Just what is it? You choose a quiet time to slip away for a few days and come back to find we’ve won away for the first time since December, have failed again to beat a team we needed to despite being ahead at the break, have brought in Leroy Lita six weeks too late (which is not to say we could have got him earlier) to make it no fewer than five loanees in the first team squad, have Izale McLeod crocked by the same Plymouth defender who took out Svetoslav Todorov (can the club get insurance against him personally ahead of our game there?), and have Peter Varney leaving the club for personal reasons, Frankie Valley back under another name, and New York Addick in London. Bring on the March hares. Or did I just take the air in the wrong places in Amsterdam?
I obviously can’t comment on the Bristol game, having had to rely on text updates. But I haven’t seen anyone suggesting we were robbed (apart from me that is). And the impression was that, as against Watford, the opposition ended the game stronger than us and more likely to win it. We may be the best club with the best management and the best players, playing the best brand of football in The Championship. But we can’t say we have been undeniably one of the two best teams in this division over the course of the season. By definition you always end up where you deserve to and with 10 games to go we can’t have any complaints.
By the same token it still isn’t the time for any post mortems. With 10 games left we have maybe a one-in-ten chance of automatic promotion, perhaps less. Barring some magical emergence of a perfect blend emerging from our now many options (which markedly do not extend to alternatives for Holland and ZZ, who must be feeling the strain having – according to my rough calculations – started the last 18 games together in central midfield) nobody’s going to put money on us putting in the sort of startling run to claim by rights a top two spot. Teams above us have to blow it (which perhaps makes West Brom’s last-minute winner against Sheff Wed a crucial blow – them winning at a place we didn’t, just as Bristol did at Scunthorpe). But it’s still possible, just as it’s possible we can end up outside a play-off spot.
There’s been four or five games for each of the teams at the top since I last looked at points projections. My forecasts then had Watford (then top) getting seven points from five games. In the event they won six (although tellingly they got their point against us). So my projections have them ending on 77 points. West Brom, then second, were forecast to get 10 points from four games; they managed only seven (five without the Sheff Wed winner would have been very nice). Trimming three from the previous total gives them a season’s total of 82.
Bristol City I had getting just eight from five games and, just like before, they’ve outperformed my expectations (and not just from one game in particular) with 11. Add three to the previous total and I now have them on 80 at the finish. Stoke I had as getting nine from five – and that proved to be the case (although I didn’t predict them losing the last two, which is a bonus of sorts. Long may it continue. So I still have them finishing the season on 82.
Consequently, as things stand I have West Brom and Stoke ending together on 82, with Bristol City and Watford missing out whatever happens to us. Perhaps not surprisingly we are the main underperformers compared with my expectations. It would have been surprising any other way. I had us getting 11 points from the last five games (I was trying to be realistic) but we managed only 6. As I had us ending on 84 points previously, this implies 79 now – and fourth place. If we finished level on points with Stoke we would probably end above them on goal difference (we have to do better than them in terms of results in the remaining games and we’re about level on goal difference now), although we have no chance of beating West Brom by this measure.
So by my reckoning now 82 points and its second spot, 83 to be champions. That means it’s 26 points needed from 10 games. Basically we would have to win eight of them. So sod it, I’m now predicting the full monty of 10 straight wins, 86 points, and the jug being paraded around The Valley in early May. (No, I’m not going to do projections for those below us; life’s too short and it still looks to me like the range for the past 10 seasons of 73-76 for sixth spot is realistic.)
There’s still plenty to play for – and plenty to muse over. I still can’t get my head around Pardew criticising the defence of late and going out and getting three forward players in on loan. This isn’t carping. Seems that Leta will be a double-edged sword: if we play him and he bangs in the goals in the month ahead he will go back to Reading to help in their relegation fight. If he does bugger all he can stay. For what it’s worth I think we’ve missed Bougherra as he and McCarthy looked like the right blend – although perhaps Sodje and McCarthy are fine too with only one conceded in their two games together.
I’m not going to try to suggest a line-up for Preston. Instead I’m going to be first (hopefully) claim the old farts spot by reminiscing about the best game against Preston in recent years. 1974/75 and home to Preston is the last game of the season, under floodlights. A win and we’re up – promoted, OK from the old third division but the first time in my life following Charlton that we have a shout of actually succeeding. A crowd of 24,659 and what do we do? Well, of course we went 1-0 down, that goes without saying. The surprise was us getting a penalty and Bob Curtis, who never missed a penalty, missing. Then when everything was getting sweaty up popped our saviour: Bobby Goldthorpe.
A former Palace player, Goldthorpe I remember as one of the worst defenders to pull on the shirt. But I think of him with nothing but affection as he headed home the equaliser (if memory serves correct he actually headed it goalwards and the officials had to decide that it went over the line). Killer went on to score twice and we had pulled off an unlikely (at the start of the season) promotion. History can repeat. Bring on the March hares.