Christmas Day wasn’t that different for us this year. Over the years we’ve negotiated the complex web of benign family politics and norms and settled on a well-paced, relatively quiet, day which wasn’t that different to the restrictions placed upon us by being in Tier 4.
The perfect Christmas is a mashup of all your previous Christmases along with everyone else’s for the last 200 years. I still half expect to wake up to a snowy scene in a cozy log cabin, a roaring open fire, sugar canes and candles while playing computer games on my new Amiga computer, wearing my new football shirt as everyone is dressed in Victorian top hats and tailcoats singing carols.
But, this year wasn’t much different to any other, we were gradually enveloped in the constant, dry heat of our central heating, we tried in vain to enjoy a hearty breakfast, lunch and dinner, with treats in between even as our digestive systems screamed for us to leave them be. We tried to watch a big Christmas film, but ran out of time and energy.
Someone on Twitter posted a picture of some old Christmas annuals they’d been given as a present – Beano 1982, Roy of the Rovers 1985, that kind of thing. I thought it was a brilliant idea; the tradition of an annual is something I miss. Whether your present haul was good or bad, the annual was something to keep you going through the day. It’s the Simon Clist of Christmas presents, unspectacular but reliable.
I used to get Roy of the Rovers, but as I got older my parents bought me books by Spitting Image and Viz. I don’t think they knew what Viz was, but they knew I bought the monthly comic. I think they assumed its title; ‘The Big Hard One’ described the book’s production values.
There was so much to enjoy in Viz, I remember one particular strip, SWANT – Special Weapons and No Tactics featuring a group of psychotic, square jawed American special police. Each story consisted of them massively overreacting to minor domestic issues. A queue for the ice-cream van? A hijack situation which required the use of a heavily armoured vehicle full of grenades, smoke bombs and sidewinding missiles. It made me laugh out loud as they annihilated small children eating a 99 with a flake.
The day I really missed was Boxing Day. An opportunity to break out from the stupor and get some cold fresh winter air back into your lungs. Boxing Day football also gives you the chance to enjoy the glow of everyone else’s Christmas – families together sharing Quality Street chocolates, dad’s flirting with their son’s new girlfriend by insisting on buying the coffees, children excitedly wrapped up in their new merchandise. I like showing us off to friends who don’t go to games, they bring a novel excitement that you sacrifice as a regular.
Boxing Day this year was different, there was no escaping the heat, no indulging in others’ Christmas joy. Instead, I sat on the settee unwrapping another chocolate from the Celebrations tin as we raced to a two goal lead. It was bittersweet, as much as I love Boxing Day games, it’s often been underwhelming – Plymouth and Northampton ended in defeats in recent years. This could have been one for the ages, like Exeter in 2015 when we purred to a 3-0 win and my friends looked at me admiringly at my foresight of investing half my life in the club’s failures.
Maybe, had there been a big crowd, or any crowd, Wimbledon would have capitulated, but there was something familiar about how we seized up almost immediately after Matty Taylor’s goal. Despite them losing their captain to injury, being away from home and 2-0 down, they began to dominate. We allowed them a little glimpse of an opportunity to come back which they were happy to claw at. Like pulling at a thread on a cheap Christmas jumper, we quickly started to unravel.
It reminded me of the Swindon game; the bright start and the breakthrough, then something gives, we were second to each challenge, snatched at passes, chased shadows, everything seems rushed and overstretched. There was lots of admirable effort, but no control.
The main difference this time was that we had Jack Stevens in goal. There’s no denying the impact Stevens is having – he’s conceded one goal in five and was absolutely brilliant throughout. There’s no joy in saying that Simon Eastwood seems to have lost that little bit of the agility which makes the difference between a goal and a save. Stevens’ development is a huge credit to goalkeeping coach Wayne Brown, it’s got to be more than forty years since we’ve developed a goalkeeper into a genuine first team regular.
But, goalkeepers in good teams still shouldn’t be making five or six world class saves, the opposition shouldn’t be getting that far. Good ‘keepers, in good teams, rarely have much to do, but are ready when called on. It wasn’t difficult for Stevens to remain on high alert as he was in almost constant action.
Yes, we were dogged and kept a clean sheet, yes we won, yes, that’s two wins on the bounce, but it was down to sheer bloody mindedness rather than a controlled domination – Special Weapons and No Tactics. There’s a lot of talent in the team, plenty of weapons at our disposal, but really good teams control games with their shape and tempo. They have time on the ball, slow the pace if the heat on, they stifle as well as stretch teams, attacking with venom when the opposition tires of chasing shadows. We are still a long way from that, but it’s what we need to aspire to if we want to be promotion contenders.
Stage one of our recovery was recognising we have a problem. We’re now rapidly racing towards mid-season, so this is more than a post-Wembley hangover. Stage two is to stem the tide, which it looks like we’re doing. Now we’ve got to move forward; in January there’s an opportunity to address the leadership issues on the field which are undermining the team’s ability. We’ll soon enough be facing the teams we struggled against at the start of the season and who now occupy the play-off and promotion slots, if we can compete with them, then we might just pull ourselves into the reckoning.