So, we’re safe and Ryan Ledson is player of the season, bring on the summer. I like Ledson a lot, who doesn’t? But, in seasons like this, how do you go about choosing a favourite? I remember goalkeeper Richard Knight getting player of the season when he shipped 100 league goals in 2001, which just seemed to be a vote for his stoicism as much as anything.
Did Ledson take the gong because he clearly loves what he does? Was he the most consistent? Least inconsistent? Because he was the man who gave us the season’s only highlight? Or is he just the bloke we’d most like to go to the pub with? Ledson’s effervescence is certainly infectious and I can see why he picked up the award, even though there weren’t that many genuine contenders.
Personally I would have given it to James Henry, because every time he had an impact it was significant in the mission we were ultimately burdened with: avoiding relegation. But, I can see why he didn’t get it because he didn’t play enough games and when he did, it was often out of position. A Twitter account which tracks these things claims Henry’s goals contributed 7 points, when you’re 8 points clear of relegation, that’s a decent contribution.
I pondered all this as we eased to the win, and safety, over Rochdale. Rather than immediately honing in on the best player, it was more a question of discarding them one-by-one until you got to a shortlist of the least-worst. It struck me that it was a squad of what-ifs – what if James Henry had been played in position, or Curtis Nelson, Rob Hall and Joe Rothwell had been fit? What if John Mousinho had played more like he has done under Karl Robinson? What if Jon Obika and Wes Thomas’ soft tissues weren’t quite so soft? What if aged journeymen players with injury records were, in fact, immortal?
There were less what ifs about Ryan Ledson, he was rarely injured, played consistently well and never looked like he’d given up the fight, all those things were a big advantage for him.
What-ifs dominated the season; what if Ryan Ledson hadn’t blasted in the winner at Charlton? What if James Henry hadn’t ghosted across his marker to get the winner at Doncaster? And what if Josh Ruffels hadn’t scored his daisycutter in the 96th minute in the home game? The margins are so fine, we may have gone down.
What if we’d appointed a manager earlier? What if the takeover had gone through before Christmas? We may have gone up.
It feels like it’s been both a long and short season. Losing Michael Appleton, John Lundstram, Marvin Johnson and Chris Maguire feels like a long time ago, as does the 3-4 debacle against Cheltenham in August. Also, the air of optimism as we won our opening three games, beating Portsmouth along the way, and then holding Bradford in the best tactical performance for years.
Then there was the slow realisation that it was unsustainable as we lost Christian Riberio, Rob Hall and Curtis Nelson, and aged players like Mike Williamson, Dwight Tiendelli showed their age. Karl Robinson said on Saturday that it’s easy to under-estimate the league both in terms of how many games are played (the most in Europe) and the quality that’s required to compete. Sol Campbell’s belief that it can’t be difficult to figure out the lower leagues forgets that it’s still Europe’s ninth biggest league by attendance and in the top 20 by revenue. We had the players to deal with some of that, but not all.
Perhaps the season feels like a short one because of the final phase; after the farce of Wigan and Bury, and going out to Port Vale in the Cup, and then the extended hiatus of being managerless; a long dark night which only recently made way for this final period in which things have gradually improved in a race to accumulate enough points to avoid relegation.
Three or four seasons in one season, then. Thankfully, the disruption doesn’t seem to have had the negative impact it could have done; we’re still in League 1, Tiger’s talking a good game, Karl Robinson wins over more fans with each passing interview, form is improving, players are leaving, and soon some will be arriving. There could have been an air of disappointment and failure, but instead there’s a sense that we’ve got away with it and can use the summer to re-group and start afresh in August.