Sunday, November 29, 2015

Hartlepool wrap - Hartlepool United 0 Oxford United 1

Top of the league. I suppose it had to happen at some point, and, let’s face it, it was probably going to happen this month. We’ve had a month of comparatively easy games, which is never a guarantee of success, but if you’re going to be successful, then you should be picking up points against teams at the bottom. As a club we’ve never handled expectation well, so ideally I’d like to be hiding in the rushes of the play-offs before taking over top spot on the final day of the season, but it’s very difficult to pretend to not be the best team in the division when you are. In football you can’t judge how others are doing so when you hit the front, you just keep running.

Are we the best? I still think there’s a gear to find to be absolutely certain; we’re the 7th highest top scorers in the division (scoring less goals than Morecambe in 17th). Our success is based on a tight defence rather than prolific goalscoring - which is a bit of a surprise when you consider Roofe and Hylton’s deification and that we’re playing attractive attacking football. With Jake Wright struggling with a back injury, we’re light at the back with just Mullins and Dunkley. I quite enjoy Dunkley’s blood and thunder style, but he’s not as assured as Wright. As injuries and suspensions kick in we may find ourselves a bit threadbare. We’ve already got away with it once - Mullins’ sending off at Braintree meant he only missed the JPT game at Dagenham which he probably would have missed anyway - but there are only so many meaningless games we can waste suspensions on, and there will be less of those as the season hots up after Christmas.

Which all sounds harsh when we’re sitting on top of the table and playing so well. It is, but promotions, even titles, are a harsh unrelenting business. If we keep this up for the rest of the season we’ll have 92 points - our second largest points haul ever, but but not enough to win the League 2 title in 4 of the last 9 years. Maybe I’m getting greedy; 90+ points will always get you promoted, which is still the real objective. One goal wins mean that we have pressure for a full 90-plus minutes; the accumulative effect of tight victories could become debilitating. We need to find a rhythm where we can rely on a comfortable lead and relax, mentally at least.

December brings new and different pressure - a generally better calibre of opposition, disruption of cup games, the peculiar pressures of Christmas - Boxing Day in particular - and the possible distraction of a New Year treat in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup.

The good news is that we’re on top of the table and that’s because of excellent form played in a fantastic style. Also, it’s come at a good time; we don’t have another league game for two weeks allowing this new pressure to soak in a little. And, unlike the Wilder-years, going top mid-season feels like the consequence of the process we’re following, not an end product.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Newport wrap | Coming up: Hartlepool

Oxford United 1 Newport County 1

Home advantage isn’t what it used to be, pitches are better, players’ preparation is better; traveling distances is less of an issue, all seater stadiums make away games less intimidating. Altogether playing away is no more a chore than being at home.

For all the talk about this being the best football we’ve seen in decades, we’ve only scored more than one goal in a home game in the league once since August, and that was the defeat to Barnet. The last time we’ve taken points and scored more than two at home was Yeovil, which feels a while ago now.

This leaves us vulnerable; if we're only likely to get one goal, then we’re one defensive mistake or piece of magic away from conceding points. Against Newport we were hit by a world class strike from Lenell John-Lewis; a moment in which the tectonic plates aligned, timing, positioning and technique. You could tell even John-Lewis was surprised the way he trotted around the pitch aimlessly trying to comprehend what he'd achieved.

Newport were a decent side; their recent form implied that it wasn’t going to be the walk-over that it may have been when Terry Butcher was in charge. It does make you wonder what Butcher did to make them quite so inept. I have images of him standing in the changing rooms, eyes bulging, pressing a razor blade into his arm in a hopeless attempt at engendering some Butcher-style passion into their play.

Whatever Butcher was doing wrong, Sheridan is doing right, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually worried the lower reaches of the play-offs come the end of the season. But Tuesday showed how little it can take to turn an average side into a decent one. And if that happens, then our inability to score goals, and the vulnerability that comes with that, could cause a problem.

Coming up: Hartlepool United

Our tour of the lower reaches of the table concludes with a trip up to Hartlepool on Saturday. A curious team; they looked destined for the Conference last year before going on a mind boggling run that saw them avoid relegation. Along the way they gobbled us up in what looked like Michael Appleton's darkest and, what at the time could have been, last hour.

But, while we have turned ourselves around in remarkable fashion, their revival seems only temporary. They appear to be regressing back to where they originally were. We should be reasonable confident that points can be taken here, which will make up for the disappointing result on Tuesday night. 

Old game of the day

Last year Hartlepool looked like the most inept team in history. Of course, they beat us, at home, on a Tuesday night. Who is more the inept? The inept or the team that's beaten by the inept? It wasn't always like that, of course. In 2013, we couldn't stop winning away, this was a cracker.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dagenham wrap | Coming up: Newport County

Dagenham and Redbridge 0 Oxford United 1

Kemar Roofe had a busy week, first he was subject to some speculative transfer rumours related to interest from Newcastle, then he steps up to score a top class free kick to take the points at Dagenham. But, those rumours, how credible are they? Let's think about why Newcastle would want Roofe, and why they wouldn't.

Roofe is clearly an outstanding player, perhaps the outstanding player in League 2. He has solid coaching and conditioning from his time at West Brom and in Michael Appleton, he’s got, probably, the best lower league manager to maintain that development trajectory. If there is a Premier League player in League 2, then Kemar Roofe is probably that person.

Maybe Newcastle aren’t even thinking about their Premier League plans for next year; they could be preparing a Plan B of playing in the Championship. Roofe could be a cost-effective option for next year’s Championship squad. Should they might survive, with a new TV contract kicking in, Roofe wouldn’t be too much of a burden whether he succeeds or fails. 

It could be that the Premier League teams are waking up to the idea of talent in the lower leagues; certainly the Jamie Vardy market must be buoyant. Who knows? Roofe could be the next Vardy, and that has to be worth a punt, even if, statistically speaking, it's unlikely.

From Roofe’s perspective, almost any Premier League contract will be attractive, he won’t want to be in League 2 for long and become labelled as a lower league player. At the moment he’s still, potentially, the one that slipped through the net. Even if Roofe doesn’t make it, one Premier League contract should allow him to furrow a solid Championship level career. 

On the other hand, while Roofe is quick, so is everyone else in the Premier League. He's skilful, like every other player in the top flight. In a Premier League context, is he that special? And is Newcastle’s problem really Kemar Roofe shaped? 

Their problems seem deeper than taking a chance on a League 2 player who didn’t make it at West Brom. 

If they are going to go into the transfer market in January, and it is to help ensure Premier League survival, I suspect they’ll go deep and low risk. They need players who will turn them round and Roofe is not that kind of player; at least not on his own and not at that level. Expect to see ageing former internationals, solid Premier League pros and the odd European MLS player fancying some time back in the spotlight. In addition, if the current security concerns continue, there could be a surplus of players trying to get away from France and Belgium.

So, on balance, I’m not convinced by the Newcastle rumour, I suspect they’re running to rule over hundreds of players all over Europe. However, I do think that Roofe will be subject to quite a few rumours between now the close of the transfer window. But, ultimately, it's a question of fit. The time to worry is when an ambitious Championship club - think anyone in the current top 7 or 8 - or a solid Premier League team with a few holes - Bournemouth, Watford, even West Brom, coming knocking. 

Newport drop

As a lapsed Ipswich Town fan I love Terry Butcher. As a lapsed England fan, I look at THAT photo of him against Sweden with blood pouring down his face with nostalgic pride. He was, however, a terrible football manager. 

About a month ago Newport looked like the most hapless goons in the division. I was looking forward to a orgy of goals from our fixture on Tuesday. However, Butcher was booted out at the beginning of October and his replacement, John Sheridan, has come in and started to turn things around. They're five unbeaten and in the second round of the Cup. They do score a few, but with three 2-2 draws in their last seven, they concede a few.

None-the-less, we should be confident of taking the points here. Our form is great, but a glance at the bottom of the table reads like our recent fixture list. Banking points now is important preparation for tougher times ahead.

Old game of the day

The John Aldridge derby. Newport County seem to be one of the less heralded 'phoenix clubs'; they've been as successful as Wimbledon and yet people nobody makes much of a big deal about them. I guess if it hadn't been for the fact that we signed John Aldridge from them, I might have forgotten that they were a league club myself. As a result there's very little YouTube coverage of the two teams. None-the-less, this was a lot of fun.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Maths of the Day - October


The Appletonometer, which measures the manager's rolling 46 game points total meandered away throughout October before ending the month on 71 points, exactly where he was at the end of last month. The defeat to Barnet and draw with Orient didn't help, but otherwise, the month was a good one. It's just that October last year was also pretty good by the low standards we came to expect.

Five game form

Five game form illustrates the month's performances much better, while the long term trend flatlined, in the short term we're still better than we've seen since Appleton's arrival last year. Even with the dropped points against Orient and Barnet, in the short term we're still showing title form.

Run rate

In so many ways, the most important measure it how we're doing against our target of promotion. And the answer is that we're bang on track, if not a little ahead. We closed the month with a points total that would see us winning the title in May if we kept it up. And if you need any more assurance we're on the right track, which you don't, look at the droopy grey line at the bottom. That's where we were last year.

The best of times, the worst of times

When Tim Walker asked me last month for a reverse polynomial of David Kemp, I thought he was inadvertently referring to a practice only found on the dark web. It got me thinking; one thing about the grinding mundanity of Oxford United’s performance over the years is that both success and failure, when they come, are in stark relief to everything around it.

The comically awful 2000/2001 season represents, without question, our worst ever season performance-wise. It wasn’t just Kemp, of course; Denis Smith, Mike Ford and somewhere along the line Joe Kinnear got involved in the debacle.

We won seven games, conceded 100 goals and ended with a goal difference of -47. We played with over 40 players, including Dean Whitehead and current Swansea manager Gary Monk. Incidentally, we scored the same number of goals as Wigan in 6th but conceded 20 goals more than any other team. The top two teams; Millwall and Rotherham, conceded less goals than us combined. And if you thought that was bad; goalkeeper Richard Knight - one of five goalkeepers that season - without irony, was awarded player of the season.

But, when was the peak? That’s easy too; we’ve only won two titles in my lifetime; 1983/84 and 1984/85. I was about 12 and thought this was how life was always going to be. Of those titles, the first saw us amass 95 points, 10 more than the following season. And if you say that we played less games in 84-85, then you're right, but we still had a better points average by 0.04. I've checked.

Although we’d have our moment in the sun at Wembley, as a season of performances, 1983/84 was the best it ever was. Incidentally, in those two promotion seasons we lost just two games at home. That's Oxford United - from Aldo to Anthrobus.

But then, this is Maths of the Day. How does that look in some sexy graphs?

Well, pretty obviously, the run rate in 83-84 was a steep incline while 00-01 limped along all year to a paltry 27 points. By comparison, in 83-84 we passed that mark after 14 games. This season we're getting to that point, so at least this isn't going to be the worst season ever. 

What is pretty interesting is just how closely the record run rate aligns with this season. Admittedly, it coincides with the only slump we suffered that year, and there's a long way to go, but better to be closer to the red.

The five-game form book looks as you'd expect. Basically the best form we ever displayed during 00-01 was barely better than the worst form we shows in the promotion year. Again, this season chugs alongside the right line. There is a slump in all three seasons around the 10 game mark. From our perspective it is worth noting the two or three slumps we suffered even when accumulating record points. One in particular, early in the season, was close to relegation form. That, perhaps, reminds us that we will, probably, suffer the worst of times, even at the best of times. The challenge is toughing it out and bouncing back, in the long-term, as long as the goal is reached, the short term blips will be long forgotten.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Coming up: Dagenham and Redbridge

Braintree wrap

Ultimately, the 3-1 win over Braintree in the Cup was fairly routine. Michael Appleton's team selection felt like a snooker player building a break; it wasn't a team to beat Braintree, even without the likes of Kemar Roofe and Liam Sercombe we would have probably been good enough. It was more an assurance because the path through to the third round looks more than negotiable and that's where the bigger paydays lie.

That kind of thinking demonstrates the confidence with which Michael Appleton appears to be managing his team. He's moving away from the text book, something he seemed such a slave to last year, and towards his own instincts. The more his decisions prove to work, the more confident he will become.

Dagenham - The drop

How can it be the 21st of November and only the second league game in a month? I guess it's just that time of year. Saturday's game against Dagenham and Redbridge demonstrates one of those curiosities in football; a few weeks ago we played them in a meaningless JPT game against them,  now we play the same team at the same venue, but now it's in the league, so it's critical.

With only one league game played this month it's difficult to truly assess how we're doing. Cambridge last week was more uncomfortable than we'd expected, but we came away with the three points and it should have been more comfortable than it was.

The cup games offer little further evidence; by all accounts we should have put a hatful past Braintree in the opening tie, the aforementioned JPT game was comfortable, but we were playing with a second string team, on Tuesday finally eased into the second round. Did we play well, or did we just do what we should have done in the first place?

Old game of the day

If anyone was to ask, which they never do, but if they did, and they asked me what was my favourite moment of the Conference years, even beyond York it was a period of about 10 minutes during our game against Dagenham and Redbridge in 2007. In a sense it was a title decider, but by that point, they were well clear and we'd fallen away. However, it was a warm spring night in a tense and feral environment. They went a goal up and then we brought Yemi on. For literally 10 minutes, football could not have been more fun.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The wrap - Oxford United 1 Cambridge United 0

“Well, last night’s events really put the JPT draw into perspective.”

That was the tweet I wrote on Saturday morning, I wasn’t sure if anyone would get it and so did what I always try to do when I find I'm doubting myself; I erred on the side of caution and deleted it.

Would people get the wrong end of the stick? Would they get that I’m poking fun at people talking about major events which ‘put football into perspective’ as if football is the benchmark around which everything else should be measured. A bit like Bono saying that it showed the terrorists don’t like music, because the issue pivots around attitudes towards stadium rock rather than civil war in Syria.

As abnormal as Friday night was in France, Saturday in Oxford was as normal as it was possible to be. I went to the Cambridge game as planned, it rained like it frequently does, there was a reassuringly familiar chill in the air, it was dark when I left the ground. We scored a wonderful goal, threatened to score a couple more, played well and survived some hairy moments at the death. I could go home content with the three points and the prospect of a curry in the evening. I love that kind of Saturday, it was very normal and successful in its own moderate way.

While the atrocity in Paris is a tragedy on a personal level for hundreds of people, it is still just a blip. A blip in a long quest for reasonableness and rationality. This is a war that is being won and has been won for decades. It was such a shock because it was so unusual. In the first World War nearly 60 times the number who died on Friday died every single day for four years. From that version of 'normal' to this, that's how far we've come in a 100 years. Remember, this is the best they’ve got, it achieved virtually nothing and, the very next day, most people got up and carried on with their lives.

The Paris attacks were considered an attack on liberté, égalité, fraternité; the livelihoods of normal people, but it was ultimately nothing more than a graze on those principles. What option do we have? We signed up to them too long ago to turn back now, and more importantly, why would we want to? The plan is simple, apply the principles, demonstrate that ultimately everyone wants them, no matter which religious or philosophical lense they are viewed through, get people bought into the idea and help them realise that they are achieving nothing. Perhaps the club could have a game themed around bringing greater diversity and inclusivity to the stands at the Kassam? Who wouldn't want the multicultural melting pot of Oxford reflected in its football club?

The best response anyone can give to something like Friday’s events is to continue as we’d always planned to, go to football together, watch it together, enjoy it together and then come home knowing that another victory, in every sense, has been secured.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The wrap: Dagenham and Redbridge 0 Oxford United 2

They say winning is a habit. Let's assume you build a squad of players ready to step up whenever they’re needed rather than a squad of players made up of some you like and other you wouldn't put out if they were on fire. A successful team drawn from that squad, even if technically 'weakened', should be motivated in the same way as your strongest XI. They all train together so the differences in attitude and approach should be fairly marginal.

In a successful squad, even a weakened team is likely to have all the attributes to be a successful one. Which means that unless you deliberately go out to lose, you're likely to be competitive in every game.

This makes arguments about the relative importance of the JPT and FA Cup academic. Each game, regardless of the competition, is there to be won and if you’re a successful team, it’s very difficult to go out and try not to do that.

It’s an odd time of the season, and it’s going to carry on for the next few weeks with the replay against Braintree, a possible second round tie against Forest Green and another JPT tie. League games become a bit buried.

This has two effects; firstly switching teams on and off is very difficult so you might as well go for everything. Secondly, because of injuries and suspensions, which start to kick in over this period, it is almost impossible to distinguish between weakened and strong team. Take our back-four against Dagenham; on paper a ‘weakened’ defence, but with Johnny Mullins suspended and Jake Wright injured, even if that had been a league game the defence would have looked unfamiliar. Then, next week, with Mullins and Wright potentially back, they could get a run out against Braintree, a game they might otherwise have missed.

That’s the bind of being successful and the thing that successful managers complain about constantly. You get fixture congestion because you’re a decent side, so there’s no real point in prioritising one thing over another; just go for everything.

Coming up: Cambridge

The drop

I missed the Barnet game, so it feels like an age since we were last at home. In fact, my last home Saturday game was Wimbledon, and before that Morecambe. We continue our tour of the lower reaches of the division with Cambridge (18th). It's still fill-your-boots points-wise, before the December challenge of a relentless cavalcade of fixtures.

We go in with confidence, of course, but a good performance and comfortable victory is important given that we lost last time out and the aforementioned games against Wimbledon and Morecambe were both uncomfortable. The Kassam holds less fear than it did, but Saturday afternoons down the Grenoble Road have yet to bring the best out of us.

Old game of the day

The derby. This is the fixture that all Oxford fans look for when the list comes out in June. The video I wanted to find was one of Phil Whelan trying a back-pass in a bog. I like the obscurity of this video, it's only had 80-odd views and has little detail behind it. I spent most of it trying to identify our players, particularly who scored our goal, before working out that it was Cambridge, not us, in yellow. We're in red. IN RED, I TELL YOU.