Preparing yourself to drive 235 miles is a daunting task, writes Toby Lock, especially when you’re heading all that way for a hiding to nothing, and then the drive home.
Football fans are some of the most loyal people in the world, sticking by their clubs through thick and thin - well most of them, anyway.
So when Karl Robinson, speaking after the draw with Bristol City, said he wasn’t looking forward to the game at Sunderland and that it was ‘just another game we have to play’ I’m not sure it filled many people with confidence.
It certainly didn’t make me overly keen to drive there and back for a lackluster performance.
But was he right to make the admission?
Managers in the top flight are often put between the crosshairs for not taking competitions such as the League Cup seriously. For all the good will in the world, it’s just not as important as the FA Cup or the league, whichever one your team is in. So Dons are no different in that sense. At least Robinson admitted it in public.
Taking on a Premier League club such as Sunderland is a bit of a thankless task. No one expects Dons to come out on top, and even if they do, all it get is a patronising pat on the head from the national media, of how little MK Dons of League 1 defeated the giants in the Premier League. How quaint.
But the romance of Bradford City’s cup run last season should spring eternal to clubs like Dons. Not many Football League teams could make it past as many Premier League sides as City did, making for a great day in the sun at Wembley. The result in the final didn’t matter. In fact, Phil Parkinson probably said it didn’t matter in the quarter finals or the semi finals either - it just so happened Bradford came out on the positive side of the result each time.
Robinson made six changes to his team for Tuesday’s game, resting David Martin, Darren Potter, Lee Hodson and Jason Banton - arguably some of Dons’ top performers this term. Many could question whether, by doing so, he was doing not just the competition a disservice but also the fans who took time off work to make the huge journey to the Stadium of Light.
The performance though said something all-together different about the attitude off the pitch, and the attitude on it. No, Robinson probably wasn’t too fussed about the prospect of being knocked out in the second round, but that wasn’t to say he didn’t want to go out without a fight.
For those not there on Tuesday night, and to coin an oft-uttered phrase from the manager, ‘you couldn’t fault the commitment of the players’ as they fought for a place in the third round.
The players coming in, Izale McLeod for instance, keen to put in a shift to show his worth to the manager, certainly didn’t take the game lightly. And speaking to him after the game, the striker said the players were devastated to have let slip their 2-0 lead in the last 15 minutes.
Robinson too admitted his players were furious in the dressing room afterwards, anxious to make changes and put things right before the Sheffield United game on Saturday.
He said: “I’ve nearly had an argument with some of my players because I said ‘well done’ and they were disappointed not to win here, saying the defending wasn’t good enough and changes have to be made.
“We came here to put on a show and play football the way we want it to be played.”
And a show it was. I can’t imagine the 223 that made the trip left the Stadium of Light feeling cheated or like they’d wasted their journey. They certainly didn’t sound like they were having a miserable time, out-singing 18,600 Sunderland fans for the vast majority of the game.
Going in to a game expecting nothing and coming away with something is always a bonus. We saw it with the QPR game last season, the 4-0 win over Norwich the year before, and we saw it again on Tuesday night. Did the result matter? Not really. Taking the match as an isolated affair, the rollercoaster ride that it was will live long in the memory of those who were there.
Robinson’s quotes about it being ‘just another game’ were probably the last thing on their minds.