The closest I came to playing professional football was being left-back cover for a bloke at school who had trials for Watford. I found out that his professional career was over when Oxford played Watford on the last day of the 1993 season where it was announced in the programme he’d been released.
In the main, even the best player you’ll ever play with will get nowhere near a professional contract. Even to get on the bottom rung of any professional football ladder you have to be spectacularly competent.
Phil Brown is a relentlessly, tediously competent manager. It’s easy to complain about his narcissism, his tan and his histrionics, but his teams are so mercilessly organised they strangle points out of games. He is one of those managers, like Steve Evans, Graham Westley and Chris Wilder, that will never get much credit, but will never be out of a job. It’s not so much that Michael Appleton is found wanting against this kind of manager, it’s more that you feel there are bits of his craft he still has to hone before he’ll start getting the better of them more often than not.
Part of that is the way he manages the squad – getting the right balance of fresh talent and experience, rotating enough for freshness, but not too much to create instability. Facing two games in 72 hours against teams with similar philosophies, we were finally brought to ground by a couple of well-timed sucker punches. Breaking down a highly organised team like Southend, and MK Dons before that, is asking a lot physically. In the first half we played some scintillating football which, perhaps, with slightly fresher legs we’d have scored from, but in the end we ran out of steam as the Southend diesel chugged its way through our defence.
Facing these teams between now and the end of the season is probably what will ultimately scupper any lingering hopes of play-offs. We have plenty of teams still to play who will adopt similar approaches and while we have become increasingly competitive at this level, it seems unlikely we’ll squeeze enough points out of them to close the gap to sixth. In some ways, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing – an accidental promotion will put all sorts of pressures on the club and squad, we’re getting closer, but I’m not sure we’re ready yet.