In some ways the whole purpose of our existence is to leave things behind; for some, it may be by having children, for others; ideas and memories. In many ways, a football club is the product of its past; a vessel for collecting memories sustained through their re-telling from one generation to the next. It manifests itself in our matchday routines, our symbolic artefacts of shirts and scarves, and our embellished stories of away trips and famous wins.
Without being fed a steady stream of new memories, the club would eventually fade away to meaninglessness. We never fully lost the connection, but it has withered over the last year. Last night felt like we were picking up a dropped thread; resuming that interrupted flow.
The game against Blackpool was intended as a great re-connection of the club to its fans. When the pandemic first hit, we fantasised about this day as an instant return to normalcy, as if the virus would surrender and its damage be instantly repaired. Sadly, pandemics follow their own path; there would never be an overnight return to how it was, it was always going to be gradual and imprecise and maybe never fully complete.
I arrived at the ground, passing signs for the vaccination centre, and saw several familiar faces making their way to the stadium. The crowd, stripped of the day trippers and casuals that dilute the regular faces, was both reassuringly familiar and strangely intense, there was simply nobody I didn’t recognise. It was like a sitcom Christmas special that had no extras and too much budget for guest cameos.
With the attendance plan meticulously organised to maximise the crowd, the atmosphere was curious. The aesthetic reminded me of populating a Subbuteo grandstand with a pack of 5 figurines, it was the maximum crowd possible, but regimentally inauthentic.
Normally for home games, there’s a reassuring hum of routine, but instead there was a joyous novelty like it was an away game. Without opposition fans, and with the sunshine, benign partisanship and everyone spread out, it felt like a bucolic pre-season friendly.
Underpinning all this was the purpose of the game itself, in many ways the play-off was hidden from sight. We were happy to be back at the ground and attending a game, there was little space for any big game angst.
Despite a bright start and an early chance for Mark Sykes, Blackpool altogether looked more prepared for the actual challenge of fighting for promotion. For them, the result meant more than the occasion.
Nothing was better illustrated than Luke Garbutt. I saw him once at Chieveley Service Station waiting to be picked up for our trip to Bristol Rovers when he was on loan to us from Everton. He was slim, good looking and well groomed; standing outside a West Cornwall Pasty Company concession, he reminded me of an estate agent who lived with his mum and spent all his disposable income on his car, its insurance and clothes. He still looked like that at Ipswich last season, but now at Blackpool he looks like he sustains himself spearfishing salmon on the Yukon using a canoe that he’s hand whittled. His beard is full, his hair is long, unkempt, and held back with an elastic band. He looks about a stone of muscle heavier. It’s like he’s decided it’s time to knuckle down and make something of his life.
As we toiled to get a foothold, their first goal was greeted with an eerie silence. I waited for the delayed distant cheer of the away following, but it was if the goal had been disallowed. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t register as a problem, deep down, I didn’t think it’d been given. It wasn’t until the second goal that I snapped out of it and realised the prospect of promotion, the whole reason for being there, was rapidly slipping away.
The opening goal resulted from a howling error from Josh Ruffels, and the second from a raid down his left flank which he seemed happy to watch admiringly from afar. Apparently he’s destined for the Championship next season, but he looked lightweight compared to Garbutt. After the game, Steve Kinniburgh pointed out that he’s nearly 28, a senior professional even though he still looks like a clean-cut prospect. The whole team does; neat, tidy and talented, like they’re trapped in a bubble where people never grow up.
All over the field Blackpool had the physical maturity we’re missing; Ellis Simms was mobile and powerful up front, making Elliot Moore look like he needed to grow a bit. They were organised too, a single unit; during lulls in the crowd you could hear the bench barking for them to ‘hold’ or ‘move’ and they did as a disciplined, singular whole. We could neither go through nor find a way around. Brandon Barker had moments early on and Sykes found his way through the cracks, but otherwise we were constantly out muscled and manoeuvred, barely able to land a glove on them. It reminded me of Rotherham last year when we were strong-armed to a comprehensive defeat before half time. This doesn’t belittle Blackpool’s ability; they look far more equipped for the challenge than we do.
Before the game, we were billed as the division’s entertainers and Blackpool as a dour defensive unit. While we have a lot of fun playing against the lower sides; it was pretty obvious which approach is more effective to achieve the long term goal. We entertain, they progress.
There’s still a second leg of course; let’s not give up too soon, but the result reminded us that as far as we’ve come under Karl Robinson, we’re at a point where we need to make some tough decisions about leadership, strength, organisation and pragmatism. If we want to compete at the top of this level or above, we may need to sacrifice a bit of style to find a bit more substance.
Being critical feels desperately unfair in so many ways; what the team have achieved is as remarkable as the way they’ve achieved it. In a grim year, they’ve provided plenty of highs, and for that we should be grateful. They don’t need to explain or dwell on what went wrong, we just got found out; a reminder that against the eight other teams in the top nine, we’ve now won just once in eighteen league, cup and play-off attempts.
Last night’s game was a much welcome re-connection, even if it wasn’t the party we envisaged, it was a step in the right direction and for that we should be content. Maybe Friday will bring a miracle, and it will all be forgotten, but more likely it won’t. If a football club is a vessel for memories, perhaps what we’ll draw from the result is the lessons we need to learn in the future.