The new season often looks unfamiliar. Fans look refreshed, new shirts are worn, people are in shorts. Pitches are a lush, deep, green colour; benefiting from a couple of months loving preparation rather than the usual 48 hours of intense forking and watering.
There is a buzz of anticipation because months of football deprivation play tricks on the mind. We begin to believe that we cannot fail, forgetting that every other team is similarly preparing and determined to succeed.
In the stands, the singing area worked to a point; I suppose when you put yourself in a singing area there is an obligation, of sorts, to sing. During the first half it was noisy and vocal, although it couldn’t be sustained. Expected, given the energy needed to sustain 90 minutes of noise and the result on the day.
On the pitch, players look leaner; hair cuts are sharp, Alfie Potter’s beard seems to have become more proportionate to his face. Danny Rose looks like he’s been taking some miracle dietary substitute you see advertised on Facebook, his tan looks like he’s been attacked by a creosote spray. The players who last year looked like children, look like men, like they’d grown into proper footballers over the summer. The football is technically better – at least for a little bit. And, of course, there are new signings which I can’t tell one from another.
On the touchline the familiar questionable tracksuits of Chris Wilder (frankly, I can’t remember what Gary Waddock wore) were replaced by the suited Michael Appleton. Mickey Lewis was barely visible barreling around the technical area.
Nothing was more different than in the executive box. It was rammed full of suits wearing those garish yellow club ties. Some people I recognised, most I didn’t. There were wives, girlfriends looking like a lost wedding party. Some were self-consciously wearing Oxford scarfs which you suspect had been hastily purchased for the occasion. Were they investors? Officials? Or were they simply the family and friends of new regime offering moral support and coming to admire the owners’ new toy? Where did they all come from? And, will they still be here in November?
The area was so full that when Burton rolled in their winner just before half time, the phalanx Burton suits rose as one in their seats, not on the front row of the box as is usually the case, but about 20 seats to the left towards the open end. They seemed to have been ousted by the hangers on.
Nathan Cooper reinforced the sense of renewal by announcing the arrival of the players with a bellow of ‘A new era’. Things were different, of that there’s no doubt.
Different until a ball was kicked, that is. Then there was a distinct familiarity about it all – decent shape, good passing, no urgency and no goal threat. As a bloke near me said ‘we won’t concede many, but we’ll score even less’ which, by any measure, is a withering assessment.
Even after we fell behind and the game ticked past the hour there was no change of plan. We remained pathologically averse to crossing the ball.
Channel 4 once briefly ran a series called the Sex Inspectors where a couple of self-styled er, ‘sex inspectors’ would try solve the problems of couples whose sex lives were damaging their wider relationship. In one episode a couple had become consumed with role play, sex toys and dressing up.
The programme’s hook was for the experts to watch the couple in action and commentate on what was going on. If that sounds like fun, believe me it wasn’t. In this one episode, the bloke spent 25 minutes meticulously lacing up his girlfriend’s corset. It was all part of their ‘game’. She was pulled and yanked about and told off for not standing still until she got bored and cold. His obsession with dressing her up in ‘the right way’ meant he completely overlooked the objective of actually having sex with her.
That was us on Saturday; we were so obsessed with shape and technique that we’d forgotten to score any goals. Even into injury-time nobody was prepared to launch the ball into the box in one last attempt to salvage something. I don’t remember if the bloke and his girlfriend ended up launching the ball into the box to salvage something.
But, fans on the phone-in purred with appreciative sympathy. The ubiquitous ‘Dougie’, who might be one person, or perhaps, like Dr Who, lots of different people being a single character, carefully re-wrote history by claiming that Wilder and Lenagan would have come on and given excuses. To my mind Appleton’s assessment of us dominating was way off the mark, not an excuse, but misleading nonetheless. We were just compliant in failure.
Some of this is politeness towards the new regime, and nobody is suggesting that Appleton shouldn’t be given time, but a tame home defeat to Burton is not honourable in the way a cup defeat to a Premier League team might be. If you have ambitions of success, you don’t want to lose any more than 3 or 4 home defeats in a season. The first game is very early to be giving away one of your lives and to do it so cheaply has to be a worry.