As much as we may not want to believe it, football is increasingly predictable. Players and managers come from the same vast academies and are taught to similar FIFA approved standards. Money is the main differentiator between success and failure. Even then, the minimum stake in the game has been pushed so high it’s only the multi-billionaires that can disrupt the status quo.
I have a soft spot for Ipswich Town having supported them briefly in my unenlightened pre-Oxford days. I liked their kit and when they started winning trophies it was good being the only Ipswich fan in school. Bobby Robson and his meticulously crafted team brought success to an unfashionable club, I liked being part of that.
It’s unlikely that’ll ever happen again. At the top of the game, modern football seems to act as a data provider for other pursuits; betting, fantasy football, FIFA and Football Manager, this is where the fun is, the games themselves are entertainment products with mostly predictable outcomes.
When the rain battered Tuesday’s game, we witnessed a rare moment of unpredictability in an increasingly predictable sport. When the referee suspended play, Ipswich players stayed on the pitch to stay warm, Oxford players went off to the dressing room to stay warm, there was no precedent or protocol to follow.
The referee’s decision was understandable, considered and ultimately correct; we earnestly talk about player safety and it was true that Marcus Browne, Sam Long and Josh Ruffels all ended up sliding into tackles which were dangerously out of control. It was also clear the ball wasn’t running true but if you want evidence of the increasingly mechanistic nature of the game, just look at the pass Alex Gorrin played directly into the middle of the boggiest part of the pitch creating panic in our back line. Even the physical evidence in front of him couldn’t override the training that was ingrained into his muscle memory.
But it was more than that, the physics of the game changed; a referee’s judgement is based on a range of visual clues; how a challenge is made, how a player responds, the direction of the ball before and after the challenge. All those norms were washed away with the rain. The main talking point was John Mousinho’s challenge on James Norwood, it looked untidy, though Norwood took an age to go down. Could the referee definitively say that the mess was created by Mousinho, by Norwood or by the conditions?
Tactically there was no provision for the conditions. On Saturday against Rotherham there were clear tactical patterns and intent, on Tuesday it was impossible to know what each team was trying to do or whether there was any attempt to adapt their plans to suit.
On paper, the game was a key promotion match-up, with both teams’ season on a knife edge. In normal conditions, the fixture could have given some signals about the direction both teams were heading. Ipswich had just ended a run of 12 games without a win, we’d suffered two defeats on the bounce. Was their performance a sign of recovery? No idea. Was our performance a sign of decline? No idea. Did Nathan Holland seem quiet? No idea. Was Simon Eastwood rusty? No idea.
The conditions removed any capacity for informed decision making and the game descended into park football. Afterwards, Nick Harris claimed we eventually got ‘a decent game of football’. A game of football? Yes. Decent? Less so.
With the conditions dictating more than any individual could, once the game became playable, the first half became a long meaningless meander. In the second-half, we emerged with half a plan – with the swirling wind and wet pitch, the idea to shoot at every opportunity was a sensible one, but eventually even that petered out as the players were battered by the conditions. What could have been a significant and entertaining game simply descended from farce to non-event, by the time the final whistle came everyone just seemed happy for it to be over.
Karl Robinson came to terms with what was going on much faster than Paul Lambert. At one point there was a disputed throw-in, Lambert was apoplectic – a default for him – Robinson walked over smiling, grabbing him as if to remind him to stop applying normal rules to abnormal conditions. Robinson, the hyperbolic gobshite calming the cosmopolitan sophisticat, Champions League winner and former Premier League manager Lambert? It was that kind of night.