Friday, 13 April 2012

The Art of Holding Your Nerve

The last couple of weeks have been frustrating and disappointing for all Yellows fans. After a thoroughly professional victory at Accrington's Crown Ground, we had hauled ourselves into sixth position after reeling in Cheltenham and established a three-point lead over eighth-placed Crewe. Cue a lacklustre defeat to Morecambe, defeat again in the last minute at Northampton and a last-minute equaliser against Torquay on Monday. Cheltenham have pulled ahead once again, while Crewe have caught up and Rotherham have been allowed to get themselves back in the frame for the playoffs.

It's not the first time this has happened this season. In fact, it seems that every time we get ourselves into a good position, we then contrive to throw it away. We reached the heady heights of third back in October, only to fall to defeat at Gillingham in the very next match, leaving us back in seventh. A good run of results then saw us reach fourth position, on the cusp of the top three again, only for our nightmare November to send us plummeting down the table. The rest of the season has been a long slog to regain those heights. After working so hard to get ourselves in this position we appear to have got the yips again.

Fortunately we're not the only ones. Cheltenham, who have been amongst the division's pace-setters for most of the season, appear to have blown up. They are currently second bottom of the form table, losing six of their last eight games. They lost again on Monday, to a managerless Rotherham United side after conceding a last-minute winner (sound familiar?). Our next opponents, Gillingham, are also choking. They've won just twice in their last eight matches, and lost at home to lowly Dagenham and Redbridge on Easter Monday. Crewe's form is worrying, however. Unbeaten in 14, they are currently the division's form team and appear to be making a charge for the playoffs. But while the momentum of chasing the pack has led them to the cusp of the playoffs, it still remains to be seen whether they could cope with the pressure of maintaining a position in the playoffs while others try to shoot them down. Then there's Rotherham. Since we beat them at the Kassam last month they have won four out of five games to bring them within four points of the playoff places and level with Gillingham. It is, however, an uncertain time at the club, with the arrival of convicted fraudster Steve Evans at the helm and other off-field efforts focused on the imminent move to a new stadium. All of this could serve to upset efforts on the field and with games against Northampton, Aldershot and Shrewsbury remaining, any lapse will be punished.

But while the form of our rivals is something of a mixed bag, our chief concern should be with our own upcoming matches, starting with the visit of the Gills this weekend. Victory on Saturday would put us seven points clear of Gillingham and would effectively end their challenge. Defeat would see the gap between us and Gillingham reduce to a single point, while offering Cheltenham the opportunity to pull five points clear and allow Crewe to leapfrog us into that final playoff place. The importance of this match cannot be overstated and that is why the sniping and negativity that I've seen from some quarters needs to stop. For certain fans to proclaim our season 'over' when we remain very much in the promotion picture is absurd and belittles the effort that has gone into getting us into this position in the first place. Let our rivals feel the pressure (Gillingham fans are already mutinous, Cheltenham fans are understandably disappointed to have fallen away from the automatic promotion race, Rotherham fans have been left divided by the appointment of Steve Evans, and Crewe always seem ready for a good moan), we  need to create a positive atmosphere to give the players the best possible chance to perform.

We also know that our players can perform in high pressure games, especially with the support of a large and vociferous crowd behind them. We have already registered our first victory in 38 years at Swindon and beaten the league leaders with 10 men this season. It will need a similar effort to overcome a club that has become something of a bogey side for United through the years. We haven't recorded a goal against the Gills in over a decade, and haven't beaten them in 25 years, but as we proved earlier in the season these records are made to be broken. As has been the case all season, we go into this weekend's match with a greatly depleted side, but Gillingham have their own injury concerns to contend with. Matches like this are what all football fans look forward to and both sides need to win to keep playoff hopes alive.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter right now whether we end the season in great form. All we have to do is better the results of those around us, and fortunately for us the bar appears to have been set quite low. Recent performances have (barring Morecambe) been good, but our nervous lapses have been punished. Now we need to put those nerves behind us and prove that we have greater mental fortitude than our playoff rivals.


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