There’s a point in a bike race known as ‘the selection’; it’s usually towards the end at a short, sharp incline. It’s a notional point where the route ‘selects’ those that are in the reckoning for the win and those who have run out of energy. A good bike rider will time a burst of energy at the point of selection to break the link between the contenders and everyone else.
Something similar happens around this point of the football season. Last season, when there were discussions about the accuracy of a points-per-game calculation, I calculated that by this stage it was very likely that the selection had been made and those at the top would stay there.
There’s usually a game in the season where our fallibility is conclusively tested. Last season we were strongarmed by Rotherham United, which showed to me that we weren’t ready for automatic promotion. In the past we’ve faced Sheffield United, Northampton Town, Bolton Wanderers and found that, as good as we were, we weren’t good enough. We were deselected.
I was expecting the same from last night’s game against Peterborough United. But, where in previous selective games, I’ve gone in hoping for the win, last night I was fully expecting a defeat. It’s an interesting psychological shift; when I go to games, no matter who the opponents are, my working emotional precept is that we’ll win, it’s what gets me off the settee and into my car. Now we’re stuck at home, the assessment is more rational, perhaps more realistic, but much less fun.
The game itself reminded me of our League Cup successes last year. Caution doesn’t come naturally to Karl Robinson or his teams, but playing better sides forces us to be more conservative. It suits us well; we were less in a rush to get on the front foot, more comfortable moving the ball around the back-line probing for an opportunity.
Whereas we struggled to calculate the moments when we could pounce, it was a much improved all-round performance. Against MK Dons, the decision to attack was much simpler; we did it at every opportunity, against Peterborough we needed to pick our moments, but that relies on having thinkers on the pitch. Unfortunately, the likes of James Henry and Liam Kelly aren’t in the starting line-up.
That said, where in past selective games there’s been a sense that we’ve been brave but ultimately humbled, last night I felt the gap was much narrower and we competed more as equals. Rob Atkinson has looked very comfortable all season, but was tested in a way that he hasn’t been before. He came through with flying colours. I can’t remember us ever having a young and exciting back five before. We still need more depth in defence, but we’ve probably still got another season before Atkinson, Moore and Stevens will properly enter anyone’s radar, it’s good to know there should be more to come from them all.
The challenge, it seems, is not so much other teams as ourselves. We have the ability to compete with anyone in the league but we have to cope with the style of play that Karl Robinson promotes, which burns through players with injury and fatigue.
The injuries to Sam Long, Marcus McGuane, Sam Winnall and Elliot Lee leave us struggling for numbers. On top of this, a quick calculation shows that Dan Agyei, Sam Long, Elliott Moore and Matty Taylor are all playing more frequently than they did last season. Taylor is averaging one day less between each game this year; that doesn’t sound a lot until you think that’s over a month less recovery time over a season which is already compressed.
The inconsistency in results isn’t limited to us though; Lincoln, Portsmouth and Doncaster are all suffering wobbles having topped the table recently. We may be seeing a selection in terms of the automatic positions; Peterborough remind me of an old boss I once had who I couldn’t stand, but tended to make the right decisions. Everything about The Posh is odious, but they are worthy promotion candidates and have been building to this for a while. Their success is no fluke, which you have to admire, albeit grudgingly. Hull City also should have enough to get them over the line, if they can keep their heads. It remains to be seen whether Michael Appleton can kickstart Lincoln again, but I can see them fading.
As for the rest of the table, outside the top two, five of the next eight, six including us have won once in the last five. Although the distance between us and the play-offs is creeping up again, there may still be another selection before the final places are decided. In all honesty, I think we have no more than an outside chance of making the cut, but last night offered both short and long-term hope.