Before other events took over on Saturday, I was formulating an idea about how culture overrides tactics. Immediately before the win over Charlton, Karl Robinson’s selection was questioned by quite a few people. The received wisdom was that a lack of full-back cover coupled with Steve Seddon’s perceived lack of form had forced Robinson into adopting a tactic which might best be described as ‘so many wingers, so few wings’. His all-out entertainment plan looked a high risk way of facing a team like Charlton.
Which, of course, it wasn’t – there’s a culture instilled within the squad which pushes the team towards starting quickly. Eleven of our seventeen league wins this season have seen us score in the opening half-an-hour, six of our nine defeats have been in games where we’ve failed to make an early breakthrough.
That culture compels us to play with high energy, regardless of the tactics we play. It has consequences, it’s hard to sustain so we can become vulnerable, but it generally works, so even when the tactics seem wanting, we’ve got a chance. With Charlton, the quick start paid such dividends it’s hard to say whether the tactical adjustments made a significant difference or not.
We were quick out of the blocks against Crewe as well. It made sense to get amongst them, you feel any team floundering at the bottom of the table would be susceptible to an early breakthrough and were likely to crumble under pressure.
After a couple of early chances, the pressure eased, the patterns of play settled. This is the point where we’ve been caught out before or lost our way a little. Crewe, like Accrington a couple of weeks ago, don’t really need to prove anything, a point against the team fourth in the table would be a solid result, if opportunities come, that’s a bonus. If not, then so be it. They’re happy to wait for us to make mistakes.
Despite the lack of breakthrough, half-time came and there was nothing to worry about; the law of averages suggested a goal would come. But it didn’t and the game edged into that anxious period where you wonder whether we might run out of ideas.
That’s the point when something needs to change, but all our obvious impact players – Sykes, Whyte, Williams – were already on the pitch. Others – Browne, Bodin and Henry – were at home. Nathan Holland was an option, but you might describe the rest of the bench as ‘closers’ – better at closing a game out than sparking it into life.
It was hard not to think we could do with a Joey Beauchamp-type, who scored a critical goal at Gresty Road in the penultimate game of the 1996 promotion season, we could have done with his ability to turn games on their head.
And then I thought, he’d have probably hated that, I’m sure he loved to play and score, but to perform on cue, to ‘turn it on’, to commoditise his talent, these were big contributing factors which made life so difficult at West Ham and then Swindon. He just wanted to play for his favourite team.
It may ultimately be a necessity for a player to be able to do that, a product of being a professional, but does any flair player wants to be an impact player? It’s difficult to turn something which is instinctive into something which is conscious and controllable, even if the best players are the ones who can find consistency.
So, even if the desire is always to turn to any available elfin sprite who happens to be wrapped up in a padded sports coat and fluorescent tabbard, perhaps on this particular night it’s fitting that we ended up turning to the most unlikely game changer – Ciaron Brown.
I had filed Brown’s signing in a big box labelled ‘Bodies in the building’ – it reminded me of those long-forgotten announcements of Johnny Giles, Sam Allardyce’s grandson and pretty much everyone Michael Appleton signed in the first half of the 2014/15 season. We needed some defensive cover and were running out of time, Brown fitted the bill.
It was difficult to switch from the emotional outpouring of Beauchamp’s passing to the regular grind of League 1, but it was refreshing that an anti-Joey, a counter-cultural member of the squad should be the one to break the deadlock and seal the three points. It reminds us that heroes can come in all shapes and sizes.