So, we end the season proper with a 1-0 defeat at York: it was meaningless, it was meaningless, it was meaningless. If you say it enough times you start to believe it.
Despite being at home all day, I started the afternoon choosing not to even check teletext for the scores. It was meaningless, it was meaningless, it was meaningless. Eventually I found myself flicking back and forth, and by half-time I was tuned into Radio Oxford listening to the commentary with SKY Sports’ real-time league tables ticking away online. It was meaningless… wasn’t it? We rested players, but I’d have preferred it if we’d fielded our Centre of Excellence under-6’s – then we’d have had a water-tight legitimate excuse.
And so to the final phase, meaningfulness, and Exeter; who, for some reason, have taken the stature of Real Madrid. But then again, Morecambe and York have become Barcelona and AC Milan. After years of failure, now we’re being confronted by success and it feels more unobtainable than ever. For years, we just played games because that’s what teams do – win, lose, draw or lose – it didn’t really mean much. Most of the time it meant we were more or less than 10 points from the play-off places. This is different; even the Orient game was a case of lose and you’re down, win and you’ve avoided going down. This is win and you’re in heaven, lose and you’re in hell. It’s proper, proper football.
Which is why the likes of Billy Turley and Carl Pettefer are better at this than I am; both seemed to relish the prospect of entering the lions den in their post-match interviews. Pettefer just wants to get on with it, Turley broke the tension (in my house) by joking that he’d broken his hand in the warm-up – he knows that people are starting to rely on him, and he loves it. You can understand it, they’re jobbing professional footballers whose contracts are cancelled at a stroke, but for the next couple of weeks they can be Petr Cech and Paul Scholes. It’s what they’re in the game for.
The key difference between me and the players, is that they are in control – I can only watch them. I’m excited; I can’t think about the prospect of winning, I can’t bare the thought of losing. I can’t imagine either, which makes me very jumpy. We haven’t played a meaningful two-legged game since the 1988 League Cup Semi-Final against Luton – every two-legged encounter since has been a suck it and see, who cares if we lose cup game. After the Chelsea v Liverpool Champions League first leg last week Liverpool fans could draw on significant experience to take an objective view of taking a 1-0 defeat back to Anfield. I don’t have the experience to mentally cope with the play-offs; if we lose 1-0 on Friday, will I calmly think that we’ll turn it round on Tuesday? I doubt it.
Recent form is against us, but only because of yesterday’s defeat – otherwise everyone is going into it on par – had we drawn yesterday we would have been the form team and over the season against teams in the top 5 we’re the top of the pops. But neither us nor Exeter have yet to lose at home to teams in the top 5. One thing for sure is that this is going to be edgy and close.