Sunday, June 12, 2016

A League of Gentlemen

Tom Peters says in business you’re either different or you’re cheap.

The announcement on Friday that the EFL Trophy, formerly the JPT, would include Premier League Academy U21 teams was greeted with all the contempt it deserves.

It was a cynical announcement, timed to coincide with the start of Euro 2016 when the media’s attention was already elsewhere.

Initially it appears that Oxford had reflected the fans’ view and voted against the plan when Darryl Eales told OxVox he opposed it. Later it turned out we had voted for it and that Eales had been outvoted by his board. Oxford are, to date, the only club to have confirmed their support for the move but we’re not a lone wolf here.

The fact that the board outvoted Eales is interesting. He clearly isn’t the benevolent dictator we sometimes perceive him to be, it’s good that there are opinions at board level, if everyone thought the same, then some of its members are redundant. There should be debate, that’s what will make the club a healthy one.

The club broke their silence on Saturday with what I thought was a pretty a cogent argument for voting with the plan. The Trophy is a dying competition, it has no sponsor, falling TV interest, there’s little that attracts the fans and it’s clearly a distraction for players and managers.

Having now been through an entire Trophy campaign, I can confirm from my perspective that excitement rarely gets beyond mild interest, even in the latter stages. As I said after the final against Barnsley, Wembley was like a works day out rather than a milestone in our history. It was nice, but it wasn’t vital.  

Don’t get me wrong; adding Premier League U21 teams to the mix is a terrible idea. I can’t imagine why anyone – media, sponsors or fans – might be attracted by the prospect of Stoke City Under 21s v Rochdale or even a Wembley final featuring West Brom v Southampton juniors. Last year’s FA Youth Cup final between Manchester City and Chelsea had an attendance of 8,500, even the Premier League has only so much appeal.

But, it’s difficult to know what else to do with it and the alternative is probably to abandon the competition altogether. The reality is that there is just too much football, and the trophy itself is being squeezed out. 

A friend of mine’s husband suffered a near-fatal brain injury 6 years ago. He’s been subjected to progressively more radical treatment in an attempt to save and then stabilise him. This idea seems to be along those lines, a terminal tournament being nursed with increasingly radical treatments.

But, like my friend’s husband, who is now in a wheelchair, suffers depression and bouts of extreme anger and is probably going to lose his leg; all the radical treatment can really achieve is to prevent it from dying, not allow it to thrive.

There is the suggestion that this is a Trojan horse strategy to allow these teams into the Football League. If it is, it’s a pretty dumb one, the equivalent of the Greeks climbing out of the horse at the gates of Troy to ring the doorbell. If this is part of a secret strategy then it’s obviously failed; Oxford may legitimately be able to vote for the idea as a test, but knowing the fans’ views, could it now vote for Premier League entry into the Football League? If it’s a test, then it’s clear that the results are negative, which is good to know, now let’s drown the idea forever.

There’s no doubt the Premier League holds a lot of the cards; they could end loyalty payments, the loan system, promotion and relegation, and throttle coverage of the Football League on Sky and BT. But the answer to those threats is not to become a cheap assimilation, it’s to become something different.

The Premier League is not an English league full of English clubs. Owners, players, managers, and increasingly, fans are not English. I’m no jingoist, I’m fine with it; I quite enjoy the Premier League although I can’t engage with it any deeper than as a form of entertainment.

But I like the uniquely English phenomenon of having three professional leagues (four if you add the Conference), I like the fact that five years ago we were in the Conference and next year we could be fighting to be in the Championship. I like that fans of obscure clubs travel up and down the country to support their team. As the Premier League becomes global, the Football League has a great opportunity to build itself as something successful and local; a Costa Coffee to the Premier League's Starbucks.

The Football League will be making a grave mistake if it chooses to suckle on the teat of the Premier League in an attempt to succeed. It has so many assets, the Championship is the fourth best attended league in Europe, it needs to build on what it has rather than assimilate itself to a global phenomenon that doesn’t care about it.

As Tom Peters says, in business you have two options – let’s be different, not cheap.  

Friday, June 03, 2016

Squad review - coming and going

May and June are difficult months for a football club and particularly for football fans. There’s the emptiness resulting from the end of the season where Saturdays are suddenly blank and the narrative runs silent. It's also a time when football goes on holiday, so real transfer news is typically scant. The void is filled by speculation, which is unsettling, and the real news that permeates beyond normal signings are the unusual ones, the ones that holidays simply can’t wait for.

So while we face uncomfortable truths about O’Dowda, Roofe, Maguire and Hylton, one might expect things to balance out across the whole summer. But, this week's events are interesting and unnerving at the same time, so where exactly are we and where are we going to be come August?

Who’s going?

Hylton and Mullins have already gone, and I’d expect Maguire to go as well. He should be able to secure reasonable level of interest and all his permanent contracts have been in the north; so, we’re not necessarily an obvious choice for his employer.

O’Dowda and Roofe also seem likely to move on; although both should secure fat fees for the club. There’s a lot of angst about this. Obviously fully focused, fit and on-form O’Dowda and Roofe are huge assets to any club and them leaving will be a blow. But, there is a point when players outgrow their clubs and start to become more of a burden than an asset. Say, for example, O’Dowda stays; he’s a full international who has just turned 21. There is a point where the attention and the possibility of playing at a much higher level becomes a distraction. To some extent we saw it with Roofe after Christmas; suddenly he’s a bit of a star, there’s pressure to perform, do interviews, tell his story and the potential of a big move grows. His form became more fitful as the season progressed. It’s not easy to stay focussed when that’s happening.

There are a couple of outliers that have been subject to some light speculation notably Lundstram and Sercombe. I doubt either will go as their contracts and the fees required to secure them are likely to put people off when there are other, easier, options available.

Who’s left?

Michael Appleton has admitted that we’re over-subscribed with goalkeepers, which is undoubtedly true. Buchel played enough to earn a contract extension, Slocombe remains under contract and the club have got to decide what they want to do with Max Crocombe, who hasn’t been around the club very much in recent seasons.

None are obviously first-choice ‘keepers and you’d think that one needs to go somehow. If another, more reliable ‘keeper can be secured, that might mean two will go. My bet is that Slocombe is the most vulnerable because Crocombe is emergent and presumably a cheaper back-up. If another ‘keeper is brought in, I doubt there’s much in it between Buchel and Crocombe.

The planned loss of Mullins leaves us with two very capable centre-backs – little worry there, although we’re lacking cover. Skarz is the obvious first-choice left-back, but we have a hole at right-back with Baldock and then Kenny leaving. I can’t see Baldock coming into the club, unless money becomes available from O’Dowda or Roofe, but even then I suspect that he will be available only at a premium to us and so I’d feel that we're more likely to fill the gap by looking elsewhere.

We look reasonably secure across the midfield – Sercombe, Lundstram, MacDonald and Ruffels are all in place.  Perhaps one senior pro, or maybe a good loan deal, along with the various younger players should give us enough cover early on.

Up-front suddenly looks threadbare; Ryan Taylor is the only senior striker left once Hylton and Roofe go. He’s no goal machine and his injury problems last year have to be an ongoing concern. This could be a break-through season for James Roberts, who in some ways has shown glimpses of being even better than O’Dowda. But, it is only glimpses and that’s not enough. If the O’Dowda and Roofe money is available, then this is an area we would do well to spend big on.

So what’s the prognosis?

We need to strengthen across the squad. Thin out the keepers, bolster in defence, strengthen the depth of the midfield and overhaul the striking department. It feels like quite a lot and the silence is deafening.

Say it quickly and the loss of O’Dowda, Roofe, Maguire and Hylton sounds pretty gut-wrenching, but there’s money to be had from two of the four and it does free up a reasonable amount of salary. Add to that a bumper year for merchandise and ticket sales, and a trip to Wembley this would suggest Appleton doesn’t have to scrape the barrel for reinforcements. Darryl Eales doesn't seem to have lost his enthusiasm yet, he still seems excited about what we can achieve.

Plus, it seems unlikely that Michael Appleton has been unaware of this prospect for some time. Hylton may have been a shock, but an ‘improved offer’ may not have been as enticing as it sounds given that he was originally signed during the austerity between Lenagan stepping aside and Eales coming in. If he was signed on the cheap by Gary Waddock, an improved offer may not have been that much money. And, if that’s the case, then maybe the club weren’t as set on Hylton staying as the fans. There’s certainly some evidence to suggest that this wasn’t a ‘sign at all costs’ deal with Hylton looking to be on his way out at Christmas.

Also, Appleton has admitted that some of his planning has been hampered by not knowing which division he was playing in until the last game of the season. Last year it was clear that the club would be in League 2 and the signing of Joe Skarz signalled the beginning of a new plan being executed, 8 months before the start of last season. It’s not the same this season.

So, given that this scenario was always possible, it might suggest that Appleton has got this under control. Given his meticulousness about everything else from his tactical planning to his physique and tattoos, it would be a surprise if this has all come as a shock. There should be money available and maybe he’s waiting for the Roofe and O’Dowda deals to be completed. Plus, it is still holiday season in football world and so the silence shouldn’t be too concerning.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hylton departs

It was like watching the final scene of a particularly gruesome episode of Game of Thrones. One where a much loved character gets eviscerated in front of your eyes.

When the news came in that Danny Hylton had turned down a new contract offer and signed for Luton, first there was disbelief, then shock, then anger, but all the while there was helplessness.

While Twitter screamed my office was silent as everyone soft-pedalled their way through the first day back after the Bank Holiday. On the screen there was indignation and barbarism. I wanted to claw at the screen to stop the news coming in, it was horrible.

There doesn’t seem to be a good footballing reason for Hylton to leave. He’s well loved and played the best football of his career at Oxford. It’s possible he feels like he’s pushing his luck being part of a League 1 squad and that if he came up against Sheffield United or MK Dons he’d get found out. 

I’ve heard players say (long after the event) that they chose to leave clubs because they were getting too successful and the pressure was too great. Could Danny Hylton be self-aware enough to think of himself as an imposter? Maybe he feels more comfortable in League 2.

Presumably the money was good and any smart agent will know that now is the time to cash in. The picture of Hylton with his Luton shirt hardly smacked of someone who had made his dream move, but you can read what you like into one photo.

Hylton brought a different quality to Oxford, he was an eccentric; a step away from increasingly measured and scientific approach Michael Appleton has brought into the club. Like Bez from the Happy Mondays, a googly eyed space cadet gooning around in front of a tight rhythm section. Signed by Gary Waddock, in many ways, he made no sense at all.

Is this a good move for Hylton? Financially, I imagine so, Luton are clearly spending heavily to secure their promotion ambitions having also signed Johnny Mullins. But, will Hylton perform outside the bubble of the Oxford coaching machine?

Over a career that’s lasted a decade, nearly half of Hylton’s career goals have come in the last two years, in 2012 he was charged with racist abuse. While I doubt that was malicious, it shows that there’s a fine line between genius and madness. There’s also his goal profile; 30% of his Oxford goals were scored in August. Half by October. While his workrate is immense he does appear to run out of steam quite easily. It’s telling that at Christmas it looked like he was leaving for Hartlepool.

Getting the most out of Danny Hylton is not easy, but it's something that Michael Appleton managed to achieve. I think it was the application of Appleton's science which complemented Hylton’s instinctive art. I don't think it will be easy to replicate elsewhere.

While I think he is replaceable, we lose a little something with Hylton's departure. I suspect if we are to compete in League 1 or go even higher, then we'll have to become much more measured and controlled, and in Hylton we had something very warm and human. We may never see his like again. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Announcing: The Oxblogger Favourite Player of the Decade Tournament

There’s something about Oxford United and the year ending in six. 30 years ago we won the Milk Cup, 20 years ago we were promoted to the Championship, 10 years ago we were relegated from the Football League and this year we were promoted, in case you’ve forgotten.

10 years ago this coming weekend I started this blog. I had views about the club, who had just been relegated and taken over, I couldn’t get a word in edgeways on the Yellows Forum and I couldn’t face the idea of going on the phone-in. So this seemed like a good outlet.

And so, Oxblogger was born. Little did I know that it would incorporate two Wembley finals, four Swindon victories, two promotions and a takeover. Or that it would feature on the Guardian website (and attract over 3,000 visitors in a day) or draw the abuse of Luton and Portsmouth fans (see you next year…? Oh no you won’t). Or that it would feature both our absolute worst season and almost certainly our best. Or that lots of people would read the blog and say really nice things about it. I am genuinely touched by all the comments and support and followers I have on Twitter.

For the fifth anniversary of the blog, I spent the summer compiling the Kassam Stadium’sgreatest XI, which would be pretty much swept away by this year’s promotion squad, I suspect.

So, for the 10th anniversary, I’m going to try something else (I might try a few things, but I’m definitely going to do this one). Our favourite player of the last 10 years. I say ‘our’ because I’m going to do one of those votey things on Twitter to decide. And I say ‘favourite’ rather than ‘best’ because being a favourite is much more interesting, subjective and debatable than just being the best. It also means that, say, Chris Wilmott could conceivably beat Kemar Roofe just because you perversely enjoyed him being sent-off against Leyton Orient when we were relegated from the Football League.

To whet the appetite for Euro 2016, I’m going to decide it with a tournament format:
  • Thursday: Round 1: eight groups of four players with two to qualify from each group
  • Friday: Round 2: 8 head-to-head knock-out polls between the final 16 players
  • Saturday: Quarter Finals: more knock out for the remaining 8
  • Sunday: Semi-Finals: you get the picture
  • Monday: Final: And so on. 
Exciting isn’t it?

Over the last 10 years we’ve had about 225 players registered as first-teamers, so, obviously, I’ve whittled it down to just 32 from across the last decade and drawn the groups at random. 

Let battle commence.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Great kits of our time: 1980-81

They say that almost all your favourite ever things - music, films, football teams - are established when you're young. The logic is that when you start being conscious of things which are your favourite ever, you've nothing to reference it against. Your favourite album isn't so much the best one you've ever heard, but the only one you've ever heard.

By definition, therefore, your first Oxford United kit forges some pretty clear pre-conceptions of what makes a good kit. Like most people's first ever game, there is often a difference between the first game you went to, and the first game you remember. My first ever game was actually in 1975. I was 3 and remember nothing of it. The combined forces of Rage Online and kit-porn specialists Oxford Kits tells me that I'd have seen my first game with Oxford in stripes. Perhaps that's why I was less anti the 2010 recreation than others.

I officially started Oxford around 1980 when we moved to the area (I had family in Abingdon, hence the previous trips to the Manor). The 1980 kit had significance written all over it. The shirt was plain yellow with a lighter, royal blue, trim. It was a colour scheme that we stuck with for the best part of a decade, in fact from my first game in 1975 right through the glory years until it wasn't changed until the start of the 1985 season; our first season in the 1st division. Navy blue, therefore, says glory years blue to me.

1980 was the last time we had no sponsor. Shirt sponsors were rare, it was more common overseas and Liverpool had Hitachi in the late 70s. But it wasn't until the early 80s that it took off, although it was still banned on TV. It quickly got out of hand with Talbot cars absolutely destroying Coventry's kit. The lack of a sponsor meant a number of things; firstly it means the good old days. Also, if a team came on the pitch without a shirt sponsor, it meant that they were going to be featured on TV. TV companies weren't allowed to trail who they were covering and Match of the Day could have come from any of the top 4 divisions. If your team came out without a sponsor, then you were on. And that was big news.

The 1980 kit was made by Adidas, a brand I'm still fixated with today. Going back, kits didn't display the manufacturer (all 1966 world cup kits were made by Umbro). When they started to appear on in the late 70s the dominant brands were Umbro, Admiral and to a lesser extent, Bukta. Adidas began to make headway in the late 70s early 80s, it was fashionable in hip hop and breakdance culture (Run DMC released the single My Adidas in tribute in 1986). So, Adidas was foreign and exotic; Nottingham Forest wore Adidas during the European Cup wins, Bayern Munich wore it. It was a very cool brand and still is.

On the pitch, the kit was less remarkable. I remember being really impressed by how far John Doyle could kick a ball during the warm up and how shiny the players' thighs were (why don't players daub themselves in vaseline and Deep Heat anymore?). The significance was less obvious. We started the season with Bill Asprey as manager, but finished it with Ian Greaves. Greaves is one of the great unsung heroes of the glory years. He put the team into a prime position for Jim Smith and Robert Maxwell to take over. Three members of the Milk Cup winning team were already in place; Malcolm Shotton, Gary Briggs and Kevin Brock. Andy Thomas (unplayed substitute at Wembley) made his debut. Joe Cooke, Billy Jeffrey, Roy Burton and Peter Foley all played their part in those early years.

The 1980 kit, therefore, was the pre-glory years kit. Both insignificant because we didn't achieve much wearing it; and at the same time, significant because from its foundations we achieved so much.