Notts County are enjoying a hugely successful season to date, currently sitting third in Sky Bet League Two, and they have an FA Cup Fourth Round replay with Premier League side Swansea City to look forward to next week.
Clearly things are rosy on the pitch, a far cry from how things were little more than one year ago. The Magpies were on a 10-game losing streak, crowds were as low as 2,220, and relegation from the EFL was a very distinct possibility.
Then along came Alan Hardy. Completing a takeover of the club, his first decision was to install Kevin Nolan as the club's new manager, and then he set about reviving the club's fortunes. Twelve months on, Meadow Lane will welcome its biggest attendance of the century as the Nottinghamshire-born businessman says thank you to the community with the '£2 for Crewe' promotion.
For this weekend's visit of Crewe Alexandra, ticket prices for the game are set as £2 across the board, and that goes for visiting supporters too. Tickets sales have eclipsed the game against Manchester City in 2011 and now the target is to break the 18,500 barrier, a figure also reached against the Citizens, 20 years prior.
“It’s to say thank you to the people of Nottingham who have given me absolutely incredible support through the last 12 months,” responded Hardy, when asked about the reason for the matchday promotion. “For people who have said they haven’t been to Meadow Lane for five to 10 years, I thought they’d come back, take a few games in and see what the atmosphere is like.
“In my first press conference, I referred to the club as being on a life support machine. We owed money to HMRC and creditors, we’d lost a record 10 successive league games on the trot, the morale amongst the team and support was poor, the atmosphere was described as toxic.
“We’ve managed to turn that around, it’s now a happy place to come and we’ve worked really hard to create a vibrant family atmosphere. Crowds have started to come back. We’re averaging nearly 8,000 a game. We had 10,000 against Swansea, 13,000 for the game against Forest Green Rovers, and we’ve already sold 16,000 for Saturday. The response has been absolutely phenomenal.”
Hardy is extremely passionate about giving something back to the community, with this weekend's offer the latest initiative to engage with the local area and make football more affordable for all.
The hugely successful 'Generation 8' programme is under way, which will see the club visit 100 schools around Nottingham. Every child in Year Three will receive a pair of matchday tickets, along with a replica home shirt so they can don the famous black and white stripes.
On a Saturday, whether it's face painting, looking at reptiles, or training with professional coaches on the club's 4G pitch, there is plenty for youngsters to enjoy. The 53-year-old recognises the importance of ensuring the matchday experience goes way beyond the 90 minutes in order to keep fans coming back for more.
“A matchday isn’t just about a game of football that starts at 3pm and finishes at 4:45pm – it’s a whole family experience. We have to acknowledge that football is expensive, we’re up against other activities and we have to make football affordable for families.
“I’ve been inundated with tweets and emails from single parents saying thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to bring my child down to the game. There a lot of parents that can’t afford to spend up to 50 quid or more on a football game, this is about reaching out to the community, me saying thank you, and to get the next Notts County supporters believing they have a future supporting this club.
“We had supporters here for the FA Cup draw, 250 fans in the suite cheering every ball. That’s what we’re trying to do, trying to create an atmosphere, this is a family club where we want people to come down, free of charge, and enjoy our hospitality. We want to be inclusive in the community, make sure everybody knows we’re here for them and that we’re the team to support.”
And back to the pitch, where Hardy is understandably delighted with the progress made since his arrival in mid-January. Despite last season's 16th-placed finish, the Magpies' form in the second half of the season suggested they were more than equipped to compete at the right end of the table this time around.
Recognised as the oldest football team in the world, still playing professionally, the club have an illustrious past. As recently as the 1980s, Notts were a top-flight club, along with their city rivals Forest, and those are days Hardy remembers well, a regular at Meadow Lane during that time.
'Unrivalled history, incredible future' is the club's strapline and, while restoring those former glories might seem some way off, it's clear that the club is heading in the right direction.
“We stabilised the club and ensured safety, and our ambition changed in the summer. We looked back at what we achieved from January to the end of the season and our form guide put us third. We added a few players, but in essence, nine of that team lost 10 on trot.
“We thought 'well, if we’ve done that and finished third for the remainder of the season, then what can we do next year?' Maybe we can make the play-offs and then who knows what can happen? And now we're up there in third place. The players have been sensational, we’re delighted with where we are and there’s no reason why we can’t carry on that form and finish in the top three.
“The management team is superb. Kevin Nolan is not just an incredible manager but he’s an incredible person. He carries an aura about him, if he walks into a room you know he’s arrived. He’s got so much experience, he’s been there, he's been a captain at top clubs and that’s important – I look for leadership qualities first and foremost – and he's such an inspiration to the players.
“I was born and bred in Nottingham; in my student days I remember coming to watch Notts, when both they and Forest were in the top flight. There’s no reason why we can’t do that again. Nottingham is a great footballing city and we need to get both clubs back in the top flight.
“The way we’re going to do that is by really engaging with the community and developing the next generation of kids to become Notts County supporters.”