There was such a lot of focus on Storm Dennis on Saturday I wasn’t really prepared for the Sunderland game to go ahead. Unlike snow, which is more obviously disabling, rain and wind can cause havoc but games are rarely postponed. Perhaps I should have known better.
Wind can be enough to change the course of a game, particularly at the Kassam. I’ve said before that there is rarely one true ‘fair’ result, many games can go either way and it can take one moment to dictate which way that is. When you throw extreme weather into the mix, that moment may not be wholly the result of players’ abilities.
The Sunderland game was a classic in this respect. The weather added countless new dimensions to the game; a high clearance would blow the ball blow in one direction, a little lower in another. These conditions are not the same for both teams, as is often suggested; it changes in force and direction constantly. It’s largely down to luck as to whether you’re dealing with a tailwind, headwind or crosswind; each has to be dealt with differently.
They found the right thermal at the right time. Chris Maguire’s corner was a good one, but the wind helped turn it into something more dangerous. It wasn’t wholly down to luck, but nor was it wholly down to their ability. The differences between the teams were marginal.
The whole game was like surfers trying to catch a wave. Players had to look for the right thermal to get the ball to do what they wanted. Like surfing, you’ve got to have the ability to ride the wave, but you also need the wave and that’s not in your control.
For a while in the second half James Henry looked like he’d found the right thermals; his looping passes held up in the wind dropping for Agyei, Taylor and Browne. But otherwise, it was a dogged battle in which players played against each other and the conditions in the hope they might catch a break. They got theirs, we didn’t get ours and that’s what dictated the result.
Sunderland are like a rusty cruise ship ploughing into a harbour; there’s nothing particularly elegant about them, but they rely on their sheer size to maintain a steady pace towards the the play-offs. While we barely looked more finessed, there was little between us.
The fact we matched them should be evidence that writing off our season now is a mistake. Fans were quick to identify how difficult this month was going to be, but unforgiving when it turned out to be true. They recognised the impact the conditions might have, but ignored them in their post-match analysis.
League 1 is split into two parts – teams who will yo-yo between League 1 and the Championship, and teams that will yo-yo between League 1 and League 2. Our current challenge is to get into the former. Success means having an outside chance of the play-offs; which is pretty much where we are at the moment.
Most teams in League 1 are damaged in some way; crippled by their former Premier League experience or stymied by the economic realities of sustaining themselves at this level. Few can resist periods of turbulence; as we’ve seen, most teams have been on alarmingly poor runs, but they’ve also been capable of strong surges. Like the ball on Saturday, a gust that throws us forward can suddenly turn into a headwind. As a result, teams including us, have been finding themselves at the top of the table before falling away again.
I actually think that 11th isn’t a bad place for us to be at the moment. Wycombe, for example, are now a known threat and teams no longer under-estimate them. If they’re to achieve anything this season, they’ve got to sustain their performances under intense pressure. We, on the other hand, may find we catch a tail wind as the weather improves which takes us close to the play-offs just at the right time. Upcoming fixtures, and recent performances, suggest that this is genuinely possible. Making the play-offs for most teams is now a question of if or when their surge will come at the right time.
Since the New Year results haven’t been great, but we’ve played mostly teams in the top group. We’re about to go through a period of playing teams in the bottom group. The performance against Sunderland suggests to me that any lost ground from the last few weeks can easily be made up. But we need to remember that making the play-offs isn’t a minimum requirement, it would be an genuine achievement.