The Force is with Notts County as they make late surge
THIS was Princess Leia chained to Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars; a hideously ugly game lit up by a bit of beauty – though thankfully we didn't see Alan Judge or Bartosz Bialkowski in bikinis. It was too cold at Meadow Lane.
The two were heroes for Notts County in a 1-0 win against Carlisle United in League One, Judge scoring a super winning goal in the first half and Bialkowski making three top saves in the second, and now – five games unbeaten and eight points adrift of the play-offs – the Magpies are not a galaxy far, far away from the top six.
The Force was strongest with Bialkowski. The Pole was, quite simply, in unbeatable form.
He was back to his very, very best for the first time since returning from a head injury, producing a performance that screamed 'I'm No.1', amid all the hype surrounding the club's highly-rated 19-year-old goalkeeper Fabian Spiess, who is attracting Manchester United.
Choosing the best of his three saves is like deciding a favourite between Yoda, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker; almost impossible. But it has to be Yoda, or rather the second of Bialkowski's saves from Carlisle's Sean O'Hanlon on the hour mark. Wonderful, it was!
Still now, it is hard to believe he stopped the defender equalising because the ball broke to O'Hanlon just two yards out at the far post from a corner and he swept it at goal.
All inside the stadium expected the ball to hit the back of the net, all except one that is, and Bialkowski somehow made the block of all blocks.
The other two were pretty special as well.
The third one was the second best. James Berrett, who was Carlisle's biggest threat throughout and had a shot blocked on the goal-line by Alan Sheehan on 42 minutes, smashed a low shot through a crowd of players from the edge of the penalty area on 81 minutes and Bialkowski leapt to his right and stopped it at full stretch.
Completing his hat-trick, Bialkowski's first superb save was on 57 minutes as Carlisle striker Lee Miller, who was once on loan at Meadow Lane during Paul Ince's disastrous reign, powered a header at goal from close range and he clawed it away brilliantly.
Denied, Miller was dismissed in the last minute, after he lost his rag and lashed out at Notts centre-back Dean Leacock at the end of a hard, physical tussle between the pair for 90 minutes.
Leacock won that battle and the Magpies won the war, which was rather fitting because it was Armed Forces day at Meadow Lane, with past and present servicemen and women given free tickets and Pinxton soldier Jack Hawksley, who was injured in Afghanistan, laying down the ball on the centre spot ahead of kick off.
Judge scored the winner on 35 minutes.
Bialkowski joked afterwards that he would have saved the Irish midfielder's effort, but that is unlikely because it was an outstanding goal, quite different to most of his goals for Notts.
Judge usually cracks the ball into the top corner from 25 yards, but this time he raced onto a flick-on from on-loan Manchester United striker John Cofie just past the halfway line, accelerated away from Carlisle's left-back Jordan Mustoe and then lobbed the visitors' goalkeeper Mark Gillespie from the edge of the penalty area.
Power gave way to delicacy as Judge seized his big chance – and it's a good job he did take it too, because it was the Magpies' only shot on target in the entire 90 minutes.
Midfielder Andre Boucaud went closest to doubling their lead and killing off the visitors, but crashed a long-range shot against the crossbar on 86 minutes, and Francois Zoko threatened to score against his old club in injury time at the end of the first half, heading Sheehan's right-wing cross narrowly wide of Gillespie's right-hand post from inside the six-yard box.
That was it, however; one goal and two near misses, not that any Notts fan cared about their team's performance and lack of cutting edge, once again, because they won. The Magpies won ugly, but they won and results are all that matter at this stage of the season.
Still in tenth place, it is a victory that edges Notts a point closer to the play-offs.
They are now eight points adrift of the top six in League One with 11 games to go and could move even closer with a win against Leyton Orient at Meadow Lane on Wednesday night.
It is a game in hand on a lot of their rivals, because it was postponed before Christmas, and the Magpies will rise to eighth place and close the gap on the play-offs to just five points with a win. Talk about a big night. Talk about must-win.
If Notts do beat Orient ahead of two more winnable-looking home games against Preston and Scunthorpe United, they really will be right back in the race for promotion ahead of crunch games against the likes of Swindon Town, Brentford, Yeovil, Bournemouth and Doncaster Rovers, who are all vying for the Championship.
It looked all over not so long ago, in truth, but the Magpies have now won successive home games for only the second time this season, with this win following a 4-1 home victory against Bury, and are unbeaten in their last five games under new boss Chris Kiwomya.
It might not be pretty, but they look to be gathering momentum at just the right moment in the season, after a terrible dip in form. And they might yet make the jump to light speed and rocket back into the play-offs. Hold on.