Thursday, March 23, 2017

Weekly wrap - Oxford United 2 Scunthorpe 1, Oxford United 2 Bolton Wanderers 4

Sometimes football feels like it’s a rock in life’s raging river. As the river flows around it, it remains steadfast, always there just where it’s always been. Then, sometimes, the river rises and the current speeds up and the rock becomes submerged, lost from sight.

That’s been me this week; the river has engulfed the rock, football’s become a bit of an aside. On Saturday morning work pulled me to a meeting in Canary Wharf, which turns out not to be the most direct route to the Kassam. I ended up on a journey which involved car, train and boat, at one point I calculated I might actually make the game with four minutes to spare but time got eaten up and it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it.

It was a bit of a relief because I don’t get any sense that even with the Scunthorpe win anyone realistically harbours expectations of us making the play-offs. Even a last minute goal didn’t seem to ignite that feeling that the gods were with us.

Instead it feels like we’ve seen the fixtures and recognised that even if we did make the play-offs, we probably wouldn’t go up and even if we went up, we probably wouldn’t stay up.

I had a similar feeling for the game against Bolton; they had that sense of urgency that you get when the prospect of promotion looms. That desperate need to make sure it happens and not pass up the opportunity; like us last season. We, on the other hand, seemed to want to compete only on our terms, put the effort in when we were ready.

The difference was in the margins; it wasn't like we were lazy, we played well, but having conceded two early goals there was a feeling that if we got back into the game then great, if not, then whatever. Truth is, had Marvin Johnson's astonishing strike gone in, then we are likely to have taken a point. So we're not that far away from being good enough for the play-offs or better. But, we just don't seem to have the energy to really make it happen. It's not a surprise, it's been an exhausting couple of years.

We are simply playing too frequently, just like last year, but unlike last year, the prospect of us going up is just not big enough to blow a gasket to achieve. Instead, it's like we're taking a brief intake of breath before we go on another promotion drive next season. The question, I suppose, is whether we can keep the core of the squad, and the manager, together over the summer, and that depends on the depth of funding available.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Weekly wrap - Peterborough 1 Oxford United 2; Oldham Athletic 2 Oxford United 1

“Ultimately I got the impression – and I hope I’m wrong – that it looked like a side who had one big game left this season.”

And with that the bell rings for the end of school and everyone rushes for the exits. It’s probably reasonable to assume Michael Appleton’s ‘one big game’ is Wembley after which it seems we're going to be knocking off for the summer.

Only nutcases would begrudge the club a bit of a break; we are, to a great extent running far too fast. The glimpse of the foothills of the play-offs have shown that; we're just not ready for the Championship.

The win over Peterborough and defeat to Oldham gives some indication of our limitations; good enough for most of League 1, but not twice in a week. March is killing us, but that might just be the best thing for us.

Is the announcement that Greig Box Turnbull is standing down a sign that the club is looking to next season? Maybe. Football can be a pretty grim place to work; stability and steady development is hardly an ingrained culture. Also, as an administrator you’re either working with someone else’s money or you have none at all. Box Turnbull may simply be getting out before he burns out.

Or, Darryl Eales is readying himself for the next phase of the club’s development. It was always going to be quite a challenge to match last year’s successes, but this year has been flatter than last. The club didn’t help itself with its stance on the Checkatrade Trophy and there have been issues with flags, stewards and an endless stream of statements.

Good things continue to happen on the pitch, the club has recovered from the gutting of its promotion squad and registered derby wins, cup giantkillings and another trip to Wembley. We are still being spoilt.

But presumably Eales won’t want to hang around in League 1 for too long; it’s a division that can become an elephant’s graveyard. Where fallen giants wallow in self-pity; too big to fall further, not good enough to go up. Their presence sits on ambitious smaller teams who are unable to beat all the elephants and gain promotion.

There’s also the financial risk of League 1 – average salaries in League 1 grow 42% from League 2, but revenues only grow 34% making it more expensive to survive in the higher division. Every season the club stays in League 1 it gets poorer.

The Championship changes much of that; average revenue jumps nearly 400%, so the attraction for Eales is obvious. Plus he must be aware of the need to match Michael Appleton’s ambitions as the manager becomes a more attractive proposition to bigger teams. Throw in greater control over the stadium and you can see why he might be looking for someone more dynamic and aggressive to take  the club onto the next stage.

So, perhaps Wembley is the final hurrah for the season before the club prepares itself for next season and a tilt at promotion.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Weekly wrap - Oxford United 0 Bristol Rovers 2, Oxford United 2 Sheffield United 3

The way my timings work for home games I typically see our subs bench before the starting eleven by scrolling through Twitter. When I saw the bench for our game against Bristol Rovers it was clear something was up.
Losing Chris Maguire, Rob Hall, Curtis Nelson and Kane Hemmings, plus Wes Thomas was always going to have a significant impact on the overall quality of the squad. It highlighted other anomalies; Liam Sercombe being too good to be dropped, not quite good enough to oust Ledson and Lundstram from his preferred position. The best defender in the land, Joe Skarz, being somehow less effective than the worst defender in the land, Marvin Johnson. We don’t know whether Conor McAnley is the next Kemar Roofe or the next Jordan Bowery. Add to this Charlie Raglan playing as though he was wearing someone else’s legs and you had dysfunction from the start.
We’re not a team built on a rigid system like an Ian Atkins team where you can take a player out and put another one in without a significant impact. Where players have such a tight brief that as long as you stick to it, you won't go far wrong. Michael Appleton’s teams are more reliant on players playing with freedom and taking responsibility. It makes for a much more entertaining offering, but if you lose some of the talent it’s a real problem.

Rovers exploited the disjointedness by harrying in midfield and pressing on the back-four. Both goals came from Charlie Raglan and Joe Skarz being over-powered. Those positions in recent weeks have gone to Marvin Johnson who doesn’t get put under pressure in the same way because he’s usually on the offensive and Curtis Nelson who is also a ball carrier. Had they been playing, it's possible that Rovers wouldn’t have been given the chances they got.
Michael Appleton seemed to know things were a bit threadbare making only made one substitution despite being 0-2 down at half-time. It almost as if he considered it a tactical defeat.    
I'm sure he didn't quite throw the game; football teams are like blast furnaces; you can’t just turn them on and off. But with so many games to play, I wonder whether he was trying to keep people fresh by not playing Maguire et al. We have a punishing month ahead of Wembley. With all things being equal, we should go into that game as strong favourites, but with the number of games we’ve got, fatigue and injury could jeopardise that game, plus rob one or two of a Wembley experience. I wonder whether the injuries were as bad as suggested, or did Michael Appleton just turn the furnace down a little?

As if by magic all four returned to the starting line for Sheffield United on Tuesday. Only Chris Maguire showed any after-effects of an injury.  There's no doubt Appleton wanted to win this one; we were at home, Sheffield United were top and the spectre of Chris Wilder the club. 

The fact is that Wilder is a better manager, and certainly better than many fans are prepared to admit. What he’s good at is taking big failing fishes in small ponds and using their strength as an asset; he did it with us and he’s doing it with Sheffield United. You have to have a very big and belligerent personality to force a change of direction when you take on a beast like Sheffield United. You have to give him some credit because he's done it time and again.

Ultimately Chris Wilder teams are a Nokia 3310 to our Apple iWatch. The Nokia does simple things really well, we’re more sophisticated, but we don't work quite as well. We competed gamely for two-thirds of the game but we fell away while they kept motoring at the same pace. That's fundamentally the difference between the two teams.

Michael Appleton said after the game that we were 3-4 players away from competing consistently at the top of League 1. It might be stretching things to think that Michael Appleton has conceded the season completely, but he must be aware that on and off the pitch we're barely ready for an unlikely ascent into the Championship. With Cup wins, a Wembley appearance and derby double already in the bag you get the feeling he's pacing himself through the rest of the season.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

I'm going to Wembley

The EFL Trophy, has there ever been a more divisive competition? Never particularly popular, it descended into farce this year with the introduction of Under 23 teams from the Premier League. A boycott by lower league fans sent a strong statement of intent, but we now face our fourth trip to Wembley and, perhaps, the best opportunity for silverware in over 30 years.

There has been lots of very worthy commentary why people are not going to Wembley. It is very easy to believe that boycotting is the only moral option.

I decided a couple of rounds ago that I would probably go to Wembley despite being a supporter of the protests around the country. In essence, I’m following my heart, which wants to go and not my head which tells me to stick to my principles. However, the more I think about it, the more I’m comfortable with the idea. Here’s why…

Boycotting Wembley won’t work 
The boycott certainly had a strong symbolic impact; but it was never a popular tournament in the first place so it wasn’t difficult to empty the stadiums. A bit like organising a boycott of Brussel sprouts; it would be full of people who would never eat them in the first place. Many thousands of people like me wouldn’t have gone to games in the early rounds anyway, so boycotting was hardly a chore. Those who would have attended early rounds but didn’t because of the boycott was relatively small. Comparable figures are difficult, but the crowd for Bradford this year was 2,247 compared to Yeovil last year which was 2,532. That’s a drop of just 12%. There was talk about the '1500' who would have been at Luton if there'd been no boycott, but in reality there was only 40 fewer fans at Kenilworth Road than the last time we visited in the league. If 12% boycotted the final, we would take just under 30,000 fans; more than Barnsley took. Nobody is going to notice a 12% drop in a Wembley attendance, particularly in a competition that has had final crowds as low as 21,000 and as high as 80,000. Nobody knows what a good EFL Trophy Final crowd is anyway. The early rounds boycott made a statement, and it was more powerful because it spread across the tournament and across many teams, a Wembley boycott would have to be unimaginably massive to have any impact at all.

The boycott made A statement, it didn’t make THE statement 
When will we know the boycott worked? When b-teams are not playing in the Football League, I suppose. We know that they aren’t at the moment and they won’t be next season. We don’t know beyond that and sadly we’ll never know whether it will happen in the future. Let’s face it, Premier League clubs have enough money to buy their way into the Football League if they choose. If each contributed the equivalent of an average Premier League right-back, they would have more than enough to bribe their way to anything. If the Premier League want this to happen, then they’ll make it happen regardless of the moralising of a boycott. So, the boycott sent a signal - which the Football League will already be painfully aware of - but the boycott didn’t, and never will, solve the problem once and for all.

The experiment didn’t work 
Fielding Under 23s didn’t work on practically every level. It was grotesquely unpopular, damaging the Premier League brand. Several Premier League teams didn’t even engage in the experiment anyway, which shows just how little interest there is in the idea in the first place. Those who did materially failed to comply with the spirit of the idea. Several clubs fielded over-aged players from overseas, a clear snub of the idea of giving young English talent the opportunity to test themselves. Furthermore, those who did enter did really badly. The last Premier League team standing, Swansea, made it to the quarter-finals, a third went out in the group stage, 75% were gone by round two. Apparently Joe Royle said that Premier League youngsters had gained experience of 'direct balls from Cheltenham', which isn't the best preparation for facing Barcelona in five years time. If there was an appetite for this idea, there’s not much to suggest it should be pursued.

There’s more than one way to protest. 
Why is there a protest in the first place? Because we believe that lower league teams have a right to compete and thrive. And what proves that? The thousands of people who attend games away from the glare of the Premier League. And what is the best way to keep proving that? To keep going to games. Say the final only attracted 10,000 people, does that prove the boycott worked or that the lower leagues don’t have the grassroots support it claims? What has more impact; nobody attending a game which people claim nobody cares about anyway or a capacity crowd that emphatically proves the vibrancy and relevance of the lower leagues? When the FA bid for the 2018 World Cup they made a point of highlighting the vitality of the English game using our Conference game against Luton as an example. There would be no stronger statement about the importance of the lower leagues than if the stadium was full.

The kids
I started going regularly to Oxford at the dawn of the Glory Years. In three years I saw two promotions and a Wembley appearance. The experience forged something very deep in me. Had I not been through that, it’s quite possible that me and people like me would have had no more than a passing interest in the club. The last 18 months have been the best Oxford have had in the intervening 30 years. Kids living through this period are collecting memories which will get them through any future and fallow years. Failing to use these experiences risks them drifting towards the bright lights of the Premier League where they have glory on tap (I would probably have been an Arsenal fan, for example). The kids don’t understand nuanced arguments about Premier League academy teams, they want to see teams picking up silverware at Wembley. If that is Oxford, they’ll stick with us for life.

John Lundstram
Last year John Lundstram missed out on Wembley. Lundstram is one of a raft of players who has been persuaded by Michael Appleton that there is more to life than hanging around in Premier League loungewear hoping that you might get a substitute’s appearance in the early rounds of the League Cup. Firstly, I want him to love playing for Oxford and him winning in front of 30,000-plus yellows will ensure that is the case. Secondly, the more young pros who see what is possible in an Oxford shirt, the more likely they are to sign, the more glorious that looks the more attractive we become. That makes us more sustainable and relevant.

Joe Skarz also missed out last year; these are players that we want to celebrate, we want them to win games in an Oxford shirt at Wembley in front of Oxford fans. This is a chance; why would you dampen it?

I’m 44
I have spent most of my life not seeing Oxford United get anywhere near Wembley. It’s conceivable that I’ll never get another chance. If I don’t take chances when they are presented to me, I’m frankly a bloody idiot.

None of this detracts from the effectiveness of the boycott. In August and September, it made a clear statement about the strength of feeling on the issue. But, those who are resolutely planning to stick to their principles for the sake of, well, sticking to their principles might find that they are turning from principled freedom fighters into ineffective ideological bores. Protest and disruption is certainly part of any activism, but offering some sort of demonstration of strength, a positive energy is similarly important. Going to Wembley is not necessarily an act of deceit but a demonstration of power.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Charlton and Chesterfield wraps - Charlton Athletic 0 Oxford United 1, Chesterfield 0 Oxford United 4

Hidden within the guts and glory of our FA Cup defeat was an uncomfortable truth; we were suddenly on a losing streak. Not only that, we were facing three more away games and, therefore, weren’t that far away from finding ourselves in a slump.

This wasn’t exactly new, last year between 10th January and 2nd February we played six games four of which were cup games. We beat Swansea and Millwall – both memorable results - but then lost to Millwall and then to Blackburn. In addition, we fell to a painful league defeat to Bristol Rovers. We then lost two home games on the bounce for the first time, both to promotion rivals. By the end of February we’d accumulated a giant-killing and booked a Wembley appearance but we were on the brink of physical and mental exhaustion that threatened to derail the whole season.

The year was stabilised by the most unlikely player – Jordan Bowery. Bowery scored in five consecutive league wins from late-January to the end of February. When the story of that promotion season is written Bowery will get little more than a few paragraphs, but he was crucial in helping set up the run-in and promotion.

The stakes aren’t quite as high this year – I don’t think anyone is expecting promotion - but we didn’t want the season to fizzle out. Wins against Charlton and Chesterfield leave us just four points from the play-offs. Conor McAnely, who has looked a little lost in his cameos at home, has suddenly changed the whole complexion of the season. It’s possible that McAnely will become this year’s Jordan Bowery scoring key stabilising goals at a crucial time. Maybe he’ll even become this year’s Kemar Roofe, who knows?

That said, it’s debatable as to whether a charge for the play-offs is truly desirable. With games in hand, the play-offs are in our hands, but it’s questionable just how ready we are as a club to play Championship football. Any run-in involving the play-offs – whether it ends in success or failure – will be hugely intense. It will mean the club will have played something like 120 games – including many many big ones - in two years. Great for the fans, exhausting for people like Liam Sercombe and John Lundstram and maybe even Michael Appleton. If we did manage to get promoted, we will suddenly be presented with a whole new world to deal with, are we really ready?

Another year and a lot of this year’s squad will be reaching their physical maturity and maybe even the stadium issue will be sorted out and so we will be much better position to deal with any new challenge. Dilemmas around a promotion charge are a nice problem to have but, perhaps, it’s a bridge too far at the moment?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Middlesborough wrap - Middlesborough 3 Oxford United 2

The magic of the FA Cup sometimes feels like having a fire hose rammed into your mouth. You’re forced to consume it in massive overwhelming quantities until you’d rather be dead than have to take  any more.

Magic, like religion, is a convenient way of explaining things so complex and nuanced that you can’t come up with a rational explanation for it. The FA Cup offers the unique magic of possibility; that a non-league team can compete with a mega-giant of the game, but this is simply because it's the only  competition that doesn't stratify or seed teams so that the big teams have to mix with the riff raff. And then there are the magic of shocks, but if you think about the thousands of games that have been played in 145 years of the competition, by the law of averages some of those games will have unexpected outcomes. 

But what about that magical unerring belief anything can happen and that your name is on the cup? Yes, but every team starts every game in the FA Cup off the back of a win, it creates a sense of being unbeatable, that something is pre-destined. It is only when reality bites and you’re knocked out that the truth slams home.

All this 'magic' is what drives 3,500 people to travel 230 miles in the hope, against all the odds, that they will be witness to some kind of miraculous moment. It is a ludicrous, reckless gamble.

For forty-five minutes against Middlesborough it looked like normality was being stamped all over those hopes. The injustices of the Premier League, the dog muck of their excessive wealth rubbed into our faces. First through a clumsy penalty, then through a French Beninese reserve. The fact that a team like Middlesborough can sign a Beninese international to not play for them compared to our star player being imported from Motherwell illustrates the gulf that exists. 

And at 2-0 that was pretty much that, or so we thought. Were we going to take an embarrassing  beating? Maybe it was going to be even worse; maybe Middlesbrough would simply hold us while we huffed and puffed. A humiliation and humbling in front of our own fans, their fans and the TV audience.

But, Middlesbrough have the fourth worst form in the Premier League and Oxford the third best in League 1. If relegation and promotion were based on short term form - relevant in a one-off game like this - then we could easily be facing them as equals in the Championship. There may still be a gap, but the League 1/Premier League chasm can be reduced very quickly in the short term.

And with this secret still intact, plus a deepening muscle memory of belief, there lies an ember of hope. Chris Maguire ignites the fire when Guzan leaves a gap so large it might as well be a metaphor for his complacency. A little flick and it’s 2-1. 

And then sixty seconds in which all the investment is worth it; every trip to St Albans or Tonbridge, every false hope signing, watching jealously as Steve Basham registers a hat-trick against us for Hayes and Yeading. A mass of fans who have travelled a combined distance equivalent to circumventing the globe 50 times, fans that have come in blind faith just to watch the game. Oxford swarm forward in audacious belief, the ball sweeps left to Maguire whose shot drops to Martinez. Goal.

The limbs, as they say, the limbs and limbs and limbs; cascading down the stands. Proper, decent people; the rich who hide their anxieties, the poor who fear the rich, people who live in darkened times, who pay taxes and mortgages, who fret about their futures, who lie awake worrying about their families are pulsing with joyous disbelief.  As one, bonded through the decades, the shared experience that is often the trudge of defeat but occasionally the splatter of victory. This is the magic, right in this moment. 

At the very moment the magic surges it begins to subside. Finally the re-adjustment comes and Stuani prods home for 3-2. Does it matter? For that blissful sixty seconds has created a fusion, an unbreakable bond that makes this marvelous club what it is and will continue to be.

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.