Friday, August 11, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - Trigger's broom

Saturday 5 August 2017
Did you get to Oldham? PClot did, the lucky blighter. Goals from Tap-In Thomas and the hipsters' choice Josh 'Don't call me Ruffles' Ruffels saw us bring home the bacon from the season opener at Boundary Park. Pre-match talk was of Kane Hemmings' omission from the starting line-up. The club said they weren't prepared to take a risk on the striker without being entirely clear on what that was; the risk of him looking bewildered as he shanks another chance agonisingly wide maybe?

Monday 7 August 2017 
Clearly one of them Brexit Remoaners, Faz says that English players are too expensive and is looking for some cheap foreign imports to bolster the squad. As he gently hid a zero-hours contract out of sight among his vintage collection of Shoot magazines, news broke that we've been linked with Ivo Pekalski.  

Tuesday 8 August 2017
And lo, PClot, Father of the Injury Prone, Friend of Journeymen, gets his man. The Swede worked with the Clotfather at Malmo and was signed with the money from Lunny. 

Now, you may have never heard of Carabao before they started sponsoring the Milk Cup, but it's been the second favourite drink of Thai teenage diabetics for nearly 15 years. Fittingly, a single can, containing 120% of your daily recommended dose of sugar, is not only a perfectly balanced organic nutritious drink for aspiring professional athletes, it will also help you stay awake during extra time while watching gentle poetic capitulations. The play-off against Cheltenham Town to find out who narrowly goes out in round 2 ended in a 3-4 defeat in the dead of the night.

Wednesday 9 August 2017
The pursuit of Eveals and his cunning plan to destroy Oxford United continued with the Fans Forum. In it, Eveals revealed that he's running a defender laundering racket through Solihull Moors by sending out the BFG Fiarce Kelleher (remember him?) on loan. He also confirmed there's a 'huge amount of politics in Oxford politics' but remained silent on how much Oxford there is. This is clearly a sign, it's just a question of deciding of what. PClot, meanwhile, categorically refused to confirm whether he had a goldfish. And if he's willing to hide that, what else might he be hiding?

Some sort of human trafficking operation if rumours from Prague are true. They've now revealed that winger Gino van Kessel is currently hidden in a compartment of a transit van waiting to board a ferry to sign a year's loan.

Thursday 10 August 2017
Well, put matching rucksacks on their backs, enrol them in an English language school and let them hang around Carfax Tower, Oxford has another foreigner in town. Gino van Kessel makes it signing number eight since PClot took over. With complex international clearance to negotiate, the club's senior fax operator Mick Brown was heard muttering 'I preferred it when I was dealing with the Eddie Hutchinson thing'.

Friday 11 August 2017
As Oxford evolve into the football equivalent of Trigger's broom, news now reaches us that Marvin Johnson is being eyed up by Hull. If that name rings a bell, Hull were the sun-fearing Portugese village team we beat on the club holiday. Don't do it Marv, these holiday romances never feel the same afterwards.

Then it was rumoured that Curtis Nelson is being chased by Leeds. Apparently he was spied at Elland Road a week ago. With resting Premier League giants Portsmouth visiting the Kassam tomorrow, don't be surprised to see long serving striker Gino van Kessel heading to Middlesborough before the weekend is out.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Cheltenham wrap - Oxford United 3 Cheltenham Town 4 (aet)

Tuesday’s performance felt a bit like watching a school orchestra attempt Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. If you listened hard then you could hear a recognisable tune, but it felt slightly forced and disjointed, lacking in flow and rhythm.

The performance was better than the result implies, we have a rich abundance of creativity throughout the team, the likes of which we have rarely seen at the club. Each one; Xemi, Hall, Henry, Johnson, Obika, Rothwell, Payne all showed moments of class and ability, but not enough of them together and not for long enough.

In the past, there have been patterns that we could rely on; if you put the ball in the box then Sercombe was likely to be arriving late to fire home any rebounds, if you can get a set piece then Maguire would often deliver a quality ball and Dunkley was always good for getting on the end of crosses. If you need to stretch the play or relieve tension, then Lundstram could pass his way out of trouble. Last night, it felt like nobody quite knew anyone’s special move, so when we came under pressure, beyond sheer individual ability, there was no reliable fall-back to gets us on track.

Cheltenham, on the other hand, found a weakness they could exploit – principally whipped crosses. That’s what kept them in the game before Mo Eisa scored his stunning winner.

It didn’t feel like we’d been set up to win; it was much more about giving players a leg stretch, the plethora of substitutions felt more like simply giving players a breather than making tactical game-changing decisions. The result seemed less important.

Partly this is about familiarity, nobody knew what to expect from each new introduction (or those who started). It’s not necessarily Clotet’s fault, he’s learning too and at the moment he has to rely on training and intuition to see what works and what doesn’t. In time he’ll know the right players for the right jobs but I don’t think anyone could safely put their finger on what was wrong on Tuesday night.

Johnson – our current de facto match winner – has been given the label being the wrong 'un but he too, rather than being disinterested, seemed to be getting a bit of stiffness out of his legs. I don’t buy the idea that he’s wasted at left-back, if anything it allows him to build up a head of steam when running at teams or ghost into advanced positions undetected.

What was lacking was the reliability that we need to sustain any kind of challenge. Creative players spark and pop, come into form and drop out, but they can’t do their thing if there isn’t a reliable core that won't concede possession and goals. It’s like we have a number of effective Plan B’s but no Plan A.

That’s not to say we don’t have them in the club; Eastwood was pretty decent throughout as was Nelson, Williamson should be relied on. Ledson is only likely to get better while Pep Clotet described Ivo Pekalsi as someone who can carry the ball out of defence John Lundstram style. Everyone loves a reliable, 20 goal a season striker, which may be van Kessel. If these players can stay fit and gel, then they will provide the platform on which others can perform. Ultimately, this time next year we won’t remember Cheltenham, so the result is bothering, but not, ultimately, a disaster.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Oldham wrap - Oldham Athletic 0 Oxford United 2

The start of the football season isn't quite like it used to be. In the past the first game felt like the mobilisation of a movement, every fan, player and manager from the bottom of the game to the top setting off on an adventure together. Now, the Premier League hangs back a week, like the lead singer in a dysfunctional rock band stealing the limelight and applause. In August there are still holidays and weddings to negotiate. There are appointments set without consultation because those who don't know think early August is the middle of summer and not, as we know, start of the winter. As such, first day of the Football League is more like the opening overs of a test match, it happens while people are still turning taking their seats and getting their bearings.

But these are important games for Pep Clotet, for all the talk of him being a promising coach and the carefully chosen words about joining a family of a club with great fans, he still has big shoes to fill. Following the win over Oldham on Saturday, people were pointing out that he was the first manager since Darren Patterson to win his first game in charge. But he's also the first manager since Darren Patterson to be taking over a team with a forward momentum. In short, he should be winning his first game in charge.

The win was reassuringly solid, not freaky like the opening day apparition against Portsmouth in 2013. It was a continuation of the progress we have been making under Michael Appleton, a tangible sign that we remain in good hands.

It all helps bed in new players, keep old ones engaged and gives both fans and owner reassurance. It feels like a long time ago now, but Michael Appleton opened his account with four consecutive league defeats sending understandable panic through the Oxford fans. Then, Darryl Eales was able to point to a long-game and there were plenty of credible excuses for the dire run given he'd only taken over the club weeks before. There is not so much of that luxury nowadays; this is a club that needs to sustain its momentum. We've built a reputation for recruiting cleverly, then developing and selling talented players, we want to keep attracting scouts to our games, it's so integral to sustaining us as a club it's a reputation we can't afford to lose.

It may be that Clotet will actually benefit for the loss of the bigger personalities in the squad; Lundstram, Maguire, Sercombe, Dunkley and Skarz were all Appleton people, losing them from the squad cleanses the pallets of the fans, and allows Clotet's own players to settle without constant reminders of what has been achieved in the past.

If this is the opening overs of a test match, then the win over Oldham was a satisfying cover drive to help build muscle memory, loosen limbs and hide insecurities; a few more and we can start setting some longer-term goals.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - Winter is coming

Saturday 29 July
Last week PClot was quietly introducing what he described as 'new tactical concepts' confirming we're not in Danny Hylton country anymore. He also went shopping up north, because everything is much cheaper, signing teeny tiny Jack Payne on loan from Huddersfield. Teeny Tiny is just 5 ft 5 inches tall, and has long been an admirer of Oxford; he still looks up to Sam Deering to this day. Expect similar signings in the next few days; as we know Micro Machines come in collections of five.

While up north, we faced local non-league side Leeds in our final friendly. Played at a pace a sloth eating his bodyweight in Mogadon described as a bit slow, a second 2-0 reverse confirmed we need a 45-goal a season striker. Leeds' first goal was scored by Kemar Roofe, who respectfully didn't celebrate in front of his former fans. Or his current fans. Or any fans as the stadium was hauntingly empty.

Monday 31 July
Eternal optimists Portsmouth have sold their allocation for our first home game a week on Saturday. The Premier League giants currently 'resting' in League 1 will bring a numerically precise 1,749 fans to the Kassam on the 12th August in an ongoing campaign to win promotion by ringing a cowbell and pretending their FA Cup win wasn't nearly a decade ago.

Tuesday 1 August
It's Piers Pennington Day! For When Saturday Comes, the Jeremy Corbyn of football magazines, Piers is the go-to man for all things Oxford United. His Twitter profile reveals his obsession with the club - retired, lives in London, hates Tories, Man City diehard. Wait, what? Every year WSC goes to Piers to give sandal wearing Marxists everywhere the lowdown on our season. Capturing the true spirit of last year, Piers eschews the Cup win over Newcastle, Toni Martinez's equaliser at Middlesborough, the two wins over Swindon and Chris Maguire Chris Maguiring, to claim the penalty shoot-out against Chelsea Under-23s in the Chicken-Trade Trophy as last season's highlight. Thanks Piers. A collective vote of all the Piers' around League 1 has us finishing 10th.

Wednesday 2 August
In a move that apparently constitutes news, the squad numbers have been announced. The club have adopted a conventional approach, starting with one and ascending in a sequential order thereafter. This year Teeny Tiny Jack Payne is Chris Maguire at ten, PClot's special football friend Dwight Tiendelli will be Joe Skarz at 3 and Aaron Martin who is rumoured to play for Oxford United will wear the number 6 shirt.

Thursday 3 August
With the new season days away Oxford United's squad is increasingly looking like a computer game that can't get an official licence for players' names. Following Fake-Xavi, Xemi, we have just signed generic Brazilian 'idiniho' Ricardinho. Meanwhile Fiacre Kelleher who accidentally signed for the club when delivering an Amazon package for Faz, has been loaned out to Solihull Moors. Rumours that it was at the request of Nick Harris who was having panic attacks at the thought of pronouncing his name remain unconfirmed.

Friday 4 August
The new season is on us, Ryan Ledson is so excited he might wet himself. Christian Riberio feels he's ahead of where he was a year ago insomuch that with hours until kick-off he appears to be walking. First opponents Oldham have only just signed a goalkeeper which seems like a tactical oversight. Meanwhile the club have moved to assure everyone that signing older players is not a change of policy, it's just to stop Faz scaring the youngsters with talk of his prostate. And that's that; coats on everyone, winter is here.

Friday, August 04, 2017

2017/18 season preview

Where are we? If 2015/16 was the start of a passionate romance with a new and refreshed Oxford United and last season was the warm contentment of early marriage, who knows where next season will take us? Some are still seeking that buzz of those early days and anything other than complete satisfaction is a compromise with the only solution being divorce. Others are happy to settle into our new role making steady, positive progress; a lifetime of commitment and togetherness.

This summer has been one of soul searching. There was the brief glimmer of hope that we might be fast tracked to the Premier League via the billions from Juan Satori only to see it dashed, then just as we settled into the idea that this wasn’t going to happen Michael Appleton was plucked from our grasp and now we have Pep Clotet in charge.

Having started the summer with a great English owner and a great English manager, we might have ended with a Uruguayan giving Russian money to a Spaniard to propel us forward. How strangely modern.

What is perhaps most perplexing about this is the fans’ reaction to these things. To date, our English success story has been something that many have been proud of. But these same people are suddenly devastated that the club’s progress appears to have been checked because we haven’t sold out to foreigners. More oddly, the villain in all of this is Darryl Eales, the man who drinks with fans in pubs and watches away games in the away end and was, a few months ago, considered the best owner you could hope for.

League 1 is an elephant’s graveyard of team’s whose ambition and greed have overwhelmed them; last year we had Coventry and Bolton – who headed off in different directions - this year it’s Wigan, Charlton, Blackburn, Blackpool and Portsmouth. All teams who have hit the peak of the Premier League before collapsing under the strain.

Having consolidated our place in League 1 last year and sniffed the feint whiff of the Championship, an impatience to progress not only to the division above, but beyond has started to eat away. Eales, himself impatient to progress, has in some eyes, become the block, first by not accepting Sartori’s money, then by allowing Appleton to leave and finally, by not splurging a bottomless pit of money on players.

To some extent, this is fair enough; all clubs in our position are standing on a burning platform – Chris Maguire, Liam Sercombe, John Lundstram and Joe Skarz have all gone. Marvin Johnson could well join them before the end of August. We have to keep replenishing the stocks with at least equal to what we have to survive, let alone move forward.

But the truth around Sartori and Appleton, I suspect, is far more simple than Eales activating some long dormant masterplan of destruction. Sartori's offer, if there was one, was not an improvement on what Eales could offer and Appleton saw a rare opportunity to progress his career and simply took it. We are a club that is strong enough to not become distracted by a billionaire's bank balance, but not strong enough to withstand the lure of a Premier League club. To me, that feels a decent summary of our current position.

The club’s summer plans were slowed by Sartori’s advances and then by Appleton’s departure. Its infrastructure simply isn’t big enough to continue unabated, but nor is it going to be destroyed by such things. Pep Clotet appears a solid appointment as does the signings we’ve made to date. Far from going backwards, we’re probably about where we were on the last day of last season, just behind where we wanted to be and a long way behind the vision that some fans have as a result of their rampant and unreasonable imaginations. 

The problem, therefore, is that we don’t currently have a shared vision for the club, some remain happy that we’re a League 1 club and will consider a similar season to last year as a success, others  want us squaring up against Paris St Germain in the Champions League by 2020.

Had we been able to hold onto Michael Appleton, then we might be a couple of signings ahead of where we are today, one of those could have been Chris Maguire and most fans would have been happy with that. I suspect the Lundstram deal would have been a no brainer either way. If that had been the case, then I would have set our sights at promotion next year. Given that we have been hit unexpectedly by delaying, but not destroying factors, then something steadier might be more realistic. If, come May, we have finish in the play-offs, then I think we should consider that a good season.

Friday, July 28, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - Evil Eales

Saturday 22 July
Oxford's summer tour of under-achieving Championship perennials continued with the visit of Birmingham City. Pre-match talk was of the surprise inclusion of Swansea's Luciano Narsingh. As players stared at the bench saying thing like 'You know, it doesn't look like him' and 'To be honest, I don't know who you're talking about' we conceded two goals from which we never recovered thereby confirming our relegation next May. Turns out "Luciano" was actually his inferior brother Furdjel, who is very similar in that he's also a player we at GLS have never heard of. It's like that time we were all confused about whether it was Simon or Ross Weatherstone that was the nasty violent racist.

Tuesday 25 July
In a deal slower than John Lundstram breaking out of midfield, Lungey finally put pen to paper and signed for Sheffield United. Some will argue that joining Chris Wilder is more rash than the two-footed challenge that ruled him out of the JPT final in 2016. The fee, originally mooted to be around £500,000 was coquettishly described by the club as 'undisclosed but attractive' which suggests £78 and a poster of Scarlett Johansson.

Fans were disgusted at how Darryl 'Evil' Eales was replacing free-transfer John Lundstram from Everton with free-transfer Xemi from foreign no-marks Barcelona. What is it that Eveals is hiding behind his smokescreen of giant killings, derby wins, Wembley visits and promotion?

Wednesday 26 July
To appease the pitchfork waving locals and their grotesquely over-inflated expectations, the club rapidly announced that 64-year-old former Newcastle defender Mike Williamson had signed after temping at the club over the summer. Williamson's not here to to hang out with Faz and talk about Jackie Milburn over an extra strong Yorkshire tea with two sugars. 'I'm here to win things' he said enviously eyeing Jack Stevens' discarded Oxfordshire Senior Cup runners'-up medal.

Thursday 27 July
Oxvox, a kind of club for the unreasonably entitled, circulated a series of fans' personal subjective observations, phrased as universally agreed facts and presented as questions to Darryl Eveals. Naturally, every word uttered by Eveals to challenge fans' groundless uniformed opinion were all categorical, well evidenced and reasonably phrased lies. This is just typical of the man whose dastardly doings include making the club profitable while increasing the playing budget only 300% in three years. We are the fans and therefore we are always right; Eveals, whatever you're doing, and let's face it, we don't know what that is but it's probably bad despite the evidence to the contrary; we're on to you.

Meanwhile, Curtis Nelson was made the club's new head-prefect and milk monitor responsible for ensuring that flip flops are always worn in the shower. This news undoubtedly gave grimacing Oxford skipper-sniffer Chris Wilder a funny feeling in his trousers.

Friday 28 July
One of the nice things about pre-season is the opportunity for big clubs like us to visit smaller clubs to help fill the coffers. Hence the reason Oxford will visit Leeds United on Saturday for the final friendly before the big day next week. It's particularly poignant for Kemar Roofe who is looking forward to facing some familiar Oxford faces but will ultimately be disappointed to find none are left.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Lun gone silver

It is hard to believe that following John Lundstram's move to Sheffield United this week that only three players remain from the 2015/16 promotion squad. Josh Ruffels, Sam Long and James Roberts played a total of 14 games between them during that glorious year, the rest have gone. If it feels like we're losing players like sand through our fingers, you'd be right, it's the equivalent of losing a player from that squad every two weeks for a year.

What does this tell us? Is it that Darryl Eales is impatient for success and the constant replacing of one player for a better one just a necessary part of the squad progressing. Or, are we simply falling apart due to a lack of ambition and an unwillingness invest properly? Have we promised the players something we can't fulfil?

Lundstram was peak Michael Appleton; he was sprung from a overheated talent factory at Everton and persuaded to drop down the divisions, changing course to find his way in the game. Ultimately, for him it was a worthwhile detour.

Lundstram offered an array of passing that we've rarely, if ever seen before at Oxford. He lacked pace, so the ball did the work. Joining the party slightly late in 2015, once he was up to speed he showed an ability to link play from the centre of midfield giving freedom to his partner Liam Sercombe who filled his boots with 17 goals.

Last season he struggled initially, perhaps because of the added responsibility of having the captain's armband, but also because he had to pick himself up from an intense promotion season and, as they say in these parts, go again.

The arrival of Ryan Ledson steadied the ship in midfield, he offered the platform and Lundstram became a more conservative attacking option, at least in terms of distributing the balls that Ledson won. It's difficult to say that it was overwhelmingly successful, but it did seem that when Lundstram played well, so did we.

Lundstram is another product of the Eales business model - unearth talent, develop, then re-sell. It's worked well, to the tune of something like £5m over the last year. That's the equivalent of a year's revenue for the club, something that many people forget. The great challenge for the club is to keep that conveyor belt moving, Marvin Johnson is surely next to go, then Ryan Ledson, but then who?

Pep Clotet's big challenge is not replacing Lundstram, but keeping the machine going. We're well served in midfield and so the truth is we don't need another Lundstram-type to be successful next year. However, we are reliant on continually unearthing bankable young talent to keep the money rolling in.

Or are we? Looking at signings made this summer there may have been a move away from the previous policy - Williamson looks set to sign and is 33, James Henry is 28, Dwight Tiendalli is 31, only Xema is in the bracket of Kemar Roofe, Callum O'Dowda and Lundstram and we wait to see whether he can play in England, let alone be valuable enough to be sold on. Perhaps the focus is not to so much to develop players to sell on a continual basis, but to get an efficient squad together which achieves promotion and gains the financial benefits of the Championship.

A change of approach? Maybe; or maybe a diversification of risk. Yes, we want to develop talent, but we also need a stable squad we can build on. People love the idea of picking up raw talent and developing it on, but in the voracious world of football, you will typically lose talented players earlier than you'd like. It goes back some way, but Jim Smith certainly adopted the approach of bringing in players who were older, even slightly past their prime, but who would deliver for a short window before being moved on. It put the development of the squad more in the hands of the club and less in the hands of others with fat wallets.

Lundstram is part of a wonderful, if too brief moment in Oxford's history, but he's another pawn in the football economy, an asset to be sold at the best price. It's not the sign of a lack of ambition, it's just the way it has to be.