It’s the ‘business end of the season’. The league starts now. Ten games which matter, like a knock-out competition, where the two finalists are the winners and the next four get to play again. All for the chance to take on the likes of Brentford and QPR next term.
There are ten games to go and rather than being bottom with a mathematical chance of survival, or fourth from bottom and desperately hoping that the league contains three worse teams, we’re in with a shout of automatic promotion.
So this season has been a success, but not as much of a success as I had hoped back in the autumn. I felt then that we would be the best side in the division but now I am not so confident. Luton and Barnsley are in the driving seats and we are waiting for them to slip up.
They might do. Both teams have gone on phenomenal runs and there’s nothing to say that they won’t continue to power on. However, if they do slip, will we finish with the eight or so wins we need to clinch automatic promotion?
Although the previous 36 games count for nothing now, they do tell us a lot about this team. We’re likely to make it to 90 points – 5 wins and 5 draws perhaps – but that might well not be enough and chances are we will lose another game before the end of the campaign. Too many draws is the story of the season. Why is that?
We have a great squad for this league but there are, for me, three standout weaknesses.
We have not been tight enough at the back. We’ve lacked a John MacPhail or a Paul Butler – a strapping, experienced centre half capable of taking control of defensive situations. Perhaps Glenn Loovens was the man for that role but it wasn’t to be.
We’ve lacked options up front. Earlier in the season we relied on Josh Maja and without him our goalscoring has dropped off. You can’t criticise Sunderland for bringing in Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg but neither has set the league alight to date.
However, the biggest thing for me is that our midfielders have often struggled to dominate, leading us to struggle against sides which are significantly weaker on paper.
The Wycombe game is a good example of the sort of situation where tactics go out of the window and it’s all about stamping authority, something the Wycombe players did although sometimes too literally. It’s hard to tell whether it’s about system or personnel or a mixture of both but when players have needed to step up in the middle they’ve often not done so.
There’s no faulting the heart in the squad – the never-say-die attitude is fantastic – but there is, I think, some inexperience in terms of what’s needed to grind out wins.
It’s still all to play for but the betting must be on a trip to Wembley for the play-offs in May.
In the meantime, of course, we’re there at the end of this month. I’m as dismissive of the Checkatrade Trophy as the next man, but I bought my travel within seconds of the final whistle at Bristol Rovers.
I’d love to see us win at Wembley, having sat through five straight defeats (plus a sixth, the Milk Cup final, on TV); but more importantly, I want to be part of the celebration that the club has regained its heart and soul and is finally on the way back up.
Stock up on those cheesy chips and get the pubs open for breakfast, the red and white army will be enjoying a massive day out. Are you watching Newcastle? I don’t care.