Ah, what a bittersweet aftertaste even an utterly praiseworthy 0-0 away draw against the league-leaders can sometimes leave. I certainly don’t begrudge Cardiff their party, they earned it, just as we did last season. But. But. To (loosely) quote Topol, would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan? If they had let us sneak a last-minute winner. They would still have been up and, just like those moments before checking the euromillions results, there was just that outrageous hope that all could be possible. Our unlikely – and only recently born - dream of the play-offs could have lived on for a bit longer. I appreciate when it comes to Charlton I do (happily) spend a good deal of time in cloud cuckoo land.
So let’s take it for what it was: a splendid result, especially as it continues the run and as it involved a fifth game in less than three weeks for effectively an unchanged team. Three wins and two draws, three of the five away (which yes has tended to be an advantage this season, although not necessarily one to be relied on when it involves Brighton and Cardiff). And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the key has been not conceding goals: just one in the last four-and-a-half of the games (and that the obligatory deflected effort from a former player). Clearly you have to have some good fortune to have that outcome, but it’s also involved better defending (including good goalkeeping). We saved our best run for when it mattered.
We’ve struggled to come up with good reasons for the difference through the season in our home and away form, but the defining statistic is obvious: 23 goals conceded in 22 away games (only Leicester have let in fewer) and 32 in 21 home games (only five have let in more). It’s a bit dangerous to draw conclusions from a sample size of one, especially as it was a 0-6 victory, but from the off last Saturday the tackling, covering, blocking and overall workrate was exemplary. There have been away games when we’ve not really been at the races in a similar fashion; but perhaps, just perhaps, the attitude going into away and home games has been marginally different (and that can be all it takes). I don’t mean we’ve been complacent or lazy at home, far from it. But we’ve done the ugly side of the game much better away, possibly because the players are fully aware the away games will be tough and as the onus isn’t on us to make the play and entertain the fans (personally I’m always entertained by a win). Clearly a frequent 4-5-1 formation for away games has also contributed to that.
It suggests for next season – and for the remaining games – an emphasis on ensuring that all concerned are fully focused on the fact that winning any game in this division, home or away, requires the same approach (unless of course we sign Messi in pre-season). Otherwise, should we just attribute the recent run to the return of Hughes (leaving aside the opening period of the Bolton game)? He might have left it a bit late to get the player of the year award, but if there was one for most positive impact it would be between him for the last five games and Obika for his five minutes against Leeds. Others have rightly commented on how we seem to have stumbled on a midfield set-up that is currently working better than previous combinations, with Hughes greatly assisting Jackson, Pritchard getting around, and Harriott offering an exciting outlet.
So suddenly, with the weather improving (this afternoon’s downpour notwithstanding), survival ensured, play-off hopes all but gone, and the player of the year vote on Saturday, what had looked set to be a nail-biting finish has the air of an end-of-season coast. For the record, having voted last season for Morrison – while not in any way suggesting that Solly didn’t deserve it (as did Hollands, Kermorgant, Wiggins etc) – I’m voting for Jackson this time around; Solly would of course be a worthy winner again, but Jackson’s been almost ever-present and played a captain’s role, his goals digging us out of a number of situations.
I’m sure Sir Chris and his staff will be beating any end-of-season thoughts out of the players’ heads before Saturday as, having got into our position, we want to round things off with positive momentum. And to be pedantic it ain’t done yet. The website assessing chances of relegation and promotion gives us a zero risk of the former even if we lose the last three (technically we need three points from three games as the bar has belatedly been lowered to 61 points); but it still gives us a 1.8% chance of going up with three wins. The real chances are in fact greater than this, since the site cannot easily encompass the prospect of Palace losing their last four; we know the odds on this are better than they seem (of course Leicester beating Palace on Saturday means we will have to score a bucketload in our remaining three to pip them for sixth on goal difference).
After all, Holloway is showing signs of the strain. He’s quoted on the BBC site today as saying “we’ve got to believe in ourselves; it’s going away from us and we’ve got to try and get it back”. A certain David Flitcroft wrote the following in a recent programme. “Belief. When your belief is strong enough you can achieve anything. There is no challenge that we face where this group of players will not believe we can have a positive outcome”. They lost 0-6. Clearly they had a lapse in belief and if Holloway’s right and Palace have lost belief, well it’s all over. Sitting here I’m telling myself I really can perform brain surgery if I believe enough. It’s just that I’m not willing to try it on myself.