Years ago I damaged ligaments in my ankle playing football. As I went over, I felt an obvious pain and a strange feeling, which may have been a tear or rupture. One of my teammates gave me their sage medical advice and said I should just ‘run it off’. I tried, and even went to see Oxford that afternoon; it’s amazing how a last minute Julian Allsop goal can act as a soothing balm.
A physiotherapist friend checked it over and gave me some advice, but I didn’t do any proper rehabilitation. Months later, apparently fit and recovered, I was fetching a ball back during another game and went over again. The advice I got was that, essentially, the damage done initially had taught my ankle how it could behave – which was completely at odds with how if should behave – although the pain had gone the injury remained.
It’s an odd time being a fan at the moment; the messaging, both by the club and more broadly, is about a great return to normality. And yet, every time I try to engage, I can’t find any purchase. Last night’s game involved a last minute equaliser and a penalty shoot out win but it didn’t stir much emotion in me sitting at home.
It’s early days and it was only Burton and it was only the League Cup, but it feels like the damage done when the physical bonds with the club were severed still remain and may take more time to heal than we thought.
With eight changes to the starting line-up, it was hard to gauge anything from the team selection – as fans we don’t particularly know where our strengths and weaknesses are, watching on iFollow gives you a two-dimensional view of the game, not the rich experience of being there. It’s difficult to know how under-powered we were.
If you consider that Tyler Goodrham wasn’t seventeen when the first lockdown happened, Joshua Johnson was fifteen; these are names fans might vaguely recognise from the website or the odd EFL Trophy game, but their recent development has been largely hidden from sight; we didn’t see them coming, we don’t know how good they are. Are they on the bench because the club is struggling for depth or is this a golden harvest of rich young talent? All the threads and narratives have been lost, somehow we need to re-engage and recap the story. Where are we strong? Where are we weak? Who are the duds? Who is the golden child?
Readjusting might be a similar issue for the players; playing in front of fans will always be their preference, but it comes with new pressures; not least the unique pressure at the moment to be the centrepiece of a barnstorming ‘return to matches’ party. It’s in the very nature of football that at some point someone will lose or have a stinker. At some point the party will be pooped, nobody wants to that guy.
All this may explain the reasons for so many changes, the reluctance to throw first choice players back into the mix after periods out – to do too much too soon. The temptation might be to lurch back to normality – or even reach beyond and grab at every opportunity to celebrate and entertain. It’s one of Karl Robinson’s more obvious instincts; he’ll be desperate to play his best team and give someone a pasting to reward the fans, it’s how he’s built. He’s not Ian Atkins or Chris Wilder with their dour philosophy of winning the battle before winning the game and only entertaining when it’s absolutely necessary. We’re told that we all want this riotous return to action, but is that what everyone wants or needs right now? Do we need a full-on party or just a toe in the water? I don’t suppose a club would market any game as ‘come along, it might be OK’ but maybe a solid away draw and a solid Carabao Cup win is just what the doctor ordered to help with our rehabilitation and recovery. There are risks of burning ourselves out before things get serious or disappointing people and falling into a rut, realising that the one thing we all thought we were missing is, in reality, a bit rubbish. Whether it’s by accident or design, a cautious, solid start to the season to reconnect and ease people back may be the best option in the long term.