This past weekend, our game against Burton Albion fell foul of the weather.
It meant that a month where we talked about six or nine points hasn’t happened and that we’ve collected just two points with one game to go in January. Okay, we’re six clear of the bottom four, and we’ve got a big game against Burton to rearrange (plus they might be losing their leading striker), but it does heap pressure on the team this weekend. Why? Because for me, it’s the season’s biggest game so far.
A couple of weeks ago, I shouted the next fortnight or so as pivotal for Mark Kennedy, and since then, nothing has happened. I said we needed certain signings to carry us over and big results against struggling teams to make this a comfortable start to 2023, rather than a concerning one. That was a week ago, and as we sit on the cusp of the final full week before the transfer deadline, the clock is ticking, and the importance hasn’t diminished.
Sheff Weds at home was bigger in terms of attendance. Derby at home was bigger in terms of the result, and any others you care to name might feel bigger, but this is the one for me; this is the precipice between another three months of worry or a more comfortable run-up to May. That’s (partly) one of the three reasons this could be the biggest game of the season, as I explain below.
The Relegation Battle
The first reason this is the season’s biggest game is around the relegation battle. Obviously, we need three points, but if you look at the table, there’s a mini-league forming, and we can stop that from happening, or at least stop ourselves from being in the wrong bit of the table. Four points separate Portsmouth in 15th and Peterborough in seventh – that’s the same margin separating us in 16th and Portsmouth in 15th. We are in danger of losing sight of the next rung up the ladder, which means we’d be looking down every week, no matter what happens, because we know we can’t actually climb. However, a win against Cambridge would put more daylight between at least some of the teams below us and us, whilst giving us a chance of catching onto the coattails of Pompey or whichever of the nine teams forming the middle of the table that drop into 15th next weekend.
This weekend, no two teams below us play each other – that means realistically, they could all lose, and we could (and must) win. Do that, and we’d see a nine-point gap between us and the bottom four and maybe a much smaller one above us. We’re in with a chance of tagging ourselves onto the middle division rather than fighting away in that horrible little mini-league at the bottom. For that reason, a win is vital, and purely for confidence, it is as well. We haven’t won in the league since November 19th, and yet we’re still well away from relegation. However, last season, Wimbledon went on a similar run, but they struggled to buy a win and ended up going down. We need to stop that rot.
Potential New Faces
Signings will be crucial for us now – the squad has a couple of really obvious holes, holes you’d hope we’re looking to plug. We won’t just bring anyone in; we need a certain type of player, a certain calibre, to help us lift up the table. You might think that a game against Cambridge can’t influence that, but it can, massively.
Imagine you’re a player given a choice between us and, for instance, Charlton. They’re four points ahead of us, but we have a game in hand. Now, suppose they win at home against Bolton on Saturday, and we draw with Cambridge; that could influence a player’s decision. That knife edge upon which we are poised isn’t just something we think about, but players will also. If we’re looking to sign a player permanently, do you think he’ll choose us over another team if we look like getting dragged into a relegation battle? It might seem trivial, a single game, but it could be crucial.
Let’s also suppose we’re looking at a player who is not talking to anyone else. He comes to the game on Saturday to watch; what does he want to see? Not a dour 0-0, that’s for sure. He wouldn’t be impressed at a disgruntled crowd, moaning about every loose pass. There is a feeling amongst some sections of the support that we’re struggling, and I’ve heard that vocalised in the stands. However, if we welcome Cambridge, get our noses ahead early and then go for the kill, the place will be rocking. That can be a big draw for a player – remember Mark O’Hara committing to a loan deal after being at a game? That could be the case this weekend, and a positive display could be important for helping get possible deals over the line.
Cambridge Are Awful
I don’t like to be disparaging about other teams, but Cambridge are in a woeful place right now. I did the Under the Abbey Stand podcast this weekend, and their supporters seem so dejected at what is going on there. They’ve won one match in all competitions since October 25th, beating Shrewsbury 2-1 on Boxing Day – the same opponent stuffed them 5-1 this weekend. They’ve conceded 12 goals in three matches and have scored just six in three months. I didn’t rate them at their place, but we were really poor that day and perhaps handed them the win rather than them earning it. Having lost four on the spin since December 30th, they needed penalties to beat Curzon Ashton after two 0-0 draws and feel like they’re in a spiral and sinking fast.
I know this is the type of team we struggle against, and to be fair, they have pulled some decent results out of the bag (winning at Ipswich and Wycombe), but if we’re serious about staying up and avoiding a relegation battle, then there’s zero doubt these are the games we must be looking at winning. Our home record is great (unbeaten) and weak (two wins all season) in equal measure, but Cambridge United present an opportunity to begin to load that more heavily towards a positive interpretation.
If we don’t win, it doesn’t mean we’re doomed, but it does give us more to think about heading into February. If we do win, we won’t be safe, but it will feel like a massive step in the right direction. No pressure lads, none at all!