Town have limped into the play-offs. Typical of the way we go about things, we did it by losing at home to a lower mid-table team. I was going to do my blood-pumping, finger-pointing Kevin Keegan-style ‘love it’ speech about denying Tranmere a place alongside us in the top five next weekend, but who am I kidding? We won’t win on the Wirral. With our immediate future secure, and nothing to lose – except a football match and more faith from the fans – Hurst will undoubtedly tinker his team and give game time to the kind of peripherals that won’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of playing any minutes for us in the play-off matches.
Then I remember the time Newport turned up at Blundell Park on the last day of the season in 2013, looked shite, lost 3-0, then turned us over in the play-offs twice the very next week. So maybe we shouldn’t read anything into how we do at Tranmere. I wouldn’t be disappointed in finishing 4th anyway because having the home leg first could be a blessing. Let’s get that sod out of the way – we’ve been much better on the road of late (that goes for the fans too).
And I wouldn’t be too worried about finishing 5th either as Forest Green have fallen asleep and dropped their cigarette down the side of the sofa. Braintree are the team to beat. Over two games against them this season we’ve shown that, well… we’ve shown nothing. We’ve scored a century of goals in all competitions, and none have come against these ultra-organised part-timers. The one reason I wouldn’t like to finish 5th, though, is that no team in the 13-year history of the Conference play-offs has won promotion when finishing in this position. That’s a fact, and you can have it for free.
I was at Prenton Park in May 2004 when Rovers came from behind to beat us 2-1 – and then news filtered through that Chesterfield had scored a 90th-minute winner to dump us into the fourth division. The Tranmere fans basked in our demise. Now they’ve fallen upon equally fallow times, it’d be quite nice to guarantee their place in non-league for another season while we have a fourth stab of working out how to win these bloody play-offs.
Is anyone else livid about the hand that fate has dealt us? First Cheltenham deny us promotion to League 1 in 2006 (justly so on the day, I hasten to add), then they have the audacity to absolutely steamroller the Conference when they’ve spent a fraction of the time we have in this division. Barnet have shafted us over too. They were fourth division fodder for so long, but stayed up at our expense in 2010. Once they finally (and deservedly) joined us down here, they got their shit together far quicker than us to return to their natural habitat of 20th in League 2.
And, last year, just when everyone pointed out that no team has gone straight back up in 10 years, a team goes straight back up – at our expense, obviously.
A fourth consecutive play-off defeat doesn’t bear thinking about. It’ll be too much to stomach. Instead of entering the play-offs with excitement and anticipation, we’re now entering them with trepidation; older and wiser, knowing exactly what they can do to us.
But we went into the play-offs in 1997/98 with no form to speak of. After losing to Newport and Gateshead we learnt lessons that we applied perfectly against Eastleigh. And now we know that if we get to the final at Wembley, we should be out of sight before the referee has any chance whatsoever to affect things by making terrible decisions (and certainly before penalties become anywhere near a possibility).
Hang on to your hats!