At one point during a break in the second half against Plymouth on Saturday, Karl Robinson animatedly delivered some coaching points to whoever was standing closest to him.
I say coaching point, it may have been a demonstration of the latest move he’d learnt at his online Tai Chi class. He then brought another player into the discussion, then another. By the time he called over Steve Seddon, who was idly supping on his water bottle waiting for the re-start, five players were involved.
Was he trying to make a simple point applicable to half the team, an elaborate tactical adjustment involving five players? Or, was it simply an overspill of nervous energy cascading out of him as the game progressed?
Robinson’s hard to judge; his understanding of football is clearly no fluke, he articulates what a football club is like no other manager I’ve seen, in interviews he can ramble incoherently and barely contain his emotions. It’s hard to know just which of his theatrics are pre-meditated; are the elaborate shrugs and pedantic arguments about his toe being on or over the white line of his technical area a deliberate ploy?
There is a view that the manager’s job is done once the players take to the field, but maybe there’s more to it than that, extending to cajoling players, strategising against opponents and destabilising the officials as the game progresses. Or maybe it’s just shouting your frustration into the night’s sky until someone does something you intended for them to do.
After it was revealed that he was waiting for the results of a PCR test, he was conspicuous by his absence against Shrewsbury Town. Evening league games are often sedate affairs anyway, so generating an atmosphere or sense of urgency can be difficult, harder still without the manager chiding his team like the owner of a racing tortoise that’s going off course.
I was hoping to see him patrolling the touchline via an iPad strapped to a broom handle taped to a remote controlled car. Instead we got Craig Short and John Mousinho studiously observing the proceedings like junior chess champions. It was like the rhythm section of a band without a front man; there was a pleasant groove but we really needed someone in gold lurex hot pants doing the splits.
The performance matched the politeness on the touchline. Shrewsbury didn’t seem in any rush to take the points and neither were we. There have been complaints about the atmosphere at the stadium this season and this was unlikely to stir anyone’s loins.
Apparently Robinson had his say at half time via FaceTime, presumably throwing tea cups around his kitchen as his wife dived to protect their best monographed crockery. However he did it, it seemed to work, we came out with a renewed sense of urgency and a desire to take a few risks.
Where we’ve turned to people like James Henry or Marcus Browne to change games in the past, it was surprising to see Mark Sykes breaking lines and making the difference. There was a great tweet on Saturday describing him as a great footballer who can’t play football; a little harsh but I get the sentiment, he can flatter to deceive. This season he seems to be maturing, whether it’s talking to frustrated fans at Wimbledon or as he did last night, helping to fill the void of enthusiasm left by Robinson.
Sykes’ goal was the classic example of the value of having a punt, his strange skiddy daisy cutter was like a Bake Off contestant adding turmeric to a cheese flan – it could have been a disaster, but actually made all the difference. In what was an insipid atmosphere, we needed someone to give us a spark. Cameron Brannagan, a ball of energy that can be hard to channel, added a second to seal what was ultimately a poorer display than Saturday, but with a better outcome. Go figure.
There are many people who get frustrated by Robinson’s clowning, but as he’s likely to be absent from the training ground and touchline for the next 10 days at least, we may need to dig a little deeper to find the reserves of creative energy that will keep the momentum going over the next couple of weeks.