By now you should have read part one of this series, the preview of the Christmas period which I wrote for the SAFC programme. You might even remember some of the words I wrote, especially the conclusion:
“Christmas and early January remain crucial, which for us means holding our own away and completing doubles over Bradford and Shrewsbury at home. I’m not one for predicting results or tempting fate, and am all too aware there are no easy games in this league but I think we can do that, and I can see us still being in contention when the decorations come down.”
That proved to be a little optimistic. We lost to top of the table Portsmouth thanks to a Loovens red card and we were held at home by Shrewsbury. That’s five points thrown away, according to the doomsayers, and in truth we should have done better. Yet, as the decorations in our house came down – before Charlton – we were still in contention. The explanation is to be found in the other three games we played, and in what went on around them. Once again, I repeat some of what I wrote in part one:
“The next four weeks have so many games between promotion and playoff contenders that any club which managed to emulate Wigan, never mind Sheffield United, would be doing very well indeed. They would get more than points. Coming out ahead of rivals at this stage of the season would provide an immense psychological boost.”
Sheffield United, you might remember, had gone through December 2016 and into January 2017 with a magnificent winning streak. A year later Wigan had gone five games without conceding a goal, winning three games and drawing against two close rivals. Both Sheffield and Wigan had gone on to win promotion.
We didn’t come close to Sheffield United’s achievement; we didn’t even emulate unbeaten Wigan in holding out against competitors. From that perspective our performance left a lot to be desired. However, when compared to those around us we didn’t do too badly. Only two clubs in the top eight had a better record over Christmas and the New Year and two did so badly as to seriously damage their chances of making the automatic promotion spots.
Here’s how many points the clubs at the top gained from the five games between 15th December and 1st January:
Luton Town 11 Barnsley 11 Portsmouth 10 Sunderland 10 Doncaster Rovers 10 Charlton Athletic 9 Peterborough United 5 Blackpool 1
Luton went through their five games unbeaten. It could be argued they had some easier fixtures than others but that argument requires some scrutiny. Walsall were in the playoff places earlier in the season, while Fleetwood were pressing around the same time. More recently Coventry and Burton have been two of the clubs bubbling under the top six, and winning at Coventry is not a forgone conclusion, as we know too well. Ten points from those games is no mean achievement, and nor was a home draw against Barnsley in their game on New Year’s day. Those eleven points not only kept them in second place but allowed them to gain a point on third.
For their part, Barnsley had a tremendous time over the holiday period and also emerged unbeaten. 15th December saw them draw against Portsmouth, then came wins against Blackpool, Peterborough and Charlton before their draw at Luton. Those eleven points weren’t enough to get them into the top two places but they moved ahead of a struggling Peterborough as well as Doncaster and Backpool to within striking distance of Charlton.
Charlton, it must be said, are a bit of an enigma. Capable of beating Portsmouth away (where they benfited from the red card) and usually formidable at home, they lost two games on the bounce after Christmas, one being that game against Barnsley. Will Charlton be happy with their points total from Christmas? I think, like us, it will be a case of could have done better.
However, despite Luton and Barnsley outscoring them Portsmouth remained top of the League. After their draw against Barnsley they set themselves up well with their win against Sunderland and although they slipped up against Gillingham they recovered to put five past Fleetwood and then beat bottom club AFC Wimbledon.
Portsmouth weren’t the only club to put five past their opponents. Doncaster did it on New Years Day to finish a bit of a yo-yo period which began with a 3-0 win, then a 2-2 draw followed by a 3-0 loss and a 3-1 win. As a result they moved into sixth spot, a point ahead of Peterborough, who thumped Accrington 4-0 but only managed two draws in their next four games.
But even that was better then Blackpool, who had climbed into visibility on the back of a decent spell in November and then a win over Charlton. But that was it, as far as December went, until they managed a draw at AFC Wimbledon before travelling home to lose to us.
If there were winners over the holiday period they were Barnsley, who put themselves firmly back into the playoffs, Luton, who gained a point over us, and Portsmouth, who opened a wider gap than games in hand could close. But did any of them do enough to get that psychological boost? Portsmouth probably did but what about the other two compared to us? I’m thinking probably yes but it’s a moot point.
If there were losers they were Blackpool, whose faint playoff hopes were hammered, and Peterborough, not so long ago challenging Portsmouth and now out of the top six and struggling to stay with the pack.
As for Sunderland, they could have done better but it wasn’t a disaster. Sitting third at the half-way stage is a position most fans of us would have accepted in May. Not many fans will have thought we’d be unbeaten at home, have scored in every game and have the fewest losses in the League as January came round. Our manager frequently mentions averaging two points per game. We’ve been doing that since October and still are, despite those dropped points.
This season’s Christmas period could have been more definitive for us, as it was for the Blades two years ago, though with twenty games left questions would still have remained. It could also have been more definitive for the other challengers – when five of the top six clubs gain ten or eleven points and so many games don’t go to form there really can be no answers. Neverthless, my overall impression is that this Christmas saw the beginnings of a breakaway group. It comprises Portsmouth, Luton and Sunderland, with Barnsley (who have a game in hand over Charlton) looking to recover enough ground to join them. Will I be proved right? Will I be proved wrong?
Time will tell.
MCCORMICK’S DODGY NUMBERS: the arithmetic’s correct; it’s just the rest could be a bit wonky. Graph by me, other graphics by Jake.