It feels like a day for feeling sorry for some people. Pity the poor Wigan fans, whose Wembley semi-final now becomes a test of endurance (may it be followed soon after by a more joyous final for them). Pity the nation if contractual obligations mean that contest has to be shown on the box. I even feel a twinge of sympathy (in between the laughs) at the sight of disappointed cardinals coming to terms with the fact that, barring fresh bouts of ‘food poisoning’, they will now never get the top job (seems a bit like two managers getting their teams promoted to the Premiership and getting the boot). They are even obliged to appear happy about it. Sometimes life’s a bitch.
Most of all, let’s spare a thought for Andy Hughes (and Danny Hollands, who I hope’s making progress with his injury). No sooner has he capped a long battle back from injury by getting back in the frame and making the bench for the Burnley than he sees us signing up an alternative midfield veteran. I hope Mark Gower proves to be a blinding loan signing; the need to improve quality in midfield has been paramount and if he brings decent skills in winning it, holding it and finding a red shirt with the ball it can only be for the good. Perhaps we will start to look (relatively) comfortable in possession in midfield. Most thoughts here will probably turn to Claus Jensen and Scott Parker, but before them there was Dick Tydeman and the one I remember with most affection, Graham Moore. Mrs Moore had no pace, precious little mobility, but he could have taught Jan Molby a thing or two about just never being knocked off the ball and ensuring that he could play the game at a tempo of his choosing. Had a decent shot too.
Clearly Gower’s arrival and the availability again of Kermorgant pose selection issues for Saturday’s encounter. Back up to four available strikers, three outright central midfielders (five if you include Dervitte and Hughes), plus four possible wide men (five if you include the option of Haynes starting wider). There’s too many combinations (of formations and personnel) there for me to suggest a possible line-up. I hope Yann’s chomping at the bit to get back in (and I’ve just watched Adebayor for Spurs take a swing in the direction of a ball but get nowhere near it and connect with the defender ; he was given a yellow card, as I still feel Kermorgant might have been given if the Notts Forest players hadn’t made a meal out of it) and still have an inkling to see him and Haynes in tandem, but whoever Sir Chris puts out will be fine by me.
I have been messing around with some of the player appearance statistics this season and last to try to throw up something meaningful, in the context of the problems we’ve had with midfield in this campaign. After 36 games last season we had eight players who started in over 30 of them (including three ever-presents). The back five basically picked itself, with Hamer, Solly, Wiggins, Morrison and Taylor missing only a handful between them (before Cort came in in the final games). Jackson and Hollands also managed 30 or more; with Jackson usually wide-left the main issue was who would partner Hollands in our 4-4-2; Stephens was the usual choice (26 out of 36) but Hughes and Russell also featured. This time around we still have five players with 30+ appearances, again focused on the defence (Hamer, Solly, Morrison). Midfield has been more evenly spread, but Jackson is over 30 games and Stephens and Pritchard (both on 26) not far behind. The loss of form and effective absence of Hollands since the early games does stand out as the main difference, but I suspect that really it’s been more about the need for greater flexibility (in formation and personnel) playing at a higher level, plus considerable good fortune last season with injuries and suspensions (ie lack of) that is behind our failure to date to find a consistent, effective combination in midfield this time around.
So finally let’s spare also a thought for the home-based bloggers. Not being privy to much in the way of information on possible ins and outs, since Burnley what has there been to say? Only from me statement of the bleedin’ obvious in that four points from the two away games came as a welcome relief. At half-time against Peterborough sitting in a hotel room in Amsterdam the league table looked pretty horrible. It’s hardly surprising that those of us that don’t make many away games (to my shame I don’t think I’ve managed one so far this season) have a slightly pessimistic view on things. But glorious victory on Saturday will go some way to erasing what memories remain of the eight home defeats I have witnessed.
I always like to keep things simple, so perhaps it’s time to begin the countdown. With nine games left the maximum number of points that the third-bottom team (Peterborough) can secure is 66. That means 67 guarantees safety, or for us 20 points from nine games. Of course the required total is going to be a good deal lower, but I’ve had enough of uncertainty through this season and crave guarantees. So I’m just going to enjoy watching the gap from sure survival progressively narrow with each passing round of games. With luck, in just a couple of days it will be down to 14 from eight.