It started weeks ago; do the players know how important the Swindon derby is? Let’s hope the local lads tell the newer players of its history and significance. It was like an anxious parent talking to their teenager before a party – “You know how important it is to stay safe, you’re not going to take drugs and get raped are you?”.
Of course, all they needed to do was achieve what they set out to do every week – win the game. The 19 year run is the accumulation of seven individual wins. The biggest challenge of that streak is that with every passing game it was more likely end. Like stacking another Jenga block onto an increasingly rickety tower, the higher it got, the more likely it was to fall and more spectacular the collapse. If you’re not careful, you anticipate the fall before it happens, your hand begins to shake and the tower tumbles.
With no emotional outlet at the game itself, fans wanted to project the anxieties that result from near 20 years of bravado onto those who could influence it. A few years ago I treated myself to a Lego Millennium Falcon and spent the holidays building it. It was an absolute joy, when it was finished I looked at it admiringly and set it aside. The following day my then three year old niece filled it with Duplo characters who treated Chewbacca as their puppy. We’d built the Millennium Falcon over the seven game streak and were anxious we were going to hand it over to a toddler to ruin.
The aim shouldn’t have been to inflate that expectation, but to deaden it. Of all the previous derby games over the last 20 years, this was the most straight forward; there weren’t the variables of fans and atmosphere. We just needed to go out and keep our heads, the rest should have looked after itself.
But we’re a team built on emotion, in the image of its manager. It flows through us; sometimes it’s a torrent, sometimes a trickle, sometimes we surf on the crest of its wave, sometimes we’re dragged under by its force. We are desperate to please and are ready to sacrifice discipline and focus to achieve that.
It’s why Karl Robinson admires players like Liam Kelly and Marcus Browne, they please us, they make us excited, even if they sometimes struggle to do it for 90 minutes.
Think back to the home derby in 2012, perhaps the most astonishing game in the seven game sequence. We only had half our first team and lost our star striker after 20 minutes. They were on a 10 game unbeaten streak. They were a team built on the raw energy and emotion of Paolo DiCanio and that should have destroyed us. But Chris Wilder was a pragmatist, his career has been about getting more out of constrained resources. We frustrated them and battled to hold the torrent, Scott Rendell put in a shift like I’ve never seen before, playing up front he didn’t get a glimpse of the goal, but he never stopped working. When we got our chances, we took them and with it a famous win.
The tables turned yesterday; John Sheridan, Swindon’s manager, played the game down, where we hyped it up. Their expectations were low, we were cockahoop. I was definitely of a similar mind, not because I think we have a permanent hex over Swindon, but because I thought we were in a false position in the league and that anyone below us were fair game. With none of the normal bells and whistles of a derby game to disrupt the flow we should have eased to a win.
Injected with the adrenalin of ‘the occasion’, we came out like a steam train, an emotional wave that threatened to swamp them. It nearly worked, Matty Taylor could have had three when he only had one.
‘It feels like a derby’ said Jerome Sale, but it shouldn’t have done, it should have felt like a game as cold and clinical as the rest of the season has been. Like all great teams – Manchester United in the 90s, Chicago Bulls, Australian cricket, The All Blacks – winning becomes boring, clinical and procedural.
So what happened? We blew up, ran out of steam, we burnt off our reserves in a blistering 45 minutes. Rob Atkinson had been majestic, but then started getting caught in midfield, Liam Kelly ran the game, but was in pieces after the break. As bodies and minds tired, we became overwhelmed by the expectation.
Where was the leadership? The cool heads instilling the discipline we needed to slow the game down. Nathan Cooper remarked that Karl Robinson’s voice became more panicky. Who was offering the cool calculation? We’re so fragile, as the game progressed and the enormity of what we were about to achieve grew, we started to withdraw and panic, the shaky hand at the Jenga tower. We weren’t about to win a game, we were about to achieve #eightinarow. But we overshot it.
In Matty Taylor, James Henry, Alex Gorrin and Simon Eastwood we should have a leadership spine that will help us see these games out. But that commanding voice, the John Mousinho, Jamie Mackie, Jake Wright, Michael Duberry, Andy Whing, Andy Crosby, where are they?
This isn’t new, it’s not a shock; a 22 year old with a season under their belt isn’t going to demand calm and focus. After the game a lot of people were picking it apart, but the issue is systemic, it’s been brewing for a while. We simply don’t sign experience, we don’t sign the players who will look objectively at the last ten minutes of a derby and think; it’s just another game, let’s see it out.
Mark Sykes was singled out, I don’t think Karl Robinson meant quite what came out when he said ‘everyone tells me he’s a good player’ as if he doesn’t. I’m sure he sees what he can bring, but it’s true that you can’t rely on him for a goal or to create chances. On the other hand, he’s 23, we’re asking a lot for him to influence a whole game.
It’s not like we were outplayed, the failure was spectacular and self-inflicted. I’ve watched their second goal several times and can’t quite understand what Simon Eastwood did. I don’t have an answer for the Eastwood dilemma; I don’t think we need to drop him as a punishment. He knows he made a mistake. Do you replace him with another inexperienced player as we face some of the better teams in the division? That doesn’t feel right either.
So, the streak is over, the expectation is gone, I guess the good thing is that we weren’t in the stadium to see it. Like these things, the fear of defeat is worse than the real thing, life goes on, unless you choose for it not to, unless you dwell and ruminate, self-flagellate in an attempt to gain a pardon. Are you feeling the pain? But are you really feeling the pain? My worry is that Karl Robinson will do that, will disappear into his own well of self-pity. He feels it, I’ve no doubt, he doesn’t need to prove it to us.
What big games can do is put into relief things which are already evident. What we saw yesterday was the hopes and fears of the fans being amplified through Robinson and into a squad of developing players. It worked for a while, but went spectacularly wrong. Somewhere there needs to be a regulation; either from Robinson or within the squad. If we don’t get that right soon we’ll start to drown.