For months, MK Dons have lurked around the top of League One with the threatening menace of one of those robotic dogs that look a little too real for comfort.
They are, in every sense, an anomaly, a synthetic approximation amongst the booze-addled ‘proper clubs’ of the division. As a result, they’ve always looked slightly ridiculous with their Premier League stadium occupied by a smattering of fans. An unthreatening failed experiment, a benign cyst.
While they remain reassuringly unreal, there’s always been a nagging fear they could become sentient, learn how to be a successful club, realise their potential and destroy us all. That was the original objective – to reinvent the concept of a football club, free from the shackles of history that many clubs endure like a pair of concrete boots.
In recent weeks they’ve moved closer to their apocalyptic goal than at any time since the fresh faced Karl Robinson led them to the Championship in 2015. A few weeks ago, League One had looked sewn up for Wigan and Rotherham, then MK stomped into view losing one game in 21.
Weeks ago I’d targeted the game as the one that would confirm our play-off place. I imagined a balmy spring day and a full and expectant stadium. Since then we’ve slipped into a zone of uncertainty. Last night’s crowd didn’t really know whether it was a meaningful must-win game or end of season admin.
By contrast, MK traveled in large numbers, buoyed by their form and the prospect of promotion. They started singing more than half-an-hour before kick-off. ‘They’ll never keep that up’ I scoffed. Over an hour later, they were still going like Galatasaray fans at the Istanbul derby.
Our uncertainty seeped onto the pitch, it rendered us immobile, frozen with fear. Our lack of movement allowed them to encircle us, throttling our routes out, suffocating any attacking threat. Gavin Whyte and Nathan Holland couldn’t break free to stretch the play, Cameron Brannagan and Herbie Kane kept passes short and risk free, Matty Taylor dropped back to help out. We became ensnared.
It was like we weren’t quite sure what we were trying to do; hold our position or go for a win. With the play-offs apparently out of reach and maybe as many as eight of the starting eleven potentially leaving in the next few weeks, were there any risks worth taking? Why would anyone want to feel the white hot heat of derision if we failed? Not losing was more important than winning.
Halfway through the first half, Karl Robinson had seen enough. A break in play gave the players an opportunity to have a drink. The manager was slow to react at first, but he warmed to his theme and a rage enveloped him. These weren’t nuanced tactical adjustments, this was a full-on nuclear assault designed to blast the players out of the stupor.
Like a rolled up hedgehog being sniffed by an inquisitive dog, we made it to half-time intact. People busied themselves doing half-time things, but on the pitch there were no substitutes idly playing head tennis. When MK reappeared after the break, there was no sign of their opposition. Where were they? Was Robinson incoherently screaming in tongues, beating the blooded carcass of Jamie Hanson with a broken snooker cue for emphasis? Were the players sat frozen to the spot while Robinson’s spittle rained down on them? Eventually they were released, emerging in twos and threes as if to reassure each other.
We instantly looked more animated with an extra burst of energy and a bit more intent in each challenge. Suddenly the MK machine no longer looked like an occupying force awaiting our surrender. When we pushed back, they looked human and fallible. They started to buckle.
The fans responded, the away end no longer providing the dominant noise. For all the improved attitude, chances were limited. Into the last ten minutes, we could at least be content that we’d tamed the beast even if we couldn’t secure the breakthrough. For most, the season was drawing to a close, but as Robinson introduced Marcus Browne and Ryan Williams, he signalled he wasn’t going to give up that easily.
Now, the robot dog might look like a dog and act like a dog, but, crucially, it’s not a dog. Truth is, MK desperately want to be a real grown up club that does things properly. If the textbook says play from the back, that’s what you do.
With five minutes to go, keeper Jamie Cumming follows the rules by rolling the ball to Dean Lewington. Ryan Williams is alert, panicking the veteran into playing a hurried ball into midfield. Billie Bodin nicks posession, exchanging passes with Matty Taylor and is suddenly he’s through. He shoots. Even a shot seems out of kilter in this orgy of midfield possession puratism. The speed of the move is so fast, the crowd can’t recalibrate. The robots flounder, tripping over themselves, reality bites, the ball disappears from view for a split second, it’s gone beyond the keeper. The net ripples reassuringly to confirm the goal.
There’s a disbelieving eruption, we don’t know what we’ve seen, but as fans, we need to respond. To compete is one thing, but to win? To find the weak spot and beat the machine, the only person who believed that was possible seemed to be the manager.
In recent weeks we’ve been consumed by doubt, about our purpose for the rest of the season, about our ability to beat the better teams. But give us a chance to rage against the machine and we ignite a spirit from deep within. Our ultimate fate may still be in the hands of others, but at least the flame of hope burns brightly.