I think most of us concluded, fairly enough, that Monday night’s aberration is no cause for panic, especially with Leeds losing last night (wasn’t it good for a little while, with Leeds and Norwich behind and the Palace news?). Many twists and turns to come before the end-season clashes at The Valley. But on the same line of thinking, and at the risk of coming across as a real Johah, isn’t there a touch of complacency in the current assumption that it is us, Norwich and Leeds fighting it out for the two top spots and to avoid the play-offs?
A quick glance at the table shows the last play-off berth being held by Millwall on 43 points from 27 games, ie an 11-point cushion for us. However, in seventh you have Huddersfield (who continue to boast the best home record in the division) on 42 points from 25 games. If they were to win their games in hand on us they would move on to 48 points. Still a six-point gap – but then the team occupying sixth would be Swindon. They are on 47 from 25, so if they win their two in hand on us they go on to 53 – and up to fourth, just one point behind us. Colchester have a game in hand on us, which if won would see them on 52. And on the basis of teams winning games in hand Bristol Rovers (38 from 25) could move onto 44 points and claim the sixth spot.
Of course these games aren’t all going to be won. And even on that basis we would still have a gap of 10 points on the sixth-placed club. Neither am I even hinting at thinking about anything but a top-two place. It’s just that I don’t think anyone’s told Colchester, Swindon and Huddersfield that they’re not in the hunt for an automatic spot (just as we bemoan Norwich’s last-gasp equaliser against us at Carrow Road, so Swindon must rue our recent leveller, without which they could overtake us by winning their games in hand). That can have advantages for us for sure, as they stay competitive in games against our immediate rivals (and against each other). Just that before we get resigned to a race to the line for the top three there’s just as much chance of us getting embroiled in a chasing group if we falter.
There’s no good reason to think that just because we’ve developed a pattern over recent years of tailing off when the going gets tough the same will happen this time. There’s too much at stake this time around, for everyone concerned, and the squad has both the quality and the character to ensure it doesn’t happen. Well, it had bloody better not.
The only real point is that there’s no room for complacency – especially when by any reckoning we haven’t been playing that well of late. I’ve made a pledge not to complain about any win, given that I just want to get out of this league. And yes, a good team can win when it isn’t playing well. But let’s assume that Plan A is playing bloody well and winning comfortably. It seemed to me that the team has of late been playing the percentages, doing enough to grind out the results and conserving some energy (which has its merits, given the frequency of games). Perhaps we’ve developed a feeling that when there’s a reversal of sorts we can dig it out, which we have done recently (Swindon, even Hartlepool with their equaliser). But we thought we’d finished off Millwall and ended up dropping two points, nearly blew it against Hartlepool with a below-par performance, and finally came a cropper against Orient.
Having missed the MK Dons game (and Brighton away), there’s only been one game I’ve seen since September (Bristol Rovers) that we’ve won by more than the odd goal. In fact of the seven games so far this season that we’ve won by two or more four of them came in the first six games. Since then in 21 games only three have been in doubt until the final whistle (OK, five if you include away at Colchester and Carlisle). Perhaps that’s what’s getting to me – and it’s got to be getting to the players as it has to be mentally draining. The best way to conserve energy is to win comfortably and coast through the latter stages of a game. We just haven’t been doing that often enough. In part I think it’s due to opposition defences having improved since early in the campaign (we don’t seem to get as many gifts as we did then), but again maybe its down to a little feeling in the team that we can turn it on enough times in games to see us through.
In that case can we please send a message to the team. We find nothing wrong with blowing teams away early on. We all loved the end of the Swindon game; you can’t beat something like that for the buzz. But I’m prepared to pass on repeats for the rest of the season and to suffer the ennui of sitting through games which we have won with plenty of time to spare. In fact it would be nice.
With all this in mind, while Parkinson was surely right to avoid talking of big changes post-Orient, some freshening up for Tranmere would seem to be desirable. We do have options after all, with Sodje available and hopefully Youga too. It would be a bit tough on Llera and Basey to take a break, but there you are. Simple fact is we haven’t kept a clean sheet for seven games. And I think Saturday’s game would be an opportunity to try Bailey and Racon together in central midfield (again rough on Semedo, who does a job), while changing the Burton/Mooney partnership seems reasonable.
I don’t usually like picking teams in advance, because for all I know some aren’t fit or aren’t in the right frame of mind. But with those provisos my line-up would be: Elliot, Richardson, Youga, Sodje, Dailly, Shelvey, Bailey, Racon, Sam, McKenzie, Burton. Subs: Randolph, Basey, Llera, Semedo, Spring, Wagstaff, Mooney, Dickson (is that too many, I don’t even know these days?).