On Saturday morning I still didn’t know whether we were playing Peterborough at home or away. It’s all pretty much the same these days, the only journey you take now is into your junk folder to see if an access key has been sent to you or not.
I’m torn on the ubiquitous availability of games nowadays; I appreciate that it’s the next best thing to being there but sometimes I wish it was all a bit more out of reach. I think I’ve said before, I don’t toggle the radio commentary that comes with the feed preferring whatever local radio commentary there is. Otherwise every game would seem almost exactly the same.
Styles vary; Lincoln’s commentators avoided naming Oxford players completely, Accrington’s were well versed, Peterborough’s had picked up concerns about Sam Long and made that the central fact to be repeated as frequently as possible.
There are common themes; the play-off defeat, of course, is presented as if we are a Championship side in the wrong division. Players like James Henry, Matty Taylor and Sam Winnall give extra weight to our reputation. More than once, the commentators have made a point about Liam Kelly being on loan from Feyenoord, such an exotic beguiling creature.
This promotes a disparity between clubs which doesn’t really exist. Steve Evans last week and Peterborough this liked to claim that we’re operating with a stratospheric budget even though Posh have spent more heavily this summer. In many departments we do seem to have the assets to match the reputation – we create chances – but we’re not the full package.
Putting aside our defensive problems for a bit, have we recovered from the emotional trauma of the play-off defeat, and the intensity of that three-week campaign? Did those games help or hinder our pre-season preparations; many clubs have had months of rest, whereas ours has been disrupted.
Above all, there’s the loss of the emotional thrust that comes from having a crowd behind you. It seems unlikely that we’d ever simply outspend the division. Despite claims by others, success would in part be down to the momentum we can create as a club, not just a team.
Let’s be charitable, the pieces are still falling into place. Maybe there’s a readjustment going on; before lockdown we had five wins in a row propelling us into the play-offs but before that we’d won one in eight. Much like Wycombe, our play-off place owed a lot to timing. With hindsight, and looking at Wycombe’s start, perhaps the defeat was no bad thing.
There are other chinks of hope; it’s difficult to know how much home and away makes a difference, but we’ve only played once at home and teams like Peterborough, Sunderland and even Gillingham are clearly going to be competitive this season. On the other hand, we do need to be competing with these teams if we expect to make the play-offs or better.
There’s also time now to settle the squad into the season. Time will tell as to the wisdom of the decision to not replace Rob Dickie, but the die is set, the players can at least focus on their performances without having to think about the disruption of new players coming in. Perhaps, once fit, a back-four of Clare, Atkinson, Moore and Ruffels will become a solid unit.
The key now is to do the opposite to what we instinctively want to do. Rather than panic, we need to stay calm and ease into the season. We feel like a dragster which is so powerful its wheels have ripped off the second the engine engaged. Time to reattach the wheels, ease off the power a little and accelerate away more slowly.
The prospect of the derby next week leaves me completely cold and, ironically, it’s likely to be the first game I miss this season, at least in part. I’m OK with that; for me it’s always been a visceral experience, outside of the fan experience Swindon doesn’t stir much emotion. In a sense, that might be the best attitude; objectively on paper MK Dons and Swindon at home are both winnable games. Getting too emotional about it – with Karl Robinson being an ex-MK manager, of course – adds weight to these fixtures we don’t need.
Our current struggles may be no bad thing; we could do with not being the Harry Potter of League 1 – The Team That Would Be in The Championship, The Team That Played At Wembley In A Pandemic with The Boy from Feyenoord.
Despite being bottom of the table, there’s no sense that Karl Robinson’s position is under any threat from within. Managers are probably safer now than ever before because clubs can’t afford the compensation. But with next week’s game now looming, we risk teetering on the edge of a crisis.
Quite how that will manifest itself is hard to tell. There’ll be no barrage of abuse from the stands, no toxicity hurled in the direction of the technical area, but Karl Robinson is a rare manager in that he thinks like a fan. He knows what this means and is all too aware of the difficulties fans are facing more broadly as a result of the pandemic. He’ll be desperate to win the derby for us, to avoid being the man who broke the spell. But, he needs to avoid trying too hard, too much overcompensation could blow up in his face. This was something that Chris Wilder was a master at; while Paolo DiCanio lost his mind in the ballyhoo, Wilder stuck to a game plan and even with a weaker team masterminded three famous wins. Keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and all that will be key. The next week feels important, otherwise the biggest crisis the club could face may be inside Karl Robinson’s head.