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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Separate Ways

At opposite ends of the League One table, Nobes considers the idea of the play off hangover when seeing how Charlton and Swindon have responded to heartbreak in last season's play offs.

Swindon celebrate after beating Charlton on penalties in May's play offs

Misery loves company. Or at least, it did. This was never going to be the easiest of seasons for either Charlton Athletic or Swindon Town.

Indeed, with the pair level on points in mid table at the end of September, it appeared two sides looking to recover from play off disappointment at the end of last season were both experiencing somewhat of a slow start.

A couple of months on though and, while Charlton
- much to the relief of under-pressure manager Phil Parkinson - have picked up form and sit in 2nd, Swindon sit just above the relegation zone.

It's a clear example of the opposite ways in which sides can respond to missing out in the end of season lottery - responding to adversity or letting it linger.

In the case of Swindon, Robins fans will obviously point to the proverbial 'play off hangover.'

Although much younger in its roots, such a theory has managed to firmly force its way into the cliche book between somewhere between 'After the Lord Mayor's Show' and 'Honeymoon Period.'

That was largely down to a spell in the mid-1990s in League One when, for three successive seasons, the losing play off finalists were relegated to the basement division the following year.

Ever since that trio trailed that particular blaze, the fear for clubs who miss out in the play offs is that getting over the pain of coming so near yet so far will affect their subsequent campaign.

So with the Wiltshire outfit this term. Defeat a couple of weeks ago at fellow strugglers Notts County left them just two points above the East Midlands outfit.

Their record at the County Ground has also taken a hit, losing three times already compared to just two defeats
at home all season in 2009/10.

True, the side is now without last season's 29-goal top scorer Billy Paynter, who moved on a free transfer to Leeds in the summer. However, goalscoring has not been Town's problem this term, with striker Charlie Austin already notching 12.

Rather, it's been down the other end of the pitch where they've struggled - with 32 goals being leaked in 18 games. The loss of defender Gordon Greer - now at League One leaders Brighton - probably more pertinent to Swindon's current struggles.

Boss Danny Wilson would also point to an injury to Jonathan Douglas, as well as uncharacteristic keeping errors earlier in the season from the experienced David Lucas as to reasons why Town's defence has looked worryingly vulnerable.

However, after a fine campaign last year, could the play off hangover have had a part to play? Swindon overachieved reaching the final against Millwall in May - playing an attractive brand of attacking football to boot.

Their narrow 1-0 defeat at Wembley, where they were largely outplayed on the day, was a bitter blow to the former top flight club looking to end their decade spell in England's third tier.

They could be forgiven for thinking then that, in a division increasingly populated by big, high-spending teams, they wouldn't come as close again for a while. A fear only likely to be heightened by the loss of Paynter and Greer.

That was compounded by a relatively quiet summer on the transfer front - failing to freshen up a squad who stretched themselves last season.

Is it any surprise then that they got off to a poor start with no wins in their first five games? With optimism drained and confidence low - mistakes can become rife. A vicious circle of fear and errors strangling a side's early season.

Charlton boss Phil Parkinson is expected to have his side challenging

Why then, observers will ask, has such an affliction not struck in South London? Charlton were defeated by Swindon on penalties in last season's play off semis yet are currently two points clear in the automatic promotion places.

It could be argued, too, that the Addicks - a bigger club with higher expectations than Swindon - failing to win promotion to the Championship was more psychologically damaging.

After all, as recently as 2007 Athletic were competing in the top flight against the country's finest. The loss to Swindon condemned them to a second successive year facing the likes of Yeovil and Exeter.

They had failed to bounce back from relegation at the first time of asking - with fears of a Leeds or Nottingham Forest-esque prolonged spell in League One on the horizon.

Certainly the prospects looked bleak for Phil Parkinson as manager. Someone who, although enjoying success at this level with Colchester, was running out of time to prove he could do the same at The Valley.

However, a run of 20 points from their last 10 games has seen the Addicks establish themselves as table topping Brighton's closest challengers. Parkinson's side have also made progress in both the FA Cup and Johnstone's Paint Trophy.

Most markedly, they sit a full 18 places and 11 points above their conquerors last May and appear the only half of the duo likely to challenge in the top six once again.

Like the wise man who drinks water after a night out, Charlton appear to have avoided any play off hangover and come back even stronger - securing an emphatic 5-1 win at Peterborough and seeing off Swindon themselves 3-0.

Not that such a recovery is unheard of. Indeed, just as some sides seem to suffer from losing in the play offs, others use the experience as motivation to go one better and ensure they avoid the end of season lottery next time around.

Most famously, Sunderland stormed to a then-record points total when achieving Championship glory in 1999. It came 12 months after losing an extraordinary play off final to, ironically, Charlton. Black Cats boss Peter Reid acknowledged he'd used the pain as the ultimate motivation for his squad.

Rochdale's promotion last season came off the back of successive play-off defeats, and Ipswich won the Championship play offs in 2000 after losing in them for the previous three campaigns.

The likes of Hartlepool, Nottingham Forest, Northampton, and Leeds have also all recently been
automatically promoted the year after losing in the play offs.

In Charlton's case this term, it could be argued that the rebuilding job that was required, especially after the departure of two of last season's key men - Nicky Bailey and Jonjo Shelvey - has actually benefited the squad.

Fresh faces not only bring new options on the pitch, but new belief also. Rather than a carry-on of the baggage of last season, new recruits offer optimism and a clean slate.

Of course, getting the right additions helps, with Parkinson blending experienced players like Gary Doherty and Johnnie Jackson alongside exciting young talent in the form of Joe Anyinsah and Kyel Reid.

The capture of proven lower strikers Paul Benson and Pawel Abbott also helped bolster an attacking line which appeared light on options.

With Charlton thriving after such squad evolution though, it provides Swindon with much food for thought ahead of the January transfer window.

Backing a proven manager in Wilson must be the way ahead if they wish to challenge again in the future. For, while Charlton's hangover may have been prevented, Swindon's can still be cured.

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