Another nail biting Easter weekend has come and gone.
Another year where two games in four days meant we could have almost assured ourselves of a play-off position with maximum points or we could have completely fallen apart and given ourselves a mountain to climb.
In the end we did neither.
Saying we did neither isn’t looking at the weekend in a negative light by the way. We had a fruitful weekend in claiming four points from the six on offer, and all it means is that the nail biting will continue. The weekend created as many questions as it answered in terms of who will be fighting it out in the League One play-offs come May.
My memory harks back to the first Easter weekend after we had moved into the Stadium of Light in April 1998, when we blew a two-goal lead against Queens Park Rangers on Good Friday, and followed that up by conceding a last-minute equaliser at West Bromwich Albion on the Monday, effectively blowing our chances of automatic promotion.
Even when you are flying it’s easily done.
By the way, I still refuse to sign Mike Sheron out of principle when I play old versions of Championship Manager. But I digress.
It was similar this weekend as it was all those years ago in terms of the potential to implode over Easter, because it wasn’t a formality by any stretch that we would roll over Shrewsbury and then travel to the south coast three days later to collect maximum points against a side who seemed, on paper at least, to be pretty invincible on home soil.
There are many who might be frustrated with the way we didn’t put Steve Cotterill’s side to the sword when we had the chance on Friday, or stepped it up a gear when Plymouth were maybe there for the taking if we could have just upped the tempo for a period of the game, but the end result from the weekend was what we required.
Looking at the other sides in the equation, I wouldn’t fancy the run-in that Plymouth have, where they need to take on Wigan and MK Dons as those two sides battle for one of the top-two spots, while Sheffield Wednesday face a showdown at Wycombe Wanderers at the weekend. So, as things stand, I’d prefer to be in our position if we correlate the current positions/points of the sides and the remaining fixtures.
But, despite the fact we had a pretty successful Easter weekend, it did shine a spotlight on some of the issues that became the subject of the main debates and talking points following our double header over the bank holiday weekend.
Firstly, late goals are great, but we simply shouldn’t have required Nathan Broadhead’s last-gasp winner at the Stadium of Light on Friday. We enjoyed the last minute goal and everything that came with it, but the players knew they shouldn’t have needed it, the fans in the stand knew, and Alex Neil came out and vented his frustration following the final whistle on the subject.
The Shrewsbury turnaround was even more staggering considering it came after probably the best period of play since Alex Neil became manager. It actually felt that we might come out of the routine of staggering over the line and simply finding a way to win, and begin to dominate games resulting in goals to avoid testing the nerves of those in attendance, but it wasn’t to be.
We have two more games remaining at the Stadium of Light and with each one the pressure will crank up a notch. Our game management will be key and we can hope vital lessons will have been taken from how incredibly close we came to dropping two points on Friday.
On Monday, only three days later, we made the longest trip of the season down to the south coast, which could be two reasons why we maybe looked tired at Plymouth on Monday. It was a battling performance from The Lads at Home Park where Steven Schumacher’s side are clearly well drilled and organised, but we visibly faded in the final period of the game.
We were looking for a piece of magic from Jack Clarke or Patrick Roberts to provide something for one of our front two to finish off or simply do it themselves and create half a yard to get a shot off late in the proceedings, but we didn’t look like we had the legs to pull it off.
We weren’t the only ones to feel it on Monday, Plymouth also looked tired as the game went on, and with the effort required in the early stages from both sides it’s probably no wonder. Two well organised sides matching up in a huge game in front of the Sky cameras will have had the adrenaline pumping.
If/when we make the play-offs, our performance at Plymouth could well be the blueprint for how we might setup in the away leg of the semi-finals depending on the opposition. It has its drawbacks when two midfielders sit in front of a back three and the wing-backs are pushed back to make a back five, which results in losing the threat going forward.
But it did reduce a side who have been so impressive on home soil to looking distinctly average and feeding off scraps to create chances. It suggests Alex Neil has a plan, which I’m going to cling onto as a thought for the remainder of the season.
We may not look overly convincing in terms of blowing sides away, but taking into account our recent ability to find a way to collect the points we require, we should feel we’re in the driving seat to claim one of the four play-off positions.
With just three games of the regulation season remaining, and with all the factors entered into the equation, we should have an expectation of at least two more fixtures in May.