Our club is tormented by the ghost of Gavin McCann.
It's not the Badger's fault that his name has become a byword for a defensive substitution, but just as he came to symbolise the previous manager's terror of losing leads, so he's now coming to represent the current manager's inability to see a game out.
There was some tactical validity to Coyle's substitutions against West Brom: replacing the gasping goal-vortex that is Ngog, leading scorer Klasnic came on to link play in a 4-2-3-1 (and did so, sending Petrov through a couple of times with good angled balls), while Chung-Yong will always offer more effort than Petrov.
However, it didn't work, partly because simply standing in midfield doesn't make you a midfielder, Ivan, and partly because by Coyle's own admission the players weren't listening to him.
It's easy to say with hindsight that Vela could have come on to shore up the midfield. Being easy doesn't make it wrong. We needed an extra (energetic) body in there to help the knackered NRC and still-never-a-midfielder Mavis, and I've said a hundred times that switching to 4-2-3-1 isn't necessarily negative anyway. The only question would be which of the two shattered strikers to leave on - the gormless galloper or the one-paced warhorse. Klasnic can't lead a line alone and the new kid had been bumped from the bench to accommodate the returning Lee. But whoever ran the line, we needed to focus resources in midfield and look to build from a sensibly solid foundation.
One of the site's most venerable posters makes the very good point that making a defensive tweak to the system doesn't make it a defensive system. Sadly, our current manager seems as stuck in his ways as his predecessor.
I get where you're coming from, but this has been a consistent problem throughout the whole season. Substitutions with an attacking bias when we need a defensive one. When we're playing 442 and getting overrun with very tired or injured central midfielders in particular. And with only 18 minutes to go!
Now, it's not like we were already set up negatively and trying to defend a lead from the the start of the second half like Megson. Instead, all we need is some basic defensive pragmatism, the likes of which you'll see up and down the leagues every weekend when a team needs to defend a lead.
Consider the league leaders. Twice this week Roberto Mancini has made defensive substitutions and won games to nil. Ahead in the derby, he brought on Nigel de Jong for Carlos Tevez, then Micah Richards for David Silva; yesterday, to notable howls of derision from internet experts, he replaced Samir Nasri with De Jong at 0-0 and then again protected his lead by replacing Silva for Richards, who threw himself in front of everything. Try finding a City fan to decry Mancini's methods.
It's risky but far less risky than trusting to luck, or even to our chances of playing "you score four, we'll score five". We've conceded 75 goals in 37 matches, more than two per game on average, but only scored 44, just over one per game. We've scored the same number of home goals as Stoke, but conceded more than twice as many. That represents a fundamental imbalance. Coyle's sides can attack for fun, but they can't defend for shit.
As is so often the case in an imbalanced system, mistakes cost us dear. For the equaliser, Dedryck Boyata manfully chased the ball across the box. I'm not decrying that - he was putting his body on the line, just as Micah Richards had half an hour earlier at Newcastle. Sadly, he left a massive hole which nobody thought to fill. Lee had tracked back but was five yards off Morrison, doing nothing in particular. There just doesn't seem to be a hive mentality, a basic awareness of surroundings and determination to cover each other. In such cases you cannot play an open system.
And so to one more chance: glory or the death of a dream, win or bust (hopefully not literally). First, a horrific glance into the abyss as Blackburn host Wigan. We need Rovers to win, to give us another team we can feasibly stay above.
It's also 25 seasons since Wigan were in a higher division than us, an era of Bobby Campbell and John Thomas. I was a relative newcomer then, absorbing play-off defeats to Aldershot and 4-0 losses at Scarborough. It shouldn't ever get that bad again.
Shouldn't. I found those losses easier to adjust to, because in that galaxy-gazing gutter I had faith things would get better. I no longer have that faith, but not because we conceded an equaliser: I lost faith a while back.
"Faith is a euphemism for gullibility," notes Jonathan Meades: "it positions itself beyond proof." Over the last few months, during which I've often said we can stay up, I've preferred calm qualitative assessment to sleeve-hearted fanaticism (in either direction). There have been reasons we could have won the games we haven't. I've been able to read positive signs into certain aspects of our play, and more pertinently into poor aspects of our opponents. Not enough have come to pass.
Strip away the emotion and there's still a chance. We needed five points from the last four games, and we've got one more chance to get the three remaining. Stoke are a tired, stretched squad – although so are we – and there wasn't much worrying in their performance at QPR. They're strong down the middle but remain susceptible to wingplay and quick movement. I remain resolutely of the opinion that Coyle should drop a striker for Vela, shift Mark Davies forward and play 4-2-3-1.
Should, but probably won't. Beyond a brief spring enlightenment, our manager has put all his own faith in 4-4-2. It hasn't worked nearly enough. It hasn't worked enough when we're chasing a game we're drawing, and it hasn't worked enough when we're winning. The chill down your back at the Reebok is the ghost of Gavin McCann.