Back in the early 90s I went with some friends to the Slough Festival, a lightweight indie festival with NME bands that we students thought were about the take over the world. It was a good day in our insular little world. Headliners were Jesus Jones who’d enjoyed a degree of success in America with songs like Right Here, Right Now and International Bright Young Things. This was their triumphant return to their homeland, so anticipation was high.
They opened with a blistering salvo of the hits that had brought them fame alongside a few classics, like Info Freako, which made them cool in the first place. As we swirled around in a breathless and sweaty mosh pit, singer Mike Edwards stepped up to the microphone and said ‘We’re going to play some new stuff now, it’s a bit rough, so bear with us.’
The second half of the gig was devoted to the band trying to figure out various chord progressions to songs we’d never heard before. There were long meandering jams which would clearly be cut in half by any studio producer and short bursts of electronica which was an idea looking for a song. There was at least one song about a big social issue played on an acoustic guitar. And that was it, they didn’t return to any hits, it was like being at a rehearsal with 12,000 other people.
There was an odd atmosphere leaving the Kassam after we’d obliterated Burton on Saturday. The first half was a riot and although I don’t think anyone was expecting us to sustain that kind of performance over 90 minutes, the second, by comparison, was much more of a trudge. We’d played all the hits in the first half, had it been the other way around, I suspect the place would have been a fevered buzz rather than the contented hum of a job well done. As we filed out, I looked down at the pitch to see a couple of players on their haunches looking into the crowd as if to say – ‘after all that, all you can think of is getting out of the car park?’
In many ways it was the perfect Karl Robinson performance, doing a 90 minute job in half the time is pretty much his modus operandi. I imagine he used to drive his mum mad tidying his room only for her to find everything shoved under the bed.
Although reverting to the ‘annihilation mode’ which had destroyed Charlton last month, it didn’t look like tactics would have a major bearing on the outcome. We were simply too mobile, too good. We are pumped full of quality, even if we do have a habit of breaking all our new toys. First Winnall, then Bodin, then Browne, now Baldock; that’s beginning to feel like a trend rather than a dose of bad luck. The fact we stockpile these players makes me wonder whether it’s deliberately priced into the way we play.
It’s fair to say Burton had all the motivation of a Russian conscript fixing a broken axel in a Ukrainian mudflat. From the opening moments they looked beaten as we sliced through them. At one point Luke McNally turned Joe Powell inside out and Powell looked like he was ready to retire on the spot.
It gave us the opportunity to try things that perhaps in a tighter game we wouldn’t have attempted. I didn’t know that Gavin Whyte hadn’t scored for nearly a year, which makes his twenty-five yard strike even more remarkable. Even Matty Taylor’s volley to make it four would probably have been a cut-back had we not been in such a comfortable position. In between Sam Baldock showed his effortless class.
Despite this, as I said on Twitter, the highest compliment you can give to Luke Mcnally’s performance is the fact the sponsors gave him man of the match despite us having three goalscorers. The sponsor’s basic rule of awarding man of the match is goalscorers, then players they’ve heard of (e.g. Cameron Brannagan), someone who was at least quite fast and exciting, the goalkeeper because they wear a different kit, then perhaps a substitute because they seemed to put some effort in. The fact McNally bucked that trend is all you need to know about the way he played.
Although the second-half petered out and became an exercise in preserving energy and avoiding injury – and largely failing to do both – it was a bit of a relief to go to a game that felt a bit more normal. Since Christmas, at home, we’ve had fifty-five goals in fourteen games, four crowds over 10,000, two last minute wins and, of course, all the emotion of Joey Beauchamp’s passing. Burton was a welcome plate of beans on toast in a world of rich restaurant food.
The emotional respite won’t last long; despite the biting wind, we can now plot a path into Spring and the end of the season. The last game of the season tends to take care of itself, so at home we’re looking at Ipswich, Sunderland and MK Dons. On the road we go to Plymouth and Rotherham amongst others. Despite a five point buffer, and despite everything that’s been achieved so far it’s still not an easy road into the play-offs. The next few weeks will come at us pretty quickly but for this team to come out of the season without some reward would be an absolute travesty.