We’ve a big week coming up, haven’t we? The excitement is certainly building as we await the JPT first leg sell-out against Crewe – or Scarfathon 13, as I’m now calling it. But before we all go mad for that, we’ve a mighty important trip to Bramall Lane to eye up, and a massive opportunity to close the gap once again on the play-off places.

While you’d imagine that wins and points would be the sole focus as we enter the final stretch, it’s noticeable that the games in hand situation we find ourselves in is one that’s concerning many of our fans. The idea that we could have played 3, 4 or even 5 more games than some teams in the league by the Saturday morning is a tricky one to rationalise. Even so, I’m keen for this notion not to become an obsession.

I’m a big believer in only worrying about things you can control – and besides, there are so many influencing factors which are primed to contribute to the remainder of our season, is the timing of when we play our games something we should really be getting our knickers in a twist about?

Naturally my desire for unruly pants is minimal, so have decided to focus my attentions on digging a little deeper into what might actually be required to make the play-offs. That’s what this two-part guide is all about. Although it’s not actually a guide; just a flurry of observations.

Nevertheless, this ought to prepare me for every eventuality, as well as also helping to ensure I don’t go crazy like everyone else if we end up losing against Sheffield Utd. I really don’t like the thought of it being only January and we’ve already left ourselves with too much to do.

Setting the scene

After the draw last weekend, we’re 4 points behind the play-off places having played 30 games. This in itself feels like a miracle scenario given how primed for pulverisation we appeared under Richard Shaw and Thorn. A gold star goes to Marky Mark Robins for the work he’s done since he’s arrived. We all recognise the improvement.

So having come this far, even the obscene pragmatist in me feels this season might actually be the one for us to finally achieve something.

Let’s face it – there’s no picking and choosing in football, and when you’ve failed as regularly as us, I’m not sure we’re in any position to request not achieving promotion this season if it came about. It’s a supremely “Coventry” way of thinking; I’ve seen various musings online around a preference being postponing success until next year, like we have some sort of say in it.

Believe me, I understand what’s happening when people talk like this; in many respects it’s simply a mechanism for guarding against disappointment if we don’t achieve it. We’ve been burnt so many times before, we don’t like to believe anymore. I get that.

But from my perspective, we need to remember just how damaging this mindset has been in the past; and most notoriously during the Coleman/early Sisu era. The constant deferral of success during that period meant we wished away seasons (and the best Championship squad we’d ever had) without gaining any benefit from that squad at all. OK, promotion may have been a tough ask, but Christ – it’d been nice if they’d shown even the hint of ambition.

“We’re improving – this is a building year” was the relentless mantra across the club that included a back five of Fox, Dann, Turner, Cranie and Westwood..

“Piss off, you despicable losers” was my frequent reply. And I’m unrepentant in assuring you of its validity.

If I’ve learnt anything from watching football over my lifetime, it’s that you have to take the opportunities as and when they present themselves, because there’s no guarantee that they will come round again.

So with this borderline unhealthy ambition driving me on, let’s assume for the sake of this piece that the play-offs are our aim this season. I know many have given up on them already because the games in hand situation looks too tricky to navigate.

But really, what does it all mean?

What does a team have to do to reach League One play-offs? And what do we have to contend with if we want to be the ones to get there?

Games in hand

It’s a big issue in so much that it sways perception. But in reality, teams are still going to have games in hand on us going well into March. Why are we concerning ourselves so much about this in January?

Well, it clearly has an influence on our situation if we look at the table in the matchplay sense, where teams are competing with each other – often indirectly – for the upper-hand in the standings. There’s pressure and momentum to play for as well as points. The idea of a team being a point behind with a couple of games in hand if certainly never an ideal one.

Conversely, those games in hand count for bugger all if you – the guys in front – simply keep winning your games.

That’s right, it’s that easy. Every team can’t win every game, whereas some teams can win most. Can’t we be one of the most teams for once? Being one of the ruthless sods that go on and wins the majority of their remaining games? It’s a big ask, but the premise is a simple one.

If you go and win four games in a row, you’re going to be negating the work of some teams around you. Whether that’s catching people up or pulling away from those beneath you. No amount of 2 games in hand is going to overhaul a 7 point deficit.

And that’s my point, really, and one I think we’re at risk of forgetting. It’s January. We still have complete control of our destiny. The fact remains – whether the teams around us have games on us or not – we still have to win a shit load of games anyway. Teams may jump above us at points, but if we manage the required run, we’ll be jumping above others too and creating unassailable gaps.

That’s my aim, or at least what I’m trying to stay focused on. Not looking around at all the other clubs when we’re still 3 months away from the end of the season. We can’t control when we play our games – all we can control is winning as many as possible, or at the very least, enhance the pressure on the teams around us to carry on winning themselves. And they’re not all going to manage that.

I realise it’s a stupidly simplistic resolution, and it’s based on little more than positivity and change of focus – but it’s at the crux of everything. Right now, what we do with these final games is all that matters. We need to continue to win games regularly to get us a play-off worthy total come April. Stevenage having 5 games in hand on us in January is an unnecessary worry.

Which begs the question – how many points constitute play-off worthy?


Continued: Read part two of Games in hand, my foot: Making the play-offs

It has actual numbers this time.

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