Judge is the Ice Man as Notts County repay efforts of snow workers
FIRST they froze and then Francois Zoko boiled over. But Alan Judge kept his cool when his big moment arrived at sub-zero Meadow Lane. He was Notts County's Ice Man.
Talk about a triumph against adversity. Well, it was two triumphs because the Magpies beat the snow and then drew 1-1 with Sheffield United in League One, after conceding a goal on just 67 seconds and going down to ten men midway through the first half when Zoko was sent off. Both were against all the odds.
Fans flocked to the stadium early on Saturday morning to help clear snow off the pitch before an inspection. Even the Notts chairman Ray Trew and his wife, director Aileen, were out there, said boss Keith Curle.
Trew might not be prepared to shovel more of his money into the club, but he was quite clearly ready to shovel snow, with supporters, youth team players and coaches and the ground staff.
Once the frost covers were taken off and the pitch passed, the players came, not with shovels, but their boots and a determination to repay all of those volunteers, or should that be miracle workers. And they did, in the end.
And this could be a turning point. Really. Not only in the Magpies' season because they fought back to rescue a point against the Blades on home soil, but also in the relationship between supporters, players, Curle and the Trews, inspiring a renewed togetherness.
Each has been critical of each other at times. Fans have booed the players off the Meadow Lane pitch when they have underperformed and lost and Mr Trew recently took to a fans' messageboard to tell those that use it he was disillusioned by a lack of support from the terraces, which is why he is not ready to invest more cash into the club.
He also revealed the Magpies were having to deal with some financial issues, though he used his programme notes ahead of the United game to reassure fans there is no crisis.
"I would just like to reassure fans that Notts County are not in the midst of a financial crisis," he wrote.
"Times are tight, as they are for all businesses, and I am certainly not prepared to keep bankrolling the club indefinitely, but that shouldn't be a cause for concern.
"It just means we have to operate more astutely as a club and plans are already being put in place to ensure that we continue on a sound financial footing whilst also remaining competitive on the pitch."
It was all good to read. So too, was Zoko's apology. The Ivorian did it in a very modern way, via Twitter a couple of hours after the game ended. "Apologise to my team mates and Notts fans for my attitude today. Really sad. Well done guys for amazing performance," he wrote.
It will not stop him getting fined by the club, but it will encourage fans to forgive.
Zoko was dismissed on 25 minutes. First, he was shown a yellow card for arguing with a linesman, after he flagged for a foul he committed on United's Tony McMahon on the right edge of the penalty area, and then referee Mary Haywood pulled out a red card, after he turned on him. Dissent clearly turned into foul and abusive language and Zoko was off.
It was all rather out of character. Zoko is always so chilled out and polite. It looked a harsh decision against him, in truth, but even so his reaction was wrong. He lost his temper big time and will now pay the price of a fine and suspension.
To make it all worse, Curle had given him his long-awaited chance in attack for the first time this season, but he blew it.
Judge also took to Twitter after the game. "Good game 2day. Even with 10 men thought we were the better team by far. Happy with the point. Great character from the lads," he wrote in 140 characters.
He was the Magpies' hero, like he has been so many times since he arrived at Meadow Lane, scoring the decisive equalising goal on 80 minutes.
Having been undone by a set-piece, Notts levelled from one, as Alan Sheehan and his luscious left foot swung a free-kick into the penalty area and Judge, one of the smallest players on the pitch at 5ft 7in, directed a glorious glancing header across United goalkeeper George Long and inside his right-hand post from nine yards.
Then he did the easy bit, sliding down onto his knees in the snow behind the goal to celebrate in front of the Kop.
The Magpies did not need a reminder of his importance 13 days before the January transfer window closes, with Championship club Charlton Athletic sniffing around the Irishman, but they got one in the most dramatic way possible.
The Blades had scored at the same end of the stadium at the opposite end of the game.
There was just over a minute on the clock when Nick Blackman curled a corner into the penalty area and visitors' defender Harry Maguire headed past Notts goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski from close range, unchallenged.
The Magpies then almost fell 2-0 down on three minutes. Once again, their set-piece defending was poor as Danny Higginbotham met a second corner into the box with a powerful header and Bialkowski tipped it over the bar.
The game could have been all over before it had really even begun, but fortunately it wasn't and Notts eventually claimed a point their never-say-die attitude deserved.
At the end Curle stood on the touchline and shook the hand of every one of his players before they exited down the tunnel because he was so proud of them.
Then he headed to a warmer place too and as the floodlights went off, the pitch covers went back on.