A record to be proud of
Reporter: Matthew Chambers
Date published: 06 May 2014
Photo: Pictures: ALAN HOWARTH
HEAD MASTER: Adam Lockwood celebrates his goal with his teammates.
Athletic 1, Notts County 1
What a late surge the Magpies had put in prior to this entertaining score draw, which rounded off Athletic’s season with a 10th straight match unbeaten.
Six victories in eight before travelling north meant their future in Sky Bet League One was in County’s own hands.
A draw would do. And there were only truly seven minutes of dread for County here, after Adam Lockwood had made up for an earlier fluffed header by nodding Lee Johnson’s men in front in the second half.
At that stage, results were against County, who were heading into League Two.
Then came a penalty for handball. Jonathan Grounds can’t really have too many complaints about it, given the way the ball dropped down dead off his arm.
Alan Sheehan converted, and Lockwood was later dismissed for a second yellow card – the first was for arguing about the penalty – and from then on in it was all over bar the shouting and dancing of both sets of supporters.
This was County’s day in many ways, and they just about deserved their draw.
But Latics were better. Goal-shy on home soil – which needs to be addressed this summer – but suddenly and unexpectedly tough as teak, a finish in 15th place is the best result for Latics since 2008-09.
And Johnson knows that with a new stand by next season, expectations will justifiably rise.
Which is why the ambitious manager set his men the challenge of sending the visitors down on Saturday.
“I wanted to see if my players could handle that sort of environment,” said Johnson. “I knew if we did, it would stand us in good stead for next season. For 75 per cent of the game, we did that and looked solid. Up until then, in my opinion, we suffered from some poor decisions.”
Johnson felt substitute James Dayton should have earned his side their own penalty. But the yellow card for Lockwood’s appeal apart, it is hard to agree with too many complaints about the referee.
Grounds clearly handled a cross from the lively Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Lockwood’s power-slamming of Jimmy Spencer to the floor was blatantly worthy of sanction.
Here, the nerves were all County’s in the early stages as Athletic’s superior football took a hold on proceedings.
Gary Harkins would have signed off the finest loan spell for Athletic in recent times with a third-minute goal had it not been for a full-length save from Bartosz Bialkowski.
Lockwood didn’t get enough on a free header from Harkins’ corner when granted acres of room inside the penalty area, Danny Philliskirk failed to pull the trigger in time when sent through after some delightful passing unlocked the defensive door and Jonson Clarke-Harris hammered a shot low towards the near post with his weaker right foot when he would have been better going across Bialkowski, who saved with his feet. The goal just wouldn’t come.
Athletic weren’t as fluent in the second half. Spencer forced a good save from Paul Rachubka after two minutes and seconds later, Campbell-Ryce’s cross was cleared off the line by the excellent Connor Brown.
Clarke-Harris was guilty of being flat on his feet when Harkins and Philliskirk worked an opening, but Lockwood’s emphatic header from a free-kick swung in by Harkins finally broke the resistance.
Dayton went close with an angled drive, but the visitors settled their nerves when ex-Athletic loan left-back Sheehan converted from the spot.
Lockwood then went, Athletic assistant Tommy Wright was invited to vacate the dug-out by Graham and Rachubka twice dived to his right to deny Ronan Murray and Callum McGregor before the final whistle brought wild relief in the Magpie ranks.