Notts County were formed in 1862. The club pre-dated The Football Association and initially played a game of its own devising, rather than association football. At the time of its formation, Notts County, like most sports teams, were considered to be a "gentlemen-only" club. Notts County are considered to be one of the pioneers of the modern game, even being credited with the invention of the offside trap. Notts County are the oldest of the world's professional association football clubs (There are older professional clubs in other codes of football.)
The club initially played at Park Hollow in the grounds of the old Nottingham Castle. In December 1864, the decision was made to play games against outside opposition, and it was decided that the club needed to find a bigger venue. After playing at several grounds, The Magpies settled at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground in 1883.
Chart showing the progress of Notts County F.C. through the English football league system from the inaugural season in 1888–89 to 2007–08 when Notts County came 21st in League Two. In 1888, Notts County, along with eleven other football clubs, became a founding member of The Football League. They finished their first league season in 11th place, but avoided the dubious honour of the wooden spoon, which went to Midlands rivals Stoke. However, Notts County did achieve their highest ever league finish of 3rd in 1890-91, an achievement they repeated ten seasons later.
On 25 March 1891, Notts County reached the FA Cup final for the first time. The Magpies were defeated 3–1 by Blackburn Rovers at The Oval, despite having beaten the same side 7-1 in the league only a week earlier.
Notts County made up for this on 31 March 1894, when they won the FA Cup at Goodison Park, defeating Bolton Wanderers 4-1 in a game in which Jimmy Logan scored the first hat-trick in FA Cup final history. This achievement is also memorable for Notts County becoming the first club outside the top division to win the FA Cup: Notts County finished 3rd in Division Two that season.
The Italian football club Juventus F.C. derived its famous black-and-white striped kits from Notts County. Juventus have played in black and white striped shirts, with white shorts, sometimes black shorts since 1903. Originally, they played in pink shirts with a black tie, which only occurred due to the wrong shirts being sent to them, the father of one of the players made the earliest shirts, but continual washing faded the colour so much that in 1903 the club sought to replace them. Juventus asked one of their team members, Englishman John Savage, if he had any contacts in England who could supply new shirts in a colour that would better withstand the elements. He had a friend who lived in Nottingham, who being a Notts County supporter, shipped out the black and white striped shirts to Turin. “Juve have worn the shirts ever since, considering the colours to be aggressive and powerful.”
Notts County were relegated in 1926 in what was to be their last season in the English top flight for over half a century. The 1925–26 season was the last season that famed goalkeeper Albert Iremonger played for the club. Legend among Notts County supporters it has been said he had 'hands like the claws of a JCB.'
The club suspended all fixtures during the 1941–42 season after Meadow Lane was hit by enemy bombing. In the 1946–47 season, the ground was used temporarily by Nottingham Forest after the River Trent flooded both Meadow Lane and the City Ground. Forest again used Meadow Lane in 1968, after fire destroyed the main stand at the City Ground. The 'golden age' of the club came just after the end of World War II. County stunned the footballing world by signing Tommy Lawton from Chelsea for a then-record fee.
Lawton's arrival increased crowds by over 10,000. One incident during this period saw 10,000 fans locked outside the ground. In the 1949-50 season, Notts County clinched the Third Division (South) championship. Crowds averaged 35,000 as The Magpies held off Nottingham Forest in a thrilling championship race. The 1950–51 season was to be the last season in which Notts County would compete in a higher league than their city rivals.
As the 1950s drew to a close, Nottingham Forest replaced Notts County as the city's biggest club. After the 1957–58 season, the two clubs would not play each other again for sixteen years.
The Magpies struggled during the 1960s, being on the brink of financial ruin and striving to avoid the indignity of having to apply for re-election to the league. This situation continued until Jack Dunnett, a local Member of Parliament, took control of the club. He appointed Jimmy Sirrel, a charismatic Scot who had once played for Celtic F.C., as manager in November 1969. In the 1970–71 season, The Magpies clinched the Fourth Division title in record-breaking style, remaining unbeaten at Meadow Lane.
Two seasons later, Notts County were again promoted, this time to Division Two. It marked an amazing turnaround in form under Sirrel and would also renew meetings with old adversaries Forest. Sirrel departed for Sheffield United in October 1975 but returned two years later.
Sirrel completed the remarkable transformation of Notts County in May 1981. He had turned The Magpies from Fourth Division strugglers to a top division side in little over a decade, ending an absence of fifty-five years from the top flight. This achievement was with the same chairman (Jack Dunnett), captain (Don Masson), and trainer (Jack Wheeler) throughout the decade.
In one of the most famous moments in the club's modern history, Notts County visited newly crowned champions Aston Villa on the opening day of the season. The Villa team had paraded their League Championship trophy to an expectant crowd before kickoff, but against all odds, County came away with a 1–0 victory. Notts County were relegated three seasons later, but not before reaching the FA Cup quarter-final, which they lost to Everton. Sirrel also retired at the end of that season. He came out of retirement a few months later in an unsuccessful attempt to save Notts County from a second consecutive relegation. Sirrel finally retired in 1987, bringing to a close one of the most successful and memorable periods in Notts County's history.
In late 1988, a new manager arrived. Neil Warnock had previously led Scarborough into the Football League as champions of the Football Conference. At the end of his first full season, Warnock had led Notts County to promotion back to Division Two. The club anthem The Wheelbarrow song originated during this season, stemming from the club's historic first game at Wembley Stadium in a 2–0 win over Tranmere Rovers. Warnock continued to deliver: the 1990–91 season is considered by many County fans to be one of the club's greatest. A famous 1–0 victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup booked them a place in the quarter-final, which they lost to eventual winners Tottenham Hotspur. Notts County also booked their second successive visit to Wembley and their second successive promotion. The Magpies defeated Brighton & Hove Albion 3–1 in front of 60,000 spectators, 25,000 of which were Notts County fans.
The following season was disappointing, seeing Notts County relegated from the top flight. With the introduction of the Premier League, County were relegated from the old Division One to the new Division One. Warnock quit in January 1993 and was succeeded by Mick Walker. Walker successfully averted a second consecutive relegation.
Walker's first full season as manager was memorable for Notts County fans. The Magpies narrowly missed the play-offs for promotion to the Premiership. The season is most remembered for a 2–1 victory over arch rivals Nottingham Forest in which Charlie Palmer scored the winning goal with just four minutes remaining. This has become a celebrated event among Notts County fans, who have dubbed 12 February (the anniversary of the game) Sir Charlie Palmer Day. This game was the last competitive Nottingham derby fixture to date. In March 1993 Notts County lost the Anglo-Italian Cup to Brescia.
Walker was surprisingly sacked in September 1994. This event triggered a dramatic decline in the club's fortunes that has persisted to the present. Notts won the Anglo-Italian Cup at Wembley in March 1995, but ended the season relegated to Division Two. County made another visit to Wembley Stadium in the 1996 play-offs, but missed the chance of a return to Division One with a 2–0 defeat to Bradford City.
The following season ranks among the club's worst, as they managed just seven victories all season and finished in the bottom position of the league table. Relegation to the league's basement division happened just six years after promotion to the top flight. However, success followed relegation under Sam Allardyce. The Magpies secured the Division Three title in March 1998 by a record margin of seventeen points. They became the first side since World War II to win promotion in mid-March, with six games still remaining.
Allardyce left in October 1999 to join his old team Bolton Wanderers. In September 2003, Notts County faced the real possibility of dissolution. Crippling debts and an increasingly impatient Football League board combined to leave the future of the league's oldest club in doubt. However, the considerable efforts of a group of local businessmen and the club's loyal and upbeat supporters helped save the club from extinction. But despite new ownership, the club were unable to avoid relegation back to the bottom division in 2004. In a similar circumstance as their relegation in 1992, due to the rebranding of the Football League, County went from Division Two to League Two.
The 2004–05 season was a season of highs and lows for Notts. Despite high levels of expectation about promotion, it soon became apparent that Notts County would not be challenging. Fans would have to wait until October before the club recorded a home win; County even occupied bottom place in September.
Player Ian Richardson relieved Gary Mills as manager in November 2004. Richardson managed to guide the club away from the relegation zone with little experience at football management. He held the manager's job until the end of the season in January 2005, and the club announced in April that Richardson would not be the manager during the following season. On 17 May 2005, former Iceland manager Gudjon Thordarson became the club's sixth manager in five years.
The 2005–06 season began promisingly for the Magpies. Thordarson and assistant manager Ross MacLaren instituted a strenuous fitness regime, including double training sessions. These actions ensured that the Notts County squad were fitter than the rest of the league at the start of the season.
The club won or drew their first seven league games and were top of the table in September. Fans began to speak cautiously of promotion. But soon the fitness of other squads matched that of the Magpies, who stumbled and lost or drew the next fourteen games. A strong January with just one defeat saw talk of promotion re-emerge, but a disappointing stretch in February included five consecutive defeats and one draw, ending all talk of promotion. The club managed to win just thirteen points out of a possible forty-eight in their last sixteen games, and again faced relegation.
On the final day of the season, Notts were just two points above the relegation zone as they faced Bury, another side in danger of relegation. A season high attendance of 9,817, of which 8,594 were home supporters, watched the game. The Magpies at one point trailed by a score of 2–0. With Oxford United and Stockport County drawing their games, the club were only one Oxford United goal away from relegation. But a late rally saw Notts level the score at 2–2, and Oxford's 3–2 defeat ensured the Magpies' safety.
Despite avoiding relegation, Notts County finished in 21st place in League Two and in 89th place overall, the lowest position the club had ever finished. The state of the club seemed worrisome as a number of issues had become apparent. This situation resulted in the departure of both the chairman and the manager, the cessation of a long-standing youth squad program, and many of the players out of contract or nearing contract maturity.
The announcement of Steve Thompson as the club's new manager on 12 June stirred strong emotions in the fan base. Thompson had previously been assistant to Colin Murphy, who was widely blamed for the relegation in the 1996–97 season. Thompson's only real success as a manager had been with Southend over ten years previously. Notts County's new boss signed fourteen new players, including former Nottingham Forest player Jason Lee.
However, the club lost only twice in their first fifteen games and became a promotion contender. But blips in form and inconsistency plagued the team over the rest of the season, resulting in a 13th place finish.
In the 2007–08 season, Thompson's second as manager, pre-season transfers added Neil MacKenzie from Scunthorpe United, Adam Tann from Leyton Orient, Hector Sam from newly promoted Walsall, Paul Mayo from Lincoln City, Tim Sandercombe from Plymouth Argyle, Myles Weston from Charlton Athletic, Richard Butcher from Peterborough United, Lee Canoville from Boston United F.C., and Spencer Weir-Daley from local rivals Nottingham Forest. The pre-season also saw the exit of David Pipe to League One newcomers Bristol Rovers. Before his transfer, Pipe was the current longest-serving player at Notts County, with 141 appearances and four goals scored.
The Magpies bowed out of both the Carling Cup and the Johnstone's Paint Trophy in the opening weeks of the season and made a poor start to their league campaign. These events saw disappointed fans chanting at Thompson during games and displaying banners calling for his removal. Thompson was finally sacked on 2007-10-16. Former player Ian 'Charlie' McParland replaced him two days later on 18 October.
Steve Thompson left the club a few days before one of the season's biggest fixtures, an away game at local rivals Mansfield Town. At first, the club announced that Thompson's assistant manager John Gannon would take charge of the first team, but hours after the press conference was held to announce McParland as Thompson's successor at Meadow Lane, the press were told that Gannon (and Thompson's ex-Sheffield United teammate and recently appointed Notts kitman Paul Beesley) had followed the ex-manager out of the club, leaving McParland in charge for one of the biggest games of the season only two days after taking the managerial reins at the club. McParland then appointed former Notts players David Kevan as his assistant and Tommy Johnson as coach. The pair were hailed as the 'Dream ticket' by the chairman who went on to offer 'Charlie season tickets' in a bid to bring back the dwindling support. However, the poor form continued and only a series of sterling defensive displays helped Notts secure safety in the penultimate match of the season. A Richard Butcher strike against Wycombe Wanderers secured League 2 football for 2008/09. The 2008/09 season finished with Notts County 19th ten points above the relegation zone.
On the 4th June 2009, it was announced that Notts County were in talks on a take over by a Middle Eastern Consortium, headed by Peter Trembling and Peter Willett. This investment is thought to be in the millions and the club are believed to be given multi-million pound backing as the investors, part of the Munto Finance Ltd., look to turn around the fortunes of the World's Oldest Professional Club.