This is an edited, updated, revised and sexed-up version of my column from last week’s Leader because things have moved on swiftly since last Friday!
It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
What do I want from tomorrow’s FA Trophy draw? Well, the obvious answer is “Anyone but Luton”, but not just for the obvious reasons.
However, being obvious doesn’t hurt, so let’s start off with them. Remember last season? And the season before? Two-legged semi-finals against Luton with the ultimate goal of Wembley in sight? Remember how they went? Thought you might.
There’s something else though, something more fundamental, which means Luton are the worst name for us to draw out of the bag, or whatever the FA use for their suspiciously clandestine Trophy draws (that phrase on the club website “The draw for the semi-finals of the FA Trophy will be made on Monday and announced around lunchtime.” makes me wonder why those seem to be presented as two separate acts. Perhaps my conspiracy theory spidey-sense is turned up a bit high after reading Tyler Hamilton’s book.)
Basically, drawing The Hatters will send our fixture list into a potential nosedive. Their fifth round FA Cup match clashes with one of the FA Trophy semi-final dates, so if we get them, we’ll inherit a horribly complex situation.
(Hats off to the FA, by the way, for devaluing one of their own competitions by scheduling it at the same time as another one! That’s two senior men’s knock-out tournaments they have to organise, and they can’t help getting them tangled up. Delivering Quality Governance Since 1863! )
It’s odd to be enjoying the prospect of an FA Trophy run, but it’s not something that sits easily with me. I’m coping well with the cold weather, but when I look at our calendar for the rest of the season I get the shivers.
I’ve always regretted the cavalier approach we’ve taken to the Trophy in the past. I totally understand why Dean Saunders selected weakened sides in order to avoid fixture congestion, but couldn’t help feeling that we were missing out on the best chance we’ll ever have of getting to Wembley.
I know I’m taking advantage of hindsight, but taking the Trophy lightly didn’t precipitate promotion, and the fact that the likes of York and Stevenage have gone up in the same season that they won it shows it’s possible to juggle league and trophy requirements.
Yet as our run develops and the weather deteriorates, I’m beginning to get cold feet about our run. I don’t know if it’s because the final is being played earlier this season, but irrespective of whether we end up facing Luton, the fixture list is suddenly looking very ugly.
There are twelve midweeks left this season, and seven of them are already taken up with fixtures. As things stand there are only five blank midweeks left to fit matches into, but in effect that’s really four as The Conference will want the final midweek left empty for emergency rearrangements, so as you can already see, we’re looking at a very complicated conclusion to the season!
At least we avoided a replay yesterday, but still, should we enjoy a run to the final of the Trophy, it’ll get horribly congested. We’d have to rearrange three more games, and as an early conclusion to the tournament is being squeezed in this season, with the final in March instead of after the play-offs, it would punch a hole in our promotion run-in. I’ve mapped out the remaining weeks roughly below: the dates in bold are the remaining FA Trophy dates. As you can see, there isn’t much wriggle room!
Should we draw Luton, the Gateshead date is the one which clashes with their FA Cup match. I assume we’d either have to rearrange the first leg for the following Tueaday or, if the FA’s rules allow for this, for the midweek beginning February 3rd – that’s next week and would mean Rob Ogleby, Danny Alfei and possibly Declan Walker would be unavailable on international duty with their respective under-21 teams. That would assume Luton and Grimsby are able to play to a conclusion on Tuesday of course: sorry for being selfish, but a draw in that match would at least clog up the schedules of two of our greatest rivals!
If the bad weather returns we could be forced into desperate measures. Admittedly, we could look to shoehorn an extra game into the Easter week, when we face Macclesfield on Monday and Woking the following Saturday, but the fact that we might look at playing three games in a week as a viable possibility is all you need to know about the situation we could find ourselves in.
Of course, this could turn out to be a good thing. As Andy Morrell has rightly already said, if a team’s in good form it wants to play as often as possible, and that’s certainly the case at the moment. However, if form dips or injuries kick in, that could change. Morrell rotates his squad cleverly, particularly up front, and he’ll find that particular ability of his especially crucial in the coming weeks. He might have switching things around in other parts of the team, especially given the fact that he has a couple of veterans at the back who might need careful handling.
Whichever way you look at it, we’ll be facing a hectic end to the season. Where further bad weather leaves us doesn’t bear thinking about!