Pressure. It’s everywhere, in every circumstance. What matters is how you deal with it, whether you can turn it into a positive (motivation, commitment etc) or whether it makes you small. And on reflection I think last night’s game (especially the second half) was the season condensed. We may be eight points clear at the top and at least nine clear of third with two games in hand, having never been out of the top three and having held the top spot since mid-September. But let’s not pretend that doesn’t bring pressure of its own. From the hard-won position we are in, we can after all only blow it; and nobody wants to think about the consequences of not going up. Last night in a short space of time an even contest turned into a 2-0 lead against 10 men and a half-time break to think about it. We could only blow it.
What we saw in the second half last night was a team increasingly frustrated at its inability to either finish it off with another goal or at least play out time comfortably, with players arguing with each other. We know how it can go when you’re a man up as the opposition work harder and players naturally, perhaps subconsciously, tend to pass the buck in the expectation that someone else will make the extra man pay. That is being harsh; we were up against a decent team. And it’s not attributable to any one or few players; it’s a collective thing and hard to turn around. The players just wanted the game over and won.
We clearly haven’t been helped by the cancellations. One would have been OK for a breather, but two in succession against the bottom two sides meant some rustiness in our play but perhaps more important they meant that the team had to get up mentally for another big test against a promotion rival. I can’t help thinking that the two games in quick succession against the Sheffield clubs have left us mentally running low, if not on empty.
Let me stress I have absolutely no complaints about how we have found ways to win against our closest rivals. The resolve and commitment shown by the players has been magnificent. We are where we deserve to be and the criticism from others that we are just grinding out results, including a string of remarks from opposition managers about having played better than us, had more chances etc count for absolutely nothing. But it is reasonable to conclude that a deterioration in the quality of service to the forwards and their current goal drought (none from the front two in seven, with our only goals from open play in the last five games having been Green’s fumbled cross and Stephens’ wonder strike), perhaps the result of a greater focus on defence (four clean sheets in the last six), have taken out some of the joy and exuberance from the team, the simple pleasure of playing.
There’s clearly not going to be any respite in terms of games coming up and we’re some way yet from talking about the run-in. We play Saturday and Tuesday all the way to mid-March. But the fixtures from now on are against lesser opposition (no, I’m not encouraging complacency and every game is a challenge to be won). We have got ourselves into a position whereby an occasional setback is far from terminal. We can only blow it – but we’re not going to. The players and the management have shown they are made of stronger stuff.
There’s nothing here that Sir Chris and his team will not be fully aware of. But perhaps there’s a case for a bit of letting off steam, pinning the league table on the wall and the whole squad patting each other on the back for the fruits of their labour. A collective love-in and bit of R&R. Once that’s done, you focus again on the next task as we venture north again to Tranmere and then welcome Rochdale and Stevenage.
For my part, having planned a week in Lyon I shall not only be staring at the BBC site on Saturday afternoon but the following Tuesday as well. Why always bloody Rochdale? Perhaps it’s some grand plan to prevent me from being able to exorcise one of my worst memories as an Addick – a 1-0 home win against Rochdale (Arthur Horsfield) on a freezing January night in 1973 at an old, open-plan Valley in front of 5,000 scattered supporters. Eurostar permitting (or more probably my partner Suzanne’s ability to get me out of bed in time for a train before 06.00 French time), I will be back for Stevanage. Bring it on.
Sorry to say that my Lyon trip won’t include a Lyon Duchere game, but they are doing well enough without me, tucked in in third spot in CFA Groupe B. They have a record of won eight, drawn five and lost only two of their 15 games so far, with Olympique Lyon’s B team heading the division. The way things are shaping up regarding planned future trips, it seems that Suzanne won’t even be able to get to one of our games this season (I had been looking forward to a few cries of encouragement in Breton for Kermorgant from her). But we are doing well enough without her.