Friday, December 28, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 0 Southend United 1

Marketing is a process of creating a gap between what we have and what we need. Sometimes that gap is obvious - there are things we need, such as food, which we sometimes don't have. Most time marketing tries to create a desire where there isn't one - for example, you may already have a functioning car, but after you've been bombarded by adverts, you might want a better one.

When you're a child, that gap is self evident. You don't have very much and little means to acquire things. Pretty much anything that exists presents an almost insurmountable gap between have and want. The excitement of Christmas is all about filling those gaps. As you get older, the gaps begin to close - you have more of what you want, but we compensate for the loss of that excitement, by inventing new things to want - feelings, status, experience, but it's never quite the same.

I've always loved Christmas and particularly Boxing Day football. It reminds me of early Christmases at my grandparents where we would go to The Manor as a treat. That memory opens others - the joy of a new football shirt - a luxury I couldn't hope to buy myself - or a Subbuteo accessory. I can buy those things now if I want to, but seeing kids with their brand new full Oxford kit worn proudly over the top of their clothes, makes me want to be seven again. The atmosphere is positive and homely as the cynicism of wizened regulars is compensated by the buoyant mood of family members and guests enjoying the novelty and taking in their first breath of fresh air in at least 24 hours.

Sadly, the reality of the game rarely lives up to expectations. The game against Southend probably summed up the reality of League 1 this season and our role in it. Southend represented a group of perhaps 15 or more well drilled sides - of which we are also one. They were organised and aware, happy to slow the game down, focussed on nullifying our threats, hoping that they might snatch something, which they did.

Karl Robinson's assessment was spot on; we don't have options up front to make an impact if Plan A doesn't work. Timothée Dieng in Southend's midfield marshalled James Henry out of the game, Marcus Browne was either tired, disinterested, off-form or injured depending on which Oxford supporting body language expert you listen to. As a result, Jamie Mackie was isolated and Gavin Whyte battled away gamely without much support or success. As teams begin to understand our threats that's what they'll focussed on; when you've got little to introduce from the bench, then the chances of outmanoeuvring your opponents are reduced considerably.

They didn't look a threat particularly, but neither did we. Our decent chance, from James Henry, went wide. Their decent chance went in. In most football games there are a range of 'fair results' a 1-0 win or 0-0 draw would both have been fair. But so was the 0-1 defeat.

The casuals, guests and family members won't really care about the result. They will probably draw some grand conclusions about the team or players - I once went with a friend on Boxing Day who thought Matt Robinson should be playing in the Premier League. We, on the other hand, must now move on. January is going to be an interesting month - players will probably leave, others will come in - we may start to see Wembley on the horizon in the trophy that shall not be named, we may even get an FA Cup run. If we're to get anything meaningful out of this season, January will probably define what that is.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The wrap - Doncaster Rovers 2 Oxford United 2

I've found the opening months of the season to be brutal; the chaotic opening, that familiar feeling of  despair as the club conspires, for what feels like the millionth time, to implode. It felt like a betrayal of everything that has happened over the last three or four years. From threatening to become the next Brighton, Swansea or Bournemouth to becoming yet another incarnation of the great farce we call Oxford United.

However, on the field we've recovered, though we're yet to register an away win, we've been picking up critical points - including Saturday's last gap draw against Doncaster. We still sit just above the relegation zone; underlying just how poor the start of the season was, but we should start easing to a safer position soon if results keep up.

But, I'm not excited by what's happening. I'm bruised by it all. For years we seemed to have a club without a team, at the moment it seems we have a team without a club. The club's new commercial director seems to recognise this; in his regular updates he outlines that he's got to give fans more than a winning team. He's got to give us something to believe in. I can't put my finger on exactly what's missing, I guess he spends more time thinking about it than me. It's got to be authentic, more than just gimmicky themes.

Although things are changing, the unlikely thread that runs through Chris Wilder, Gary Megson, Michael Appleton, Pep Clotet and Karl Robinson is Josh Ruffels. Ruffels can't be pigeonholed - it's difficult to pinpoint his best position, his strengths and weaknesses, or what it is that has endured him over such a long period of time. He's never been a 'first on the team sheet' kind of player, but his time at the club has stretched from Andy Whing and Deane Smalley to James Henry and Curtis Nelson. Few sing his name, but he's one of only three Oxford United players to play at Wembley twice, a most understated history maker.

I can't think of a player to compare him to. Matt Murphy? Certainly he's a great survivor, not may players make it through five managers, but Murphy was criticised mercilessly during his extended time at the club. Maybe we were just spoilt by what had come before and Murphy, like Ruffels today, would have been quietly appreciated for what he did if he hadn't had to follow the likes of Ray Houghton or Jim Magilton in the Oxford midfield.

Perhaps Ruffels is more comparable to the players of the 1970s and early 80s; players who would play for the club for years because Oxford was their home and the prospect of moving to a different club would mean uprooting everything. When Ruffels has retired and comes back to the club to be introduced at half-time, Peter Rhodes-Brown will probably reel off his stats to only be a smattering of applause as most will have never heard the name Ruffels. It's a shame that often the more enduring and loyal characters are over-shadowed by the more impactful short-term players.

Maybe Ruffels reflects the times; an antihero getting on with doing what he does. Things are changing around him, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but he keeps plugging away; scoring the odd critical goal, picking up appearances, and generally getting the job done.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 2 Blackpool 0

It was good to see Alex MacDonald back at the Kassam on Saturday. The little bowling ball in skinny jeans has cemented his legend in the club’s history and will always be welcomed back with open arms.

The 2016 promotion team, and its re-incarnation in 2017 as a League 1 team will always be the benchmark by which all subsequent teams will be measured, up until they are superseded. But, they set a high bar, so it’s going to be difficult to knock them off their perch. But, it’s easy to forget through the giant killings, promotions, derby wins, and Wembley visits the club didn’t win anything.

As entertaining as it was, they fell just short. The margins were always close, their comeuppance pivoting around a few specific games; Northampton in 2016, Sheffield United and Bolton the following year; each team turned up with an unerring efficiency, cutting through our pretty football, taking one touch when we would take four, scoring lots of goals, not perfect goals.

As Michael Appleton famously said, we were the best football team in League 2. What he didn’t say, to Chris Wilder’s chagrin, was that we weren’t the most successful. Like most arguments, the fall out came because each side were arguing from different starting points.

Saturday’s win over Blackpool showed shades of the unerring rugged efficiency that proved to be Appleton’s nemesis. A nemesis which seemed to be critical if you have ambitions for promotion.

There were two opponents, the hideous weather, which could have been enough to turn the game into a complete non-event, and Blackpool themselves, a perfectly competent team with reasonable aspirations for the play-offs.

Neither seemed to trouble us, the job was largely complete in the first half. Given our start to the season, promotion, or anything approaching it, would seem beyond the realms of what is reasonable. But, the seeds are there if we can maintain and build on that core strength.

Marcus Browne will eventually go back to West Ham and Curtis Nelson seems destined to leave at some point, but if we can bolster in January and build in the summer, then after a tumultuous opening to the season, we might actually start to realise our ambitions.

Critical to this is what I think caused our problems earlier this year; not the manager or players, but the owners and senior managers. The amount of money available seems less of an issue than the speed at which it is approved and released. Solve that issue and the sky is the limit.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The wrap - Peterborough United 2 Oxford United 2

James Henry's signing was a bit of theatre; the squad were in Spain, he was flown out to meet them, a fan bumped into him at the airport and took a picture which was posted it on Twitter with his face blocked out. Fans (well, me) started to compared the tattoos on his arms with pictures of him on the internet to try and confirm who it was.

And, that's pretty much where the theatre ended. It was an interesting signing, our squad was made up of young, ex-Premier League academy players, Henry was in his prime. Was he part of the recruitment programme that Michael Appleton left behind? Or the first of a new wave under Pep Clotet? Nobody let on, of course, though I suspect it was more the former than the latter. In that sense, he was a bit like Danny Hylton; signed by a previous era, adopted by the next.

And that's pretty much where the comparisons to Danny Hylton ended. If you could compare James Henry to anyone, it would be someone like Steve Basham. Basham quietly got on with his job of scoring goals. You probably won't remember any of them, you won't remember any of his post-match interviews, and you won't hear any of rumoured off-the-pitch antics. Nobody sings songs about Steve Basham, and nobody ever did, but he scored 43 goals - only eight other players have scored more in the club's league history. It was only years later when he scored a sublime hat-trick for Hayes and Yeading against us that I came to realise just how good he was.

Henry is similar in that through the chaos of Clotet, the painfully extended search for his replacement, and the turbulent opening months of the Tiger/Robinson revolution, he's just got on his with job chipping in with critical goals and generally offering a cool head.

I remember back in 2016, Alex MacDonald mentoring Jonjoe Kenny when he came from Everton to fill the not insubstantial hole left by George Baldock. That sense of ownership, without the benefit of a captain's armband, is essential in all teams. A number of times, you can see Henry geeing up his team mates or calming them down, he's not the most flamboyant character, but he gets on with the job and people respect him for it.

His brace on Saturday against Peterborough, like his crucial goal against Doncaster last season which effectively kept us up, shows just how pivotal he has become. He has become the difference between defeats and draws, draws and wins. With Marcus Browne and Gavin Whyte marauding on either side of him and Jamie Mackie causing a mess up front, Henry enjoys the freedom they give him. Suddenly it feels like we're a threat up front.

People talk about having a 20-goal a season striker, and there's little doubt that it helps to have one. But having a 10-15 goal midfielder like we did with someone like Liam Sercombe, ghosting in to pick up scraps created by people like Danny Hylton is nearly as important. Henry's role has become increasingly crucial in everything we do.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

The wrap - Forest Green, Bradford, Rochdale, Plymouth

I haven't written anything on this blog for a while. It's not as if things aren't going well on the pitch. Since the last post we've won three and lost one and we're in the third round of the FA Cup after an excellent win over Plymouth.

Not only was that win important in terms of progressing, it was our first one away from home against a team at our level (Checkatrade aside, which it always is). We're scoring goals and we've stopped conceding. The performance against Rochdale was, at times, as good, if not better than performances under Michael Appleton in League 1.

But, something is missing. The opening months of the season have been brutal, and the recovery from the start of the season has been slow. I admire Karl Robinson for getting us out of the hole we were in. I can see why people struggle to warm to him; he's like your mate in the pub who is full of energy and a great laugh. Except when you get home and all you want to do is go to bed, he's the one still going, plotting something, badgering you to go back out to some club or other.

He needs that energy, it's a thankless task being a football manager, harder still turning a team around in the face of an endless stream of criticism. Even harder in the modern game when you can't bring players in outside transfer windows. When everyone was down, he had to be up, he had to keep coming into work and putting the hours in to solidify the defence and create an attacking style that wins games. He's done all of that.

The Nile Ranger affair, as much as it was anything, didn't help with the mood. You can't blame Robinson for looking where he can for players given the constraints they're under. It's not that Ranger doesn't deserve a chance while he's free to take them. If we simply punish people endlessly for things they've done, what is the point of trying to turn yourself around? You might as well keep trucking on with your errant ways. But still, the last thing we need is to become a club that attracts negative press or appears to put its morals aside in the pursuit of league points.

We're also being wound up, apparently. HMRC are taking us to court in an attempt to make us pay our bills. I don't really know how serious these things are, they sound serious. I don't know how easy these things are to resolve. My guess is that, practically, all HMRC want is a cheque and the whole problem will go away.

Yellows Forum is not exactly a good barometer for how serious this is, but OxVox are sufficiently concerned to have written an open letter to the club about it. My guess is that it's not the lack of money that's the problem, more the poor administration of that money to pay bills. It doesn't bode well for January.

But, and I think this is where my head is at the moment. What I felt sitting in the stands against Rochdale is that the club doesn't currently have a narrative. At least not one I can easily relate to. Results on the pitch are good, and that's an important start, but the spirit of the club isn't there. There isn't a buzz on social media for each game, crowds are hardly booming, the relationship with players still seems quite distant, fan culture seems a bit flat, the club doesn't feel part of the city or fans or something.

This season has been one about the mechanics of surviving a terrible start. Perhaps the FA Cup will give us something to believe in, a spark, perhaps January will bring us some inspiring signings and we will take our form into the New Year and, like in 1996, we'll go on a run which will bring a tilt at promotion and everyone together. But, the club have got to resolve its issues, off the field has got to feel better than it currently does, otherwise the results will be a side issue and those with a casual interest in us - who turn 6,000 crowds into 8,000 crowds - will continue to stay at home.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 0 Forest Green Rovers 0, Oxford United 1 Gillingham 0

I used to have a Commodore 64 and the game Rambo II First Blood. The gameplay was even more primitive than the plot of the film it was based on. Essentially, a notably blocky and top heavy eight-bit Rambo runs headlong into a hail of bullets surviving as long as he can before getting shot to shit. I wasn't very good at it and barely lasted more than a minute. I wasn't alone; there's a 10 minute clip on YouTube of which 6 and a half are the load screen and credits. The gameplay is a mere side issue. 

The tactics on Saturday reminded me of that game; give the ball to Ricky Holmes or Marcus Browne and let them run headlong at the defence in the hope of affecting some kind of breakthrough. Pretty much every raid resulted in a predictable, Rambo-style failure until eventually, Browne managed to draw the keeper into a moment of madness and the game was ours. It was hardly sophisticated, but we'll take the points where we can get them.

It's not particularly entertaining and it won't work against better teams, it clearly didn't work in the draw against Forest Green last week. But, with a newly stingy defence, it's aiding a recovery of sorts.

Earlier in the season I was complaining about the sheer chaos of our gameplay - players running into each other, defensive errors and the like. The system we have now is disciplined, but obvious. It is suited to a team full of strong personalities brave enough to embark on kamikaze raids into the opposition defence, which is something we have plenty of.

This is where I think Sam Smith struggles, he's only a few months older than Harvey Bradbury, who many is think of as a raw prospect. In this team, you only get to play if you're prepared to bully your way into the game and Smith is not that kind of player. I suspect Kemar Roofe would have struggled in this team due to the lack of service and team play. Jamie Mackie will demand to be involved because of his personality and experience, Smith doesn't seem to have the personality or game to bully his way into a game.

Bradbury, as Sam Long said afterwards, is a big lump. Karl Robinson's observation was exactly right when he said that while not offering an obvious goal threat, getting centre-backs booked and putting them on the back foot played an important role in securing the three points. I'm not sure about Robinson's view that we should start looking at the top 10, but between Bradbury and Mackie, and looking at our upcoming fixtures, it feels like we just have enough to get us to the January transfer window in a solid state.

Only Robinson knows what who has lined up in the New Year, but for me, I think our recent form should mean we rule out a move for Nile Ranger. The morals arguments aside, Ranger is an opportunity, and also a risk, but now we have established a precarious stability and I would rather we focused on planned development rather than speculative opportunities.