Saturday, February 18, 2017

Southend wrap - Oxford United 0 Southend United 2

The closest I came to playing professional football was being left-back cover for a bloke at school who had trials for Watford. I found out that his professional career was over when Oxford played Watford on the last day of the 1993 season where it was announced in the programme he’d been released.

In the main, even the best player you’ll ever play with will get nowhere near a professional contract. Even to get on the bottom rung of any professional football ladder you have to be spectacularly competent.

Phil Brown is a relentlessly, tediously competent manager. It’s easy to complain about his narcissism, his tan and his histrionics, but his teams are so mercilessly organised they strangle points out of games. He is one of those managers, like Steve Evans, Graham Westley and Chris Wilder, that will never get much credit, but will never be out of a job. It’s not so much that Michael Appleton is found wanting against this kind of manager, it’s more that you feel there are bits of his craft he still has to hone before he’ll start getting the better of them more often than not.

Part of that is the way he manages the squad – getting the right balance of fresh talent and experience, rotating enough for freshness, but not too much to create instability. Facing two games in 72 hours against teams with similar philosophies, we were finally brought to ground by a couple of well-timed sucker punches. Breaking down a highly organised team like Southend, and MK Dons before that, is asking a lot physically. In the first half we played some scintillating football which, perhaps, with slightly fresher legs we’d have scored from, but in the end we ran out of steam as the Southend diesel chugged its way through our defence.

Facing these teams between now and the end of the season is probably what will ultimately scupper any lingering hopes of play-offs. We have plenty of teams still to play who will adopt similar approaches and while we have become increasingly competitive at this level, it seems unlikely we’ll squeeze enough points out of them to close the gap to sixth. In some ways, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing – an accidental promotion will put all sorts of pressures on the club and squad, we’re getting closer, but I’m not sure we’re ready yet.

Monday, February 13, 2017

MK Dons wrap - Oxford United 1 MK Dons 0

It’s hard to remember given the 42 days since our last home league game, but Fans Day felt a little like every other day to me. It was ironic that it was played against a team whose fans have the shallowest roots in the country. Perhaps it was a sly dig rather than a club promotion.

Irony is somewhat lost on MK Dons fans given their sledging of Rob Hall for turning down a contract in favour of us during the summer. The club practically re-wrote the book when it comes to betrayal in football. Not only is there the well documented looting of Wimbledon, surely most of their fans have betrayed other clubs to follow the Dons at some point.

Hall is one of the remarkable stories of the season. I wasn’t hopeful when he signed; he’d had a pressure-free cameo at the club a few years ago on loan from West Ham but had never become the ‘new Jermaine Defoe’ that was promised at the time. Coupled with a long term injury, it seemed likely that he’d end up wallowing on the fringes like Danny Rose did in his second stint at the club. 

But, his recovery from injury and instant return to form has been stunning. A few years ago, he would have been out for far longer and would have had to remodel his game to accommodate any residual effects of his injury. But, he’s come back as if nothing had happened, his pace and guile being a key reasons we’ve hit the form we have.

Dons are a functional if uninspiring unit, fitting given that’s how you might describe the retail parks and shopping centres that characterise their city. They compressed the game into a third of the field and left little space down the flanks creating a gravitational force that the players, let alone the ball, struggled to escape from.

At the start of the season we were being caught out by competent physical teams, but it’s a different story now. Ryan Ledson relishes the muck and bullets of a midfield battle, even John Lundstram seems more comfortable in a dog-fight than he used to. Curtis Nelson became a deep-lying ball-carrying midfielder – it takes some guts to dribble into such a melee knowing the gap you’re leaving behind, but he’s looking more comfortable with every game. Even Toni Martinez, who on paper – a Spanish loanee from the Premier League – should not, by rights, want to get involved in anything so quintessentially English - battled away.

Marvin Johnson was re-deployed to left-back presumably to manage the threat of George Baldock. In the end they spent most of their time revving their engines like two high performance sports cars, neither quite having the guts to truly challenge the other just in case they were caught out.

With Martinez proving a handful dragging defenders to the floor and leaning into them, Kane Hemmings was the perfect replacement for half-an-hour of renewed harrying. When fired up he has the ability to cause weary centre-backs all sorts of problems and he came on and made a proper nuisance of himself. 

Ultimately someone needed to break out of the compact mass of bodies. Johnson occasionally patrolled his flank like Frank Poncherello in CHiPs, Chris Maguire beavered away as he does, but it was Hall who finally found the angle that allowed him to cross for Hemmings to glance home. A fittingly ironic way to settle the game.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Swindon wrap - Swindon Town 1 Oxford United 2

Dawn breaks and with it the fizz of social media; the relentless feed of an impending apocalypse is, for once, swamped; the drums of doom are silenced, it’s derby day; hear the clarion call. 

The networks have chattered for days, the rules of engagement established – the times of trains, the pubs to drink in and, above all, the etiquette surrounding your allocated seat. We will drink and ride at dawn, but the mayhem and carnage will be meticulously organised.

Things have changed in recent years; once there was exchange, an angry banter between foes, their shadow, our cup final. On and on, round and round, an endlessly reductive debate over supremacy. Grinding the will of reason down to its stumps. But now Swindonians have retreated, like the siege of Leningrad, they are starving behind their defences, fearful of attack, hoping that they might bluff their way to survival. Things are not well in Wiltshire.

Oxford head west with a record to protect; a sixteen year winning streak - six in a row, don’t count the Checkatrade Trophy, count the JPT, ignore they are the same. History is written by the victors, let the history say it’s six in a row, heading for seven.

There is a bubbling confidence, a generation of Oxford fans who have never seen us lose any derby game, let alone one at the County Ground. They don’t remember taking Wayne Hatswell and Steve Anthrobus up the A420 as our champions in the fight. But green shirts, Domino internet and David Kemp are no more than vague jokes about a past that probably never existed. There are no photos of Guy Whittingham, it never happened. You weren’t there man, you weren’t there.

Winning at the dilapidated County Ground is so alien I can no longer face going there. My experience is universally miserable, the inhumane herding into the Stratton Bank, the vitriol and misery and, on one occasion, the unchecked racism, then once the defeat is confirmed, being released into the park to fend for yourself. You want a ruck mate? No thanks, a Mars bar and the heaters in my car will do just fine.

It’s more than that, is there another club in the country against who we are defending a 16-year record? A six match winning streak? I doubt it, not with our recent history. These winning streaks don’t happen to us against anyone let alone our biggest rivals. This is unusual, perhaps unique. I don’t like unusual, because unusual eventually reverts to something vaguely usual. And usual in this context means losing. 

We seem to spend most of the opening half picking ourselves up from heavy challenges. Swindon have done their homework and know we don’t like it when it’s physical. It looks like they’re going to bully us out of three points. 

To confirm my fears they score, usual is being restored, this extraordinary streak is being broken. It is, to some extent, a relief; the record, the dominance is a heavy burden and as the half progresses, that burden is heavier. The higher we climb, the more cataclysmic the fall. What's worse, falling or waiting to fall?

I check Twitter a few times, switch on Yellow Player to listen to its intermittent, spluttering coverage. I actually lose contact for a few minutes. I do something else for a bit and then get in the car to run an errand, I switch the radio on and something has happened. I can’t quite tell what, Nick Harris’ tone no longer betrays a good or bad outcome, like he’s just seen too much football and nothing surprises him anymore. The noise of the crowd is so immense it could easily be another home goal. But, no, the fragments that are filtering through are being pieced together; it’s Sercombe, bionic Liam Sercombe with the equaliser. It’s not pretty, but it doesn’t matter.

I’m sitting in the car listening to the immediate aftermath. I’m thinking a point is good, like in ’95 (my highpoint) when Mike Ford cleared off the line and shook the net with rage and we went ballistic in response. We’ll maintain a streak, not quite seven in a row, but still good. Then, as ambiguous as the first goal is, there's an emphatic sonic boom from the radio, there’s genuine shock in Jerome Sale’s voice at what he’s just seen. Rob Hall has blown the place to pieces with a 25 yard drive. We lead, but we may well have irreparably broken our opponents too.

Swindon’s seething aggression which served them well in the first half bubbles over, Lawrence Vigouroux writes himself into folklore and breaks some kind of record by being the first goalkeeper to be sent off in both league fixtures. Probably ever. That would be a good pub quiz question if anyone can be bothered to check it out. In all honesty, it looks as soft as his red card at the Kassam, but we laugh anyway. 

So, the unusual is extended or perhaps the new usual is established? Seven consecutive defeats is enough to break anyone’s spirit, Swindon were ragged in September, and wretched now. They were as poor as any team we faced last year. They may well be relegated and they might never recover. It happens. Given our comparative trajectories it could be years until we play them again. This might be the war to end all wars. It must be exhausting being a Swindon fan, living their club’s extraordinary capacity to lurch from one extreme to another – from surging through the divisions to scrambling to pay the bills. Can they bounce back again? Afterwards it’s revealed their director of football Tim Sherwood, who’s reputation is built on a vacuum of nothingness, was not at the game and didn’t pick the team.  The coach cannot say why. Wreckage piled upon wreckage. The smouldering carcass of a club which once dominated us. They look crushed.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Big Mac - farewell Alex MacDonald

Two words popped into my head when Alex MacDonald signed; Andy Scott. Scott was a panic buy by Firoz Kassam in 2001. The new owner paid over the odds for Brentford’s top scorer in a desperate attempt to steady a rapidly sinking ship. It had no impact and just ended up looking like a vacuous gesture thrown into a cesspit of problems.

MacDonald’s arrival came at a time when the club was in a similarly perilous state. He arrived from promotion seeking Burton to a club whose problems were as boggy as its pitch. The manager couldn’t get a result or a decent player and the new owners couldn’t get any traction with the fans. It felt like MacDonald’s signing was an attempt at appeasement and little else.

We didn’t know at the time, but alongside Joe Skarz, Alex MacDonald’s arrival signalled the start of a remarkable revolution. MacDonald was a bundle of energy, both on the wing and more importantly, around the squad. Regardless of the state of the club, his enthusiasm helped everyone remember what bloody good fun it was to be a footballer. With the club facing so many challenges, it was essential to avoid being dragged into a suffocating and demoralising relegation fight.

But there was more to MacDonald than just being a good bloke to have around. When the club brought in George Baldock, MacDonald made him a better player. When Baldock was cynically called back to MK Dons, Michael Appleton replaced him with Jonjoe Kenny. It looked like a lightweight signing in comparison which could have threatened to derail the promotion push. MacDonald mentored the teenager, provided cover when he needed to and drove us into League 1.

MacDonald didn’t give the impression of being a natural leader; he didn’t have the physical presence of Jake Wright or Chey Dunkley and wingers are frequently self-absorbed in their own art form to worry about others. But MacDonald was a giver more than he was a taker, central to setting the mood and tone in the squad.

In the promotion squad of 1995/6, the squad’s success pivoted on Chris Allen, a homegrown talent with a bright future making way for Stuart Massey. In 2016, all eyes are on Callum O’Dowda but it was MacDonald who helped see the club home.

This season he’s been more marginalised, but when MacDonald was given the captain’s armband for the game against Merthsham he seemed as proud as he would have been leading the team out at Wembley. His goal, a mark of true quality, settled us down and delivered a comfortable result.

On Saturday MacDonald could be seen amongst the squad, a large woolly hat on, no socks, darting amongst the players, flicking any ball he came across and generally being an infectious bundle of energy. He probably knew that he was becoming more marginalised, but it didn't show. If anyone set the vibes in the squad, it was MacDonald.

MacDonald was a player where it was difficult to know what, if anything, he ever did wrong. He would come off the pitch looking like he had put in a shift, his hair a mess, his shirt covered in mud, stumbling like his legs had no more energy left in them. Nobody could ever ask for him to give more.

The only thing I ever hope for a player at Oxford is that they will look back on their time with the club as the best of their career. Having played his part in reviving the club, winning promotion, two derbies and a trip to Wembley, he’ll struggle to have a better time for as long as he’s playing. He deserves every memory he leaves with.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Newcastle wrap - Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0

If the build-up to Saturday’s Cup game was anything to go by, Newcastle fans think they exist in a Premier League bubble that, in reality, they don’t belong to. There was a general apathy towards the tie; we were just Oxford – insert blank look and indifferent shrug - generically from ‘the lower leagues’, a shadowy movement at the bottom of a pond. They knew little of us and cared even less, their team would cruise through to face someone more worthy of their attention.

Hopefully they’ll get back to where they occasionally belong before the bubble pops; it could be a devastating shock otherwise. Some appear to know there’s a ticking clock on this; one tweeter said it was a case of ‘no promotion, no Rafa’ as though the club owed the manager success, not the other way around. What a weirdly desperate world they live in.

The reality is that there is far less between most professional football clubs than the money gaps suggest. Those thinking we’d be a pushover miss the fact that Lundstram, Ledson, Martinez and Hall have all come from Premier League backgrounds while Maguire, Hemmings and Johnson have Scottish Premier experience. From a technical and temperament perspective, they are all capable of playing at a higher level. Others; Sercombe, Skarz, Dunkley have plenty of big game experience at the Kassam. To the outsider we might be ‘lower league’ but on any given day the differences between us and those above us are tiny.

Then there’s the Newcastle mind-set; the players that were picked know they’re not favoured by the manager. If Newcastle get promoted, it’s likely they’ll be shipped out to make way for better players. Also, it’s widely accepted that draws in the cup are the worst possible outcome. Defeats are surely unacceptable, but if the manager does nothing to suggest a win is desirable, how can a player know what the right mind-set is?

Michael Appleton overcomes this dissonance by simply playing to win regardless of whether it’s the league, FA Cup or Checkatrade. He rarely makes significant changes to personnel; the philosophy is that you try to win all games, not just the financially important ones.

If both teams applied its ‘quality’ consistently and in a linear way, then the difference between a Championship and League 1 team is so small, it would only show in the last few minutes of a game. It’s more complicated, of course, players’ physical, mental and technical abilities fluctuate throughout games and that’s when differences can be seen and, more importantly, when you have to take your chances.

Newcastle’s potential threat first emerged around the half-an-hour mark. Up to that point we’d been buoyant but disciplined, more than a match. A few concentration lapses and we were at sixes and sevens; but up steps Simon Eastwood to perform a formidable rear guard. Mitrovic, the main culprit, is surly from the first whistle, Nelson roughed him up and he didn’t seem to recover. It’s all very well being a Diego Costa-type, but if the trolling knocks your composure then it’s a waste of time.

Eastwood takes the glory but this is John Lundstram’s game. Lundstram is a central figure in this year’s team. Last year, he was one of many outlets we had to win games. This year we’re more of a single unit with Lundstram the central cog; if he’s off form then we become reliant on the moments of skill from Maguire or others. When he’s on it, everyone performs.

There are two Lundstrams, one is the diesel, where the game passes him buy for 20 minutes while he gets going. The other is tenacious from the first minute. He makes his own luck, puts people in their place and dictates the game from the off. On Saturday, he was the latter, an early challenge sets the tone, and he owns the game from thereon in.

Half time offers another threat. Against Barnsley in the JPT it killed us, legs became heavy, minds more tired as the adrenalin ebbed away. But we manage the break and they’re the ones looking lethargic. Maguire, Dunkley, Hemmings; a complete sucker punch. 1-0.

Mitrovic shows a glimpse of guile dragging Edwards 10 yards into the box before stumbling and falling to the floor. It was a penalty, albeit cynically won. The Serb grabs the ball but the game pivots on Eastwood’s brilliant save. Minutes later, Nelson rises to nod home and make it 2-0; he’s been slower to this year’s party, but he’s starting to fill the massive gap left by Jake Wright. Newcastle fans who have been noisy throughout head for the exits just like, well, just like Sunderland fans do.

Martinez comes on and plays like a new pair of shoes, he looks good but doesn’t quite fit with everything else. It reminded me of David Rush’s debut against Leyton Orient in 1995. He came on, looked lively but undisciplined, we conceded from a corner because he neglected his defensive duties, then a minute later went down the other end and scored the winner. Martinez is a like that, keen, frustrating and ultimately effective. 3-0.

Rarely are FA Cup wins so comfortable, was it a shock? Only in the way a tombola is; you know you can get something out of it, it’s just a pleasant surprise when it’s Bells’ Whiskey rather than a bottle of shampoo.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Weekly wrap - AFC Wimbledon 2 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 4 Rochdale 0

January was always looking to be a tricky month. It’s always a bit of a challenge juggling the transfer window and a schedule disrupted by cup games. Last year, the stakes were higher with promotion on the cards, this year we were on the road for almost the whole month, apart from THAT game in THAT trophy and THAT doesn’t really count at all (or does it?).

We also went into the New Year on the back of a goal drought and apparently poor form, although this was a little overstated. If January’s road trip HAD gone wrong, then things could have looked rather bleak. Instead, we’ve seen three wins in four, four in five if you count THAT game, and we’ve scored 13 goals.

The blip was against Wimbledon which proved, if this needed proving, that we are not particularly good against more direct, robust teams. But otherwise, where has it all going right?

I’ve consumed most of the games via brief YouTube clips; each one seems to start with Marvin Johnson collecting the ball and running at the opposition’s defence. Johnson’s ever ascending stock has been key to the upturn in form. He’s like a high performance sports car, he’s so effortlessly powerful, he doesn’t look like he’s going quickly, but everything around him goes backwards.

Ryan Taylor is on his best run in the team, featuring in the last 14 games. This will have helped him settle into the system as well as build his fitness. As well as three goals himself, he’s helped 10 different players score in those 14 games, showing, I think, the value of a centre forward who can hold the ball, occupy defenders and bring others into the game.

Last year, January was like a big night out; epic fun with a crucifying hangover. Last year we won four of the first five games of the year, but only won one of the next six. It’s something we have to guard against.

The Newcastle FA Cup game is a free-hit; a bit like Swansea last year, they’ll play a second string and we’ll be up for it. If we don’t win, nobody will blink, if we do, then we’re getting to the interesting end of the competition.

Talking of interesting ends of competitions; the other curiosity is the EFL Trophy. With the Under-23 makeweights all gone the competition is gaining a different complexion. Yes, I understand the principles of the protests and the point has been well made. But ultimately, I’ve seen Oxford play at Wembley three times in 40 years. That’s a lot of time not seeing us play at Wembley. And life is very short. There is also the added incentive of finals against Luton, Wycombe or Coventry which would all make another grand day out. When does sticking to your principles just simply become pigheadedness?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Eales versus the world

For a such a happy go lucky man of the people, Darryl Eales seems to be picking a lot of fights at the moment.

First there was a bit of a to-do about flags, then the spat with the City Council over the development of Horspath as a potential training base for the club, then there was the scrap over the pace of the deal being forged between Oxvox and Firoz Kassam for the stadium.

The good news is that the club is focusing on the right things. Investing in the players is fun but its short term fun. If you’re losing £1m a year, success is short-term and eventually you’ll pay, and that’s no fun at all.

The club needs to invest in its infrastructure to build a sustainable future; increased focus on the stadium and training facilities cannot be more welcome.

The other good news is that there seems to be a growing realisation that sports provision in Oxford is inadequate. It’s a middle-class problem, but if there's going to be significant amounts of development in the city as part of the proposed "brain belt", then services need to keep up. For a city as thriving and affluent as Oxford; sports provision seems wanting.

Even Ian Hudspeth, the leader of the County Council seems to recognise this; quite a departure for a council bigwig to recognise that there is more to the city than students and academics. Sadly his City counterpart Bob Price is less ambitious given his apparent view that all this is really just a bit of a shame.

One of the surprising things about this, however, are the tactics that Darryl Eales is using to try and get things moving.

The club's response to the Horspath decision wasn't the best. It focussed on how important the facility would be to the club and its ambitions, ignoring the council's requirement to spend tax payers’ money wisely for the public's benefit. The council cited the club’s historical financial viability and lack of experience, both of which are quite reasonable points, but the club should also have made a much greater play on its potential for attracting others into the scheme as a community service.

Then, there was the statement around the speed of progress on the stadium purchase. On this, Eales is right, OxVox’s claim that it's going to take five months to get a heads of agreement signed is baffling. Why will it take so long? In simple terms, if you have a buyer and seller and a price, the rest is details. It shouldn’t take five months to reach an agreement in principle when negotiations have been going on for two months, at least, already.

So, do we have a buyer, seller and a price? Well, the buyer is notionally OxVox and they’re definitely keen. I’ve done the maths; 800 members paying about £3 each a year gives them about £2,400 to throw at the deal, which leaves them about £11.997m short of the supposed asking price. So who else is pitching up money? And more importantly, is this the problem?

And then there's the seller. Let’s make no bones about it; Firoz Kassam is a funny chap. He is extraordinarily successful which, of course, brings its own issues. People like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage point to their financial success as justification of being ‘right’ about the world. Success can do that to you. It’s not just looney right-wingers; look at Bono, Bill Gates and Richard Branson; all have unimaginable success which can, in their own heads, legitimise their view of the world.

There’s a psychopathy that goes along with extraordinary success. Without it, you wouldn’t take the actions, risks and decisions you might without a heightened sense of your own ability and, often, a reduced sense what impact it might have on others.

For example, Kassam made his money as a 'slum landlord', housing the homeless in his hotels; a ethically challenging line of work. But he has been able to justify it in terms of the money he has. The £6 million he personally made from the sale of The Manor was, in his view, deserved because he took risks that others wouldn’t. That’s true, but to hold that view you also have to dampen any moral opinion you might have that, perhaps, the club should also have benefited from the sale of the asset it had owned for over eighty years and he had owned for about two.

So, Kassam may be a money-grabbing bastard with no moral sense. However, outwardly he makes periodic claims he feels a moral obligation to protect the club. It’s not one to rule out completely. Even during the darkest times during his tenure he parked his green Bentley in front of the stadium on a match day. Not exactly the actions of someone who didn’t feel commitment to the club and was happy to hide. Or maybe it was the actions of a man with a rampant ego.

Is Kassam just toying with OxVox? Maybe, it fits with the convenient view that he is some kind of Dick Dastardly character. But a man who has made as much money as him doesn’t strike me as someone who wastes time playing games just for the sake of it.

Oxvox seem pretty adamant that a deal is being put together, and it might be just a question of finding meeting time with Kassam, other interested parties and the various experts they might need to progress things, Oxvox are doing all this stuff part-time, after all.

It is possible that Kassam has developed a god-complex over the club, that he believed only he knows truly what is good for it. It may also be the case that he’s simply looking for someone to truly recognise what he’s achieved with the stadium. Nothing he has done comes easily; it’s one of the things frequently overlooked about rich people – they can be odious and ostentatious and their moral compass may be constantly skewed, but it is rare that their money has been easy to come by. Look at it from Kassam’s perspective, he’s built a football stadium, something nobody had achieved in Oxford for nearly a century and yet he is painted as evil and an anchor to the club’s future success. Maybe trusting people associated with the club is more difficult for him because he feels taken for granted or that his legacy will be trashed once he has gone. It probably doesn't help that the club refer to the stadium as 'Grenoble Road' effectively wiping him from history.

But broadsiding everyone as Eales has been doing is a strange thing to do when there is such a delicate game of politics to play. So, what is he playing at?

It seems unlikely that after a successful career making lots of money and a couple of years turning the club around, that he has suddenly lost his mind. One of his great strengths is his emotional intelligence and empathy towards fans. He too may be frustrated that despite everything he’s done for the club he still can’t get himself a seat at the table when it comes to discussing the future of sport in the city. It’s that god complex again, but it's understandable, the university boat crew aside, Oxford United is the biggest sports name in town and we seem to have a minority say in what happens in the city. It's difficult to imagine the university not having a say in the development of higher education in Oxford or BMW not having a place at the table when talking about employment and economic development. Why are the club being left out when it comes to sport?

Or, maybe it’s cleverer than that and he’s putting pressure on OxVox to pull their finger out; Ian Hudspeth implied last week that developing a world class facility at Water Eaton is something that should be pursued. Eales needs to know which bus to hop on and farting around may not work for him in terms of making that decision.

Perhaps, even, Eales is acting as the unofficial mouthpiece for a frustrated OxVox. It seems very unlikely that they haven’t spoken informally about the future of the ground and relations between the trust and club are supposed to be good. The trust are keeping schtum, which doesn't mean anything, either way, but they've got a lot to lose if they're seen as causing problems, maybe a grumpy tenant threatening to walk away is something that will move things along.

What seems unlikely is that Eales is ready to simply torpedo Oxvox out of the negotiations out of sheer frustration, things are likely to be more complicated than that. One thing is certain in that it seems like the opportunity has never been greater for the club and the city more generally to resolve the issue once and for all.