This equivalent weekend six years ago we beat Swansea City in the FA Cup. For me, it was the most perfect performance in an almost perfect season. Suddenly the national press took an interest in what was happening at the club; there was a flood of stories about the secret revolution that was happening; the innovative recruitment of Premier League academy players who’d hit a dead end and the introduction of sports science and analytics to a level of football that was in the dark ages. I thought we were on the road to becoming one of those über modern clubs like Swansea, Bournemouth and Brentford, able to succeed without selling their soul.
At the heart of it all, of course, was Michael Appleton; steely eyed with rippling muscles, looking like no other manager in football. It’s an interesting aesthetic to workout to build muscles beyond what might be considered to be natural. It’s like having a breast enlargement so large and obvious that it doesn’t so much create confidence or an attractive shape as scream, ‘Look, I’ve put five grand in my bra’. It’s not like Appleton needs to be physically, excessively, strong to be a football manager, he’s not going to biff anyone on the nose or do that thing on World’s Strongest Man where they have to lift giant stones onto barrels.
But Appleton was a man of extreme investment; you can’t imagine that he ever doom scrolls on his phone while watching Homes Under The Hammer. The sleeve tattoo, the Masters degree, the need to prove himself and succeed practically bursts out of him. His face, a rictus concrete grimace, looks like it’s straining to contain a primal scream that says ‘I have value’. We love him, but it’ll never be enough. The intensity eventually wore him out at Oxford, mentally he couldn’t sustain it, nobody could. He admitted, at the end of the 2016/17 season, that he needed a rest, then he was gone to act as an assistant and get out of the limelight.
Karl Robinson, by contrast, is an avalanche of emotion, whatever pressures, desires and enthusiasm that flows into him, almost immediately flows back out again. Where Appleton is like a dam ready to burst, Robinson is a free flowing river. The biggest challenge he has is trying to ensure that the flow doesn’t burst its banks and flood everything.
The defeat to Lincoln means we’ve now won just one in the last four, or perhaps we’ve lost just two in the last thirteen, or perhaps it was only our first away defeat since Cheltenham in September. There were people immediately after the whistle almost calling for an overhaul of the squad despite us still being fifth.
It didn’t help that in addition to those in the ground, we could also watch the game unfolding live on iFollow. It’s true we weren’t at our best, but then it was like that at MK Dons and we turned it around. If Matty Taylor’s early chance had gone in, it would have been very different, his disallowed goal, although a correct decision, shows we weren’t that far away.
Herbie Kane’s red card was obviously a blow. Whether it was justified or not was hard to say. Steve Kinniburgh and Jerome Sale tried to articulate the issue with it, it was a punishment for a previous fouls or something that tends to only happens when you’re away from home. I think the issue is that up until that point the referee hadn’t issued a yellow card despite there being moments that would have warranted it – the little set-to between Chris Maguire and Mark Sykes. The players had no idea where the line of acceptabilty was; a full blooded challenge was generally fine in most cases, then suddenly it wasn’t.
The introduction just after the hour of James Henry and Nathan Holland was a timely reminder that as good as Ryan Williams and Gavin Whyte have been, it’s players like Henry and Holland that have given us the edge in the past. The mass of covid changes we had to make against Fleetwood and Rotherham saw the squad being quickly recalibrated, then there was the relapse against Wigan. The loss of Thornily, Brannagan and Kane is another lurch.
Runners call it ‘flow’, cyclists call it ‘form’; a sense of effortlessness, that everything is working just so. For most of us, if we’re lucky, it lasts until we become conscious of it. That’s the point when we become aware of a pain in our leg, a need to go to the toilet or that one of our socks is slipping down.
For the most successful sportspeople, it lasts much longer, but it’s a precarious thing. Cyclist Chris Boardman once said that when you’re in a time trial, you’re constantly asking yourself ‘can I sustain this effort?’. If you say ‘yes’ you’re not trying hard enough, if it’s ‘no’ you’re going too fast; the answer you’re looking for is ‘maybe’. Reading about the Novak Djokovic case in Australia, it doesn’t seem that he’s quite the anti-vaccination freedom fighter as he’s sometimes portrayed. It’s more that through his successes he’s managed to reach a mental state where he has complete self-confidence in his own often unconventional ways. Nothing – including vaccinations, pandemics or even national border policies – can or should disrupt his status quo. It is utterly selfish, but he’d argue that the ends justify the means.
A few weeks ago I talked about our ability to constantly evolve our midfield – Gorrin, Kane, Brannagan, McGuane, Sykes, Henry could be brought in, play a few games, have an impact, then be given a rest. In recent weeks we haven’t been able to rotate the squad like that, great chunks of it have been ripped from us. We’ve survived, but it’s disrupted our flow and form, we’ve gone from drought to flood and back again.
Michael Appleton’s response, you suspect, would have been to stand firm and let the crisis pass. There is no Plan B; it’s a rigidity which nearly did for him in his first season at Oxford and he’s under similar pressure at Lincoln despite their success last year. The risk for us now is that the more free-flowing Karl Robinson over-compensates, that he tries to inject his energy directly in the veins of the squad; bringing players back before they’re ready or trying some tactical revolution to jump start us. As much as form feels like a magical, ethereal energy, we need to manage our way back into it. No panic, but not ignoring the issue. With Wycombe next week and Sheffield Wednesday the week after, there’s no down time to re-set ourselves and find our form. Robinson needs to think clearly, as much as the here and now might demand his attention, he needs to think how he manages the squad over the next few weeks to steer us both through the current challenges and back into the form that we enjoyed earlier in the season.