Alan Hardy the speedster leaves Notts County stuck in reverse
Notts are on their third manager of the season, eight points off safety at the bottom of League Two and straying dangerously close to losing their title as the oldest Football League club
In ordinary circumstances Notts County, rock bottom of the entire Football League, would have been preparing to play Newport this weekend. These, of course, are not ordinary circumstances. Newport had an FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough to take up their time and that left the 92nd-placed club in English football facing a blank weekend. To borrow an old line from Jasper Carrott, their best result for ages.
Not that the supporters of this proud old club will find that particularly amusing when Notts are currently eight points off safety at the bottom of League Two and straying dangerously close to losing their title as the oldest club in the Football League.
The history at Notts goes back to 1862 and, growing up in Nottingham, I know how proud they are of that status. My team was the other side of the River Trent – the one Dave McVay, the old Notts centre-half, described as “the evil slime” – but it was quite common to go to Meadow Lane if Cloughie’s boys were away. Nottingham, as a whole, has always been proud to have two league clubs separated by a few hundred yards and just because Jimmy Sirrel was only the second most famous manager in the city it didn’t lessen his own achievements.
The stories were legend about Sirrel licking the top of the sauce bottle clean during team dinners or travelling from his home in the village of Burton Joyce to use the communal bath. Or the time he fell asleep after having a shave, not realising he had nicked his neck, and the youth-team player who found him lying in a bloodied shirt ran into the office screaming: “Oh my God, Jimmy’s dead!”
Sirrel led Notts from the depths of the old Fourth Division to the top tier, announcing their arrival on the opening weekend of the 1981-82 season by winning away against the champions, Aston Villa. Notts mattered. And I can imagine he would have wanted a light shone on the boardroom buffoonery that has brought them to this point, the narcissism of one man in particular, and what it tells us about modern-day football and the downfalls of social media. The lesson, in this case, being that football club owners should leave tweeting to those feathered little creatures in the sky.
At the heart of it is Alan Hardy. Or “Big Alan,” as he likes to be known. Hardy bought Notts two years ago, has put a lot of money into the club as the successful boss of an interiors company, and is certainly an interesting character if you consider the rather astonishing story of him being caught speeding and apparently deciding that the laws of Britain’s roads should not apply to him. “I don’t agree that speeding kills,” he said, before pleading not guilty and asking for the case to go to a trial. “Inappropriate speeding kills and there is a marked difference.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nottingham’s magistrates disagreed, having heard he was driving his BMW at 77mph in a 40mph zone and, according to the BBC, already had 11 points on his licence. Hardy did at least change his plea to guilty but was so adamant he should be let off a ban he lodged an immediate appeal. That failed, too. “I owed it to my business and my family to put my case forward,” Hardy, disqualified for three months, explained outside court.
One of the more intriguing developments I can reveal at Notts is that seven members of non-football staff were suspended last year, leading to four losing their jobs, during an internal dispute involving the discovery of two Whatsapp groups in which they shared their views of, among other things, the club’s owner. Let’s assume they were not planning to nominate him for Boss of the Year. Of the three who were kept on, two have subsequently left. Notts have declined to comment.
Hardy appears to be very fond of publicity, takes advice from Peter Ridsdale – “Just learnt more in the last hour than in the last 12 months!” he tweeted after one audience with the former Leeds supremo – and tends to opts for the scattergun as his form of Twitter artillery, whether it be messaging the editor of the Nottingham Evening Post to point out he expected to see Notts, not Forest, on the following day’s back page, or his recent jousting with the followers of Mansfield Town, Nottinghamshire’s third professional club.
One wanted to know his views about the progress of Mansfield under the ownership of John and Carolyn Radford. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” Hardy responded. “How’s your 20,000 seat stadium?” Mansfield, with their 9,186-capacity Field Mill, were third in League Two at the time. To another fan, Hardy followed up with: “Let’s compare league positions in three years, sunshine.”
More relevant to this story, however, is the way he has never been afraid to chip away at a club that, in terms of age, is three years their junior. Hardy, Nottingham born and bred, made a great play of his local roots, describing Notts as “the true club of the community in this region” (Forest have Greek owners), rowed with Forest’s fans on Twitter and promised it would get “very spicy” when they were in the same league. Notts were on the up, spending time last season on top of League Two, and Hardy made all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle barbs at the expense of their neighbours.
The problem for Notts was this was a risky strategy when one of the reasons they were doing so well was because of two Forest loanees, Jorge Grant, an attacking midfielder, had scored 16 goals before the turn of the year. Ryan Yates, another Forest academy graduate, was possibly even more impressive. And, unfortunately for Hardy, there are only so many times you can bite the hand that feeds you.
He found that out the hard way last January when Scunthorpe, of League One, proposed an alternative loan deal to give Yates experience of a higher division. Forest approved the switch, concluding that Hardy no longer deserved preferential treatment, and the rest is history.
From second in the league, six points clear of third, Notts fell back to fifth and lost to Coventry City in the play-offs (Coventry’s players, it later transpired, had used as motivation Hardy’s pre-match comments about arranging buses to Wembley and the rumour that he already had celebratory T-shirts printed).
Hardy did not seem to appreciate that Forest had turned down separate approaches for Grant. He was “furious” about Yates, he announced on BBC Radio Nottingham, and blamed “non-footballing people”. Diplomatic relations were off.
After that, it has been a spectacular unravelling to find Notts in a position where those famous black and white stripes, as the club that gave Juventus their colours, might be heading for the National League.
Before the start of the season, Hardy described promotion as a “dead cert”. Instead, Notts did not win any of their first five league fixtures and the manager, Kevin Nolan, was sacked on 26 August. All of which was a bit awkward given that Hardy had previously hailed Nolan as a “future England manager” and not helped by Paul Mace, another Notts director, claiming in the Nottingham Evening Post it was a unanimous boardroom decision.
Unanimous? “That is simply not true,” another director, Jon Enever, responded on Twitter. Enever felt so strongly about it he walked out and the vice-chairman Darren Fletcher quit a short time later. Fletcher had been appointed to a director of football-type role in June, with “responsibility to oversee the football department”, presumably when he was not being a television commentator for BT Sport.
In a moment of comedy gold, he was asked on Twitter recently (yes, Twitter again) what he thought of Hardy’s tweeting habits. “No idea mate,” Fletcher replied. “Been blocked by him for a while.”
If, to continue the Nottingham theme, all this sounds like the makings of a Sleaford Mods song — “Been Blocked by Alan” (a feeling, I must admit, I am half-expecting this weekend) – the truth is it barely scratches the surface of why the club’s economics were described by Hardy recently as “unsustainable” and why it has been commented behind the scenes that if there was ever a lesson to be learned about how not to run a football club this was it.
Harry Kewell, Nolan’s replacement, lasted 73 days before he, too, was sacked. Nolan was sounded out to see whether he would like to go back but nothing came of it and Neal Ardley was appointed instead. Ardley, who had just left his job at AFC Wimbledon, has won one of his first 10 games. The “dead certs” have conceded 59 goals from 29 games, with a £3m wage bill and, until recently, 38 players on their books. Hardy has turned off the scoreboard to save money for transfers and, if all this was not galling enough for their supporters, just consider who might become the oldest Football League club by default.
Stoke City are commonly described as next in line but even the club’s own website admits “many details remain sketchy” about their formation, purportedly in 1863, and when the historian Wade Martin looked into it for his book, A Potter’s Tale, he could find no evidence. Stoke’s first recorded match was 1868 and, whatever the truth of their origins, they were liquidated in 1908 and did not return to the Football League for 11 years. All of which means the club potentially taking the title away from Notts would be … Nottingham Forest, founded in 1865. The evil slime, indeed.
What does all this tell us? Firstly, don’t burn bridges with a club that is trying to do you a favour. Forest have refused to be drawn into a public row but two things have become noticeable. First, their usual pre-season friendly at Meadow Lane never happened last summer – Notts hosted Leicester and Derby instead, with Hardy welcoming the “two biggest football clubs in the East Midlands” – and, secondly, Forest now loan players to Mansfield in what has been described as the beginning of a “special relationship”. One of them is Tyler Walker, son of Des, who has 19 goals. Another is the aforementioned Jorge Grant. Mansfield could go up because of it.
In different circumstances, these players could have been turning out for Notts, maybe even in League One. But they are not and I wonder whether, deep down, Hardy knows it didn’t have to be this way. Might he admit, knowing what he does now, that he has been his own worst enemy?
The only certainty is that Notts have 17 games to save themselves and prevent 157 years of history making way for non-league status.
I hope they can make it, but even the most optimistic Notts fan would have to admit it is looking bleak. The oldest club in the Football League? It’s Notts County, not Stoke, not Forest, not anybody else, and it will be a sad day, indeed, if that ever changes.
A sorry failure
Mark Sampson made a point of thanking Baroness Campbell for her “integrity and care” during a mea culpa in the Times, followed up with another apology on the League Managers Association website, that felt suspiciously like a man trying to find his way back into the sport.
Campbell is the FA’s director of women’s football and it sounds like she has been a fine support for the man who, better late than never, now admits he did make racial remarks to two of his players and is perhaps hoping we have all forgotten he did previously deny it all.
An interesting position for Campbell to take, though, when it might have been expected her attention would be more with the people who were on the wrong end of those “jokes” from the then England Women’s manager and who have had to go through the very public ordeal of three investigations, a parliamentary hearing and what the Professional Footballers’ Association has described, with justification, as some kind of cover-up.
I note that the very sympathetic Campbell also made sure to praise the rest of the England team for the way they handled the fall-out. Sampson wanted to thank Campbell “for demonstrating that integrity and care can still be shown in the most difficult of circumstances”.
At which point you might be wondering what level of support such an important figure in the women’s sport has offered to the people, lest it be forgotten, who really deserved her time?
Has she been a rock for the mixed-race player, Drew Spence, who was asked by Sampson in front of her new team-mates on her first England camp how many times she had been arrested and – clearly just a coincidence – has never been picked since it became clear she didn’t like what he was insinuating?
Has Campbell made it her business to support Eni Aluko, who was told by Sampson to make sure her Nigerian relatives did not bring the Ebola virus to a game at Wembley? That, after all, is what you would expect from someone in Campbell’s position at the FA, once named among the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom, isn’t it? Has she contacted Aluko?
Disappointingly, she and the FA have declined to respond to all those questions – but I hope the answer is yes. Otherwise, you might reasonably conclude: a) the FA still has its priorities badly blurred and b) maybe it should be Baroness Campbell apologising, as well as the bloke who could have saved everyone a lot of hassle if he had admitted it in the first place.