I recently read an article about luck in football; to be a professional footballer, you need to be lucky enough to have the physical attributes to play, you need to be spotted, to avoid injury, to have a support network to sustain your development, to maintain the mental stability to play consistently well, to play in a position which a club actually wants to fill, for a club that has the resources to sign you. And so on.
Take, for example, someone like Marcus McGuane; he was signed by Arsenal and Barcelona and on Tuesday he played against Thame United in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup. It’s the same person with the same attributes. Had a few more things gone his way in his career he might have been playing in the Champions League. Had more things gone against him, he may have been playing for Thame, or perhaps not at all.
There’s so much luck – those incalculable moments beyond your control – that when you spread it across a whole squad and consider how narrow the margins between success and failure are at the end of the season, it might feel like the outcome is largely down to fate.
In 1981 Aston Villa won the League title using fourteen players. That couldn’t have been planned or expected; in normal circumstances you would expect a few injuries and for players to lose form or focus. While those fourteen players represented the best group in the country, luck played a huge part in avoiding injuries and losses of form that sustained them throughout the season.
Naturally, you can hedge against bad luck by investing heavily in players. You certainly get luckier when you’re able to buy four quality strikers rather than one. Chelsea fans crying over their current predicament may not be able to see just how lucky they’ve been having a wealth of talent at their disposal, in the lower leagues, whole seasons can rest on a single injury.
We might reasonably think we’re running low on luck at the moment, our two marquee signings from January – Marcus Browne and Sam Baldock – are out for an indeterminate amount of time. We have other long-term injuries to Alex Gorrin, Elliott Moore and James Henry, and as of this week, we’ve had illness and Covid sweep through the squad.
None of this is new, injuries are common but this is our third Covid outbreak, with no restrictions in place nowadays, the spread of Covid is being left to chance. You might take the view that because it’s unlikely to lead to death or hospitalisations, that it doesn’t matter, but it certainly still has the capacity to hobble our promotion chances.
Each blow feels like it hits a little deeper; when we lost Jordan Thornily we still had four centre-backs. When we lost Elliott Moore, we could still field a solid defensive line-up. When we lost Ciaran Brown, we needed to turn to John Mousinho, who not only hasn’t started a match in 18 months, but was forced to play his second full game in a week.
Behind Mousinho was Simon Eastwood; another reliable lieutenant in the squad. Eastwood may not be the immediate first choice keeper anymore but he’s clearly a good club man and an example to other players. Karl Robinson recognises that, hence the new contract he signed last season. Robinson may be wowed by flair players and wingers, but he’s smart enough to know he needs a bedrock to build on.
Mousinho and Eastwood may not expect to play every week, but their level-headedness, willingness and consistency is worth its weight in gold. They don’t fly into a rage and demand a transfer when they don’t play, they don’t need three or four games to get up to speed. They never get too high or too low.
Are we lucky or unlucky? We’ve taken some deep blows this week, big enough hits to influence the outcome of the season. The performances this year deserve a good result, but we may still fall short given the fixtures to come. On the other hand, you might argue that we were lucky enough to be facing a team like Shrewsbury at a time like this. But as much as they don’t score, nor do they concede – they have the third best defence in the division despite being 18th – so to come home with all three points is still a pretty remarkable result.
Overall, with people like Mousinho and Eastwood in the squad – along with dependable regulars like Brannagan and Taylor – we have a spine of reliability. The vagaries of injuries and form are a constant challenge, but in the case of Mousinho and Eastwood, their value comes from simply being present, setting an example and being conscious that this has a value. That’s not luck, the squad is designed that way, the heart of the club is right there.