Burton Albion lost 2-1 at Ebbsfleet United in the Blue Square Premier on Wednesday night. There was, in itself, nothing extraordinary about this, but this defeat marks the third successive match that the once runaway leaders of the league have failed to win and, whilst they are still comfortably clear at the top of the table, their lead, which had been in double figures with several games in hand, is down to just eight points with two games in hand. Bookmakers have already paid out on them winning promotion into the Football League, and this is starting to look like a shakier decision that it did a couple of weeks ago.
They’re not the only team at the top of a table to be feeling the heat. We’ve covered AFC Wimbledon on here before – three successive draws has seen their lead at the top of the Blue Square South whittled away – but their football nemesis, the Milton Keynes Franchise, have also slumped in recent weeks, drawing four successive matches at the top of League One to drop out of the automatic promotion places, although they have games in hand on the teams above them too. In the Blue Square North, Tamworth scrambled a 2-1 win against Vauxhall Motors on Saturday, but this was their first win in three matches, and they have been overhauled at the top of the table by Gateshead.
The league in which end of season nerves are most prevalent, however, is the Championship. At the end of last season, the promotion places seemed to change places almost every week as the clubs involved became frozen like rabbits in car’s headlights. The same thing seems to be happening this season. It has looked since the autumn as if two from Reading, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City were absolutely nailed on to get promoted, but they all seemed to catch the virus in the new year, leaking just enough occasional goals and scoring just few enough goals to start dropping points all over the place. The gap between Reading in third place and Sheffield United in fourth place is now down to just four points. There is still plenty of scope for United (or, indeed, fifth placed Cardiff City) to sneak up on the blind side.
So, what is causing this? Is it just end of season nerves, or is there something bigger at play? There is certainly a point to make about the nerves. Football, broadly speaking, is now considered to be MUCH MORE IMPORTANT than it ever used to be. Once upon a time, it was limited to a couple of hours a week on the television and the back pages of the newspapers. Now, though, it’s everywhere. The rewards are much greater for successful clubs (though Birmingham, Wolves and Reading may wish to look at the bottom of the Championship for a cautionary tale about over-extending yourself in the Premier League), but with this greater reward comes greater responsibility. If you know that winning the next few matches may cause your wages to increase by a few thousand pounds per week rather than fifty pounds per week, it may play on your mind between three o’clock and a quarter to five on a Saturday afternoon.
Web sites and forums must also have an effect. Supporters don’t merely turn up on a Saturday afternoon, buy a programme and some Bovril and watch the match any more. Football consumes their lives for much of the week. They presumably spend more time thinking about it. Any “worst case scenario” thinking during the week may well transmit itself to the players. It’s difficult to say to what precise extent negative thinking on the terraces hinders players of managers, but it’s difficult to imagine that it could be healthy. The question of whether players and management read club forums is one that I have seen asked many times before and not seen a satisfactory answer to. It’s not implausible that it doesn’t matter whether they do or not. The negative vibes on a Saturday afternoon brought about by a week of fretting about whether your team will beat Team X while Team Y also need to avoid defeat could quite possibly transmitted by osmosis.
What is notable is that the biggest, biggest clubs don’t suffer from this. The likes of Manchester United train such human frailties out of their players at the earliest available opportunity nowadays. They trundle along like steamrollers, seemingly impervious to any feelings of concerns over their own abilities or failings. It may not make the Premier League as exciting as it could be, but it is at least admirable. Maybe the answer for smaller clubs is to stop looking at that brand new centre forward as the answer to the club’s prayers: a few thousand pounds being spent on a decent psychologist might prove to be invaluable, not only to help secure promotion, but also to preserve the sanity of the many, many people that seem to hang their entire psychological wellbeing on the success of their chosen football club.