The clocks have gone back and we’re top of the league. It feels a bit weird, is that because it is weird, or because this is all a bit alien to us?
What do you do when we’re top of the league? Habitually look at table on the BBC website just to check you’re still there? This is a peccadillo of the occasionally successful. I doubt fans of the permanently successful do the same.
I can’t be certain – insomuch that I’m not planning on spoiling this blog with any fastidious research – but you’ve probably got to go back to the Ian Atkins-era to recall the last a time we were top of a Football League division outside the opening scuffles of August and September. Topping the league before the clocks go back, we know, is just a moment of transient pleasure. It’s nice and fun, but it means nothing.
But now we’re getting into the meat of the season and we’re still up there, right on the top, in fact. Pre-Atkins, I’m not sure we’ve topped the table in the meat of the season since the mid-80s.
Yes, there were two Conference seasons where we lead the pack, but in a sense that was what we were supposed to do. We were the big team in the division; if you sorted us by crowd size, playing budget, history or almost any other measure we’d still have been top. So although we didn’t stay there, it did feel like, within that company, we were merely fulfilling our destiny.
This is probably why it feels so weird. We’re back amongst our peers, we’re biggish but not the biggest – amongst a batch of teams that should on paper be doing well. But the truth is that we never lead the pack when we’re amongst our peers. We’re just not used to it.
And this is where the doubts creep in. I don’t know whether this is normal or not, so I don’t know how to react.
Saturday’s win saw us take our total points away from home to 17. This is freakish away form; but is it so freakish that by the phenomena of ‘regressing to the mean’ our form will inevitably, and soon, return to something more normal?
The reality is that titles are typically built on your home form. The hackneyed concept of a ‘fortress’ – pretty ironic for us given the gaping open end of the Kassam – a stadium that could be breached by a couple of water bombs.
Are we just kidding ourselves thinking that we’ve cracked it? You just don’t go a whole season unbeaten away from home; we will lose at some point. Maybe we’ve even accumulated all our away points for the season; just in the opening 7 away games of the season?
At home, obviously, we’re no more than average, and this form is similarly freakish. Perhaps that will return to some kind of norm; although with the deep winter coming, god only knows what ‘norm’ actually is. Maybe our current form is normal.
The point is, is this what good feels like; because it feels really hard. It’s only October and I can’t imagine this title race slogging away for another 7 months with us just staying ahead of the pack.
Are we really the best team in this division? Somehow it doesn’t feel like it. Don’t get me wrong; I think we’re a decent side, but title winning teams feel like they sweep all before them. For them it all seems so easy, confidence oozes through the team and the fans. Away we seem to have a bit of that – once we’d gone ahead against Wimbledon on Saturday, I had little doubt we were going to take all three points – but not at home. Home games for title winning sides look like a year long party.
But, of course, that’s an outsiders view. I’ve only seen title-winning teams from the outside. Perhaps others look at us similarly aghast at our imperiousness. It’s been a long time since I was on the inside, and increasingly, our fans are made up of people who have never been in that situation. Perhaps that’s a good thing, the naivety of youth and a sense of endless optimism, or the naivety of youth being all instinctive and reactive?
This is what I remember of our title winning seasons in the mid-eighties. We were like the Harlem Globetrotters. Different teams would turn up and get roundly thrashed. It took me years to realise that defending was difficult because for the best part of two years neither Malcolm Shotton nor Gary Briggs failed to win an aerial header. I thought that the patterns of the game were set; the opposition would huff and puff and we would swamp them down the flanks getting balls into the box and scoring hatfuls of goals. I genuinely thought that no team ever lost at home because we were that good.
Has that changed? Is it that League 2 is not about being the best, but being the least bad? A few weeks ago I was casually predicting that Chesterfield were going to glide imperiously to the title. They were talking about going through the season unbeaten. Now they haven’t won in six. Since we beat what looked like a wretched Hartlepool team, they’ve won four of their last five and sit in mid-table.
But its rather like when you see Premier League players in real life; what looks so easy on TV is revealed to be the result of hard work. Even those who look like lightweights who’d crumple under the pressure of a clogging League 2 centre-back are tougher, stronger and more hardworking. The reality of success is that it isn’t easy. Perhaps I’m now better positioned to see that football is difficult.
I’m not sure I can handle it. Every week from now until May is going to be a battle. Both mentally and physically. And what’s more we need to win a majority of those battles. That’s a lot of work for a long time. Instinctively I am going to be waiting for the wobble, which will surely come. Every under hit pass will be suddenly stacked with significance; the bursting of a bubble.
I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one thinking like this. Which is why it’s imperative that the fans suppress their natural urges. It is only normal that in an unfamiliar situation we feel panicky and uncomfortable. But that’s not necessarily because we’re about to fail, it’s more that we’ve never been here before.