If you see the football season as a 5-act play – I do at any rate, Act I being August-September (the pitches still splashed by summer sun, six weeks of clean new strips and surprise results), through the dramatic meat of autumn and winter, to the business end of April-May that constitutes Act V, and what Sir Alex Ferguson famously calls 'squeaky bum time' – well, if you’re still with me, then you see that we stand now on the threshold of Act IV: the passage of play that determines just how squeaky will be those derrieres.
What we of Division 2 have learned in Act III is that, sadly, this flight contains three sides of fairly consistent footballing ability – the Toon, WBA and Notts Forest – and so, with only two automatic promotion places to spare, then fatalistic Toon fans such as I are now envisaging a play-off spot... Moreover, with nothing to remember of Toon visits to Wembley in the lifetime other than capitulation, anti-climax and a general failure to show up, I can’t help feeling in my pessimistic bones that we will back to Barnsley and Doncaster next season.
The real concern is that the last half-dozen league games, while extending an unbeaten run, have been a plodding set of performances. We have been found out at this level, to take loan of the cliché. Injuries and opposition pace expose the defence. Pace of any kind troubles our 'senior-pro'-comprised midfield. Upfront even the disagreeable Marleen Harewood begins to be missed. No fan would have failed to jump at the offer of where we are now, 4 points clear with a game to spare, but there’s going to have to be a rising to the occasion for the big games of Act IV, the visits of Cardiff and Forest, the trip to Swansea, not forgetting all the rest...
This transfer window just gone has seen the completion of the retooling of the NUFC squad to high-end Division 2 standard: if it was hard to see the mob we started with doing any better in Div 1 (hypothetically) than they’d managed in 2009-09, the best XI we have at present would be fairing no better in the six-pointers with Burnley, Hull and Bolton. Still, this is our lot, and it has been rightly said in his favour that Ashley backed the club appropriately in the transfer dealings: cover at the left and centre of defence, some pace and wiles for the midfield, and another striker (Leon Best, pictured.) Perhaps a little competition for places, plus a bit more of what Kevin Nolan was saying back when he was scoring, about actually wanting to bag that Division 2 title… these things could only help.
Roll on this Friday then, and the visit of the 'soul crew'. Always liked that Aretha Franklin, myself.