Tuesday, April 25, 2017
The last few games of the season feel a bit like the crew of a Navy frigate going on shore leave. We stop off at a port – Port Vale’s fight against relegation last week, Millwall’s push for the play-offs this – carouse around visiting the whorehouses and gin joints without much of a care for the long term consequences we might leave behind.
It’s fun to play without consequences, particularly when it results in emphatic wins that put other peoples’ noses out of joint. How many times have we had end of season visitors to the Kassam where we’ve got an outside chance of promotion (or avoiding relegation) only to have our hopes dashed? It’s nice to turn those tables once in a while.
It feels slightly different to the 2014/15 season where we ended with a similar flourish. Then, particularly as a result of the form of Kemar Roofe, it felt like we were on the verge of something new and exciting. This time, it feels more like we’re at the end of something, although quite what it is is difficult to ascertain. Players who have served us well look set to leave, our best players are likely to be subject to transfer interest, Oxvox may even be ready to announce plans to buy the stadium and effectively release the club’s potential as a business. We might even have new investment that catapults us into the Championship.
Which brings us back to the shore leave analogy. Is this just the reckless end of season party which brings to the conclusion an intense tour of duty or the sign a we’re just a couple of signings from being promotion contenders next year? Will we return to our loved ones for a couple of months before joining up again for another adventure or will we never see each other again?
Talking of which, Saturday was completed with the confirmation that Swindon are going down and Leyton Orient will start next year in the Conference. I just don’t understand the Orient animosity, the fact that they were promoted on the day we were relegated from the Football League in 2006 was nothing but happenstance. They were dancing on our pitch to celebrate their success, not to rub our noses in it. Our failings were firmly in place before that game.
On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to see Swindon suffer for a while. The signs have been there for a while, they’ve have looked absolutely terrible when they’ve played us over the last couple of years, so it’s little surprise to see them struggling. Their bizarre ‘mates together’ management structure, which seems to involve Tim Sherwood taking all the responsibility and their coach taking all the blame, screams failure. Knowing what we know about failing teams and just how hard it can be to pull up from that kind of trajectory, Swindon’s relegation could genuinely signal the end of our derby meetings for years to come. How bittersweet does that feel?
Saturday, April 22, 2017
So, Michael Appleton is playing hardball with Liam Sercombe’s contract by triggering an automatic extension clause. The motivation, pretty obviously, is to prevent Sercombe being free to leave when his contract expires. Or more specifically, to retain his registration, which is what has really value as it's not likely that he's actually going to play.
As a tactic, it’s an obvious thing for the club to do; it gives them a degree of control in a world where players, good players, are often king. From the club's perspective, it’s about managing your assets. Without a stadium, the club need to manage what has more closely and carefully.
It’s possible that the unilateral triggering on the clause is a root cause for the disciplinary issue which has resulted in Sercombe being cast aside. Sercombe will understandably want as much control over his future as he can get but, in fact, he’ll feel imprisoned by an agreement made in happier times. The fact that one side can trigger such a clause is the fault of whoever negotiated the contract on Sercombe’s behalf but that's likely to be of no comfort.
Rather than negotiating the best deal for him and his family, Sercombe, you might assume, will have to go through proper channels to gain permission to talk to other clubs. That means his own options are more limited to those who are prepared to meet whatever price the club place on the players’ head. There were rumours that he might go back to Exeter, but that's not really his decision anymore.
Not that it'd be looking at a lot of money to prize him away from the club; it’s clear that Sercombe has lost favour at Oxford, which is hardly likely to bump his price up. Plus, his own motivation is likely to be severely limited, the longer it goes on, the less likely he going to want to play, and the less likely it is that the club will want to play him. Other clubs will know this so will surely be pretty happy to play a waiting game. The longer that goes on, the lower Sercombe’s price drops.
Sercombe is clearly a very good League 2 player and pretty solid in League 1. There will be clubs who will want his goals and commitment, but at 28 they are unlikely to be investing in an asset with with much resale opportunity in the way we have with, say, Curtis Nelson. None of this suggests we're talking big numbers.
Unless, of course, Oxford set a price, truly dig their heels in and refuse to budge. Then they are left with a player that they have to pay for another year and that they can’t get rid of because nobody will meet their valuation. At that point it risks becoming a spiteful war of attrition, but one, ultimately, nobody can win. Sercombe won't want to stagnate for a year in the margins and we don't want to have to pay for a player who isn't going to have an impact on the pitch.
Which would lead us to the same kind of situation the club faced with Eddie Hutchinson back in 2008. Hutchinson was considered surplus to requirements and not registered to play, but he couldn't find another club and was left on the sidelines. An administration error meant that when he was needed Hutchinson played without being registered which resulted in a points deduction that cost us a place in the Conference play-offs for that season.
It seems unlikely that such a blunder is going to happen this one, but the club doesn't want to end up lumbered with a player it won't play but it has to pay. It's a tricky balancing act.
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
As the season peters out, so it seems so does Liam Sercombe’s Oxford United career. According to Michael Appleton, Sercombe is embroiled in a ‘discipline issue’ which he implied is more than just a manager/player falling out.
Sercombe has had a difficult season. He came into it as the first choice attacking midfielder with John Lundstram, but facing better teams meant we needed to become a little more conservative. Lundstram became the playmaker with Ledson providing the defensive cover. It squeezed Sercombe out to the wing where he looked a bit of a spare part in comparison to Marvin Johnson on the other flank.
By rights he shouldn’t even be in the team having been ruled out in November only to return like some kind of bionic man in January. Plus, this is the first time he’s really faced the prospect of being out of contract during the summer. He had been at Exeter since he was a schoolboy and chose to turn a contract down in order to move to us. He’s never been in the position of his future being out of his hands before.
Wembley was pivotal; a late burst of form from Joe Rothwell saw him sneak a starting place ahead of Sercombe who appeared from the bench, with us 2-0 down, like a caged animal. He got our consolation goal; proof that he should have started? He seemed to think so, although it was hardly definitive. He followed up by uncharacteristically re-tweeting fans’ praise about his performance.
We don't know exactly what the problem is but all this pressure, then, seems to have got to him, which is sad to see. It could be all manner of things; ill-discipline in training, a fight with another player, discussing contract negotiations, bad mouthing those involved. Or perhaps a combination. Or something else.
It seems that 12 months after promotion, only John Lundstram and Chris Maguire (if he stays) will start next season at the club. Both Joe Skarz and Chey Dunkley, along with Liam Sercombe, have stripped their social media profiles of Oxford references and Benji Buchel is sure to move on. If you consider that the last remaining member of the 2010 promotion winning side – Jake Wright – left six years after Wembley, it shows how impatient Michael Appleton is to move the club on.
None of this is great for nostalgics, we all want to believe that eras go on for years and that players are immortal. But even the greats either decay slowly or get sold onto better things. In the modern age things are a bit different; with the exception of Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda, who were subject to lengthy speculation, the promotion squad is simply evaporating with little warning. Last season we packed in a lifetime of achievement, perhaps that' why it feels like the golden era is passing so quickly.
Sercombe’s contribution last year was immeasurable; Roofe may have stolen a lot of the limelight, but included in Sercombe's 17 goals there was the equaliser against Swansea and his fabled goal away at Carlise, this season he got the winner against Birmingham, the equaliser away to Swindon and, of course, the goal at Wembley. He may be leaving the party prematurely, but his contribution will be felt for years to come.
In this context, Port Vale was a curious affair, like a game of park football where tactics were set aside for a test of pure ability. As a result, Vale showed themselves to be full of endeavour but ultimately not very good, we showed ourselves to be lacking in motivation but ultimately with too much quality to lose.
Michael Appleton admitted that he had to recognise that there was nothing to play for and that many of the players’ heads were elsewhere. It wasn’t clear when he said that if they were players on the pitch, the bench or elsewhere.
On the pitch it was difficult to see who he was referring to. At a stretch (and it would be quite a stretch) maybe Joe Skarz didn’t quite seem to be on the money but, overall, it looked like a team that was playing without pressure rather than one which was unmotivated.
To some extent, after more than 60 games this season and nearly as many last, it's a bit of a relief to be able to run the season down free of pressure, but as calming as that feels, it also seems changes, and big ones, are afoot.
Monday, April 10, 2017
In many ways, the last couple of games have been a story of two players.
Michael Appleton made the point recently that players coming through the youth ranks at the club have to develop faster than the first team progresses if they want to earn a place in the starting eleven. So, we’re not currently looking for the next Callum O’Dowda because he was a youth team player who played for us in League 2. We’re now looking for a youth teamer with League 1 or Championship ability; the next Joey Beauchamp or Chris Allen. Every step forward the club takes, makes it harder for youth team players to get game time.
Canice Carroll’s debut in the defeat to Fleetwood, therefore, was a significant achievement in a team which has progressed towards the edges of the League 1 play-offs. In the past, debutantes would attract warm applause simply for touching the ball or running vaguely in the right direction, now we expect them to be fully baked and ready to go. Twice in the opening minutes he was caught out of position, the second time leading to the penalty for Fleetwood’s opener. The people behind me were chastising his lack of experience and tactical awareness and questioning where Phil Edwards was when we'd barely played for 15 minutes.
We don’t really know what Carroll’s ‘thing’ is; is he a Joe Skarz safe pair of hands or a Marvin Johnson marauding winger? That's part of the problem, until we know his thing, it's difficult to know whether he's playing well or not. He seemed to grow into the role as the game progressed and overall had a solid game.
At the other extreme, we have Chris Maguire. Maguire very much has a carefully crafted ‘thing’ in that he plays on the edge. He’s like the person at work who light-heartedly flirts with women in the office. Everything is generally fine until one day he says the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person and he gets into trouble.
What makes Chris Maguire special and different, is also what kills him. The second goal against Fleetwood is the best illustration of this. There’s a gif going round of Maguire against Swansea last season doing keepy ups in the corner. It was a very Chris Maguire thing to do; a moment of panache in a high pressure situation. Against Fleetwood, in almost exactly the same place, he got caught out trying to be too clever and it lead to the goal. Had he dribbled his way out of the corner as he intended, he’d have been heralded a genius.
Fleetwood proved that this division is basically made up of Bolton and Sheffield United at the top, a few waifs and strays at the bottom and then a whole bunch of teams like us in the middle. We have are doing what in cycling is known as en chasse patate – literally, potato hunting. We're stuck in a no man’s land between the leaders and the back markers. We are neither good enough to go up nor bad enough to go down, so we dangle frustratingly somewhere in the middle.
The Fleetwood and Walsall results have turned our thoughts to next season and what we do to turn this promise into a promotion push. The first question is around squad size, it only takes a couple of injuries and we're in trouble. Michael Appleton’s options – or more specifically Darryl Eales’ options – are to increase the squad size or reduce the burden by forgetting the peripheral cup games. If we did play weakened teams in the EFL Trophy, then Appleton would be abandoning a core part of his philosophy - that success comes from the repetition of good practice. You don't pick and choose when to perform.
The other question surrounds the composition of the squad; both Sheffield United and Bolton have shown the value of maintaining solid, dependable squads, less thrilling than us, but ultimately more consistent and therefore successful. The question, then, is whether we should be looking at a few less Canice Carrolls and Chris Maguires and a few more solid and dependable experienced pros. We might lose a bit of sparkle in the process, but we might pick up the extra points we need for promotion.
Tuesday, April 04, 2017
Apparently, drowning is a pleasurable experience. Something to do with the deprivation of oxygen and the feeling of euphoria that results. It’s a paradox, a bit like the idea that a trip to Wembley to see your favourite football team should be a miserable one.
I’m not just talking about the result. In fact, I’m not even talking about the result. The run up to the EFL Trophy final was full of soul searching and hand ringing. Tears (metaphorical or real) were shed, non-boycotters sent messages to boycotters like they were talking a depressive down from the window ledge of a tall building. Boycotters wrestled their consciences as they reconciled their split loyalties to their team and their principles.
Everything was so serious; this wasn’t the giddy mayhem of the past, the club and fan groups slogged away trying to sell tickets; the line that this might be the last trip to Wembley for a generation sounded like a threat; come to this because you might be dead next time. The sense of delirious fun of previous years was absent. This was about doing a job, winning the game and getting out before we could crack a smile.
Coventry fans seemed less distracted by the side-show; they have bigger problems to deal with, I suppose. Their 1987 Cup Final win aside, they haven’t finished in the top six of any division for 44 years. Even the perverse pleasures of relegation – that drowning feeling - have been largely absent given they’ve only gone down twice. They are, in effect, the saddest team in England; this was a rare chink of joy in the bleakness of their current and past experience.
But their troubles run deeper still; 85% of their matchday profit goes to Wasps Rugby Club, they have, effectively, no income. They want Sisu out, but Sisu aren’t going anywhere. They might try to escape to Coventry Rugby Club and their 4,000 capacity stadium, in short, they are stuck, suffocating in a vacuum.
So they gobble up as many tickets as they can get their hands on. Around the stadium there’s a distinctly retro feel about the shirts their fans are wearing – every era is represented, like a celebration of their past. Barely anyone seems to be in this year’s designs, none of them go to games anyway, I suppose. John Sillett is introduced to the crowd beforehand to raucous cheers.
Inside, the atmosphere amongst Oxford fans is rather less excitable, it’s almost complacent, the Coventry players appear to a deafening roar, we appear to warm applause. But surely once the game gets going, the difference in class will show?
We start slowly, which at first appears deliberate. Last year we started like a train, but ran out of steam at a key time. They scuff in an opener and we need to find another gear. But, it doesn’t come; we’re the better team but look less likely to win. Loads of possession but nothing is working, what’s going on?
Our game changers aren’t firing; this is our tenth game since the semi-final against Luton just a month ago. Marvin Johnson, who has started eight of them, looks lethargic and leggy. Chris Maguire is just back from injury, Ryan Ledson returning from international duty, Rob Hall is playing his seventh in eight and seems strangely blunted. We’re knackered and Wembley is draining any remaining energy we have.
Joe Rothwell, who has played just three games since Luton, is bright enough, dancing through challenges and threatening a break through, but he can’t do it on his own. Like against Bristol Rovers, where Michael Appleton made one substitution despite being 0-2 down at half time, the manager resists making changes. He knows he doesn’t have anything on the bench. The second smallest squad in the division, without Martinez, McAlney, Thomas or Martin and with MacDonald and Taylor long gone are blowing fumes.
Appleton’s only option is Liam Sercombe who has started just four times since Luton. As he warms up, they slot in a second and it looks to be all over. Sercombe comes out like he’s been fired from a rocket launcher. He doesn’t look like the type to get angry, but he’s like a snarling animal. Afterwards he retweets all the supportive messages he received, is he trying to make a point?
Coventry are tiring, it’s not been a defensive rear-guard, but they have been resolute. Cramping becomes endemic, suddenly they’re tiring more quickly than we are and the game evens up. Sercombe, inevitably, drills home for 2-1 and the game becomes ludicrously open. All discipline out the way, the last 15 minutes involve Curtis Nelson playing centre-forward and Simon Eastwood abandoning his goal. Rob Hall and Kane Hemmings break the Coventry defensive line but look unconvincing as they advance towards goal. Nobody is playing in their designated position anymore; Michael Appleton must be scratching his tattoos off at the sight of the chaos. There will be a chance, you feel and it comes in the 94th minute. Mayhem on the goal line, but nobody can put their foot through it and bring the equaliser. I’m not sure we’d have deserved it had it gone in or at least Coventry didn’t deserve to lose. They came to enjoy it, and we’d have spoilt their fun. That just didn’t seem right.
The aftermath is grim; fans who questioned whether they would attend at all vent forth at players for ‘not turning up’. Few players avoid the vitriol; some should never wear the shirt again. Oh my goodness. We’ve played 115 games in less than two seasons; won promotion, been to Wembley twice, won derbies and beaten teams in each of the top five divisions. The players and manager don’t get to pick and choose when and where they go to games, they don’t get to boycott things on points of principle, they turn up, home and away, capacity crowd or empty stadium and they have performed far more often than not. They didn’t today and that’s just the way it is, it’ll hurt them more than us in the long run. If it is another 20 years before we get to Wembley again, at least we’ll get to go. The players have the tiniest window to experience glory and it’s closing quickly.
Wembley is a rare treat, as is the team that has taken us there twice in a year. We’ve treated it like we’re dealing with a mundane chore. It’s time to get a grip.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
When Donald Trump tried, and failed, to repeal Obamacare, he found it largely impossible to do. The problem was that the bill was structured like a tower of building blocks. If you took one from the top, it just produced a slightly less tall tower, if you took one from the bottom the tower would fall down completely. As a result, repealing the bill was too radical for some, not radical enough for others. Brilliant.
Sunday’s EFL Trophy Final to some a non-event, to others a low priority, but it might actually be the building block which might define the season. What does that do to your moral compass?
After Saturday’s non-event against Northampton, the game against Bury threatened to be a peculiar one. Five days before Wembley and with only an outside chance of the play-offs, it was difficult to predict which team would play let alone how they would react. Why throw yourself into challenges and risk missing Sunday? Why play your game changers when you need them fresh for the big stage? As our ninth game of the month, fatigue was always likely to be a problem.
Certainly the crowd seemed to take the week off with it being the lowest we've seen in over a year. The atmosphere was sleepy, those who did turn up seemed to be there out of a sense of duty rather than anything.
Bury came off the back of some solid form, avoiding relegation is the only thing they have to play for. With some application and a bit of organisation, they could have picked us off, which would have left us further adrift of the play-offs and with doubts going into Wembley.
However, they contrived to put on a display as inept as any team we've played this season. If this was an illustration of their ability they would struggle in League 2. Passes went astray, shots ballooned into the night’s sky, organisationally they were hopeless and their discipline was completely absent.
It was a non contest as we cut them to ribbons. If we'd scored seven it wouldn't have been a surprise. It was the perfect pre-Wembley fillip, an opportunity for those who have struggled with form and fatigue to gain a bit of confidence. But, with results going our way we also suddenly found ourselves just four points off the play-offs.
I'm not quite sure how; form this month has been pretty moderate. Two games in a week has looked too much for our small squad. But somehow we've negotiated our cluttered agenda and come out the other side with the season in tact.
So, to the weekend and what seemed like the least important game of the season might just be the most important. Ultimately, it's a play in two parts; first, Saturday’s results have to go our way. If by 4.45pm we’re still within sight of the top 6, then the whole perspective on the season changes. Part two is Sunday; firstly, because it will get the distraction of Wembley out the way, but also the objectives for the season become clearer – either the play-offs are on or they’re not. If we win on Sunday, that might just give us the boost we need to propel us through the final stages of the season. Suddenly what might be the most innocuous building block of the season becomes critical to its success.
Thursday, March 23, 2017
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.