This time of year is always disrupted; two weekends in November are handed over to the FA Cup, then Christmas happens and the games are falling over each other.
That’s without the added complication of this thing we call ‘success’. Although EFL Trophy games are justifiably viewed as meaningless, they still need to be negotiated. That distraction is out the way for another year but it’s hard to ignore the fact we’ve got a Carabao Cup quarter-final in 10 days and a very winnable FA Cup game on the horizon.
The disruption is also not helped by the fact we’ve missed a game due to Bury’s demise and had a postponement against Ipswich Town. For the club, the home game against Shrewsbury on Saturday was the first in 39 days, the first league game in 42. For me, having missed Rochdale, Sunderland and Shrewsbury, the game against Manchester City will be my first home game for 67 days, Wycombe will be my first home league game in 72. Without a smattering of away games, I might have been tempted to buy a half-and-half scarf against City.
There was an obvious sense of frustration on Saturday, which was mostly to do with the referees performance, but in the wider context, the mood was more reflective. I think I know why.
We appear to be having September in November and December. Firstly, I don’t think we really know whether this is a promotion tilt or not, we’re still simply enjoying the ride. We’re currently 7th, and it still feels a bit like those early season novelties when you’re top after two games. Our involvement in the League Cup is very much a late summer thing. The absence of home games feels like the close season and we’re just enjoying the opportunity to get back into the old routine. Even having a loan ‘keeper is something that happens, for us, fairly regularly in the early months of the season.
There are plenty of good vibes around the club, but we’re not quite at the point as we were in 2009 and 2015 where, by this point in the season, we were deep into a promotion battle and every dropped point was vital.
Everyone talks about Christmas being a key part of the season, but for us this year, it couldn’t be more true in determining where we’re truly heading. The City game will either put to bed a good cup adventure or cause the greatest upset in our history. The Wycombe game will test us against the best in the division. We’re not generally very good on Boxing Day and the return of Michael Appleton will pile the pressure on that fixture. In between there are winnable away games, if we’re disciplined. That frantic period concludes in the New Year with the FA Cup, which should be straight forward, but who knows what state we’ll be in by then?
It looks like we’ll do all this without a midfield. We’re absolutely decimated, particularly when looking at attacking and creative options. I still think there’s something about how we play which must be a contributing factor. We seem to get a lot of generic muscle injuries which take weeks to clear up, particularly in midfield.
The Wimbledon game in a couple of weeks marks the mid-point in the season, but the first four months has felt like an extended, but very enjoyable, pre-season; building bonds, finding our feet, getting our eye in. Whether the season peters out or whether this is a surprise run at promotion should be determined in the next couple of weeks. Christmas is going to be epic, it seems a shame that family, friends, presents and celebrations have to get in the way.