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.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Promotion wrap - Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0

We’ve had promotions before, we’ve had derby wins, we’ve had trips to Wembley, we’ve had giant killings. We’ve never had all four in one season. And that should tell you all you need to know about this year.

Before the Wycombe game, someone on Twitter worked out the various permutations of the final day; we would be promoted in all but a handful of them. Success was not quite inevitable, but failure seemed inconceivable. It wasn’t arrogance, it’s just that it was impossible to think that after months in the automatic places, after everything we’ve been through, that it might actually end up in a big wet play-off shaped fart.

The situation was almost identical 20 years ago when we went into the game against Peterborough needing a win at home to get promoted. We did it comfortably and joyously and I couldn’t imagine it being any different this time. But, as an evidence base and reference point, this was somewhat outdated.

Like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, there was still a theoretical, undefinable, inconceivable threat. Wycombe could frustrate us; motivated to spoil the party. We could freeze. This is, after all, Oxford United.

In response, the club did what the club does these days; it ignored the what-ifs, and defused the tension with a bar-b-que for the fans at the Oxford Academy. The philosophy was to behave like where you want to be, not where you're at; not eaten by anxiety, but already, effectively, promoted.

The sun shone, and the fans came, and the club delivered another PR masterstroke in a season of masterstrokes.

At the Kassam, people buzzed around the stadium not quite knowing what to do. People sat in their cars reading newspapers having secured their usual spot hours earlier. Their routines disrupted by the size of the crowd and the prospects of what was in store. In the South Stand Upper there was near-silence as people fixated on the TV showing the Middlesbrough v Brighton game trying to avoid talking about what might happen after-3pm.

Earlier, I’d met Brinyhoof in the bar, he was talking with some people from the FOUL days and the old Oxford indie scene who now have management jobs, raise children and pay into pension schemes while running social media accounts for bands that were once wan, willowy and pretty and now portly, raising children and paying into pension schemes. “He used to play in Hurricane No. 1”, he tells me afterwards.

We go in early and do a quick tour of the South Stand, spotting faces from the old days. They work for the club nowadays, or volunteer, or run blogs and podcasts or just hang around social media sites living out the despair and occasional triumphs.

We have the ’86 generation and the ’96 generation. A generation that fund, arrange and make the displays that have transformed the soulless Kassam Stadium into the broiling hive it’s been this year.

At the heart of the revolution is Darryl Eales and Michael Appleton, of course, and the players. But at the heart of the club are the same people who have seen us through relegations and false dawns and disappointments and non-league football and near-liquidation. These people, so attuned to failure, were also confident and calm, more excited than worried.  

Wycombe didn’t roll over though. An early goal may have broken their spirit, but it didn’t come and they went about their business disrupting our rhythm. With the sun beating down and nervous tension things threatened to overheat; it wasn’t pleasant.

And then the rain came, a biblical downpour that hammered down on the roof of the stadium making a cacophonous noise like I’ve never heard before. If this was a rock concert, it was the equivalent of getting a couple of acoustic guitars out and playing some ballads to give the crowd a rest.

Cooled by the rain, Wycombe’s initial burst of energy subsided and the elastic began to stretch, but we still needed something to make it snap. In 1996 it was Giuliano Grazioli’s misplaced header from a Joey Beauchamp corner. Twenty years on; Chris Maguire delivered another corner into the box and careering through a crowd of bodies thundered Chey Dunkley to make a connection. Snap. 1-0.

In many ways Dunkley is the archetype of the Appleton-era. I thought he’d been brought from non-league football as a cheap wage but over the last year he’s developed physically and technically. He is a player who wants to learn and work and the kind that will respond to Appleton’s developmental approach to coaching.

Maguire makes it two from the spot. More the finished article, he seems the type that would respond to Appleton’s desire for players to think for themselves rather than play to a rigid system. For all the talk of Roofe, Hylton, Sercombe and Lundstram, it’s Maguire and Dunkley more than anyone else who have carried us over the line.

There’s a sign in the back of the East Stand ‘A Time For Heroes’, a few weeks ago it looked like ours were injured or exhausted, but the void was filled by Dunkley and Maguire along with Josh Ruffels; a forgotten man who turned out performances whenever and wherever needed. A special-team to close out a special season.

The tension from the ground evaporated. Lundstram’s passing became more expansive, Roofe looked more mobile, at one point Jake Wright majestically picked up a ball from the edge of the box and waltzed out into midfield like Bobby Moore.

Then the coronations, MacDonald jogs off; a player who gave up a promotion push with Burton to join the revolution and never once let his enthusiasm drop. He was the first, the vanguard. When George Baldock went back to MK Dons and Jonjoe Kenny came in there was a worry that it might be enough to burst the bubble, but MacDonald mentored Kenny, protected and supported him and helped him develop into another asset. Did we miss Baldock? Yes. But nowhere near as much as was feared.

Hylton and Roofe are replaced to deserved standing ovations. Roofe almost transcends the club now, which is why I think Hylton won the fans’ player of the year. It's the mix of ability and application, plus eccentricity and triumph over adversity that makes Danny Hylton and the club he plays for a little bit different.

And in the final seconds; a moment to file alongside THAT goal by Alfie Potter. O’Dowda, picks the ball up, rides a few half-hearted challenges and wrong foots the keeper to make it three. An Oxford boy confirming an Oxford triumph. There’s are shades of Joey Beauchamp’s last goal before he went to West Ham; cutting in from the right in front of the home end. That was Beauchamp’s farewell… And O’Dowda?

There are two things that have dawned on me about promotions. Firstly, I know that players rarely support their club, but I want their time with us to be the best of their career, and, the reason I want promotion is not really for me, but for them, to reward them for their effort throughout the season.

Were we the best team in the division? That’s an argument that will never end, the table tells you one thing, but look more broadly and it’s closer than you’d think. We scored more goals and conceded less than Northampton, if you factor in our cup games, we only won one game less. If you consider the physical and mental challenge of our season compared to theirs, then there’s a reasonable argument to say that we have been at least on par. Experimental 361 did some analysis that showed how effective we’d been and Chris Wilder himself once admitted that we were the best footballing team. Were we the best? Yeah, why not?

It’s difficult to overstate how close I was to giving up on Oxford last year. I was bored of the false dawns and wasted Saturdays. I was no longer bound by a blind youthful loyalty, maybe I could pick and choose my games like a casual fan. This season was a last chance saloon, I had visions of signing off this blog and actually walking away from the club, going to find something better to do with my limited spare time. And then this season happened, and it has reignited everything I love about the club; success and excitement, tension, camaraderie, but also effort and hard work and reward. Oxford United, how did I ever doubt you?  

Monday, May 02, 2016

Carlisle wrap - Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2

This is like a big three-dart checkout. Hartlepool was the first throw; it just needed to be as big as possible. The second throw, at Carlisle, needed something similar but also confirmed what was needed for the third and final throw. Each one step closer, each ratcheting up the pressure a little more.

And this is it, there is almost no margin for error; three points at home to Wycombe and the previous 67.5 hours of league football this year will have all been worthwhile, anything less and, well…

We haven’t beaten Carlisle in Cumbria for 20 years when Matt Elliot smashed that goal in. With that kind of record, fans might have been forgiven for forgoing the 500+ mile round trip in favour of chewing their nails in front of the radio. Instead, more than 2,200 made the trip north, a demonstration of unflinching support and belief; the club is a bit like that nowadays.

That last win at Carlisle was part of a run that took us to promotion, an omen that the gods are smiling on us? The momentum is definitely with us. Wycombe’s season is all played out, their form is reassuringly abject. There’s an idea that the debatable local rivalry will fuel their desire but I’m not so sure that will transfer to the players who will be worrying about contracts and the beach. We’ve been nursing players through games and worrying about the future, but on Saturday we can leave everything on the pitch and pick up the pieces over the summer.

But, I’m always reminded of what Tony Adams said before the 1998 World Cup. The consensus view was that England were certain to reach the quarter-final with semi-finals or final place a possibility.
Adams, however, stressed that even meeting the minimum expectation required effort and application, relying on theoretical superiority is not enough.

We need to be absolutely focussed on the task at hand, to do all the right things, everything we’ve been doing all season, just one more time. Thankfully, we have big-game experience invested in this squad. Our runs in the FA Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy have battered us this year but, ironically, the very thing that has made this more uncomfortable than we’d have wanted, could be the very thing that sees us over the line.

The battle is joined. See you Saturday.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

Newport and Hartlepool wraps

Newport County 1 Oxford United 1

On the eve of the anniversary of our best day, the Newport game felt like this year’s worst day. With question marks over the goalkeeper and illness and injury throughout the the team, it felt like all the hard work of the season was suddenly in jeopardy. It feels like we’re a middle distance runner going out hard in the hope we can hang on in the final stretch. It wasn’t so much our position or even the result against Newport, it was the overall direction of travel that was of concern.

And with good reason, we’ve not had form like this since we suffered back-to-back defeats to Hartlepool and Shrewsbury last season. At the final whistle we’d taken just six points from five games meaning we were left with four contenders fighting for two places with just a point between them all.

The following day the club gallantly knife and forked the Milk Cup celebrations; everyone smiled bravely while calculating the what-ifs for the rest of the season. It was like the gentry were celebrating the Queen’s birthday while a desperate war raged around them.

Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

The need for a Dunkirk spirit is one which can make or break you.

The week started with MacDonald on a drip in hospital, O’Dowda on his sick bed, Skarz out for the season, Lundstram breaking down in training and Roofe nursing an injury.

But the spirit can galvanize you also and all ultimately played their part. Joe Skarz typified the spirit; where he could easily have written off his season, instead he got his head down and worked to drag himself back into the team. Just when we need experience and he comes to our rescue.

Earlier in the season, when we were flying, we benefitted from at least one player driving things forward, Roofe, Hylton, Lundstram and Sercombe all had periods of running the team. Skarz was always there, but he was never the star of the show. We’ve been lacking a star recently, maybe he’s going to be the unlikely hero of the final push.

In truth, ignoring the context, we were excellent and pretty comfortable throughout the game against Hartlepool. We benefitted from Ruffels and Maguire’s more compact game, we benefited from the tension and the need not to take risks. We were happy with the need to win rather than entertain. It drove a discipline with no silly lapses like against Luton. And at the same time we entertained in an uncomfortable, gnawing kind of way.

At the end our two enfant terribles; Maguire, who sometimes struggles to switch on and Hylton who struggles ever to switch off, held the ball at the corner flag balancing pragmatism and professionalism with impishness and creativity. It was a microcosm of the performance.

By god it’s tense, but the truth is that we’re not throwing away promotion, we’re thriving heroically in the face of growing adversity.