Bread-based QPR manager Mark Warburton has clearly been reading too much GLS, “[Dickie will] keep on improving. He’s taken those lessons on board. This season for Rob is a really big one – to keep on that education and keep on learning.” Alright, you brioche bonced boss, we’ll do the school-based Rob Dickie jokes around here, thanks.
It’s Lincoln on Saturday and Mr Big Guns, MApp, has got a lot on his plate; and we’re not just talking protein shakes and raw eggs. “The best way I can describe it is that we have 13 senior outfield players to choose from, not many at all”. It’s a familiar feeling for MApp who remembers last season’s visit when his team was “full of Covid and injuries as well.” Nice, we’ll just slather on another layer of hand sanitiser if you don’t mind.
I recently read Economist Tim Harford’s book; How To Make The World Add Up. It’s about interpreting statistics; less about the maths and more about the philosophy. For example, being aware of our internal bias. I follow a daily covid reporting Twitter account – every day’s post attract the same responses; some read the reports as high, rising and worrying, others think the pandemic is over because cases are below the 100,000 a day some predicted. Our preconceived biases drive our interpretation.
Harford presents the idea of slow data; news websites report in real-time and are likely to be full of extreme, often bad, things. Imagine if that information came at us more slowly and there was only a newspaper every ten or 100 years; what would make the headlines? It would report improving health and increasing prosperity (alongside increasing environmental problems). Ultimately, it would be more measured and positive than a daily paper.
Football has its own units of time; a goal is probably the smallest and brings the most extreme response, but Matt Taylor’s goal against Bolton was irrelevant in the context of the outcome of the game. By a similar token, one defeat is not likely to be significant in the context of the season. Going further, the season’s outcome may be irrelevant in the context of the decade. While they both had their ups and downs, it’s fair to say the 2000s were pretty bad and the 2010s pretty good.
I’m not too worried about losing an individual game; in fact, it’s quite good to get the first one out the way. The longer any unbeaten streak goes on the bigger the potential whiplash we’ll suffer from an inevitable defeat.
Back in 2006, immediately after our relegation to the Conference, we went nineteen games unbeaten and there was talk about stretching that run throughout the season. Defeat to Wycombe in the FA Cup shouldn’t have been a disgrace in the circumstances but the impact was grim; we lost to Ebbsfleet the following week and won one of the next twelve. We thought we were invincible but let our guard down and it killed us. An early defeat can serve to give you a useful early reminder of your own mortality, a reminder not to get too complacent.
This period can play a role in shaping the season; think back to 2009 and Mark Creighton’s winner against York or the victory over Luton or 2015, Pat Hoban’s last minute equaliser at Luton and the blistering win over Brentford. Both set a tone that ignited a promotion charge.
We’ve yet to see how this season might be characterised, look at the table and we’re pretty much where we’re predicted to end up, though we’re also significantly ahead of where we’ve been previously at this stage. We haven’t seen the spark of previous promotion seasons but we’ve been reassuringly solid. I imagine, under Karl Robinson, being top in August would be the equivalent of being winched to the top of particularly big rollercoaster.
Eventually, the season will grab us and we’ll become a small fishing boat in an angry sea. Injuries, fatigue and confidence can carry you to glory or sink you, and there’s very little you can do about it. You just hope that you’re built well enough to withstand the inevitable storms; success is not about individual moments, but something deeper and systemic.
And while our start has been on a par with where we might have expected to be, there is a subtext not to be ignored. We’re already being pulled out of shape even without the storms to come. Against Crewe and Charlton Ryan Williams played right-back because Anthony Forde and Sam Long were both injured. Our centre-backs – McNally and Thornily are both unfamiliar to the club – because Moore is injured and Mousinho can’t play ninety minutes. Apparently Sam Winnall’s inclusion up front against Charlton was partly to cover Moore’s defensive strength at set pieces. Yesterday we played in a new shape – not my area of expertise – partly out of necessity. While this sort of thing does happen (think Josh Ruffels playing out of position in place of Joe Skarz in 2016) it’s very early in the season for these juggling acts.
Worrying? Maybe, and best not to be ignored, particularly as the transfer window is still open, if we’re able to benefit from that. But, perhaps not, maybe we just need to let things settle and wait for the longer term trends to emerge, head towards the angry sea and see if the wind catches our sails.
I was looking forward to the novelty of watching us play Bolton on iFollow. I was never going to travel north on a Tuesday night, so the opportunity to see the game with one eye on The Bake-Off was a little bit of joy to break up the tedium of the week.
The result was a faded facsimile of anything we might consider as being football; the limited production values meant that it wasn’t TV football as you know it, and it’s not even close to a replacement for being there.
Despite Bolton’s evident problems and the fact they’d conceded 21 goals in the previous four games, I shared the view that we definitely had it in us to make the game more difficult than it should have been.
Perhaps that’s just natural pessimism and fear – nobody wants to be the first team that gets beaten by such a beleaguered club. Dig a little deeper, though, and it was clear that they weren’t to be under-estimated. They’ve taken a point from Coventry at home and took the lead on Saturday against Rotherham, most of the goals they’ve conceded have been later in games when they got tired and lost shape.
The presence of Jake Wright in their starting line-up should remind us that they are not the team of juniors they were at the start of the season, plus, by the law of averages, they will pick off points here and there. They’re like a non-league team in the cup – most of the time they’ll lose to more established opposition, but that doesn’t prevent them from winning once in a while.
The onus was on us to control the game; but in fact we were the ones who showed immaturity. Their shortcomings were evident but we were still overrun by youthful exuberance for the opening 20 minutes. Afterwards, Karl Robinson wanted us to acknowledge their performance, but we looked woefully under-prepared.
A more disciplined and organised side would have absorbed the pressure. Extinguished the enthusiasm. Strangled the life out of their rawness. Watching it on an iPad, it looked like a game of FIFA on the Playstation; two teams attacking without any obvious plan. For them, there was little to lose for us, it was unforgivable.
As the game progressed, thankfully, things seemed to balance out a bit and we started to edge back into it. But at no point did we look more than an average threat.
There was no craft, no calm and little shape. Professionally, it was little short of pathetic. There are things I like about Robinson; he gets football clubs at an emotional level, he has time for people. He serves his club in a way managers rarely do. But, he’s not there to think like a fan; he’s there to plan, establish structure and instil discipline. Quite simply, we should have won comfortably. We’re facing teams that are set up not to lose first and foremost and yet we simply hammer away thoughtlessly and expect to cut through them. I’m a long way from calling for his head, but his approach, like his touchline persona, is childlike; you have to question how far it can take us.
Sometimes football feels like it’s a rock in life’s raging river. As the river flows around it, it remains steadfast, always there just where it’s always been. Then, sometimes, the river rises and the current speeds up and the rock becomes submerged, lost from sight.
That’s been me this week; the river has engulfed the rock, football’s become a bit of an aside. On Saturday morning work pulled me to a meeting in Canary Wharf, which turns out not to be the most direct route to the Kassam. I ended up on a journey which involved car, train and boat, at one point I calculated I might actually make the game with four minutes to spare but time got eaten up and it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it.
It was a bit of a relief because I don’t get any sense that even with the Scunthorpe win anyone realistically harbours expectations of us making the play-offs. Even a last minute goal didn’t seem to ignite that feeling that the gods were with us.
Instead it feels like we’ve seen the fixtures and recognised that even if we did make the play-offs, we probably wouldn’t go up and even if we went up, we probably wouldn’t stay up.
I had a similar feeling for the game against Bolton; they had that sense of urgency that you get when the prospect of promotion looms. That desperate need to make sure it happens and not pass up the opportunity; like us last season. We, on the other hand, seemed to want to compete only on our terms, put the effort in when we were ready.
The difference was in the margins; it wasn’t like we were lazy, we played well, but having conceded two early goals there was a feeling that if we got back into the game then great, if not, then whatever. Truth is, had Marvin Johnson’s astonishing strike gone in, then we are likely to have taken a point. So we’re not that far away from being good enough for the play-offs or better. But, we just don’t seem to have the energy to really make it happen. It’s not a surprise, it’s been an exhausting couple of years.
We are simply playing too frequently, just like last year, but unlike last year, the prospect of us going up is just not big enough to blow a gasket to achieve. Instead, it’s like we’re taking a brief intake of breath before we go on another promotion drive next season. The question, I suppose, is whether we can keep the core of the squad, and the manager, together over the summer, and that depends on the depth of funding available.
I’ve been reading about ice ages recently. Apparently we’re in one at the moment, which is one reason I’ve ordered extra logs for my wood burner. Thankfully we’re in a fairly mild period of an ice age which means we’re not all dying a horrible death. At least not yet.
One of the startling things about ice ages is just how quickly the earth can go from our current survivable climate to a solid ice ball that perishes us all. Geological periods are typically measured in millions on years, but it is possible for an ice age to engulf us in as little as a decade. Think about that for a moment; imagine watching Andy Burgess skulk around the Kassam in 2006 completely unaware that a decade later we wouldn’t be beating Swindon (again) we’d be encrusted in ice.
In simple terms, which is pretty much the only terms I work in, if the temperature drops to really quite chilly and it becomes icey, as it does most winters, the sun’s rays rebound off the white surface of the earth and back into the atmosphere. The sun doesn’t melt anything so the ice builds up and the planet cools causing the ice to build up some more. Before you know it we’re all buried in metres of ice and football is postponed for several millions of years.
The point is that we are living in a narrow band of time which allows us to thrive, but that could quickly change and the world could return to the state it was in millions of years ago. Nothing is fixed, everything operates in a cycle.
On Saturday, our win over Bolton was seen as a sign that we are, in the words of the song, on our way back. Just 10 years ago we were in the Conference and they were beating Liverpool in the Premier League, now we’re equals.
However, while the Macron Stadium provides the facade of Premier League class, Bolton haven’t stood still while we’ve climbed the divisions. They’ve fallen as far as we’ve risen. In truth, teams orbit each other meeting periodically before heading off in different directions. Some come into contact on a regular basis, others less frequently. Some, like Chelsea or Manchester City can invest billions to break their natural trajectory, but most can’t do that. Bolton were semi-regular visitors to the Manor during the 80s, then they headed to the Premier League before heading back down the divisions.
This is a shock to some Bolton fans – teams ‘like’ Bolton shouldn’t be beaten by teams ‘like’ Oxford. Bolton are in shock in the same way we were in the Conference and the way Portsmouth were in League 2. They don’t feel they belong in the environment they are in, but they keep getting beaten by teams who they think do.
League 1 is an elephant’s graveyard of teams suffering from the toxic shock that results from tasting brief glory before being catapulted back into oblivion.
In charge of Bolton ten years ago was that paragon of virtue Sam Allardyce, they were the club who proposed adding Celtic and Rangers to the Premier League, they’ve been part of the Premier League’s key moves to protect their status and break the natural law. But, ultimately they failed. Sadly for their fans they are heading for a great ice age while we seem to be warming up nicely.