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.

Hayes and Yeading 2 Yellows 1

It’s August and Oxford United head out for their annual ‘well-season’ health check-up on Harley Street.

“Ah, come on in Mr…” the doctor pauses as he riffles through a pile of records “United, so good to see you again, how are you?”

“Good” says Oxford United “Better than I have been for a number of years in fact.”

“Hmm” says the doctor barely listening “I see you’ve had a few problems in past seasons, but you’ve been following our advice, I trust. Well, let’s see how you’re getting on. Go behind the screen and whip your trousers off.”

Following much rummaging, poking and coughing, Oxford United emerges from behind the screen buttoning his shirt up.

“So, how’s it looking doctor?”

“Hmm, not too bad” said the doctor looking over his half moon glasses “Your Stevenage and Luton look OK given your past. Your Wimbledon looks OK, Crawley, Ebbsfleet… good, very good.”

“There is on thing” he continued after a pause “Your Hayes and Yeading is a bit off colour. Has it always looked like this?”

“Well, yes.” said United a little perturbed “I’m sure it has” The truth is he never really checked it. It didn’t look terribly important.

“OK, well it’s probably nothing. Keep an eye on it. If it becomes painful or changes shape, come straight back in”

Several months pass, Oxford United’s Hayes and Yeading starts to itch, go a bit hard, change shape. Oxford United ignores all this; everything else is fine, life is generally good.

Eventually United returns to the doctor.

“Well Doc, I’m feeling really good, but I thought you ought to have a look at this” he says revealing his Hayes and Yeading.

“EE GADS!” says the Doctor, forgetting his bedside manner for a moment.

Startled, United asks the doctor to explain.

“Well, that’s a text book example of Minnows Stabuinthearse. It’s a common complaint, basically it’s a very small part of your body, you probably don’t even know it exists when you look at it in August. But you need to look after it as you would your Stevenage or Luton. If you don’t, there can be complications…”

“And what does it mean Doctor?” Said United

The Doctor looked United in the eyes and spoke.

“Oh, you’ll be dead within by April.” He said.

Stevenage 1 Yellows 0

I’ll let you into a secret. I didn’t think we’d win the title. I wanted us to; for a while I believed we would. But the team I thought would win the title was… Stevenage. Last year I thought it’d be Burton, the year before that Aldershot. I would say ‘I told you so’ except, of course, I didn’t.

The Conference isn’t so much won as built up to. The league is made up of a handful of basket cases (Chester, Grays) who bring the whole show into farcical disrepute. A vast majority of the league is made up of hard working, well organised defensive units that can’t score. This leaves a bunch of clubs who are well organised defensive units with a striker – these will typically occupy the play-off spots.

This leaves just two clubs. There’s The Club. The Club are the team that came down and expect to bounce straight back through the sheer force of their personality. Us, Luton, Torquay, Wrexham perhaps. They come in and suddenly realise that the league is full of hard working defensive units that will take more than a Jedi mind-trick to break down. Distraught at being relegated, they suddenly expect all their troubles to melt away as they walk away with the title. Then they find out that they actually have to play and suddenly all their insecurities are revealed.

And finally there’s the team that wins the title. As Fred Westley said prior to yesterday’s game; their success reflects three or four years of hard work. It’s this stability, plus a hard working defensive unit, plus a striker, that will win you the title. Such is the fragility of the Conference, the challenge of maintaining stability for a couple of years is something only one club a season seems capable of.

We’re just 15 months from our last fallow period; we probably have another 6 months before we can realistically sustain a title bid. I thought for a while we bucked the trend, but the science caught us up eventually. The trick now is to avoid the temptation of slinging the year’s good work out the window. Build, build, build; that’s got to be the mantra.

Of course, where the science is thrown out of the window is during the play-offs. If we can shake the feeling of failure, it may suit us better. You don’t need to sustain the stability for months and we should go into any head-to-head confident that we can be successful. People shouldn’t be writing the season off just yet.

Of course, if we do make it to Wembley, it’s going to be against Luton isn’t it? And what a game that’ll be.

Yellows 2 Gateshead 1

When we eventually find out that the Premier League is, in fact, completely staged for the purposes of TV we will feel a little like we felt for most of today. We won’t be so much surprised but relieved and betrayed. Betrayed by the time and effort we’ve invested in it, but relieved that the hyperbolic and bullshit is, in fact, the product of scriptwriters not normal human behaviour operating in the real world.

For much of today’s win over Gateshead we seemed to be going through our paces; dominating, taking the lead, inevitably conceding in ‘controversial’ circumstances. Once that happened I think most people were envisaging that we’d trudge off to find that Stevenage and Luton had both had thumping wins ruling us out of the title race completely. Inevitable, as nothing good ever happens to us. Even James Constable admitted that he’d spent the last 10 minutes wondering what would be said in the changing room after the final whistle.

It was like we’d all conceded that the curse was in place and that, in some way, it was a relief to finally succumb to it. We thought we’d learnt the lessons of three years ago; strengthen when you can, don’t underestimate the opposition, don’t rely on ‘league quality’. We taken all the right actions and yet still we’re going to get pushed out of it. There was an acceptance that the conspiracy was complete and that it didn’t really matter what we did, we’d forever fall short.

Few seem convinced that Matt Green’s last minute winner was the turning point, but it’s nice that the Stevenage game still means something. And, if we can pull it out of the bag, then yes, suddenly the machine might splutter into life propelling us forward.

And this is how we go into Tuesday; unlike previous must-wins, there’s little anxiety of defeat, more a gentle hope of success. This could work in our favour. Or is that being too hopeful?

Tamworth 0 Yellows 0

One of the frustrating things about the current run is that it’s very difficult to pin point what’s going wrong. You can speculate about the changes of personnel or the supposed curse that says we’re destined to throw this away, but it’s not like we’re playing badly per se, we’re just not getting the results.

Perhaps it’s better to look at the season in a different way. The reason that the championship is awarded at the end of the season is because only then, when everyone has played everyone else, do you get the true picture of who is the best team. The league table at any other point in the season, is merely a distraction.

Look at the current ‘bad’ run: Hayes was the absolute shitter, undeniably bad; but then every team would expect one shitter a season. Manchester United lost to Burnley this year, Chelsea to Wigan that’s been their shitter. We shouldn’t be surprised to have one ourselves.

You’d expect to get the occasional away draw against dogged, unspectacular teams like Cambridge and Tamworth. You might, at some point in the season, also expect a team chasing the play-offs to escape the Kassam with a point, as Kettering did.

It just so happens that these games were drawn to be played together. Had they been scattered throughout the rest of the season, we wouldn’t be looking for reasons that it’s gone horribly wrong. We’d be here now knowing we were in a title fight.

Form and luck barely plays a part in the outcome of a season. When all the games have been played, the good teams are always at the top and the bad teams at the bottom. For every Luton disaster, there’s a Miracle of Crawley, for the points dropped against Kettering, there are points gained against York. If you’re a team that’s going to lose 5 games in a season, that’s what you’ll do – you may lose all five in a row, or one every six weeks, but in the end it’s your class will determine where you end up.

Looking forward, we can’t be shocked if we drop points against Rushden and Stevenage away, but we’d expect to beat Gateshead. After this, we have six games all of which look winnable whilst Stevenage have Luton, Wimbledon, Kidderminster and York, games where you might expect them to drop points. They may be building a reasonable lead at the moment, but, unlike us they haven’t played all the nasties.

Anyone who thought we’d be walking it by now was being naïve. A vast majority of league titles are won in the last couple of games a season, why shouldn’t we expect it to be the same here?