After the protests and the dip into the eerie world of Roland, the focus does switch back to matters on the pitch. Now I can’t comment on just why we seem to have performed a good deal better on Sunday than against MK Dons (and other recent games), just offer up possibilities. Of course Middlesbrough had problems of their own, which may have taken the edge of their commitment (and they may have been less prepared mentally than us for the disruptions during the game). It is also possible that a group of players still getting to know each other may be on an improving trend just through greater familiarity. And my favourite possible reason is that the players knew there would be a good deal of media attention on the game not least in light of the protests; the cameras were watching them, which may have encouraged some of the less committed to make the extra effort, which then rubs off on those around them.
Whatever the cause, may it continue. For once of late the weekend saw the gap to our relegation rivals narrow rather than widen; and it seems you can now get only 9/1 on us avoiding relegation, shortened from 16/1 before (although not surprisingly we are by a distance second-favourites to go down and the odds you get backing us to stay up are somewhat different from those available if you want to put money on us going down). Staying up is a little more realistic than before the weekend, but still improbable. It is tempting (as Roland did in his letter) to focus on seven points out of nine closing the gap, but it’s probably more telling to look at Riga’s 10 games in charge (leaving aside the Hull debacle): won three, drawn three, lost four. Extend that over a full season and you’ve got 55 points and just about mid-table mediocrity. Extend it over the remainder of the season and we’d have 43 points, which is highly unlikely to be enough (teams have gone down with over 50, apparently the average points total for 22nd place in recent years is just shy of 46, while not long ago Birmingham stayed up on goal difference with 44 points).
So it would seem that staying up requires something approaching promotion form from us in the remaining games – possible if we are indeed on an improving trend but not likely. Already under Riga this time around we have had false dawns, most obviously the win away at Rotherham followed by home defeat to Bristol City, then victory away at Brentford and the MK Dons draw at home. If we are to stay up this one simply cannot prove to be another, with some momentum and better confidence hopefully to assist us.
Each game as it comes is the only way, especially given the opposition we face in the remaining rounds and the fact that for us staying up is now as much down to the results of those above us as our own. This time around, Rotherham travel to Ipswich, MK Dons are at home to Brighton, Fulham are away at Birmingham, while Bristol City are at home to Bolton. Bolton by sacking their manager would seem to be preparing for life in the third tier, but hopefully they can at least prevent Bristol from securing three points. Otherwise we are all up against teams with promotion hopes. The onus is on us to do better than our rivals and close the gap further; just a failure to do so would see our odds on survival lengthen again.
No doubt everyone is eager to hear about the weekend outcome for my adopted French team, Lyon Duchere. I’ll end the suspense right now: we did see a Duchere goal and a Duchere win! But it wasn’t quite the game my partner Suzanne and I had hoped for. Fresh off the back of winning 2-0 away at Grenoble to narrow the gap at the top, there was a mood of optimism at the Stade de Balmont, perhaps even a touch of complacency as the game against lowly Le Puy began. And Duchere did start in good style. They have a number nine who it is fair to say is a big guy, and one of those who can be deceptively capable with the ball at his feet too. Alongside him was a number 10 who seemed able to beat players at will. The two of them linked up well and Le Puy basically had no answer. In the first 10 minutes Duchere were denied one of the most blatant penalties I’ve seen, only to go ahead when a wicked inswinging corner came off the top of a Le Puy defender’s head and found its way inside the far post.
It seemed that would be the first of many. However, as we know football just isn’t that simple. Duchere actually sat back a bit and then the number 10 picked up an injury and limped off. A number 11 moved inside to take his position and he spent more time remonstrating with the (admittedly poor) ref than affecting the game, getting yellow-carded and to add insult to injury getting dumped unceremoniously into the athletics sandpit by the side of the pitch. Le Puy gained a measure of control, with the number nine increasingly isolated (and knackered).
Into the second half and the Duchere fans (have to say I thought the crowd was a bit disappointing, given the season they are having) were getting restless, questioning how Grenoble could be beaten so well and then this to follow up, with some suggesting it was the worst game of the season. Le Puy, having nothing to lose, sent on an extra forward and in the space of five minutes they had one header from a corner come back off the bar with the keeper beaten and then the Duchere keeper beating away another effort. Duchere were hanging on, but with Le Puy gambling they did have the chance to seal the points. A breakaway and the substitute winger was clean through with only the keeper to beat but a way to go. He had the pace to stay free of defenders, but perhaps too much time to think about it. He ended up shooting rather lamely and the effort was smothered. Into the final minutes and Duchere’s task did get a little easier. A Le Puy defender had been yellow-carded in the first half and he was penalised for a challenge when it looked as though the ball had already gone out. He reacted by slamming the ball into the ground; out came the second yellow and off he went.
So Duchere managed to see it out, with Le Puy feeling justifiably hard done-by at the end. Good teams win ugly and this win was pretty ugly. No matter, we later discovered that Grenoble could only draw 0-0 away at Villefranche. That means for them three games in a row without scoring, two defeats and a draw. For a team still top of the league and a record of 13 wins and five draws from 21 games that’s quite a blip, at just the right time for Duchere. They are now just two points behind Grenoble with a game in hand; draw the game in hand and the teams are level (with a very similar goal difference), Duchere win it and they go two clear.
Looks like it’s going to go to the wire – and we did get clarification that for this league it is a case of just the top team getting promoted. The next round sees Duchere travel to Jura Sud, while Grenoble are at home to Mulhouse. Those two are fifth and sixth respectively in the league but with really nothing but pride left to play for. Us to stay up and Duchere to get promoted? Just need to find a bookies able to give me decent odds.