Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Trial by TV

When I played football at primary school, we’d get the last hour of the day off in order to fit the game in before darkness fell. Games were on Wednesdays; you’d have lunch and then freewheel through to 2pm when you were fished out from class in order to prepare for the game. We departed like soldiers off to war; petals were thrown at our feet and teachers bowed down to us.

For away games we might be away even earlier. The journeys would be epic; sometimes as far away as Chinnor; about 10 minutes away. We once even went to Berinsfield, a distance Google tells me is about 14 miles away. Nowadays that sort of distance would require an overnight stay to prevent muscle atrophy or DVT.

This was natural selection; in the privacy of your own school work it wasn't possible to truly work out who was top dog. In sport, it was unequivocal. Eggy Evans and Flid Davidson would be left behind along with Woggy Lawrence. These are actual nicknames we legitimately and openly referred to them by. I don’t know whether the teachers were aware that the only Asian kid in the school was known, always affectionately, as Woggy or Wog, but if they did, they didn’t seem to mind. It was a different time.

Anyway, with greatness bestowed upon us, we would disappear only to reappear the following morning with tales of derring do from distant primary schools of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

I had always imagined that being an England international was very similar; although I’m fairly certain they didn’t have to change into their kit on the plane to an away game. The general principle was the same - on a Saturday night, Brooking, Keegan and the rest would pack their bags and leave the humdrum of their club changing room for the exalted environs of the England 'camp'. I loved the idea of England being camp - a tented village where Ron Greenwood and Don Howe would plot the downfall of Luxembourg or Poland. The camp would be set up half way around the world (Norway, for example) the raid would happen on a Wednesday, news of its success would be broadcast only on the radio, and the players would return heroes the following Saturday.

The point was that the domestic calendar wasn’t disrupted; playing for England was a reward for being the best, an addition to your domestic commitments. At some point it was decided that this was a barrier to international success and, as has been emphatically demonstrated at every tournament since, the domestic calendar was cleared to give the true greats of the English game the space to express themselves and come home dripping with silverware. That’s the equivalent of closing the whole school in order for the school team to play.

In even more recent times, those internationals don’t even seem to happen on the date that’s been cleared for them. Presumably this is some kind of experiment with TV audiences, although a less bloated, more competitive qualifying programme would have a greater impact in maintaining people's interest.

Saturday's are cleared of domestic football; and because the Premier League is now global that fixture clearance runs throughout the top two divisions. And then, England don’t even play. Where once the international games were a bawdy weekend in Amsterdam; the international weekend has become a meandering insipid long weekend in the Cotswolds with your girlfriend which starts on Thursday and drifts sometime into the following week.

What remains is the Eggy Evans' and Flid Davidson’s of football; League's One and Two. Sky pulls one of those games out as if to make an example of the ineptitude. On Saturday, presumably on the spurious reasoning that this was a varsity clash; Saturday was us against Cambridge.

It's as if that fixture is a demonstration of the incompetence of what’s left over when you remove 'world class' Premier League from the calendar; hate the Premier League? OK, try watching this shit on a weekly basis. And when it comes to ineptitude, we have again demonstrated that we’re the Eggiest of all the Eggy Evans'.

The game completed a trilogy of appalling performances live on TV after Port Vale, Southend and now this - three games, three defeats, eleven goals conceded, one scored. Three different managers, three identically awful results.

There's some indication that even some Oxford fans weren’t aware the game was on, so it’s difficult to believe that anyone but the truly demented or housebound were interested from a neutral perspective. But, despite this, TV magnifies the problem and reinforces our growing irrelevance.

Live football needs a narrative and context, and on TV it needs to be unsubtle for the neutral to engage with it. In a division starved of publicity, anything goes - spuriously constructed local derbies, top of the table clashes, even vague notions of nostalgia; for example the attraction of Wimbledon v Oxford in 2011; an opportunity to remember halcyon days of the 1980s. Increasingly, for us, these narratives become less plausible - it’s difficult to look on us as a big team with Wembley glory in our past or a team resurrected from the Conference and going places. We are, well, nothing much.

The implication of that is the growing ambivalence towards the club; the media is less attracted to you and so are the sponsors, and, ultimately the fans become disinterested. Perhaps it will act as a wake up call as to our parlous state. All the talk of Plan B being Plan A, sticking to The Principles and judging the new owners by their actions is just vacuous boohockey. The game against Cambridge would have had less impact had it not been on TV, but maybe now our failings have been the subject of public consumption people will begin to learn the lesson that we are failing fast.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

All hail The Normal

Last week was a strange one; I was sitting waiting to get on a plane to Rotterdam when I checked my blog to see what, if anything, was happening. There was something happening; I had eight comments about my views on Luton Town. Nobody normally comments on my blog unless they’re from another team and they want to abuse me.

The post wasn’t not exactly anodyne, but it was genuine. I have a  visceral, only semi-logical dislike for Luton Town. But, perhaps I should have known better. I turned my phone to flight-safe mode and pondered for an hour what to respond with. I fought a reasonable rear guard action against a growing number of comments accusing me of spitefulness and more. Apparently it was picked up by a local Luton tabloid who considered my comments newsworthy.

The conference I was flying to was a bizarre. The Chinese won (and for that, I mean bought) an award for being Chinese, a man described the ‘competence of endurance’ through a protracted story about how, as a 53-year-old working early shifts on an oil rig climbing up and down a ladder all day really took it out of you. Lots of people told me how important they were, how important their work was and how many other people, who similarly said how important they are, they knew.

Eventually I left the conference centre and sat down outside a coffee shop and yearned for a bit of normal – to get home to family, away from restaurant food, away from the self-served and self-important. I looked at my diary, a couple of normal meetings back in the office, then a normal league game against Newport on Saturday.

On Saturday morning, back home, the rain sleeted down; my daughter trotted over halfway through football training with a big smile on her face but no feelings in her fingers. It was a good moment; in the past she might have crumbled, but this was what it was all about. She was beginning to get football, the joy in its misery.

Autumn was here, grey skys, chill air, rain. I’ve said before how football fans are people of the gloaming; we don’t do t-shirts and shorts well. Tans and shirt sleeves don’t work in English football grounds. Autumn and winter, wrapped up in coats, is when we finally awaken.

On the radio Michael Appleton talked about never losing his rag and never taking a step back. He was referring to The Principles, the vaguely threatening value-set imported into the club by the new regime. It followed the revelation at the Fans' Forum that Plan B was Plan A – or that there was no Plan B, there were just The Principles. We were also told to judge the regime by its actions, apparently oblivious to the fact that its actions to date have been largely ineffective. It's felt less like a football club recently, more like we're part of an ideological experiment.

The lead through Collins was slightly fortuitous, but just about deserved The sending-off of Tyrone Barnett may well have been a blessing. His first booking was deserved, but ultimately a punishment for his incompetence at tackling as much as any malice, the second seemed to have no merit whatsoever. Appleton lost his rag, throwing a water bottle across his technical area at the booking of Carlton Morris shortly after Barnett had departed. He then took a step back, choosing to ditch The Principles and fight for the points; we would stick with one up front and attack on the break, if we could.

It was dogged and gritty, but it was normal. The Principles were still there, we passed neatly out of defence, through midfield and attacked where we could, but they didn’t get in the way of The Normal.

Despite what they might say, fans will always value results and effort over style, and that showed in the way the fans got behind the team rather than sitting back waiting to be entertained. We can match raw effort from the stands, we can’t help pass the ball around. The final whistle came, our first win on a Saturday at home for eight months, and suddenly it felt a bit more normal, and that felt good.

For me, a little bridge was built, particularly towards Michael Appleton. We’re not a showcase for his coaching principles, we’re a football club that wants to win games. He seems like a nice guy, and I worry that he’s took nice, too much of a theoretician in the art of coaching. Is he faced with jeopardy to focus on results? For once, it looked like he wanted the fight, he took on the fourth official, he was animated on the touchline, he valued the three points over The Principles. If he can keep that going, then maybe we’ll get somewhere after all.  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I really really hate Luton

You don’t need to know much about Oxford United to know that Swindon Town is its nearest and deadliest rival. The historical rivalry with Reading seems to have withered due to a lack of use, whereas Wycombe Wanderers snap at our heels trying to provoke us into a reaction which rarely gains any traction.

The Swindon rivalry is well rehearsed; insults are traded, there is periodic, out of context, abusive songs sung for no other reason than to remind us all of the animosity. When games happen they’re highly anticipated, broiling affairs which, let’s face it, we tend to win. As much as I like the rivalry, I like the insults, the anticipation and the games, it’s all very knowing. We know they hate us, they know we hate them and we all act according to a pre-ordained script.

As a result, like many derbies, there is something of the American wrestling about the whole affair. At the top, a layer excitement, fury and action, below a carefully constructed pre-rehearsed narrative. So, in a sense I hate Swindon because I’m supposed to, but in truth I don’t hate them with a visceral loathing. That feeling is reserved for Luton Town.

Luton and Oxford’s histories have followed very similar trajectories. We both experienced a Wembley victory in the mid-eighties and then Conference football in the late 2000s. It is possible, perhaps, to use each other as a benchmark of our true success. Being in the top flight is not either team's natural position in the world and nor is struggling in the Conference. Our natural position, you could argue, is somewhere relatively better or worse than a team like Luton, and likewise them with us.

Along with Wimbledon, Oxford United and Luton Town were Thatcher’s children. During the 80s Thatcher dismantled the traditional British economy pushing many of football’s traditional heartlands into recession. Clubs like Blackpool and Preston fell down the leagues, others, like Manchester United struggled along without the success they once enjoyed. Oxford, Luton and Wimbledon were heartlands of the nouveau riche feeding off the false riches offered by privatisation and other economic reforms.

You would think that we would galvanise into a ‘movement’ but like all middle-class neighbours we were all racked with jealousy and mistrust. We, beside being funded by a fraudster, achieved our success the right way - playing exciting attacking football, marauding over all-comers in front of packed crowds. Wimbledon were fabled route-one specialists, aggressive and physical. Luton simply cheated their way to the top laying a carpet of artificial turf at Kenilworth Road which caused the ball to bounce as if on a trampoline and burn the legs of those who had the temerity to fall over. The only football you could play on it was ‘Luton football’. In short, rather like Thatcher's economic miracle, it skewed the market to enable their success.

Thatcher acolyte David Evans, a Conservative MP and Luton chairman, also took the decision to ban away fans from Kenilworth Road further distorting their home advantage. Superficially, it was an attempt to combat hooliganism - as if there was something about round balls and rectangular goalposts - the functions of the game - which cause otherwise happy people to turn violent. He was also a vocal supporter of Thatcher’s plans to introduce identity cards for football fans; an absurd abuse of human rights. Luton were basically Thatcher’s version football porn and Evans fawned endlessly over her to gain favour.

There were notable scuffles between the clubs on the pitch - they knocked us out of the League Cup in a often forgotten semi-final in 1988 thereby denying us a second Wembley trip in 2 years, there was an astonishing 7-4 defeat at Kenilworth Road and a 3-2 Oxford win on the plastic that all but secured our survival in 1987.

Fast forward to the Kassam years; we’re plummeting back down the league and the latest Kassam saviour, Joe Kinnear, resigns from Oxford on health-grounds. He reappears days later at Luton. He could have given so many reasons for resigning, but he simply, publicly, lied. Plus, he left us with David Kemp. Then, he took Luton on a dance back up through the divisions - beating us on Boxing Day in 2001. While we struggled, they celebrated and we were eventually relegated to the Conference while they sat pretty. This would have been galling enough had it not been based on one of the biggest lies in English football history.

The club were operating way beyond their means and when the money dried up administration was an inevitability. In addition it was revealed that Luton had been paying agents via third parties against the Football League’s regulations. The result was an accumulative 30 point deduction which meant they were relegated into the Conference the following season. In essence, we’d been a victim of their ill-gotten success, or that’s how it felt. Their points punishment was one thing, but it didn't compensate for our suffering.

By now we were both in the Conference, this put Oxford and Luton in the unfamiliar position of being giants of their division. Inevitably, they arrogantly predicted an immediate return to the Football League - being the only team, they said, ever to be relegated from the league for 'non-football reasons' (not true, their cheating artificially inflated their footballing capability; the points deduction was just a readjustment for that). But it was us who set the pace winning 2-0 on a fantastic night at the Kassam with a James Constable goal moments after missing a penalty (spewing a mini-YouTube classic) and a wonder goal from The Great Carrier Of Hope, Jamie Cook. The stadium seethed throughout - the size of the crowd and its intensity taking the police and club by surprise - part of the chaos being that it wasn’t considered important enough to be all-ticket.

Months later and the tide was again beginning to turn; Luton was finding their feet and we were suffering a characteristic mini-collapse. The problem appeared to be stemmed at Kenilworth Road as Matt Green put us into the lead, which we carried deep into injury time. Then, perhaps inevitably, they won a corner from which they equalised; and then heartbreakingly about six hours into injury time, we conceded again and walked away with nothing. Chris Wilder talked paternally about us being alright despite us metaphorically falling off our bike and getting a boo-boo on our knee.

The season, inevitably ended with a play-off. It seemed pre-ordained that we would meet Luton at Wembley (maybe even a full Wembley) for the right to promotion. But, while we completed our side of the deal dismantling Rushden, they inexplicably capitulated at home to York. It probably did us the world of good as their form suggested they’d have gone to Wembley as hot favourites. But, all of this was overshadowed as angry Luton fans chased the York players into the away end hurling abuse and objects at them. A shameful episode for which they were barely punished - even more galling when you consider that a year before we were deducted five points for a minor administrative error involving Eddie Hutchinson.

Saturday's defeat, which seems to have opened the debate around Michael Appleton's commitment to The Right Things, seems to have been self-inflicted. However, this doesn't make me feel any better about them.

I haven’t even touched on what a horrible place Luton is or what a pipsqueak of a stadium they have with their grandstand of greenhouses down one side. It all adds to a great pyre of evidence that makes Luton a team I loath beyond all others.

Oh, but I love their kit.

Addendum: There is a fine line between deliberately nasty and simply discussing a genuine feeling. And this is about the latter, not the former, although I realise that it does look like the former – particularly if you are a Luton fan. If you think about it, I’m describing a relationship over a 30 year period. The only real constant in this relationship is me and the name Luton Town.

It just so happens that Luton and I have never really got on – from plastic pitches and bad results to banned away fans and hooliganism. But that’s not to say that there aren’t good people in Luton and it hasn’t done good stuff. I have vague recollections of being a "Luton fan" during the 1985 League Cup final. It’s just my only interaction with the club has really been through the bad stuff listed above.

At least Luton is a memorable team for me. I suppose, in a sense, I should dislike other clubs even more because they just happen to turn up at Oxford games from time to time and leave no impression at all.

What I do know is that frequently when you dislike something, that it says more about you than the thing you dislike. Perhaps that’s it – Luton Town is a bear trap for me; which says more about me than it does about them. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reasons to be positive

Well, we have established a number of things about this season. Michael Appleton is a better coach then he is a manager - he will improve your players, but will he win you games?

Our owners have a preference for untried, high risk signings - the talented but injured, the talented but inexperienced, and the talented with questionable attitude. There is no evidence, currently, of a wider strategy for the club - particularly around stadium ownership. We have a sickly sweet PR machine in place which has face-aching smiles and talks in management-speak of ‘customer journeys’ and ‘USP's’.

Commercial successes have been limited - we have a shirt sponsor who is almost certainly not paying any money for the privilege, but the pop-up club shop outside the South Stand is a good innovation.

The club are demonstrably worse off than they were 12 months ago and yet the fans are compliant in this apparent failure. Perhaps it's out of apathy, perhaps from politeness. One thing is for sure, no other Oxford manager - throughout our history - would have been given this much time.

Is there anything to be optimistic about?

Well, change does take time and it is to football’s eternal failing that it doesn't give things time. The preference is to continually role the dice in the hope that, by the law of averages, you will eventually throw a double six. The football is certainly better, chances are being created, logic would suggest that it should be possible to accumulate enough points for a mid-table finish.

We are on a very, very gradual upward climb form-wise. We’re unbeaten in six games and West Brom was a great night.

As optimism goes, this sounds underwhelming. But, it was highly unlikely, given the financial constraints Ian Lenagan became under, that we were ever going to go up this season. So, considering what might have been - poor mid-table football - with what should be - entertaining mid-table football - you might argue that things are progressing.

I like the new branding at the stadium, although we’re a long way from creating a decent match day atmosphere, but I quite like seeing the club badges on each stand as I walk to the ground. The portakabin club shop is a good idea, as well as generating cash and it helps centralise the match day experience.

And that’s all I have, it is too easy to be wholly positive or wholly negative about things. It’s almost, to some, an question of pride to side on an issue in such a binary, absolute fashion. Most things are in fact usually a bit negative and a bit positive.

But, the truth is that on balance, things are worse, and what is perhaps interesting is the lack of frustration that seems to be coming from the fans. Perhaps there is a point when everyone gets fed up with fighting and starts to give up.

I struggle with the idea that a decision about a manager should rest on a single result rather than a prevailing trend, so must-win games are a bit of a nonsense. However, we continue to fall short. As pretty as the football may be and as gloopy as the PR is, if we can’t win games, then you have to question what is the point of the Ashton revolution?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A win is a win

A win is a win, right? Well, yes, and no.

I found the standing ovations for Callum O’Dowda, Brian Howard and Danny Hylton slightly troubling. Not because they didn’t, in their own ways, have very good games against Accrington. It was because it reminded me of a phenomenon that seemed to arise in the late days of The Manor and early Kassam years. Despite ever falling quality of our performances, the frequency of standing ovations at substitutions increased.

There was a time at The Manor when you knew a player had done something special by the wave of people rising to their feet in the Beech Road stand. It happened very rarely. By the end of the Millennium, simply running around in a yellow shirt had become reason for wild applause. Our standards had slipped.

I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon. A win is definitely better than a defeat; I am not one of those people who claims to want to see their team lose to affect a change of manager. For one, that’s a buffoon’s logic and two; from what I hear of him, I quite like Michael Appleton. I’m not convinced by him as a manager for obvious, tangible, reasons, but he speaks well and appears willing to take responsibility for his team. I don’t particularly like myself for not being convinced by him as a professional.

And, I’ve had worse Tuesday nights at The Kassam; Howard’s ball to Hylton for the first was excellent and Collins’ goal was spectacular, Callum O’Dowda’s performance shows he’s developing well and there was plenty of entertaining, attacking football to watch. As an isolated 90 minutes, it was definitely entertaining.

But. This was us winning against a moderate team, at home, who had ten men in order to pull within a point of the fourth bottom team of the whole football league. We hadn’t won in seven games - it wasn’t a must-win game, it was a 'should win' game by virtue of the law of averages alone. On other days Collins’ shot sails over, Barnett wouldn’t have been given such a daft opportunity and the referee would miss the sending off and it all ends up decidedly more close than it was. Eventually it was going to come together, but could you say it's the start of something?

While it would be great to be goldfish-like and receive every victory like it was the best one we’d ever seen, the win remains tempered by the context. Last year; and in fact, for the last 8 years, we have had aspirations of winning promotions. And, particularly early in those seasons wins meant going top, or staying in the play-offs, they dared us to dream.

I don’t expect every game to have the same feeling as a win at Wembley or in a derby, but while I am satisfied with the win over Accrington, I can’t quite get excited about it in the context of our terrible start to the season.

Perhaps this is the start of something; but there’s still a lot to resolve before it becomes clearer as to whether it is or not. Can Hoskins and Howard stay fit? And Hylton? And Clarke and Whing? Has whatever turned Tyrone Barnett from a million pound player to a free transfer in two years been left behind at his former club? Does Appleton have the ability? Does Eales and Ashton have the money?

This will only become clear when looking at the context; in other words, the runs we go on. If we’re to even have an average season we’re going to have to hit a run to compensate the awful start - five or six wins in seven or eight games, that kind of thing. If we’re actually going for promotion; which seems frankly ridiculous right now, that run will have to be more sustained. Was there enough evidence from the Accrington game to suggest we will put that kind of run together? No, because it’s impossible to judge over 90 minutes.

It’s not easy; football should be a visceral and spontaneous experience. But, it's difficult to divorce the experience of a game from what's going on around it. Perhaps that's a plague of growing up; it creates a clutter of history; a ramshackle filing cabinet in my head full of scraps of memories. So, Callum O'Dowda's performance had me delving into that filing cabinet to try and remember how it compared to Joey Beauchamp and Paul Powell, Collins' goal was quickly compared to Leven's. A win is tempered by the context in which it happens; good in itself, but far from conclusive as to whether this is the beginnings of the return of the good times.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Are football fans a bunch of dumb asses?

There’s a tweet that’s been bugging me ever since it was posted just after the transfer window closed and we’d failed to sign Tyrone Barnett. It basically said that the club should be applauded for being willing to spend money on players and also to be applauded for not being held to ransom by a player’s wage demands.

Now, in reality, it seems that the problem with the Barnett deal was between the player and his agent, but it seems that this one Oxford fan was wholly satisfied with the failure of the bid. In fact, he viewed it as some kind of success.

This is one of the themes of this season so far; it has been a terrible, terrible start - disastrous form and we're still three or four players short of a competitive squad. We are the second worst team in the entire football league and by next Saturday afternoon, it is conceivable that we will be the worst. And yet, not only are Oxford fans apparently satisfied by our parlous state and optimistic about our future, they are prepared to find ‘evidence’ from even the most incongruous sources to prove that fact. In addition, there are others re-writing our recent history; claiming that this is better than life under Chris Wilder (currently 7th with Northampton).

Now, I’m not going to bang on about winning at Wembley or the three wins over Swindon, I’m not going to talk about the nurturing of James Constable into not only a genuine goalscorer but a modern day club icon and talisman. I’m not going to talk about Peter Leven’s goal against Port Vale, or the semi-final play-offs against Rushden or Jamie Cook goal against Luton.

I’m not going to talk about any of those things, I’m not going to talk about half a decade which we will look back on as a golden age. I’m not even going to talk about the mean-spiritedness of that revisionism. Instead, I’m going to ask a simple question; are football fans just a bunch of dumb asses?

I sometimes see spats on Twitter between fans - obviously in our case it’s usually with Swindon fans. Insults are traded; but, I do often wonder if anyone is genuinely serious about this. I mean, does anyone genuinely believe that all Swindon fans are scumbags or that arguing over who is best will actually ever be resolved?

Do those who one week, after a defeat, call for the kneecapping of the manager and then the next, after a win, claim him to be a genius, recognise the idiocy of their inconsistency?

I enjoy the rivalry, I enjoy the pantomime, even when it’s vicious and foul mouthed, but I also know it’s fiction. It requires a suspension of belief in order for it to work. I had assumed others see it as well, but perhaps they don’t, perhaps they genuinely feel it is real. The problem is that we’re all so busy playing along, and we’re too afraid to ask anyone if they genuinely believe it in case they do and you’re exposed as being one of the uncommitted.

But, you have to be a simpleton to genuinely confuse the fiction of football rivalry and the reality of the reductivism of it all. I don’t know how many people do fall for it, but some clearly do.

Rivalries are probably the least of our worries right now, we seem to be plumbing new depths of idiocy when it comes to our current form and predicament. I wholly get the idea of going to a game regardless of your form because that’s kind of the point. But, the acceptance of our current state completely baffles me. We have scratched two draws in six, and yet, that is deemed to be acceptable. Apparently we’ll be rewarded for sticking to higher principles of playing attractive football, but with what? A win? Avoiding relegation? Mid-table safety? Do people genuinely believe that our form or even our play indicate that we’ll match or improve on last year? When was a home draw with Dagenham, as entertaining as that might have been, considered the height of any club’s, let alone our, ambition?

I’m assuming that we all secretly know that our form this season has been catastrophic, and that should it continue in this vein then that could do irreversible damage to the club. The casual observer who makes the real difference between our future success and failure - because they attend when we succeed and don't when we fail - are simply not fooled by the idea that we are, in fact, succeeding. I’m hoping we know this and we’re all putting on a brave face. But what I’m thinking is that we’re all so dumb that this is genuine acceptance, or genuine belief, that some magical spirit is about to step in and fly us to the stars.

Suspending reality is at the heart of any entertainment, you have to give yourself over to the format whether that be film or theatre or sport - which is basically theatre without a script. But, if you suspend your reality completely, then there is always someone ready to exploit that. Football rivalries get hijacked by the politicised far right, for example. My fear is that we have handed ourself wholly over to rhetoric and we’ve ignored the reality of our situation. There is a very real possibility that by the time we wake up to that it will be too late.

Perhaps there is a commitment to entertaining football under the new regime, and perhaps there’s more money to invest in the club. Perhaps the stadium issue is moving forward at pace. But, if we wholly believe those promises and passively hand ourselves over the new regime - without an ounce of scepticism or pressure - then we are truly as dumb as we look. They should be buying our trust and respect with their performances, currently, they’ve built no capital in that respect and yet a draw at home to Dagenham or away to Southend is considered to be a major success and somehow proof that this is an improvement on the previous regime.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The marshmallow club

I have a friend whose husband had a near-fatal aneurysm five years ago. At first, the doctors battled to save his life; he was passed up the food chain from one expert consultant to another even more expert consultant. He was regularly given just hours or days to live. He went from standard treatment to world class treatment to experimental treatment. He is, in short, a medical miracle.

And it worked, his life was saved; he still suffers setbacks, but he is no longer on the brink of dying. He is, to quote my friend, like talking to a marshmallow. The reality of caring for a human marshmallow takes its toll. It affects their children’s behaviour and development; he has lost the ability to empathise and is incredibly personally offensive towards her and he suffers periods of both deep depression and even more damaging euphoria (spending thousands of pounds on a whim). As he’s otherwise stable, he’s in his late forties, he could be like this for another 50 years. My friend, obviously, feels a great obligation to continue to care for him, but, she admits in moments of candidness, that there are times when she’d prefer he wasn’t around.

I think I might be coming to the same conclusion about Oxford United. Its 15 years since Firoz Kassam bought the club, cleared its debt, knocked its stadium down, built another one and sent it plummeting down the divisions. Then Ian Lenagan came in, stabilised things but took them as far as he was able given his resources. And now Eales and Ashton are in control and are threatening to drive it into the ground once again, or at best keeping it in its current vegetative state.

The difference now is that our league position, our form, none of it bothers me that much. I don’t find it particularly humiliating, we’ve been here before and for a long time, and the hope of a bright future is dwindling. We are becoming a marshmallow club; our options seem to be to make the best of a bad job or just to let it slip away.

Ashton was on the radio before the Cheltenham game, his PR onslaught continuing with the Radio Oxford ‘Ask Ashton’ feature. The ‘best’ of these questions received, apparently, were around the bias of the referee on Saturday and smoking in the toilets.

Are you actually fucking kidding me? Is this what the anaesthesia of the Ashton PR machine has done to us? It’s fine to have gone eight games with one win, be next to bottom of the table, had the lowest league attendance in five and a half years just so long as we can have a fag at half time.

There are two questions that Ashton needs to answer – how much money is going to be invested in the team? And how and when is the stadium going to be purchased?

On the former issue, it seems evident that the answer is; not a lot. Ashton and Appleton have pleaded for time to develop the squad. But it is them who lobotomised the management of the club when they came in. Should they be afforded time when they weren’t prepared to give time to what already existed? They were the great saviours; not Lenagan and Waddock, both of whom were removed or sidelined, and we all compliantly, and shamefully, cheered their demise because we believed the new broom's bullshit.

But, what have they delivered? A handful of players, materially no better than those they replaced, and, judging by the results, worse. Pretty but ineffective football; I get that football clubs need to evolve into new cultures and styles, but this isn’t evolution; this is revolution into an abyss. It is more entertaining, but it is still losing football.

We’re not allowed to mention Chris Wilder, of course, but, by contrast, when he arrived at the club he, by his own admission, threw a team together; Sandwidth, Batt, Chapman, Clist, Nelthorpe. He came in with that plan – short term and a plan - longer term - to establish a squad to win promotion.

This didn’t happen with Appleton; nothing was thrown together; they talked about getting in the right bodies, not anybody. The rhetoric is fine, but what we’ve really had is neither the right bodies, nor anybody, we’ve had nobody, at least nobody who has changed the direction of travel. Perhaps Hoskins will when he’s fit, perhaps Jakubiak and Morris will with some more experience and game time. I have hope that, goals-wise, Hylton might compensate for the loss of Constable.

The next transfer window will be different, says Appleton. Will it? I’m tired of this constant gazing to the next horizon – wait until the next transfer window, wait until the stadium is bought, wait until Richard Branson buys us. But no, they want us to wait another three months by which time the season will have been trashed, or worse, a sullen malaise will have baked in and a relegation fight will be our only prospect. Appleton, by the next transfer window, nobody will care about your intentions, less your style of football. You may still be in a job, but you’ll be playing to empty stadiums.

Many say that patience is needed, but I'm not sure I care enough to be patient. With each passing failure – Cheltenham being the latest – comes ever growing indifference. There's no longer a fear of failure and even less expectation or hope of success. If we get relegated, then it won’t be a novelty, nor will it be any greater shame than 2006. Then you begin to kind of wonder what is the point of blindly following something in which you don’t care the outcome.