My evolving theory about League 1 this season is that the division mostly consists of fairly average teams, of which we are one. There is a small group of marginally more competent teams who will fight for promotion. But, no one is really capable of competing in the Championship for any length of time. Is it better to know your level or fight to get into a division you’re not equipped to compete in?
Our recent run has been slightly tinged with the concern we’ve merely hit a good run of opponents at the right time – Walsall, Bradford, Wycombe and Wimbledon all look like relegation candidates and we played them one after the other, drawing with with one and sneaking past two in the last minute.
Charlton offered a different proposition; not only are they in that group of teams looking to go up, there were times in the opening minutes where they blew my theory out of the water. Perhaps they could sustain themselves at a higher level. I thought they were much better than Sunderland or Portsmouth. The fact they were unbeaten in eleven supporting that view.
Their penalty was soft, I thought, but may have done us a favour given the chaos later. It made it much harder for the referee to make big decisions on marginal calls without the game descending into a farce that would have been of his making.
There was something about the sunshine, the meaninglessness of the game from our perspective, the buoyancy of the Charlton fans and the early goal which gave that foreboding sense that we were going to collapse in the theatre of it all.
Then it all turned around. Just when we could have switched off, we resolved to show we weren’t just a makeweights in someone else’s end of season adventure. Curtis Nelson, perhaps playing his penultimate game at the Kassam, had plenty of time to watch the ball drop, but caught his volley perfectly. And then Garbutt slammed home his brilliant second.
Garbutt’s resurrection may be the story of our revival. He could easily have crumbled under the criticism of earlier in the season, he’s well paid and is not from round here so he could have just given up. Instead, he’s dragged himself back into the team, changed position and transformed. He’s now the one gee’ing up the crowd and, at Walsall, disappearing into it. Karl Robinson’s role in turning his season around can’t be ignored, either.
The second half was entertaining but barking mad – Simon Eastwood was rightly sent off although it was clearly a miscalculation rather than a deliberate attempt to cheat. His one-match ban implies that the FA agree, so it does make you wonder whether red is too harsh a punishment for a momentary mistake.
Incidentally, I’m not a fan of a team being allowed to make an immediate substitution when a goalkeeper gets sent off. Clearly it would have disadvantaged us, but I think you should have to wait until the next available stoppage before making any changes.
There was half-an-hour to hold out. I remember looking at the clock and realising that Eastwood had only been off the field for six minutes; it felt like hours had passed. They had territory and possession, and won a lot of corners, but we didn’t cave.
Eastwood’s dismissal should have signalled the end of our hopes of taking the points, but in reality, we had the better chances. In many ways it was reminiscent of our fabled win at home to Swindon in 2012 when James Constable was sent off.
Solly’s sending off was as much about Jamie Mackie’s fall as it was about a dangerous challenge. Perhaps that was more deserving of a yellow, although I thought Lapslie should have been sent off for tripping Jerome Sinclair when he was clean through. It could easily have been a goal from Garbutt, who benefitted from the advantage, with Lapslie then being sent off for the foul. Practically every decision and incident could have gone the other way; it was that good a game.
Leaving the game with adrenalin coursing through my veins once again got me thinking; in terms of sheer thrills, spills and drama; is there a team offering better value for money in the country than us right now?
Through all the mayhem, though, was a refreshing level of gamesmanship and guile. We would have been overwhelmed with less maturity. It’s something we have frequently lacked in the past. Michael Appleton prided himself on developing players, Pep Clotet on his tactical acumen, Karl Robinson’s thing is winning games at all cost. He’s more a Chris Wilder, with all the baggage that comes with that.
It was Robinson who introduced Mackie and Hanson because he knew they’d dig in. He removed Kashi to protect him from a second yellow, god help him if Josh Ruffels’ last minute chance had gone in. For all Robinson’s streams of consciousness when interviewed, he kept his head when all those around him lost theirs.
It goes without saying that Jamie Mackie led the charge with a masterful performance of pushing, being pushed and being outraged at being pushed. Cameron Brannagan showed his growing maturity being tidy and combative at the same time. The back-four protected Jack Stevens admirably, with Josh Ruffels and Sam Long both offering outlets when the chance was offered. Not that Stevens was a passenger, his scooped save being as good as anything Simon Eastwood has produced this year, in fact I’m not sure Eastwood would have the athleticism.
Every Charlton shot was met with two or three players falling over themselves to block the ball. Total commitment and discipline.
With the younger players learning from the older players, what emerges is an increasingly competent and effective unit, one capable of performing against the best in the division.
And this is what turns a team from being a League One also-ran into potential play-off or promotion candidates. It’s come too late for this season and large chunks of the squad will disappear over the summer, but if a DNA is emerging and some off-the-field stability can be established, then we can, perhaps look forward to next season with a degree of optimism.