One of my favourite films is the 1983, ahem, ‘masterpiece’ War Games. In it, a teenage computer nerd (Matthew Broderick) hacks into a government computer thinking he’s accessing the latest computer games. The ‘game’ he plays turns out to be a simulation of global thermonuclear war which teaches a government supercomputer how to respond to a Russian nuclear attack.
Inadvertently, the game creates the perception that the US is under attack in real life putting the US military on red alert. As the prospect of World War 3 edges ever closer, the computer tries to calculate a strategy to counteract the imminent apocalyptic threat. With every scenario broadly advocating blowing everyone to kingdom come, to teach the computer about the futility of war, the nerd gets the computer to play an infinite number of unwinnable game of noughts and crosses.
I’m beginning to see a parallel here with the complex programming of our current squad. There’s a gaping weakness which everyone can see and nobody can fix. Matty Taylor’s opening goal against Bristol Rovers was the fifteenth time in nineteen games that we’ve taken the lead this season, the tenth time in the opening half-an-hour. Sam Finley’s response before half-time was the sixth time the second goal was an equaliser. As has been the common pattern this year, a strong start was followed by a period of collective narcolepsy, something we seem unable to combat.
It isn’t a terminal flaw; generally speaking we’ve been very good this season and are in a strong position. It’s a simple reminder that, at this level, as much as we want to believe our team is an all-conquering machine, the reality is that nobody playing at this level is close to being perfect. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this before any streak of arrogance skittles us.
Around the hour, we burst back into life, chances flowed, everything clicked, Marcus McGuane showed why teams like the biggest teams have taken him on in the past. The move that led to his goal was flawless in its execution. Then we were rampant, Matty Taylor hit the post and bar within a minute, at one point we broke clear with Williams, Sykes and Whyte marauding forward with menace before Cameron Brannagan nearly Peter Levened it into the top right-hand corner. The game became a full-throttle and very entertaining FA Cup tie. Then Brannagan tried from range again, then again. Each attempt was less effective and analogy to our whole performance. The purple patch began to pass, the little imperfections crept back in.
Everything that previously attracted McGuane to Barcelona, Taylor to Bristol City, Whyte to Cardiff and Williams to Fulham overwhelmed Rovers for a while but critically, the third goal didn’t come.
As the winded Rovers gulped in mouthfuls air trying to catch its breath from the onslaught, from the bench appeared Boden, Forde and Agyei to replace Whyte, Taylor and Sykes. Any triple substitution is a big statement, was Karl Robinson trying to get under the skin at the odious Joey Barton? Playing to the crowd by giving Matty Taylor his standing ovation? Or cocking a snook at what he oddly described last week as our ‘second derby’? Whatever it was, he seemed to overlook that the game wasn’t yet definitively won.
The grand gesture destabilised the team, momentum shifted from putting Rovers to the sword to focus on re-constituting the team mid-flow. All the while there was the prospect of someone making a silly mistake or Rovers pulling off something unlikely. The margin of error was too narrow for us to be showboating.
Karl Robinson focussed on Hanson after the game, but he was just the fall guy – when you make that many changes that quickly, the likelihood is that something will malfunction. It just happened to be Hanson at the centre of the penalty award, but it could have been anyone in that position. Had the changes been introduced more gradually, it would have been easier for the team to adjust and the more catastrophic mistakes would have been less likely.
Like every team at this level, we have inevitable and unavoidable weaknesses baked into who we are. It’s fine, and nothing to worry about, but we need to stay focussed and manage that risk. From the jaws of victory we seemed to forget who we are, and for that we paid the price.