At the start of the season I suggested that in a division which, bar one or two clubs, there is much of a muchness in quality, it’ll be those who are best organised, tactically and financially which will succeed, and by definintion, the least organised will fail. Obviously, I assumed that would be someone else.
Take, for example, Luton Town – a team with a very similar profile to ourselves. We’re a similar size, have similar resources and have faced similar challenges. They are second and we are not.
There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch where, dressed as Nazis, David Mitchell looks at his uniform and its sinister iconography and says in slow realisation; ‘Are we… the baddies?’
At half-time on Saturday, I was thinking about my early season thoughts as tweets about ‘shambles’ and not signing a striker fluttered onto my timeline. We were facing our fourth successive league defeat, five if you include Brentford, we hadn’t scored a goal and we had no strikers on the pitch, let alone coming in.
You live life as a football fan hoping; for wins, turnarounds, convincing yourself that something good will be round the corner. You may think Karl Robinson is hopeless, but you still live in hope he’s got a striker up his sleeve. You have faith in the people you have least faith in.
But then, facing another defeat and even the potential to drop to the bottom of the division, it dawned on me in a David Mitchell-like way – what if we are the least organised team in the division?
You hope not, sometimes you know you’re punching above your weight so success is a bonus and failure, when it comes, is broadly accepted. I don’t think anyone thought our years in the top flight during the 1980s were sustainable. More often, you hope you’re a good team but you can’t definitively say. People talk about us having ‘Championship-potential’; but we haven’t been there for nearly 20 years. If you look at the evidence of more recent times, League 1 is punching above our natural level.
And then we scrape a point and some of the hope returns. In five games we’ve taken two points – one from a seventh minute injury time goal, the other coming back from two-down away from home. These are not normal results, they happen once or twice a season, they don’t indicate any kind of turnaround. Last year Bury did the double over us, but were still relegated 15 points from safety. Even terrible teams pick up points sometimes.
So, yes, I think we are one of the least organised teams in the division, and that puts us in real peril. Our worst patches of form have come during transfer windows – why? Is it just how the fixtures have fallen? Is Karl Robinson too stretched – preparing for games and chasing down signings? His post-match ramblings become more bizarre when he’s trying to sign players. Is it because his mind is elsewhere and he’s stressed and not prepared? For some, a ‘bad transfer window’ is about not signing your primary target, for us it seems to seep onto the pitch.
Periodically people mention that Michael Appleton is out of a job. Can he come back and bring back the glory days? I genuinely don’t think so; Appleton was part of a machine which involved Darryl Eales and Mark Ashton but also an effective scouting network and a communication and engagement strategy. Plus, there was consistent cashflow, a key priority for Eales, something his successor has yet to achieve. The Eales-world is not the environment Appleton would be coming back to, at times it felt like he waved a magic wand, but it just wasn’t that simple. We should put the Appleton fantasy to bed and focus on fixing now.
In fact, it’s slightly worse than that. If Tiger could persuade Appleton return he may believe what the fans are telling him and that success is a gimme. That’s when complacency will really set in.
We’re not relegated yet, regardless of what happens in the transfer market, we can still stay up; but that’s where the ambition lies now; avoiding relegation. It’s hugely frustrating, but perhaps it’s time to realise at the moment, we are just one of those teams.