Notts County's season has finally come to an end, two weeks after the regular campaign was wrapped up.
The fact we managed to extend the season by making the playoffs is obviously a sign that we have been heading in the right direction, and on the positive side it is nice to have been anxious about things in the top half of the table instead of the bottom like we had been for the previous four seasons.
And of course, just the fact that we lost to Coventry City over two legs is no disgrace. After all, they are a big team with good players and a big fanbase, so had it just been a case of "Notts were just not as good", that isn't a big deal in itself.
Let's face it, Notts have been punching above their weight for much of the season. An incredible first half of the season eventually petered out due to players running out of steam (namely up front), inconsistency (players putting in displays better than their general quality would muster, only to revert to type the following week), the odd failed tactical tinker (4-5-1) and making a pig's ear of the winter transfer window (Mason Bennett's signing was made in good faith and the player is quality but there is always going to be that risk in recruiting injury prone players).
All that considered, being able to finish in the playoffs was a pretty fair assessment of our season, a team largely in transition and seeking consolidation after several traumatic years doing superbly well through a mere change in circumstances off the pitch (a good owner) and in the dugout (let's not forget that Kevin Nolan is a rookie in managing terms so he's only going to get better with experience, a prospect which is pretty exciting).
However, let's look at what happened over the two legs against Coventry. The first leg should have ended 1-0 to us. Their penalty late on should not have been given, pure and simple.
Had the refereeing been adequate, Coventry would have gone into the second leg a goal down and there could have been a different game altogether.
But okay, let's say we led and we still got an awful first half in which we conceded early on and again midway through, as per what happened yesterday. Jorge Grant's goal would have levelled the tie and Jonathan Forte's goal - which was onside - would have put us back in front. The momentum in both the game and the tie would have been with Notts, while Coventry would have been panicking, and who knows what could have happened. Would Maxime Biamou have scored his second? Even if he did, would Notts heads have dropped as they did, knowing they were still in the tie?
Football is a very emotional and psychological game. One goal, or sending off, will completely change the heads of both sets of players as well as those of the fans, with a ripple effect.
And likewise, having a goal chalked off, or an illegitimate goal being awarded, has a similar effect - witness England's capitulation in 2010 against Germany when Frank Lampard's goal so flagrantly crossed the line and wasn't given - subconsciously, the England players could have been thinking "we've been screwed out of a perfectly good goal - what's the point of carrying on?".
The truth is, the football fandom has become desensitised to awful refereeing decisions, so when a team gets screwed over in the big moments, it's usually self-justified as "oh well, these will even out over the course of a season" or "yeah but we weren't good enough overall".
Sorry, that's not good enough.
The bottom line of the game is to outscore your opponent, and goals are hard to come by in football (compared to, say a rugby or basketball game) so each one needs the utmost scrutiny in accordance with the laws of the game. If we're operating on whatever laws the referee conjures up at any given moment, you're not getting a proper game of football.
And sure, you can justify it to yourself with excuses as a coping mechanism, but the cold hard truth is, we've been cheated. Not necessarily deliberately, but even through incompetence, we have been cheated out of what could have been a completely different outcome had the rules of the game been adhered to as, you know, they are supposed to be.
That's fine though, whatever. We'll justify it as "the will of the footballing gods", we'll channel our anger towards the players for being bad on the day / during the season, we'll wonder what could have been, and we'll go again next season slumming it at the likes of Morecambe and Forest Green. It's entertainment at the end of the day, isn't it? Shame football is more pantomime than Hollywood movie these days.