It has been announced that this weekend’s fixture with Shrewsbury is to be cancelled, after the breakout of Covid at the Shropshire outfit’s training ground.
It presents us with a free Saturday, but believe me, the benefits are numerous. I know we can worry about fixture congestion and I guess suspending any match is not good, but in this instance, I think it is the very best thing that could possibly have happened. When I heard the news, I actually smiled, and it is very rare I am happy at us losing a game. Obviously. I feel for those affected at Salop and I hope they all have a swift and safe recovery, but part of me wants to thank them from the bottom of my heart for helping us out, no end.
Here are three reasons why it is simply great news.
Tomorrow night (or tonight, if you are reading this a day late), John Coleman’s Accrington come to the Bank for our EFL Trophy tie. We are no strangers to Stanley in this competition; we knocked them out on route to winning it in 2018, whilst they put us out a season later, a game in which Jamie McCombe made his final senior appearance (scoring if I recall correctly) and our youth team manager got a run out. That game was one in which we fielded the bare minimum of players and almost took the hit of a defeat. This year, things are different.
This year, we have a manager with a history in the EFL Trophy – Michael was been beaten at Wembley twice as Oxford boss. I think he wants to settle that score once and for all, a point underlined with Ethan Ross moving to Weymouth. If we were going weaker, he would have kept Ross here to play, but expect Alex Palmer to start. If possible, Michael would want to field a strong team against Stanley and without a game this weekend, he is going to be able to do just that. I wouldn’t expect the full starting XI, but I bet he doesn’t deviate too much from the side which played this weekend. I understand Morgan Rogers is cup-tied, and I would expect Zack Elbouzedi to start too, as well as Robbie Gotts and maybe Max Melbourne, but not having a fixture at the weekend does afford us some slack.
I felt we were done over in this competition last season when Doncaster got to field a full first XI after we’d played eight games in a week (or something like that), plus the season before when Mansfield lost a Saturday game to international call-ups and went full throttle to beat us. This time out it is us being handed the smallest of advantages courtesy of Covid.
Our Covid Outbreak
I think we did well on Saturday, considering the players we had out, but I know that a trip to Shrewsbury would present a very different challenge. They are on a good run, they are tough to break down and well organised and I suspect we may have looked a little leg-weary by the time we got up there. I’m sure the club would have loved to face them if they were also missing players, but this gives us a chance to get some of our bodies back by Gillingham. Might it mean Conor McGrandles is back training? Maybe Harry Anderson will be out of isolation, his physical presence might be more suited to Shrewsbury’s approach, and there is no doubt Tom Hopper would be around the first-team squad. By getting the fixture rearranged, we should have some bodies back (maybe even Callum Morton, who knows) and therefore be in a better place to win the game. Also, let’s not forget that Salop’s good form may have gone out of the window when we play them, whilst they’re still in a decent place right now.
Psychologically, this will be a big weekend for us. At this moment in time, every other League One game is scheduled to go ahead, so it is our ‘free hit’ weekend. Also, no matter what the results, we’ll be top this time next week. The league table will be clearer by 5.00pm on Saturday and someone will have lost ground on us. There are no six pointers as such, Hull host Blackpool, Pompey are at Fleetwood, Accrington host Gillingham and Doncaster are at Swindon. Charlton play midweek, they’ll have played one game more by then and even if they beat Rochdale and Bristol Rovers, they’ll still be four points behind us. Even when we finally do play again, a week tomorrow against Gillingham, we could enhance our position as Hull meet Accrington and Peterborough face Charlton on the same night. With all that happening, and both Pompey and Doncaster up before the end of the month, a little break to catch our breath is good for all concerned.
It is probably worth just touching on the worries over fixture congestion. At present, the Imps have seven Tuesdays free between now and the end of the season – 2nd Feb, 15th Feb, 16th March, 23rd March, 13th April, 27th April, and 4th May. In addition, we do not play on the Tuesday before Good Friday, which is March 30th. One would assume that one of those seven free dates will be taken by Shrewsbury, leaving six free midweek fixtures for the current season. If we were to beat Accrington I would imagine any subsequent game would be played February 2nd, leaving five free dates. Now, if we did get through to every round of that competition, hopeful perhaps, that would take up another two midweek dates – the semi finals are scheduled for February 15th, and the final for March 14th, which would mean our home clash with Rochdale on March 13th would be moved too.
That means three free Tuesdays between now and the end of the season if we win our cup games. It does lead to some worries over fixture congestion, but in truth it also leaves some scope for further postponements (not many mind you) without a continuation of the season. Also, the Premier League season doesn’t end until May 23rd, so there is room to add four more dates to the end of the calendar, if they were needed, between Tueday 11th May and the 23rd. Yes, there are some worries that could lead to burnout and that is maybe a separate issue, but immediate concerns over fixtures and fulfilment are premature.
Also, despite some teams still being in the FA Cup, it is unlikely to affect us. We are scheduled to meet Northampton on fourth round day, Hull on fifth round day and Sunderland on quarter final day. That means those games will go ahead as scheduled. Indeed, the teams who may worry a little are those still fighting on a couple of fronts, or who are games behind, Accrington, as an example, are four games behind us at present and still in the EFL Trophy too. Working on the same principles as us, they couldn’t win every game and go to Wembley without a continuation of the season, or playing three games in a week. Similar goes for Peterborough and Portsmouth, two games behind us and still in this competition, and Doncaster who are three games behind us and still, in the FA Cup and EFL Trophy. Indeed, us getting games on the board over Christmas is looking increasingly positive and this little lay-off isn’t the huge problem it might be were it any of our rivals.