Kissing the wrong badge

I mentioned in a previous blog that one of the great joys of covering sport for BBC Radio Nottingham for more than 20 years was the people I got to work with.

Whether that be legendary commentators, who worked so hard on their craft and were so brilliant at it – Colin Fray, Colin Slater and Charlie Slater come to mind here – or whether that be some of the summarisers we used on the radio too.

Many of them I would describe now as friends, which is an odd thing for me to say.

I still have to pinch myself that legends of the game such as Steve Hodge or Brian Laws came to my leaving do.

I used to watch them on the telly, and now I’m having a beer with them. Madness.

Travelling the country covering Notts County for two decades also meant I got to work with the likes of Dean Yates and Mark Stallard – two immense players for the club, who turned out to be brilliant people to work with in the various ramshackle and cramped press boxes we shared down the years.

If you’re driving to Accrington or Colchester, or Gillingham, or Carlisle, it helps to have good people to share that car journey with. Yates and Stallard were brilliant company. 

It’s so important that you get on, I think, because that comes across on the radio.

If there’s tension in the working relationship, or you’ve had a row in the car on the way to the ground, I think that would undermine what happens on air later in the afternoon.

I was very lucky in that regard – I can’t remember having a crossed word with any of the summarisers I was lucky enough to work with. 

One of my favourite stories that Stallard tells (and there are many) harks back to a time when he’d just joined the club as Notts battled relegation in the old Division Two.

The Magpies had been fighting the drop under Sam Allardyce for much of the season, and it wasn’t until 1 May 1999 that Notts secured safety with a very decent draw at Preston North End.

The Lilywhites had a good team at the time – managed by David Moyes, and with Sean Gregan, Graham Alexander, Jon Macken and Paul McKenna in the side that day. 

The day didn’t start well for Notts, when referee Mick Pierce ruled that the Magpies’ kit was too close in colour to Preston’s home kit.

As Notts didn’t have another set of shirts with them, they’d have to wear Preston’s away kit. Not ideal. 

Stallard started that day, up front alongside Peter Beadle.

But Beadle was replaced by Kevin Rapley, who came on shortly after Macken had given Preston a 1-0 lead.

So, it was Stallard and Rapley up front as the Magpies pushed for a leveller. 

Much was at stake for Notts, as they looked for a goal that (as it turned out) would keep them safe in the division for another season.

I knew Rapley a little bit from my days covering Southend – he was a lovely guy, and actually gave a decent interview, but he didn’t have a reputation for being the sharpest knife in the drawer.

However, he could finish, as events in the north west showed.

As Rapley tucked away the 90th minute equaliser at Deepdale, the goal that kept Notts in Division Two, the striker wheeled away in delight, kissing the badge on his shirt.

His team-mates were stunned – Rapley had completely forgotten he was wearing Preston’s away kit at the time! 

I had some great days covering Notts County up and down the country, though there was one huge low, which came in my penultimate season in Nottingham – the year when the Magpies found themselves out of the Football League for the first time.

Notts – as they had for most of the season – looked ramshackle and disjointed at Swindon, but took the lead, and were on course to stay up before they almost inevitably buckled and were relegated to the National League.

It was a pretty dispiriting journey back up from the West Country, knowing that so many people’s lives would be affected.

Many of my favourite Magpies moments actually came away from Meadow Lane – such as the dramatic day when Notts stayed in League One on the final day of the season, with Alan Sheehan scoring the crucial goal at Oldham.

Or the day at Wycombe when I left convinced Notts County were heading for the League One playoffs under Keith Curle.

3-2 down in the 89th minute, Alan Judge netted a brilliant winner to see the Magpies win, and relegate their hosts. 

There was pandemonium in the away end – it really felt that Curle and his effervescent team would achieve something that season. It wasn’t to be.

I look at Curle’s sacking in February 2013 – with Notts 10th in League One – as one of the biggest mistakes the club made in my two decades covering sport in the city.

I really felt that Curle and Notts were a very good match for each other. You can almost trace the decline at the club to that moment.

As I look on from the other side of the world, I hope that the Magpies are successful in the National League playoffs.

To see a club of that stature and importance out of the Football League isn’t right.

I fear that years of managerial change and general instability caught up with them, in the end. 

Photo: Dan Westwell

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