06:30PM, Thursday 16 July 2020
Excitement, apprehension, nervousness, a fear of the unknown.
Tension is building ahead of Slough Town’s behind-closed-doors play-off eliminator against Dartford on Sunday.
Joint manager Jon Underwood acknowledges that playing in front of an empty stadium at Arbour Park is likely to be strange for both teams, and believes the team that is best able to get themselves into a competitive mindset is most likely to prevail.
The Rebels had a taster for what Sunday might be like when they played in a friendly at National League North side Brackley Town last weekend. Underwood said they ‘got the most they could’ from the friendly, calling it a useful exercise, but he expects the magnitude of Sunday’s clash will focus the players’ mind on what is potentially at stake - promotion to the National League.
“I’m sure Sunday will have a pre-season feel to it, because there will be no one watching us,” said Underwood.
“But the magnitude of the game is so important and we’ve been building up to this game. No one is in any doubt as to the importance of the game. I think everything around us will make it feel more like a friendly, but the players should be able to get themselves to a more competitive place.
“I think the word that’s been used a lot is intensity. Some very important Premier League games haven’t had that intensity, even though teams are trying to qualify for the Champions League and things like that.
“So, no matter how much the players want it, and how much we want to be promoted, the surroundings might just take a slight edge off it.
“I think the team that comes closest to matching the intensity and energy levels they have in normal circumstances will have a big advantage.”
The Rebels will name a 17-man squad for Sunday’s clash, the 11 starters and six substitutes.
One of their players has already been ruled out of the fixture but, for the time being at least, the management team are keeping details of their match-day squad close to their chests.
Training has gone well over the past couple of weeks. Underwood said some players look fit and sharp while others less so. They’ve also played two in-house games to try and get that match sharpness back and had a run-through penalty shoot-out after Saturday’s game with Brackley, as the play-off ties will be decided by the lottery of a spot kicks after 90 minutes.
“The excitement is building now,” added Underwood. “It feels very close now. Preparations have been going well but there’s this element of the unknown hanging over you. We’ve had to rush into our biggest game of the season so far so there’s a nervousness which adds an extra edge to it.
“It will be an odd day with all the protocols we have to follow, things that we can or can’t do around the ground and, obviously, the lack of supporters. It’s going to be a strange experience there’s no doubt about that.
“Brackley was an incredibly useful experience. We were grateful for the opportunity to play the game, it was competitive but there wasn’t one bad tackle in the game as the last thing either side needed was an injury.
“It was played in the right spirit and we agreed to play a penalty shoot-out afterwards, regardless of the result, because that’s a possibility in these play-off games.
“Of course it’s not got the pressure of an actual game but just the process of everyone being in the centre circle and going up to take a penalty. It’s better than anything you can do in training.
“We got as much out of the game as we could, most of the players got around 60 minutes, and I’ll be honest with you, it was needed. There were some good performances and some not so good performances. Everyone’s in a slightly different place in terms of sharpness, but it’s been four months since they last played. One of the most pleasing aspects was that we came through it with a clean bill of health.”
Underwood hopes home advantage can play a part when the sides walk out for Sunday’s 1.30pm kick-off. The familiarity of the surroundings will be welcome on what’s likely to be an odd afternoon for everyone involved. But Underwood feels the team that better adjusts to the experience will stand the best chance of overcoming the hurdle and progressing to the play-off semi-final at Havant & Waterlooville on Saturday week.
“The benefit for us on Sunday is the familiarity we have with Arbour Park,” he said. “It’s where we’ve been training, it’s a pitch we know well, it’s a place where we feel comfortable.
“I’m pleased about that, we know what to expect from the pitch because we’re used to playing on it. It’s not like we’re having to adjust to another environment so that’s a positive. We’ve also played two in-house games, which has given us more time to work on things in a match scenario.
“We’re doing all we can to get to where we need to be. But until that game starts, you don’t really know where you are. Everyone likes to think that they’re fit, sharp and motivated but until we’re out on that pitch we don’t really know.”
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