Nothing’s ever that clear-cut, but it’s a fair bet that this Saturday’s games will go a long way to defining the rest of the season for us – and whether or not we will need to keep the diary free beyond 8 May. It may not always have been pretty (OK, most of it has been downright ugly), but three wins out of four coupled with other results at least leave us once again looking up (at the possibility of catching Leeds) rather than down (and hanging onto a play-off spot, never mind third). We know what’s up next for us – and if the players need any more motivation to continue to go all-out for a top two finish the prospect of having to go back to SE16 for a second time should be enough (then again, if we don’t go up most of them won’t be with us next season in any case) – while Leeds visit Southampton. To say that Pardew owes us one is an understatement and it’s time to call in the marker.
Only a week ago and it seemed that a nightmare scenario might be unfolding with seven teams breaking clear to chase six automatic/play-off spots, resulting in a scrap to the finish and one team missing out with a very high (for seventh) number of points. If it’s to be the play-offs for us I’d rather a bit of time to prepare. It could still pan out that way, but for the time being at least let’s forget about what’s going on below us. If after Saturday the gap with Leeds has increased (clearly it could go to eight points – effectively eight-and-a-half, given goal difference), with 10 games left the fat lady might be giving her throat a rest until May. I know, the season won’t turn on the next round of games, but I suspect that Leeds are managing to refocus after their cup exploits and to expect them to continue their recent form – before their win on Tuesday night it was one win in eight – seems unrealistic. We need the gap to narrow on Saturday and, irrespective of their current form, a draw at Millwall will only look like a good result if Southampton beat Leeds.
After Southampton, Leeds’ final 10 games see them at home to Millwall, away at Norwich, home to Swindon, away to Yeovil, home to Southend, away at Carlisle and Gillingham, home to MK Dons, away to us, then Bristol Rovers at home to round things off. I have high hopes that Pardew gives us some payback, that Millwall do the decent thing and roll over against us then put in their performance of the season, that Swindon bolster their play-off position, that Chris Dickson sets a new goalscoring record for a League One game, and that a certain git called Blizzard, who should be sitting out the remainder of the season, contributes to a last-day victory for Lennie’s employers. It’s not just Pardew we’re looking to for compensation. But all that aside Leeds’ games against Yeovil, Southend, Carlisle, Gillingham, MK Dons and Bristol Rovers could easily yield them maximum points. Those eighteen added would give them 89 points. Add in anything from Southampton and some from Norwich, Swindon and us and a total in the 90s is on the cards. If we get nothing from Millwall, 66 points with 10 games left could see us virtually having to win all of them to get above Leeds.
Of course there will be surprise results and of course our home game against them could see a six-point swing. But if you assume that Leeds will win their final game if they have to (and by that stage Bristol Rovers will almost certainly be all but on their holidays) it follows we need to be less than three points behind Leeds ahead of that game. That’s an outcome – basically needing to win the final two of the season to get second place - that I think we’d all take with open arms right now.
Given the importance of Saturday I do feel guilty that I’m not going. There are decent enough reasons: after the monthly work-related trip to Amsterdam this week there’s catching up to do over the weekend, next week is busy and the following weekend it’s off to Paris for the France v England rugby match. But the bottom line is I lived for many years in deepest Bermondsey, went to Galleywall Road primary school, and have had bucketloads more involvement with the area than normal health recommendations advise. I went to the Old Den to watch us more times than I care to remember. I swore some years back that I would never go to the New Den (well, at the time it didn’t seem like a realistic outcome) and I’m sticking to that. Can’t even really say I’ll be there in spirit as I feel a bit like Chef in Apocalypse Now (something along the lines of “I used to think that if I died in a bad place my soul would be stuck there; now I don’t care where it goes just as long as it ain’t here”). But suffice to say there’ll be a whooping and a hollering if it all turns out right.
As for Paris, my French partner Suzanne asked me some months ago if for a Christmas present a weekend in Paris for the game would be a good idea – and at the time, without checking the dates, it was. The deal is I go wearing a France rugby shirt and her an England one. I had my fun by getting her a number 10 as she doesn’t like Wilkinson. She says that’s because of the way he prepares for his penalties – ‘ze way he sticks out his bottom, like a chicken, ‘ee is ridiculous’ – but I suspect the reality is that she fears him - and England grinding out a try-less victory with some judicious shots between the sticks. Her revenge may be a shirt of Bastareaud (or Chabal). But if you watch the highlights and see a woman in the crowd wearing an England shirt belting out La Marseillaise you know what’s going on.
Paris means I’ll miss the Gillingham home game as well, while the current schedule for my Amsterdam visits takes in the Tuesday evening home game against Colchester. I may only have three or four games to get to before the normal season ends – unless I can make some away games and/or manage to book for Amsterdam with British Airways and hope they go on strike. So, the focus for me over the next couple of months may have to shift away from error-ridden match reports to idle ramblings on notional points totals, the fate of my adopted French team Lyon la Duchere (who for the unaware were not the ones turning over Real Madrid last night), and anything else of vital national interest. Suffice to say that through the period I shall be a happy bunny if that gap just gets progressively narrower, starting Saturday.