Time for a little recap. 10 games in and in the top six – don’t think too many of us wouldn’t have taken that if we’d been offered it a couple of months ago?
And yet it’s not unfair to say we’ve not really convinced this season. Of course, we’ve long since cottoned on to the fact we can’t just turn up and blow teams away. We haven’t been capable of it for a long time anyway, so what’s the point in hoping we will? No, we’re a realistic bunch now, and if there’s one thing we can learn from Wycombe, it’s that grinding and scrapping is a key component of getting out of this league. Thankfully we appear to have the knack, with Gillingham last weekend the latest example.
Before that, there were the home wins over Peterborough and Ipswich. I can’t be the only one to have thought that, with 30k of us baying for the ref to get his card out/give us a penner, he’d have ignored us. And yet, with only a handful of people telling him how to do his job, he gave the decisions our way. As a result, with time running out, the cool spot-kick shenanigans of Grant Leadbitter enabled us to take three points off two of our chief promotion rivals. As for the Andre Dozzell sending off, well I'd be spewing if it had gone against us. It doesn’t get much to set Paul Lambert off, and his post-match reaction was as predictable as it was funny, to red and whites.
Teams who have a good relationship with silverware find a way to win. For far too long, whether good or bad, we’ve not been able to. So that’s certainly encouraging. As Leadbitter himself pointed out, two points a game isn’t a bad average and usually makes for a happy ending.
Division One already has an ‘us and them’ look about it. Lose one of your first 10 games and you’d expect to be a feature of the automatic promotion places – and yet we’ve been playing catch-up from the moment we went behind to Bristol Rovers. That’s due to the fact that, chiefly, the teams you’d fancy to be challenging at the top are doing their bit and not slipping up, at least until they come up against each other.
It can be argued that our start was tricky. But if you drop points the points we have, you need to beat the big boys just to get back on track.
What about the rest? Well, to me Peterborough already have the look of champions, chiefly because they’ve got the ability to blow teams away even when they give away a silly one, or two. They’ve got goals through the team, seems like only the keeper hasn’t scored yet.
Charlton have clicked as you’d expect them to under a manager who consistently gets the best out of what he’s got (our point down there looks a good one) and Portsmouth are getting there, with Marcus Harness continuing to look a very good player at this level and a shrewd bit of business. Their home form isn’t what it usually is though and suggests they like empty stands less than our players do.
As for the others, George Honeyman’s doing all he can to make sure Hull shouldn’t be too far away, but I expect Lincoln to drop off, and maybe Fleetwood and Doncaster to threaten. And then there’s Wigan, who were in prime form in the Championship a few months ago but are really paying for the off-the-field crap and losing some canny players. At least we should be grateful that when we dropped to this level the plummet stopped. It’s still going, for them.
Many fans of other clubs still seem to think we’re the ones to watch and fear though, even if we’re not so sure. Seems they’ve got a lot more faith in Phil Parkinson than we have. My analysis these days pretty much starts and finishes with the astute “give the ball to Gooch if it’s moving and Maguire if it isn’t, and don’t let it go anywhere near Lee Burge”. Although I like to think it’s evolved over 40-odd years, the reality is it probably hasn’t. Only the names have changed really (Rowell, Rowell and Whitworth, respectively).
And so to the FA Cup. In previous years I’ve been firmly of the belief that it’s got in the way of glory or survival. But this year I quite fancy another one of those cheeky runs we pull out from time to time. As well as giving us all a welcome lift, the cash wouldn’t half come in handy too.
I watched the first round draw and was crapping it at us copping a trip to Cray Valley Paper Mills or another non-league mob sensing blood and a headline. Thankfully we didn’t, and although there’s always scope for things going wrong, getting turned over at home by a team we’ve only played five times and have beaten each time still wouldn’t mean we’d be sharing the screens with Ronnie Radford, Sutton, Lincoln, Wimbledon and the other usual suspects.
Mind you, anyone particularly surprised Mansfield have got Nigel Clough in as gaffer? Although they’ve been rotten this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise for a Sunderland-born manager to sort them out and stick it up Sunderland, in Sunderland. Arguably, peak Sunderland.