The perhaps misguided hashtag behind The Papa Johns Trophy is ‘every game matters’.
The marketing slogan can often look ridiculous when the competition is responsible for almost every club’s record low attendance, fixtures are seemingly thrown in at random and the final group stage games don’t even have to be on the same night, therefore potentially giving two teams an unfair competitive advantage, oh and if the game ends in a draw you have a penalty shootout for a group stage game.
The validity of the statement was called into even further question when we took on Bradford at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night in front of a few thousand hardy souls, where both teams knew their fate before a ball was kicked.
Taking all of the above into account I am more than willing to accept that Tuesday’s game was pretty much a waste of time for all concerned when viewed without context, and I certainly don’t think a manager’s future should be decided one way or the other on the back of a negative result and performance in such a fixture, but the continuation of recent trends has to be a worry.
Had we played a completely experimental starting XI or a similar team to the one Lee Johnson fielded against Manchester United under 21’s, few would have batted an eyelid even if we’d been comfortably beaten.
However, we started the fixture against a team smack in the middle of League Two with a Bayern Munich loanee in goal, the much-hyped Leon Dajaku, other first team regulars, Alex Pritchard, Luke O’Nien, Lynden Gooch, Elliott Embleton, and star of the show versus Cheltenham, Nathan Broadhead.
The starting XI was clearly picked in view of getting back on track and recording an emphatic victory over a Bradford side who fielded only a handful of first team regulars.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with this idea in principle, regardless of opponents or competition there is no better feeling than seeing the lads comfortably swat aside the opposition, especially after a run of consecutive defeats.
However, when you select that starting lineup and follow it up with a poor, disjointed performance and extend your winless run, it only raises further questions about why results and our performances have fallen off a cliff.
Again, I’m far from demanding the sacking of Lee Johnson but if we are to praise him and the players for our early season form, then fair criticism when things start to go wrong is also valid.
As recently as a fortnight ago, the fanbase quite rightly lauded the fact we were playing radically different teams in cup competitions and still picking up results and the style of play remained consistent.
Even the under 23’s played an attractive, high pressing brand of football against Manchester United Under 21’s, and a heavily-rotated starting lineup competed for the whole 90 minutes against Championship opposition in QPR, and emerged victorious on penalties.
Now the reverse seems to be taking place, even against lower league opponents we have looked clunky, disjointed and failed to break them down.
The trend has gone from slick, free-flowing football regardless of the team we play to stodgy, laboured performances no matter who we play.
Of course, routine wins over League Two opposition would have done little to silence the doubters, but no matter how they come, victories put a spring in your step and supporters would have been reassured that we still had good performances in our locker.
Instead we go into the Ipswich game devoid of confidence, struggling for form and question marks hovering over Lee Johnson’s ability to break a trend that has dogged him for most of his managerial career.
The last week has been far from season-defining, but if we were encouraged by our cup form earlier in the season, it is equally valid to be even more worried by the 180 minutes we have witnessed against Mansfield and Bradford.