If there ever was a must-win game of football, today’s home fixture against Sheffield Wednesday is just that.
Having finally got a victory under our belts at Derby, our return to the Stadium of Light brings with it a sense of optimism and renewed hope. Yet, without following up the amazing result on Friday with a similarly convincing three points today, all that hope will quickly turn to frustration.
How often have we thought we’ve turned the corner? Not just this season, but for years, only to find that the game after the supposed turning point has been a huge disappointment. Back-to-back wins are a minimum - momentum has to continue today and grow beyond. Just look at Hull - two wins and they’ve found relative safety! Our opponents today are another example.
Wednesday sit six places above us and, until recently, were having a pretty awful time of it. A run of seven games without a win in all competitions finally came to an end when they beat Yorkshire rivals Leeds United at Elland Road just over a fortnight ago. On Friday, they followed that result with another three points - a comfortable 4-1 home win over Preston North End.
A few games ago, the fixtures of Sheffield Wednesday and Burton Albion at home, coupled with the trip to Reading, were the ones most fans would have targeted as our best chance of picking up points. Would they be enough to stave off relegation? Most of us probably thought not. However, it’s amazing what one result can do to your optimism levels. One damp evening in the Midlands later and we have a new-found sense that we can, perhaps, just maybe, get ourselves out of his mess.
As we woke on Saturday morning, most fans were probably thinking something along these lines: if we beat Wednesday we could be level with Barnsley, meaning another win or two along the way and we can do this!
And then Birmingham won.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter who our opponents are on any given day: it’s Birmingham, Barnsley and Burton that we’re really trying to beat. Getting three points is only half a job; we have to hope the others slip up; such is the way of the chasing team. Birmingham’s win was, of course, another example of back-to-back victories for a team desperately clawing their way to safety.
Until Garry Monk arrived at St Andrews, I was struggling to see where they would get a victory, let alone a one-two on the bounce. Yet there he is and his presence has clearly lifted the Blues.
But we can only focus on ourselves, first and foremost. We need to build our own momentum and hope Birmingham’s peters out. If we are to find our own back-to-back victories, we have to overcome a huge psychological barrier, for we have been here before.
Indeed, back in December having beaten Fulham or again in January having beaten Hull, we twice faced Birmingham City hoping for that elusive double-win, only to draw at home and then lose away. How costly those dropped points will be, we can only guess at, but more importantly had we built momentum earlier in the calendar year, we may well be a lot closer to our opponents today.
Coleman must gather his troops and go again. Victory today and hope resides. Anything less - especially if Barnsley get something at Nottingham Forest this afternoon - and we’ll start to waver once more. Birmingham, moreover, have the advantage of knowing exactly what they need to do when they travel to Bolton tomorrow evening. All we can do is hope to be level with Barnsley and two pints behind Monk’s side by the time they kick-off at the Macron Stadium.
Does Coleman stick with a winning side - not that we have that luxury often - or is it a case of fresh legs with this game coming so quickly? Will the likes of Lynden Gooch, who ran his socks off, have recovered sufficiently to start once more?
Players like Adam Matthews will have had time to recover from his international trip with Wales but, strangely, Donald Love has amassed an impressive record this season. When he has played, our points tally has gone up. To be fair to the lad, he probably had his best game ever in a Sunderland shirt at Derby too so, like many, deserves to stay in the side.
In midfield, has Paddy McNair overcome his injury concerns to the point where he can line up twice in four days? He was another who impressed in the Midlands. And what of Aiden McGeady? Returning to the side and showing something reminiscent of his early season form, has Coleman finally managed to fully integrate the creative attacker?
The aforementioned manager has called for the fans to turn up and get behind the Lads for this late season push. His comments immediately after the victory on Friday were telling:
For me, the performance was absolutely sensational. I think it mirrored the support we had here tonight, for once. We have another game in three days time and we have to absolutely go and see this through. To see this through on Monday night we’re gonna need all the support we can get. If anyone’s watching at home who hasn’t been to see us, I don’t blame them, but we’re gonna need them Monday night. We need everyone Monday night and we’ve got to make sure we leave everything on the pitch and try to get another three points and try to put pressure on everyone above us.
The fans are needed, true, but it’s the players that have to turn up - at home, against a bottom half side, and claim the three points. Another performance like Friday’s and the crowd - whatever its size - will be fully behind them. Let’s hope it’s the players that inspire the fans to return again, when Norwich City arrive next week, by picking up another victory today.