By Alex Scott
It was liberating in a way, in most ways. The death of this season has been prolonged, our inconsistencies mimicked by rivals leaving us to wait for the curtain to drop. The infuriating purgatory, shrouded in hindsight now done away with, the next months can be spent planning, looking forward to a reset.
For all the fun of this season, these last few weeks have been interminable. As a watcher from afar, the frustrating powerlessness pervaded every aspect of the endeavour. Looking over fixture lists and tables on a Saturday mornings, I spent my time in delusional dreams of hypothetical runs of form, knowing subconsciously they were doomed from the outset.
“If they could just win today…”
I’d been talking myself into the trip to Exeter for a while, preaching of its import to all those in earshot. But, in truth, it wasn’t all that pivotal; it was never going to be, not for that reason anyway.
It was the end. It was always going to be.
It was a fitting finale. The season ended as it began at Gillingham, and how it has lived in between. Saturday’s defeat at St James Park was another in a long line of the same performance.
Their stay of execution has been lifted. Nothing left to ponder. They died on Saturday as they had lived, as in control a side could be without looking threating. The desperate half-time introduction of Kyel Reid and Zavon Hines represented the final throw, the death rattle. A fitting end to a season in which everything and nothing has changed. Nothing and everything has stayed the same.
Whatever we think of the merits, the justice, City will remain in Division Four, their stay extended for a seventh crack. It’s a poor league. Keith Hill (suffering from many of our frustrations at Rochdale) labelled it “rubbish” last week. There isn’t much between the top and the bottom. Seven sides achieve relative success every year; it shouldn’t be this hard. It really shouldn’t.
That frustration is especially felt when one surveys this season’s other storyline.
The incongruity, the dissonance from the reality and the magic has been overpowering. You can’t rationalise it. This team has shown an ability to compete at a far higher level, but they are struggling to put up a fight down here. The frustration pervades the club. From the fans through the manager to the players, everyone is frustrated. How can two such divergent tales be simultaneously true?
Whilst I choose (desire) to paint the two worlds as discrete (it just feels more… right?), they have been widely explained as one of the same. Dependent realities. If one didn’t exist, neither would the other.
That is no more effectively identified than by Jason McKeown’s piece on Friday. The cause may have been a distracting cup run. It was probably fatigue, both mentally and physically. It may have been a handful of other things.
When you play like City do, the margins are paper thin. The slightest incident can swing outcomes; chance plays a far too influential role. Sometimes, regardless of how well you play, the ball doesn’t go in. Sometimes it just doesn’t go in. Territorial dominance is only a means to sway probability. They have been dominant often, but not creating enough chances to outweigh their inherent profligacy. The risk of adverse chance was never eradicated. Attempting to draw causality when luck is so influential is, to my eyes, spurious.
The cup run allowed us to justify their poor form in the league with the unspoken promise that once the distractions were over, regular service would be resumed. It was an easy explanation, a cliché spoken enough times to make it true. But even as it was happening it didn’t feel right. The team didn’t particularly look distracted. The effort was there, they just weren’t playing all that well.
It is different being inside a storyline. It offers a strange perspective, at odds with conventional opinion. All the talk surrounding the final, about what a nice, well-run club we were was curious. I didn’t want to smash any illusions, but well, we all know about that. And now, as people look at the league position, the cup is an obvious excuse, the distraction costing the team an otherwise guaranteed play off (promotion) place.
That hasn’t felt true either. It’s convenient. It’s nice for our egos, hearing that we have been damned by our own majesty. But it doesn’t feel right. They just haven’t been consistent enough to deserve it. But no one is saying that. Being on the inside is different. Maybe the same can be true of many other teams, which we assume we know from the outside, applying an easy narrative through which to view a team’s plight.
The team are just mediocre. It’s not inexplicable; it’s just a bit of a sad realisation. The cup run has afforded us this spectre of self-delusion where we could be the team we feel we should be. The team we have wanted to be for the last decade. Strong, impressive, inspiring. The toast of the town. Not the side we have been, the inconsistent underwhelming outfit which we are struggling to move on from.
Over a sample of four or five events, where City’s focus and desire far outweighed their opponents, they were able to ride their luck, and the profligacy of others, to the land of dreams, ironically benefitting from their own curse. Sometimes it doesn’t go in.
Over a league season, where resilience, depth and consistency are at a premium, rather than independent, discrete feats of wonder, they haven’t been up to it.
They were overly reliant on set pieces and an in-form second year forward in their burgeoning weeks. To expect either to continue over forty six games was an act of folly. They never showed the ability to play successfully without Nahki Wells, and in truth, he’s been gone for a while now.
One can blame whatever they like for that, with whatever agenda they wish to promote, but the symptom is likely also the cause. Occam’s razor. He just lost form. Again, an effect not exactly without precedent in a player’s first full season as a pro.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this team’s balance has always been off. Despite their man-for-man superiority over this entire division, they haven’t been able to exert their dominance. They can’t be proactive. They don’t know how to front run with any sort of effect. They let themselves be damned by adverse chance.
They’ve spent all year playing within themselves, restricted within an invisible box, hoping to maintain control and capitalise on the mistakes of others. Often lulling themselves into a false sense of security, of safety. They were being played at their own game. Their fragile dominance never solidified.
This season has let us dream for the first time in years, it’s been the best year I’ve had supporting this club. But for all the wonderful reasons they have fuelled our dreams, they’ve also cursed us.
The run, the parallel storyline, provided us with excuses for our failures and highlighted our powers. The glory of the latter underlining the frustration of the former.
The negative thoughts were for the most part repressed for months of the year, not because they didn’t exist, but because we could delude ourselves, escape into a world where they didn’t exist. And that world was real! It was surreal, but it was there.
Once the dream ended and we surveyed the landscape, all of those feelings flooded to the forefront, inescapable. I’ve hated it, frankly. It’s been so frustrating, and there’s nothing we can do. There’s nothing they can do.
We’ve been the child held at arm’s length by bullies, punching at air, and we’ve been stuck there for weeks.
The third Exeter goal gave me a familiar release from anguish. Up until that point I’d convinced myself City were going to come back and win. Genuinely. They played well! I promise they did. The harsh reality of defeat actually provided some comfort.
The hyperactive rearranging from Parkinson, the effort exerted to overcome his helplessness was fully on show on Saturday. He was as animated as he has been all year on the touchline, a trip away from his usual calming persona perched on the edge of his technical area. His aura and his actions betrayed an overpowering desire, but also a lack of conviction. Going from two wingers last week, to none this, and then back to two at half time didn’t portray an image of a man in command of the situation. Not that I necessarily disagree with any of the changes, he knows better than we do. But the absence of continuity of thought, the lack of conviction in his own judgment was impossible to hide, and the post-match displacement of blame onto his players emphasised his frustration.
It wasn’t a particularly poor performance at Exeter. It was an extension of almost every league game this year. Frustration and a subtle anger filled the vacuum in the away end as another cross flew across the six yard line.
I was just glad it was all over. It was their “most” performance I’ve seen the season. Defensive frailties, long periods of dominance, few chances, a handful of poor misses, frustration, defeat. The season began this way, at Gillingham. A Wells-inspired autumnal surge repressed such doubts before injuries, fatigue and shattered confidence led us right back to the start. For all the running, for all the mountains climbed, we’ve in essence stayed the same team we were to begin with. Only now more profligate.
Sometimes it doesn’t go in. You can do everything right, execute your role perfectly, but sometimes it doesn’t go in. The only way to protect against this axiom is to create enough chances for the law of large numbers to outweigh it.
That will be the coda for this league season, and if things fall in a certain manner, for this manager’s reign.
I still can’t imagine his stay not being extended soon, but its existence has become a lot hazier over recent weeks. He seems to have done everything right: recruitment, culture installation, getting the fans onside. But sometimes it doesn’t go in.
They’re on the right track, we can all see that. It just hasn’t gone in this time. The balance is slightly off, in all aspects. The margins designed by the manager have been too thin to eliminate the risk of chance. Sometimes it won’t go in.
The interminable fall into purgatory has ceased; the soothing solidity of the crash mat remains. Mid-table mediocrity has its own perverse charm. The permanence of football is perhaps why we all love it most. Everything resets. Everything repeats. There are always do-overs.
The manager is on the correct path; he is executing to a plan. Everything was in place. It hasn’t gone in. One can look back and pick holes, not that it matters at this point. The two storylines offered us the ends of the spectrum. One gave us glory, the other frustration. Both are an improvement over what we have come to know as normal. This time, it just hasn’t gone in. Hopefully next season, after the days are reset, Phil Parkinson will have his chance to benefit from the law of large numbers.