The season that refuses to die still has some breath left in it.
Following the seemingly crushing blow that Good Friday’s loss at Gillingham dealt to our wafer-thin play-off hopes, there was a relaxed atmosphere around the Mem on Easter Monday.
As a Twitter follower of mine pointed out, Monday’s home game against Oldham was arguably the first league game with nothing riding on it for nigh-on four years. John Ward’s side went from relegation worries to a late and unlikely play-off bid, as I’m sure you remember.
Well, Monday didn’t work out that way. Rovers do what we always do nowadays, picking up maximum points with an unspectacular and workmanlike performance against a tough-to-break Oldham side. Neither side really threatened the Goals For column, save for the occasional bit of Billy Bodin’s usual magic tricks (he even set up Luke James for what should’ve been his maiden Rovers goal) and some good crossing from Cristian Montano.
That was until Ellis Harrison, who, up to that point, was having very much a game to forget, managed to hit home in front of a jubilant Thatcher’s End, having bewitched a couple of defenders with some neat close control. It was a typical Ellis performance in many ways: looking lively enough to see some potential in him, but ultimately flattering to deceive. As good as his goal was, those moments are fleeting. He’s the most gifted out-and-out striker at the club, with Rory Gaffney having gone cold and Luke James still no closet to opening his account, but I do wonder if that will earn him an extension to his time at the Mem come the summer.
The aforementioned jubilation was, of course, down to the fact that we’d scored, but also because Millwall and Southend both unexpected lost, reducing the gap to the play-offs back to four points.
Rochdale having thumped relegation-doomed Coventry at the same time, the play-off outlook is now clear: we must win our final two games, and none of Rochdale, Millwall or Southend must hit 72 points, as our goal difference is vastly inferior.
In Darrell Clarke’s shoes, I’d be telling the boys that it’s already over before Saturday’s final away game of the regular season at Peterborough. Millwall only need two draws from as many games (though their final one is against us), while Southend need one win, and Rochdale need a win and a draw to put us out of the race.
A betting man wouldn’t place too much cash on those, requiring Rovers to not only beat their recent away hoodoo at London Road (no, I don’t care who sponsors it, it’s London Road), and then beat Millwall at the Mem next week.
If anything, it’ll put the boys at ease. And if we’re still in with a shout come Saturday teatime, that’s a bonus.
To Peterborough, then: The Posh have had a disappointing year. Their controversial chairman, Darragh MacAnthony, sees them as a Championship side, but this is their fourth year down in the third tier since relegation in 2013. A return looks further away than ever as they find themselves rooted in mid-table yet again, following finishes of 9th and 13th in recent years.
They seem to have similar-ish problems to what we’ve had this season, in that they concede too many goals (well, we did before Lumley and Sweeney came and shored things up) and they don’t have a 20+ goals per season striker (well, we had one until you-know-who did you-know-what). Their form is absolutely all over the place, both at home and on their travels, and they have nothing to play for now.
There’s no point in me making another wrong prediction this week, as Millwall are likely to beat Oxford and mathematically end our season a week early, but if we can beat The Posh away from home, and, somehow, no-one gets to the magic 72 come 5pm on Saturday, then we have a fourth consecutive final day showdown on our hands. We can dream, can’t we?