What has the Northern League ever done for us?

#8 Notts County

It’s Sunday afternoon in late January and unusual scenes are taking place at Meadow Lane. The stadium is filled to capacity for the first time since its redevelopment, mobile cameramen stalk the touchline and a makeshift television studio is precariously housed between two stands. It’s midway through the second half when a corner is awarded at the Kop end and the black and white shirts mingle with the sky blue in the away team’s penalty area. The scoreboard reads: Notts County 0 – 0 Manchester City; it’s FA Cup 4th round day in Nottingham and the stars are in town.

Much hype has been made of rich vs. poor, David vs. Goliath, but no one expects anything but a City win. However, Notts have matched their illustrious opponents in every department and, as they prepare to take the corner, a sense of expectation fills the ground. The following seems to happen in slow motion: the ball is whipped into the box, dipping and curling towards goal, and, evading the attention of Boateng, Lescott and Richards, Neal Bishop drifts towards the front post to glance a perfect header over the flailing Joe Hart and into the roof of the net. Meadow Lane erupts and Bishop celebrates amongst the adoring Notts fans.

Some nine years earlier, Neal Bishop was beginning his competitive career with Billingham Town in the Northern League. Bishop, once a part of the Middlesbrough youth set-up, learnt his game at grass roots level in a career that has seen him slowly but steadily rise up the football league ladder. Unlike the many pros that begin their careers in footballing academies just to warm the bench and gain little first team experience at league clubs, Bishop was prepared to muddy his boots in competitive matches at a non league level. The steady progression of Bishop’s career from the Northern League to League One via the Conference and League Two is testament to his determination and desire as a footballer, and there is no doubt that his finer qualities were learnt during this apprenticeship.

Bishop signed for Notts on a free transfer in the summer of 2009, ‘pre-Munto’, from Barnet. Little was known about the player and little was expected. However, Bishop quickly proved himself as a fine player – a midfield general with a perfect mix of the combative and the technical – and established himself as a fans favourite. ‘Bish’ played a key role in the League Two championship season and, while Notts have struggled to carry the momentum of promotion into League One, with many players underperforming, Bishop has continued to shine and looks favourite for the Player of the Season award. A real leader on the pitch, Bishop’s tough tackling and crisp passing have gained admiring glances from more glamorous teams than our own.

His man of the match performance against Man City was of no surprise to us County fans. The fact that he held his own against City’s world class midfield, which included the likes of Vieira, Barry and Toure, wasn’t the result of a player exceeding expectations or raising his game in front of the television cameras. The truth is that Neal Bishop would have show the same levels of commitment on a cold Tuesday night against Rochdale, just as he would have done for Billingham Town in the Northern League.

Many thanks to Nick Edwards, County fan and ex-staff writer for the Czech Business Weekly.

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