Thursday, July 02, 2015
Every great team has a great spine; Whitehead, Elliot and Gilchrist, Smith and Grey, Moody. Judge, Shotton and Briggs, Houghton and Hebberd, Aldridge. You can add to that Clarke, Creighton and Wright, Bulman and Murray, Constable.
Every great team must, at some point, be dismantled. With the announcement of Ryan Clarke’s departure, the remains of the 2010 promotion team is down to one. It was inevitable, of course; one day Constable was always going to go, Potter was always going to go, even Rhys Day was going to go.
There’s something brutal about replacing an established keeper. In any other position, if someone gets signed then it’s, at worst, a battle for that position. When it’s a goalkeeper, particularly in the lower leagues, most clubs go with an established number one and a young back up. If you’re the established number one and another one gets signed, then the writing is emphatically on the wall.
And that’s particularly rough on a player as loved as Clarke. In reality, it’s fairly easy to be a much loved keeper. You do spend half of every game hanging out with the home fans, you're bound to build some kind of relationship. Plus, I maintain that fans are generally clueless about what makes a good keeper, so basically if you catch a ball or two and dive a couple of times you're quite a long way to becoming a legend.
But, Clarke stands out. In an ideal world, I was hoping he would never leave. Maybe I hoped he would become part of some gargantuan backroom staff, a stockpile of legends who could be found kicking balls at Max Crocombe and being distracted by the half-time scores every Saturday.
Sadly no, all these things come to an end eventually. Clarke’s signing was, in itself, a brave one from Chris Wilder. Billy Turley was himself a capable and much loved keeper. Clarke was part of a very deliberate move to change the direction of the club. No longer would we dwell sentimentally on the past - Turley being one of a number of players who said they had unfinished business with the club and wanted to right a wrong. The reality was that they never did; they toiled away achieving less and less each season. They'd had their chance and it was time to move on.
Clarke, with Creighton and Luke Foster, and then Jake Wright, set out their stall as a dominant force in the Conference. Although he had a fine season, ironically, the lasting memory of his time in an Oxford shirt was him throwing the ball into his own net against York in the play-off final. He also saved us at least once during that game and many times before that, but I always wondered whether his moment of madness discouraged other teams from taking a closer look.
Whatever it was, it was to our advantage. Where others in the promotion team looked far less comfortable in League 2 than they had in the previous season, Clarke looked more than comfortable at that level and looked like he could play at least a level above.
Of course, his abilities were much more on show in League 2 and he saved us countless times, often breathtakingly. For three years, at least, he was consistently the best player in the team; adding penalty saving to his many talents. This was all pretty remarkable from a player who had been in a team relegated to the Conference North before coming to the Kassam. That turnaround was a credit to both Clarke himself and the mentoring he got from Alan Hodgkinson.
Soppy though it sounds, I was always reassured by Clarke’s presence, like I was when James Constable was around. During his periodic injuries, when we’d bring in a loanee who looked like Joe Hart and played like Joe Pasquale, it didn’t feel like our club, like when you buy a pair of shoes and for a while they feel like they’re wearing you. It was all wrong.
Last season, there was no doubt Clarke was a bit more flat-footed than he had been, although we conceded less goals than the year before, the second best since returning to the league in 2010. Injuries may have been a factor, and age, with Clarke clicking over to 33 in April, it was right to ask some tough questions as to whether he would re-discover his sparkle. Sam Slocombe's arrival was the beginning of the end.
Clarke's move to Northampton is, to some extent, obvious. If there’s something that characterises a Wilder player, it’s that they are good dependable pros, and Clarke is certainly one of those. The only surprise, I suppose, is that it’s taken Wilder this long to try to fish him out from his old club. Clarke wants to play; it’s easy to assume that he'll spend a couple of years with the Cobblers and then be satisfied picking up contracts as a back up keeper before retiring. But not now, the indignity of seeing Clarke on the Oxford bench wasn't going to do anyone any good.
So, where does Clark sit in the pantheon of Oxford United goalkeeping greats? It’s difficult to compare different ‘keepers playing at different levels at different times. Time will tell ultimately; legends often mature as time passes. Alan Judge may have been the keeper who played on our greatest day, but I was always more of a Steve Hardwick fan back then. I still, just about, think Phil Whitehead ranks as my favourite keeper of all time. But Clarke is not far behind.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
To a tiny minority, there was bemusement at the level of vitriol, particularly amongst Welsh fans. So why were Oxford fans so vehemently against the Exiles?
If it’s not to state too obvious a point, Oxford is neither Wales or London, or indeed any intersection between the two. Club rugby hasn’t always been like it is today; just a couple of decades ago all rugby union was proudly amateur, rugby was what you played to let off steam from a working week. Even at the very top level, internationals would play in front of thousands in the, then, Five Nations, before returning to work as sheep farmers, RAF pilots and lawyers. Clubs, therefore, were clubs in the truest sense of the word. They represented the people within them rather than anything more broad than that. So, London Welsh was, in simple terms, for Welsh people in London. Club rugby was a very parochial affair.
Then Premier League football came along an invented a new way of making obscene amounts of money from sport through subscription TV. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon; products got polished up, competitions were invented and players professionalised as competition intensified. It happened in cricket, both codes of rugby, hockey, netball, even darts was given a make-over.
What football has that other sports tend not to have, is firstly, a huge audience, but more importantly, it already had the infrastructure already in place; the competitions had a hundred years and more of prestige, clubs represented not just those within the club, but cities, religions, class groups. People moved around the country, but were still defined by their football club.
In football location, history, fan loyalty are all important factors in defining that club. That doesn't seem so important in other sports in the new era. So, London Welsh were a club for Welsh people in London, but someone thought abandoning that core value and setting up in Oxford was OK. Welsh aren’t the only ones; Wasps are in Coventry, London Irish in Reading, Saracens were in Watford. It wasn’t everywhere; Bath, Leicester and Gloucester all retain strong geographical identities; but frequently rugby - or maybe specifically the owners just seemed to treat these clubs as ‘brands’ they could move around to wherever they thought they could make the most money.
And that idea; abandoning your history, your fanbase to suit your ‘business model’ is a grotesque idea to any fan of a football club. You only have to see the vitriol aimed at MK Dons to see that. It strikes right at the heart of being a fan. To an Oxford fan, the idea of walking away from your own people is an intolerable treachery and that’s what it appears London Welsh did. It’s like the perverse rules you hear about in prisons; where everyone has killed someone, but the one that killed a child; well, in a sea of unforgivable wrongness, this is somehow more unforgivably wrong.
Now, we probably shouldn’t be too smug about this. Firstly, football is unusual in being so loyal to its location, most sports represent small groups of people, some, like cycling, represent almost nothing at all apart from the whims of millionaires and sponsors. And a recent report suggested that newer fans prefer football as events - big team playing other big teams rather than your team taking on the world. Club loyalty is on the slide; in 20 years clubs may move around seeking the best demographic for their brand. It happens in American Football.
The point stands, however, basically London Welsh was never going to work with Oxford United because it committed the ultimate sin by simply by making the move.
Judging another club by football’s standards is a bit arrogant; it assumes football is right. From my perspective, although the arrangement with Welsh was uncomfortable, it was also largely irrelevant. Apart from in one way; the pitch. Undoubtedly the pitch impacted our results. Chris Wilder gained a reputation for tedious football when he had to focus on pragmatic rather than attractive football, Alfie Potter’s form collapsed in the bog Michael Appleton didn’t seem to learn that his principles were an irrelevance when the ball doesn’t roll true.
Last season was the worst I can remember in terms of entertainment and a lot of that was down to the pitch; it couldn’t cope with overuse. The patches of mud and bog were synonymous with rugby, which is concentrates around certain areas. But, in a sense, aside from moving the club to capitalise on the money available to them, this particular aspect wasn’t Welsh’s fault. They needed a facility, Kassam had one and rented it out even though it wasn't fit for purpose. Should we be surprised from a slum landlord? Perhaps not.
So in a sense, this isn’t London Welsh’s fault - insomuch it's not the fault of their fans - it's the fault of their hapless owners who sold the club’s soul in order to move, and Kassam’s poor service to his tenants. Now they’ve gone I hope they can return to what they originally were, serving Welsh exiles in London. I hope they thrive doing that, it's a very noble cause, but also, I hope they learn never to do it again.
Saturday, June 06, 2015
The first month of the summer has been more exciting than the season itself. The euphemistically termed ‘retained list’ was released, which could just as easily be the redundancy list. That’s what it is. No major shocks there, I don’t think. There rarely are with these things as it simply acts as a method to discard the shrapnel of the squad. Those who are getting game-time are usually quite happy to get another couple of years. There’s always one or two that hang in the balance, in this case it appears to be Andy Whing.
I remember once telling someone that Barry Quinn wouldn’t be offered a contract in the summer and he started treating me like Ewoks treat C3P0. But it stood to reason; Quinn had been out for the season and it was fairly obvious the club wasn’t going to risk the guarantee of a couple more years. Same with Whing, he knows, we know, the club knows that he probably hasn’t got much left in the tank. I hope the club can find him something.
Wright, I’m pleased about, I think he gets a bad rap. He broods, but commands the respect of the squad. Just don’t ask him to play like Johan Cruyff as Appleton tried to do earlier in the season. Rose's retention I’m less convinced about; his late season form was essential for our surge to safety, but it was out of character with the rest of his time at the club.
Then, unexpectedly, Kemar Roofe signs on a three year deal. I say unexpectedly, because I was expecting one of those long fruitless slogs, excuses about him being on holiday, or in the toilet, or on his way to sign before appearing in a Chesterfield shirt or some such. Mark Watson did it, Matt Green did it, surely Kemar Roofe was going to do it. But no, Michael Appleton wanted his business done early and that’s exactly what he’s done.
Roofe’s signature means we already have an interesting mix of strikers for next year; Roofe himself is the creative type, Hoban a battering ram who, I hope, will benefit from a proper pre-season. Hylton will let no-one down with his effort (although, as much as he was obviously the only choice as player of the season, it will be interesting to see whether he replicates his goalscoring next season. Goals haven’t been his strong point previously, last season's total was a quarter of his entire decade long career haul). Finally we’ve got a goal poacher in James Roberts. As a mix of strikers, that’s as good as you can get in this division. Men for all seasons.
The signing of Ryan Taylor, then, was a bit of a surprise. In some ways, he is reminder of the risk of getting carried away with all of this. On one hand, he scored 10 goals last year, which is a respectable return at this level and would have proved handy had they been for us. He’s also a strong target man, which is often useful at this level.
However, on the other hand, I know about him because he looks like Dave Kitson. And he used to play for Portsmouth, who look like a Premier League team, when in reality, they are still wrestling the failures of their past, like everyone languishing in these pits of hell.
In other words, it’s a signing that looks like Dave Kitson from the Premier League, but is, in fact Ryan Taylor from League 2. A rough facsimile of something far better. That’s not to say that Taylor isn’t welcome or can be a success, but it’s easy to get carried away with how things immediately appear.
Of course, one of the challenges is getting the ball to these players in the first place, so the signing of Liam Sercombe seems like a solid choice. I don't know much about him, but as a product of Paul Tisdale, he's been well schooled and he's knows how to get out of this league; which is, let's face it, what it's all about.
Wednesday, May 06, 2015
The way I see it, we only have a certain capacity to know and understand people. A handful become friends because we know enough about them to enhance their strengths and suppress their weaknesses. Everyone else is distilled into a relatively narrow profile out of convenience - there are bad people, good people, clever people and idiots. And in almost every case, they are far more complex and interesting, and probably well intentioned, we just don't have time to get our heads around their nuances.
So my general position with regards to Michael Appleton is that he has made his position as Oxford manager almost untenable, and at times completely untenable, this season. But, that’s not to say I don’t warm to him when I hear him on the radio, or that he’s not a good coach (which is different to being a good manager), or that he could turn it around. And, being in the presence of a man ordering a tea, croissant and bottle of water on a Friday morning, like a normal human being, does make me feel a bit guilty about having doubts and dark thoughts about him as a football manager.
So, perhaps its time to be more reflective. The season is over, and we can finally take stock. Improbably, we ended up just one point behind our total from last year, although we’ve dropped five places in the process. Relegation, which sat like a shadow for large chunks of the season, ended up a gaping 20 points away. It’s not been great, but it’s not apocalyptic either. How odd.
Our late season surge helped, of course, we’re 5th in the form table over the last six games, with only the top 3 and Stevenage (who finished 6th) playing better. This has lightened the mood amongst Oxford fans, and it’s easy to assume that we’ve turned the corner. We are eternal optimists when it comes to turning corners. We have to be. I understand the feeling because, as I stood in the queue in Costa, I didn’t want Appleton to choke on his pastry; that's a change of mood for me.
But, if we’ve turned the corner, then it’s only to the point of where we ended last season; the path to real success is remains uncertain. Is our recent form due to a quirk of having stumbled across enough players with enough form to dig us out of the hole we were in? Roofe was the catalyst to our revival, and there’s little guarantee he, or someone like him, will be back. Danny Rose has been a central character demonstrating a form that he’s barely shown in his previous stints at the club.
It's not unreasonable to look at our form and suggest we're in the ascendency, but then look back to 2007 when, after some mediocre results, Darren Patterson suddenly hit a patch of 5 wins on the trot to close the season with fans expecting promotion 12 months later. We thought that was a turned corner, but, we returned for the new season and to the moderate form of before. It is still the most likely scenario now; that our form next season will be no better than this season. There's nothing apart from blind optimism that contradicts that. Blind optimism has it's place; it sells season tickets, for example.
Bluntly, it has taken Michael Appleton 43 players to find 16 or 17 that can perform anywhere near the level we need, and for a period of 10-15 games. That’s a very low hit rate for a comparatively short period of time. He will argue mitigating circumstances, and he may be right, but we need that player conversion rate to be much better and for the form to be sustained for much longer. No manager is successful with every signing, but he needs to be somewhere around, perhaps, 30-35 players to sustain a successful squad of 25. Whether he can do that or not, we simply don’t know, we just hope.
Which is the reason why, if we were going to get rid of Appleton, it should have been done a long time ago. There have been countless opportunities. My personal low was our capitulation against Southend. Others cite the men versus boys encounters with Shrewsbury, and most recently the abject defeat to Hartlepool when things looked really bleak. Even our penultimate home game against Northampton was a terrible display. I would have had no hesitation in supporting his removal at any of those points and probably more. At least that would have given a new man the opportunity to assess what he had at his disposal and plan for the future.
However, if they were to do it now, then we are in no better position than we were last season with a new manager coming in to a squad he has little knowledge of and even less opportunity to assess. It would mean that, once again, we'd be sorting the squad out while the season was already underway, and probably losing ground in the process.
But, as much as our recent form has pacified many of the masses, there is no doubt the risk of failure next season remains high. But, it is no higher than bringing in a new man and starting again, again.
So, we might as well back Appleton to turn it round.If that sounds grudging, it is; it's been a poor season. But I don't dislike him to the point of wanting to get rid of him as a punishment. That's not the point of changing manager.
He needs a good summer, and it sounds like the club intend to give him that, and he needs a good start next season. Any excuses of building for the future or operating in a difficult environment won't hold water if we find ourselves sitting in mid-table or lower come September.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Both sides - team and fans - were well intentioned even if they sometimes struggled to strike the right tone. The team performed better, really well, even, with a display as satisfying as any at home this season. We, in turn, leapt to our feet in a series of generally undeserved ovations every time there was an opportunity. It seemed out of keeping with what had gone before, but there was a general feeling that it had been tough for everyone and that there was still something in the relationship to fight for.
Just before the end we were asked - told - to stay in our seats so the players could complete their lap of honour. This was the equivalent of having make-up sex, which the magazines insist is the best way to end an argument even though its more likely to leave you feeling slightly used and degraded as you churn over in your head unresolved issues and things that still need to be said. In the end, most feigned a headache or tiredness and sloped off early, leaving the gratuitous love-in to those masochistic enough to go to Newport next week.
The atmosphere, as games like this always are, was of like a coach returning from a stag do. Some nursed the broken bones, ripped clothes and blackened eyes of the night, a handful sang gustily as though it were still peak time. The majority snoozed through the entire thing just longing for the end.
The post-game post-mortem was all about the ‘five or six’ players we needed to mount a challenge next year. It’s always ‘five or six’ a number large enough to show a degree of displeasure, but small enough not to appear too scathing. If challenged to venture where those changes are needed, it’s usually ‘a defender, someone in midfield and a striker’; a message to ‘just change stuff’ without getting too personal.
The assumption is that the very best players will stay but, as Jerome Sale said, it’s all very well saying that Kemar Roofe should be signed, but there are 70 odd teams between West Brom and Oxford; it's quite conceivable that at least one offering more money or better prospects or both, will come in for him.
We're creeping towards a point where the season might actually look, on the surface, respectable. But, perhaps a few weeks of release from the relentlessness of the last 10 months and the anesthetic of an end-of-season win will give a different perspective. There's still work to be done.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
What was largely missed by Alex McDonald’s last minute equaliser against Northampton was that it ensured we were mathematically safe, although it was generally accepted that reaching 50 points against York was more significant.
The win over Tranmere was the first game where the pressure was off. We could look at the table without fear and assess the damage of the season. But, it revealed something different to what I was expecting. If we take maximum points from our final games, we will be just one point behind last year’s total.
How did that happen when this year feels like a disaster? I thought I’d look at the stats in way that absolutely guarantees you a girlfriend.
The most obvious point is that winning our last two games remains a huge challenge. Of all the combinations of results that are possible from these games, 6 points is the least likely. But even losing both and being seven points behind last year – in a season where we dropped our opening nine points - would be a surprise. Was it all down to a terrible start?
No, our current points total buys less in terms of position than last year. In 2014 62 points was enough for 8th this year with two games to play it's 9th, and by the end of season, that will be lower.
The division is less concentrated than last year; the team at the top have more points and the team at the bottom less. So while the better teams have improved we’ve largely stood still, thereby relatively speaking, falling behind.
|Points accumulated at each position in the division 2014 and 2015|
In addition, there’s the question of the ‘elite’ within the division. Last year there was a 10 point gap between York in seventh (and in the play-offs) and us in 8th. This year that ‘selection’ seems to be around 5th where there’s a gap of some 9 points between Southend and Stevenage. The top teams are more consistent this year.
If you look at the points chase over the season it’s obvious that the opening games of the year did lots of damage whereas last year it was the opposite. We took 9 points in three games from last year, a figure that took 10 games to accumulate this year. After that, we haven’t recovered.
|Oxford United points accumulated points 2014 and 2015|
But, that’s not the whole story, while we dropped points alarmingly at the start of the season in comparison to last year that leveled off as we found our feet. Then the gap widened, at one point, we were 20 points behind our 2014 run-chase. So, yes, we started badly, but we also got worse.
|Difference between points accumulated in 2014 and 2015|
If you look at our form, this starts to show where the real problems have occurred this year and perhaps why it feels so miserable. Taking our results in a rolling batch of 5 games at a time, thereby reducing the impact of freak results, on four occasions last year we found ourselves in a run which accumulated 10 or more points over five games; this year we haven’t achieved that once. Our performances this year have felt pedestrian because we haven’t, at any point, got out of second gear. Although there were fluctuations in form in 2014, at least it was punctuated by moments of joy.
|Form on a rolling 5 game basis 2014 and 2015|
Most noticeable from last year is our end of season collapse. The last blue peak coincides with a game against Wimbledon at the beginning of February – Mickey Lewis’ second game in charge. After that the rot set in and we never recovered, but, as we all know, Chris Wilder’s departure was a good thing.
Although that might distort things a little, it is noticeable this year how much our form has generally picked up since the Mansfield match. What’s the significance? Well, perhaps that was the first game in which we consciously recognised the fight we were in, in relation to relegation. We could no longer promise a halcyon future, we had to finally deal with the here and now. And also, the team on that day was one that you’d broadly recognise as the team we play now – stability appears to have paid dividends.
|Accumulation of points at home 2014 and 2015|
Getting even more detailed perhaps reveals the nub of the problem related to our innate misery. Despite our generally improved form towards the back end of this season, our home performances have trailed off badly since Christmas. As we all know, last year wasn’t good at home at the best of times, but this year it’s worse. After our slow start, things generally picked up and for a period performances were broadly similar to last year. Then, at Christmas, our form drifted off. If trying to play passing football on a deteriorating pitch isn’t a factor, then I’d be surprised.
Given that most Oxford fans witness most of our games at home, as lauded as our away following is, this trailing off gives the season a disproportionate sense of failure. Which is significant, because even though Michael Appleton may have a case to suggest that things aren’t as bad as they might initially appear, the ticket-buying fans are unlikely to see it that way.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Those, like me, who supported Chris Wilder throughout his time at the club and will continue to defend his legacy are labelled as living in the past, as hankering for a time that never truly existed.
This is unfair, any support for Wilder is not revisionism, there were games during his time which left me giddy with adrenaline, feelings an adult male deadened by life’s trudge are no longer supposed to feel. Before yesterday’s game I was trying to think of Wilder’s top 10 Oxford moments and got to 17 candidates before giving up; everything from Wembley to my favourite moment; the last minute goal against Wrexham in 2009. Most of the Kassam Stadium’s greatest moments have been under Wilder with perhaps only Louis Jefferson’s goal against Swindon threatening to break the hegemony.
Being featured in great moments at the Kassam might feel like winning the world’s tallest dwarf competition, so beyond that, aside from Denis Smith’s half-season aberration 19 years ago, which lead to a thrilling last ditch promotion via wins over Swindon and Wycombe, you have to go back to THOSE years in the mid-eighties for anything to compare to the period under Wilder.
Nor is it a pining for his return, I think everyone accepts, as he said, that the bus was driving itself by the time Wilder left. We were chipping away at the same problems with the same tools. Wilder didn’t have the support to develop as a manager, the club didn’t have the money to help him develop. It was time to move on for all concerned, it was only a matter of when and how that would come about. An increasingly delicate game of chess being played behind the scenes meant a handful of Ian Lenagan missed steps – his failure to back or sack Wilder in 2013 and allowing him to talk to Portsmouth a few months later – opened a door to an inevitable conclusion.
What I do pine for is what was demonstrated by Northampton on Tuesday night; organisation, structure, commitment, purpose. Basic tenets on which teams perform and in League 2 can actually be enough to help you succeed. The sort of stuff you only miss when it’s gone.
It is difficult to describe how bad we actually were, but rather than dazzling Wilder with a hybrid of tiki-taka and Brazillian showmanship, it was the Cobblers who passed the ball over our rutted pitch, around and through us for long periods while we stood around waiting for someone to take control of the situation.
Wilder spent most of the night hidden away in his dugout, as he did in his last game as our manager, rather than at the edge of the technical area. He left Alan Knill to bark instructions out to their players.
This was an illustration of the man and perhaps explains why he frustrates people. He is, at heart, an introvert; treading a precarious line between wanting recognition and hiding away from it. He wants to be successful, believes in his abilities, but doesn’t want to become the focus of the attention that success inevitably brings. He fears being labelled as a failure or having weaknesses exposed, because that too brings unwanted attention. As a result introverts tend to work extra hard trying to stay one-step ahead of a dragon of their own making. In a sense, not being liked is a more comfortable position.
Those who don’t understand that mindset can find their subject awkward and difficult to like. Introverts appear diffident and scratchy whereas this is really just a method of avoiding talking about themselves too much. But, players respond because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of the wrath of their managers’ anxieties. When compared to the cosy comfort of someone satisfied in their own abilities, who believes success will come from the osmosis of philosophical belief, there really is only one type of person you want in charge of your football team.