I walked to the stadium before yesterday’s game feeling quite optimistic; it seemed we were coming out of a tunnel. Since Christmas we’ve played teams which are currently second, third and fourth, plus Fleetwood, who we always find tricky, and Burton. In addition, there have been cup games to complicate the schedule. Peterborough, in seventh, brought that difficult sequence to an end.
Before kick-off, we had been unbeaten in the league during that whole period. Some were predicting we might not come out of that phase with a single point. Had we got a win, I think we’d have been happy with what we’d achieved.
A combination of the weather, dark nights and cup games make this part of the season stressful. Even in successful years, how we handled the first six weeks or so of the new year defined our season. 2016 and 2017 were successful, but it exhausted us and effected our run-ins. The other day Gary Neville talked about the ‘boredom’ of the middle of the season, even in successful teams – none of the freshness or expectation of the early part of the season, none of the excitement of the final push.
The day started badly with the Oxford Ultras getting into a spat with the stadium company over their flags. The handling of the Gordon Banks minute’s applause was messed up when there was nobody to announce it. The game started flat and disjointed and stayed there.
It’s easy to turn on Karl Robinson in defeats. To a large extent, he is accountable for the lack of drive in the team, though oddly, despite our position, that’s unusual with this particular set of players.
In a game that probably should have ended 0-0, the difference, of course, was the goal, but you can’t blame Robinson for that. The lapse in concentration has to be down to the players – it’s not like Robinson coached the team to leave Ivan Toney unmarked at a set piece. I can see many arguments for criticising Robinson this season, but yesterday, it was the players who have to take responsibility.
Jerome Sale went on a rant after the game about the toxic relationship between the club and the stadium company; something which extends to the fans. He’s right, it doesn’t matter who is at fault, there’s no escaping that performances are happening within a poisonous atmosphere.
His comments resulted from someone called Nedge, who made a key point that even if the relationship with the stadium company is bad, the club is in control over the relationship it has with the fans. The spat with the Ultras, which resulted in one flag being symbolically hung upside down, symptomatic of the problem.
Complaining is only part of the equation though; standing against how the club is being run is fair enough, but what do you stand for? Certainly, we want to be run on a financially sound basis with bills being paid on time. But only time will tell as to whether that’s been sorted or not. We want good players winning games, but with the transfer window closed, again, this won’t be solved quickly. Above all, we want belonging, we want to be friends with the club and for it to be welcoming. We want humour and warmth and empathy, it’s what we want the most and is what the club has greatest control over. For me, that’s where we are most lacking. Tiger’s distance and opaqueness, and Niall McWilliams’ stultifying offishness, makes the club difficult to love.
If anything, Karl Robinson over-compensates for those failings, he talks about heroes and excitement. He talks about the responsibilities that come with running a club and about history. ‘We run it on your behalf’ is how he put it last week. But he’s also got to be serious and methodical, he’s got to prepare players. He simply can’t be everything. You could sack him, but I think he needs help – not running the team, but removing the responsibility to uphold the whole club.
Ultimately, though, the Peterborough result leaves us just inside the relegation zone; that’s the reality. Many of our hardest games are behind us. I thought we might come out of the tunnel with a win, setting us up to ease towards safety. In fact, we’re in a dog fight. But it’s not all lost yet. We have players, we’re difficult to beat, relegation won’t bring any refreshment or cleansing, it puts us back to where we were before Michael Appleton. While there are so many big-picture issues to resolve, between now and the end of the season, we need to focus on preserving our League 1 position and not giving up on that.