When I was in the first year of secondary school, our PE teacher arranged a friendly against my old primary school. Ignoring the fact that, as an August baby, I was only three weeks older than some of those in the primary school team, I was excited about giving them a jolly good battering now we were bigger boys.
By half-time, we were 5-0 down. Despite having all the physical attributes to win the game, we ignored the fact that they played together every week and were an efficient, well-organised team with a clear focus. In effect, we forgot the objective of the game.
Last night’s defeat to Morecambe felt similar; as capable as the individuals in the team are, as a whole we were a hotch potch. We gave the illusion of dominance, but spent long periods not really getting anywhere. We’ve got plenty of ability, but players are out of position, others are in because of injuries and, in the case of the goalkeeper, we can’t make our mind up who’s better; Jack Stevens or Simon Eastwood. On the other hand, when they attacked, they scored, it really was that straight forward.
We’re missing the players who make the game simple, whose every move is purposeful, who can retain the clear headedness to remember the objective to secure three points, by any means necessary.
I remember towards the end of the 2015/16 season we’d taken the lead in a game, Jonjoe Kenny picked up the ball for a quick throw-in hoping to set up another attack, Alex MacDonald gestured for him to slow down. It gave me a wave of confidence that even in the heat of a promotion race, we were still in control. There was no rush, we could entertain, we could try and score more goals, but the bigger prize – promotion – could be more secure if we prioritised. Last night we needed someone to keep everyone focussed rather than scuttling around with a directionless fuss. we only found that rhythm once James Henry had come on, only then did we start to create clear chances.
In the closing minutes, searching for an equaliser, Jerome Sale said that a moment of magic was still possible. It’s true; look around the team and there were players who have had their moments this season – Sam Winnall against Sheffield Wednesday, Luke McNally against Ipswich, Nathan Holland against Portsmouth, Ciaran Brown against Crewe, but these aren’t the players who have delivered routinely every week, injuries mean we’re fielding a team of cameo players.
My grandparents had a print on their wall by the Dutch artist M C Escher, it’s a myriad of stairways that appear to go from the bottom of a building to the top. Follow the steps upwards and you somehow find yourself back at the bottom. As a child I’d spend ages trying to figure out how the illusion worked.
Last night felt like that, for all the passing and movement, the stepovers and dinks, all those progressive moves, we never seemed to get closer to the goal.
Promotion is built on unfussy success, the players with the ability to deliver that are, or have been, injured – Henry, Brannagan, Baldock, Gorrin, Moore, Browne. Only Taylor has avoided injury this season. That might be misfortune or it might be the intensity of our training and playing style; either way one of the key characteristics of our squad is the injuries it picks up, particularly amongst those we need the most.
The reality is that Karl Robinson is never not going to be Karl Robinson. It’s hard to imagine him signing a 30-year-old centre-back with 300 Championship games under his belt or a metronomic midfielder who does the simple things well. It feels like we waste energy and risk injury being us and it costs us points in a division where we can’t afford to do that.
The question is whether we’re ready to sacrifice our style and those unforgettable moments along with the economic benefits of being an entertaining team, for something more pragmatic and efficient that will deliver the play-offs and more.
As for this season, the play-offs were looking a stretch even before last night’s result. Few people seemed able to plot a path to the top six given what’s ahead. It looks even more unlikely now.
But, on the flipside, isn’t that also part of the Karl Robinson style? Pulling off the unexpected – the last-minute goal from Josh Ruffels against Shrewsbury two years ago, the last day of the season win over Burton while Portsmouth faltered last year? As bleak as it feels now, it would be very us to somehow pull off a couple of miracles and sneak it on the last day.
So, perhaps we delay the post-mortem until we know how this all pans out. There are questions to answer, no doubt, but for now; Saturday is massive.