Crushed hope

They say itís always the hope that gets you in the end, and that was exactly what happened at Ashton Gate this week when we blew yet another chance to hang onto a faint opportunity of automatic promotion.

It's been like it for weeks now, despite the exciting wins over Barnsley, Cardiff and Brighton. Despite all the statistics flying about, we have actually won just four of our last 13 matches, and there have been eight draws in that lot.

Reading have suffered just three defeats in their last 18, and pointedly, drawn just one of those games. They have shown they know how to win matches, close out games they are leading and have made the most of their opportunities. And they seem expert at scoring late, critical goals in the Manchester United way, you just know they will score.

They have not been pretty, they have an annoying tactic of surrounding referees at every given opportunity trying to get people into trouble, but they have been better than us. More consistent and with a greater ability to hold their nerve.

Sadly, we have consistently failed to maintain composure, and with the play-offs on the horizon I pray this will not be our downfall when the chips are down.

I travelled to Bristol in hope that Southampton would make a mistake. They were 2-0 up in 12 minutes at Peterborough to put pay to that idea. We started in fine style, scored a good set-piece goal but couldn't get the second to deflate Bristol. Then Robert |Green, brilliant all season, lets one bounce over his dive.

It was one of only two on-target shots the home side had all night, but enough to give them a result to cling onto. Mark Noble was terrific again, James Tomkins not far behind.

We battered them from start to finish, but it became a frantic, uncoordinated performance. Desperate at times. Big Sam talks of the mass of chances we had, but what he really means is the amount of ball into the last third, and the box. It was a stream of crosses, low and high, and a failure to connect.

That, to my mind, is not real chances. We did not create clear-cut openings with astute passing as we did at Barnsley. I didn't actually feel that "we would score in a minute", even if you could not doubt for a second the effort of the players.

Bristol's away end is a dump, poor viewing, dirty, backless seats, and riot police separating us from the City nutters. We had old folk, loads of kids and women crammed into our section, too, not a pleasant experience.

But I drove home up the M6 with a heavy heart, listening to Reading's celebrations. It should have been us.

The fact that we have drawn nine of our last 19 games--just three defeats--says it all. That's 18 points lost. The three disasters that still kill me are Crystal Palace, Doncaster and Watford at home.

If we had won those three rather than drawn, we would be above Southampton still. And victory in those three was well within us, games we dominated but couldn't kill off.

We have also suffered from the level of transfer dealings done last summer when Sam arrived. For what ever reason, we could not attract top names, be it our image, Sam's image, the recent memory of a shambolic season or not enough money.

We signed players with injury history. At the time it was probably all that was available in our price range., there was little choice as Sam rightly moved on dozens of players from the previous regime.

Joey O'Brien, Guy Demel, Papa Bouba Diop, Abdoulaye Faye and John Carew all arrived with difficult injury histories, Demel barely played in Germany last season.

O'Brien has been outstanding to get his career back on track and Diop a major midfield influence, while Faye a big player in defence.. But the fears that these five may not last the season has come back to haunt us, they have all been injured for long spells at crucial times.

Demel does not seem capable of lasting a match, how ever good he may be. The constant changes to the side in recent months tells it's own story. And that is really not the fault of anyone, least of all the players. We were where we were with money and image.

These are some of the reasons that we have fallen short in the race for automatic promotion, as much as any perceived problems over Sam's tactics.

Sam keeps complaining about the strikers, and that may well have effected Nicky Maynard and Sam Baldock.

Neither were first choice signings. Would we have signed Maynard if we'd managed to land Nikica Jelavic, who had a major part to play in taking Everton the cup semi-finals. And would Baldock have been signed if other, more experienced, strikers been brought in?

They are both good prospects with pace, talent and skill. But they have not found the jump in class easy to handle.

And Stoke made it pretty clear that they did not consider Carlton Cole would get through a medical when they tried to sign him pre-season. He, too, has to be nursed through matches.

In the painful aftermath of relegation, if someone had offered me a play-off place then, I'd have taken it. Maybe there are thousands who would disagree with that. But this is a better performance than the last two seasons we spent in the Championship.

And I know it sounds like another defence of Big Sam. But we have suffered badly through injuries all season. Matt Taylor, Jack Collison, George McCartney, Winston Reid, Tomkins, Baldock, Faye, Diop, Carew, O'Brien, Demel, Julien Faubert and Gary O'Neil have missed significant spells.

I don't accept that we should have breezed through this division like Newcastle did. We have never had the required level of creative quality in midfield.

But people are already asking "where did it all go wrong?" while we still have a good chance of promotion. And the attitude seems to be that we will struggle in the play-offs because we can be so brittle under high pressure.

It's not the right attitude to be approaching the play-offs with. I must admit I fear for the reception and send-off the team will get heading into the play-offs after the Hull home game.

We've beaten Blackpool twice, registered a win over Cardiff and drawn twice with Birmingham, plus winning at Middlesbrough and Hull. Let's stick to the positives for now and believe we can do it, because if we don't believe how can the players be expected to?

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