As if to prove it’s possible to have one, this weekend sees the running of my favourite bike race, the Tour of Flanders in Belgium. Unlike the Tour de France, which is designed to help riders finish the race, one-day races like Flanders are the complete opposite.
It’s brutally long – 163 miles – that’s six hours of cobbled sections and sharp inclines – the roads become strewn with broken bikes, broken collar bones and broken spirits. Every so often there is what is known as ‘a section’ – a section of the race or a decisive moment which will break some of the riders’ will to race. The idea is that the race is sentient, it ‘selects’ it’s strongest competitors. It’s so brutal, the riders can only hang on and hope they might be chosen. There might be twenty riders, then a short burst of speed or steep climb on a bumpy surface can leave just a handful with the energy and spirit to keep going. What nobody knows is when the spirit will be crushed or when fate will play its hand. Eventually, as the finish line approaches, the chosen riders of the day look around and see who they have to compete with in order to actually win the race, even though most are just happy to finish.
I get the same feeling about this season; we’ve played really well and entertained throughout, but we can’t influence who is in the division and there are too many variables for us to control. Ultimately, the division itself will select who wins, we can only hope to be in the right place at the right time.
As disappointing as yesterday’s result was, it’s a privilege to be still in a race as good as this one. Look at the teams who don’t seem to have made the latest selection – Bolton, Portsmouth, Ipswich – and the teams still in the race – Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Wycombe. And that doesn’t include Rotherham, Wigan, MK Dons and Plymouth who look beyond reach, but will still influence who finally makes the play-offs.
I look at the Premier League and how it organises itself broadly along the lines of who has the most money, and the Championship which reminds me of the Conference when we were in it with relegations being decided by points deductions and financial irregularity as much as football. For me, League 1 is the best division in the country. We’re lucky to be in a country where the third tier of professional football is so utterly compelling. Those who dismiss it on the grounds of the quality of football have no idea what they’re missing.
It’s not even about promotion. Look at Peterborough – dominant in League 1 last year and anchored to the bottom of the Championship this. I like being in League 1, it’s a great place to be. I want us to go up, but not because I’m desperate to play at a higher level, but because I’m excited by the prospect of how it all might play out this season.
Will we make it? The defeat to Plymouth is a reminder that while we deserve to be fighting for the play-offs based on the whole season, we still struggle in the head-to-heads, those selective moments which will decide whether we’re good enough or not.
We’re edging closer – we’re ten points better off than we were after forty games last year. Against the top six teams in the division we already have more wins (three compared to one) and more points than last season (twelve compared to seven last year) and we still have three games to play against the top six including two at home. In normal circumstances, we’d be home and hosed but this is a division sliced in two with a huge cohort of play-off and promotion hopefuls and everyone else. We can compete in this division, but we can’t control it. Those at the top are all very similar, we’re just waiting for those selective moments to find out who will triumph.
We’re in the right group, and it’s tight and nervy, but it now looks like four teams competing for two places. Can we do it? Maybe. And that’s the joy, every game is meaningful, every marginal moment, chance or decision means something. The offside decision for the penalty was critical yesterday, but only because of what has happened in the previous 39 games and what is still to come. Karl Robinson’s philosophy is to embrace the challenge, and so should we. We can tie ourselves in knots about our bad luck, bad decisions or bad tactics. We can flagellate about not being good enough, but the world is a difficult place right now and the fact that we have a role in this epic story, one we can immerse ourselves in every weekend, is a privilege.