It’s safe to say last season didn’t end as Notts County would have hoped.

At a Coronavirus-enforced empty Wembley, Neal Ardley’s side went down 3-1 to Harrogate Town in the Vanarama National League playoff final. Cal Roberts’ second-half free-kick proved the only consolation for Notts who will have to take a second swing at promotion from the fifth tier this term.

The rebuild began just days later as Zoumana Bakayogo, Regan Booty, Tom Crawford, Mitch Rose and Scott Wilson left the club at the end of their contracts.

Midfielder Crawford has since found a new club in Dave Challinor’s Hartlepool United, while Joel Bagan and Adam Long returned to their parent clubs Cardiff City and Wigan Athletic respectively.

Owen Betts was released prior to the playoff campaign, joining Steve Chettle’s Basford United along with Declan Dunn and Alex Howes, Pierce Bird joining National League rivals Eastleigh, and Remaye Campbell is now at Grantham Town. Joe McDonnell linked back up with Bird at Eastleigh later in the window.

Goalkeeper Ross Fitzsimons and Matt Tootle have joined Boston United, while Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain has moved south to Gosport Borough.

Former Nottingham Forest forward Nathan Tyson rejoined Chesterfield permanently over the summer after scoring three in six games on loan for the Spireites last season.

Nathan Tyson has joined Chesterfield, having scored three in six on loan for the Spireites last season.
Photo: Non-League Football Paper

Assistant manager Neil Cox departed early in August to become first-team manager at his first club, Scunthorpe United. Cox worked with Ardley since 2012 at AFC Wimbledon, following him to Meadow Lane in 2018.

Greg Abbott returned to Notts as Cox’s replacement two weeks later, having been Shaun Derry’s assistant in 2014.

Portuguese midfielder Ruben Rodrigues was the Magpies’ first new arrival from Eerste Divisie side FC Den Bosch, having scored 12 and set up 10 in 2019/20. Rodrigues is the first Portuguese player to play for Notts in their 158-year history, and will wear the number 20 shirt this season.

A quartet of Notts players extended their stays at Meadow Lane in a fortnight, with Michael Doyle, Alex Lacey, Richard Brindley and Dion Kelly-Evans all agreeing new terms.

Doyle arrived in January 2019, and the 39-year-old said “There are a lot of exciting times ahead for the supporters and on a personal level I just want to play a part in getting us back into the league and on the right footing.”

Photo: Notts County Football Club

Lacey joined in November 2019 and, with Brindley and former Coventry right-back Kelly-Evans also signing extensions, shored up the Notts defence for the coming season.

Bradford City midfielder Jake Reeves was the next through the door, having worked under Ardley at AFC Wimbledon and played alongside fellow midfielder Jim O’Brien at the Utilita Energy Stadium.

The former Spurs youth said “I like that there’s a project in place, first and foremost to get promoted. This is a bigger club than where it is and there are the right people in the right departments to help it grow and grow.”

Prolific striker Kristian Dennis moved up north to test himself against the likes of Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen as he departed to Scottish Premiership side St Mirren. Kyle Wootton more than played his part in Notts’ promising campaign last season, and he has a new potential partner up top for this term.

21-year-old winger Sam Osborne left Notts in August, having won consecutive player of the year awards and being offered a new contract to stay at Meadow Lane, but game time was a sticking point. He has found himself a new club in Leamington, playing in the National League North.

Belgian striker Elisha Sam arrived at Meadow Lane at the end of August from Bulgarian side Arda Kardzhali, the 6’5″ forward adding plenty of physicality to complement 6’1″ Kyle Wootton.

Casper Sloth also joined to bolster the Magpies’ midfield, the former Denmark international having previously represented Motherwell and Leeds.

The 28-year-old told club media “It’s a difficult league to go up from but, looking at some of the games we played last season, we have a very good squad who just missed out in the final. Hopefully we can do it next year.”

Former Wales youth goalkeeper Luke Pilling joined Notts early in September, having left Tranmere Rovers after seventeen years. The 23-year-old hopes to break into the starting 11 this season, saying “I know Sam Slocombe’s been a top keeper for a long time but I’m here to push him all the way and give people something to think about.”

With Slocombe suffering an injury last January that saw Ross Fitzsimons temporarily recalled from his loan at Chesterfield to take his place between the sticks, Neal Ardley will certainly have been keen to bolster the goalkeeping ranks with Fitzsimons’ departure.

Jake Kean is registered as a goalkeeper coach at the club, while Pilling’s arrival prompted the manager to indicate that young stopper Tiernan Brooks may look to leave Notts on loan. “[Pilling’s signing] opens up the avenue for Tiernan Brooks to go out and play games….he’s a real prospect but it’s probably a little too soon to be throwing him in.”

Notts’ first pre-season friendly took place much later than usual, but Neal Ardley’s side ran out 2-0 winners at Ilkeston Town in early September, Kyle Wootton bagging a brace and the club’s media team testing out a YouTube livestream of the game, a process they’re looking to monetise over the early part of the season as National League grounds remain closed to spectators.

Sheffield United defender Sam Graham returned to Meadow Lane three days later on an initial half-season loan, having spent the early part of last season with Notts before an Achilles injury ended his season early.

Highly-rated Mansfield Town striker Jimmy Knowles also joined on loan on September 10, the 18-year-old saying “I’ve got a lot of energy – I’ll press defences and force them into mistakes. I like to run in behind but I don’t mind receiving the ball to feet and playing one-twos with the midfield and strikers.” He’ll challenge Kyle Wootton, Wes Thomas and Elisha Sam for a place as starting striker in his spell away from the One Call Stadium.

Left-back Adam Chicksen was Ardley’s final signing of the window, having worked with new assistant manager Greg Abbott at Bradford City between 2017-19. The one-time Zimbabwe international made 70 appearances for hometown club MK Dons, and 46 for the Bantams, most recently playing 16 times for Bolton Wanderers as they were relegated from League One following a 12-point deduction.

As a player who’s largely plied his trade in League One, Chicksen was seen as quite the coup by Ardley and supporters alike. The 29-year-old said on arriving, “This is an extremely professional club which as a whole is run better than some I’ve played for in League One. It’s been a breath of fresh air and it was a no-brainer to sign.”

Goals from Kyle Wootton and Wes Thomas saw Notts overcome Alfreton Town 2-1 in mid-September; Neal Ardley was pleased with his new defensive depth when reflecting on the win in Derbyshire.

Ardley told Nottinghamshire Live “We’ve gone from struggling to find a way through a game with defensive options to having strength in depth. Damien [McCrory]’s out warming up and on the pitch so it’s all good.”

The Magpies defeated AFC Telford United 3-1 at New Bucks Head, with goals from Alex Lacey, Theo Streete (og) and Wes Thomas, making it a clean sweep for Notts in their first three pre-season outings.

A Buildbase FA Trophy semi-final at home to now-League Two side Harrogate Town brought a narrow first defeat of the season for Ardley’s men, and also saw Cal Roberts leave the Meadow Lane pitch on a stretcher after a poor challenge in the midfield.

The manager told media prior to the first league game of the season that the former Newcastle United winger has been progressing in his bid to return but is unlikely to feature at Crabble Athletic Ground on the opening day.

National League North side York City were unfortunate not to be promoted on a points-per-game basis last season, and showed their quality in beating Notts 3-0 at Meadow Lane. Steve Watson’s side came out on top courtesy of goals from Akil Wright, Jake Cassidy and Alex Wollerton, inflicting on Notts a second defeat in two games before the start of the National League season.

The Magpies start their bid to win promotion back to the EFL on the south coast on Saturday 3 October with a trip to Dover Athletic. The two sides played out two league draws before Christmas last season, but with several quality additions Notts will hope to take three points back to Nottingham this time, and get off to a better start than last season.

Ardley’s side picked up only nine points from their opening eight games last August, and with seven matches in October, they have an opportunity to put themselves in a much better position from the offset.

Newly-promoted Altrincham are up next on 7 October, while Barnet visit Meadow Lane on the 10th; Notts lost at home to the Bees early last season but exacted their revenge in a 2-0 win in the playoff semi-final to take them to Wembley. The fixture at the Hive wasn’t fulfilled due to the Coronavirus pandemic ending the regular league season early.

Notts County celebrate Cal Roberts’ goal against Barnet in the playoffs last season.
Photo: Nottinghamshire Live

Sutton United shared two 1-1 draws with Notts last season, and they host Neal Ardley’s side at Gander Green Lane on 13 October, with fellow Magpies Maidenhead up next on the 17th. Notts ran out 3-0 winners at Meadow Lane on Boxing Day against Alan Devonshire’s men, while they shared the points in Berkshire not a week later on New Year’s Day.

Notts overcame Halifax Town on both occasions last season, including a 4-2 Christmas cracker at the Shay, and visit Yorkshire again on 27 October, finishing the first month of the season in Hampshire as they visit Aldershot Town.

The Shots have just signed former Fulham, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest striker Ross McCormack, and defeated Notts at the EBB Stadium in November, but the Magpies responded with a 3-1 win at home just four days before Coronavirus brought football to a standstill in mid-March.

They won’t be able to rely on their fans’ impressive presence in stadia home and away early in the season at least, but Notts County have done some exciting business over the summer and will surely accept nothing but promotion this term.

@FutbolCallander

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