Safe? Surely. You know this because you’ve looked at the table over and over as well, but let me articulate my anxiety. MK Dons and Northampton can’t catch us, meaning from our perspective, things are very simple. We are at the top of a six team league table with the only objective being to avoid dropping to the bottom. We’re six points clear with, for some, three to play. Barring everyone finding form including Rochdale going on a run which will see them winning the same number of games in the next three as they have in the last fifteen, phew.
I had been fairly optimistic about our prospects of avoiding relegation, things would have to swing against us in a big way for it to have been a realistic proposition. But, I’d written off the Blackburn games as obvious defeat, so by the time we got to Doncaster, we were rapidly running out of games to make ourselves safe.
My peak moment of panic was immediately before James Henry’s winner. The live league table had us four points clear with Rochdale and Oldham winning, and Walsall drawing – all having played a game less. It wasn’t nice, particularly with our ability to concede late goals; a late Doncaster winner would have made things significantly more unpleasant.
Then Henry scores on 63, Oldham equalise at Wimbledon in the 74th minute, two minutes later Scunthorpe get their winner at Walsall and 14 minutes after that Bradford equalise at Oldham in injury time. 27 minutes and our season turns round.
Relegation threats do that to you; games become merely an exercise in computation and prediction. Numbers are more important than style. All cultural and social aspects of the game are abandoned for the accumulation of points. Your gaze narrows to nothing.
Great credit, then, to Karl Robinson. Results haven’t been perfect, but he’s had to work with the players he’s been given. Everyone knows that the squad is likely to get an overhaul in the summer, yet he’s kept motivation high and held things together enough to get the results we needed. Once safety has been mathematically secured the re-set button can be pressed, for now, his finger can hover over it.
I have a lot of sympathy for both Robinson and Ricardinho for the situation they both find themselves in. The Brazilian didn’t start due to a clause in his contract which would have given him an automatic renewal. But, he’ll be 34 at the start of next season, an age where players can switch from being experienced pros to costly liabilities in a heartbeat – think Dwight Tiendelli and Mike Williamson (or going back; Phil Gilchrist or Rufus Brevett). For Robinson, he can’t afford to use up a salary on a player he can’t be certain will play next year. It may not be the end for him at the club; once the contract clause is no longer live, there may be other roles or deals possible, but automatic renewal not good for the club.
Robinson’s ability to keep the squad together when many know they’re likely to leave during a high pressure time has been his most impressive quality. He’s right in saying that Charlton were in a similar position last season, as were Shrewsbury, both of whom are likely to be in the play-offs this year. The rules around signing players now mean that sometimes you have to wait a little longer to see the true impact of a manager.
So, we’re very close to the point where we can file the season as one which is transitional and forgettable. We can start to look forward again. Robinson said that he wanted us to develop a big-club mentality, something Chris Wilder was particularly good at in our Conference days. Getting over the imposter syndrome related to being a successful League 1 club may be one of the biggest challenges he’ll face.