Joyful and triumphant

Despite the perpetual moaning, we’re now unbeaten in five in the league. The most impressive result of that run came on Boxing Day and the 3-1 win over Exeter. A sweet victory at the best of times, but made sweeter still by the Christmas period.

It is natural to be nostalgic for the past. Christmas is full of nostalgia, much has nothing to do with our own person experience; Santa Claus in a red and white suit (derived from Coca Cola), snow (derived from Dickens), the timeless Victoriana which represents nobody’s life and yet is in every advert.

Football also places huge capital on tradition. As you get older, the world changes, you pine for things from the past. Everything in the past was better. The music was better, the films were better, the football was better. This is probably because the music you heard when you were a teenager was pretty much the first music you heard. Thereafter anything you hear is benchmarked against that visceral virginal feeling. It’s rarely, if ever, going to be matched.

In football, I pine for goalkeepers in green shirts wearing the shorts and socks of the rest of the team, for away fans flying their scarves out of car windows on the way to games, I don’t pine for terracing in the same way others do, but I can see why they do. Life changes and evolves, but one tradition seems to endure. Boxing day football.

Miserablist savants such as Arsene Wenger attack the tradition of playing through Christmas by calling for a winter break. But he also wants the right to field weakened teams for competitions he doesn’t value. In fact he may only be contented when the only games his team plays are Champions League finals, which presumably Arsenal will automatically qualify for. Unlike the goal line technology debate, the media haven’t jumped on the winter break bandwagon. Why would they? English teams remain successful in Europe despite their lack of rest and the national team debate is only really relevant once every couple of years. Plus, football sells really well when people are on holiday.

Sky and the Premier League actually enhances Christmas football. Scheduling was always peculiar over Christmas, so there’s no real change with the advent of Sky. It’s just that you get to see some of the games. For the last 20+ years, my Boxing Day morning has been spent hacking around the local park with a ramshackle bunch trying to shake the cobwebs. Afterwards, I ease myself into the shower and then spend a few minutes watching whatever live game is on before preparing myself to head off to the game.

Christmas day is a kind of autoerotic asphyxiation, we prepare fastidiously for it, and its discomfort and pain is the whole point. Boxing Day football becomes like opening the window after the claustrophobic suffocation of the previous day.

When we’re at home, the crowd is a decent size and there’s always a good atmosphere. The away following is normally pretty good and you can spot the families who are taking in a game just to get out of the house. There are more women around, it’s less aggressive. But that’s OK, it’s kind of nice and Christmassy. It reminds me of my own early football experiences when I’d go to The Manor with my dad when visiting my grandparents in Abingdon.

Of course, we haven’t had a Boxing Day game at home for 5 years, when Phil Trainer (PHIL TRAINER!) scored a rasping winner against Crawley. Despite the forces that schedule fixtures working against us, we’re quite good at Boxing Day football; in the last 11 years we’ve lost the game after Christmas day just once, Chris Wilder’s first game in charge (yeah, I know, Wilder out and all that).

Despite traditionally having good form over Christmas, the Boxing Day win over Exeter was still unexpected, as unexpected as it was emphatic. As a one-off performance, it was a sweet release from the jaw grinding, hand wringing of recent weeks. But, quietly, slowly, we’re building a run. Unbeaten now in 5 in the league (8 in all competitions); only Bradford and Southend have matched our form in the league and they’re both safely ensconced in the play-offs. It’s not yet showing in the league table although we’re now closer to the top points-wise, than we are to the bottom. In the main, it’s still not pretty; but there’s a doggedness from which we should continue to draw encouragement.

The quintessential bad day at the office

On Monday I tweeted a diagram I called my ‘full-time maths report’ of Saturday’s defeat to Exeter. It tried showed a normal distribution of ‘match types’ – home wins, away wins, thrashings, one-goal wins and so on. It also showed that a 4-2 defeat at home where you come back from three goals down to nearly grab an equaliser and then lose your substitute striker 10 minutes after he comes on could be classified as unusual.

So, what can you take from a game which is unlikely to be repeated for years? Not a lot, it would seem. Our current form seems to be an adjustment to our early season over-performance. At the start of the season we might easily have expected an opening day loss, but we took three points. Against Southend, you’d have been happy with a draw, but got the win. At some point those gains were likely to be clawed back. Perhaps we would have hoped for a point at York where we got none and a win on Saturday, and well, you get the point.

Damien Batt bravely came out to defend the team; he thought we were all over them. That was stretching things a little, but we weren’t outplayed. The game was a decent Exeter team including Jamie Cureton on form against a decent Oxford team without Michael Duberry and Peter Leven (and Andrew Whing, and all the others). Presumably there will be games this season where Cureton’s form and fitness won’t carry him and Exeter will stutter to defeat, meanwhile on that day somewhere else in the country we’ll see Leven unlocking the defence to create a winner. It will all even itself out.

Their first goal was a cracking strike (although we backed off), their second goal resulted from a dubious corner decision, their third scored on the break as we chased the game. At 2-3 we might have equalised through Dean Smalley with an ounce of composure. We lost James Constable to two dubious decisions. An accumulation of marginal incidents which ended with the result we got.

In football, marginal incidents tend to draw dramatic reactions. On one hand this might be some ridiculous fan phone-in rant-fest, sometimes it can result in a manager losing his job. If you’re Paolo Di Canio, you belittle your players.

I doubt we’ll see such a peculiar game next week or perhaps for the rest of the season. What we’ve learnt from it is that despite having a decent core of players, those who can give us a Cureton-style edge are not available.

Being practical about it, it is difficult to know what a lower league club can do when the players who give you an edge are injured. It’s not possible to simply throw more money at players of the quality you’ve lost – even if you can find them in the first place. The long term solution; as we know is improvements in sports science so that those injuries don’t happen. That investment has been made but we haven’t yet seen the benefits.

Perhaps the biggest impact of Saturday’s game was the dismissal of James Constable. For once he seemed back to his feisty best, perhaps buoyed by his contribution to Wednesday’s win over Swindon. Then, by being his old self he got sent off. He seems to have taken a long time to get over last year’s dramas, to suddenly, effectively, be told that his normal behaviour is outside the rules of the game is exactly the set back he doesn’t need.

Exeter 2 Us 0

I can’t be the only one who raised a rye smile – of sympathy or mirth – to the news that Kevin Keegan has gone back to Newcastle.

Flamboyant new owner and fan buys football club and brings back messianic manager for a second spell. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Mike Ashby is Nick Merry and Keegan is Jim Smith.

Like Smith, Keegan has come back to a very different club to the one he left. Expectations are without boundaries, because people have focussed only on the strengths of the man and ignored the weaknesses. The media has been voracious in its acceptance of the move – not least because of the fantastic story arc that’s available – returning messiah, return to glory days or tragic disaster, ignominious exit.

Smith had to contend with a club that had a fragile ego (where before there was none), a wage cap and a championship or bust success criteria. Newcastle are one of many rich, but not super rich, Premiership clubs; they’re working at capacity and expectation is of silverware and league titles. All different to the club Keegan left.

It’s neither Keegan nor Smith’s fault; their job is to take on a team, risk their reputation and make them successful. It’s owners that need to choose carefully and both went with their hearts more than their heads.

It gave our predictable and impotent defeat at St James’ Park on Sunday some degree of irony. 

Us 2 Exeter City 2

As sure as Rob Duffy will be called a lazy bastard, as sure as Chris Tardif will bide his time until another club comes in for him, as sure as the Debt Doctor is prescribing life without debt, Exeter came, saw, fell behind and then conquered… live on TV.

You can set your team up in two ways; the approach where you buy enough class, stick them on the field and let them express themselves. You concede a lot of goals, but you hope to score more. Real Madrid, is, of course, the classic example. But Keegan’s Newcastle did the same. In many ways, by buying in a heap of Premier League has-beens that was last season’s strategy for us; and it didn’t work.

The other way is to have a system and work on it; the way Reading and Bolton have done in recent years. It seems we’ve been set up that way this season. Perhaps it’s because there’s less class in the squad, maybe the Patterson influence means a more didactic coaching style, maybe its simply the fact that the two teams who were promoted last year were unremarkable well drilled units.

Whatever our system is, its not working. At the back we’re missing the class and calm of Willmott; Corcoran, Day and Quinn are fine individuals when it comes to Alamo style defending but as a unit they’re disjointed and easily rattled. It’s difficult to know whether Anaclet and Jeannin are holding back by accident and design.

The middle trio are dogged enough, but nobody is taking charge. Danny Rose was like a terrier last night, but was out on his feet for the last twenty minutes, Trainer is neither creative or enforcer. Why Pettefer didn’t come on to shore things up I don’t know. There’s plenty of choice up front, but we seem indecisive as to what the best option is.

The workrate can’t be faulted, but the set up and execution of the tactics is a real concern. Questions have to be asked about the Smith/Patterson combination. Sure, individually they both have so much to offer. But can they work together? If the approach is to be more regimented, it needs drilling in quicker than it currently is. The last twenty minutes last night was a debacle; what system was in place was thrown out the window in a blizzard of panic.

The table tells you different; the season is far from over, but, at the moment, we feel further away from the league than we ever have.

Us 1 Exeter 2 (aet, Exeter win 4-3 on penalties)

I was even nervous of the wind that gusted around the ground before the game. I wasn’t alone in lacking confidence; a weak rendition of ‘que sera sera’ by one gutsy fan before the game was greeted by an insistence that he hushed. Don’t tell anyone, but we don’t know how to win.

Despite these factors, I was sure we’d edge it; Exeter had to get a goal, allowing space at the back for Yemi to run into. Absorb the pressure, as we have all season, kill the game and hit them on the break. No play-off is ever won at a canter, but we were all set for a good night.

Tactically they got it just right and I don’t think we were ready. They put pressure on our back three, put lots of balls into the box at pace, bypassed our midfield and isolated Yemi. Sounds easy enough, but to do it for 90 minutes was impressive – in contrast we looked to be running on empty.

Rose and particularly Hargreaves struggled to get in the game, whilst Foster fought doggedly but alone to try and gain some control. Gilchrist and Quinn, who struggle for pace and control were tied up in knots by the constant pressure. Turley’s eccentricities got the better of him; like Gazza in the 1991 Cup Final, he was awash with mis-channelled energy. There’s no doubt he kept us in the game on a number of occasions but to maintain a constant feud with his back line seemed bizarre. At a point where he should have helping relieve some of the pressure by slowing the game down, he was stoking it up by barking at Matt Day. The finger pointing and bickering was constant. Maybe it’s the way he plays, but it didn’t work.

Then there was a moment of light – they made a flurry of substitutions and space began opening up at the back – it looked like they were panicking. That was the time to capitalise, but Duffy missed his sitter and the pattern of the game settled again.

At 2-1 I wanted to go home. I didn’t care about who won, I wasn’t particularly fearful of defeat, but even a victory would have been little more than a relief. This is why football is marketed to the neutral – because being a football fan is shit. It’s not edgy and exciting; extra time, penalties and see-saw fortunes are not entertaining. It’s like a dirty addiction – you think you love it, but when you experience it, you realise there’s nothing to love.

In the end you cannot go eight points clear at the top of the table, win the away leg of the play-off semi-final, go 2-0 in the tie, miss three sitters (Yemi and Zebroski in the first leg, Duffy in the second), lead in the penalty shoot-out and still not make it and say it was anything but your own fault.

Exeter 0 Us 1

Given our abject history against the Grecians – that was our first win in Exeter since 1981 – I would have taken a draw. It’s not over, but, despite missing a couple of sitters, we couldn’t have realistically hoped for more than we got.

The Conference talking heads rounded on us before the game – Terry Brown on the BBC website and loveable Nigel Clough on SKY both predicted an Exeter victory. We’re not part of the Conference gang and there seems to be a pathological propensity to take every opportunity to dismiss us.

It’s a particularly true cliché to say that form goes out the window at times like this. There’s ‘no better luck next time’ in cup football; attitude and raw ability come to the fore. Form has not always been with us this season, but pound for pound we’re still probably the best squad in the league. Shod of the trials of bread and butter league football, we’ve surely got to start favourites. To write us off was little short of spiteful.

We were excellent – Hargreaves, Foster and Rose battled throughout whilst the big Zebroski was a willing and working target up front. We started well, absorbed pressure early in the second half and hit them on the break late on. Though the clock ticked by at a snails pace, we rarely looked in any kind of trouble. Our fabled fitness, so often cited as key early in the season, lifted its sweaty head again. When they applied pressure, we simply absorbed it – we weren’t worn down.

Back to the Kassam, then, it seems difficult to foresee us losing it from here, especially on the evidence of our opponents tonight, but it’s also difficult to see Tuesday being a particularly comfortable night.