Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Top three gone?

Three games to go, and after a topsy-turvy few weeks which has polarised our inconsistency perfectly even I - the eternal optimist - is ready to accept that automatic promotion has gone.
Recently, we have brushed Rotherham aside, and battled past Northampton - two good results against rivals for a top-three place, where we looked like true candidates ... but then we have gone to Burton and started well before gifting them the points, doing the same at Port Vale after a stirring comeback.
But it was at Plymouth on Saturday where the door finally closed. As insipid a performance as we have seen all season, up there with the surrenders at Rochdale and Chesterfield and the slogfest at Dagenham for the moniker of 'worst display of the season'
However, Home Park is only one of the games we will look back on at the end of the season and say 'if only...'.
A look at the table sees Argyle, Accrington, Aldershot, York and Dagenham as five of the teams still looking over their shoulders, unable as yet to put away the directions to Braintree and Alfreton.
Since Christmas, we have played all five - Argyle, Accrington ad Dagenham away, and York and Aldershot at home, and picked up three points from 15. These are the 'if only' games.
Yes, I know if we win our last three games, we could still sneak in, but are there many out there who can see our Jekyll and Hyde side beating champions-elect Gillingham, a maverick Exeter who seem to have the deckchairs out already and a resurgent Bradford team who seem to be this season's Crewe? I don't think so.
I hate being negative about our chances. It is not in my mindset, and I would love to be sat here on April 28, extremely hung over eulogising about our season and hailing Yatesy and the players as heroes.
I know teams around us still have to play each other - but looking back at it we should not be in the position where we are relying on others for handouts.
I just can't see it - and, let's face it, does a frustratingly and at times ridiculously inconsistent team like we have really deserve that ultimate accolade of a top-three finish.
We have done half the job. An 18-match unbeaten home record is fantastic and has not got the credit it deserves, mainly because on the flip side our form away from home has been so dreadful.
Our home record is the third best in the division - away from home we sit 16th. On the road we have the same number of points (23) as the bottom two, York and Aldershot.
The first six away games brought three wins and three draws - since then, we have won two away games (Northampton and Southend) since October - in that time taking 11 points from a possible 48 on the road - won two, drawn five, lost nine.
I am not going to go into the whys and wherefores, wondering if it is all down to the manager's tactics and team selections, player mindsets, or blaming overnight stays, players missing team buses or whatever - but that is where the automatic promotion bus has been missed.
Our home record is better than last season's at the same point (13-6-2 compared to 11-5-5) but away from home we had a record of 9-3-9 at this point, compared to 5-8-9.
The overall points tally is the same - we also had 68 points at this time last season, but from one fewer game, and we are one place better off in the table this time around.
Is it a poorer league this season? Maybe, but I think it is a more even league. That is borne out by the scrap at the bottom, where the usual first target of 50 points for survival may not even be enough this time around.
Aldershot are bottom on 45, and Dagenham, who have 51, cannot yet consider themselves truly safe from the drop.
Going back through the teams I have seen, I cannot say there has been one or two really poor sides. Practically all of the sides we have played have been tough nuts to crack, or have played well against us, at least in patches of the game.
Wycombe in the two games we played them were probably the worst side, yet they sit happily in mid-table not going up or down.
It really has been a curate's egg of a season. From one week to the next, we have not known what we are going to get from our team - and even during matches a good start has turned into a dismal finish or vice versa.
The same side which battled its way to beat Northampton then surrendered meekly at Plymouth; a team which could have been four down at Vale then hit back to lead before giving it all away again. Is it any wonder fans and managers lose their rag sometimes...?
Overall is not automatic promotion credentials and is why we are looking at the play-off lottery once again as our salvation, unless we can win the last three...
One more win should be enough to cement us in that top seven. Of those outside the zone, Chesterfield and Exeter can get 72 points, Fleetwood and Southend 69, with us on 68, but if we get to 71 that should be that.
It goes without saying that Saturday would be the sweetest time to get that sorted. Yes, they are going to win the league and everyone's favourite former manager will win some silverware but it would be nice to end their long unbeaten away run.
I am not going back over why the Gillingham manager is not my cup of tea (I did that HERE) and I am sure our Radio Glos effects mic will be busy on Saturday but in all the willingness to give him some much deserved flak, I hope people remember our players need backing to win an important game.
We will need to go into the play-offs (if that's where we end up) with some momentum, and a win over the champions-elect would be a good way to start.