Adam Yates is a professional cyclist. In a golden age of professional cycling, he’s not a household name like Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish, none-the-less, he’s currently the country’s best road racer and will roll into Paris today in ninth place in the Tour de France.
It’s been a curious Tour for Yates; like most riders, his preparations were scuppered by the lockdown. As a result, he didn’t feel he had the form or fitness to challenge for the overall title and planned to spend the race looking for individual stage wins. Then, on stage five, 17km from the end, the then race leader, Julian Alaphilipe, broke an idiosyncratic rule about when riders are allowed to take food and water from the roadside. He was given a 20 second penalty which handed the lead to Yates.
It was the fulfilment of a dream, but even when he lost the yellow jersey four stages later, he’d become a marked man. His opponents couldn’t be certain that he wasn’t bluffing when he said he couldn’t win the overall race. So, even though he was never close to the title, as he’d said, his attempts at winning a stage were persistently neutralised, just in case.
We could be suffering a similar fate, for the last eighteen months we’ve been quietly picking up momentum, then a freakish quirk – making the play-offs via a points per game calculation – propelled us into the spotlight. Suddenly our threat, or maybe just our perceived threat, is in plain sight of everyone.
It’s not just the qualities of Matty Taylor, James Henry and Cameron Brannagan. Even emerging talents can’t be given an inch; what if Joel Cooper is another Gavin Whyte? What if Rob Atkinson is another Rob Dickie? We are now a team to be studied and neutralised.
Sunderland, on the other hand, have had a significant chunk of their expectation, and the inertia that comes with it, removed in the shape of their over-expectant fanbase. Jerome Sale and Nick Harris frequently referenced the 1800 Sunderland fans who would have roared, and perhaps barracked, their team in normal times. With just a handful peaking over the fence end, the players could get on with their work largely uninterrupted. By the time fans are allowed back in, they might have so much positive momentum from that, they’ll be difficult to stop.
We’ve hit a reality buffer that has stifled our momentum. We’re perceived as a threat; Lincoln stifled us, Sunderland respected us and didn’t let complacency slip in. Now we need to find a new wave, one that propels us forward – great seasons often have them; Mark Creighton’s winner against York 2009 or our 4-0 win over Brentford in 2015.
This is a massive challenge as there’s another cold reality brooding in the background. Karl Robinson admitted he’s bored of playing in empty stadiums, Jerome Sale said he was sick of it. These are canaries in the mine; an early indicator of the wider mood.
The Zoom parties and cardboard cutouts are gone, we’re left with queuing and masks and government incompetence and dumb conspiracy theories. The novelty of seeing every game on iFollow is becoming part of that chore with every passing game, something made no easier by defeats.
In normal times, even in defeat, there are always little joys in simply going to a game. It’s not dedication or commitment to go to football, it’s fun, even when it’s terrible. Sometimes it’s the self-flagellation of terribleness which makes it fun, as anyone who has had the pleasure of going to the toilet at Portsmouth will testify.
Normally I’d buy our new home shirt before the first home game of the season; a moment of child-like joy. I now realise that it’s a guilt-free treat, it’s just what I do; I don’t worry about whether I can afford it or deserve it. It’s the process of looking forward to going into the shop, picking it off the rack, taking it to the counter, even having it handed to me in a branded carrier bag. I did it with my dad in the club shop at the Manor, now I do it on my own with my own money, but the thread to the past is still there. Buying online maybe necessary, but it seems so clinical.
Then amongst all these little moments, sometimes there’s a spark – Jamie Mackie’s last minute piledriver against Bradford or a barking mad 3-3 draw against Coventry and everything gets propelled to another level. But where is this momentum coming from now when the rewards for just keeping things ticking are diminishing?
The club have said that they expect to allow a thousand fans into the Crewe game as a test event. But, with cases rising, you can’t help think that the numbers will be controlled for some time yet. Even if stadiums can be kept open, a return to normal won’t start until cases fall again, and with nobody wanting a third wave, it’s hard to see anything along those lines until the spring.
Maybe just having some fans will help with the re-boot that this season needs, a rekindling of some kind of hope. Unless you’re winning regularly and genuinely pushing for promotion, it could be a long season slogging away in mid-table or below, and I think it’ll be much easier and quicker to become mired in that this year.
Results, it seems, is the only way of maintaining the interest and stimulating momentum. It’s still very early, but football doesn’t have the grip it usually has and live streaming will rapidly lose its novelty when results are below par. At the moment, I don’t think I’ll watch the Accrington game, or at least, I won’t put aside other things to do so. When things do return to normal, you suspect that the grip will be vice-like and people will flood back, but for now all we have is results.
The answer, of course is frustratingly simple, and the same answer to every difficult sequence. It is tempting to look back at what’s going wrong, or forward to where we want to get to, but promotion is always a byproduct of teams that continually focus on winning the next game, and that, I guess, is the answer.