In rare idle moments, I’ve thought about setting up an automated Twitter account that tweets ‘Massive game today’ and ‘Massive 3 points’ every Saturday. This seems to be the standard proclamation of many fans each weekend.
I’ve learnt that defeats are rarely terminal nor are victories a sign of perpetual forward motion. Typically by about Wednesday the previous week’s game is forgotten and you’re looking forward to a good performance and a win. Your previous exhalations about the season being over are some way behind you.
That said, Saturday’s game against Cheltenham felt pivotal to the destiny of the season. Perhaps it was the spring sun, heralding the ending chapter of the season. The proximity to the Easter programme. The fact that we’d definitively move up a place with a win. Whatever it was, there was a surge of expectation surrounding the fixture after two very encouraging results against Rotherham and Wimbledon.
The feeling was that the Cheltenham game could help define where we were going to end up. It didn’t, as it happens, but the games and points keep ticking away, which is good. The reality is that we’re likely to end up in a play-off place. Five points behind last year’s points total with 8 games to play. This is good progress. From just outside the play-offs last year, to just inside this year is to be celebrated regardless of whether it ends up with League 1 football or not.
Pivotal to the shift, has been Michael Duberry and his omission on Saturday was considered a big blow. At the end of last season it was evident we were naive at the back and the introduction of Capaldi, Whing and Duberry was a clear signal of intent to change that facet of our game. Capaldi, of course, we haven’t yet seen. Whing has grown into his role as a utility man and Duberry has truly lived up to his billing.
Not that it’s been plain sailing; after the Macclesfield game, where Duberry contrived to score his third own goal of the season, a bloke behind me shouted; ‘If someone else made as many mistakes as Duberry, they’d be hammered for it’.
A bit harsh. He is clearly a one of the best defenders in the division, his own goals have been as much about being the man on the spot trying to clear the ball as a sign of incompetence. Failure is not to score an own goal, but to not be around to prevent a goal from happening – as one of Jim Smith’s famous motivational signs from the 80’s sort of, but not quite, said. Things he can’t change – his age and size – play against him robbing him of a degree of pace and agility, but all in all he’s been a dominant presence in the back four all year.
There is something else. Duberry is, perhaps, the most famous player in the division. He brings a Premier League pedigree you rarely see. Normally players who have played at the top level have long given up by the time they’ve reached Duberry’s age. He may actually be the last player in English football history to play in League 2 and the Champions League.
As such, he brings experience from the very top of the game. He therefore commands a certain respect. It means he gets away with more than those around him. If Duberry dumps someone to the floor, he’ll stand over him, holding out his hands out in an exasperated fashion as if to say ‘What’s he doing, is this really what the game has come to?’. If there’s a nasty tackle, he’ll be one of the first wagging his finger telling the player off. The referee, more often than not, agrees.
The referee’s role, you see, is to uphold its established values and rules. Duberry positions himself not as one of the low-life playing scum, but as similar ‘holder of the flame’ to the officials. Constable, you’ll see bickering with the referee like a petualent child, Duberry, on the other hand, acts with all experience and world-weariness of a parent – which is fundamentally the same role as a referee.
With Duberry taking the morale high ground the referee has no option but to agree to maintain his position as an establishment figure. If a decision goes against him, he’ll wave it away as if to say that the referee doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And he can do that with some credibility as he was playing top flight football a decade before even the top referee in the UK; Howard Webb. In the sea of anonymity that is League 2; Duberry is a monument, an institution. Referees feel the urge to align themselves with him because he’s been where they want to be – in the elite. He doesn’t do anything wrong; but just makes it difficult for the referee to remain wholly objective.
I call it doing a ‘Duberry’ – which is not to be confused with the exact same thing happening to you. If you’re on the receiving end of a player using their reputation to manipulate the officials, then it has a very different name. After the masterful way he managed, in a 60 second period, to persuade the referee to send-off Paul Tait and then create such incandescence within the Oxford defence that they conceded the goal that lost the game; when it happens to you it’s called a ‘Jemson’.