As the first quarter of the season is effectively completed, it’s time to draw breath and assess progress to date. It’s a difficult task for a natural-born contrarian. We’re five points clear at the top, unbeaten, won eight out of 11, with the exception of a couple of outfits based in Manchester have the best points-per-game return in the country, have not just scored in every game but have only failed to score at least twice in two, and have kept four clean sheets. Some concern that we might be rabbit-killers who would struggle against the better sides in the division (as with the exception of Sheff Wed we hadn’t played them) were dispelled by getting a deserved point away at MK Dons and then winning away at Sheff Utd.
In addition, with Green back from his virus, Alonso hopefully getting close, and Cort and Kermorgant brought in, we have much better options from the bench and to cover for inevitable injuries and suspensions, nobody in the first team is playing badly enough to merit being replaced, and we are playing (albeit not yet for full games, which may be a little too much to ask) with panache and style, as well as determination when things are not going to plan (as in the first half at MK Dons). We have the division’s best finisher in Wright-Phillips, who’s notched seven in 10 starts, Hayes and Kermorgant have contributed five between them, and the midfield has more than chipped in (in fact the only statistics against us are the penalties count and the absence so far of goals from the central defenders). And to round things off for me we have a Frenchman scoring goals (which might ease Suzanne’s pain next Saturday when England demolish France in the funny-shaped ball game) and a philosophy fan (Alonso) waiting in the wings.
The season to date consequently amounts to a massive success for Sir Chris and his staff, for everyone involved in the selection of the players brought in, and directly or indirectly for the new owners. It’s been rightly pointed out by New York Addick in particular that the actual net investment made in new players looks quite limited, taking account of the fee received for Jenkinson. And as outlined in the recent Evening Standard piece we are guessing over most of the fees paid, while we still see references to the club having been close to administration without adequate explanations. These concerns will linger, but for the time being at least pale in comparison with the delight in how things have gone. They couldn't have gone any better if we'd shelled out millions. Just how Powell, Dyer et al have shaped an effective and entertaining team almost from scratch in such a short space of time leaves me speechless. I think given the new influx at the start of the season we would have settled for a top six spot and signs of improvement for this point. I know I would have.
So what can go wrong? Well, for a start Powell is a shoo-in for September manager of the month, just 10 months after Parkinson picked up his award for last November. Injuries and suspensions are bound to arise, we have yet to see how the team might respond to a setback (during games they’ve turned things around, especially against Bury and MK Dons, but we will lose sooner or later), and there’s always the Epicurean Swerve (the unpredictable). Of course there’s no room for any complacency; this division is too competitive for that not to be punished. Perhaps the biggest concern is that from now on we are going to be targeted. Other teams will by now have a good idea how we play and will start to better assess how to stop us. The only game I’ve seen so far where we were effectively neutralised and ended up looking second-best was the Sheff Wed home game, where their physicality and desire to play the game in the air wore us down. We can expect more of the same, especially at The Valley.
This division may be competitive – and will become a scrap when the league fixtures come thick and fast in January-March – but it’s not one in which teams tend to dramatically improve. Apart from Scunthorpe, who I thought would be up there, there are no real surprises regarding who stands where. Huddersfield, Preston, MK Dons, and both Sheffield clubs would have been among most people’s pre-season predictions to be in or around the top six, with Brentford Notts County and Colchester perhaps in the mix. We haven’t played Preston or Huddersfield yet (forget the Carling Cup).
If the season goes in stages it’s fair to say that October looks like a month in which we have the potential to drive home our current advantage. Games against Tranmere and Carlisle at home and Stevenage and Wycombe away all appear winnable (no, not grounds for complacency) before November brings what on paper are stiffer tests – Hartlepool, Preston, Brentford and Huddersfield. After these two months we will have played 19 games and be approaching the halfway mark and there might then be the occasion for a fresh assessment. May it be as positive as the one for the first quarter.
For me, this time around the Amsterdam trip threatens to rule out the vital clash against Brentford on Wednesday night. I’m not against the principle of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, but for us it has absolutely no value or interest. Even so, with the return flight due to land at City Airport at 18.30 I might just take leave of my senses (it has been known to happen) and turn up in a suit with luggage. After that and Tranmere, Lyon rules out any thoughts of a trip to Stevenage (I believe Suzanne has booked us in for a wine fair for the afternoon; I just hope the French don’t mistake intermittent howls of joy followed by a dance round the hall as necessarily a reflection of the quality of the sample I’m quaffing), but barring disasters the flight back the following Saturday has been planned to allow time to get across London for the Carlisle game. And after that Wycombe away looks entirely doable. That’s as far ahead as I’ve ever managed to plan.