Reds’ bid for a fourth successive league win ended in frustration at Meadow Lane thanks in no small part to a heroic performance by Notts County keeper Bartosz Bialkowski.
The former Southampton stopper kept Reds at bay almost single-handedly in the second half with a string of fine saves as Jamie Proctor, Matt Tubbs, twice, Gary Dicker and Gwion Edwards were all denied.
The home side hung on for three precious points in their relegation fight after Jimmy Spencer, a player Reds signed on loan last season but who failed to play for the club because of injury, scored with an unmarked header on 34 minutes.
John Gregory made three changes to the side that won at home to Leyton Orient on Good Friday. Injuries ruled out Josh Simpson and Andy Drury so Gary Dicker and Sergio Torres came into midfield. Dannie Bulman dropped to the bench so Reds went 4-4-2 with Proctor coming in alongside Tubbs up front.
Kyle McFadzean led Reds out into a raucous atmosphere but the visitors settled first and nearly went ahead in the seventh minute.
Edwards won a free kick on the left that he swung in onto the head of Proctor whose effort forced Bialkowski to save at full stretch. It wasn’t the first time the big Pole was to frustrate the visitors.
Reds certainly settled first but County had a chance on 19 minutes. Jamal Campbell-Ryce, effectively operating on his own down their right, sent in a decent cross for Spencer which the striker headed wide of the near post.
Reds responded through Edwards, but Bialkowski got right behind his drive from 20 yards and the visitors had a big let-off on 26 minutes after Dicker gave possession away to Jack Grealish in midfield.
The Aston Villa loanee looked to have been brought down inside the box but the referee waved play on. The ball fell to Ronan Murray whose shot was blocked with his legs by Paul Jones and then Spencer blazed the rebound high and wide of goal.
Mark Connolly was booked on 34 minutes for a foul on Grealish and from the free kick Notts went in front. Alan Sheehan’s delivery from the left was perfect for SPENCER to attack and he headed unmarked past an exposed Jones from close range.
Sheehan went close himself with a low drive wide of the right-hand upright and just before the break Mike Jones was shown a yellow card for bringing down Grealish.
Edwards hit another effort from distance well wide and although Reds ended the half behind they had caused Notts enough problems to suggest that the 1-0 deficit could be retrieved in the second half.
And within ten minutes of the re-start they were twice denied by the brilliance of Bialkowski. The Notts’ keeper made a superb block to deny Tubbs and when Proctor picked up the loose ball his shot was spectacularly cleared off the line by Haydn Hollis.
Three minutes later Tubbs got in again, this time on the left-hand side, but the keeper stood up well to block his effort. Sheehan made a brilliant tackle as Torres was about to pull the trigger then McFadzean saw his effort blocked as County somehow clung onto their lead.
It was turning into a one-man show as Bialkowski produced yet another superb save on 65 minutes when Dicker’s header from Mat Sadler’s cross appeared to be heading into the top corner until the keeper stuck out a right hand to divert it around the post.
Notts had been reduced to the occasional counter-attack and the anxious home fans were living on their nerves. Reds countered superbly on 73 minutes and this time it was Edwards’ turn to be frustrated as his powerful drive was beaten out by Bialkowski and Tubbs’ header from the follow-up cleared.
Reds made a double change with 15 minutes to go as Bulman and Jeffrey Monakana came on for Dicker and Torres and Bulman forced Bialkowski to make another save, albeit a comfortable won, from the midfielder’s volley from outside the box.
Notts saw the game out while Reds departed knowing they haven’t encountered a keeper in as inspired form as Bialkowski was all season.