After the Gillingham game I created a spreadsheet in an attempt to calculate our chances of making the play-offs this season. I do this quite often around this time of year as a way of managing my anxiety and reassuring myself that things are going to be OK.
I’d predicted that we would beat Wimbledon but that Portsmouth would defeat Swindon, Ipswich would see off Northampton and Charlton would draw to Plymouth. I was wrong on all counts.
The game against Wimbledon was played against a curious backdrop with the spectacular implosion of the European Super League. It felt like a ruling family being systematically executed in a military coup as each club announced their departure from the project. Meanwhile we carried on like the string quartet playing on the deck of the Titanic as it sank.
A lot has been said about the European Super League, about its unfairness, the greed and the impact it will have on other clubs. What was never mentioned was how stultifying boring it would be; I can’t conceive how it would offer anything better than what’s on offer now. Even now prestige Champions League games between the top clubs barely raises a ripple of interest in me due to the general over-saturation of the game. I don’t know why it would be better if it were guaranteed to happen every single year. Has nobody heard that scarcity increases value?
Perhaps outside Europe, where there is less appreciation of the perils of promotion and relegation, the proposal seems plausible. Perhaps that highlights that it’s not just about more meaningful games; the ESL would likely become a touring circus travelling to where the demand was. The multi-billion-pound fantasy of playing matches in front of 90,000 Chinese or Qatari half-interested fans would come a big step closer. That said, even fans who did engage with it would surely eventually realise that football’s value is not in the quality of the passing shooting and tackling but in the perverse joy of uncertainty and instability.
My spreadsheet, which despite my inherent bias doesn’t see us achieving a play-off spot, is a case in point; four predictions, all incorrect. Proof that you cannot predict what will happen next in League 1 with any certainty. And, as frustrating the result was, that’s not something I’d want to give up.
The performance itself was full of energy and attacking intent and we looked largely in control for long periods. A lot of this is down to James Henry’s return from injury; he alone appears to be the difference between us achieving the play-offs and not.
Having got our noses in front, we looked pretty comfortable and even had a bit of swagger as shown by Cameron Brannigan’s audacious free kick from inside our half. But, that rich vein of confidence wasn’t likely to last forever.
Then came the moment that changed it all. The penalty incident was a quadruple whammy; not only did we concede a penalty, a goal and go down to 10 men, Henry’s dismissal rules him out for the rest of the season. It surely puts paid to any play-off ambitions. It’s these moments, where seasons pivot and uncertainty strikes, that make football such a compelling watch. Those involved in the European Super League wanted to remove that uncertainty to protect their investments. But that’s like wanting to have wild sensible sex; it’s one or the other, you can’t have both.
Once the penalty had been converted and Henry had been cosigned to the dressing room, we reverted quite quickly to the team that have we’ve been in long stretches this year; full of energy, full of endeavour, full of effort but lacking in structure, calmness and a clear head. If we do want to progress, we can’t be just rely on Henry to provide that.
According to my spreadsheet, if you’re interested, Charlton seem the most likely team to make the play offs now, but it’s far from certain given their run-in compared to others. It’s very likely there’ll be more twists and turns before the season is out and while it seems unlikely that we will be the victors it will come down to who can time their run of form the best, which implies a degree of control over your performance, which nobody truly has.
In the context of the evening where the biggest clubs in Europe became the humblest, to watch a game which went from expectation to elation to despair and frustration in just 90 minutes was a timely reminder of why football is such a great game. Although the season could be over and the result is disappointing, I find myself enjoying being part of such a fluid and unpredictable world.