Having been away from Sunday (after the Huddersfield defeat) and missing the Orient game I've not had much to say in recent weeks.
I'm not planning of getting my post count up by writing two previews and two reviews in a week, so I'm going to look at the weekend as one event.
There is a lot happening between now and Monday evening:
Orient v Huddersfield - tonight
Oldham v Charlton - Saturday
Bournemouth v Sheff Utd - Saturday
Huddersfield v Sheff Wed - Saturday
Charlton v Walsall - Monday
Sheff Wed v Oldham - Monday
Bournemouth v Huddersfield - Monday
By the time Sheff Utd travel to Rochdale on Tuesday I fully expect us to be nearer the line, whilst probably not over it.
Huddersfield have had a great run in recent weeks (including beating us - which I'll discuss later) which left them in with a real chance of the top two. Sadly for them the two Sheffield clubs had an even better run in the last six games which, coupled with their defeat at Carlisle, has left them with a mountain to climb.
The truth is that, despite unbeaten runs, Huddersfield just don't win enough games. They have lost less than half of either Sheffield team, but they've drawn more than twice both of them also. Unbeaten runs sound good on TV clips, but they don't give the full picture. Interestingly, since they lost to Sheffield United their run of nine games has managed the same number of points as the last nine of Clarke's tenure. Neither were enough and they find themselves needing to win tonight and on Saturday (Sheff Wed at home) to make third, and they are currently twelve points behind second (nine if they win their game in hand). Realistically it's the playoffs for them, and in any event they are fourteen points behind us, despite beating us a week ago.
On that game I can't help wondering if Daryl Russell's sending off (his second of the season, and his eighth in five seasons - 143 games) finished any chance we had of a win or, realistically, a draw at Huddersfield. Clearly I wasn't there, but from what I've read we conceded a penalty and then proceeded to attach their goal for the remainder of the game. Certainly the second half sounds like they were hanging on and time wasting - even against ten men. I am more than happy to fail to win games in these circumstances, especially when we have a reasonable lead already. It never helps when the referee seems to give a little more to the opposition, but that is football I suppose, and Russell's red card was right in any event, and we were already losing at the time.
It's just typical that we were well beaten by Notts County at The Valley before they went on to lose to both Sheffield clubs at home in the next two games. I have a feeling that Huddersfield will fail to replicate their result against us this Saturday which will keep it tight at the top as we go into Bank Holiday Monday's game against Walsall, who beat us at The Valley last season to end an unbeaten run of six games and, ultimately, start the end for Parkinson.
Daryl Russell has a bit of a chequered past when it comes to red cards. Eight in five seasons (with two in three of those seasons) suggest that this is part of his game. I'm reluctant to criticise players when they give 100%, and he did score a goal against Yeovil in-between his two reds for us (they came in a run of five games). However, with a ban that is likely to be four games I think it is unlikely that we will see much more of him now. I can't see us wanting to sign him permanently if we are in the Championship next season, and if we are promoted, and as good as Champions, when his suspension finishes I can't see the justification in bringing him back into the side. Frankly I think I would have sent him back to Preston after the Huddersfield game if we could have saved his wages. There was no doubt about the red card, even if Kaye should have gone also (if not before).
Moving on, and I did so quite happy as we were still nine points above Sheff Utd (all be it they had an easy game in hand) and eight above Sheff Wed and we entertained Orient at The Valley in a 'must win' game. It wasn't really a real must win, but it was crucial that we kept out lead above second greater than the lead they had over third just to keep us physiologically away from that fight. I went to a bar in Tenerife that my Dad normally goes on a Saturday when he's out there in the winter, to watch Sheff Wed beat Preston 2-0. I was at the bar ordering a beer and a drink for my son when they scored their second, and then it was all over. Preston looked like a broken side. They seemed to offer nothing, and it could well have been much more than 2-0 by the end. Not that it matters I don't think Wednesday have enough games left to bridge the goal different we have over them, 12 goals, but they did look confident, and were far from hanging on for the final whistle.
I stayed in the bar where they have about twelve TVs, one showing each of the Premier League games. It is a great place to spend a Saturday if you are not watching Charlton. I watched, on the whole, the Man City v Sunderland game. I don't watch a lot of Premier League football these days, and I appreciate that City are a top side, and there are few 3-3 scored in the Premier League, but it was a very enjoyable afternoon. As all the games are on you can switch your gaze from one game to another when goals are scored. However, I think what made the day so enjoyable was that we won, and were winning for most of the afternoon.
With the bar's free Wi-Fi (something that seems to be common in Tenerife these days) I was able to keep refreshing the 'live' league tables and until very late in the game we were eight points above both Sheffield teams. It would have made a big difference had it stayed that way. I think Sheff Utd were tired with having played a few more midweek games in recent weeks, but they found that little extra to get a 1-0 win. It is poised to be very interesting in the next month, especially if you live in Sheffield, as it now looks certain to be one of them up and one of them in the playoffs.
Our game was probably won in the seventh minute, but as the game drew on I was becoming more and more nervous. The impact of conceding a goal becomes greater as the final whistle draws closer, and we have managed a lot of 1-1s at home this season. In the end the second goal (which I've seen on the TV) was quality and did finish off the game as a contest. It came in time for me to relax and watch Man City score two late goals to make for an exciting finish there.
So we come to the final run-in. I don't know who decided the number of games, but it is traditional for the last ten games to be referred as the run-in and the last six the final run-in. In previous years we have not been all that great at this stage of the season. However, I would argue that, despite making all the right noises about progression and Europe, we have achieved our season's goal with ten games to go. I was never unhappy about our goal being to stay in the Premiership. I would have taken forth from bottom for the rest of my life had it been offered to me. I used to say it then, and I would certainly say it now. Those that would suggest that you have to progress or you move backwards were missing the point. With a smaller budget than most of the teams around us to stay where we were was moving forward in terms of maximising return on investment.
Anyway with that in mind I expect that our last ten games (certainly our last twelve) will yield a lower points to games ratio than the rest of the season, but it can, because the season's goal was virtually achieved with twelve games to go. I don't want to start a discussion about complacency, nor do I want the players to take anything for granted, but the goal was to be promoted at the end of the season, and that means above third place (ignoring the playoffs) and that can be one goal scored more than third. Any more than one point is totally unnecessary. Sure we want to win the division, and I think we will, but no team (outside of the Premier League) would ever turn down second in August for the chance to finish first or third.
With that in mind we have reduced the 17 point lead we had on 3 March (12 games to go) to 8 points with 6 games to go. If our lead is reduced by another 9 points in the next six games we might have a bit of a problem, but I can't see it. At no point (save for the two weeks running up to 3 March) would I have turned down an 8 point advantage over 3rd place with six games to go. I would have taken eight points above 3rd even if it meant being 10 points behind 1st.
Our form over the whole season has been magnificent. We are still averaging 2.13 points per game which would see us end on 97.98 points. Even is we finish on 97 points that would be the highest total for six years and only twice has the total even been higher than 98 points, and both of those sides (Fulham in 1999 and Wigan in 2003) went on to reach the Premier League within two seasons of that achievement. Not bad company to be in, especially when you consider that those two sides were bankrolled by a very rich benefactor (by third division standards).
It would be lovely to manage 102 points to make a new record. It would be lovely to secure 100 points, for no reason other than it's 100 points. It would be lovely to win the division. However the main goal was, and still is, to get out of this division, and I think we are more than on target for that.
I would take four points this weekend. I think that of the run-in Carlisle away is the toughest game, but I think Walsall at home will be tough, and Oldham are hardly going to role over and give us the win. Four points and we are well on target, six points and we are merely bringing the inevitable forward.
Certainly it will all be a lot clearer what we need to do in the last four games by the time we go to bed on Tuesday, but I think we will have a sneaking suspicion by the time the final whistle goes at The Valley on Monday. If results go our way we could even be promoted on Monday.
Up the Addicks!