Rushden & Diamonds 1 Yellows 1

Like a battered wife who escaped her oppressive husband, we’ve been smiled at by a kindly looking man in the local shop this season. His eyes gave us an insight into a future, happier, more peaceful life.

But at the same time the prospect scares us; for some reason there are assurances that come with being abused. It’s not like you can be any more scared and the betrayal is evident, not hidden. When you’re at the bottom, you can’t fall anymore; could we bear to be built up only to be let down again? That would be the worst thing of all.

Confidence that we can be successful has been building all season. It’s taken a couple of knocks along the way, we’ve long been the beaten wife, so it is not a surprise that we overreact to a blip.

Thursday’s draw with Rushden proved that things are progressing in the right direction. Not just because we’re heading back to the Kassam on par, but because there’s a buzz and intensity that the players can ride on.

In 2007, we were much more fragile and headed into the play-offs in hope, not expectation (apart from, perhaps, a misplaced belief that we had a right to promotion). Despite holding a goal lead, we couldn’t sell the place out because we couldn’t bear the prospect of being disappointed again. As a result the players, exhausted from their season, tried to drag us through to promotion. They couldn’t do it, and we failed.

This time, we’ve sold the Kassam out and there is a belief that whether we succeed or fail, that the momentum is with us. We can achieve, we can be happy. There is no pressure, because we know that if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll make it – this season, next season… who knows? If it’s possible to take the pressure away, then we’ve done it. Monday is only partly about a win; it’s also about celebrating us as a community and a club. On paper, our position is worse than it was into the second leg than we did in 2007 yet we’ve sold 2,000 tickets more. The difference is that we’re now a club at ease with who we are. We all want to be part its journey and as a result the players have a great environment in which to succeed.

We have a date with the handsome man with the kindly smile on Monday; this time he wants us to stay the night. Can we dare to believe that he’s good in bed too?

Eastbourne Borough 1 Yellows 0

“Enjoy this one, it’s the last one you’ll enjoy this season” said Jerome Sale prior to the meaningless defeat to Eastbourne. In saying this he revealed one of football’s secret conspiracies.

Some people enjoy the football’s aesthetic, but Tennis has a similar eye-catching quality. The game has some residual benefits of being out in the fresh air, and grabbing a beer or two. But so does rugby.

Sky would have you believe that football is about families gathering around the TV punching the air and patting each other on the back while maintaining big grins on their faces.

This myth means that people who hate the game believe that people who love it do so to spite them. That we go to games for some giddy hedonism and that we watch Soccer Saturday to get out of going to the shops or mowing the lawn.

We perpetuate the lie by convincing people that football is exciting. It helps us justify the illogical investment of time, effort and money. We’re rational normal human beings, but not when we go to football.

The truth is far, far different. Look around the stands of a real game and you’ll see grim faces and hollow eyes. People attend big games, because the only thing worse than being there, is not being there, waiting for sketchy news from the frontline.

A win, of course, brings its own ecstasy, but the process of football is agony. Big games, games of any meaning, are approached with a sick fear of failure.

Nobody enjoys meaningless games because they’re dull, but the idea that big games are enjoyable because of their high stakes misses the point completely. We’re football fans, good things don’t happen to people like us. Should we dare to hope? Should we prepare to despair? Should we just say ‘fuck it’ and deal with whatever is thrown at us?

Yellows 1 Wrexham 0

Tuesday night was like sending the boys off to war. Admittedly, with all the changes, it was like sending off the Catering Corps whilst the real soldiers scored big time with the local butchers’ daughter.

It’s certainly reassuring that we can more than just compete putting out a side like we did. I can’t be the only one whose mind drifted to 2007. Then we were being held together by bits of string and a dwindling ember of hope. Duffy and Burgess’ form had long deserted them, Rose and Yemi promised to threaten, but never did. Gilchrist was like a broken Action Man, Foster sidelined with a nasty leg-snap, Brevett and Johnson preoccupied with restocking on Werthers Originals and emptying their bedpans. We were a ragged unit, with only Billy Turley maintaining any form, and let’s face it, dignity.

This time around the second string can dismiss a startlingly average Wrexham side, whilst the big boys remain, despite all that’s happened, a force majeur.

Looking at it in the round, it’s been a spectacularly successful ‘regular season’, coining an increasingly popular Americanism as though we’re all having tailgate parties and supporting the Pittsburgh Steelers. Add in the likely six points from Chester, and you’re starting to look at a points-total that would have won us the title in years’ past. We have amassed, by a mile, the best points total since we’ve been in this godforsaken place.

Is it different this time? Last time the play-offs felt like we were visiting a curmudgeonly old uncle dying a slow diseased death. Compelled to visit, hating every minute, wishing to simply scream “I hate you, why don’t you just fuck off?”. This time it is different, like supporting a Colombian top flight team run by a drugs cartel; intense, exciting, but no less terrifying.

Yellows 2 Mansfield 0

In the dead of the night, Andy Burgess sits in his kitchen cupping hot milk and popping sleeping pills. His eyes, like saucers, his skin, sallow and pale.

“Curse my blessed talents” hisses Burgess as he sprays a melon from the fruit basket, out the window, and sixty yards to a cat screeching on a distant fence. “When will is ever end?”

How much does Andy Burgess hate playing football? He spends an unnatural amount of time goading Oxford, and then when he gets a chance to ram it down our throats he slouches around like a man who just wants someone to put in a leg breaker and relieve him from his prison of a professional football career. It’s not the first time either.

Any team that contains Andy Burgess, or a less effectual version of Jamie Slabber (Rob Duffy), hardly tests our credentials as play-off contenders, but the decisive win against Mansfield highlighted the winning formula we’ve been looking for.

It’s simple; control the opening stages with a set-up that accentuates power and strength, as the game progresses introduce creativity to exploit the opposition’s tiredness.

The solution is not pretty, but it’s effective. One characteristic we’ve never seemed to lose is the ability to control a game defensively. Individual mistakes have been made (Ryan Clarke against Tamworth), and we’ve lacked inventiveness, but in the main we’ve been defensively very tight – only conceding more than 1 goal on six occasions all season. Some will look at the goal count and point to that as a concern. It is, of course, we could all do with an easier ride, but the defensive record is a virtue that it frequently underplayed. We can go into the play-offs fearing nobody in this department.

We worry that we’re not scoring goals; but haven’t conceded in six hours. For me, three one-nil wins during the play-offs will do me, thanks very much.

Altrincham 0 Yellows 1; Yellows 0 Cambridge 0

Sorry, I zoned out there for a minute. Surely we can’t maintain the pretence that these games mean anything? I understand why people expect a performance every week regardless of whether we’re playing the Cup Final or a meaningless chunter away against Altrincham but sports science is fairly complicit that this simply isn’t possible.

A professional road cyclist can expect to maintain top form for around three weeks. Athletes are sacrificing world titles in order to peak for London 2012 and the concept of resting footballers is an accepted practice despite it being against all league rules.

In a regular league programme, each game counts, but now the objective is very very clear. We’re not good enough to turn our form on and off; nobody in the Conference can do that. But we shouldn’t write off our chances based on a few meaningless misplaced passes versus Cambridge.

Luton will cartwheel into the play-offs with a bewildering sequence of results. But, like our unbeaten streak at the start of the season, as it goes on it gets closer to an coming to an end. When it does, gnawing doubt sets in, why isn’t it quite flowing like it did? How do we do it when it worked? When Luton come out and don’t score six, their resolve will be truly tested. That day will come, and it’s not too far away.

The key is to peak for the play-offs, not thrash Cambridge (as cold and bloody boring as that game was). Defensively, we’re looking sound. Adam Chapman is finally coming into some form and filling the gap left by Adam Murray. Up front, we need to firmly decide who partners Constable. My vote, like many, I think, is with Jack Midson with Deering, Potter and Green best coming off the bench.

Luton will go in favourites, but sustaining their form for another three weeks gets less likely as time goes on. Rushden and York… who knows? We have three more games to fine tune, which will allow us to enter the play-offs on an upward curve, I think there’s some evidence that we will.

Yellows 1 Salisbury 0

Whilst I was panicking that a blocked nose was a sign of acute renal failure or some equally slow and painful death, a doctor once said to me a truism; that I shouldn’t worry because ‘common things are common’.

Truisms are true because they’re true. So, it is true that winning is simple, but difficult. Yesterday’s win over Salisbury, whilst lacking the technical quality of earlier in the season demonstrated the simple values of a winning team. A dominant defence prepared to take responsibility, a midfield working doggedly and an attack taking risks.

In a number of games recently we’ve tried to play with the force of our own abilities and reputation. We’ve ignored the key qualities; get these basics right and the results will come.

Here’s another one from Gordon Strachan; coaching is easy, management is hard. Coaching is to strive for perfection. Management accepts that perfection isn’t possible and finds a way around it. This ability to accept risk, absorb the pressure that comes with the uncertainty and give freedom to the players to play without fear is a role few master.

Chris Wilder’s only mistake this season is to try and mould the squad to perfection. Prior to Christmas he had a squad that were imperfect but effective. So, rather than trying to find the perfect centre back pairing or strike partnership, he should have been developing these players’ confidence to ignore their weaknesses, thus creating a sense of championship winning invincibility.

Look at Stevenage; are you telling me that a squad that contains Yemi, Tim Sills, Jon Ashton and Eddie Anaclet are perfect? No, they’ve focussed on what these players do well and worked around their weaknesses. Now any perception they have any weakness has all but evaporated and they are rocking onto the title.

The margins between success and failure are tiny; you try to improve the squad, but every time you do you risk destabilising it. Some have suggested that price of getting this wrong should be Chris Wilder’s head. If he fails to learn from the experience, then the question might be a legitimate one. But anyone who thinks that every mistake should be punished with the manager’s job is utterly barking mad.

And finally, one from Chris Hargreaves on the subject of our current position: “that’s football, it’s hard”. True that.