Almanac Soccer: At Home with Jack and Jimmy

You have to admire a soccer club which honours one of its favourite sons with a statue outside its home ground even though he never actually played any games for you. Such is the case for Jack Wheeler of Notts County.


A statue outisde Meadow Lane commemorating two Notts County legends, Jimmy Sirrel and Jack Wheeler

A statue outisde Meadow Lane commemorating two Notts County legends, Jimmy Sirrel and Jack Wheeler


It’s a rainy day in Nottingham. Teams in the Premier League and Championship are having the weekend off because England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are playing World Cup Qualifiers. But there’s no rest for clubs near and far in the other competitions under the grey clouds covering the British Isles. Notts County of League Two are hosting Grimsby Town at their Meadow Lane stadium.


Jack Wheeler began his involvement with Notts County after his undistinguished professional football career came to an end in 1956. He worked variously as a trainer, caretaker manager and scout for over 25 years and never missed a first team game in that time. During his years at Meadow Lane he formed a highly effective partnership with legendary manager Jimmy Sirrel. Like Wheeler, Sirrel never played for County and spent his sporting days in the lower divisions. They became close friends and guided County to promotion to the old first division in 1981. This was no mean feat, as the club had struggled for years and hadn’t appeared in the top flight since 1926. Wheeler continued on until 1983 until forced to retire with an arthritic hip. Sirrel passed away in 2008 and Wheeler followed in 2009. Yet here the dedicated companions are immortalised in bronze, seated together on a bench on the sidelines, watching the action on the pitch as intently as they did in life for all those years. The sign on the base is inscribed ‘Legends of the Lane’. On this day, someone has placed a bouquet of flowers in Wheeler’s hands.


Notts County was formed in 1862 and proudly proclaims itself as ‘the oldest football league club in the world’, a label also claimed by Sheffield United. They may well be the oldest soccer club in the world, although the honour of being the oldest club of any code of football may belong to the Melbourne Demons, who were established in 1859. County were founding members of the Football League when it commenced in 1888. Since then they have plied their trade in the four divisions of the competition, toiling away with only brief periods of success. They have long been regarded as the poor cousins of Nottingham Forest, the city’s other professional club. Forest is situated just a few punt kicks away on the other side of the River Trent. The girders of the Brian Clough Stand are clearly visible from Meadow Lane. Trent Bridge, the famous cricket ground, is just down the street from Forest’s stadium.


Like a lot of clubs at the time, Notts County almost went broke in the early 2000s. They were faced with extinction before being rescued by an alliance of businessmen and supporters. Grimsby Town has also faced a test of survival. They hail from Cleethorpes, a fishing town on the coast of Lincolnshire in the north-east of the country. Grimsby was relegated from League 2 in 2010 after 117 years in the Football League and has had to fight its way back from the fifth tier Vanarama National League. This they achieved last season by overcoming Forest Green Rovers in the play-offs.


But Grimsby also suffered the fate of being the subject of a Sasha Baron Coen comedy, something which befell an entire nation when Cohen filmed Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan in 2006. Cohen was spotted at the Grimsby V Cambridge United fixture during the 2013/14 season wearing a home team shirt and hat. He then talked to fans in the Blundell Hotel after the game before walking around the docks. He was conducting research for the character of Nobby for his next film project. The civic fathers and local politicians were up in arms when Grimsby was released in 2016. Nobby was a soccer hooligan happily surviving on the dole with his partner and nine children. The town of Grimsby was presented in a distinctly unflattering light as a community where poverty, welfare dependence, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and drug dependence were rife. Sensibly, Cohen avoided the wrath of outraged citizens by using Tilbury in Essex, just outside London, as the location for his movie.


Both teams are in reasonable form for today’s clash. On the previous weekend Notts County overcame Crawley Town 3-1 and Grimsby trounced Stevenage 5-2. After five rounds County is eleventh and Grimsby twelfth on the ladder. Both clubs wear black and white stripes, just like Collingwood in the AFL. County are the Magpies while Grimsby go by the nickname of the Mariners, given their seaside location. The visitors are kitted up in red to avoid the clash of shirts. The seats of the Meadow Lane stadium are attractively coloured in black, white and gold.


Before the match begins I assume that I’m the only Australian in the neighbourhood. Not so. Gary from Brisbane sits down next to me. He is on a business trip to Europe and has taken a few days off to visit family in Nottingham. They aren’t soccer people so he has taken the initiative to catch a game just up the road from where he is staying.


I am surprised by the level of support which Grimsby attracts. I saw only one coach with visiting fans outside the ground, but inside their section, the Jimmy Sirrel Stand, there are thousands of black-and-white-clad partisans. They are boisterous and at times transform themselves into a swaying mass like a huge living creature. When it is announced over the PA system that the travelling fans make up a third of the 6,000-strong attendance there is a smattering of polite applause from the County faithful.


Supporters become excited when their team earns a corner kick. It means that the ball is going to be delivered to a potential scoring spot in front of goal. Anything can happen. Most of the players are waiting in the box. Forwards wheel around, dart in and out and try to gain front position. Defenders turn their backs on the kicker and impede their opponents with outstretched arms. They often hold onto the shirts of the dangerous strikers, especially the tall ones who threaten in the air. Despite the fact that Infringements are constantly occurring, the referee lets it all go. There is simply too much going on. Like a school of small fish massing together and swirling in complex patterns to confuse larger predators patrolling their outskirts, individual fish can’t be singled out and penalised. And so the mauling continues as the ball flies in.


Grimsby defender Shaun Pearce gets behind the cross and heads it past County ‘keeper Adam Collin at the 35-minute mark. It’s impossible to contain the jubilant visiting fans. A significant number of them jump the fence and dance on the field. Moments before the security staff can collar them they scurry back to their places in the stand. The home barrackers sit in morose silence.


Early in the second half a back pass by Notts County midfielder Stanley Aborah goes horribly wrong. He doesn’t apply enough pace to the ball, allowing Grimsby striker Omar Bogle to run onto it. Bogle, a 23-year-old rookie recently recruited from non-league Solihull Moors, is coming off a hat trick against Stevenage. He pushes the ball under the lunging County keeper to the roars of the folk who love the Mariners. The offending Aborah is consoled by teammates as County go two down.


But things can change quickly in soccer. You’re never too far away. Magpie Vadaine Oliver’s thrust on goal in the 77th minute is parried away by Grimsby’s veteran keeper James McKeown. The ball falls at the feet of Jonathan Forte, who knocks it through from a metre out. A minute later Oliver features again. Carl Dickinson launches a cross from the left and the referee blows his whistle. Oliver has been impeded by his marker and the match official points to the spot for a penalty kick. The home fans rejoice. Oliver graciously allows skipper Michael O’Connor to step up to the mark. O’Connor pushes it wide! The home supporters slump into their seats in a state of shocked disbelief.


With only two minutes of normal time remaining the fans are on their feet. Grimsby look fragile. The ball is crossed into County’s attacking zone. Oliver chests it down into the path of Aaron Collins, who is making his debut in Magpie colours after being sent out on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers just days ago. He has struggled for possession after coming on as a substitute in the second half. But here he makes no mistake, drilling the late equaliser in a first game he will always remember.


County continue their frantic attack. Oliver gets onto a header which is pushed over the bar by a desperate McKeown. There are seven minutes of overtime, with Notts County controlling proceedings, but both teams have to settle for a point each after their enthralling 2-2 draw.


I bid farewell to Gary and walk with the crowd along Meadow Lane past the statues of Jack Wheeler and Jimmy Sirrel. What would they make of Notts County’s present situation and the result of today’s match? I think they’d be pleased that this old institution still exists and is loved by their supporters. And as for the visitors from Grimsby, perhaps an encouragement that you can start from the bottom as they did at County all those years ago and come into some pretty special times.

Leave a Comment