Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Marginal losses

What was largely missed by Alex McDonald’s last minute equaliser against Northampton was that it  ensured we were mathematically safe, although it was generally accepted that reaching 50 points against York was more significant.

The win over Tranmere was the first game where the pressure was off. We could look at the table without fear and assess the damage of the season. But, it revealed something different to what I was expecting. If we take maximum points from our final games, we will be just one point behind last year’s total.

How did that happen when this year feels like a disaster? I thought I’d look at the stats in way that absolutely guarantees you a girlfriend.

The most obvious point is that winning our last two games remains a huge challenge. Of all the combinations of results that are possible from these games, 6 points is the least likely. But even losing both and being seven points behind last year – in a season where we dropped our opening nine points - would be a surprise. Was it all down to a terrible start?

No, our current points total buys less in terms of position than last year. In 2014 62 points was enough for 8th this year with two games to play it's 9th, and by the end of season, that will be lower.

The division is less concentrated than last year; the team at the top have more points and the team at the bottom less. So while the better teams have improved we’ve largely stood still, thereby relatively speaking, falling behind.

Points accumulated at each position in the division 2014 and 2015

In addition, there’s the question of the ‘elite’ within the division. Last year there was a 10 point gap between York in seventh (and in the play-offs) and us in 8th. This year that ‘selection’ seems to be around 5th where there’s a gap of some 9 points between Southend and Stevenage. The top teams are more consistent this year.

If you look at the points chase over the season it’s obvious that the opening games of the year did lots of damage whereas last year it was the opposite. We took 9 points in three games from last year, a figure that took 10 games to accumulate this year. After that, we haven’t recovered. 

Oxford United points accumulated points 2014 and 2015

But, that’s not the whole story, while we dropped points alarmingly at the start of the season in comparison to last year that leveled off as we found our feet. Then the gap widened, at one point, we were 20 points behind our 2014 run-chase. So, yes, we started badly, but we also got worse.

Difference between points accumulated in 2014 and 2015

If you look at our form, this starts to show where the real problems have occurred this year and perhaps why it feels so miserable. Taking our results in a rolling batch of 5 games at a time, thereby reducing the impact of freak results, on four occasions last year we found ourselves in a run which accumulated 10 or more points over five games; this year we haven’t achieved that once. Our performances this year have felt pedestrian because we haven’t, at any point, got out of second gear. Although there were fluctuations in form in 2014, at least it was punctuated by moments of joy.

Form on a rolling 5 game basis 2014 and 2015

Most noticeable from last year is our end of season collapse. The last blue peak coincides with a game against Wimbledon at the beginning of February – Mickey Lewis’ second game in charge. After that the rot set in and we never recovered, but, as we all know, Chris Wilder’s departure was a good thing.

Although that might distort things a little, it is noticeable this year how much our form has generally picked up since the Mansfield match. What’s the significance? Well, perhaps that was the first game in which we consciously recognised the fight we were in, in relation to relegation. We could no longer promise a halcyon future, we had to finally deal with the here and now. And also, the team on that day was one that you’d broadly recognise as the team we play now – stability appears to have paid dividends.

Accumulation of points at home 2014 and 2015

Getting even more detailed perhaps reveals the nub of the problem related to our innate misery. Despite our generally improved form towards the back end of this season, our home performances have trailed off badly since Christmas. As we all know, last year wasn’t good at home at the best of times, but this year it’s worse. After our slow start, things generally picked up and for a period performances were broadly similar to last year. Then, at Christmas, our form drifted off. If trying to play passing football on a deteriorating pitch isn’t a factor, then I’d be surprised.

Given that most Oxford fans witness most of our games at home, as lauded as our away following is, this trailing off gives the season a disproportionate sense of failure. Which is significant, because even though Michael Appleton may have a case to suggest that things aren’t as bad as they might initially appear, the ticket-buying fans are unlikely to see it that way. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

We came to mock him

The return of Chris Wilder to the Kassam was being billed by some as the game in which new-era Oxford would sweep away his new charges with a dazzling display of pace and passing. In return, it was assumed, Wilder would – in a fashion typical of the man – launch the ball forward in the vein hope of snatching a goal before defending for grim death. More important than a win, we were going to prove a philosophical point.

Those, like me, who supported Chris Wilder throughout his time at the club and will continue to defend his legacy are labelled as living in the past, as hankering for a time that never truly existed.

This is unfair, any support for Wilder is not revisionism, there were games during his time which left me giddy with adrenaline, feelings an adult male deadened by life’s trudge are no longer supposed to feel. Before yesterday’s game I was trying to think of Wilder’s top 10 Oxford moments and got to 17 candidates before giving up; everything from Wembley to my favourite moment; the last minute goal against Wrexham in 2009. Most of the Kassam Stadium’s greatest moments have been under Wilder with perhaps only Louis Jefferson’s goal against Swindon threatening to break the hegemony. 

Being featured in great moments at the Kassam might feel like winning the world’s tallest dwarf competition, so beyond that, aside from Denis Smith’s half-season aberration 19 years ago, which lead to a thrilling last ditch promotion via wins over Swindon and Wycombe, you have to go back to THOSE years in the mid-eighties for anything to compare to the period under Wilder.

Nor is it a pining for his return, I think everyone accepts, as he said, that the bus was driving itself by the time Wilder left. We were chipping away at the same problems with the same tools. Wilder didn’t have the support to develop as a manager, the club didn’t have the money to help him develop. It was time to move on for all concerned, it was only a matter of when and how that would come about. An increasingly delicate game of chess being played behind the scenes meant a handful of Ian Lenagan missed steps – his failure to back or sack Wilder in 2013 and allowing him to talk to Portsmouth a few months later – opened a door to an inevitable conclusion.

What I do pine for is what was demonstrated by Northampton on Tuesday night; organisation, structure, commitment, purpose. Basic tenets on which teams perform and in League 2 can actually be enough to help you succeed. The sort of stuff you only miss when it’s gone.

It is difficult to describe how bad we actually were, but rather than dazzling Wilder with a hybrid of tiki-taka and Brazillian showmanship, it was the Cobblers who passed the ball over our rutted pitch, around and through us for long periods while we stood around waiting for someone to take control of the situation.

Wilder spent most of the night hidden away in his dugout, as he did in his last game as our manager, rather than at the edge of the technical area. He left Alan Knill to bark instructions out to their players.

This was an illustration of the man and perhaps explains why he frustrates people. He is, at heart, an introvert; treading a precarious line between wanting recognition and hiding away from it. He wants to be successful, believes in his abilities, but doesn’t want to become the focus of the attention that success inevitably brings. He fears being labelled as a failure or having weaknesses exposed, because that too brings unwanted attention. As a result introverts tend to work extra hard trying to stay one-step ahead of a dragon of their own making. In a sense, not being liked is a more comfortable position.

Those who don’t understand that mindset can find their subject awkward and difficult to like. Introverts appear diffident and scratchy whereas this is really just a method of avoiding talking about themselves too much. But, players respond because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of the wrath of their managers’ anxieties. When compared to the cosy comfort of someone satisfied in their own abilities, who believes success will come from the osmosis of philosophical belief, there really is only one type of person you want in charge of your football team.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Grizzly Adams Park

My first away game was in 1982, 5th Round FA Cup tie against Coventry. My first away game experience was the moment we got out of the car having parked up near to Highfield. An Oxford fan sprinted past us pursued by a gang of Coventry fans. It was like a scene out of Green Street, or a template for most of Danny Dyer's career. The day got significantly worse; we lost 4-0 but the whole experience was scarred by Oxford slinging seats over my 9-year-old head and onto the pitch. Just before the final whistle a hassled policeman told us to throw our scarves away if we wanted to get out of the ground safely.

In the intervening 23 years, I like to think I know football crowds, as intimidating as they can appear when at their most rabid, if you understand its ebb and flow, then you're generally OK.

On Friday against Wycombe I got in the away end and tried to work out where I was sitting. I like to sit in my allocated seat, not because I want what's rightfully mine, but because I can't handle the rejection and humiliation when someone comes up and tries to claim the seat I'm sitting in. As I counted along the seats and rows I realised I was right in the middle of the middle, in amongst, what you might call, the hardcore.

But, I couldn't get to it and the stewards were stopping people from getting into that area of the stand because it was too full. So I headed towards the more sedate and sparsely populated area of the stand towards the Frank Adams Stand, a doppelganger for our own South Stand.

We kicked off while large groups were still filing in; the uniform was familiar; Stone Island jumpers, Adidas trainers; the fashion of today, yet identical to how it was 20 years ago, which in itself was of the fashion of twenty years before that. They, presumably, wanted to take up position behind the goal, but they, instead, were ushered beyond that position. Soon, they were stood amongst me.

We kicked off and there was a tangible buzz amongst my new friends. They were bright, we were brighter; Rose; a revelation over the last 2 games, Roofe immaculate. The two combined playing the kind of football Appleton has dreamed about all season. 1-0. Carnage. The bloke standing next to me, a bag of jitters and yelps takes off his coat, throws it to the floor and screams a primal scream. Then, Rose and Roofe reverse to create a second. Mayhem.

This was a cue for the latecomers to poor down the stand and straight through the wholly inadequate perimeter fence; a series of crash mats held up by off-cuts of other crash mats. The instant collapse of the 'wall' exacerbates the problem as fans and stewards stumble over the barriers as they go flying. Nobody knows what's going on, who knocked who and what was an accident and what was deliberate. There's a confrontation with a steward and an Oxford fan throws a punch. Not cool. The steward to his credit doesn't move, let alone retaliate. Ryan Clarke tries to call for calm from his goal.

Order begins to get restored, we're 2-up and the mood in the stands is euphoric, nobody was expecting much from the day, which is probably why so many dawdled in from the pub 10 minutes after kick-off. We came in hope more than expectation. Stories are exchanged about great away days; Chappers' free kick against Burton, Stuart Massey hanging off the crossbar, the bloke next to me says it was a Good Friday game; I restrain myself from correcting him (it was Bank Holiday Monday).

Half time comes, this is on, we've been excellent. Nobody goes to football for half time entertainment, but Wycombe haven’t bothered and the place is strangely subdued given the frantic opening 45 minutes.

Second half and our frailties and their efficiencies intertwine and they pull a goal back. In the stands the banter subsides; it’s amazing how 2-0 can feels like heaven but 2-1 feels like you're standing on the abyss. It's not just about the potential to lose, it's about the potential humiliation of losing from 2-0 up. But, we are invested in this now. On the way in, I was questioned by a drunk Oxford fan as to who I was following ‘are you Oxford?’ he said ‘I’m Oxford and I don’t have a fucking clue why I’m here.’

It was this kind of fixture; we came out of duty, but something was taking grip. We had celebrated 2-0 as if it were the title itself, and now that was under threat. As a white horse ambled across the hillside above the stadium, inside Adams Park.we needed this win, for the points, but more for the pride.

The game remained open though, they attacked, we hit them on the break and the clock ticked on. we attacked again, Hilton fell to the floor under a challenge, he stayed there but the game wasn’t stopping and he knew it. He jumped to his feet, one of those miracle recoveries that infuriates opposing fans. He looks up and and suddenly finds himself an option for Danny Rose; Rose feeds him and there’s Roofe with a scuffed shot across the goal. It was nothing like Tommy Craddock’s wonder strike of two years ago or Nicky Wroe’s beauty last year, but it goes in. More delirium.
Cushion restored, now it’s a question of seeing it out - game management - something we’ve struggled with all season. The clock skips on. Is there a fire drill? No, but there is a trickle of Wycombe fans making for the exits. Have they given up that ghost or are they just taking a prudent view on Wycombe’s match day traffic problems? The trickle becomes a flood; yes, they definitely think this is a done deal, and, the wisdom of crowds says that they must be right.

80 minutes turns into 85 into 89, a Wycombe strike canons off Mullins and then Clarke and goes for a corner; one of those incidents that convinces you that the gods of football are with you that day. But moments later and another far post cross and it’s 3-2. Those who are left in the Wycombe stands are buoyed, could they snatch an unlikely point? I have to remind myself that a point would have been a great outcome before the game, it wouldn't feel like that given what's gone on before.

The board goes up; 6 minutes; Wycombe roar, there’s a ripple across the Oxford end ‘where did that come from?’. And, for once, we’ve got a point; where DID that come from? Sure, we’ve slowed the game down, substitutes had walked off from the opposite side of the pitch; but everyone does that; but that sort of behaviour never usually results in six minutes. It just feels like it appeals to the referees sense of theatre.

But, those minutes drift by, Clarke collects high, hopeless passes with ease, each time it releases a moment of relief. The whistle goes, 3-2, it’s been nearly 10 years since we last dropped a point at Adams Park. Survival now seems almost a certainty. But the steel and fight offers the relief from an otherwise abject season. The players, sodden in the rain, look exhausted but elated. We are, for once, as one.

Shame it wasn’t a derby, really.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Conscious uncoupling

When Patrick Hoban finally popped up to grab his first goal against Carlisle on Saturday the bloke next to me turned around and said ‘He didn’t have time to think about that one’.

He was right, everything about it forced Hoban to draw from his instincts. Sure, he had to make a conscious effort to move to the front post but from there on he didn’t have time to think. The pace and height of the cross and the fact he was at the near post meant that all he could do was make contact and guide it somewhere towards the top corner; which was the only place the ball was going to go in.

It wasn't lucky, he just didn’t have to think about whether to pass or shoot, or to put the ball left, right or down the middle. Everything had to be done in his sub-conscious; a deep seated learnt behaviour which helped him score a hat full of goals in Ireland. It’s the proverbial ball going in off the backside of a striker; not something he is able to think about, he just does it.

Hoban must have been starting to wonder what he had to do to score, strikers never claim to be affected but this sort of thing, but it must have been nagging away. Football is a callous business, if you don’t perform, you’re out of a job. With each chance another doubt sneaks into your head; then you start to over-think; trying to consciously do the right things when all you really should be doing is letting it flow.

Hoban isn’t the only one who has arrived at the club to find themselves struggling to do the things they’ve done naturally all their lives. Do we, as a club, have something about us that drags players off form?

Perhaps, we’re one of a tiny number of teams who have managed to enjoy both success at the top of the English game and demotion from the league altogether. Only Luton and Wimbledon can say something similar and both of them will argue there were mitigating factors in their failings. For us, failure seems to have been almost wholly self inflicted through our own complacency.

We're unusual in that there are people in the crowd who have seen us win a major trophy at Wembley and lose to Tonbridge Angels (or whatever you might consider our 'low' to have been in the last decade). Amongst us walks people looking for a sign that we’re about to head off back towards the top of the game and those who are looking for signs another pending disaster.

There is a theory that America suffers far greater social tension than other countries because it promotes the full breadth of what is possible in life. Self-made multi-millionaires from poor backgrounds - like rappers and sportsmen - are celebrated as living the American Dream, even if the reality is that for almost everyone living in a ghetto in the US, that’s exactly where they will stay for their whole lives. That sense of failure that most people experience, and perhaps the sense of being deprived or cheated out of their birthright, drives social tension and unrest.

In a class-based system there is 'comfort' that you are amongst your own and a degree of certainty about where your future lies. Although you might want more money and opportunities in life, the angst resulting from not being able to achieve it is far worse. It’s part of life’s moral maze as to which is more right; a restrictive system which has the benefit of certainty, or the open system in which most are likely to feel the pain of failure.

So, we are neither a superpower where success is a Champions League win and a failure is an FA Cup win, nor are we a no ranking lower league stalwart whose purpose in life is to provide little more than a mild diversion in life. Because we have experienced the breadth of what is possible, are we like America, ridden with above average amounts of angst?

If we have a culture prone to angst then perhaps, this could affect new players in a way they might not elsewhere. When players are beginning to suffer angst, that's when doubt creeps in and the subconscious skills and abilities are forced into the conscious mind. If players have to consciously think how to play, then they are far less likely to be able to perform. It may be something deep in our DNA.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unlocking the code

Among Michael Appleton’s increasing scrapheap of soundbites the one about finding the right DNA for the club endures above almost all others. To be fair to Appleton, I’m not sure he actually said it, that could have been Mark Ashton, but it is a philosophy he stands by.

Actually, DNA isn’t a bad analogy to use if you apply it properly. DNA is frequently presented as a mystery of the universe, a light-force, a product of some unknown power. This isn’t surprising because what DNA does is remarkable.

However, DNA is a molecule containing a code, a sequence of instructions that, astonishingly, give us life. Now, given that logic is the product of us humans and humans define what science and logic is, then DNA isn’t a mystical thing, it is the origin of logic and rationality. Finding the right DNA is not channelling some mythical power source, its applying logic, solving a code which will result in success.

To illustrate where Michael Appleton has got it wrong is to look at how codes work, how DNA works. Matthew Syed in his book Bounce talks about this in the context of learning. Here’s a code which is a sequence of eleven letters:


If I asked you to remember that code, you would probably be able to remember perhaps 4 or 5 of the letters. Moreover, if I asked you to tell me what it meant, you would have no idea.

Here’s another eleven letter code:


If I asked you to remember that code, then chances are you would be able to rattle them off without a second thought. Not only that, you would probably be able to tell me what the code meant.
That’s because we have developed a sophisticated set of tools to interpret that code, we understand them as letters, group letters together to make sounds, we group sounds to make words, and then we have a reference library of meanings to attach to those words.

Football management is infinitely more difficult than this, of course, the number of variables run into billions when you combine players' attributes with injury and age with opponents and available resources and so on. Nobody should pretend this is easy.

However, the point still stands, because there is one utterly critical and controllable fact that has made establishing our DNA, our code to success, virtually impossible.

I chose eleven letter sequences in the above because there are eleven players in a football team. Say each letter represents a player, the order in which the players play should be recognisable if we’re to decode a team’s DNA. We know the first syllable is ABB, we know, because of the letters around it the ‘e’ is pronounced ‘ee’ and the second ‘a’ as ‘ay’. Each letter has meaning, but each letter also gives meaning to the other letters. A word is a surprisingly sophisticated code when you think about it, but we can solve it in a flash through endless hours of learning.

But, what Michael Appleton is doing is changing the code constantly by signing more and more players, replacing one with another. The changes are bewildering; it’s like asking the team to solve a code where a letter changes constantly. Keeping up with the letters in the code is hard enough, giving it meaning is impossible.

While we can provide endless arguments about resources and the pitch, the swapping of players is utterly controllable. Even if you take the difficult code above, with enough time you would begin to remember it, I could even give it meaning – like having a code to unlock a padlock. So, even a sub-optimal code is better than one which is changing all the time.

Of course in the perfect world you stumble across a DNA that works straight away, but we seem to have changed almost everything about the team on a continual basis. Quite how that is expected to deliver success, I have no idea.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Standard response

When Leo Roget arrived at the club in 2004 I thought we’d made a good signing. I’d heard of Roget, which was a good start; it was one of those distinctive names that echoed across the lower-leagues. We had been in reasonably good shape on the pitch, the previous season we had a solid back-four with Andy Crosby and Matt Bound and, although they’d left the season before, it seemed like we were learning lessons from the past and that Roget would fit right in. Plus, he was coming from Rushden, who at the time were nouveau riche and seemed to be going places.

But Roget’s first season was terrible, he was gangly and awkward, not a patch on his predecessors. If he used his height it wasn’t to dominate strikers, it was to fall on top of them. The following season he improved, in fact, he was a stand-out player. Fans seemed to like him and sang his name. By the end of that season, though, we’d been relegated from the Football League. So, did Roget really improve or did our standards drop? Did he play better or did he have to do more defending and blocking because we were getting worse?

Presumably one day Michael Appleton will be sitting in an interview for a new job and his prospective employer will ask about his achievements at Oxford. He may have to think hard, but perhaps he will cite this season’s highlight; the double over Bury.

That it: the highlight of our season so far is doing the double over Bury. In fact, up until Tuesday night, we were considered to be ‘in form’; a form which had seen us win 3 in 10, score 8, climb to 17th and be 9 points clear of relegation. Of relegation.

The fact is that the win at Bury shouldn’t have been a reason for celebration; it should have been a wake-up call. As decent as Bury might be this season, we should be expecting to pick off at least a couple of promotion chasers away from home, more if we have ambitions to go up ourselves. We should be expecting to win against Plymouth and we should definitely, definitely, definitely beat Hartlepool.

This is not because we deserve better because of who we are, progressively as the season has passed we’ve allow our standards to drop. At first it was good performances but bad results, then it was wins against poor teams, then it was a sense of celebration that our relegation fears were easing. Draws were celebrated as wins because we never seem to win. Now we’re losing at home to the bottom team in the division and Michael Appleton is applauding our ‘effort’.

He knows he is defending the indefensible now. I agree with him that the players put in a lot of effort against Hartlepool, but the merry-go round of players throughout the season means that for all the effort we remain utterly listless. There is no system. Does anyone know how Roofe or Gnanduillet want the ball in order to score? Well, no because neither have played more than a handful of games for Oxford and neither have the players passing to them. No wonder it’s so disjointed.

Appleton, by his own admission doesn’t have an angry gear, so he’s going to be objective and look for learning points and positives. It’s a good quality to have if you’re coaching youngsters who make lots of mistakes in the process of learning, but managing experienced professionals who are tired, demoralised and battle weary is different. Managers need to show players where they can go if standards do drop whether that be through a volcanic temper or whatever. Plus, they need to show it as the merest inclination of a problem; like the time Chris Wilder (yes him) criticised us for winning 4-0 against Eastbourne after being poor in the second half.

Slowly but surely corners have been cut, standards have slipped and the previously unacceptable has become acceptable.

A spineless defeat to the bottom club in the division – who are in dire trouble on and off the pitch - removes any last shred of credibility Appleton had in claiming that his philosophy will work given time. It’s like going down a hill with worn brake pads; you just have to hope something will stop you because you can’t rely on what you thought you had. This has been coming for a long time, but any lingering hope that we’re going in the right direction has been cast into the dustbin.

Where now? It’s so hard to imagine a scenario now where Appleton not just turns this round but sustains an upward trajectory toward the play-offs and beyond, this season or next. The squad is a mess of panic signings and loanees, players we’ve bought or haven’t bought, players that we’ve announced and never seen sight nor sound of. These are his players working to his confused philosophy stuck in a vortex between what is ‘right’ and what is needed. In order to change, he’s going to have to back down admit he’s been wrong – wrong players, wrong tactics. Not only will he lose face, this is going to take time or money or both to sort out. People are going to get hurt. I can’t see him doing that.

But, he’s not going to resign either; his managerial career has become an absolute wreck with not only this debacle on his CV, but also some of the football league’s greatest basket cases – Portsmouth, Blackburn, Blackpool – all with his name on them. It’s not all been his fault – far from it - but he knows how it’s difficult to shake a reputation.

So, we're left with one option… Mark Ashton, over to you.