Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unlocking the code

Among Michael Appleton’s increasing scrapheap of soundbites the one about finding the right DNA for the club endures above almost all others. To be fair to Appleton, I’m not sure he actually said it, that could have been Mark Ashton, but it is a philosophy he stands by.

Actually, DNA isn’t a bad analogy to use if you apply it properly. DNA is frequently presented as a mystery of the universe, a light-force, a product of some unknown power. This isn’t surprising because what DNA does is remarkable.

However, DNA is a molecule containing a code, a sequence of instructions that, astonishingly, give us life. Now, given that logic is the product of us humans and humans define what science and logic is, then DNA isn’t a mystical thing, it is the origin of logic and rationality. Finding the right DNA is not channelling some mythical power source, its applying logic, solving a code which will result in success.

To illustrate where Michael Appleton has got it wrong is to look at how codes work, how DNA works. Matthew Syed in his book Bounce talks about this in the context of learning. Here’s a code which is a sequence of eleven letters:


If I asked you to remember that code, you would probably be able to remember perhaps 4 or 5 of the letters. Moreover, if I asked you to tell me what it meant, you would have no idea.

Here’s another eleven letter code:


If I asked you to remember that code, then chances are you would be able to rattle them off without a second thought. Not only that, you would probably be able to tell me what the code meant.
That’s because we have developed a sophisticated set of tools to interpret that code, we understand them as letters, group letters together to make sounds, we group sounds to make words, and then we have a reference library of meanings to attach to those words.

Football management is infinitely more difficult than this, of course, the number of variables run into billions when you combine players' attributes with injury and age with opponents and available resources and so on. Nobody should pretend this is easy.

However, the point still stands, because there is one utterly critical and controllable fact that has made establishing our DNA, our code to success, virtually impossible.

I chose eleven letter sequences in the above because there are eleven players in a football team. Say each letter represents a player, the order in which the players play should be recognisable if we’re to decode a team’s DNA. We know the first syllable is ABB, we know, because of the letters around it the ‘e’ is pronounced ‘ee’ and the second ‘a’ as ‘ay’. Each letter has meaning, but each letter also gives meaning to the other letters. A word is a surprisingly sophisticated code when you think about it, but we can solve it in a flash through endless hours of learning.

But, what Michael Appleton is doing is changing the code constantly by signing more and more players, replacing one with another. The changes are bewildering; it’s like asking the team to solve a code where a letter changes constantly. Keeping up with the letters in the code is hard enough, giving it meaning is impossible.

While we can provide endless arguments about resources and the pitch, the swapping of players is utterly controllable. Even if you take the difficult code above, with enough time you would begin to remember it, I could even give it meaning – like having a code to unlock a padlock. So, even a sub-optimal code is better than one which is changing all the time.

Of course in the perfect world you stumble across a DNA that works straight away, but we seem to have changed almost everything about the team on a continual basis. Quite how that is expected to deliver success, I have no idea.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Standard response

When Leo Roget arrived at the club in 2004 I thought we’d made a good signing. I’d heard of Roget, which was a good start; it was one of those distinctive names that echoed across the lower-leagues. We had been in reasonably good shape on the pitch, the previous season we had a solid back-four with Andy Crosby and Matt Bound and, although they’d left the season before, it seemed like we were learning lessons from the past and that Roget would fit right in. Plus, he was coming from Rushden, who at the time were nouveau riche and seemed to be going places.

But Roget’s first season was terrible, he was gangly and awkward, not a patch on his predecessors. If he used his height it wasn’t to dominate strikers, it was to fall on top of them. The following season he improved, in fact, he was a stand-out player. Fans seemed to like him and sang his name. By the end of that season, though, we’d been relegated from the Football League. So, did Roget really improve or did our standards drop? Did he play better or did he have to do more defending and blocking because we were getting worse?

Presumably one day Michael Appleton will be sitting in an interview for a new job and his prospective employer will ask about his achievements at Oxford. He may have to think hard, but perhaps he will cite this season’s highlight; the double over Bury.

That it: the highlight of our season so far is doing the double over Bury. In fact, up until Tuesday night, we were considered to be ‘in form’; a form which had seen us win 3 in 10, score 8, climb to 17th and be 9 points clear of relegation. Of relegation.

The fact is that the win at Bury shouldn’t have been a reason for celebration; it should have been a wake-up call. As decent as Bury might be this season, we should be expecting to pick off at least a couple of promotion chasers away from home, more if we have ambitions to go up ourselves. We should be expecting to win against Plymouth and we should definitely, definitely, definitely beat Hartlepool.

This is not because we deserve better because of who we are, progressively as the season has passed we’ve allow our standards to drop. At first it was good performances but bad results, then it was wins against poor teams, then it was a sense of celebration that our relegation fears were easing. Draws were celebrated as wins because we never seem to win. Now we’re losing at home to the bottom team in the division and Michael Appleton is applauding our ‘effort’.

He knows he is defending the indefensible now. I agree with him that the players put in a lot of effort against Hartlepool, but the merry-go round of players throughout the season means that for all the effort we remain utterly listless. There is no system. Does anyone know how Roofe or Gnanduillet want the ball in order to score? Well, no because neither have played more than a handful of games for Oxford and neither have the players passing to them. No wonder it’s so disjointed.

Appleton, by his own admission doesn’t have an angry gear, so he’s going to be objective and look for learning points and positives. It’s a good quality to have if you’re coaching youngsters who make lots of mistakes in the process of learning, but managing experienced professionals who are tired, demoralised and battle weary is different. Managers need to show players where they can go if standards do drop whether that be through a volcanic temper or whatever. Plus, they need to show it as the merest inclination of a problem; like the time Chris Wilder (yes him) criticised us for winning 4-0 against Eastbourne after being poor in the second half.

Slowly but surely corners have been cut, standards have slipped and the previously unacceptable has become acceptable.

A spineless defeat to the bottom club in the division – who are in dire trouble on and off the pitch - removes any last shred of credibility Appleton had in claiming that his philosophy will work given time. It’s like going down a hill with worn brake pads; you just have to hope something will stop you because you can’t rely on what you thought you had. This has been coming for a long time, but any lingering hope that we’re going in the right direction has been cast into the dustbin.

Where now? It’s so hard to imagine a scenario now where Appleton not just turns this round but sustains an upward trajectory toward the play-offs and beyond, this season or next. The squad is a mess of panic signings and loanees, players we’ve bought or haven’t bought, players that we’ve announced and never seen sight nor sound of. These are his players working to his confused philosophy stuck in a vortex between what is ‘right’ and what is needed. In order to change, he’s going to have to back down admit he’s been wrong – wrong players, wrong tactics. Not only will he lose face, this is going to take time or money or both to sort out. People are going to get hurt. I can’t see him doing that.

But, he’s not going to resign either; his managerial career has become an absolute wreck with not only this debacle on his CV, but also some of the football league’s greatest basket cases – Portsmouth, Blackburn, Blackpool – all with his name on them. It’s not all been his fault – far from it - but he knows how it’s difficult to shake a reputation.

So, we're left with one option… Mark Ashton, over to you.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Plan B?

When we opened the season with four consecutive league defeats and without a win in nine, there were those who applauded the style, if not the results, that Michael Appleton was trying to produce. The more sceptical pointed out that not only were the results not coming, that come the long winter months, the weather would ensure that things could only get worse.

The quality of pitches this season seems to have become more of an obsession than in the past. Perhaps it is because of the ubiquity of the lush, green carpets of the Premier League that we have come to believe is the norm. Maybe it is the product of extreme weather resulting from global warming. Maybe it's the London Welsh obsession, although the obsession doesn't seem limited to the state of our pitch. Maybe it’s a hidden product of the economic downturn where clubs are cutting corners to save costs.

Certainly the expectation that pitches should be green and lush throughout the season is a modern phenomenon. In the 70s and 80s, rutted, muddy pitches in January and February were the norm, it became a great leveller that ensured FA Cup giant killings were more likely. Football, perhaps, wasn’t viewed through the filter of the aesthetic, as it is today, but instead through one of dour pragmatism. It was less important that a game was good and played the right way, more important that it simply happened.

Some seem to be under the odd illusion that lower league players cannot play football on grassless pitches. And that this is at the heart of our problems; because the quality of pitches is awful, we cannot play our way. On the contrary, this is surely much more of a norm for most of them.

Michael Appleton applauded his team’s ‘combativeness’, ‘organisation’ and ‘professionalism’ in the draw against Portsmouth. All terms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Chris Wilder post-match interview. Incidentally, for those who don’t track this kind of thing, Mr Wilder, with his dull, defensive football, is currently at the helm of the division’s leading goalscorers, the boring sod.

Like last year’s memorable 4-1 reverse, the occasion of the Pompey game probably overstated the result on Saturday. Away draws at Morecambe or Wimbledon - teams directly above and below Pompey - would have been considered solid results rather than some something akin to a win. The 12th Man of Fratton Park is probably the complete opposite at the moment as the visitors thrive on the novelty while the hosts whither with fear. Something we know about only too well.

Organisation and combativeness are both qualities that take you far in League 2, particularly on pitches which won’t allow the ball to run true. It has become more evident in our game in recent weeks and it seems little coincidence that Jake Wright and Ryan Clarke, amongst other warrior types, have finally found some form. It seems that they are relying on their instincts and strengths - honed on the awful pitches of League 2 and the Conference - rather than obsessing over playing the game the right way.

Is this the emergence of a Plan B? A conscious move away from the FA’s training text book towards the cold realities of the lower leagues? Appleton is not clear on the matter. My instinct would say that it’s a happy accident, although the signing of the lanky target man Armand Gnanguillet might suggest otherwise. The key is whether Appleton will learn from this year’s experience or stick pig-headedly to the philosophy. Will he be fooled by the return of beautiful lush turf come August?

Morecambe update
I have some sympathy for Michael Appleton after the draw against Morecambe. This 'trench warfare' football never looks good when you're losing. We were far from outplayed, as we were against Shrewsbury, Wycombe and Southend, and in the end the same performance could easily have produced a defeat, a win as well as the draw we got.

The problem he has is what got us here in the first place; too many signings, too much rhetoric, too many false dawns and corners turned. People were quick to jump on his pre-match comment that this was the group of players he wanted all along. That was a daft comment - similar the 'no plan B' statement at the start of the year - which was always going to come back to haunt him.

Because he is so backed into a corner with his previous statements about not being one for compromise, it's difficult to know whether he is genuinely learning from this season's experience - as it appears on the pitch - or whether, as his interviews seem to imply - he's blind to the realities of what he's dealing with.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Feed the fans and the rest will follow

Oxford United’s first ever tweet said “Testing to see if anyone spots we are here.” It was a typical first tweet of the the time which was populated mostly by techie, marketing and media types; early adopters who tried this stuff out with no real expectation as to whether it would take off or not. The club adopted the handle ‘OUFClive’; it was probably the best they could come up with on a quiet afternoon, a decision made with little consideration to social media strategies or such piffle.

Followers began to notice that, when read quickly, the ‘Clive’ bit stuck out. It became a running joke that the club’s Twitter account was actually someone called Clive. ‘Clive’ played along; he became our mate at the football. Even the top brass at the club got involved with Kelvin Thomas once playing the role of Clive for a pre-season game in the US.

Then, recently, without warning, the club changed its handle to OUFCOfficial. There was consternation; Clive, our mate at the football, became ‘official’; and as we know, nothing in football that is ‘official’ is any good - referees, police, stewards.

It's been suggested that it was changed for the club to appear more professional. A hashtag was introduced; #together; which, in the current climate seems a bit passive aggressive to me. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, that sort of thing. Context is everything; if the club had used the hashtag #believe during the Malcolm Boyden campaign in 2009, I would have been on board. Ultimately, these things work when they reflect how you feel rather than tell you how to feel. I did ‘believe’ in 2009, I don’t really feel ‘together’ in 2015.

Clive was a rare piece of fan-driven PR that worked well, and the club’s drive for so called professionalism wiped it out. Football clubs, particularly in the lower leagues need to recognise and capitalise on the wonkiness of football clubs not try to eradicate it to present a facade of credibility.

With every new regime or manager, history tends to get wiped out and everything starts again. Apart from in the fans, of course, we treasure the past. Successive manager’s have vocally criticised those who are nostalgic, but it’s a key driver for why we turn up each week; we want to try and recreate or build on the magic of the past that has made us supporters in the first place. If it were a wholly logical decision based on the quality of the service being provided, our crowds would be so low the club would be able to phone everyone to check if they were coming each week.

This isn’t just romantic whimsy, there’s money to be had in nostalgia-porn; on Saturday I went into the club shop, I had an itch to spend some money, I’ve no idea why. I couldn’t find anything but generic polyester leisurewear. I’ve been looking for a copy of the 2010 Wembley DVD for ages, but nothing, what about a t-shirt with some oblique in-joke? I would buy something that said, for example, ‘Right side for life’ or ‘Ford, Elliot, Gilchrist, Robinson’. There’s value in the past; it’s a rich seam with a lot of potential; the club should use it.

Then, I walked into the stadium to hear the iconically gravelly voice of Nick Harris commentating on a Peter Rhodes-Brown goal coming over the PA. There were others, a Beauchamp goal, Alfie Potter at Wembley. They played Use Somebody by Kings of Leon and If The Kids Are United by Sham 69. It’s a shame that Gary Glitter’s Do You Wanna Be In My Gang is kind of inappropriate these days, if they played it, I reckon I would have been able to smell the London Road. While, I don’t care much for any of those tracks musically, I don’t come to football to hear new music, they are songs which evoke memories of the past. As far as I can work out, it was a conscious effort to generate some momentum in the face of a potential relegation battle. I was stirred, it felt important to support the club at the moment, not because I like what’s happening at the moment, but because we need to preserve the club and its memories.

It was a masterstroke, we were immersed in the club; it’s history and it’s purpose. If they can sustain and build on it in the future, we may indeed come #together as a club.

But we still need to slot a successful team into this environment. It was probably fitting that the buzzier pre-match atmosphere drifted into the ether once the actual game got underway. It’s probably an appropriate metaphor that the club appears to be finding its feet while the team stumble. The crowd fell into such a silence it was possible to hear the players shouting at each other from the South Stand Upper. It was scrappy and uncomfortable, the application was there, but we still lack quality.

The win was both needed and welcomed, but it didn’t suggest any kind of tuning point in our fortunes. Like a recovering alcoholic who just needs a quiet night in rather than an evening in the pub resisting the optics behind the bar, we needed a normal, comfortable, home win like that as a reminder that we could do it. It was important in that respect. All in all, it confirmed my suspicion that while our league position is deeply uncomfortable, there are just about enough teams in the division who are notably poorer. Despite our woes, relegation shouldn’t be a threat. Nobody is ‘too good to go down’, but avoiding relegation is in our hands. The problem is that while there are six or seven teams notably worse than us, there are still way too many that are notably better.

A good day, with signs of hope, but still a lot to do.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Intensity breeds instinct

Now we’re in February, someone you know will, at some point over the coming months, say ‘I can’t believe it’s [enter month] already, it only seems like Christmas was yesterday’. As we get older, the weeks, months and years blur into one long slog. Seasons come and go, Christmases come and go, life passes by in a flash.

There’s a fairly simple explanation for this. As you get older, pretty much every experience is a repeat of a previous experience. If you were to do something genuinely remarkable, then it would last longer as a vivid memory providing the illusion of a extending the year. For most of us, through necessity, life cannot function if all you are doing is having unique experiences; life is more likely to become one long groundhog day.

To break the mundanity, it helps to have something to focus on or look forward to, particularly if you follow Oxford United. Otherwise the season’s blur into one; the kits change, slightly, the players change, slightly, but otherwise, it’s much the same from one year to the next. If you can’t rely on having a decent cup run or, heaven forfend, a successful league season, then it’s the moments, the single fixtures, that make the effort worthwhile.

Saturday’s game against Luton was probably the one banker of the season; a mutual dislike, two teams, not that far apart geographically, with similar histories. The only fixture to have been played in all five of the top divisions in English football. Not a derby, but with some of the characteristics of one. A quarrel neither of is prepared to resolve or back down from; no matter where one of us is, the other one will hunt them down and start the argument again.

It lived up to its billing. A nice big bank of away fans and a vociferous response from the home fans. Niggle, rabbit punches and bickering on the pitch. Good stuff. Intensity was the watchword; the way we played, the atmosphere; it was a fixture unlike any we’ve seen this season.

We benefited from it because we had to play football rather than dwell on The Philosophy. Jake Wright made tackles rather than misdirect cross-field passes. Luton’s fans brought the intensity, their players took it onto the pitch by getting into our players'  faces and opening petty feuds. But, it did them no favours, where others have absorbed us and then gently picked us off while we drowned in our own self-importance, they badgered us to play on instinct.

Even on the touchline there was more animation; Derek Fazackerley kicked over a water bottle in frustration, Michael Appleton remonstrated with a linesman after a petty foul late into injury time. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it.

But, that’s pretty much it for the season in terms of an external stimulus triggering us into action, how will we re-create the intensity we need to perform? Mansfield are next at the Kassam, nobody is going to be fired up to teach Junior Brown a lesson. It’s unlikely to come from the touchline; many managers are borderline sociopaths who frighten players into playing at the right intensity regardless of the occasion, Appleton prides himself on his detachment. This has it’s place, of course, but it can leave us needing something else to get us going. It is too much to ask the fans despite what some say (more of that in a minute). A lot of expectation is being placed on this creative midfielder to drive the team forward, it might work, but it's a big job.

In cyclist Michael Hutchinson's book Faster, he describes what happened when he tried to use the psychological technique of visualisation to improve his time trialling. Because he spent so much time thinking through what he did rather than rely on his physical conditioning, his anxiety and stress levels increased and he actually got slower.

With us, without the intensity, there is the tendency to overthink everything rather than simply execute deeply imbedded subconscious ability. The net impact is that performance is more likely to drop than go up; particularly if it repeatedly appears to fail.

And another thing...
The first person on the phone-in was berating Oxford fans for not backing their team despite 'the chairman’s investment'. The first point is that investment is spending money to get a return; by my reckoning Appleton has brought in 17 players since he started, of which six are still at the club (and none of those have played more than five games). The return has been average so it's not investment, it’s just spending. The second thing is that regardless of the cost of bringing in these 17 players; it hasn't yet materialised into results - despite Saturday’s encouraging display, we haven’t won at home since 13th December (with a last minute goal) and before that it was Tranmere in October. So, in fact what the caller was telling Oxford fans to do is attend in less-than-once a month possibility of seeing a win. Results draw crowds not investment, I’m sure the club are aware of that even if the said fan isn't. Oh, and he claimed we all supported Kassam when he was chairman; I think I must have missed that game.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Squad of thrones

Oxford United’s squad is becoming more like Game of Thrones with every passing week. For those who don’t watch it, Game of Thrones is a fantasy drama of mind boggling scale, good guys and bad guys get killed with similar frequency, good guys become bad guys, bad guys become good guys, and good guys and bad guys gang up to kill other good guys and bad guys. It is hard to keep up with what everyone is doing and who you’re supposed to like and hate. Sometimes you have to step back and take stock.

In simple terms, our squad is made up of two houses; Wilderians and Appletonians, with Danny Hylton being part of neither. Or both, perhaps? It would be easy to assume Michael Appleton is simply dismantling the House of Wilder to replace it with the House of Appleton. It certainly seemed like it might be that way when he arrived. Gary Waddock was thrown out the door and Eales and Ashton stepped into Ian Lenagan’s shoes while he was practically still wearing them. Revolution, it seemed, was inevitable.

But, this transfer window, the first in which we’ve seen the House of Appleton in full battle mode has been baffling. Wilderians have gone, but so to have Appletonians, Appletonians have arrived to replace other Appletonians, some Appletonians didn’t even appear to be Appletonians in the first place. So, where the hell are we?

Well, as of training this morning, the raw stats say that we signed six (including Jamie Ashdown this morning) and lost or let go nine. So, in pure numeric terms, we have a squad with three less players than we had at the start.

Starting at the back, Ashdown seems an odd signing, unless there’s something we don’t know about Ryan Clarke's fitness. Clarke's form hasn’t been quite what it's been in the past, but he's hardly a risk. Max Crocombe is an able replacement on the rare occasions he’s needed. Is Ashdown going to replace Clarke? Or sit on the bench vacated by Crocombe? If it's the former, it would seem an unnecessary shuffle, if it’s the latter, what’s the point of that?

At the back, we’ve got a bewildering merry-go-round to deal with. Michael Raynes has gone, although it’s difficult to know what he did wrong. He wasn't Bobby Moore, but he was a willing squad player and solid enough at the back when needed. In his place is Chey Dunkley, who was shakiness personified against Southend. In terms of net gain, at best it’s a zero, perhaps a little worse.

Right, full-backs. Hunt and Newey’s days were probably numbered even under Chris Wilder. They were originally brought in to shore things up after the marauding of Liam Davis and Damien Batt gave one too many heart palpitations. They were pragmatic and dependable, but hardly thrilling. You got the impression they were managing their fitness and effort, not being in the first flushes of youth. Holmes-Dennis and Riley seemed to indicate a loosening of the full-back roles, an introduction of youthful exuberance and attacking flare, part of the New Philosophy. But then… well, we seemed to lose them, which was a bit complacent. Are Skarz and Brindley better? Different? Almost impossible to tell in the short term, but on paper they seem more robust than what we’ve had in the past. I’m sticking my neck out and saying this is an improvement.

Into midfield; Junior Brown was an early Appleton signing who sparkled like a damp firework before disappearing from view. It seems a long time since he was even on the radar, so it’s difficult to know whether we’ve lost anything through his departure. That said, we certainly haven't replaced him or improved that area in the window.

Up front, Campbell fell victim to shambolic contract negotiations, it seems. He was always a long shot and I for one am not that concerned about his departure. Burns had a fine debut, but like so many before him, his form quickly fizzled to nothing. Potter’s departure wasn’t really a surprise as sad as it was to see him go. I suspect Wilder or Waddock would have come to a similar conclusion eventually. I couldn’t say that Burns was an effective replacement for Potter, both had patchy form. McDonald may be a better and more permanent solution. On the face of it, he does seem a good acquisition . That leaves Hoban, who was brought in, I assume, as a banker in the absence of the club securing a deal for Tyrone Barnett, which turned into the most over-blown non-event we’ve had in years. Hoban, like Campbell, was a risk and we can't say he's been a risk worth taking; not yet, at least.

So, we’re weakened in numbers, and probably fractionally ahead in terms of quality per head. We should be able to stay up, though I, for one, don’t think that’s ever been as big a concern as others have suggested. We’re vulnerable, however, because injuries and loss of form could make things very uncomfortable. Particularly as some players will be starting to think about where they will be playing next season, when that disengagement starts, who knows where we might end up?

Above all, a lot of energy has been wasted in deals that never came off, deals that came off but didn’t stick and deals for players that were barely better than what they replaced. All told, a slight gain but a shambolic way to do business.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Realising Lenagan's dream

With five of the thirteen players on duty against Exeter from the youth development system, Saturday saw the realisation of Ian Lenagan's vision of 18 months ago.

Granted, that vision; which forecast a successful Oxford United driven by a core of homegrown talent, was probably borne out of the financial reality he faced rather than some dewy eyed prescience along the lines of Martin Luther King - only Michael Duberry could do that. However, as visions go, it was the most cogent I’ve heard come from the club in forty years. Yes, we’ve had owners stressing the importance of building and then owning a new stadium. But in terms of turning that into a playing reality, that vision rarely stretched much beyond "... and then, um, something something something beat Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League!". Lenagan's visions was realistic, tangible and above all attractive.

Long, Ashby, Ruffels, O’Dowda and Roberts were pivotal in digging Appleton out of yet another mess. It demonstrated what rude health the development system is in. The work done to date is an credit to Chris Allen, who was the player you’d consider least likely to turn out to be a top class coach.

But, is Lenagan's vision the solution to this season? Well, no, not at the moment. The second half against Exeter proved that much. We were bright and switched on in the first half but became conservative and sluggish in the second. Fitness was a factor; it’s asking a lot for a young team to put in a 90 minute shift at the intensity of any League 2 game, let alone one demanding the high technical component that Appleton insists on. ‘Game management’ was another factor. Nathan Cooper persists with this topic week after week with Michael Appleton. He has a point; we seem to approach the natural phases games go through exactly the same way, rather than assess and adapt as the game progresses. Is this part of Appleton's 'No Plan B' philosophy?

Appleton, when pushed on the subject, seemed to imply that organising teams to manage games was difficult, that is, almost impossible to train. And yet, organising a disciplined unit seems a darned sight easier to train than, say, teaching Jake Wright to play like Glenn Hoddle.

And this seems to be at the heart of the problem; while the emergence of Lenagan’s dream should give everyone heart, what we need is a core of players who are going to manage the game on the pitch. In the past we relied on the likes of Wright, Mullins, Clarke, Whing, but these are looking a shadow of their former selves, and, if you add Hunt, Newey and even Constable and Kitson from last year, you have to question why do we seem so devoid of leadership now?

Injuries are always factors; Clarke, Wright and Whing have all suffered recently and each bounce back is inevitably going to be a little less bouncy. There is an issue of playing style; anyone criticising Wright this season is ignoring the style of football he’s suddenly being asked to play. Ask him to be a defender, and he excels, ask him to be a playmaker and he looks deeply uncomfortable. And then there's an issue of age and authority. Appleton isn’t that much older than some of those he manages so it would be far easier for senior players to not respect his authority or ability. This was, apparently, a factor in Dave Kitson’s sudden decision to retire once Appleton arrived at the club. Perhaps some of those older heads, frustrated by how we’ve stalled this season, are doubting their manager’s ability and approach.

If that is happening, Appleton, has the right to bring in people he can work with, but while so many of the core Wilder squad have left or hit poor form, those signed to replace them have been at best patchy, at worst woeful - Riley and Barnett were both established, and then slipped through our fingers, Junior Brown, Carlton Morris and Alex Jakubiak didn't look ready, Will Hoskins and Brian Howard were spent forces before they even appeared at the club. Only Michael Collins and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis have sustained success so far; and Collins was dropped shortly after telling Radio Oxford we were in a relegation fight. Even, Holmes-Dennis, looks in need of a rest after an extended run of games; again, it's a lot to ask of him.

Of the four signed prior to the opening of the window, Campbell and Hobarn have yet to come to terms with the rigours of League 2, Wes Burns seems another with bags of potential but not the endurance to sustain it, and Chey Dunkley looked decidedly shaky against Southend. It's an uninspiring batch of signings so far.

For all the potential we now have at first team level; perhaps the best crop of youngsters I’ve seen at the club in terms of both quality and numbers, we are woefully lacking in leadership (and the motivation to lead) that experience gives, with the transfer window winding shut, time is running out in terms addressing the issue.