United player Harry Kewell.
The Australian lasted just 10 weeks, with Neil Ardley coming in as the club’s third permanent boss in three months.
‘A laughing stock’
Managerial turbulence and poor form turned into a crisis on 27 January, when the club was put up for sale just hours after owner Alan Hardy inadvertently included a nude photo of himself in a post on Twitter.
Financial issues at Meadow Lane have since seen the club handed a winding-up petition over an unpaid tax bill, with the threat of administration still looming with a second court date over the matter approaching.
Notts fan Tom Nixey says describing the club’s relegation as “death by a thousand cuts” sums up the campaign.
“The Alan Hardy sideshow really affected things, maybe not the players, but the fanbase,” said the 29-year-old. “We were a massive laughing stock for a few days.
“If you are top of the league, you can ride that out and make a joke of it but when you are struggling that really turned it. It was a big killer, that one.
“With things on the pitch you can rationalise and make sense of it, but things like that undermine the whole thing.”
“If it was three months ago I’d have said that relegation would probably mean the extinction of the club eventually, even within a year or so,” he said.
“With the takeover looking like it will go ahead there is a lot of promise.”
Relegation will make Notts a cheaper club to buy – and football finance expert Dr Dan Plumley of Sheffield Hallam University says a quick sale is now crucial.
“The aim should be to stabilise ownership to get the club up and running again the National League and out of the league as quickly as possible,” he said.
Relegation to the top tier of non-league football will mean less exposure, but with a parachute payment of about £500,000 that is equal to centrally distributed money that League Two clubs receive as a “basic award”, their exit will be “cushioned”.
That funding is halved in the second year outside the EFL and drops to nothing in the third year.
“In the short term, financially, it is very important to get back up within two years,” said Plumley.
And as a club that has its very identity to play for, the stakes will be high.
“To be the oldest football league club in the world again should be the motivator to get back,” said Stallard.