One of my favourite facts recently is that even after our defeat to Charlton on Tuesday, this season had been our best start in the league under Karl Robinson. This wasn’t an attempt to excuse our form, it was simply a curiosity given our meagre points total and league position.
It’s difficult to say exactly when the hoodoo was broken in 2018 given that there was also an eight-game sequence in October in which we didn’t win. Last year, there was a very clear change of direction in a 3-0 win over Tranmere. That was followed by a draw with Bolton and then a remarkable sequence of thirteen goals in 3 games which was the catalyst to a successful season.
Fleetwood away was never a likely candidate for such a revival and really just served to deepen the disquiet, or is it just apathy? The structural issues remain evident – defensively we’re lacking, we need the kind of steadying influence and leadership provided by people like John Mousinho and Jamie Mackie and the pressure on our potent attacking force – which is surely the answer to our defensive issues – is starting to tell. Against a unit as robust as Fleetwood, it would have taken something very special to turn the tide.
While it’s frustrating to hear Karl Robinson bemoaning his injured players – injuring midfielders is one area he excels at – we do need a bit of luck. The two games we have in hand are both winnable and at home; that would take us into mid-table. The opening sequence of games have included teams currently at the top of the table – Sunderland, Charlton, Fleetwood, Lincoln. I’ve said before that if we’re to harbour aspirations of promotion, these are teams we should be competing with, but I’m also increasingly of the view that survival rather than promotion is the first priority while the world wrestles with the pandemic.
We’re not even likely to survive on current form and we need a Tranmere-type game to jump start the machine. That first opportunity should come on Tuesday with Rochdale offering an opportunity to get a solid win under our belt. More importantly perhaps, we need to break the sequence of conceding two goals a game; even if we do register a MK Dons-style high scoring narrow victory, that defensive frailty will continue to eat away at our confidence. You could see the it ebbing away after just 45 seconds on Saturday when Fleetwood scored.
But if we do get that boost it won’t be supercharged by the fans as it has been previously. Fans provide advocacy to the players, an encouragement that a system is worth pursuing. Moves rarely turn into goals, passes are frequently misplaced or intercepted – the key to a successful team is that they believe in what they’re doing and are able to pick themselves up and try again. The fans can help overcome those doubts.
Football is evidently a low priority for the government, so it seems unlikely they’ll be rushing to find a way to get fans into grounds even after the latest lockdown is eased. It seems likely to me that we’ll need more than a month to get on top of it, and any easing will be very slow. I don’t see us being back in stadiums before the spring at the earliest when the season is nearly done. So, if the advocacy doesn’t come from the fans, the resolve will need to come from within.
The club, led by Karl Robinson, has been an exemplar in recognising the issues of mental health which can range from mild stress to chronic depression. But, recognising the issue is only half the story, when faced with a mental challenge, finding resilience to control and overcome it also needs to be part of the equation.
In a sense, the first lockdown was easy, everyone was doing the same thing, keeping communications open were important for those moments when it all became too much. This second lockdown is likely to be more challenging; for some it will mean a return to the stasis of the spring, for others no change at all, for some professions, like football, a heavily adapted norm. The reason players keep making runs, keep trying passes is because of the lure of the rush of scoring and winning, something which is made more potent by the existence of fans. They need to find a reason to want to do that again, even when the prospect of success seems beyond them.
We are neither scoring nor winning, but we still need to make the passes and the runs, that isn’t going to come from an external source, it has to come from within the squad. Character, I think they call it.