Sunday, September 28, 2014

I really really hate Luton

You don’t need to know much about Oxford United to know that Swindon Town is its nearest and deadliest rival. The historical rivalry with Reading seems to have withered due to a lack of use, whereas Wycombe Wanderers snap at our heels trying to provoke us into a reaction which rarely gains any traction.

The Swindon rivalry is well rehearsed; insults are traded, there is periodic, out of context, abusive songs sung for no other reason than to remind us all of the animosity. When games happen they’re highly anticipated, broiling affairs which, let’s face it, we tend to win. As much as I like the rivalry, I like the insults, the anticipation and the games, it’s all very knowing. We know they hate us, they know we hate them and we all act according to a pre-ordained script.

As a result, like many derbies, there is something of the American wrestling about the whole affair. At the top, a layer excitement, fury and action, below a carefully constructed pre-rehearsed narrative. So, in a sense I hate Swindon because I’m supposed to, but in truth I don’t hate them with a visceral loathing. That feeling is reserved for Luton Town.

Luton and Oxford’s histories have followed very similar trajectories. We both experienced a Wembley victory in the mid-eighties and then Conference football in the late 2000s. It is possible, perhaps, to use each other as a benchmark of our true success. Being in the top flight is not either team's natural position in the world and nor is struggling in the Conference. Our natural position, you could argue, is somewhere relatively better or worse than a team like Luton, and likewise them with us.

Along with Wimbledon, Oxford United and Luton Town were Thatcher’s children. During the 80s Thatcher dismantled the traditional British economy pushing many of football’s traditional heartlands into recession. Clubs like Blackpool and Preston fell down the leagues, others, like Manchester United struggled along without the success they once enjoyed. Oxford, Luton and Wimbledon were heartlands of the nouveau riche feeding off the false riches offered by privatisation and other economic reforms.

You would think that we would galvanise into a ‘movement’ but like all middle-class neighbours we were all racked with jealousy and mistrust. We, beside being funded by a fraudster, achieved our success the right way - playing exciting attacking football, marauding over all-comers in front of packed crowds. Wimbledon were fabled route-one specialists, aggressive and physical. Luton simply cheated their way to the top laying a carpet of artificial turf at Kenilworth Road which caused the ball to bounce as if on a trampoline and burn the legs of those who had the temerity to fall over. The only football you could play on it was ‘Luton football’. In short, rather like Thatcher's economic miracle, it skewed the market to enable their success.

Thatcher acolyte David Evans, a Conservative MP and Luton chairman, also took the decision to ban away fans from Kenilworth Road further distorting their home advantage. Superficially, it was an attempt to combat hooliganism - as if there was something about round balls and rectangular goalposts - the functions of the game - which cause otherwise happy people to turn violent. He was also a vocal supporter of Thatcher’s plans to introduce identity cards for football fans; an absurd abuse of human rights. Luton were basically Thatcher’s version football porn and Evans fawned endlessly over her to gain favour.

There were notable scuffles between the clubs on the pitch - they knocked us out of the League Cup in a often forgotten semi-final in 1988 thereby denying us a second Wembley trip in 2 years, there was an astonishing 7-4 defeat at Kenilworth Road and a 3-2 Oxford win on the plastic that all but secured our survival in 1987.

Fast forward to the Kassam years; we’re plummeting back down the league and the latest Kassam saviour, Joe Kinnear, resigns from Oxford on health-grounds. He reappears days later at Luton. He could have given so many reasons for resigning, but he simply, publicly, lied. Plus, he left us with David Kemp. Then, he took Luton on a dance back up through the divisions - beating us on Boxing Day in 2001. While we struggled, they celebrated and we were eventually relegated to the Conference while they sat pretty. This would have been galling enough had it not been based on one of the biggest lies in English football history.

The club were operating way beyond their means and when the money dried up administration was an inevitability. In addition it was revealed that Luton had been paying agents via third parties against the Football League’s regulations. The result was an accumulative 30 point deduction which meant they were relegated into the Conference the following season. In essence, we’d been a victim of their ill-gotten success, or that’s how it felt. Their points punishment was one thing, but it didn't compensate for our suffering.

By now we were both in the Conference, this put Oxford and Luton in the unfamiliar position of being giants of their division. Inevitably, they arrogantly predicted an immediate return to the Football League - being the only team, they said, ever to be relegated from the league for 'non-football reasons' (not true, their cheating artificially inflated their footballing capability; the points deduction was just a readjustment for that). But it was us who set the pace winning 2-0 on a fantastic night at the Kassam with a James Constable goal moments after missing a penalty (spewing a mini-YouTube classic) and a wonder goal from The Great Carrier Of Hope, Jamie Cook. The stadium seethed throughout - the size of the crowd and its intensity taking the police and club by surprise - part of the chaos being that it wasn’t considered important enough to be all-ticket.

Months later and the tide was again beginning to turn; Luton was finding their feet and we were suffering a characteristic mini-collapse. The problem appeared to be stemmed at Kenilworth Road as Matt Green put us into the lead, which we carried deep into injury time. Then, perhaps inevitably, they won a corner from which they equalised; and then heartbreakingly about six hours into injury time, we conceded again and walked away with nothing. Chris Wilder talked paternally about us being alright despite us metaphorically falling off our bike and getting a boo-boo on our knee.

The season, inevitably ended with a play-off. It seemed pre-ordained that we would meet Luton at Wembley (maybe even a full Wembley) for the right to promotion. But, while we completed our side of the deal dismantling Rushden, they inexplicably capitulated at home to York. It probably did us the world of good as their form suggested they’d have gone to Wembley as hot favourites. But, all of this was overshadowed as angry Luton fans chased the York players into the away end hurling abuse and objects at them. A shameful episode for which they were barely punished - even more galling when you consider that a year before we were deducted five points for a minor administrative error involving Eddie Hutchinson.

Saturday's defeat, which seems to have opened the debate around Michael Appleton's commitment to The Right Things, seems to have been self-inflicted. However, this doesn't make me feel any better about them.

I haven’t even touched on what a horrible place Luton is or what a pipsqueak of a stadium they have with their grandstand of greenhouses down one side. It all adds to a great pyre of evidence that makes Luton a team I loath beyond all others.

Oh, but I love their kit.

Addendum: There is a fine line between deliberately nasty and simply discussing a genuine feeling. And this is about the latter, not the former, although I realise that it does look like the former – particularly if you are a Luton fan. If you think about it, I’m describing a relationship over a 30 year period. The only real constant in this relationship is me and the name Luton Town.

It just so happens that Luton and I have never really got on – from plastic pitches and bad results to banned away fans and hooliganism. But that’s not to say that there aren’t good people in Luton and it hasn’t done good stuff. I have vague recollections of being a "Luton fan" during the 1985 League Cup final. It’s just my only interaction with the club has really been through the bad stuff listed above.

At least Luton is a memorable team for me. I suppose, in a sense, I should dislike other clubs even more because they just happen to turn up at Oxford games from time to time and leave no impression at all.

What I do know is that frequently when you dislike something, that it says more about you than the thing you dislike. Perhaps that’s it – Luton Town is a bear trap for me; which says more about me than it does about them. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reasons to be positive

Well, we have established a number of things about this season. Michael Appleton is a better coach then he is a manager - he will improve your players, but will he win you games?

Our owners have a preference for untried, high risk signings - the talented but injured, the talented but inexperienced, and the talented with questionable attitude. There is no evidence, currently, of a wider strategy for the club - particularly around stadium ownership. We have a sickly sweet PR machine in place which has face-aching smiles and talks in management-speak of ‘customer journeys’ and ‘USP's’.

Commercial successes have been limited - we have a shirt sponsor who is almost certainly not paying any money for the privilege, but the pop-up club shop outside the South Stand is a good innovation.

The club are demonstrably worse off than they were 12 months ago and yet the fans are compliant in this apparent failure. Perhaps it's out of apathy, perhaps from politeness. One thing is for sure, no other Oxford manager - throughout our history - would have been given this much time.

Is there anything to be optimistic about?

Well, change does take time and it is to football’s eternal failing that it doesn't give things time. The preference is to continually role the dice in the hope that, by the law of averages, you will eventually throw a double six. The football is certainly better, chances are being created, logic would suggest that it should be possible to accumulate enough points for a mid-table finish.

We are on a very, very gradual upward climb form-wise. We’re unbeaten in six games and West Brom was a great night.

As optimism goes, this sounds underwhelming. But, it was highly unlikely, given the financial constraints Ian Lenagan became under, that we were ever going to go up this season. So, considering what might have been - poor mid-table football - with what should be - entertaining mid-table football - you might argue that things are progressing.

I like the new branding at the stadium, although we’re a long way from creating a decent match day atmosphere, but I quite like seeing the club badges on each stand as I walk to the ground. The portakabin club shop is a good idea, as well as generating cash and it helps centralise the match day experience.

And that’s all I have, it is too easy to be wholly positive or wholly negative about things. It’s almost, to some, an question of pride to side on an issue in such a binary, absolute fashion. Most things are in fact usually a bit negative and a bit positive.

But, the truth is that on balance, things are worse, and what is perhaps interesting is the lack of frustration that seems to be coming from the fans. Perhaps there is a point when everyone gets fed up with fighting and starts to give up.

I struggle with the idea that a decision about a manager should rest on a single result rather than a prevailing trend, so must-win games are a bit of a nonsense. However, we continue to fall short. As pretty as the football may be and as gloopy as the PR is, if we can’t win games, then you have to question what is the point of the Ashton revolution?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A win is a win

A win is a win, right? Well, yes, and no.

I found the standing ovations for Callum O’Dowda, Brian Howard and Danny Hylton slightly troubling. Not because they didn’t, in their own ways, have very good games against Accrington. It was because it reminded me of a phenomenon that seemed to arise in the late days of The Manor and early Kassam years. Despite ever falling quality of our performances, the frequency of standing ovations at substitutions increased.

There was a time at The Manor when you knew a player had done something special by the wave of people rising to their feet in the Beech Road stand. It happened very rarely. By the end of the Millennium, simply running around in a yellow shirt had become reason for wild applause. Our standards had slipped.

I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon. A win is definitely better than a defeat; I am not one of those people who claims to want to see their team lose to affect a change of manager. For one, that’s a buffoon’s logic and two; from what I hear of him, I quite like Michael Appleton. I’m not convinced by him as a manager for obvious, tangible, reasons, but he speaks well and appears willing to take responsibility for his team. I don’t particularly like myself for not being convinced by him as a professional.

And, I’ve had worse Tuesday nights at The Kassam; Howard’s ball to Hylton for the first was excellent and Collins’ goal was spectacular, Callum O’Dowda’s performance shows he’s developing well and there was plenty of entertaining, attacking football to watch. As an isolated 90 minutes, it was definitely entertaining.

But. This was us winning against a moderate team, at home, who had ten men in order to pull within a point of the fourth bottom team of the whole football league. We hadn’t won in seven games - it wasn’t a must-win game, it was a 'should win' game by virtue of the law of averages alone. On other days Collins’ shot sails over, Barnett wouldn’t have been given such a daft opportunity and the referee would miss the sending off and it all ends up decidedly more close than it was. Eventually it was going to come together, but could you say it's the start of something?

While it would be great to be goldfish-like and receive every victory like it was the best one we’d ever seen, the win remains tempered by the context. Last year; and in fact, for the last 8 years, we have had aspirations of winning promotions. And, particularly early in those seasons wins meant going top, or staying in the play-offs, they dared us to dream.

I don’t expect every game to have the same feeling as a win at Wembley or in a derby, but while I am satisfied with the win over Accrington, I can’t quite get excited about it in the context of our terrible start to the season.

Perhaps this is the start of something; but there’s still a lot to resolve before it becomes clearer as to whether it is or not. Can Hoskins and Howard stay fit? And Hylton? And Clarke and Whing? Has whatever turned Tyrone Barnett from a million pound player to a free transfer in two years been left behind at his former club? Does Appleton have the ability? Does Eales and Ashton have the money?

This will only become clear when looking at the context; in other words, the runs we go on. If we’re to even have an average season we’re going to have to hit a run to compensate the awful start - five or six wins in seven or eight games, that kind of thing. If we’re actually going for promotion; which seems frankly ridiculous right now, that run will have to be more sustained. Was there enough evidence from the Accrington game to suggest we will put that kind of run together? No, because it’s impossible to judge over 90 minutes.

It’s not easy; football should be a visceral and spontaneous experience. But, it's difficult to divorce the experience of a game from what's going on around it. Perhaps that's a plague of growing up; it creates a clutter of history; a ramshackle filing cabinet in my head full of scraps of memories. So, Callum O'Dowda's performance had me delving into that filing cabinet to try and remember how it compared to Joey Beauchamp and Paul Powell, Collins' goal was quickly compared to Leven's. A win is tempered by the context in which it happens; good in itself, but far from conclusive as to whether this is the beginnings of the return of the good times.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Are football fans a bunch of dumb asses?

There’s a tweet that’s been bugging me ever since it was posted just after the transfer window closed and we’d failed to sign Tyrone Barnett. It basically said that the club should be applauded for being willing to spend money on players and also to be applauded for not being held to ransom by a player’s wage demands.

Now, in reality, it seems that the problem with the Barnett deal was between the player and his agent, but it seems that this one Oxford fan was wholly satisfied with the failure of the bid. In fact, he viewed it as some kind of success.

This is one of the themes of this season so far; it has been a terrible, terrible start - disastrous form and we're still three or four players short of a competitive squad. We are the second worst team in the entire football league and by next Saturday afternoon, it is conceivable that we will be the worst. And yet, not only are Oxford fans apparently satisfied by our parlous state and optimistic about our future, they are prepared to find ‘evidence’ from even the most incongruous sources to prove that fact. In addition, there are others re-writing our recent history; claiming that this is better than life under Chris Wilder (currently 7th with Northampton).

Now, I’m not going to bang on about winning at Wembley or the three wins over Swindon, I’m not going to talk about the nurturing of James Constable into not only a genuine goalscorer but a modern day club icon and talisman. I’m not going to talk about Peter Leven’s goal against Port Vale, or the semi-final play-offs against Rushden or Jamie Cook goal against Luton.

I’m not going to talk about any of those things, I’m not going to talk about half a decade which we will look back on as a golden age. I’m not even going to talk about the mean-spiritedness of that revisionism. Instead, I’m going to ask a simple question; are football fans just a bunch of dumb asses?

I sometimes see spats on Twitter between fans - obviously in our case it’s usually with Swindon fans. Insults are traded; but, I do often wonder if anyone is genuinely serious about this. I mean, does anyone genuinely believe that all Swindon fans are scumbags or that arguing over who is best will actually ever be resolved?

Do those who one week, after a defeat, call for the kneecapping of the manager and then the next, after a win, claim him to be a genius, recognise the idiocy of their inconsistency?

I enjoy the rivalry, I enjoy the pantomime, even when it’s vicious and foul mouthed, but I also know it’s fiction. It requires a suspension of belief in order for it to work. I had assumed others see it as well, but perhaps they don’t, perhaps they genuinely feel it is real. The problem is that we’re all so busy playing along, and we’re too afraid to ask anyone if they genuinely believe it in case they do and you’re exposed as being one of the uncommitted.

But, you have to be a simpleton to genuinely confuse the fiction of football rivalry and the reality of the reductivism of it all. I don’t know how many people do fall for it, but some clearly do.

Rivalries are probably the least of our worries right now, we seem to be plumbing new depths of idiocy when it comes to our current form and predicament. I wholly get the idea of going to a game regardless of your form because that’s kind of the point. But, the acceptance of our current state completely baffles me. We have scratched two draws in six, and yet, that is deemed to be acceptable. Apparently we’ll be rewarded for sticking to higher principles of playing attractive football, but with what? A win? Avoiding relegation? Mid-table safety? Do people genuinely believe that our form or even our play indicate that we’ll match or improve on last year? When was a home draw with Dagenham, as entertaining as that might have been, considered the height of any club’s, let alone our, ambition?

I’m assuming that we all secretly know that our form this season has been catastrophic, and that should it continue in this vein then that could do irreversible damage to the club. The casual observer who makes the real difference between our future success and failure - because they attend when we succeed and don't when we fail - are simply not fooled by the idea that we are, in fact, succeeding. I’m hoping we know this and we’re all putting on a brave face. But what I’m thinking is that we’re all so dumb that this is genuine acceptance, or genuine belief, that some magical spirit is about to step in and fly us to the stars.

Suspending reality is at the heart of any entertainment, you have to give yourself over to the format whether that be film or theatre or sport - which is basically theatre without a script. But, if you suspend your reality completely, then there is always someone ready to exploit that. Football rivalries get hijacked by the politicised far right, for example. My fear is that we have handed ourself wholly over to rhetoric and we’ve ignored the reality of our situation. There is a very real possibility that by the time we wake up to that it will be too late.

Perhaps there is a commitment to entertaining football under the new regime, and perhaps there’s more money to invest in the club. Perhaps the stadium issue is moving forward at pace. But, if we wholly believe those promises and passively hand ourselves over the new regime - without an ounce of scepticism or pressure - then we are truly as dumb as we look. They should be buying our trust and respect with their performances, currently, they’ve built no capital in that respect and yet a draw at home to Dagenham or away to Southend is considered to be a major success and somehow proof that this is an improvement on the previous regime.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The marshmallow club

I have a friend whose husband had a near-fatal aneurysm five years ago. At first, the doctors battled to save his life; he was passed up the food chain from one expert consultant to another even more expert consultant. He was regularly given just hours or days to live. He went from standard treatment to world class treatment to experimental treatment. He is, in short, a medical miracle.

And it worked, his life was saved; he still suffers setbacks, but he is no longer on the brink of dying. He is, to quote my friend, like talking to a marshmallow. The reality of caring for a human marshmallow takes its toll. It affects their children’s behaviour and development; he has lost the ability to empathise and is incredibly personally offensive towards her and he suffers periods of both deep depression and even more damaging euphoria (spending thousands of pounds on a whim). As he’s otherwise stable, he’s in his late forties, he could be like this for another 50 years. My friend, obviously, feels a great obligation to continue to care for him, but, she admits in moments of candidness, that there are times when she’d prefer he wasn’t around.

I think I might be coming to the same conclusion about Oxford United. Its 15 years since Firoz Kassam bought the club, cleared its debt, knocked its stadium down, built another one and sent it plummeting down the divisions. Then Ian Lenagan came in, stabilised things but took them as far as he was able given his resources. And now Eales and Ashton are in control and are threatening to drive it into the ground once again, or at best keeping it in its current vegetative state.

The difference now is that our league position, our form, none of it bothers me that much. I don’t find it particularly humiliating, we’ve been here before and for a long time, and the hope of a bright future is dwindling. We are becoming a marshmallow club; our options seem to be to make the best of a bad job or just to let it slip away.

Ashton was on the radio before the Cheltenham game, his PR onslaught continuing with the Radio Oxford ‘Ask Ashton’ feature. The ‘best’ of these questions received, apparently, were around the bias of the referee on Saturday and smoking in the toilets.

Are you actually fucking kidding me? Is this what the anaesthesia of the Ashton PR machine has done to us? It’s fine to have gone eight games with one win, be next to bottom of the table, had the lowest league attendance in five and a half years just so long as we can have a fag at half time.

There are two questions that Ashton needs to answer – how much money is going to be invested in the team? And how and when is the stadium going to be purchased?

On the former issue, it seems evident that the answer is; not a lot. Ashton and Appleton have pleaded for time to develop the squad. But it is them who lobotomised the management of the club when they came in. Should they be afforded time when they weren’t prepared to give time to what already existed? They were the great saviours; not Lenagan and Waddock, both of whom were removed or sidelined, and we all compliantly, and shamefully, cheered their demise because we believed the new broom's bullshit.

But, what have they delivered? A handful of players, materially no better than those they replaced, and, judging by the results, worse. Pretty but ineffective football; I get that football clubs need to evolve into new cultures and styles, but this isn’t evolution; this is revolution into an abyss. It is more entertaining, but it is still losing football.

We’re not allowed to mention Chris Wilder, of course, but, by contrast, when he arrived at the club he, by his own admission, threw a team together; Sandwidth, Batt, Chapman, Clist, Nelthorpe. He came in with that plan – short term and a plan - longer term - to establish a squad to win promotion.

This didn’t happen with Appleton; nothing was thrown together; they talked about getting in the right bodies, not anybody. The rhetoric is fine, but what we’ve really had is neither the right bodies, nor anybody, we’ve had nobody, at least nobody who has changed the direction of travel. Perhaps Hoskins will when he’s fit, perhaps Jakubiak and Morris will with some more experience and game time. I have hope that, goals-wise, Hylton might compensate for the loss of Constable.

The next transfer window will be different, says Appleton. Will it? I’m tired of this constant gazing to the next horizon – wait until the next transfer window, wait until the stadium is bought, wait until Richard Branson buys us. But no, they want us to wait another three months by which time the season will have been trashed, or worse, a sullen malaise will have baked in and a relegation fight will be our only prospect. Appleton, by the next transfer window, nobody will care about your intentions, less your style of football. You may still be in a job, but you’ll be playing to empty stadiums.

Many say that patience is needed, but I'm not sure I care enough to be patient. With each passing failure – Cheltenham being the latest – comes ever growing indifference. There's no longer a fear of failure and even less expectation or hope of success. If we get relegated, then it won’t be a novelty, nor will it be any greater shame than 2006. Then you begin to kind of wonder what is the point of blindly following something in which you don’t care the outcome.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The glory in defeat

I’ve never seen a Premier League game. I’ve seen top flight football before it was re-branded in 1992 but nothing in the new era. One of the appeals of our League Cup tie at West Brom was the prospect of visiting a Premier League ground, and one I hadn’t been to before.

I still think there’s something slightly magical, when you get to a big stadium, about that first glance from under the stand out onto a pitch framed with the banks of unoccupied seats. You don’t really get that in the lower leagues; usually the stands are too small, or in our case, they don’t exist at all.

I came to realise that it’s been a decade since I was in a top flight stadium to see Oxford; I missed the West Ham game four years ago and before that it was our 2003 FA Cup tie at Highbury. We really have fallen far.

It’s clear from first contact that The Hawthorns drips with money; other peoples' money, Sky money, dirty money, who knows? Obviously not in the absurd scheme of Premier League things, but in terms of the normal world, the riches are obvious. The pitch is immaculate; a constant of green from end to end and corner to corner. The seats are uniform and shining, not faded by a decade of exposure to sunlight like at the Kassam. Advertising animates, videos play out. The sound system is crisp. The floolights, gleaming white, tower above the stadium. Even under the stand, around the toilets and snack bar, the floor is wood laminate. With the height of the stands with the corners filled-in, the stadium is complete and enclosed; a theatre with the world shut out. I can see it would be fun to watch football here on a regular basis. As ‘real’ as things might be in the lower leagues; you might also describe them as ‘a bit shit’.

The game gets going and quickly falls into a pattern; we’re organised, but they pass the ball crisply and with pace. It’s the pace that’s the difference. Everything moves a bit quicker. Before the game there’s a montage of nauseating video clips played on the big screen; positioned awkwardly so that only about 20% of the stadium can see it properly. Baggies fans give their predictions for 'fan cam' – 4-0, 5-0 – they disrespectfully ‘give all due respect’, but, they say, the Premier League class with surely tell. They are filmed self-consciously doing the ‘Baggies Boing’ like they're being threatened just off-camera by separatists from a terrorist operation.

But, we hold them, generally untroubled by both pace and style. There’s an inevitability, a pattern, emerging. We will compete as equals, but once minds and legs begin to tire, they will slowly euthanase us like a vet putting to sleep a suffering calf. That’s how this plan will play out.

That’s the Premier League philosophy; the quality will ooze out, ejaculating all over us, consuming and suffocating to the point extinction. Us, other sports, other forms of entertainment, football will consume us all in quality. It’s not exciting; it’s like a piece of precision engineering which mesmerises you with its intricate moving parts, even though it doesn’t really serve any real purpose.

On the touchline, is Alan Irvine, one of many Premier League managers whose agenda is one of survival. His own and his team's. He’s not paid to be exciting. Do the right things most of the time and they will survive another year to be fed by the Sky money machine like a zoo keeper rewarding a performing seal with a piece of fish. Being average amongst the elite is his target, staying the right side of average is more important than taking risks and winning games.

We concede, but we don’t lie down. Key moments pass, when you might expect us to lose concentration and crumble. Just before half-time and then just after. An hour ticks by and we pass the point of ‘not disgracing ourselves’. The massed bank of Oxford fans begin to get frustrated that we’re not taking the game on, not taking risks.

And then, we start taking them on and they don’t know what to do. We throw a punch and they flinch. We throw another and they seem to rock. Most importantly, they don’t hit back. The tired minds and legs don’t open up the chasm in class; as a result, they have no additional gear, no plan B, we’re not partaking in their set piece ballet, we take them on. They have no response; we were supposed to be long dead by this point.

While they flick frantically through their scripts trying to re-find their place and regain their composure; we attack again, where does it say that? And again. Eventually, a breakthrough, Hoskins nods down and Hylton bundles in. Delirium.

Then, each pass seems to bind the team together more; Appletonians, Wilderians, they’re beginning to trust each other, they’re working together. The fans too are bonding to this team; Riley – he’s one of ours now, Collins, him too, Hylton, Brown, Morris. We're starting to get them as a team. The confidence is transferred into a forward motion and we’re no longer holding them, we're attacking them; relentlessly.

Into extra time; during the break lactic acid fills the legs, they can feel like lead and we’re vulnerable again. But, we’re out of our corner at lightning speed, throwing punches putting them in trouble. This is beyond survival, we're outplaying them. Are the West Brom fans worried? Who knows? You can’t hear anything beyond the bedlam of the away end. They should be.

But, we can’t break through and they begin to regain composure. Composure but still no threat. Now we’re tiring. Brown overstretches a challenge and takes a second yellow card. It matters not; we’re deep into the epic now. The outcome, whatever it is, will see us victorious.

And finally penalties; on and on it goes, slugging away. Like a city under siege, we’re running out of men to fight, soon it’ll be just the children and cripples left to defend out honour. The old warrior, leaden legged Jake Wright, steps up, he’s never scored for us before and he doesn’t now; he swings a boot and the keeper parries.

The defeat, in some ways, is more glorious. Their reaction reveals much about what we’ve just done. They don’t celebrate their team’s success, for there is none; they mock our misfortune in callous revenge. It’s short lived; some celebrate like they’ve won the cup, most know that it should never have got to that point. Their players, far from piling on top of each other in a breathless orgy, simply turn to their opponents shake their hands and leave for the tunnel. The understatedness of their celebration at last revealing their Premier League class.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

One does not simply walk into Oxford United

I feel a bit conflicted; I’ve long been an advocate of the long steady development of a football club. Less boom and bust, less hire and fire. I was proud of the fact we had a manager that was the third longest serving in professional football. I liked that we were committed to investing in local talent for the long term. What’s more, it worked, the steady progress saw us improve annually; albeit by decreasing margins in later years.

But, only five games into his reign, I am finding myself critical of Michael Appleton. He hasn’t benefited from a stellar start, like Chris Wilder did, but at the same time he’s yet to match Wilder’s seasonal winless streaks, although not by much. By the token that we should look to the long term, Appleton needs time. So why am I frustrated by him so soon?

Defenders of Appleton say his style of football is an improvement on what went before and that good will out; if we play the right way we will win games, we just need to be patient. The style has improved, chances were being created against Portsmouth, but another defeat and with it a drop to the bottom of the table shows that at the plan isn’t working in terms of results.

I struggle with the results/performance equation. I agree with the aesthetic of playing football the right way, but only if you get the right results. The best times I've had as an Oxford supporter at the Kassam were under the pragmatic tactics of Ian Atkins and Chris Wilder. The common factor was we won games.

I’m not sure, on reflection, that it is Appleton where my frustrations lie. During the summer, Ashton and Eales came piling into the club; all toothy smiles and promises of passion. The callous removal of Gary Waddock suggested that they had arrived with a sure-fire winning plan. But instead, they’ve installed a manager and starved him of resources. Or at least, struggled to get their act together. Time will tell as to whether they were unable or unwilling to invest in players, but at best it appears that they beyond a hectic PR schedule, they didn’t have a plan, certainly not on the playing side.

I’m not for a second suggesting that Waddock was the answer, but I’m guessing he did have a plan for the season and had that not worked, and we’d opened with four defeats, then the decision about his tenure would have been an easy one, given his performance at the end of last year.

Ashton pleaded for time; but the first shot in anger, the appointment of Appleton, showed that time wasn’t a key consideration. Waddock was gone within hours of them taking over. But what they replaced it with was a void rather than a another, better, manager.

Appleton may still come good once he’s found his feet and Ashton has found his phone book and chequebook amongst the packing boxes in his office. Will Hoskins is an interesting signing, which could be the game-changer, but also could be another Peter Leven. In the meantime we’re relying on passion, talent, hope and other immeasurables.

It’s probably fair to say that we’re not far off; each game to date has been lost by the odd goal to teams who are currently first, second and fourth, but we’re relying on the law of averages to pick up points; currently we’re slightly on the wrong side of average, presumably over the season we’ll come out on the right side. But, by that token, ultimately, we’ll end up average.

The concern, of course, is that this isn’t a concern to Eales and Ashton because buying into the club is just the latest move in a big land deal. And that for them this isn’t a results game. Promotion, relegation or mid table doesn’t impact the value of the land they’re hoping to acquire, so why invest? It’s possible that Appleton is a stooge; he seems a reasonable chap who is probably happy to have any job given where he's been previously. Plus, he is wealthy enough not to work. Unlike, say, Wilder or Atkins, who needed to be successful to pay the mortgage, Appleton may just be the passive front man Eales and Ashton need. It would explain why Waddock was ousted so quickly.

I should say, that I’m not convinced the real story is quite so linear. I doubt anyone wants to fail, presumably the duo want to impress the masses (and I mean masses) of people who now occupy the executive box at home games. However, I can see that in a world of competing priorities; some things are more important than others. If Eales is going to spend, say, £100,000 - there’s a far greater, and more certain, return on investment paying for legal fees on a land purchase than on a 27 year old, fit, proven goalscorer. It probably wouldn’t be a one-or-other option; but if his resources are limited, it seems to me that the allocation is likely to go on the land deal, not the player.

As an aside, I like Danny Hylton more than I thought I would; stuck amongst Wilderian players and Appletonians, it seemed he was destined to become the Sansa Stark* of the club; stuck between the houses of former and emerging kingdoms while being part of neither. But, he ran himself ragged on Saturday and seems to have thrown himself at the challenge like no one else.

I feel for Morris; he seems keen to get on the ball, with players preferring to pass rather than put the ball in places for him to attack, he keeps dropping deep and out of position. At one point in the first half, the pattern of play suddenly presented itself with an opportunity. A quick cross to the edge of the box, where a gap had opened up, and Morris would have been in. Then I realised that Morris was the man on the ball and the space in the box was the result of him not being there. Another time he was tussling with Portsmouth’s deep lying midfielders leaving the back four as an untroubled final defence.

On the hour, Morris suddenly seemed to be going backwards. He’s a hulk of a player, but nearly a decade from his physical prime, spending an hour dropping deep and looking for the ball had taken its toll. At that point the game became a war of attrition, and it was likely to be a survival of the fittest. Experience will eventually teach him to take his time, but it would also be nice to think that his habit of looking for the ball might be coached out of him.

Neither side really looked like they were going to win it at that point. Both teams were likely to get a chance or two, less through talent, more by virtue of the fact that eventually the ball is going to end up near one or the other goal. They bundled in their chance and Junior Brown headed ours over the Oxford Mail stand. As I say, we’re relying on the law of averages. At some point Eales and Ashton need to tip the odds more in Appleton’s favour; this week’s activities are likely to be telling.

 * A character from Game of Thrones whose family is all but wiped out by a powerful, ruling, family during a bitter civil war. By this time she is promised to marry the king; a member of her family's killers. A deal she is unable, now on her own, to renege on. She subsequently finds herself neither a member of her own family - all of whom are dead or on the run - nor that of that which she is expected to marry into. Like Danny Hylton.