I was in a three-hour meeting this week; half the people were in a room together, others, including me, were logged in via Microsoft Teams. As often happens, the people in the room forgot those at the other end of the fibre. Someone shared their screen to show a spreadsheet, then clicked it shut so my face was in full view. I was watching their screen on my screen with my face on their screen on my screen. I had to spend an hour watching myself trying desperately to look engaged while quietly critiquing every tiny movement I made, which was all the more disconcerting because it happened a split second after I did it.
Last season, following via iFollow, football was the disrupter from the monotony of the lockdown. For the first time this season, I went into Saturday’s game, looking forward to it ironing me out from a working week which had crumpled me like a piece of paper.
My son started secondary school too, in a blazer and tie for the first time, friends and family, who haven’t seen him much over the last 18 months commented on how much he’d grown. He thinks so too; now he gets to go on the bus and eat paninis from the canteen. The last time we saw Wycombe in the flesh they were grubby over-achievers, back at the Kassam, they too seemed to have grown.
I’ve a grudging admiration for Wycombe, they’ve achieved stability and reasonable success over the last 25 years, but they’ve always reminded me of us at The Manor; small and over-achieving, a bit retro. Now returning from the Championship; they look like they’ve finally reached puberty.
“2-1 on your big day out” sang their fans, referring to a game held when a big day out was legally determined as an hour’s recreation within walking distance of your home. It’s good to see that if they have grown, they’ve reached a point where they’ve been able to embrace the breathtakingly stupid factions that infect all bigger clubs. Mind you, us mocking them for their season in the Championship, which had been achieved at our painful expense, was hardly the sickest burn. Score draw in the stands.
In the intervening months, Gareth Ainsworth’s Cuban heels seem to be higher, his hair longer and his clothes tighter. He’s become such a caricature of himself, he’s about eighteen months away from becoming just a pair of cowboy boots with hair. The periodic national media coverage he receives, which usually centres on the fact he’s in a band, is having an effect. We have people working for us who introduce themselves as musicians or actors, even though their only paid work is in the call centre. Does Ainsworth think secretly he’s a rockstar who’s temping as a football manager?
And then, of course, there’s Ade Akinfenwa, whose arrival late in the game put everything into perspective; that is; everything looks smaller when he’s lolloping around the place. After being treated for a blood injury, he received a replacement shirt with his number and name on the back. Clearly the club need to keep a few general spares for such occasions – Wycombe seem to need small, medium, large and Akinfenwa sizes. I get that some people like that big-muscle aesthetic, but you have to question how it helps his professional career; it’s like having a vicar with a face tattoo.
But, in truth, as a team, I like them, big and robust with a couple of pantomime villains who know their role. They’re not as crafted as Blackpool last year or Rotherham two seasons ago, but similar. They’ve got that refined power that usually brings success in League 1 and what we’ve often struggled to match in the past.
We would do well to drop the patronising dismissal of them and embrace these modern realities. I get the frustrations around their gamesmanship, but stylistically, it’s not the anti-football (whatever that is) that many claim. They protected what they had late on, but when the game was fresh, they attacked with power and made things very difficult. They’ve spent a year defending in the Championship; they’re likely to be quite adept at this. It’s the formula that most likely brings success at this level, we either have to match it or find a way to outfox it, dismissing it as somehow unfair will allow another season to slip by while we wait for teams to turn up and play in a more gentlemanly fashion.
We were competitive in that context though, we’re not pushovers, you can see the hardening of our resolve to compete. The players have embraced it in a way the fans haven’t. We shouldn’t expect to have the freedoms we’ll get from other teams, just because we didn’t create a bucketload of chances doesn’t mean we didn’t play well.
I enjoyed the grinding competitiveness, we were out of our comfort zone but competed aggressively, even if it’s not quite who we are. Karl Robinson was incomprehensible in his post-match interview – like he’s answering questions using William S Burroughs’ writing technique of cutting up words to find new meanings – he simply didn’t make any sense, like he doesn’t have the vocabulary for this kind of game. He did say we showed another side, which I think is right, it’s not a better side to the one that swept past Lincoln, but we’ve got another mode if we need it.
It was a proper match day, the atmosphere moved on from the dewy-eyed ‘we’re all back together’ vibe into the more familiar sense of agony, frustration, anger and relief. The Wycombe fixture is not the Swindon derby – nobody is asking us to make that claim – but it’s a modern rivalry with a local team with enough history and antagonism for us to embrace it a bit more. It’s exactly what I needed after a week of being crumpled.