Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Feed the fans and the rest will follow

Oxford United’s first ever tweet said “Testing to see if anyone spots we are here.” It was a typical first tweet of the the time which was populated mostly by techie, marketing and media types; early adopters who tried this stuff out with no real expectation as to whether it would take off or not. The club adopted the handle ‘OUFClive’; it was probably the best they could come up with on a quiet afternoon, a decision made with little consideration to social media strategies or such piffle.

Followers began to notice that, when read quickly, the ‘Clive’ bit stuck out. It became a running joke that the club’s Twitter account was actually someone called Clive. ‘Clive’ played along; he became our mate at the football. Even the top brass at the club got involved with Kelvin Thomas once playing the role of Clive for a pre-season game in the US.

Then, recently, without warning, the club changed its handle to OUFCOfficial. There was consternation; Clive, our mate at the football, became ‘official’; and as we know, nothing in football that is ‘official’ is any good - referees, police, stewards.

It's been suggested that it was changed for the club to appear more professional. A hashtag was introduced; #together; which, in the current climate seems a bit passive aggressive to me. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, that sort of thing. Context is everything; if the club had used the hashtag #believe during the Malcolm Boyden campaign in 2009, I would have been on board. Ultimately, these things work when they reflect how you feel rather than tell you how to feel. I did ‘believe’ in 2009, I don’t really feel ‘together’ in 2015.

Clive was a rare piece of fan-driven PR that worked well, and the club’s drive for so called professionalism wiped it out. Football clubs, particularly in the lower leagues need to recognise and capitalise on the wonkiness of football clubs not try to eradicate it to present a facade of credibility.

With every new regime or manager, history tends to get wiped out and everything starts again. Apart from in the fans, of course, we treasure the past. Successive manager’s have vocally criticised those who are nostalgic, but it’s a key driver for why we turn up each week; we want to try and recreate or build on the magic of the past that has made us supporters in the first place. If it were a wholly logical decision based on the quality of the service being provided, our crowds would be so low the club would be able to phone everyone to check if they were coming each week.

This isn’t just romantic whimsy, there’s money to be had in nostalgia-porn; on Saturday I went into the club shop, I had an itch to spend some money, I’ve no idea why. I couldn’t find anything but generic polyester leisurewear. I’ve been looking for a copy of the 2010 Wembley DVD for ages, but nothing, what about a t-shirt with some oblique in-joke? I would buy something that said, for example, ‘Right side for life’ or ‘Ford, Elliot, Gilchrist, Robinson’. There’s value in the past; it’s a rich seam with a lot of potential; the club should use it.

Then, I walked into the stadium to hear the iconically gravelly voice of Nick Harris commentating on a Peter Rhodes-Brown goal coming over the PA. There were others, a Beauchamp goal, Alfie Potter at Wembley. They played Use Somebody by Kings of Leon and If The Kids Are United by Sham 69. It’s a shame that Gary Glitter’s Do You Wanna Be In My Gang is kind of inappropriate these days, if they played it, I reckon I would have been able to smell the London Road. While, I don’t care much for any of those track musically, I don’t come to football to hear new music, they are songs which evoke memories of the past. As far as I can work out, it was a conscious effort to generate some momentum in the face of a potential relegation battle. I was stirred, it felt important to support the club at the moment, not because I like what’s happening at the moment, but because we need to preserve the club and its memories.

It was a masterstroke, we were immersed in the club; it’s history and it’s purpose. If they can sustain and build on it in the future, we may indeed come #together as a club.

But we still need to slot a successful team into this environment. It was probably fitting that the buzzier pre-match atmosphere drifted into the ether once the actual game got underway. It’s probably an appropriate metaphor that the club appears to be finding its feet while the team stumble. The crowd fell into such a silence it was possible to hear the players shouting at each other from the South Stand Upper. It was scrappy and uncomfortable, the application was there, but we still lack quality.

The win was both needed and welcomed, but it didn’t suggest any kind of tuning point in our fortunes. Like a recovering alcoholic who just needs a quiet night in rather than an evening in the pub resisting the optics behind the bar, we needed a normal, comfortable, home win like that as a reminder that we could do it. It was important in that respect. All in all, it confirmed my suspicion that while our league position is deeply uncomfortable, there are just about enough teams in the division who are notably poorer. Despite our woes, relegation shouldn’t be a threat. Nobody is ‘too good to go down’, but avoiding relegation is in our hands. The problem is that while there are six or seven teams notably worse than us, there are still way too many that are notably better.

A good day, with signs of hope, but still a lot to do.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Intensity breeds instinct

Now we’re in February, someone you know will, at some point over the coming months, say ‘I can’t believe it’s [enter month] already, it only seems like Christmas was yesterday’. As we get older, the weeks, months and years blur into one long slog. Seasons come and go, Christmases come and go, life passes by in a flash.

There’s a fairly simple explanation for this. As you get older, pretty much every experience is a repeat of a previous experience. If you were to do something genuinely remarkable, then it would last longer as a vivid memory providing the illusion of a extending the year. For most of us, through necessity, life cannot function if all you are doing is having unique experiences; life is more likely to become one long groundhog day.

To break the mundanity, it helps to have something to focus on or look forward to, particularly if you follow Oxford United. Otherwise the season’s blur into one; the kits change, slightly, the players change, slightly, but otherwise, it’s much the same from one year to the next. If you can’t rely on having a decent cup run or, heaven forfend, a successful league season, then it’s the moments, the single fixtures, that make the effort worthwhile.

Saturday’s game against Luton was probably the one banker of the season; a mutual dislike, two teams, not that far apart geographically, with similar histories. The only fixture to have been played in all five of the top divisions in English football. Not a derby, but with some of the characteristics of one. A quarrel neither of is prepared to resolve or back down from; no matter where one of us is, the other one will hunt them down and start the argument again.

It lived up to its billing. A nice big bank of away fans and a vociferous response from the home fans. Niggle, rabbit punches and bickering on the pitch. Good stuff. Intensity was the watchword; the way we played, the atmosphere; it was a fixture unlike any we’ve seen this season.

We benefited from it because we had to play football rather than dwell on The Philosophy. Jake Wright made tackles rather than misdirect cross-field passes. Luton’s fans brought the intensity, their players took it onto the pitch by getting into our players'  faces and opening petty feuds. But, it did them no favours, where others have absorbed us and then gently picked us off while we drowned in our own self-importance, they badgered us to play on instinct.

Even on the touchline there was more animation; Derek Fazackerley kicked over a water bottle in frustration, Michael Appleton remonstrated with a linesman after a petty foul late into injury time. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it.

But, that’s pretty much it for the season in terms of an external stimulus triggering us into action, how will we re-create the intensity we need to perform? Mansfield are next at the Kassam, nobody is going to be fired up to teach Junior Brown a lesson. It’s unlikely to come from the touchline; many managers are borderline sociopaths who frighten players into playing at the right intensity regardless of the occasion, Appleton prides himself on his detachment. This has it’s place, of course, but it can leave us needing something else to get us going. It is too much to ask the fans despite what some say (more of that in a minute). A lot of expectation is being placed on this creative midfielder to drive the team forward, it might work, but it's a big job.

In cyclist Michael Hutchinson's book Faster, he describes what happened when he tried to use the psychological technique of visualisation to improve his time trialling. Because he spent so much time thinking through what he did rather than rely on his physical conditioning, his anxiety and stress levels increased and he actually got slower.

With us, without the intensity, there is the tendency to overthink everything rather than simply execute deeply imbedded subconscious ability. The net impact is that performance is more likely to drop than go up; particularly if it repeatedly appears to fail.

And another thing...
The first person on the phone-in was berating Oxford fans for not backing their team despite 'the chairman’s investment'. The first point is that investment is spending money to get a return; by my reckoning Appleton has brought in 17 players since he started, of which six are still at the club (and none of those have played more than five games). The return has been average so it's not investment, it’s just spending. The second thing is that regardless of the cost of bringing in these 17 players; it hasn't yet materialised into results - despite Saturday’s encouraging display, we haven’t won at home since 13th December (with a last minute goal) and before that it was Tranmere in October. So, in fact what the caller was telling Oxford fans to do is attend in less-than-once a month possibility of seeing a win. Results draw crowds not investment, I’m sure the club are aware of that even if the said fan isn't. Oh, and he claimed we all supported Kassam when he was chairman; I think I must have missed that game.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Squad of thrones

Oxford United’s squad is becoming more like Game of Thrones with every passing week. For those who don’t watch it, Game of Thrones is a fantasy drama of mind boggling scale, good guys and bad guys get killed with similar frequency, good guys become bad guys, bad guys become good guys, and good guys and bad guys gang up to kill other good guys and bad guys. It is hard to keep up with what everyone is doing and who you’re supposed to like and hate. Sometimes you have to step back and take stock.

In simple terms, our squad is made up of two houses; Wilderians and Appletonians, with Danny Hylton being part of neither. Or both, perhaps? It would be easy to assume Michael Appleton is simply dismantling the House of Wilder to replace it with the House of Appleton. It certainly seemed like it might be that way when he arrived. Gary Waddock was thrown out the door and Eales and Ashton stepped into Ian Lenagan’s shoes while he was practically still wearing them. Revolution, it seemed, was inevitable.

But, this transfer window, the first in which we’ve seen the House of Appleton in full battle mode has been baffling. Wilderians have gone, but so to have Appletonians, Appletonians have arrived to replace other Appletonians, some Appletonians didn’t even appear to be Appletonians in the first place. So, where the hell are we?

Well, as of training this morning, the raw stats say that we signed six (including Jamie Ashdown this morning) and lost or let go nine. So, in pure numeric terms, we have a squad with three less players than we had at the start.

Starting at the back, Ashdown seems an odd signing, unless there’s something we don’t know about Ryan Clarke's fitness. Clarke's form hasn’t been quite what it's been in the past, but he's hardly a risk. Max Crocombe is an able replacement on the rare occasions he’s needed. Is Ashdown going to replace Clarke? Or sit on the bench vacated by Crocombe? If it's the former, it would seem an unnecessary shuffle, if it’s the latter, what’s the point of that?

At the back, we’ve got a bewildering merry-go-round to deal with. Michael Raynes has gone, although it’s difficult to know what he did wrong. He wasn't Bobby Moore, but he was a willing squad player and solid enough at the back when needed. In his place is Chey Dunkley, who was shakiness personified against Southend. In terms of net gain, at best it’s a zero, perhaps a little worse.

Right, full-backs. Hunt and Newey’s days were probably numbered even under Chris Wilder. They were originally brought in to shore things up after the marauding of Liam Davis and Damien Batt gave one too many heart palpitations. They were pragmatic and dependable, but hardly thrilling. You got the impression they were managing their fitness and effort, not being in the first flushes of youth. Holmes-Dennis and Riley seemed to indicate a loosening of the full-back roles, an introduction of youthful exuberance and attacking flare, part of the New Philosophy. But then… well, we seemed to lose them, which was a bit complacent. Are Skarz and Brindley better? Different? Almost impossible to tell in the short term, but on paper they seem more robust than what we’ve had in the past. I’m sticking my neck out and saying this is an improvement.

Into midfield; Junior Brown was an early Appleton signing who sparkled like a damp firework before disappearing from view. It seems a long time since he was even on the radar, so it’s difficult to know whether we’ve lost anything through his departure. That said, we certainly haven't replaced him or improved that area in the window.

Up front, Campbell fell victim to shambolic contract negotiations, it seems. He was always a long shot and I for one am not that concerned about his departure. Burns had a fine debut, but like so many before him, his form quickly fizzled to nothing. Potter’s departure wasn’t really a surprise as sad as it was to see him go. I suspect Wilder or Waddock would have come to a similar conclusion eventually. I couldn’t say that Burns was an effective replacement for Potter, both had patchy form. McDonald may be a better and more permanent solution. On the face of it, he does seem a good acquisition . That leaves Hoban, who was brought in, I assume, as a banker in the absence of the club securing a deal for Tyrone Barnett, which turned into the most over-blown non-event we’ve had in years. Hoban, like Campbell, was a risk and we can't say he's been a risk worth taking; not yet, at least.

So, we’re weakened in numbers, and probably fractionally ahead in terms of quality per head. We should be able to stay up, though I, for one, don’t think that’s ever been as big a concern as others have suggested. We’re vulnerable, however, because injuries and loss of form could make things very uncomfortable. Particularly as some players will be starting to think about where they will be playing next season, when that disengagement starts, who knows where we might end up?

Above all, a lot of energy has been wasted in deals that never came off, deals that came off but didn’t stick and deals for players that were barely better than what they replaced. All told, a slight gain but a shambolic way to do business.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Realising Lenagan's dream

With five of the thirteen players on duty against Exeter from the youth development system, Saturday saw the realisation of Ian Lenagan's vision of 18 months ago.

Granted, that vision; which forecast a successful Oxford United driven by a core of homegrown talent, was probably borne out of the financial reality he faced rather than some dewy eyed prescience along the lines of Martin Luther King - only Michael Duberry could do that. However, as visions go, it was the most cogent I’ve heard come from the club in forty years. Yes, we’ve had owners stressing the importance of building and then owning a new stadium. But in terms of turning that into a playing reality, that vision rarely stretched much beyond "... and then, um, something something something beat Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League!". Lenagan's visions was realistic, tangible and above all attractive.

Long, Ashby, Ruffels, O’Dowda and Roberts were pivotal in digging Appleton out of yet another mess. It demonstrated what rude health the development system is in. The work done to date is an credit to Chris Allen, who was the player you’d consider least likely to turn out to be a top class coach.

But, is Lenagan's vision the solution to this season? Well, no, not at the moment. The second half against Exeter proved that much. We were bright and switched on in the first half but became conservative and sluggish in the second. Fitness was a factor; it’s asking a lot for a young team to put in a 90 minute shift at the intensity of any League 2 game, let alone one demanding the high technical component that Appleton insists on. ‘Game management’ was another factor. Nathan Cooper persists with this topic week after week with Michael Appleton. He has a point; we seem to approach the natural phases games go through exactly the same way, rather than assess and adapt as the game progresses. Is this part of Appleton's 'No Plan B' philosophy?

Appleton, when pushed on the subject, seemed to imply that organising teams to manage games was difficult, that is, almost impossible to train. And yet, organising a disciplined unit seems a darned sight easier to train than, say, teaching Jake Wright to play like Glenn Hoddle.

And this seems to be at the heart of the problem; while the emergence of Lenagan’s dream should give everyone heart, what we need is a core of players who are going to manage the game on the pitch. In the past we relied on the likes of Wright, Mullins, Clarke, Whing, but these are looking a shadow of their former selves, and, if you add Hunt, Newey and even Constable and Kitson from last year, you have to question why do we seem so devoid of leadership now?

Injuries are always factors; Clarke, Wright and Whing have all suffered recently and each bounce back is inevitably going to be a little less bouncy. There is an issue of playing style; anyone criticising Wright this season is ignoring the style of football he’s suddenly being asked to play. Ask him to be a defender, and he excels, ask him to be a playmaker and he looks deeply uncomfortable. And then there's an issue of age and authority. Appleton isn’t that much older than some of those he manages so it would be far easier for senior players to not respect his authority or ability. This was, apparently, a factor in Dave Kitson’s sudden decision to retire once Appleton arrived at the club. Perhaps some of those older heads, frustrated by how we’ve stalled this season, are doubting their manager’s ability and approach.

If that is happening, Appleton, has the right to bring in people he can work with, but while so many of the core Wilder squad have left or hit poor form, those signed to replace them have been at best patchy, at worst woeful - Riley and Barnett were both established, and then slipped through our fingers, Junior Brown, Carlton Morris and Alex Jakubiak didn't look ready, Will Hoskins and Brian Howard were spent forces before they even appeared at the club. Only Michael Collins and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis have sustained success so far; and Collins was dropped shortly after telling Radio Oxford we were in a relegation fight. Even, Holmes-Dennis, looks in need of a rest after an extended run of games; again, it's a lot to ask of him.

Of the four signed prior to the opening of the window, Campbell and Hobarn have yet to come to terms with the rigours of League 2, Wes Burns seems another with bags of potential but not the endurance to sustain it, and Chey Dunkley looked decidedly shaky against Southend. It's an uninspiring batch of signings so far.

For all the potential we now have at first team level; perhaps the best crop of youngsters I’ve seen at the club in terms of both quality and numbers, we are woefully lacking in leadership (and the motivation to lead) that experience gives, with the transfer window winding shut, time is running out in terms addressing the issue.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


There was a moment on Saturday when Andy Whing received an simple ball, he mis-controlled and, over-reaching, stabbed it back along the back-four. There was an audibly sharp intake of breath - not for the first time this season - as the back line and Ryan Clarke moved the ball between them as if trying to get rid of a lump of a steaming poo.

It was 2-2 at the time and, fleetingly, I wanted us to concede. Or at least I was curious to see what would happen if we did. I’m not one of those who wants to see us lose in order for the manager to be fired, despite what people seem to think, but there was a moment where I wanted to do a laboratory test, away from the real world, which would establish how the club might respond.

And then we did concede; we’d lost two leads, at home, playing a team playing with 10 men for an hour, it could barely have been worse. Had we won, we could have debated whether the 10 men was a factor, had we drawn, we could have debated how difficult it is to play against 10 men, had we lost against 11 men, we could have debated the relative merits of our opponents. But this was beyond debate, we'd lost. Badly.

So, how do the club handle it? Will we get the relentless positive parping from Eales and Ashton? The steely look in the eye and the challenge to ‘judge us on our actions’. How do they defend it? Outwardly they will support Appleton, the media seem to think he's as safe as houses. This might have been a transitional year, but they surely can't have planned it like this.

There can only be two scenarios where this might not matter; the first is if they don’t care, the second is if they have unstinting belief in The Philosophy.

Let's deal with the first bit; the land deal thesis – the idea that their investment in the club is simply a cover for some massive land deal; either at the Kassam or at Water Eaton; an opportunity to capitalise on the city’s housing crisis, for example.

While its feasible, I don’t believe that this is their sole focus. I’m fairly certain that it’s part of a wider investment plan but every owner from Robert Maxwell onwards has recognised how important stadium ownership is to the club’s future. But they're trying way too hard off the pitch for them to be coldly killing the club off a la Kassam (although I don't think even he planned that initially).

So, what about The Philosophy. Do they have the money to invest unquestionably in The Philosophy, the Plan A and the DNA and all that gubbins?  There's not a lot of evidence that they have a bottomless pit of cash; after all they're not investing heavily at the moment? People talk about signing players in the transfer window, but they ignore that we signed four before it even opened, and they're not exactly looking like world beaters.

So, there has to be some limits; a point at which the situation becomes intolerable. I can’t believe they are looking at this and thinking it’s OK, because if they don't improve things soon, it's going to get a whole lot worse.

The thing is, it's not the fans they need to worry about, it’s the customers. We, the fans, will turn up pretty much whatever gets served up, customers - the casuals who only turn up if they’re going to be entertained - will make the difference. We may detest them, but they are the difference between a crowd of 4,000 and a crowd of 9,000, plus they pay more per head. They are much more discerning and selective than us. Turn them off and the club is really in trouble and for Ashton and Eales, things will get much, much more expensive. Even if they give up on the team, they've still got to pay the rent, at least Kassam could give up and not fear that.

How do they, with any credibility, defend their credibility when The Philosophy, which they've talked about with such confidence, disintegrates on first contact with the outside world? Do they smile it out or take action? If they're teetering now, Saturday's game against Exeter could be decisive.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Pottered out the door

It was surely of no surprise to anyone that Michael Appleton has told Alfie Potter that he has, to use Appleton's own mangled analogy, ‘reached his shelf-life’.

Potter’s departure, which we must assume to be fairly imminent, brings the number of players left at the club from the promotion winning team of 2010 to just two – Jake Wright and Ryan Clarke.

Potter was part of the Wilder/Thomas aggressive signing policy in the summer of 2009. On loan from Peterborough, his reputation had been built, in part, through his performance for Havant and Waterlooville where, improbably, they took the lead twice against Liverpool at Anfield in the FA Cup.
He was brought into a squad of big names, big personalities and big bodies – Creighton, Constable, Midson, Green, Bulman.

Despite being slight, fast and tricky, the antithesis of someone like Creighton, he fitted right in, he'd bounce off robust challenges and react to nothing. He played with the arrogance of a team that was going to get promoted; something that shifted the club overnight from one that was a perpetual victim, to one that was simply going to knock over anyone who got in their way.

But, at the same time Potter was young and small; he looks like a little boy; even the name - Alfie Potter - the boy (wing) wizard. In 2010, just before the start of the first season back in League 2, it was reported that he had been arrested in connection with a nightclub stabbing. It turned out that there had been an incident in a club that he was in, and he was the innocent victim of an 'arrest everyone, ask questions later' policing policy.

In some ways, it was most startling that Alfie Potter was in a nightclub at all; was he old enough? In essence, his struggle was always about breaking out from being the youngster with potential into a being a senior and respected professional.

That would have required him to remodel his game; players like Alan Shearer, Steven Gerrard and, perhaps, the best parallel; Ryan Giggs, found that they had to change their games once their natural youthful talents were dismantled by injury and age.

Both affected Potter, but that's not because he was unlucky, just because he was a professional footballer. It's difficult, without the benefit of an army of crack sports scientists, to know quite what he was supposed to do about it.

So Potter was on a hiding to nothing; wingers thrill and frustrate with equal measure, they don't always beat their man or get the cross in. When it works, it works brilliantly, but frequently it doesn't. Even Joey Beauchamp used to drive fans mad with his inconsistency, and most will agree that Beauchamp was one of our best ever.

This season, a bloke behind me can't help himself everytime the ball goes near Potter; 'Ah, here we go again' he'd say in a state of constant dismay before Potter got a chance to do anything. If he lost the ball trying to go past someone or was tackled, it was further proof that he was inept. It's unfair, because every winger is inconsistent. It's just that, once the tide is against you, it's difficult, probably impossible, to turn it back. The writing has been on the wall for a while.

Like Chris Wilder, Potter seems to have been labelled some kind of failure at Oxford, which is sad and wrong. It might be that his time has come, but that's not to say that he hasn't been a success. Take THAT goal. A goal usually ignites a feeling of relief, that you're going in the right direction, but it's an incomplete feeling; a feeling that we need to get another goal, or defend. Even a last minute goal frequently gives the feeling that it offers a platform for the next game or the rest of the season.

Potter's goal at Wembley was a rare and precious thing; the feeling of completeness, a sense of achievement. Football offers so few moments like that; in my near 40 years of supporting Oxford there was the Jeremy Charles' third goal in 1986, the fourth goal against Peterborough in 1996, and Potter's goal in 2010.

Not only that; he pretty much gave us that feeling twice...

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

T'is the season to be jolly?

There are basically two theories about mince pies; either we hate them and tolerate them only at Christmas or we love them and abstain from having them at any other time in the year. The same goes for turkey, Christmas pudding and almost everything else we associate with Christmas. We could quite easily break Christmas - a curry on the 25th December, a mince pie after a barbecue in August, we could buy each other presents on, say, 13th February, just because that would be a nice thing to do. But, it wouldn’t feel right; it wouldn’t be right. We want to believe that Christmas exists, so we defer to its traditions.

It’s much the same with the Eales/Ashton/Appleton revolution; most want it to exist; better football, new stadium, a whole bright future; but for the first time on Boxing Day, it did appear that even the most devout converts were beginning to doubt its existence.

The display itself was gutless. A true demonstration of just how far behind the standard we’ve fallen in the division. Shrewsbury were stronger, faster and more efficient with the ball and far better in every department imaginable. We trudged around trying to pass it on a boggy pitch increasingly tiny triangles; if Shrewsbury weren’t out-muscling us, they were simply waiting for a mistake to happen. When they got the ball, they moved it quickly and looked a continual threat. When they chose to shut us down, they did. It was much the same against Wycombe. It was much the same against Burton.

Post-match, Appleton tied himself up in knots. He was, he said, ‘man enough’ to admit we were beaten by a better team, as if this was a positive. It certainly paints him as an intelligent, reflective, objective individual; all of which are good qualities to have. But it ignores the fact that it’s ultimately his job to ensure we aren’t swept aside by better teams in the manner that we were. No matter that a team is better resourced, we should expect to compete with every team that comes to the Kassam rather than passively wait to see what turns up. He reinforced his normal stance that he wouldn’t be stepping back or ranting and raving at the players; a point he regularly makes. He appeared to take a swipe at the club; pointing out that we’ve not been higher than League 2 for over a decade and that it’s not as if they’re playing in front of big crowds. It’s something that both David Kemp and Chris Wilder did in the past when they were under pressure. He failed, as he increasingly does, to explain what he was trying to do; If they were simply a better team, what was the plan to neutralise that?

Then Ryan Clarke came on to try and explain things from the players’ perspective. Players rarely say anything of genuine interest; it’s not really in their professional interest to do so. To criticise your employer in the media is career limiting, so we shouldn’t expect a player to come out and blame tactics or lack of investment or whatever. However, Clarke seemed to struggle to contain his frustration. He followed the party line; he praised being treated like an adult by the management and the commitment to playing ‘proper’ football. He also claimed he had nothing to do beyond the two goals, although this ignored at least one shot coming off the crossbar and one cleared off the line. He just seemed to want the interview to end before he said something he shouldn’t.

If he was frustrated, then it would stand to reason. Clarke has played in successful Oxford sides and now finds himself defending a team that barely resembles that of the past in terms of quality, character or results. He may be telling the truth about being treated like an adult; but does that mean that everyone is acting like an adult? Jamie Cook describes Chris Wilder ‘a good coach but a terrible man’, but maybe that’s what is needed sometimes - somebody has to take a bunch of fit, healthy alpha males and tell them what to do and how to work together. Is Appleton almost giving the players too much leeway to express themselves, because when they do, they become disjointed and ineffectual.

How much longer will the players believe the philosophy, whatever that turns out to be, when it’s not producing results? At one point against Shrewsbury, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis broke free down the left flank. He was fouled and lay prone on the floor in the mud. But what was significant was that he would have looked up around him to see five Shrewsbury players, surrounding him ready to put a challenge in or at least shepherd him into a neutral position. Being dominated like that must become demoralising, not getting results even more so.

The Plymouth result was welcomed, of course, but papered over the cracks. It will be some time yet before we find out whether the result resembles a turning point or whether it was simply a chink in the prevailing direction of travel that was evident against Shrewsbury. We benefited from an early sending off and another James Roberts special. There’s something melancholic about Roberts’ emergence as, possibly, the biggest talent to come out of the club since Jamie Brooks. On one hand, it’s great to see him thriving but you also suspect that if he continues to do so then he’s unlikely to score more than 20 goals for us before being picked up by a bigger club. We should enjoy him while he lasts.

As 2014 concludes we’ve conceded about 10 places in the league for this new philosophy, we’ve taken a point less at home compared to the same point last year, we’ve scored the same number of goals and conceded 2 more. We’ve won the same and lost one more. Our away form, of course, doesn’t compare. The statistics suggest we’re going backwards, Christmas has proved a microcosm of the season, patchy and unconvincing punctuated by flickers of a new future. Outwardly Ashton and Eales remain committed to Appleton, but they can’t completely ignore our league position. If he was under threat, then Plymouth will have bought him some more time. January’s form - with a number of games against teams around us - will be more telling.