Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Before Football Manager was Championship Manager. I played the 1993 edition religiously when it came out. I started, as I always do, at Oxford, and signed, as I always do, all my favourite players from the past, regardless of their stats, age or form. Alongside these I’d add some ageing ex-internationals who were affordable, but clearly past their best.
Inevitably my time at the club was short and I moved onto Fulham. There, I found my feet and had a half decent season in Division 3. I speculatively applied for the Everton job and inexplicably got it. With a near bottomless transfer kitty of around £10m a year and the discovery of a Lionel Messi-esque English child prodigy, I went on to conquer English football and then the world.
I would play all night collecting trophy after trophy in a stellar career that lasted into my late-80s (my Championship Manager age, that is). I played so long that the player database kept re-generating players by jamming together first and second names with random nationalities and clubs. So I ended up with players like a Cameroonian international called Diego Shilton and a Frenchman called Steve Gullit. Bored of my ludicrous levels of success, when the Oxford job came up some 40-odd (Championship Manager) years after I left, I took it. But I had no money and it all became too difficult, and though I was biologically in my 20s, in my head and my computer, I was more worried about the state of my digital prostate and my mortality. It was the end of a glorious period.
From time to time I try to recreate those halcyon days by buying a new copy of Football Manager, but the game is more sophisticated now and I have less time so I invariably get frustrated with my poor form and give up.
I know things are going wrong when I resort to the tactic of playing an almost random starting eleven of squad and youth team players in an attempt to stumble across some glorious combination that will catapult me up the leagues.
Sometimes you see real-life managers adopting a similar approach. There was something odd about Michael Appleton’s starting line-up against Port Vale. Sercombe and Skarz were back, Raglan was replaced by Nelson. Johnson was in and Crowley was up front.
Did Michael Appleton’s selection come from a frustration or boredom of our erratic form? We have had a pretty decent start all told but the Swindon win aside our wins this season have come as a result of very (very) late goals. Our general form has been pretty good but the margins of our wins have been paper thin. We can’t rely on last minute winners all season.
So maybe Appleton was throwing caution to the wind, or perhaps it was a glimpse of his original plan for the year. Our early season has been blighted by frustrating injuries; Ribeiro, Nelson, Ledson and Hall. But maybe Saturday was about playing Crowley in a role he’s earmarked for Hall and maybe Nelson’s inclusion was about trying to piece together the back-four he’d always planned to play.
It seemed to work early on; the goals came early rather than deep into injury time, but we still haven’t mastered controlling a game or coping with a more direct physical approach. If there is a plan, then the speed at which we learn to implement it will dictate whether this is a possible play-off season or one which meanders to mid-table nothingness.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
My first away game was against Coventry City in 1982. I'd been to big stadiums before, but this was the first time as a bona fide away fan. We'd just tanked Brighton in the FA Cup - a moment that might later be looked on as the Big Bang that sprung The Glory Years. Coventry City were next up and me and my dad decided to go.
I remember us having to weave our way through towns and villages as the M40 link from Oxford to Birmingham wouldn't be complete for another year. It made the journey feel decidedly more epic than it does today. The scene on our arrival at Highfield Road could have been a parody documentary on 1980s football hosted by Danny Dyer - I opened my door and was nearly knocked over by an Oxford fan being pursued by a group of Coventry fans; it was the beginning of a particularly unpleasant day.
Coventry felt like a big, modern club, they were in the 1st Division, they were the first to have an all-seater stadium and they had embraced the commercialism of the modern game with a kit that embedded the logo of their sponsors, Talbot, into the design. I thought it was the greatest kit ever, although they didn't wear it on the day.
We conceded late in the first half and were pulled apart in the second, eventually going down 4-0. Oxford fans spent most of the second half ripping seats out and throwing them on the pitch. When my dad asked a policeman what we should do to avoid the trouble, he said we should throw our scarves in the bin and run. Interestingly, the game was part of a document submitted as part of the Hillsborough review.
The experience stayed with me, there was a sense of fear and awe, Coventry were a big club. This continued through their FA Cup win in 1987 and into the 90s when they eventually succumbed to relegation from the top flight in 2001. But, recently I found out something remarkable; they have not finished in the top six of any division for fifty years.
Half-a-century and barely a whiff of joy. The Cup win apart, they have suffered a slow, imperceptible decline. It feels like one of those people who dies on their own and nobody notices because their standing orders kept paying the bills. Dying of sadness in a way that nobody else cares enough to know about.
They are embroiled in their latest crisis, an existential battle with Sisu over their ground and ultimately their future. They might look and feel like a big club, but this is League 1, the elephants graveyard. I think we all thought they were a dying animal waiting to be put out of its misery.
I would like to offer some kind of analysis of the game, but I was sat practically at pitch-level. This didn’t stop the bloke behind me being able to argue about offside decisions which he could only have seen if he was using a camera mounted to a drone.
Whatever our tactical failings, this felt like the Wimbledon game, a lesson in self-destruction. We seemed to assume we’d turn up and perform, but nothing seemed to work as it should. We seem to lack the experience we got from people like Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins which meant we kept our focus whoever we faced. It was something that Michael Appleton commented on last year, he had a small group of players that would lead discussions and solve the squad's own problems. Do we have those players now?
John Lundstram came in for quite a bit of criticism, but rather than dropping him ,as some seem to suggest, I think we need to look at whether his captaincy plays too heavily on his shoulders. But then, if not him, who is the captain? Chey Dunkley has the greatest presence in the team, but he’s also young and would we want to be risk his development giving him the burden of the armband. Which brings back to the key point; how many leaders have we got?
Monday, October 17, 2016
“Alright Dave, I’ll see you next time” said the bloke in front just as Chris Maguire was tee-ing up a freekick on the edge of the box.
There were six empty seats in front of me when Maguire foxed the Bradford keeper to win the game on Saturday. I get both sides of the ‘leaving early’ debate. On one hand, if you’re young with too much time on your hands, then football is life and you support the boys to the bitter end regardless of the consequences or futility. On the other, there’s traffic and convenience to consider, football is good, but so is Strictly and a curry.
Neither view is particularly wrong, but football is made of moments and you miss them at your peril. Saturday’s was a tight high quality game punctuated by three moments; the penalty, the free-kick and the non-penalty (which was one).
As we progress through the divisions these moments will become more fleeting, but also more intense. Games will become tighter, the reliance on technical quality – and the ability to execute it at a moments’ notice - over raw physical ability will grow. When Nathan Cooper suggested to Chris Maguire that he had some kind of magical ability to produce on demand his response was ‘Well, I do practice them’ echoing his manager who’d spoke moments earlier.
The big signings of the summer, Marvin Johnson and Kane Hemmings will do well to recognise these points. Both came with reputations for rampaging through defences, but have found space and opportunity much more limited down south. Hemmings seems to be coming to terms with this although Johnson seems more frustrated. He has the physical attributes and if he maintains what is sometimes referred to as a growth mindset, then he should come good. He’s at the right club to do that.
You get the feeling that we’re becoming sharper and more competitive as the weeks pass. John Lundstram spent good chunks of last year spraying 60 yards passes over the heads of League 2 lunks, this season’s lack of space came as a bit of a shock, but he’s starting games quicker now and becoming more physical. As a result he’s started earning the space and right to get his passing going.
Ryan Taylor had his best game in a yellow shirt in the most unfamiliar of positions. In a sense, he’s also benefitting from his ability to adapt to his surroundings. He’s been OK holding the ball up playing as a striker, but playing on the left where he was able to use his physical attributes alongside his short passing ability was a masterstroke.
Two points off the play-offs and our growing confidence makes ours a very happy place to be. As we climb the division, we should expect games to become tighter and the moments of magic to become more special. Just make sure you don’t miss them.
Monday, October 10, 2016
In the same week that Donald Trump talked about grabbing women by the pussy, I heard someone using the word ‘awfulising’. If this isn’t the end of days, I don’t know what is.
Awfulising, apparently, is where you have a minor anxiety and your mind runs amok creating an entirely imaginary world of disaster.
There’s a bloke near me who habitually groans ‘oh, here we go’ every time the opposition go over the half way line. Plus, of course, there’s the common knee jerk reaction that fans have when one poor touch or pass turns a player into a lazy, hopeless waste of space.
It’s natural to awfulise in football; you only want one outcome and by-and-large that isn’t confirmed until the final whistle. But, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back; Michael Appleton’s selection against Wimbledon seemed to be based on taking an early initiative. Alex MacDonald is an impact player, he’ll never give up, but he struggles to maintain his all action game for 90 minutes. So, you have to decide at which end of the game you want him to have maximum impact, Kyle Hemming is similar. With both starting everything pointed towards going for an early knock-out.
What Michael Appleton didn’t seem to account for is that, after a ropey start to the season, Wimbledon seemed to have dusted off an old playbook from the 80s; they’ve gone physical.
New-Wimbledon are cast as a metrosexual hipster club; the romantics’ favourites. Culturally they’re the complete opposite of the Crazy Gang. So, it’s easy to think of them as a soft touch, and that’s what caught us out.
Chey Dunkley will not have a tougher afternoon all year; he’s usually a match for anyone in a physical contest, and apart from the goal he seemed to contain Elliot pretty well. But once Elliot had gone, he then had to deal with Tyrone Barnett.
It came as a bit of a shock to the referee who seemed to struggle to distinguish between physical but fair and physical and unfair. Early on, he was happy to book players for physical challenges, then having made a rod for his own back, he had to let rough challenges go just to keep things credible.
By the time it started to count, he was lost. It’s rare that a game pivots on a single decision. Generally, I think referees have much less influence over a game than managers would sometimes have you believe. But Dean Parrett’s sliding challenge on Wes Thomas just before the second goal defined the game.
So, let’s get to it; in the ground it looked a certain foul, but the ground level camera showing the referee’s view made it look like he got the ball. However, he was clearly overstretching and you can argue he was out of control by the time he put his challenge in. The camera from behind confirmed it, showing him off the ground and therefore out of control.
But then, so was John Lundstram in the challenge that got him sent off against Stevenage and banned for Wembley last year. We certainly didn’t think the Lundstram deserved his red, and as a principle, I don’t agree with trial by multiple TV angles in football. Therefore, my view is that it was probably a foul, but I can see why the referee allowed it to stand.
In addition to the goal that resulted, we were shell shocked, which was the root cause of conceding the third. And after that, it was all over. Had it been a foul, the outcome of the game would have been different.
So, ultimately we were tactically outmanoeuvred; we came to take charge and exploit Wimbledon’s supposed soft belly. In the end we were caught out and didn’t react properly. We will, I hope, learn from the experience; next time, rather than awfulising at a setback, maybe we need to grab the game by the pussy.
Wednesday, October 05, 2016
I’ve been reading about ice ages recently. Apparently we’re in one at the moment, which is one reason I’ve ordered extra logs for my wood burner. Thankfully we’re in a fairly mild period of an ice age which means we’re not all dying a horrible death. At least not yet.
One of the startling things about ice ages is just how quickly the earth can go from our current survivable climate to a solid ice ball that perishes us all. Geological periods are typically measured in millions on years, but it is possible for an ice age to engulf us in as little as a decade. Think about that for a moment; imagine watching Andy Burgess skulk around the Kassam in 2006 completely unaware that a decade later we wouldn’t be beating Swindon (again) we’d be encrusted in ice.
In simple terms, which is pretty much the only terms I work in, if the temperature drops to really quite chilly and it becomes icey, as it does most winters, the sun’s rays rebound off the white surface of the earth and back into the atmosphere. The sun doesn’t melt anything so the ice builds up and the planet cools causing the ice to build up some more. Before you know it we’re all buried in metres of ice and football is postponed for several millions of years.
The point is that we are living in a narrow band of time which allows us to thrive, but that could quickly change and the world could return to the state it was in millions of years ago. Nothing is fixed, everything operates in a cycle.
On Saturday, our win over Bolton was seen as a sign that we are, in the words of the song, on our way back. Just 10 years ago we were in the Conference and they were beating Liverpool in the Premier League, now we’re equals.
However, while the Macron Stadium provides the facade of Premier League class, Bolton haven’t stood still while we’ve climbed the divisions. They’ve fallen as far as we’ve risen. In truth, teams orbit each other meeting periodically before heading off in different directions. Some come into contact on a regular basis, others less frequently. Some, like Chelsea or Manchester City can invest billions to break their natural trajectory, but most can't do that. Bolton were semi-regular visitors to the Manor during the 80s, then they headed to the Premier League before heading back down the divisions.
This is a shock to some Bolton fans – teams ‘like’ Bolton shouldn’t be beaten by teams ‘like’ Oxford. Bolton are in shock in the same way we were in the Conference and the way Portsmouth were in League 2. They don’t feel they belong in the environment they are in, but they keep getting beaten by teams who they think do.
League 1 is an elephant’s graveyard of teams suffering from the toxic shock that results from tasting brief glory before being catapulted back into oblivion.
In charge of Bolton ten years ago was that paragon of virtue Sam Allardyce, they were the club who proposed adding Celtic and Rangers to the Premier League, they’ve been part of the Premier League’s key moves to protect their status and break the natural law. But, ultimately they failed. Sadly for their fans they are heading for a great ice age while we seem to be warming up nicely.
Saturday, October 01, 2016
Manchester is a curious place. As a result of its rebuilding following the bombing in 1996, the centre is typical of a modern, prosperous city full of cafes and bars and high end shops.
But, drive a short distance in any direction it appears to be surrounded by a ring of depravation. The roads become rutted, the houses look run down, there are shops clinging to dear life and people wandering around who look desperate. Less claustrophobic than London, you can see the stratification; the centre, the depravation, then places like Media City, Old Trafford, the Etihad and the Trafford Centre punctuating the skyline. Suddenly, you’re in the countryside and we’re back into prosperity again. As a result, it is very difficult to work out whether Manchester is thriving, struggling or whether it simply has a unique culture all of its own.
League 1 is much the same, last week we were at MK Dons, on Saturday it was Charlton, next is Bolton Wanderers. All teams with large stadiums and fans, and in the case of Charlton and Bolton, bigger reputations. But all three are on a downward trajectory.
And yet, League 1 remains ‘lower leagues’ like a big team graveyard. Next month we play Coventry, 1987 FA Cup winners playing in a stadium with over 32,500 seats, but they haven’t finished in the top six of any division for 46 years. It looks very likely they will be playing League 2 football next year; a big team with an abject history; very League 1.
In such a situation it is difficult to know quite where we fit. Before the game against Charlton, radio played a clip of the last time we beat them fourteen years ago. Jefferson Louis scored the decisive penalty in a League Cup shoot-out. Jerome Sale makes a comment about Louis having been in prison and earning £90 a week. Charlton, at the time, were the envy of most teams; successful, but grounded. The difference between us and them was obvious, now less so.
On Saturday we were pretty evenly matched. Their penalty looked far less controversial than the radio seemed to imply afterwards. The impact of Kane Hemmings was encouraging given that he has looked under-powered this season. I’m not sure, however, if people appreciate the role that Ryan Taylor made in softening up their defence to allow the game to open up a bit more when he went off. As usual, the phone-in simplified the issue – Hemmings should play in place of Taylor because he looked a goal threat and Taylor didn’t. It’s not a wholly unfair point, but I think Hemmings is a threat, in part, because Taylor did a lot of groundwork for him.
Tuesday, and Southend, came very suddenly and Edwards got grabby again. He must be a nightmare on a packed dancefloor – all hands. People have started talking about Southend being a bogey team and a curse, which is, of course, completely irrational. The main issue is that if you begin to believe it, then the likely response is not to re-focus and go again, but to believe that there is some sort of higher power at work and give up.
It all comes back to mind set – League 1, like Manchester, is probably best not compared to other places, but simply that it is a netherworld in itself. We will face a whole range of teams; big ones heading downwards, small ones heading up and others simply stuck in the division’s orbit. It is what it is, and we are what we are, the more we become comfortable with that idea, the more successful we’re likely to be.
Monday, September 19, 2016
This week I saw a photo of the 1980/81 squad. Although my first ever Oxford game was five years earlier, the 1980 squad is the first I consciously remember. In the picture were Malcolm Shotton, Gary Briggs, Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas who in six short years would be part of our greatest ever triumph.
It was a reminder that our success wasn’t just about Robert Maxwell’s money or Jim Smith’s genius. Among those unassuming legends-in-waiting were also some of my early heroes; Roy Burton, whose shorts fell down when he took a goal kick, John Doyle, who enthralled me with his ability to reach the half way line his clearances and Joe Cooke, who I remember being impressed by because he was black. I was very young at the time.
On Saturday we headed for MK Dons, a club who are younger than Facebook and who didn’t exist when we last lost to Swindon. Oxford fans, like many fans, sneered at the Stadium MK experience. But this was really just retro-fitting their experience to match their pre-conceived prejudices.
In fact, the stewards were friendly, the traffic was well managed, the stadium facilities are top class; it is a very nice place to watch football. One person said that it was a great stadium, but not for football. So what was it great for? Powerboating? It might be a templated modern stadium bowl, but people who think football should only be played in a Victorian goliath are the same people who think our modern rail system should be steam powered.
I don’t like MK Dons’ history any more than anyone else, no club should be able to buy its way into the Football League. But they are not the only football club to be born out of controversy. Take Liverpool; they were formed by the owner of Anfield after he evicted Everton from his ground and set up his own club, also called Everton (later renamed Liverpool). Nobody thinks of Liverpool as the ‘real’ Everton in the way that people think that Wimbledon are the rightful owners of MK Dons’ place in the league. The MK Dons controversy just happened in a time when people were particularly focussed on protecting the game’s perceived heritage.
Blinded by the moral issues, people conveniently ignore that when Peter Winkelman took over the club, Wimbledon were £30m in debt, falling to the bottom of the league and without a stadium of their own. Merton council were disinterested in helping save their local club as it plummeted into the abyss. Their fanbase weren’t that much more interested. Relocating to somewhere with better market conditions was a logical, if uncomfortable, option.
The Dons will always carry a stigma, there was a time when people wouldn’t even enter the ground, and even now When Saturday Comes magazine will not talk about them, but in the main they are a pantomime villain rather than a moral travesty.
But, it is difficult to imagine how they will realise whatever vision they have for their future. When they’re winning games and playing big teams, I imagine that going regularly to the stadium is an enjoyable experience for locals. But do the roots go deeply enough into the city to keep the club going when times are tough?
It seems not, you don’t get much sense that Dons fans are urging their team to glory given how few were in the stadium on Saturday. The official attendance was over 12,000, but that would mean the stadium was nearly half full, which seems very generous. You get no sense of a rich history binding the club together, a sense of purpose, a real desire to survive and thrive. Probably because there is no rich history to protect.
Karl Robinson’s approach to football is as one dimensional as his club. It reminded me of a good second division side. He maintained a rigid shape which gave little away and tried to knock the ball beyond our back-four for Agard to chase, a tactic that never really worked, but which he religiously stuck to none-the-less.
Of course, we know George Baldock, and it was telling just how shackled he is in Robinson’s system. Maybe he was simply pinned back by Marvin Johnson, but there were opportunities for him to bomb forward like he did for us last season, but instead he skulked around on the halfway line while another attack broke down.
We went through periods of not being much better, and looked dead on our feet in the closing minutes. But, by-and-large, I thought we’re looking increasingly comfortable at this level and we can start feeling optimistic about the season.
Karl Robinson laughably claimed his team were the better side, ignoring that his goalkeeper had won man of the match and only one of the four or five action replays shown on the big video screens featured a Dons attack. But then, this is the Karl Robinson who reneged on a season-long loan deal for Baldock before being apparently aghast when Rob Hall walked out on the club to sign for us. He’s a funny chap, just like his club.