Notts County: Defence and keeper can take credit, but play-off hopes fading
THE Notts County players were ashen-faced after this goalless draw, which puts another nail in their play-off hopes.
So much so, not even Fabian Spiess' fake tan would have covered up their frustration.
The young German goalkeeper made the startling revelation he once used it, to his team-mates in their hotel the night before they faced Crawley Town in League One and Alan Sheehan exposed him on Twitter, kindly.
The damage it had on team morale ahead of such a big game is still unclear. But it was surely a bigger blow to the Magpies' spirit than Alan Judge's absence through injury.
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It's such a shame for Spiess because, at 19, he had such a promising career ahead of him, but not now. Not after this. It is doubtful he will ever play for Notts again.
Even if he is forgiven for his fake tan revelation, he still has Bartosz Bialkowski blocking his way into the first team.
The club's No.1 was in top form once again as he kept a clean sheet against the Reds in the Magpies' first-ever visit to the Broadfield Stadium, making one especially outstanding save to deny Crawley's attacking midfielder Matt Sparrow midway through the first half.
Sparrow flew into the Magpies' nest to seize onto a pass from Dannie Bulman on 26 minutes and looked set to score, but, one on one, Bialkowski denied him brilliantly, racing off his goal-line and blocking his close-range effort.
The Pole was not apart from his defence in being heroic. Oh no.
Notts were missing suspended Dean Leacock and injured Julian Kelly, both key men, but Sheehan was especially impressive at left-back, superbly stifling the threat of Crawley's best player Nicky Adams, Gary Liddle capped yet another fine performance at right-back with a goal-stopping block in the second half and Manny Smith and Haydn Hollis gelled well in their first game together at the heart of the back-four.
Talk about a patched-up defence. It was a first game since New Year's Day for Smith and only a second start of the entire season for Hollis, but they kept Crawley at bay, standing up to fierce pressure at times in the second half.
Liddle, the Magpies' man for all season, not only continued his remarkable record of playing every minute of every league game, but also of being a last-ditch saviour on 65 minutes.
Time and time again this season, he has hacked, blocked and headed the ball off the goal-line and he was at it again, though quite how he did it this latest time is still a mystery.
Sparrow sent the Reds' right-back Mustapha Dumbuya racing away down the right wing and he put the ball on a plate for winger Mike Jones to score from three yards out. The goal was gaping and the home fans were holding their breath in anticipation, ready to celebrate, but Liddle slid in and somehow diverted his effort up and over the crossbar.
It was the closest the game came to a goal in the end, though Hollis inadvertently turned Jamie Proctor's cross against his own crossbar just four minutes later, and Notts were deeply indebted to Liddle for being in the right place at the right time, yet again.
Having moved to Meadow Lane from Hartlepool United last summer, Liddle looks certain to go on and play more than 50 games in his first season with the Magpies, which is quite incredible.
And, he deserves to be among the leading contenders for Player of the Year alongside the likes of Judge and Bialkowski, who also made a good save to deny Proctor on ten minutes, after the Crawley striker attempted to curl a shot into the top-right corner of his net.
Impenetrable at the back, Notts still badly lack a cutting-edge in attack, however.
A different game, it was the same old story, and they only once threatened to score in 90 minutes.
On-loan Leicester City striker Jacob Blyth got his big chance to lead the attack against the Reds and did well as a lone striker, winning headers and linking up play, but he never looked like netting his first goal for the club.
In fact, he almost had a bigger impact in the Magpies' penalty area when Neal Bishop smashed an attempted clearance straight at him in the first half and the ball hit him on the hand.
Crawley appealed for a penalty, but it would have been harsh to give one. Blyth had no chance of getting out of the way.
Notts created a few chances. Sheehan cut the ball back to Hamza Bencherif, who made his first league start in 11 months, inside the penalty area on the stroke of half-time, but he scuffed his shot.
Jeff Hughes forced Crawley goalkeeper Paul Jones into a good save low down to his left with a powerful shot from 30 yards on 31 minutes, but that was it until Enoch Showunmi replaced Blyth and almost scored with his first touch.
Seizing onto the ball inside the penalty area, the towering Notts No.9 swept the ball at goal with a great hit, but Jones parried it away. Showunmi, who looked determined to prove a point, then fired in the rebound, but that was blocked too.
The Magpies' last chance fell to another sub, young Manchester United striker John Cofie, but he ballooned a shot well over the bar from just outside the penalty area on 92 minutes.
It was the last game of his one-month loan from Old Trafford and Notts are now running out of games to get back into the play-offs, with only nine left now.
They did not lose any ground on the top-six with this draw, but they didn't gain any either. They are still seven points adrift in tenth.
They can still gatecrash the play-offs, but it is doubtful that they will. The players will most probably be working on their tans abroad when the final is played at Wembley.