And so it came to this; we needed an improbable set of results to sneak into the play-offs. But, Portsmouth; thirteen points ahead of us at Christmas, just needed a win at home to Accrington and ours would be a lost cause.
They’ll do it, though, won’t they? For all the farago surrounding the last game of the season, good teams tend to deliver. For all the sharp cuts on Sky’s screaming trailers, the reality is not that dramatic; good teams find a way to secure the points they need and move on, the fake news drama is long forgotten as they head to the play-offs and us to the beach.
For us, the rambunctious interlopers, second bottom at the end of October, we would finally find our level; not amongst the contenders but with the bystanders. We would commend ourselves on our bravery while quietly filing the season away in a bin marked ‘forgotten’. That’s how it works, doesn’t it?
Last year, our journey to the play-offs felt like threading a needle through an increasingly narrow eye. The pre-pandemic run, Josh Ruffels’ decisive last minute winner at Shrewsbury, the debate about the future of the season, the intricacies of points-per-game calculations, play-offs ties that felt like having your teeth filed, a cavernous soulless Wembley and a dispiriting defeat to bring it all to an end. An ever narrowing, treacherous and doomed path to nowhere.
But this felt different, a crazy run had got us to this point; goals flying in, comeback wins, returning from the dead with a last minute double from our homegrown full-back and spirit animal. Insanity and never not fun.
This time we were here to crash the party; to stumble through the door, get off with your mum and commandeer the stereo. But, it would end, eventually, surely someone would kick us back out onto the street.
A few weeks ago, Karl Robinson talked of taking the handbrake off; living in the moment, just seeing what happens, what did we have to lose? We’d survived a coach being disabled by disinfectant, opponents turning up with an outbreak of covid in their ranks, postponements, a stadium fire, countless makeshift changing rooms fashioned out of burger bars and hospitality suites, we’d revived ourselves after a grim derby defeat. We weren’t ‘in it’, but we also weren’t ‘out of it’.
By contrast, at Portsmouth there was expectation, pressure and minimum requirements to make the play-offs. They’d been buckling, for sure, but they still had enough in the tank, didn’t they?
There’s hope and there’s logic, and that wasn’t in our favour. We stepped onto the pitch free of pressure, free from logic; just play the next game. We were magnificent, swashbuckling, brave, playing with light in our heart; nobody expects us to make it, so why not just enjoy it?
If we were nervous, it didn’t show; the early goal scythed through Burton’s defence for Mide Shodipo to nod home. Burton looked club footed by comparison; they’ve hauled themselves to safety which is a triumph in itself, but there wasn’t much left to give apart from the heavy artillery of their long throws into the box, which were easily mopped up.
News filtered through of an Accrington goal; how were Pompey feeling now? A black cloud darkening their mood? Consumed by their own failings? Helplessly watching the sands of fate drain between their fingers? Every Accrington win at this level is a triumph against the odds, they’re not going to let an opportunity pass when it’s presented to them.
Tired, calamitous Burton defending allowed Matty Taylor to head home the second; the scoreboard marked up another goal, but the real impact was on the south coast. We looked so light on our feet while they looked dead on theirs. We were breaking their spirit and resolve, how after all this time, and all that’s happened, were we so full of energy?
When Elliot Lee’s ridiculous daisy cutting free-kick squirmed under the wall and through the goalkeepers hands it was confirmed; we were home and hosed and destiny would pass over to Fratton Park to decide our future. They toiled, broken by their own expectation, blinded by our light, bamboozled that we’re enjoying this. This is the sharp end of the season, the pressure is supposed to be too much to bear.
For us, though, there is no expectation; we just have more to gain. The handbrake is off, the consequences of failure minimal. We’ve survived a pandemic, we’re still in with a chance of the play-offs despite everything, whatever happens now is a bonus. We’re better like this; playing on adrenaline, luck and emotion. The tortuous intricacies of last year have been shed, we’re playing with a freedom that those around us have long since lost, swimming in a deep well of their own doubt.
As injury time came, a long ball from Jack Stevens dropped to Sam Winnall 25 yards out, why not have a lash? The manual says keep the ball, but that’s not fun and that’s not us. What’s the worst that can happen? The strike was sweet and true, playful and mischievous, now that is us.
Radio Oxford passed through to Radio Solent for the final moments of the game at Fratton Park, the mood was bleak, the commentators knew it was long since over. Not good enough, overwhelmed by their own shortcomings, their squandered chances, and a history that hangs around their neck like a noose.
We haven’t threaded our way into the play-offs, we’ve crashed into them; we’re not expecting to play Championship football next season, but it would be fun to try it. We come without the baggage of expectation, without a legacy of opportunities squandered, without that sense that even if we did succeed, we’d still be below our natural level. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The fans will return, the air will be fresh, we are fortified by what we’ve achieved, we enter the next stage as rascals and outsiders, playing with a smile, not dwelling on what we’ve lost but revelling in what we’ve achieved, you never know, that could be enough.