Monday, August 29, 2016

Sheffield United wrap - Sheffield United 2 Oxford United 1

In a bike race like the Tour de France there are basically three types of stages – flat, mountain and time trial. To win the overall yellow jersey, you need to be good at climbing mountains and time trialling, but to win stages, you have to be good at sprinting on flat stages.

Sprinters will never win the overall Tour de France. Mark Cavendish, for example, has won 30 Tour de France stages knowing that he’ll never win the overall race. Sprinters will win stages looking like they own the world and then climb mountains like they’ve never ridden a bike. It all comes down to physiology; how you're built - sprinters are muscular and bulky, climbers are thin and willowy. There is almost nothing you can do about it.

On tough mountain stages, sprinters and their domestiques will ignore the main race and establish a ‘gruppetto’, a group which will climb the mountains at their own pace. It makes it slightly easier and reduces the risk of disqualification for being too slow.

Those who expected us to storm League 1 will be disappointed by our start to the season. Those who look at the relative finances of the teams in League 1 are probably less surprised. The division is still establishing its relative physiologies; those who will push for promotion and those who will fight relegation.

Already there seems to be a split – Bolton to MK Dons (in 12th), and Oldham (13th) to Wimbledon. Big teams and smaller teams. Things will change, of course, but the bottom gruppetto contains all four teams that came up last year, plus a number which we have played in recent years, the top half features a lot of teams who have been in the Championship in recent times.

The defeat to Sheffield United was a kick in the teeth but despite the Blades’ bad start to the season, they are still a much larger club than us and, though many Oxford United fans will not admit it, they have a manager who has spent his entire career improving teams year-on-year. It may be dour and graceless, but it is an irrefutable fact. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them comfortably in the top half at the end of the season.

It is similarly irrefutable that we don’t have a steady back-four and that it the root of our current closer. Hopefully Curtis Nelson is getting closer to a return, which will bring us back to more of a steady state. Once that happens, then we can get back to the job at hand which starts with competing, at least within our sub-group, and only then, maybe, beyond. But for now, we need to accept our physiology, not beat ourselves up too much and try to win the right battles.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Social enterprise

There was something brewing this week, something dark and sinister. The promise (threat) of a new social media policy being introduced after the club’s popular fan liaison bod Sarah Gooding left for West Ham.

Ironically, it was difficult to establish, via Twitter, just how the club’s social media activity was going to change. One theory was that we might head down the route of Charlton, and make fans’ behaviour on social media a condition of holding a season ticket. There was speculation that Gooding’s openness with the fans was a reason that she’d left. They, the new evil corporate Big Boss, wanted to control our minds.

But, actually, no. Instead the club announced that a new marketing bod has joined fresh from university. Alongside that were a series of tweaks to the way the communications were being run by the club.

Most notably, gone is the ‘chatty’ club Twitter feed available day and night to answer questions about how many tickets we’d sold for next Tuesday’s away game. In its place is an email manned by a couple of volunteers that the club would like to recruit. Like a chat line, but by email, and less sexy.

Fans are, as fans often are, outraged. Sarah Gooding would be turning in her grave if she was dead, which she isn’t, she’s at West Ham; we’ve established that.

Admittedly, Gooding’s endless dedication and patience did make talking with the club a more enjoyable experience last season, just one of many ingredients which made the year such a memorable one.

But those who are outraged by the corporatisation of the club’s communications miss two things. The first is that replacing Gooding with another Gooding was always going to be nearly impossible. She clearly loved her job; it was her natural willingness to engage which drove the communications. But, it is not reasonable to expect another person to answer a tweet about the club’s stock of anthem jackets at 2am. If they could find someone wanting to do that, then great, but the club has a duty of care to look after its employees and running them ragged defending the colour of its 'snapbacks' is not reasonable.

The second thing is that the club is still only a small business. There is not a bank of social media specialists working around the clock. It has to channel incoming and outgoing communications efficiently, because it can’t afford not to.

If anything, the club is too open with its communications. We have been ‘promised’ a new stand and scoreboard. Both have been delayed for whatever reason, and now there are fans tapping their watches wanting to know exactly what’s going on. We tried to explain our support for the EFL Trophy re-formatting and people picked it apart. Even announcing a new ‘social media policy’ was completely unnecessary because it has created expectations and invited comment. All they’ve done is reorganised how their communications are channeled in an attempt to manage them with the limited resources available to them.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Brighton wrap - Oxford United 2 Brighton and Hove Albion 2

Tuesday was a strange night from the off. People voted with their feet, confirming, if it were ever needed the terminal decline of knock-out cup football. Brighton fielded a second string, even Michael Appleton, not one to rotate his squad, rested Chris Maguire and Alex MacDonald. It seemed nobody was that interested in the game, god help the EFL Trophy game against Exeter next week.

The weather meant that those who did come were dressed like they were attending a family bar-b-que.  The soporific atmosphere meant that we started the game half-asleep. Sam Long seemed to have completely missed that the game had started despite significant evidence to the contrary. That evidence being the ball in the back of our net.

The score should have been embarrassing a long way before Thomas put us level, but by that point we’d pulled ourselves out of our stupor and were looking increasingly comfortable, even threatening.

It was the tortoise and hare, while we accelerated slowly, Brighton started fast and plateaued. I was thinking that somehow we might actually nick it, which would have been the oddest giant killing in history. Roberts and Rothwell, who for 25 minutes I assumed was Crowley, looked lost in the first five minutes, but grew into it. Had there been a decent crowd, and a solid back-four, a surprise might have been on the cards.

The back-four is clearly the problem. Long and Ruffels had a torrid time, you can almost sense that Skarz, loyal to a fault, dreams of being back at full-back like a homesick boy scout. Dunkley can’t hold all that together for 90 minutes against a team of Brighton’s quality.

After the initial shock, we matched them for a good seventy minutes. Roberts got cramp, perhaps the first sign we were running out of steam, was substituted and four minutes later we conceded again and we were back to where we started. The hare hadn’t quite napped for long enough for the tortoise to win.

No shame then. Brighton are clearly a good team, even if it was their reserves, for perhaps 20 minutes in total they really showed it, though that was more than enough. They exploited our most obvious weaknesses, which will hopefully begin to resolve themselves in the next couple of weeks.  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Peterborough wrap - Oxford United 2 Peterborough United 1

When we played Arsenal in 2003 at Highbury, apart from the barracking of Francis Jeffers, there is one moment I distinctly remember.

David Seaman had the ball in front of the mass ranks of Oxford fans. He rolled it out to Robert Pires standing in the right back position who passed it on. Arsenal efficiently worked the ball in two or three passes past our strikers, through our midfield and out to the left hand edge of our box where the ball was picked up by none other than Robert Pires. In a few seconds, he’d gone from one corner of the pitch to the diagonal opposite while our team stood rigidly in position.

It struck me that the great players are not just technically gifted, they work supremely hard for their right to play.

On Saturday, we seemed competent enough at League 1 but we lacked a certain bite that Peterborough showed. Overall, things were pretty even, but there were times where we were overrun by their movement up front and we were obviously frustrated by their willingness to fall to the floor at the slightest contact. In simple terms, they were willing to take risks and responsibility.

By contrast it was as if we were waiting for permission to get into the game, but permission never came and it probably never will. Like Pires taking responsibility to find space, we needed to take responsibility to win the game.

We came out in the second half with more aggression and snap, for which we were instantly rewarded. The change of attitude was typified by John Lundstram, who can be a bit of a slow starter at the best of times. He looked a yard behind the game in the first half, but in the second half he battled for the ball and earned the right to get his passing game going, when he did that he had real impact.

You can see parts of the team are starting to settle to League 1 and a plan and strategy is starting to emerge. Edwards looks comfortable at this level as well as Thomas, Hemmings needs to be a bit braver, and some of last year’s squad need to recognise that they do belong. The youngsters on the bench are there to stretch the game late on with pace and trickery. It won’t come together instantly, but something is there.

Chris Maguire looks most comfortable. He isn’t fazed by the level he’s playing at. Everything about his winner typified what it takes to succeed at this level. He was brave enough to attack the space behind Ryan Taylor to get onto his flick on, he had the awareness to put himself in front of the defender to draw the foul, he showed the calm and technique to put the penalty away, and he showed the arrogance to goad the goalkeeper who tried to put him off.

The celebration was two parts cynical gamesmanship, three parts improvised genius, it’s probably the formula to greater success this year.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Weekly wrap - Chesterfield, Birmingham City, Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town

Oxford United 1 Chesterfield 1

If this makes any sense, I remember our first game of the last season we had in League 1. The last season at The Manor, Denis Smith had a close season to forget; his attempts at re-signing many of the previous year’s crocks had failed and so, in their place, he signed an even bigger pile of crud. Things weren’t looking good.

In a season which would see finish bottom, concede 100 goals and, of course, get relegated, we opened against Peterborough at home. We dutifully applauding so many new signings that my hands hurt when we finished, though I barely knew any of them.

Though the mood and quality is somewhat different this time around, we have similarly replaced a whole team this summer. The consensus in the car was that Michael Appleton had a good summer with each new signing offering something new and exciting to the squad. The big question that hadn’t been answered in pre-season was whether he could make them gel.

Appleton kept most of his new toys hidden as Saturday’s selection smelt of, if not stability, then experience. It reminded me of our first home game back after the Conference against Bury. We’d expected to storm the division, but we got caught out by a team with more sophistication than we’d anticipated. We didn’t want the same thing to happen here and the focus on experience seemed to suggest that was at the forefront of Appleton’s mind too.

We looked solid enough, Wes Thomas is a kind of Danny Hylton character; he doesn’t make sense context of the squad in general, but looks reliable. Ribiero’s injury was a blow, but Sam Long seems to have had a growth spurt and looked completely settled in his place. The loss of Dunkley was a worry, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll be out for long.

Difficult to know whether we looked at home in League 1. Chesterfield were certainly better than most of League 2, and Swindon from last year, but not a patch on Millwall or Barnsley. With Ched Evans’ signing causing consternation and a laughable crisis involving a fake raffle to deal with, they presumably, like us, will look on mid-table security as success. If they are the benchmark for mid-table, then we should be fine and maybe should hope for more from the season.

Nobody is really expecting promotion, though it would be nice, so ticking off the points rather than storming the division is perfectly acceptable. With three away games coming up, a point is OK. Nobody wants to get to September with people pining anxiously for Hylton, Roofe, Wright, Mullins and O’Dowda.

Birmingham City 0 Oxford United 1

So, for the third year running, we delivered a League Cup giantkilling barely worth of its name. Nobody really knows what Birmingham City are; Premier League pretenders? Relegation certainties? Neither? Can we truly benchmark the result in terms of its achievement? Can we really call this a giantkilling?

City made nine changes from their opening game against Cardiff, such is the sniffiness of Championship managers towards the League Cup. They will talk about the league being a priority as if that sort of pragmatism is supposed to impress us. There are typically three trophies to play for per season (League, FA Cup and League Cup) and on average each team will win a significantly less than one of them. For most teams a couple of memorable wins is what leaves a season in the memory and the cups should offer those moments. But, the idea of glory being is lost on most managers who choose to effectively ignored the cup in order to concentrate on standing still.

I like the Appleton mentality that every game is there to be won, it plays to both the romantic notion of a football team wanting to win every game they play, but, more importantly, it creates a template in which the team learns how to win games. There are precious few players, if any, who can decide when to perform and when not so developing a habit of winning has to be an advantage. Whatever the benefits of resting players are they have to be balanced against the lost opportunity to practice winning games.

Honorable mention has to go to Liam Sercombe. The departure of Jake Wright in the summer brought an era at the club to a close. It wasn’t immediately obvious who might take the captain’s armband when the likes of Sam Long and Josh Ruffels are the longest serving members of the squad. Sercombe must have been in the running for the job.

It’s not so much that he leads by example; he just does what comes naturally with seemingly endless energy. If he’s like that at home, it must drive his fiancĂ© mad, but it must also be completely infectious for young players at the club. If they plan to model themselves on anyone, it’s not the superstar pretentions of the Premier League, it’s the boundless enthusiasm of Liam Sercombe where they should look.

Sercombe has been in the middle of everything that’s been good about the club over year or so, his goal against Birmingham was another chapter in a stellar Oxford career.

Bristol Rovers 2 Oxford United 1

... And just as Sam Long and Liam Sercombe emerge as heroes of the first week, they conspire to make a significant contribution to our first defeat of the season. Brilliant.

The response has been, as you might expect, completely binary. From the innate confidence of promotion to the abject failure of defeat. We are in trouble, or perhaps not.

Frankly, who knows at this stage? I don’t, and nor do you.

Rovers are a bit of a benchmark for us, we’ve always competed at roughly the same level, so a defeat probably feels like we’re falling below a perceived watermark. However, they held onto their core squad and star striker, and we didn’t. So they’ve started the season a bit more established, whereas we’re likely to evolve into it.

Talking of strikers, the good news is that Kane Hemmings got off the mark, which is important despite the result. The figures may be moderate in wider footballing terms, but transfer fees are an unequivocal measure of perceived quality. Goals are an unequivocal measure of the return on that investment. As a striker that brings a pressure that other players won’t feel. If the goals don’t come, then everyone gets restless and the pressure builds. Dealing with that pressure takes a special mindset.

If the goals do come then the pressure goes away. A few more goals in the coming weeks and another jigsaw puzzle will be slotting into place.

It’s been an OK week, and not one that should have been wholly unexpected. One win, one draw, one defeat; fairly predictable. It could have been any order. We were always likely to start more slowly than last year and it was always likely to be a bit harder. This is no time to jump to any conclusions.

Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0  

Some people seem to suggest that our defeat to Fleetwood is a sign of impending crisis. That's two defeats in a row, meaning we've taken only a point from three games, time to panic.

But, in every sense, it is too early to tell whether this is how our season will pan out. It is only our third league game, we've only had one game at home, and, lest we forget, we are playing in a higher league. This seems to be one of our problems; we're 'only' playing Fleetwood, a team that we 'should' be beating. But we forget that while they don't have any heritage at this level, the team is there on merit and by definition they, like everyone else in the division, are going to be harder to defeat than  the teams we faced last year.

When will we know our direction of travel? Looking at the fixtures, I don't think we'll have a clear picture until October at the earliest. The early season is fraught with difficulties,  MK Dons, Sheffield United and Bolton away, Swindon at home. Things look more settled into October, but it's not until January that we start to play batches of teams more like us. We might need to be patient, while the team find their feet.

Perspective and cool heads are needed right now, as Michael Appleton says, it's time to focus on the basics. That said, with Brighton next Tuesday and Chris Wilder's Sheffield United away the following Saturday, a nerve settling result over Peterborough will do everyone the power of good this weekend.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Season preview 2016/17

When the Referendum result was announced and the country descended into a turmoil, a friend of mine predicted that things would probably settle down once the new season started. It’s true, football isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s the most important of the least important things and its regularity provides a reassurance that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So we welcome back the new season this weekend with a slightly tighter hug than we might otherwise do. But, even on planet Oxford the summer has been both familiar and strange at the same time. Obviously there was the immediate but unfamiliar euphoria of promotion and the prospect of being in a higher division; this was quickly off-set by a slew of departures and, initially, few signings. And then there was a trip to Spain, a new kit and some premium friendlies. All the things you expect from a summer, but just, in some way, different.

Last year, the summer started at breakneck speed. The club announced that season tickets would be credit cards and we thought we’d been thrust into the future. Then we changed the pitch, jettisoned London Welsh and signed Kemar Roofe. And it just kept going, to Austria and Wembley and promotion and beyond. 

Things haven't felt quite as pioneering this year, the trip to Spain was like a new Stone Roses album, it had all the familiar elements, but it was less spontaneous and instinctive, a little bit too knowing. That’s OK, only good can come from a ‘club holiday’ in terms of PR and simply having a good time, but it will never quite be the same as the original.

An honourable mention should also go to OxVox’s One of our Own campaign. I’ve always wondered what the real purpose of a supporter’s trust is, they might represent the fans, but that only means something when someone is listening. Otherwise, it's just a group of fans convincing each other that things would be better if the bar served proper real ale. To take on a campaign to provide season tickets for less-fortunate children and their carers is beyond admirable. If the trust’s roles is to retain the conceptual ‘heart’ of the club, then this is a perfect demonstration of what the club should stand for.

The club seemed to struggle last year with arranging the manufacture of their own kit, so this year’s early release feels like a step forward. Both home and away are excellent designs feels like a big step forward in every sense. Talking of big steps forward, here's one tiny step back; with three days to go until the new season, we have no season tickets, hmm.

The signings were slow coming, but that ignores three things. The first is that all managers want to get their business done early (because the alternative is to get it done late) so that's no measure of success, it also ignores that football goes on holiday in May and many contracts don’t run out until the end of June, the other thing is that fans have a tendency to compare our activity to the accumulated activity of every other club in the country, so it will always look like your less active than everyone else put together.

When the first signing did come, it was underwhelming. One commented that he hoped Simon Eastwood would be better second time around, which is pretty mean spirited given that he was a teenager and didn’t play a single game for us in his first spell. We were, and still are, overburdened with goalkeepers, none of which are fully The Solution,

After that the signings picked up in frequency and quality. Culminating, perhaps, with the signing of Curtis Davies, which caused Kemar Roofe levels of hysteria.

The departures were more gut-wrenching, they always are after a promotion. It seems so unfair to lose the very players who you were lauding a few weeks earlier. Johnny Mullins was released, which felt harsh but was understandable. Danny Hylton rejected a contract to go to Luton, not for the money, ahem. My guess is that his new offer was probably half-hearted. Both the Roofe and O’Dowda deals looked to favour us and the loss of Jake Wright was similarly surprising but understandable given how overloaded we became with central defenders.

The net result is a fundamentally different squad to the one we had in May, but at the same time, it feels like the core-DNA has been retained. The relationship between club and fans remains strong; the signings retain the core qualities of previous successes.

Should we read anything into friendlies? Where we were once a decent draw for non-league teams, we're now a good run-out for the top teams. Playing the champions of England and Brighton, who were nearly promoted to the Premier League hardly represents a benchmark for League 1. That said, with so many new players, it seems likely that we may get off to a slower start this season.

What should we be expecting from the season? Last year promotion was a requirement, it was a new regime, but we’d waited too long for progress and we lost a year to complete turmoil. This year I’m more relaxed, look at the division and you’ll see a smattering very large teams which should occupy the promotion slots – Sheffield United, MK Dons, Bolton, Coventry, Millwall and so on. I would be happy if we were nestled in behind that group, either just in or out of the play-off slots.