Anxious screams deep into injury time to get the ball forward on Saturday was followed by howls of derision at us reverting to the long ball. The pressure counted, eventually, by creating chaos amongst players who are prone to its pressure. Sometimes we seem to forget which division we’re in.
The South Stand has a reputation for its air of indifference, but you do see things that you wouldn’t necessarily see in other parts of the ground. Timmy Mallet, for example, will appear in the executive box grinning expectantly in a funny hat which isn’t exactly funny, but does reinforce his Timmy Mallet-ness. The grin says that either Mallet retains his childlike enthusiasm for life, or it is the brittle mask of a man whose fame, and therefore purpose in life, has long faded into irrelevance. I like to think it’s the former. While Timmy Mallet lives, we can be assured that good exists in the world.
When the opposition score at the Kassam, while Oxford Mail stand a declaring fatwa on the goalscorer most of the South Stand mumble something neutral and balanced to their neighbour ‘That was an excellent cross… mumble mumble… deserved it really… mumble mumble… he’s annoying… mumble mumble… but that’s his job… mumble mumble… which is fair enough, I suppose…’. The front row of the executive box, about 7-8 people usually, will leap to their feet and shake each others hands in delight. There is usually no more than one woman, who you suspect has little authority amongst the party apart from, perhaps, driving them home when they’re soaked in post-match whiskey. I’ve always assumed this to be the daughter of the more aged men. They are the ‘club officials’; white, male, grey-haired, overweight and typically wearing blazers and club ties. The dusty relic of gentlemen’s clubs you thought had died out years ago.
Welcome to League 2. The Premier League will have you believe that football clubs are run by shadowy foreign consortia with your club embedded layers of incomprehensible tax efficient off-shore holding companies or sinister oligarchs who sit like Bond villians stroking metaphorical cats. By the time you get down to League 2, what you’re still typically looking at is local businessmen made good that have always owned clubs in this country. What made them their money may be changing; it may be recruitment and software rather than factories and scrap metal, but they’re basically the same people.
Midway through the second half of Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Wycombe, Sam Wood ranted maniacally at the referee as the result of a Dave Kitson challenge. Kitson stared on impassively, not in an intimating way, but in general disbelief at Wood sustained attack on a challenge which was, at best, 50:50. Rather than engaging in some faux nose-to-nose confrontation, as Michael Duberry may have done, Kitson gave Wood the sign to calm down a bit.
Kitson’s seen a bit of the football world, and seems to have evaluated the League he’s in. He knows that he won’t get flown around in a helicopter, or that every pitch will be like a billiard table, he’ll also know that games at this level aren’t won or lost on marginal decisions or split-second misjudgements which the Premier League are so keen for Jamie Carragher to squeak incomprehensibly about, they’re often down to who made the least mistakes in the 90 minutes. Ranting about a refereeing decision won’t serve any purpose at all.
The lower leagues offer a value all of their own; you don’t go to games expecting excitement, you go hoping for the surprise of excitement to be presented to you. The difference between a millionaire buying a Ferrari and someone you finding a tenner jammed in the back of a seat on a train. Both offers some thrill, but while the former is expected, the latter is a surprise. In economics, it’s known as ‘utility’; if you expect everything and get that plus a bit more, the utility is far less than expecting nothing and getting something.
So, despite our excellent start, we shouldn’t be surprised that we turned in a lacklustre performance on Saturday. Or that when a ball is put into the box it doesn’t go past the first defender. This is the norm, the point is not so much to groan about individual mistakes, but overall consistency of results. Ian Atkins used to look at games in batches of 5, knowing that a duff individual performance is always a possibility, likely even. You trade a few unexpected results, like the win against Portsmouth, against the disappointments, such as the performance on Saturday, and see where you come.
In short, 9 points every 5 games will give you the title, 8 points gives you promotion, 7 points puts you in the play-offs. That’s 10 from 4; with Rochdale next week our quota is filled and everything is a bonus to be carried over into the next five games, which look set to prove the real test of our mettle.