Each week, the website Experimental 361 publishes a table to show where teams could end up as a result of the weekend’s games. The author also calculates the probability of achieving each position, invariably the most likely scenario is no change from the previous week. Last week, before the Fleetwood game, they predicted we could reach as high as 8th from our position in 11th.
Which is exactly what happened; results didn’t so much go for us, they simply couldn’t have gone better. You could say it was the perfect weekend – we’d beaten a club we’d never beaten before, equalled a record of consecutive wins, kept a clean sheet and every other result in the division was in our favour.
The problem with perfection, is that it doesn’t get more perfect. There has to be some sort of recoil to a more imperfect state. Which is not to say you experience a complete failure, it’s inevitable you’ll regress to something more normal.
I remember when we were promoted back to the Football League; we played Bury in our first home game in the league. They seemed so savvy, we worked hard, but they picked us off as we tired. I got the same sense after our promotion to League 1 in 2016. The wins, when they came, felt like the result of an epic, but unsustainable, struggle. In both cases, the fear was that being a yo-yo club was our destiny. Sometimes we’d get away with it and be successful, other times we’d slip and drop out of the division.
That sense of imposter syndrome has fallen away, we’ve extracted ourselves from the tractor beam that was the Conference, and then disposed of the concrete boots of League 2. We’ve established ourselves in League 1, we’re still prone to the odd brief flirtation with the relegation zone, but our more normal position is the relative comfort of the upper mid-table.
I see teams like Doncaster and Rotherham as the kind of club we should aspire to be. They’re not one of the big lumbering beasts like Sunderland, Charlton or Portsmouth and they’re not artificially created like Fleetwood or MK Dons. They have the modern stadium infrastructure and their successes seem proportionate to their status.
Karl Robinson often talks about us acting like a big club, usually in the context of transfer dealings. It’s self-serving to some extent, to put pressure on the board to release funds. Whether being a ‘big club’ is quite right, I don’t know. I’m not ready to sacrifice the club to faceless billionaires who deliver dizzying levels of success at the expense of converting me from fan to customer. I was listening to the John Robins and Elis James Show on Radio Five this week and their Manchester City-supporting producer was talking about their epic play-off win against Gillingham in 1999. They’ve won ten major trophies since, including two doubles and a treble, but that moment still had the romance the other successes didn’t.
I’d rather we built a reputation, like Rotherham and Doncaster, where players can develop and success on the pitch feels earned rather than gifted. It’s definitely more enjoyable to experience the journey rather than the destination.
After the Fleetwood win, I was looking at who represent our hoodoo team now, naturally there are lots of clubs we haven’t beaten for decades because we’ve haven’t played them. In League 1, Sunderland (1994), Hull City (2003) and Crewe (2011) are the only teams we haven’t registered a win against in the last three years, and only it’s only Sunderland that we’ve played more than once in that time. We should be comfortable in this company now.
Despite yesterday’s result, we showed ourselves to be increasingly comfortable in the company of teams we aspire to be like. Robinson was absolutely right; if it wasn’t for five minutes of madness and a poor decision regarding Mide Shodipo’s penalty shout we’d have come away with something.
The Shodipo incident was particularly galling. One eagle-eyed tweeter spotted that the referee seemed to realise he’d fallen behind the play, tried to rectify it with a momentary burst of speed which managed only to put a crowd of players in his eye-line, obscuring his sight of the challenge. He couldn’t give it, because he couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see it, because he put himself in a position that ensured he couldn’t see it. It’s these imperfections which are the more normal state, which ensure you win some and lose some. I would rather that than have to endure a VAR review, which would surely have given us a penalty, but there’s something strangely enjoyable about the frustration.
We’re six points off the play-offs with games in hand over other teams. Lincoln – who are an aberration this season – Crewe and Accrington are the only clubs we might consider to be smaller than us who sit above. There was a time where my ambition for this season was to avoid relegation and look to next season when things are more normal. But, it’s changed a little, I wouldn’t turn down the play-offs or even promotion, but I would be very happy to complete the season comfortably among the bigger teams in the division; imposters no more.