Manchester is a curious place. As a result of its rebuilding following the bombing in 1996, the centre is typical of a modern, prosperous city full of cafes and bars and high end shops.
But, drive a short distance in any direction it appears to be surrounded by a ring of depravation. The roads become rutted, the houses look run down, there are shops clinging to dear life and people wandering around who look desperate. Less claustrophobic than London, you can see the stratification; the centre, the depravation, then places like Media City, Old Trafford, the Etihad and the Trafford Centre punctuating the skyline. Suddenly, you’re in the countryside and we’re back into prosperity again. As a result, it is very difficult to work out whether Manchester is thriving, struggling or whether it simply has a unique culture all of its own.
League 1 is much the same, last week we were at MK Dons, on Saturday it was Charlton, next is Bolton Wanderers. All teams with large stadiums and fans, and in the case of Charlton and Bolton, bigger reputations. But all three are on a downward trajectory.
And yet, League 1 remains ‘lower leagues’ like a big team graveyard. Next month we play Coventry, 1987 FA Cup winners playing in a stadium with over 32,500 seats, but they haven’t finished in the top six of any division for 46 years. It looks very likely they will be playing League 2 football next year; a big team with an abject history; very League 1.
In such a situation it is difficult to know quite where we fit. Before the game against Charlton, radio played a clip of the last time we beat them fourteen years ago. Jefferson Louis scored the decisive penalty in a League Cup shoot-out. Jerome Sale makes a comment about Louis having been in prison and earning £90 a week. Charlton, at the time, were the envy of most teams; successful, but grounded. The difference between us and them was obvious, now less so.
On Saturday we were pretty evenly matched. Their penalty looked far less controversial than the radio seemed to imply afterwards. The impact of Kane Hemmings was encouraging given that he has looked under-powered this season. I’m not sure, however, if people appreciate the role that Ryan Taylor made in softening up their defence to allow the game to open up a bit more when he went off. As usual, the phone-in simplified the issue – Hemmings should play in place of Taylor because he looked a goal threat and Taylor didn’t. It’s not a wholly unfair point, but I think Hemmings is a threat, in part, because Taylor did a lot of groundwork for him.
Tuesday, and Southend, came very suddenly and Edwards got grabby again. He must be a nightmare on a packed dancefloor – all hands. People have started talking about Southend being a bogey team and a curse, which is, of course, completely irrational. The main issue is that if you begin to believe it, then the likely response is not to re-focus and go again, but to believe that there is some sort of higher power at work and give up.
It all comes back to mind set – League 1, like Manchester, is probably best not compared to other places, but simply that it is a netherworld in itself. We will face a whole range of teams; big ones heading downwards, small ones heading up and others simply stuck in the division’s orbit. It is what it is, and we are what we are, the more we become comfortable with that idea, the more successful we’re likely to be.