It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And our reaction to the disappointment of the Wembley defeat has been spot-on.
Since August I’ve been worried that we’ll end up in the play-offs, choosing to ignore those telling me not to worry, that we’ll be all right for automatic promotion. Why? Because, over the course of the season, I just don’t think we’ve been good enough. Sure, we’ve had some very impressive 20-minute spells when we’ve looked a cut above but for long periods we’ve looked pretty ordinary, lacking the quality and ruthlessness of a top two team. And the composure, defensively. But for John McLaughlin, I think we’d be resigned to the play-offs, seriously.
However, two defeats in 39 games is telling. Although we’ve shipped a few late goals, we’ve scored a few too. And although we’ve spent most of the campaign outside the top two, we’re now threatening to claim one of the key places, when it matters.
The nine-match mini-season started well. Although few of us enjoyed getting drenched, then wiped out for a few days, by the weather which prompted the abandonment of the original game at Accrington a couple of weeks before Christmas, it was a blessing in disguise. Stanley were in decent shape then and were level on merit when the conditions made the pitch totally unplayable. Only the most optimistic red and white would have backed us to get a winner inside the last 20 minutes then.
Fast forward nearly four months and they’re labouring, while we were keen to put the misery of the Checkatrade Trophy final loss behind us quickly and get back to the real stuff. If ever we needed an early goal it was in this game and thankfully Aiden McGeady got it to relieve some of the pressure. When Will Grigg got a timely second, just before the break, the mood brightened further. Lewis Morgan setting up Kazaiah Sterling for a third with 11 minutes to go, meaning we could reflect on a good night’s work.
It was only one night but it put a welcome spring in the step of everyone. This was a game which could have a real impact on which division we’re playing in in 2019-20, so for me it was our biggest test of the season, without question.
Less than 72 hours later we were in the North-West again. And despite going a goal down, we got what we deserved, another three points, Charlie Wyke trundling in the equaliser after half-time, before George Honeyman got the winner with time almost up. And all this without McGeady, Chris Maguire and Duncan Watmore. Mint.
Luton and Barnsley had toiled all afternoon so we made ground on them and although Pompey won and look like they’ve put their league wobble well and truly behind them, things remain very much in our hands.
Sure, the run-in is tricky, with Burton and Coventry capable of upsetting us at our place, before the matches against Peterborough and Portsmouth. But we’ve got three home games in a row now – and the chance to really turn the screw. It’s nice that we’ve put a bit of form together, you just know our rivals are worrying about us and those games in hand.
After the Rochdale win I pondered our rivals' run-ins, hoping goal machine Jermaine Sinclair might do us a favour before reasoning that Burton, my pre-season fancies for the title, could have a big say in who goes up, with Luton and Pompey still to go there. Considering how well they’ve done against the better teams, you have to wonder how Nigel Clough’s men have managed to under-perform for so long this season, look at some of the teams they've lost to and wince...