Notts County strike gold at Meadow Lane
THIS was a bit like the Italian job, minus Michael Caine, as mini-midfielder Alan Judge scored an explosive goal that blew more than the bloody doors off Paolo Di Canio's Swindon Town as Notts County finally struck gold at Meadow Lane.
It is not the first time Judge has scored a big, big, goal for the Magpies against the Robins.
Oh no. Way back in April last year, he netted his first goal for the club in a 2-1 win at the County Ground that helped Notts beat relegation and stay in League One.
This time, in stark contrast, he inspired the Magpies to a 1-0 win that puts them back in the play-offs in League One as they chase promotion into the Championship – and, even more significant than that, his goal clinched a first league victory at Meadow Lane in two long months for Notts.
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It was yet another wonder strike from the 'Irish Messi' as well, typically. He just does not do tap-ins.
In fact, he should release a DVD of his spectacular league goals for Christmas, because it would be a best-seller in the club shop on Meadow Lane. He could even call it 'The 12 goals of Christmas'. Forget partridges and pear trees, turtle doves and French hens.
Judge struck midway through the first half against Swindon. Seizing onto a flick-on from the Magpies' new signing Chris Iwelumo, he promptly smashed the ball past Robins' goalkeeper Wes Foderingham and inside his right-hand post from 25 yards.
It was quite amazing Notts had not broken the deadlock sooner, in truth, because they laid siege to Swindon's goal in the first half, creating several chances.
The best of those fell to Jeff Hughes on 18 minutes. Alan Sheehan, facing his former club, swung a corner into the penalty area and the Northern Ireland international glanced a header inches wide of Foderingham's right-hand post.
Sheehan, who experienced the two extremities of reaching a play-off final and relegation during two seasons with the Robins, was also denied by a good save from Foderingham on 13 minutes. He curled a free-kick at goal that was dipping underneath the crossbar until the visitors' goalkeeper tipped it over.
Notts captain Neal Bishop had two early chances too. Francois Zoko created the first by cutting the ball back from the byline and Bishop swept it at goal from 12 yards, but it hit his own team-mate, Hughes.
The ball also fell to Bishop inside the six-yard box on 18 minutes, but defender Joe Devera, his former team-mate at Barnet, hacked his close-range effort away.
The Magpies did not have it all their own way, however, and survived two big scares in the first half.
It was still goalless when a mix-up between Hughes and Julian Kelly, who made his first start in eight weeks having finally recovered from a hamstring injury, gifted Swindon striker Andy Williams a chance on 21 minutes.
He drove a low shot at goal from a narrow angle inside the penalty area and Notts No.1 Bartosz Bialkowski parried it past his left-hand post.
The Robins went even closer just a minute later when Williams' strike partner James Collins powered a header at goal from close range and Bialkowski pushed the ball onto his right-hand post.
Talk about a key moment. If Bialkowski had not denied Collins, it would have been a very, very different story.
The Pole went onto make more super saves in the second half, producing his best performance since joining Notts in the summer.
The Magpies threatened only once after half-time and that was on 51 minutes as Judge and Iwelumo combined once again.
Judge was the creator this time, whipping a cross into the box from the right wing, and Iwelumo met it with a good header inside the six-yard box, but was denied a goal on his debut by a great save from Foderingham.
It was unfortunate because Iwelumo deserved a goal. Starting in attack less than 48 hours after signing for Notts on loan from Watford – and after just one training session with his team-mates – he did very well.
If the Scotland international had scored early in the second half the game would have been all over, but the Magpies were indebted to Bialkowski in the end as they held on for a vital victory.
Matt Ritchie, who spent four months on loan at Notts during their League Two title-winning season of 2009/2010, was Swindon's biggest threat throughout.
Time and time again he tested Bialkowski and time and time again he was thwarted.
The midfielder had three chances in the second half and the best of those came on 57 minutes. Spinning past Sheehan inside the box, he unleashed a powerful shot at goal that Bialkowski parried away.
Ritchie later smashed a shot at goal from 20 yards from a short free-kick routine on 88 minutes that Bialkowski held and he forced him into another good save with a 20-yard effort on 92 minutes.
Bialkowski also tipped a looping ball into the box by Jay McEveley over the bar on 94 minutes, but his best save of the lot was on 63 minutes as Swindon defender Darren Ward headed at goal from point-blank range from a corner.
Di Canio described it as a 'Schmeichel save' and it was one football's best ever goalkeeper would have been proud of as he made a star jump save.
Bialkowski was certainly the Magpies' star. Judge scored the winner and Iwelumo was hugely impressive on his debut, but Bialkowski was in unbeatable form.
Notts are also unbeaten in five league games and are back in sixth in the table. Having now won at Meadow Lane for the first time since the end of September, they are looking good.