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Survival of the fittest

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Gavin Strachan | 00:01 UK time, Thursday, 9 April 2009

Hi, hope you are all well
Apart from being a pivotal period in deciding the promotion and relegation issues, Easter is a welcome reminder to players that the season is coming to an end and that they will soon be able to rest their aching bones!
Whoever described English football as a survival of the fittest and strongest almost certainly did so with this hectic period in mind.

A lot of the physical niggles that players are experiencing at this stage of the season tend to be injuries such as tendonitis. You also notice a lot of players struggling with Achilles, knee and lower back problems (I include myself in that final category).

This is an annual occurrence for me, as it is for most players, which I put down to both the match and training pitches beginning to firm up again. Of course, the other explanation could be that my body is just a wreck.
When I look at former players and see the ailments that they are now suffering from following a career in football - the number of those with dodgy knees or hips - I always think: 'Now, there's something for me to look forward to'.
For those players who have played the majority of games this season, it is not so much the fact there are two games in three days, which is the case for most clubs over Easter that is the problem, but the cumulative effect of the 30-odd games before that.
In the current lower league climate, clubs are operating with smaller squads, meaning that the squad rotation - which is prevalent at higher levels of the game - cannot be utilised to the same extent. Mind you, as someone who is currently confined to the bench, I'd welcome a bit of rotation!
I'd be interested to hear what you think about the quality on display during the games over Easter. Is there a noticeable difference in the pace and also the quality of the game in the second of the two matches?
Of course, for teams striving to achieve promotion, or avoid relegation, it could be argued that this is a time of the year when performances are not generally deemed to be as important as results.

I am not referring to the mentalities of just the players and managers - I should imagine that the vast majority of the fans of the teams at the top and bottom will also be more than happy for their sides to pick up the points they need, without being enamoured by the way this is achieved.
We are also at the stage of the season when the nerves begin to jangle.
Man Utd's Wayne Rooney shows his disappointment

Part of the reason that we have seen league leaders, Manchester United, Wolves and Leicester City suffer a loss of form in recent weeks could be attributed in some part to nervousness on behalf of the players.
During the course of my own career I have experienced the nerves associated with going for promotion and also trying to stave off relegation. I know which of the two I prefer!
My spell at Hartlepool United included two consecutive seasons where, at this stage of the season we were trying to achieve a play-off position.

I thoroughly enjoyed the supposed pressure that was associated with trying to achieve this goal. It was made slightly easier for us at a relatively small club (no offence intended) such as Hartlepool where the expectation levels were not as great as they are at some clubs.
In comparison, the mood at relegation-threatened teams around the Easter period is one of sheer panic. Time is running out; as a rule you are not in the best of form and you don't really know where your next three points are coming from.
Of the present main promotion contenders in League Two, the ones who have made the biggest impression on me are Exeter, Brentford and Bury. All three deserve immense credit, in that their respective managers have managed to gel teams that are organised, hard to beat and above all consistent.

We at Notts County have the ability to play very well on our day - for example, we have picked up four out of six points in our matches against Exeter - but have struggled to put together the sustained run of good results necessary to get us in the promotion mix.
Peter Thorne scores for Bradford against Brentford

At the start of the season, one of my strongest tips for automatic promotion were Bradford City. While promotion via the play-offs is still a viable option for the Bantams, I am sure the thousands of City fans who attend their home matches on a regular basis - making them easily the best supported side in the division - will be a bit disappointed with recent results.
I am certain City have missed their injured winger Omar Daley - one of the best players I have come across at this level and certainly one of the quickest. However, they still have a very good squad of players to choose from, and as long as City sort out the defensive lapses they have been prone to in recent weeks, I still believe they have a good chance of going up.
One of the problems for Bradford City is that the atmosphere that their incredible fans create for home and away games can often inspire the opposition, and their followers. A good example was when we beat Bradford 4-1 at home back in February.
I have witnessed both the advantages and disadvantages of teams having a large following. When things are going well for the team there is no better feeling than being cheered on by a big crowd.

Every player wants to get on the ball and show what he can do. The flip side is when things are not going well for the team, fans become frustrated, causing some players to go into their shell.
I have found that this situation is often apparent at "big" clubs who have slipped down the football ladder and are now playing at a lower level.

It can understandably be very frustrating for the fans of such clubs to watch football which might be of an inferior standard to what they saw from their teams in better times.
Personally, I hope that things work out for Bradford City, and especially their manager Stuart McCall.  I am a big fan of his.

I'm sure many of us are familiar with the incident involving Stuart when he fell off a car, holding a can of beer after Bradford won promotion to the Premiership. If you are not, try looking it up on the internet, he didn't spill a drop!
He comes across as honest and hard working, just as he did as a player. He also recently stated that he would leave the club if they did not manage to secure a play-off spot, which is another reason why I hope they can be successful.


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