Way back at the start of the season, most would agree we got off to a pretty good start. We were busy, with 5 league and 2 cup games in August, but we ended the month with 4 league wins and one loss (against Burton, which we did everything but score in), and with victories against Port Vale and Championship Blackpool in cup games. Wigan and Wycombe were both beaten along the way. Everything was rosy.
September was just as positive too. 4 league matches and one cup game. 3 wins and one draw in League One, and another cup win against Wigan to rub salt in. Cheltenham hammered 5-0 at our place. 12 goals scored in the month. Nice.
And then we hit October, and what I think was, looking back, our first ‘bit of a wobble’. Early in the month, we got battered 4-0 away at Pompey on a pitch doing a very good impression of a paddling pool. We bounced back a bit with a couple of league wins including a hammering of Crewe, but we then faced our old mates in Red, managerless Charlton at home. After a 4-0 mauling of Crewe on the road in the week, the stadium was loaded up with nearly 32,000 fans. Typical of SAFC, we lost 1-0.
Some may say Nemesis always clobbers Hubris, or pride comes before a fall. However you phrase it, we were beaten by a team who way too often turn us over when it matters, and at times, when least expected. Like many others who came to play us later and prevailed against the odds, they had been on a poor run before coming to our place. The referee on the day versus Charlton was a total joke, which was a factor - physicality way beyond the rules of the game was clearly not being punished nor even challenged by the officials. A penalty even the Charlton fans winced at was not given, with an audible sigh from the away end when the ref looked on, un-waivered by common sense and plain sight. Our first dropped points at home. A 200-mile journey back home for me and my lad with faces like a pair of smacked arses, and no points in the league. Not great.
Wind the clock forward to now, and we have had a few more wobbles - several of them of way more significance than that one - but for me this next game against our favourite playoff opponents has more behind it than any game for some time.
Our most recent wobble is looking like it may be passing, but we have dropped from top 2 contenders to playoff possibles in a matter of 8 weeks.
In the ten games since the start of 2022 pre-Wigan away, we have won only 1, lost 5 and drawn 4, bringing in a total of 7 points from a possible 30.
We have let in 97th minute equalisers away from home; we have let in equalisers against ten men; we have lost at home and away to basement battlers who cannot buy a result apart from against our lot. But last weekend, we got back on the bike after that awful extended tumble, and we were a team again.
I was away camping for the weekend as we faced Wigan away, but like many I had almost written the game off as a loss before a kick was taken. The team that emerged however had confidence, swagger, control and creativity. We scored early through a revived Wright header which always helps, but we created threats that led to good chances and drew penalties, which were very well despatched by big Ross, the first of which gave us a precious 2-0 lead at the break. We battled and won in midfield. We tackled hard and overlapped on the wings. We were worth our two goal lead at the turnaround.
We were back in business.
In the second half, we may have ended up with more than the third goal we secured. Bailey nearly got his toe on a second chance when a ball whizzed past him 3 yards out, an opportunity created from yet another free kick from the perennially fouled Pritchard. The latter also curled one low but wide with his right foot from the left side of the penalty spot, after a previous attack broke down - second ball opportunities in the box, when did we last see that happen? We hit the post from a dead ball later on too. Patto also did his bit at the other end with one on one saves to keep our line un-breached against the prolific Laing. He punched from high, collected overhead when under pressure, and showed why he is a real challenger to Hoffman when he has a good game.
This last game playback is all great, but the truth is we now have about as many games left as we have just played in our last crappy run - a total of 11. If we get 25 points from the available 33 (say 8 wins, a draw and 2 losses) we will still only hit 84 points. That is only 8 more than Rotherham have right now. Second place Wigan, who we just convincingly beat on their paddock, have a ten point head start on us with 2 games in hand. Only a miracle rise on one side and fall on the other will give us a sniff of the automatics.
All we can do, as coaches and managers say repeatedly, is play one game at a time and win as many of them as possible, starting with our old mates the Addicks on Saturday.
In their last 5 games they have lost the lot, and 4 of them have been against those around us in Wigan, Oxford, MK and Wednesday - we need to match those results and cannot allow Charlton’s poor form to be an incentive for them to beat us like they did in the home match at the SOL.
Charlton are only 9 points above the drop zone but will want to avoid getting sucked into the relegation maths. We need to hold our nerve and concentration and play to the coach’s plan. We have to be ruthless with every opponent, as we once were against Crewe, Cheltenham, Morecambe and Sheffield Wednesday.
We need to get our mojo back ready for the business end of the season.
One result like last weekend is great, but frankly, after how we have collapsed since the new year started, the odd win simply isn’t enough even to guarantee us even playoff places anymore. We need to beat Charlton, and go on a run like the start of the season from this point on, to take form and confidence into the playoffs, which is most likely our only route out of league one right now.
The evidence from early in the season shows we can do this. We have had runs like that before, and we can go on one again. The hard yards restarted in Lancashire, continue at The Valley this Saturday, and they end in Morecambe on the 30th of April, unless we can put a run together and extend our season into the playoffs. We have players coming back at a vital time in Luke, Nathan and Aiden. Roberts, Clarke and Defoe will ramp up and contribute too. We will need them all.
Let’s do this boys, starting Saturday. You’ve had a run good enough at least once this season. You can do it again, and we are behind you. I said earlier in the season that I hate the playoffs and dont want to go there again. That’s the past, this is now.
I’m in, and so will 40 odd thousand others.
Let’s get there again, and repeat our last Wembley visit.