The Portsmouth trophy-winning skippers locking horns for Football League survival as Notts County face ignominious exit

For 131 years, Notts County have retained unbroken residency of the Football League.

Friday, 3rd May 2019, 1:08 pm
Updated Friday, 3rd May 2019, 1:13 pm
Michael Doyle and Gareth Evans celebrate the League Two title - two years on and Pompey's ex-captain is fighting to keep Notts County in the Football League. Picture: Harry Murphy/Getty Images

Yet today the world’s oldest professional club are facing a non-league existence.

And two Pompey trophy-winning captains are locking horns in a final-day survival scrap.

It was two years ago this very weekend when Michael Doyle led the Blues to the League Two title in such memorable circumstances.

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A 6-1 triumph over Cheltenham at Fratton Park ensured a side registering third place entering the decisive fixture claimed top spot amid emotional scenes.

A mere three weeks earlier, more than 4,000 travelling Pompey fans spilled onto the Meadow Lane pitch to celebrate promotion. Tears and champagne flowed.

Now serving as Notts County’s captain, Doyle must inspire victory at Swindon to retain their Football League status.

It will be a Robins side which contains the retiring Matt Taylor and potentially two of the combative Irishman’s title-winning team-mates in Danny Rose and Kyle Bennett.

The Pompey links are undeniably strong in this pivotal League Two encounter.

What’s more, County’s sole shot at salvation is to overtake Macclesfield, positioned one place above and with two points superiority.

The Silkmen are managed by Sol Campbell, coincidentally a former Magpie player whose five-year deal was torn up days following a first and only appearance against Morecambe in September 2009.

Incidentally, future Pompey right-back Ben Davies netted a consolation goal in that 2-1 defeat.

Still, it was in late November when the 2008 FA Cup final skipper, in his first managerial role, inherited a club flailing at the bottom of League Two, seven points adrift of safety.

He has subsequently overseen eight wins and 33 points from 26 matches for Macclesfield – seven points more than long-time relegation adversaries County during that period.

Considering Campbell has also had to contend with financial headaches, with the Silkmen avoiding a High Court winding-up order six weeks ago, he stands on the brink of a stunning survival achievement.

With three wins and four draws from their last nine matches, recent form heading into their home match against Cambridge United is marginally better than Notts County’s - by a point.

Possessing a goal difference superior by eight, Campbell’s team can draw against the U’s and still retain their Football League presence.

A man who treasures a challenge, Doyle’s previous seasons yielded League Two promotion with both Pompey and Coventry, the latter through the play-offs.

It was on January’s deadline-day when he surprisingly departed the Ricoh Arena for the struggling County on an 18-month deal.

An ever-present in the subsequent 16 games, the midfielder’s presence has helped secure 20-points during a three-way scrap between Macclesfield and Yeovil.

Yeovil lost their battle last weekend when, 2-0 up after 49 minutes at Northampton, they slipped to a 2-2 draw, condemning them to relegation. Now two remain.

Aged 37, today could signify Doyle’s final Football League appearance of a career also spent at Coventry, Leeds, Sheffield United and, of course, Pompey.

He made 24 appearances earlier this season during a second and final spell with the Sky Blues, the club where he was expected to end his playing days.

Doyle was part of Mark Robins’ side which suffered a 1-0 home reverse to former team Pompey in October, when Ronan Curtis announced himself as the match winner.

That switch to Meadow Lane four months later, dropping down a division, would deprive him of a Fratton Park return long since craved.

Instead Tom Davies, Conor Chaplin and Dominic Hyam were the ex-Pompey contingent on duty during that Bank Holiday Monday fixture which produced a hard-fought 2-1 victory for the hosts.

Doyle was elsewhere in the south on that day, namely Crawley, where the 10-men Magpies earned a 1-1 draw.

Ironically, the Irishman had been part of the Coventry side which eliminated Notts County from the League Two play-offs at the semi-final stage last season.

Following a 1-1 draw at the home of the Sky Blues, Robins’ troops ran out 4-1 winners at Meadow Lane for a 5-2 aggregate success. It was proving a lucky ground for Doyle.

However, this season, County managers Kevin Nolan and then Harry Kewell were dismissed by November, opening the door for Neal Ardley’s appointment following an AFC Wimbledon exit 11 days earlier.

The anticipated lift-off has been sluggish rather than inspirational and the team which finished fifth last season are presently in the relegation zone with one match remaining.

On the horizon, a South African consortium are mooted to be line for takeover completion by mid-May, replacing Alan Hardy, the owner so hospitable when Pompey visited in April 2017.

They could seize control of a National League club founded in 1862 and an original Football League member since 1888.

Still, before such a potential outcome, County travel to Swindon seeking a last-gasp lifeline. Incidentally, the Robins are without a win in six fixtures.

Intriguingly, the encounter also marks the last appearance of Matt Taylor, with a coaching career beckoning upon retirement from playing duties.

Surely a future Pompey Hall of Fame entrant, the left-sided player amassed 203 appearances and scored 29 goals during his Fratton Park days.

An integral member of Harry Redknapp’s 2002-03 Division One title-winning side, Taylor also memorably netted from the penalty spot at Wigan to seal the Great Escape in April 2006.

He later saw service at Bolton, West Ham, Burnley, Northampton and now Swindon, who he has represented 34 times this term, scoring three goals.

Today lining up alongside him will be Kyle Bennett, presently on loan from Bristol Rovers and keen to earn a permanent County Ground stay.

The left-sided winger made 117 appearances for Pompey, scoring 13 times, including netting in that thumping title-winning triumph over Cheltenham in May 2017.

He departed for the Memorial Stadium in January 2018, yet a year later was loaned out to Swindon following just 117 minutes of first-team football under new boss Graham Coughlan.

Bennett, a big dressing room character during those Blues day, has netted four times in 14 outings so far for Swindon.

Boss Richie Wellens will also be hoping Danny Rose recovers from a hamstring problem to feature, after sitting out last weekend’s 3-2 defeat at Cheltenham.

Having exited Fratton Park in January and signed for Swindon on a deal until the season’s end, the likeable midfielder recently earned a one-year extension.

With eight Robins appearances so far, he could today be pitched in against his old midfield partner.

And Notts County couldn’t possess a better character than Michael Doyle to extend that Football League presence long beyond 131 years.