So, what did we learn from Tuesday night’s testing and ultimately disappointing encounter with Luton?
That we still struggle against teams who engage in so-called ‘anti football’ tactics (nothing new there, as we so often discovered in League One), and that every team, no matter how spritely and exciting to watch, eventually hits the wall, and that’s exactly what happened as our Championship playoff campaign ended at the semi final stage.
In the first instance, there was little wrong with our attitude at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night.
It wasn’t a lack of application or a shortage of desire that hindered us. Instead, it was simply our inability to deal with Luton’s brutally effective and unspeakably ugly tactics that ensured there’ll be no second successive trip to Wembley for the red and white army.
Next up, this certainly wasn’t a ‘bottle’.
It was simply a case of one team who got it spot on and one team who weren’t quite at their best, and the result was fair. The effort was there, but it simply wasn’t matched by clarity of thought and composure at key moments, and the likes of Amad, Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke simply weren’t at their best. It happens, and they shouldn’t be castigated for it.
If Danny Batth and Dan Ballard were watching the game, they would’ve doubtless been filled with rage at what was unfolding; not caused by the performance of their teammates, but at the fact that they were unable to play what would’ve been a vital role in dealing with the Hatters’ aerial bombardment.
The reality is that if the dream of Premier League football is to be achieved, we’re going to have to go into these kinds of environments and be steadfast in the face of whatever is thrown at us.
On Tuesday, we failed to do it as our composure gradually faded and our play became ever more frantic, but if the players and Tony Mowbray take anything from a chastening night, it’s that adaptability is key and resilience is priceless.
Playoff football, as we’ve discovered to our cost over the years, is sometimes cruel and sometimes beautiful.
Last season, as we got the better of Sheffield Wednesday over two legs before breezing past Wycombe under the Wembley arch, it was as though a ten tonne weight had been lifted from the shoulders of the club. Conversely, one year prior, it felt as though the world was caving in and there was little hope for the future as Lincoln did a job on us over two legs.
In contrast to our efforts to escape League One, the expectation this time wasn’t as crushing and the ramifications of another season in the Championship shouldn’t be as severe.
Yes, Premier League football after a single season at this level would’ve been remarkable, but as it is, there are nowhere near as many downsides to a second season in this division as there would’ve been in the third tier.
Ever since the 1-5 loss to Stoke, we’ve been on a rollercoaster as the games ticked by and it became increasingly obvious that the playoffs were still achievable.
Set against pre-season expectations, it might’ve been a bonus had we made the top six, but now that it’s done and dusted, we can at least reflect on a memorable campaign, one in which we’ve added genuine value to the league and showed that we’re finally moving in the right direction after so many false dawns and setbacks.
Suffice it to say, the summer will be interesting, not least because our playoff run will give rise to greater expectations for 2023/2024, and a top six berth will be the minimum target come the end of next season.
Rumours abound of Jobe Bellingham possibly arriving from Birmingham, which would certainly be a noteworthy addition, but with Amad leaving, Ross Stewart’s future still unresolved and contract extensions sure to be discussed, there’s going to be a litany of challenges for Kristjaan Speakman, Stuart Harvey and the team to address.
The foundations are strong and the squad is in excellent shape, but there’s not a second to lose as we attempt to respond to a disappointing end to a superb season. Yes, we might've fallen short of the dream ending, but overall? The picture at the Stadium of Light looks far more positive than it has for some time.