Their resilient supporters may not be numerous but their fatalistic sense of humour has seen them through so many false dawns
Amid the din kicked up by the latest episodes of the soap opera based on that charmless entity known as the Premier League – a new manager booed at Stamford Bridge, antisemitic chants at White Hart Lane – a significant event in the history of English football went largely unnoticed on Sunday. It was the 150th anniversary of the founding of Notts County, the oldest football club in the world who are now professional.
That is a cumbersome description, but it is the only way to say it. No one disputes the claim of Sheffield FC, founded in 1857 and still in existence as an amateur club, to be the oldest of all. But Notts possess a special distinction, thanks to the group of men who gathered back in November 1862 to play, in the words of the historian Paul Wain, an early form of football among themselves.
Two years later they were organising matches against other clubs, the first being a 20-a-side affair against another local outfit, Trent Valley, on a pitch marked out in a district of Nottingham known as the Meadows. "A Holme Pierrepont gentleman officiated as umpire," the local paper reported, "but his duties were almost a sinecure. No infraction of the rules of the game was committed; and although the contest lasted till some time after sunset, and every player exerted himself to the utmost, the exhilaration produced and the kindly feeling engendered, disposed many to wish that the contention might be continued by moonlight."
Notts quickly became a power in the land, reaching two FA Cup semi-finals in the 1880s with teams including several England internationals and two famous Notts and England cricketers, Richard Daft and William Gunn. They played first in amber and black hoops and then in chocolate and light blue halves, but when they won the FA Cup in 1894, beating Bolton Wanderers 4-1 at Goodison Park, it was in the famous black and white stripes that gave them their nickname.
The Magpies' home games were played at various locations until 1910, when they moved to Meadow Lane, not far from the pitch on which their first formal fixture had been held. At one end stood a small wooden grandstand, originally belonging to the Trent Bridge cricket ground, which had been dismantled and re-erected on the other side of the river. In later years a wind from the east would carry noxious vapours from a nearby abattoir.
A golden era began in 1947 when Tommy Lawton joined Jackie Sewell to form a free-scoring attack that took the club from the Third Division (South) into the Second Division in front of enthralled crowds averaging 34,659. In a disastrous move that presaged slow decline, Sewell was sold to Sheffield Wednesday for a British record fee in 1951, shortly before Lawton went to Brentford. Sewell, now 85, kicked off a match last week between two sides of former players managed by John Barnwell and Mick Walker, two of the many managers who have grappled with the uncertain fortunes of a club that has more than once pulled itself back from the brink of extinction.
When the club celebrated its centenary in 1962, the Football Association sent a team containing four members of Walter Winterbottom's World Cup squad to take part in a match at Meadow Lane. Apparently a 150th birthday does not mean as much, and the FA have taken no role in the ceremonies that continue on Wednesday night, when the late Jimmy Sirrel, who led the club from the fourth to the first division between 1971 and 1981, will be inducted into the club's new hall of fame.
The eccentric little Scot would be pleased by the current performances under Keith Curle, who took over in February. They are in the League One play-off zone, with an extraordinary unbeaten away record stretching back to a defeat at Hartlepool United two days before Curle's arrival.
After the bizarre interlude in 2009, when non-existent Middle Eastern cash attracted Sven-Goran Eriksson as director of football, the club appears to be enjoying a period of relative stability in the ownership of a local businessman, Ray Trew, whose profile, in the approving words of Howard Wilkinson, once Sirrel's assistant, is "not so much low-profile as subterranean".
Sven, incidentally, is not blamed for his role in yet another debacle but fondly remembered for his good manners, for bringing publicity to Meadow Lane, and for not demanding the large sum he was owed when it all went wrong. But then Notts is a good club, a decent club, a club embodied in its resilient supporters, who may not be numerous but whose distinctively fatalistic sense of humour has seen them through so many new eras, false dawns and close encounters with oblivion.
Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race is a compelling read, full of chilling revelations about the extent of doping in the Tour de France peloton during the Lance Armstrong era, but there are two reasons why judges of the William Hill sports book of the year award made a mistake when they gave it their prize on Monday.
The first is that the book was ghost-written by Daniel Coyle, a first-class author in his own right. Ghosted books should have a category of their own. The second is that Hamilton built his career on cheating and lied about it until he was found out. The Secret Race deserves its status as a best-seller, but there is no reason to heap further rewards on Hamilton's head simply for getting around to telling the truth.
His success also raises the question of Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike, written by Sally Jenkins, which received the prize 12 years ago. In the spirit of the official erasure of his seven Tour de France wins, shouldn't the William Hill organisers be revoking the award, asking for the money back and giving it to David Winner for Brilliant Orange? Yes, it has inspired countless cancer sufferers, but it would never have been written had Armstrong not cheated and lied his way to fame.