Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mags-nificent


To some extent Chris Maguire at Oxford was the equivalent of a torrid passionate holiday romance. Intense and enjoyable, but short-lived and unsustainable. That's partly because of the man himself, a man who thrives at being on the edge, but not somebody who you'd rely on to pay the mortgage.

There's a reason why Maguire's not playing at a higher level; because as good as he can be, at some point it is very likely he's going to fall off the edge and either damage himself, or worse, others.

He couldn't be Chris Maguire without being Chris Maguire. If he was a dependable pro, we wouldn't have signed him because either he wouldn't have been good enough or he'd have been playing at a higher level. Michael Appleton found a space for him to operate in which allowed him to thrive while at the same time not scupper the team. Whether that could be sustained, particularly under new management, is difficult to tell; at what point would Maguire outgrow his space or simply not fit into it anymore?

Maguire's talent was undoubted and there were moments during his time at Oxford where he was thrillingly exciting to watch. But, as a rule, I'm not that keen on mavericks, they're fun at first, but because to be who they are requires them to first feed their own ego and id. I once spent an evening with a fairly prominent Oxford legend, at first it was great, hearing stories and generally having a laugh, but as time went on things became not so much darker, just increasingly tedious. There's a point at which what makes someone good also makes them unbearable. On the pitch the team will often, eventually, suffer when these people are allowed to dominate. That's either because they blow themselves apart just at the point you need them most, or they destabilise the team. Look at someone like Nigel Jemson, a regular goalscorer, a pain in the backside for opponents, but one who was also happy to publicly berate his team mates for not passing to him.

Of course, the fans love players like Maguire because they act like fans would if they had the ability to play professionally. In the past, that might have been because they could drink a skinful - John Durnin or David Rush. In the internet age, fan favourites are the football equivalent of online trolls - Danny Hylton or Chris Maguire. Sometimes that has a positive impact on the team, because it would defuse stressful situations, sometimes it explodes in your face.

Take, for example, Maguire's trolling of Swindon last season, he scored the goals that gave us the win at home, but Swindon were particularly poor and although the showmanship may have added sheen of the victory, did he do something that others couldn't? I'm not sure, I think we'd have beaten them anyway, someone else would have scored, but they wouldn't have been as flamboyant about it.

Then take his role in one of the goals against Fleetwood at home where we needed him to be more on the money, he lost the ball unnecessarily at the corner flag trying to play his way out of trouble, which cost us points. In terms of recovering the four points we need to make the play-offs, that could have been one, maybe three that were thrown away.

The point is that although Maguire was a fan favourite, and he was exciting to watch, was his contribution efficient? Maybe not as efficient as we'd like to think; that's why Maguire is Maguire who signed for Bury and not for someone higher. One of the characteristics of teams promoted last year was their ruthless and unrelenting efficiency. So Maguire's departure is sad because it strangles more personality out of the squad and club, but it might just squeeze a few more points out of the season.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - To Hull and back


Saturday 15 July
They don’t have sun in Hull, which is why they cowered at the thought of what the great fireball in the sky might do to them in Portugal. As players huddled in groups looking to the heavens saying things like ‘is it me or is that thing getting closer?’ Wes ‘tap in’ Thomas, scored two trademark close range goals in a 2-1 win. Our unbeaten Portugese adventure all but confirming our promotion to the Championship next May.

Monday 17 July
Professional grudge magnet Chris Wilder tabled a £500,000 bid for John Lundstram. Lunny has played over a 100 attractive free-flowing games for Oxford in two years, so it might be a relief to take a break from that for a year or two. Twitter was disgusted at the derisory fee on the basis that Kyle Walker's just signed for Manchester City for £54m. Using a not entirely clear logic involving comparing apples with bananas, Lunny must be worth at least, depending on who you ask, half or twice that much. This is true; HS2 is costing £42bn and that can't ding a forty yard crossfield pass beyond Rochdale's defence for shit.

Tuesday 18 July
The Oxford Mail did an interview with PClot in which he tells us that he likes heavy metal, full backs bombing on and that he would choose the Flammulated owl if he ever went to Hogwarts, or something. He wouldn't reveal the most famous person on his mobile phone which means it's either Garry Monk's mum or several prominent members of ISIS.

Yes, it was that quiet a day until it was announced that we'd signed someone called Xemi from Barcelona, who appears to be a Spanish Danny Rose or the Hispanic Yemi depending on which Twitter joke you prefer. Xemi claims the move is a dream come true, as a boy back in Catalonia he idolised Matt Murphy and was teased by his friends for trying to emulate his hero by missing open goals and generally getting the blame for everything.

Wednesday 19 July
Apart from professionally organised defences, the most notable absence in the 3-4 goal monsoon against Brentford was the absence of John Lundstram. Afterwards, the club all but confirmed that he's heading for Sheffield United. So riled by Michael Appleton's claim that Oxford were the best League 2 team in 2016, Chris Wilder seems to be going all R Kelly and luring Oxford players into an abusive sex cult.

Thursday 20 July
It's the day they're calling Oxford's Hiroshima. Not only is Lundstram going, but the player who nobody has heard hide nor hare of since May and applauded the crowd against Shrewsbury in a gesture which screamed 'Bye I'm signing for another club' actually then had the audacity to sign for another club. Yep, Chris Maguire has gone to Bury. It's OK fellas, we survived Danny Hylton going to Luton, we'll get through this.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - bras, booze and Boro


Saturday 8 July
Eskimos have fifty words for snow, which is nothing compared to the ways Oxford City have found to tell people they have a new pitch. It was carpet burns aplenty as their older, more sophisticated cousins traveled to Court Farm on Saturday to play a team in blue and white hoops on a plastic pitch  for the first time since QPR in the 1980s. Those were simpler times, of course, when the name Simon Stainrod wasn't considered funny. Still, a 3-0 win was a satisfactory way of starting pre-season, although as we know with friendlies, it's not the result that counts but more what we learn from the exercise, which, in this case, is precisely nothing.

Monday 10 July
Fearful of being subjected to foreign muck, PClot has packed as much patatas bravas as he can carry and has taken the team to Portugal. This is the trip where the Yellow Army march in their espadrilles to colonise small balconies of holiday apartments with their Oxford flags and then put the pictures on Twitter. Last year Chris Maguire and Joe Rothwell appeared mid-way through the week like two members of a stag party who'd disappeared one night and had an experience that they will never talk of again. Faz reckons there may be similar signings during the week, but let's face it, Faz is on holiday and is already quite drunk.

Tuesday 11 July
Twitter is alight with fans' pictures of ice cold lagers set against the cobalt blue skylines as well as official pictures of the players glistening in sweat wearing those tight bras which appear to be the fashion these days. I guess just because they're sports people doesn't mean they don't want to feel feminine and desirable. In what is increasingly looking like a campaign to make Aaron Martin feel as inadequate as possible, former Wolves defender, Mike Williamson is wearing a bra with the rest of the squad this week.


Wednesday 12 July
Talk about Portugese football immediately evokes memories of the past; names drift through the air with a vividness that you can almost taste; names like Eusebio, Benfica and, above all, Middlesbõrõúgh. For those who don't know, Middlesbõrõúgh is a small fishing town just along the coast from Albufiera famous for its fresh mackerel (Note to editor: check facts before publishing please). I don't know much about their team, but I assume it's full of moustachioed ice-cream sellers and waiters with an unhealthy interest in young female tourists, which makes the 0-0 draw all the more disappointing.

Earlier in the day, James Henry jetted in to do a Chris Maguire and signed after his release from Wolves. According to FIFA, Henry is a winger with a total IGS 1789, whatever that means. He plays down the opposite flank to Marvin Johnson. Having two flying wingers makes for an exciting prospect in the future, and when I say future, I mean the near future before Johnson is sold next month.

Thursday 13 July
Not that these pre-season overseas jaunts are a Disneyland version of the Austrian original in 2015 but I'm beginning to think I should organise a pop-up Clumsy's every year serving steins of lager in lederhosen. The latest tradition, between mini-golf and gutsy renditions of Sweet Caroline, are signings. If this year's Chris Maguire was James Henry, then this year's Joe Rothwell is Dwight Tiendalli. We now have more defensive assets than South Korea when Kim Jong Un has been on the bourbon.    

Saturday, July 08, 2017

George Lawrence’s Shorts – the week


Saturday 2nd July
Frank Lampard, Patrick Kluivert, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink; sounds like a line-up of pundits for the BBC’s coverage of the World Cup. In fact it was the candidate list for Oxford United's next manager. Despite this stellar line-up, the club finally announced former Leeds and Swansea assistant hombre, Pep Clotet as its new manager. Everyone wished him well, including his former boss, Garry Monk, who is most famous for playing five games on loan at the Manor in 2001.

Monday 3rd July
Allegedly, Clotet started work, although there was no media unveiling; no picture of him holding a shirt, no scarf snaffled from the club shop, not even a branded football in sight. Instead, it seems, he was shown the toilets, given the code for the photocopier and left to read the health and safety manual while people working in the ticket office eyed him with suspicion.

Tuesday 4th July
Day 2 and PClot remains under-wraps – today Faz took him to Sainsbury’s at Heyford Hill to buy his lunch – olives and grilled vegetables from the deli for Pep, triple BLT on white bread and a can of Coke for Faz - his wife will kill him if she finds out. Meanwhile, Oxford City manager Mark Jones is excited to be playing against the new manager, who he’s admired him ever since he heard about him about a week ago.

Wednesday 5th July
He talks! Clotet is finally unveiled as manager to a panting media corp. Flanked by ubiquitous media titan Chris Williams and with Faz in a pair of disconcerting shorts in the audience, Darryl Eales was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the trippy carpet design in the conference centre aggravates his vertigo. Williams did his job, aside from making it look a bit like we were revealing a new left-back signing from our Conference days, ensuring Clotet referred to beating Swindon seven times in a row, not including the Checkatrade, but including the JPT (aka NITCBITJPT). Fans were in rapture at Pep’s entirely unscripted off-the-cuff remark. Here’s a man who has clearly been following our progress with close interest. We await his analysis of Wayne Biggins’ ill-fated short career spearheading the Oxford attack in 1995.

Thursday 6th July
In the undeniably sexually charged sado-masochistic relationship between the club and its fan, when things go a little too far you just have to say the word ‘Chris Maguire’ and the nipple clamps are taken off and the electric charge on your anal probe is turned down to a tolerable level. Conversely, you just have to say Sam Deering and your genitals get tied up in garden bind and you’ll be racially abused, some nurses like it, though presumably not many. Pep’s been discussing players with the club’s highly secretive ‘recruitment department’. Imagine a sitting of the Jedi council, but with Maurice Evans and Brian Talbot as holograms. Dr X, the recruitment team’s sinister overlord, sitting in his underground lair shouted ‘Chris Maguire’ and our faltering summer of recruitment was resolved, joy unrestrained via Twitter although the exact phrase may have been ‘Chris Maguire’s still not answering his phone’.

During PClot’s close analysis of our seven-in-a-row (NITCBITJPT), Donegal's finest, Jonathan O'Bika’s talents caught his eye. The more tribal Oxford fans were questioning whether the Spaniard knew us at all by enticing someone to cross the A415 at Kingston Bagpuize, but those who are getting their knickers in a twist about the move are forgetting the success of our last Swindon convert, Medhi Kerrouche.

Friday 7th July
The away kit is revealed and it’s black. This was predicted by teen soothsayer Oxbible months ago, but it’s not the reboot of the home shirt he predicted. This puts paid to several jokes I’d pre-prepared for the today. The one about Status Quo was particularly good. Still, it’s the first black kit since 2005/6; a celebration of that auspicious year in which we were relegated from the Football League. Ah, happy days.

Monday, July 03, 2017

It's Pep


After what feels like weeks of speculation, we finally have a new manager.

A good appointment? Time will tell. A logical appointment? That's the most you can hope for in any recruitment. One way of looking at it is to assess those who didn't get the job, and why.

The English manager - Alan Pardew
Clotet's background is more as a coach than a manager, Darryl Eales knows that he has a successful infrastructure in place already, what he wants is a key cog in the machine, not the machine itself. The English tradition of an all-consuming team manager, like Alan Pardew, has become increasingly outdated. The issue is not so much about the manager, but what might happen after he leaves. Look at Nottingham Forest after Clough, Manchester United after Ferguson or us after Wilder. Despite standing by his side for 5 years, it seemed that Mickey Lewis hadn’t even caught onto the idea that James Constable was a goalscorer, such was the degree of control Wilder had. The manager model promotes rollercoaster of revolution after revolution as new styles, backroom staff are introduced. What Eales wants to do is build on the Appleton legacy and benefit from the corporate knowledge that already exists in the club.

It is easy to slip into the idea that a Catalan called Pep has somehow been born with the Barca gene, but there's more to it than that. The idea of the manager being a cog in a corporate structure is much more common on the continent. The Barca gene, if such a thing exists, results from a long period of cultural stability which can be traced back to Johan Cruyff and the Ajax team of the 1970s. If we can establish a similar rolling programme, then we'll be in really good shape.

Facebook, which is beginning to make Yellows Forum look like the Ecclesia from ancient Athens, lamented the idea of a foreign coach. I understand the whimsical idea of English teams being managed by English managers, but for the club to limit its search to less than one percent of the globe seems a bit like complaining that you can’t buy mackerel at the butchers.

The superstar - Frank Lampard
For a period, Frank Lampard was the name on everyone’s lips. There’s something seductive about attracting a name like Lampard. It says something about your club as he offers an instant media profile. But, as many bankrupt TV reality stars have found out, media coverage is rarely an end in itself. The risk with Lampard is that although he’s played at the highest level, does he remember what got him there in the first place? There are stories of Glen Hoddle at Swindon getting frustrated that his players couldn’t spray forty yard balls across the pitch like he could. His ability had become so subconscious and natural, he couldn’t break it down to the point where he could teach it to others. While Lampard is generally considered to be one of the more intelligent ex-professionals out there, there are far too many cases of those with the most ability off the field, floundering off it.

Lampard might like to consider the route Patrick Kluivert has taken since giving up the game. His name appeared from left-field shortly before Clotet was announced. It was probably the result of a large speculative bet rather than too much concrete evidence, but at least Kluivert has done his time as a coach. It might have been a surprise to see him at the Kassam, it would have been a logical selection.

The journeyman manager? - Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is both a former international and foreign, but his managerial career currently teeters between upcoming coach and journeyman manager. At Burton, he sustained the momentum which took them out of League 2, but at QPR he looked more limited. It's unfair to instantly label Hasselbaink a hired gun, but we don't want to become just a notch on anyone's managerial bedpost.

Clotet's managerial career is complicated; he's 40 but has been managing and coaching for 17 years. But, this appears to be his first proper management role. Some point to failures elsewhere as a concern, but it's difficult to tell whether they're comparable to the situation at Oxford. In the end, as we found with Michael Appleton, it's the mix of the right person in the right place which defines success. Darryl Eales should be able to give Clotet the environment he needs to be a success.

If Darryl Eales wants to sustain success at the club, then his coaching appointments should follow a similar pattern to the club's recent player recruitment successes. Find someone on an upward trajectory, utilise their skills while you can, accept that they will eventually move on and be ready to replace.

The general regard for Clotet among Leeds fans seems to be that he very much fits the profile of the man he's replacing at Oxford. It is easy to think when starting a new job that you've been brought to fix something broken, but that isn't the case with us, what we do works, Clotet is there to build on that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Appleton Era


If there’s one thing that characterised Michael Appleton’s time at Oxford United, it was that it was never, in any way, normal. His arrival in the summer of 2014 felt like he was the henchman in a hostile takeover. Talk of new owners had dominated that summer in the same way that it has this, and there was little surprise when it was announced that the club was in new hands. What was a surprise was the aggressive change that Darry Eales, Mark Ashton and the newly appointed coach Michael Appleton wanted to make. Particularly when there was a rival bid from the more palatable Stewart Donald on the table.

The signs weren’t good; Ashton had built a terrible reputation while CEO at Watford and Appleton was synonymous with chaos. Eales was generally quiet, but he was an outsider and a money man, and that often brings suspicions. Appleton's management CV read: Portsmouth, Blackburn, Blackpool, three clubs that had been suicidally mismanaged. To find himself in that situation once was unfortunate, but three times was suspicious. Was he simply the stooge who specialised in being the footballing face of an organised crime syndicate?

With his sleeve tattoos, arms like tree trunks and piercing icy glare, he didn’t look like a football manager. He was neither a gnarly weather beaten obsessive like Sam Allardyce or Chris Wilder, nor the metrosexual cosmopolitan like Pep Guardiola or Paul Tidsdale. In short, it was difficult to see how Appleton planned to run a football club while perfecting his chiselled physique. Unless he was planning to take his pay packet, pump iron and let the club crumble to dust.

There was depth, however, Appleton was studying for a Masters degree and had learned his trade under Roy Hodgson at West Brom. He had been labelled one of the most promising coaches in the country, but we've had promising coaches before.  

At first it looked like a heist, Gary Waddock mercilessly thrown out the window, Mark Ashton playing benevolent dictator with his vacuous PR and the stony faced Appleton glaring at anyone who might question him. There was no doubt Appleton was single-minded, he'd previously won £1m compensation for a career-ending injury, but his steadfast demeanor bordered on arrogant, particularly as he struggled to back up his claims that he was doing things the right way with evidence.

If the takeover was chaotic, the following season was more so. There was very little to suggest that Appleton was implementing anything competent, let alone special. Dave Kitson, whose paths had crossed at Portsmouth, retired almost instantly. The first four games of the season resulted in four defeats and Appleton went on to play 44 players. Nearly half played less than 10 games, some barely lasted 90 minutes before being moved on.

There were belligerent claims that they were trying to implement a new DNA and that there was no Plan B. But Plan A wasn’t working; whatever it was he was trying to do, it couldn't be done on a potato patch pitch with a constant merry-go-round of players. The only thing that wasn't churning was the management. At one point Oxford were the lowest placed club in the Football League not to have changed manager that season and fans struggled to know why the trapdoor wasn't opening. Was the pits the 3-2 home defeat to 10 man Southend after leading twice or the 0-2 defeat to the apparently doomed Hartlepool? Maybe the 1-5 TV defeat to Cambridge? The performances of Danny Hylton, ironically Gary Waddock's only signing, was the one thing that kept the lynch mobs at bay.

Few would have given Appleton the time to sort through the mess, but slowly came moments of stability; Alex MacDonald and Joe Skarz signed, then a young midlander from his old club West Brom; Kemar Roofe. Appleton had hit paydirt, he’d steadied the ship and managed to secure a Championship level game-changer for League 2 strugglers. After a quiet start, we headed to promotion-seeking Wycombe where Roofe grabbed a brace in a searing performance that set us on our way to an unbeaten end of season run. Winning the final three games, against all odds, we finished only a handful of points behind our previous season’s total.

The club careered into summer full of optimism, the new owners found their groove, new credit card style season tickets were introduced, season ticket incentives, social media was a whirl, a deferential celebratory new kit marking 30 years since the Milk Cup (with the away kit celebrating 20 years of our last league promotion) was launched. On the field, Liam Sercombe was signed, George Baldock, John Lundstram, and, against all odds, Kemar Roofe was brought in permanently. Then the club announced a pre-season trip to Austria.

Oxford fans’ suppressed anxiety about their club was released amidst the positivity, Appleton was given a new lease of life; his team, his way. But, at the same time, a large chunk of the club was being given back to the fans. The stands became a theatre of colour and noise and the players responded. The Austrian adventure, with a forgettable 0-0 draw with Weiner Neustadt, galvanised fans and club in a way that had been absent for decades.

The new season got off to a moderate start with a draw against Crawley. A 4-0 win over Championship Brentford and recovering from 0-2 against Luton to draw in injury time fired up the engines. Appleton had found his DNA. He was never a strong tactician and would often get undone by more wiley managers such as his nemesis Chris Wilder or Phil Brown. But if he couldn't out-think other teams, Appleton would simply outplay them. It meant that every game was a game to be won, there was no squad rotation or prioritisation. No smart tactical nuance to his selections. There was the demolition of Swindon in the JPT, the destruction of Stevenage away, a gritty takedown of Notts County on New Year's Day. We scored three or more away from home on seven occasions and were the highest goalscorers in the country.

With progress on all fronts we were rewarded with a third round FA Cup tie with Swansea. On a bright, fresh wintery Sunday, Appleton had the opportunity to test his philosophy against one of the biggest clubs in the country. Containment wasn't an option, trying to stop them play didn't compute; so we simply attacked. The result was spectacular and Appleton was plastered all over the national press wanting to know how he'd transformed this bumbling club into one that played like (and beat) the Premier League elite. His reputation was restored.

The season ploughed on, four days after Swansea, we beat Millwall away in the 1st leg of the JPT semi-final all but guaranteeing a trip to Wembley. It was a good week. Despite the intensity and distractions, we were picking up points in the league too. Wembley was a giddy joy, we took the lead and looked good for the win, but Barnsley stormed back. Defeat was, well, no great loss. This was already one of the greatest seasons in Oxford's history.

Despite holding a top three place all season, promotion was still on a knife-edge; a win at Carlisle - another landmark victory in a season of landmark victories - set up a must-win final game against Wycombe. After a nervy start, Chey Dunkley - an archetypal Appleton product - headed a goal to relieve the pressure and we stormed into League 1. Oxford had been re-born in a style many envied.

Appleton's great strength was his ability to find players limited by their surroundings and release them to do what they did best. He constructed a compact but high quality squad mined from Premier League youth teams and the Scottish Premier League. Nearly everyone he came into contact with thrived, Chris Maguire and Danny Hylton, both perennial misfits elsewhere suddenly became integral to the squad, Premier League prospects got games, in front of crowds, and their stock grew exponentially in the process.

Kemar Roofe was sold to Leeds for £4m, Callum O'Dowda to Bristol City for £1.5m. Appleton could show people like Joe Rothwell and Ryan Ledson, Marvin Johnson and Curtis Nelson that Oxford was a hotbed, somewhere they could develop and fulfill their potential.

Acclimatising to League 1 with a reconstructed squad took time. There was another memorable win over Swindon and a giant-killing in the League Cup against Birmingham. By Christmas things were ticking over nicely. An FA Cup win over Newcastle proved that Swansea was no fluke, a second win over Swindon at the County Ground cemented our position as the dominant force in that particularly abusive relationship.

The season was one of consolidation, but it didn't stop us putting the frighteners up Middlesborough at the Riverside, playing 63 games or progressing again in the unloved EFL Trophy. Suddenly there was another Wembley appearance to attend to.

If cracks did start to appear, and if they did, they were hairline, then it was in the defeat to Coventry. It's a game we should have won, but it was a joyless, flat performance, ignited only by Liam Sercombe, who showed enough fire to bring us back into the game. Days later Sercombe was effectively suspended for 'disciplinary' reasons, the first time the squad appeared to have fractured.

Appleton's end came in the same way as it began, in a suspiciously quiet close season punctuated by rumours of takeovers. Darryl Eales faces the dilemma of ploughing more money into his project to get to the Championship, or selling up and letting someone else take it on. Appleton's reputation and ambition further challenged Eales' capacity to do this alone. You suspect that Eales enjoys the challenge, but Appleton can't afford to hang around.

Leicester, though, is a curious choice. It might be that Appleton is more comfortable being part of a corporate structure - he spoke at the end of the season about how jaded he was. But, he won't be implementing 'his way' in the way he was allowed to at Oxford and it's unlikely he'll have the luxury of time. The money being offered makes it a reasonable and compelling case, but nobody knows what Leicester is anymore - pushing for Europe? Avoiding relegation? Craig Shakespeare may have got them out of a mess last season, but can he meet the needs of recent Premier League Champions in the longer term? It's possible that Shakepeare's success was that he just that he wasn't the pernickety Claudio Ranieri. Now he's got to develop a squad of players who have already achieved more than they'd ever expected to achieve and take them on. But where to? Some of the older players are heading for the dumper already, the younger players may be looking for new, bigger, clubs. A few dodgy results next season and Shakespeare will be under pressure, and so will Michael Appleton.

The challenge for us, now, is to sustain the club's DNA. Darryl Eales is a football 'fan' rather than a football 'man'. Can he unearth a coach who will take over Appleton's legacy and drive the club on? You have to trust that he can, but it'll be different, that's for sure.

How will Appleton be viewed by history? In my lifetime, four managers have won promotion for the club; Jim Smith, Denis Smith, Chris Wilder and Michael Appleton. Only Appleton took us to Wembley twice and perhaps only Jim Smith matched the treasure trove of memories from the cups. In totality, the 2015/16 season was, perhaps, the best I have seen in 40 years watching the club.

Appleton's legacy will not only be those memories, but the thousands of young fans that he's inspired to follow the club, and the others who have returned after years away. On that basis, the echo of his impact can last generations. It's difficult to put him above Jim Smith, and older fans will point to the transformative contribution of Arthur Turner, but in the history of the club, Michael Appleton is right up there among the greatest managers we have ever seen.   

Friday, June 16, 2017

Michael Appleton - Don't believe the hype?


Picture the scene, a left-leaning tabloid speculates that Leicester City manager Craig Shakespeare is about to take Oxford United manager Michael Appleton as his beloved number 2.

This then gets repeated hundreds of times via social media, each one adding to the noise, building from speculation to rumour to fact. Another sports journalist claims Appleton has told the players (who are currently dispersed around the more sordid resorts of southern Europe and therefore almost impossible to tell as a group) that he’s going. More proof.

Except, of course, there is no proof. It may indeed be true. But there is no proof.

The BBC are silent on the subject as is the Oxford Mail (beyond reporting the rumour) and the club. The silence is deafening. Except silences aren’t deafening, they’re, well, silent.

First, let’s work through the heathens that are keeping The Truth from us. The BBC have a public remit to inform, they won’t say anything until it’s been backed up by verifiable fact. The Oxford Mail’s value is based on the trust they have with key institutions; the local football club being one. It is not in their interest to break the trust they have with the club. Lose that because of tittle tattle and they lose their weekly privileged briefings from the club, access to its personnel and games, and so on. The reason they are silent, is because there is nothing of substance to say. Yet. And what about the club? Well, 90% of football rumours are untrue, trust me, I’ve counted. If they were to comment on speculation, 90% of it would be talking about things which aren’t happening. The club won’t talk until there is something to talk about.

The Mirror and the dozens of Twitter accounts who claim to be in the know on these things thrive on the referrals they can get from speculating. Validation isn’t that important, people love a gossip and that’s what sells papers and gets retweets.

Journalists stating that ‘they’ve been told’ things are happening rarely tell you by whom. Perhaps they have been told by someone with genuine knowledge, perhaps they’ve been told by the same Twitter account that you’re reading. You will never know. It’s in the interest of a journalist to appear to have their finger on the pulse, their reputations are built on having access, or at least appearing to have access. Plus of course, it is natural for people to want to promote that they are in-the-know because it promotes a sense of power.

The truth is that the truth isn’t the truth until it’s, well, the truth. And the truth isn’t driven by silence, it’s driven by evidence.

So why do we react like we do? Well, most of our brain has evolved to ensure we survive, as a result we have a highly evolved sense of fight or flight. If we’re confronted with something that unnerves us, then our brain initially processes the information as to whether it will hurt us or not. If that assessment results in a belief that we might get hurt then we start fighting to protect ourselves or running away, or, in a combination of the two, panicking. This can be triggered by anything, even the vague idea that the manager of your football club could be leaving.

If the assessment is that you are not in danger, then the information is handed over to a much smaller part of your brain which assesses the situation more logically and rationally. In the modern world, the reality is that very little will genuinely hurt you so the trick is to pass the information from one part of your brain to the other so you can assess the situation properly, not quickly.

So, many fans have been startled by the news that Michael Appleton might move to Leicester and have ‘catastrophised’ wildly about what this means. Pass it over to the more considered part of your brain and think that most of the trusted sources of this information remain silent on the subject. This probably means there’s nothing to say.