Because I’m vindictive I listened to the Swindon Town podcast Loathed Strangers after our win on Tuesday. They liked one of my post-match tweets, which made me think that they were probably self-deprecating enough to be a decent listen. At least, for one week.
It’s fair to say, they took the defeat badly. Not necessarily because of the result; they lost by a goal and missed a penalty, but because of what it stood for. I hadn’t realised what a mess they’re in; their goalscorer Taylor Curran appears to only be playing because his dad is paying the wages, Tommy Wright, their assistant manager, has been convicted bribery and had a huge meltdown in their post-match interview, John Sheridan refused to be interviewed, the local newspaper say they’ve been banned from asking questions at press conferences, something the club deny. Two substitutes were pulled apart in their game preceding ours. There’s a bizarre case of who owns the club and whether it was accidentally sold to the wrong person – Gareth Barry no less – breaking FA rules in the process. On Tuesday, John Sheridan substituted both centre-backs, including the team captain, and replaced them with inexperienced replacements, yesterday he made a quintuplet substitution against Gillingham, almost as if he was deliberately sabotaging their chances.
I almost feel sorry for them. Any one of those would have been a bit of a laugh, but the combination just makes the situation a bit sad. It was definitely more fun beating Paolo DiCanio’s Swindon with half a team after they’d been on a long unbeaten run than this shadow of their former selves.
Most of this was known before the game, but the result drew it all into sharp relief. The recording was punctuated with loud groans and strains of frustration, as if they’d run out of words to describe how they’re feeling.
It helps me to realise that we too over-interpreted the actual result. That’s only natural, it’s a rivalry and the objective is to win to prove, whatever it is these things are supposed to prove. But, in terms of two football teams, anything other than a win against such a poor team would have been a disappointment.
The game against Hull City was always going to be a better measure of where we are. We’re now one win in seven, albeit off a streak of one loss in eleven, of which the other ten were wins. With streaks like that, it’s difficult to say whether we’re really good with some periods of bad luck, really bad with some periods of good luck or just inconsistent.
When the season ended early last year, the points per game calculation illustrated just how narrow a margin there is between success and failure. Peterborough missed out on a play-off place by 0.02 of a point per game. Even the difference between us and Hull City – between first and ninth – is 0.37 points per game, a third of a draw, if that can be a conceivable thing. The point being, the margins on any given day remain small, you have to play a lot of football to meaningfully separate out the good teams from the bad.
It showed against Hull, we didn’t play badly, we had a couple of chances early on and tired in the second-half, they had a little bit more quality and were able to maintain it for longer. They edged both halves, which the score reflected. The margin was not huge over ninety minutes and on other days we might have drawn or even snatched a win, but it’s obvious if we played them every week for a season, the difference would have been significant.
We are, it’s reasonable to say, exactly where we deserve to be; a slightly above average League 1 team. We have the ability to beat the teams above us on any given day, but we need a few things to go our way in terms of injuries, form, conditions and so on. To make it beyond where we are across a whole season, we need a lot to go our way – for example, an early ending of the season off the back of a five game winning streak.
It’s difficult to have many complaints, look at the table, and it’s difficult to see who we would expect to be ahead of. Lincoln City is the exception, they are having one of those seasons where a combination of good management and a bit of luck is seeing them riding high, for now. They seem to be wobbling, I can see them falling at the play-offs and then next season, being mid-table. Other than that, the teams above us are all clubs we’d aspire to be like.
Finding that extra something will be a challenge – in the next couple of years we could see quite a financial reckoning hit clubs, providing a gap for us to exploit. It’s a bit cynical to say that the pandemic could work our way but that’s what happened in the 1980s – lots of the bigger teams were hit with financial problems off the back of some deep recessions which meant they couldn’t maintain the gap they once had, we had a steady investment, creating an environment which allowed us, Luton and Wimbledon to all thrive. You might see something similar in the next few years. Probably not at Premier League level as it was back then, but certainly in the Championship there are quite a few teams ready to implode giving better run clubs a chance.
But, if that doesn’t materialise, then we will either need to invest even more or sustain our position in the hope we’ll eventually hit a purple patch. Overall, I think we are making gradual progress, which is the main thing, we seem more comfortable playing teams like Hull, even if we aren’t beating them, and we appear more at home at the top end of the table whereas in the past it felt like we were breaking our backs just to sustain our position. There may still be some life in the season for us, but if we do end up where we currently are, I’d be quite content. At least we’re not going through what Swindon are.