Defender Corey Whelan is one of a group of players who are heading into the end of season play-off mix for the first time, with the team having secured their fifth spot finish and a double-header against Bradford with their 1-1 away draw at Sutton.
“Obviously 46 games can feel like a long time but it’s flown by for us,” he told us. “We’ve done really well, and the league position speaks for itself. We’ve got an opportunity with two at least, maybe three, to go and do something special. It’s good.
“I know people know we predicted this at the start of the season and I think that was a genuine belief. Obviously everyone loves to dream in the summer, so I’m pretty sure none of us would sit there and put down that we’d finish eighteenth.
“We were optimistic and we believed we could do it. We believed in the group we had, and it felt like if we had a strong pre-season we’d hit the ground running early doors, which I think we did, and that put us in good stead for the rest of the season. It’s been a good one for us so far.”
A big part of that has been what genuinely looks to be a tight-knit dressing room.
“You spend a lot of time with each other, more so than you probably do with your family at some stages, but we have lads who are breaking off in car schools so you’ve got a good connection and bond,” he explained.
“It’s a great group, there are no bad eggs as such in the dressing room, everyone is striving and pulling towards the right thing, so it does feel like a strong group and mentally we’re in a good place going into the weekend.
“There’s no sulking and I think that’s really important within a dressing room. If you have one or two – or maybe more sometimes – that are sulking or are down, it can upset things.
“Listen, everyone is disappointed not to play and stuff like that, they’re the frustrations that come with football, but I feel like everyone this year has just cracked on.
“Everyone within the group has known their role, whether that be supporting the lads from the stands, from the bench and coming on, or starting the game. As a collective it’s been a real big push towards where we want to be.
“We’ve seen that with how we deal with setbacks. They happen in the course of any season, you’re not going to go plain sailing all the way through, and I think we have been quite good at that in terms of bouncing back.
“Whether that be a defeat or a poor performance we have done quite well in putting that right, so hopefully we’ll go into the weekend full of confidence and ready to go.”
A player who the manager has deemed as extremely professional, and one he can trust, he admitted to fighting back the frustration as he’s waited for his opportunity to come around again, with a total of 30 appearances so far across the full season.
“You have to keep your focus, whatever the situation,” he insisted. “I don’t really know, I feel like it’s maybe just staying on a level and trying to find the happy medium kind of thing.
“I’m not necessarily happy if I’m not playing, because that’ll never be me as a person. If I’m not playing I’m frustrated, of course I am, I’m a human being, but there’s a bigger picture to my frustrations, if you know what I mean.
“It’s a club, it’s a collective, it’s a whole, so there are times through a season where it is tough. There are lads in there who have been through it, some will be having it at the moment, because you’re not playing, you’re not happy, but I think it’s a case when you aren’t selected of looking at how you can affect it, how you can you stay on top of your routine every day so that you’re ready and helping other people at the same time. That’s how I tend to go about my work.
“Thankfully, I’ve had to wait, but I’ve got the run of games at a crucial part of the season and it’s been good for me to come into the team. When I wasn’t playing you have frustration, anger, stuff like that, but you’ve just got to stay on top of it.
“Your chance can come at any point and if you haven’t done the small little details whilst you’re not playing, when you do play it can catch up to you. I’m really happy to be back, part of it and involved.”
And that desire to do his bit for the Blues saw him turn down a move that would have benefited him financially during the January transfer window.
“It was a difficult decision, but in the end I decided that because I’d been with the club the best part of 18-months at that point, and the club was in a good place when the offer came in, that the right thing to do was to stay,” he explained.
“Football changes so quickly, you can be at one place one minute and then you’re completely gone, and I just felt like I owed it to myself to stay. Like I say, the club was in a great place and last year it wasn’t, and I was a part of that as well.
“I think it would have been wrong for me to go. I know things are out there that the financial reward was better, but that didn’t make any difference to me. I wanted to be part of a play-off chasing team, or an automatic chasing team, so that was where my decision was at. I decided to stay and thankfully I’m happy that I did.
“And I’ve worked with the gaffer since last February, when he first came in, so me going to a new team in January would have been completely brand new again. I would have had to get used to a different style of play quite quickly, because it’s not like the summer where you get a pre-season.
“The gaffer does trust me, I’d like to think that he can rely on me when I’m called on, so it is part of your thinking. I was in quite a settled place at that point, I’d talked to various people about my decision, and they said that whatever I felt was right it would be the right thing to do.
“I always feel that if there’s even just 1% of you that doesn’t want to do it then you shouldn’t do it, because if you’re not all-in you could end up going there and not giving everything they need you to give to that cause. I thought yeah, I’m not 100% into leaving the club, so I’m just going to stick with it.”
And that decision brings him to this end of season push.
“These are the games you want to play in,” he said. “As a kid growing up I think everyone would say the same thing. Games with no pressure are just another game of football, so if the pressure from this is the magnitude of it, with it being on TV, or whatever it is, it’s still pressure and we know that as a group.
“We’re not naïve enough to think that it’s not a big pressure game but these are the ones we want to be involved in. I feel like everyone in there is just raring to go really.
“There’ll be nerves, but I think mine is more of an anxiousness about the result. You just want everything to go according to plan, but life isn’t always like that, and football is certainly not like that.
“There are no guarantees but we’re ready to go into the game in good spirit. In terms of me, nerves wise, there’ll be a few, probably. I’ve never played in a play-off semi-final before so come six o’clock on Sunday night I might be a bit different, but I’m just trying to stay relaxed and calm.
“I’m trying to visualise and think about how I’m going to affect the team. That’s how I prepare really. And obviously we know what two good performances could mean. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it, it’s hard not to really, particularly when there’s a lot of noise from the outside.
“I was only with my family yesterday and all they spoke about was Wembley, they didn’t mention Bradford away, so it’s like, hold on, we’ve got to win the games first. Like I say, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it, but I don’t think you can get too carried away or too far ahead of yourself because we’ve got two legs and Bradford are a good team.
“We’ve played them twice this year already so we sort of know what they’re about. We’ll go out there, give it our best shot, give it a real go, and we’re in a good state physically and mentally to do that. I’m looking forward to it.”
It all becomes a reality, of course, just minutes before kick off when the teams are called out into the tunnel.
“It’s hard to say how you deal with that because every game is different,” he commented. “I feel like for some games you’re in the tunnel and your legs feel brand new and it’s a different kind of feeling.
“On other occasions you feel a little bit leggy and you’re asking yourself how you’ll find a way to get yourself motivated and going properly. Everything is different but come Sunday, with the noise and stuff, if that doesn’t motivate you then I don’t really know what will.
“You want to play in front of 20,000+ people, with over 2,000 of them ours, so come that point I think everybody will be just ready to go out there and put a performance on. I can’t wait.
“We want to get it done properly. You don’t want to be that team that nearly did it and you’re known as the nearly men, and they’re saying we nearly got over the line. We don’t want to be that.
“We’re here for a reason and we believe over two games that we can come out on top and get a trip to Wembley. Everybody at the football club wants that, the fans, the players, the staff, everybody’s families, so we’ve just got to get out there and give a good account of ourselves on Sunday.
“We know there are two legs and it’s still all to play for after Sunday night, so the first part of the task is to make sure we do that first leg properly.”