Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Appleton Era

If there’s one thing that characterised Michael Appleton’s time at Oxford United, it was that it was never, in any way, normal. His arrival in the summer of 2014 felt like he was the henchman in a hostile takeover. Talk of new owners had dominated that summer in the same way that it has this, and there was little surprise when it was announced that the club was in new hands. What was a surprise was the aggressive change that Darry Eales, Mark Ashton and the newly appointed coach Michael Appleton wanted to make. Particularly when there was a rival bid from the more palatable Stewart Donald on the table.

The signs weren’t good; Ashton had built a terrible reputation while CEO at Watford and Appleton was synonymous with chaos. Eales was generally quiet, but he was an outsider and a money man, and that often brings suspicions. Appleton's management CV read: Portsmouth, Blackburn, Blackpool, three clubs that had been suicidally mismanaged. To find himself in that situation once was unfortunate, but three times was suspicious. Was he simply the stooge who specialised in being the footballing face of an organised crime syndicate?

With his sleeve tattoos, arms like tree trunks and piercing icy glare, he didn’t look like a football manager. He was neither a gnarly weather beaten obsessive like Sam Allardyce or Chris Wilder, nor the metrosexual cosmopolitan like Pep Guardiola or Paul Tidsdale. In short, it was difficult to see how Appleton planned to run a football club while perfecting his chiselled physique. Unless he was planning to take his pay packet, pump iron and let the club crumble to dust.

There was depth, however, Appleton was studying for a Masters degree and had learned his trade under Roy Hodgson at West Brom. He had been labelled one of the most promising coaches in the country, but we've had promising coaches before.  

At first it looked like a heist, Gary Waddock mercilessly thrown out the window, Mark Ashton playing benevolent dictator with his vacuous PR and the stony faced Appleton glaring at anyone who might question him. There was no doubt Appleton was single-minded, he'd previously won £1m compensation for a career-ending injury, but his steadfast demeanor bordered on arrogant, particularly as he struggled to back up his claims that he was doing things the right way with evidence.

If the takeover was chaotic, the following season was more so. There was very little to suggest that Appleton was implementing anything competent, let alone special. Dave Kitson, whose paths had crossed at Portsmouth, retired almost instantly. The first four games of the season resulted in four defeats and Appleton went on to play 44 players. Nearly half played less than 10 games, some barely lasted 90 minutes before being moved on.

There were belligerent claims that they were trying to implement a new DNA and that there was no Plan B. But Plan A wasn’t working; whatever it was he was trying to do, it couldn't be done on a potato patch pitch with a constant merry-go-round of players. The only thing that wasn't churning was the management. At one point Oxford were the lowest placed club in the Football League not to have changed manager that season and fans struggled to know why the trapdoor wasn't opening. Was the pits the 3-2 home defeat to 10 man Southend after leading twice or the 0-2 defeat to the apparently doomed Hartlepool? Maybe the 1-5 TV defeat to Cambridge? The performances of Danny Hylton, ironically Gary Waddock's only signing, was the one thing that kept the lynch mobs at bay.

Few would have given Appleton the time to sort through the mess, but slowly came moments of stability; Alex MacDonald and Joe Skarz signed, then a young midlander from his old club West Brom; Kemar Roofe. Appleton had hit paydirt, he’d steadied the ship and managed to secure a Championship level game-changer for League 2 strugglers. After a quiet start, we headed to promotion-seeking Wycombe where Roofe grabbed a brace in a searing performance that set us on our way to an unbeaten end of season run. Winning the final three games, against all odds, we finished only a handful of points behind our previous season’s total.

The club careered into summer full of optimism, the new owners found their groove, new credit card style season tickets were introduced, season ticket incentives, social media was a whirl, a deferential celebratory new kit marking 30 years since the Milk Cup (with the away kit celebrating 20 years of our last league promotion) was launched. On the field, Liam Sercombe was signed, George Baldock, John Lundstram, and, against all odds, Kemar Roofe was brought in permanently. Then the club announced a pre-season trip to Austria.

Oxford fans’ suppressed anxiety about their club was released amidst the positivity, Appleton was given a new lease of life; his team, his way. But, at the same time, a large chunk of the club was being given back to the fans. The stands became a theatre of colour and noise and the players responded. The Austrian adventure, with a forgettable 0-0 draw with Weiner Neustadt, galvanised fans and club in a way that had been absent for decades.

The new season got off to a moderate start with a draw against Crawley. A 4-0 win over Championship Brentford and recovering from 0-2 against Luton to draw in injury time fired up the engines. Appleton had found his DNA. He was never a strong tactician and would often get undone by more wiley managers such as his nemesis Chris Wilder or Phil Brown. But if he couldn't out-think other teams, Appleton would simply outplay them. It meant that every game was a game to be won, there was no squad rotation or prioritisation. No smart tactical nuance to his selections. There was the demolition of Swindon in the JPT, the destruction of Stevenage away, a gritty takedown of Notts County on New Year's Day. We scored three or more away from home on seven occasions and were the highest goalscorers in the country.

With progress on all fronts we were rewarded with a third round FA Cup tie with Swansea. On a bright, fresh wintery Sunday, Appleton had the opportunity to test his philosophy against one of the biggest clubs in the country. Containment wasn't an option, trying to stop them play didn't compute; so we simply attacked. The result was spectacular and Appleton was plastered all over the national press wanting to know how he'd transformed this bumbling club into one that played like (and beat) the Premier League elite. His reputation was restored.

The season ploughed on, four days after Swansea, we beat Millwall away in the 1st leg of the JPT semi-final all but guaranteeing a trip to Wembley. It was a good week. Despite the intensity and distractions, we were picking up points in the league too. Wembley was a giddy joy, we took the lead and looked good for the win, but Barnsley stormed back. Defeat was, well, no great loss. This was already one of the greatest seasons in Oxford's history.

Despite holding a top three place all season, promotion was still on a knife-edge; a win at Carlisle - another landmark victory in a season of landmark victories - set up a must-win final game against Wycombe. After a nervy start, Chey Dunkley - an archetypal Appleton product - headed a goal to relieve the pressure and we stormed into League 1. Oxford had been re-born in a style many envied.

Appleton's great strength was his ability to find players limited by their surroundings and release them to do what they did best. He constructed a compact but high quality squad mined from Premier League youth teams and the Scottish Premier League. Nearly everyone he came into contact with thrived, Chris Maguire and Danny Hylton, both perennial misfits elsewhere suddenly became integral to the squad, Premier League prospects got games, in front of crowds, and their stock grew exponentially in the process.

Kemar Roofe was sold to Leeds for £4m, Callum O'Dowda to Bristol City for £1.5m. Appleton could show people like Joe Rothwell and Ryan Ledson, Marvin Johnson and Curtis Nelson that Oxford was a hotbed, somewhere they could develop and fulfill their potential.

Acclimatising to League 1 with a reconstructed squad took time. There was another memorable win over Swindon and a giant-killing in the League Cup against Birmingham. By Christmas things were ticking over nicely. An FA Cup win over Newcastle proved that Swansea was no fluke, a second win over Swindon at the County Ground cemented our position as the dominant force in that particularly abusive relationship.

The season was one of consolidation, but it didn't stop us putting the frighteners up Middlesborough at the Riverside, playing 63 games or progressing again in the unloved EFL Trophy. Suddenly there was another Wembley appearance to attend to.

If cracks did start to appear, and if they did, they were hairline, then it was in the defeat to Coventry. It's a game we should have won, but it was a joyless, flat performance, ignited only by Liam Sercombe, who showed enough fire to bring us back into the game. Days later Sercombe was effectively suspended for 'disciplinary' reasons, the first time the squad appeared to have fractured.

Appleton's end came in the same way as it began, in a suspiciously quiet close season punctuated by rumours of takeovers. Darryl Eales faces the dilemma of ploughing more money into his project to get to the Championship, or selling up and letting someone else take it on. Appleton's reputation and ambition further challenged Eales' capacity to do this alone. You suspect that Eales enjoys the challenge, but Appleton can't afford to hang around.

Leicester, though, is a curious choice. It might be that Appleton is more comfortable being part of a corporate structure - he spoke at the end of the season about how jaded he was. But, he won't be implementing 'his way' in the way he was allowed to at Oxford and it's unlikely he'll have the luxury of time. The money being offered makes it a reasonable and compelling case, but nobody knows what Leicester is anymore - pushing for Europe? Avoiding relegation? Craig Shakespeare may have got them out of a mess last season, but can he meet the needs of recent Premier League Champions in the longer term? It's possible that Shakepeare's success was that he just that he wasn't the pernickety Claudio Ranieri. Now he's got to develop a squad of players who have already achieved more than they'd ever expected to achieve and take them on. But where to? Some of the older players are heading for the dumper already, the younger players may be looking for new, bigger, clubs. A few dodgy results next season and Shakespeare will be under pressure, and so will Michael Appleton.

The challenge for us, now, is to sustain the club's DNA. Darryl Eales is a football 'fan' rather than a football 'man'. Can he unearth a coach who will take over Appleton's legacy and drive the club on? You have to trust that he can, but it'll be different, that's for sure.

How will Appleton be viewed by history? In my lifetime, four managers have won promotion for the club; Jim Smith, Denis Smith, Chris Wilder and Michael Appleton. Only Appleton took us to Wembley twice and perhaps only Jim Smith matched the treasure trove of memories from the cups. In totality, the 2015/16 season was, perhaps, the best I have seen in 40 years watching the club.

Appleton's legacy will not only be those memories, but the thousands of young fans that he's inspired to follow the club, and the others who have returned after years away. On that basis, the echo of his impact can last generations. It's difficult to put him above Jim Smith, and older fans will point to the transformative contribution of Arthur Turner, but in the history of the club, Michael Appleton is right up there among the greatest managers we have ever seen.   

Friday, June 16, 2017

Michael Appleton - Don't believe the hype?

Picture the scene, a left-leaning tabloid speculates that Leicester City manager Craig Shakespeare is about to take Oxford United manager Michael Appleton as his beloved number 2.

This then gets repeated hundreds of times via social media, each one adding to the noise, building from speculation to rumour to fact. Another sports journalist claims Appleton has told the players (who are currently dispersed around the more sordid resorts of southern Europe and therefore almost impossible to tell as a group) that he’s going. More proof.

Except, of course, there is no proof. It may indeed be true. But there is no proof.

The BBC are silent on the subject as is the Oxford Mail (beyond reporting the rumour) and the club. The silence is deafening. Except silences aren’t deafening, they’re, well, silent.

First, let’s work through the heathens that are keeping The Truth from us. The BBC have a public remit to inform, they won’t say anything until it’s been backed up by verifiable fact. The Oxford Mail’s value is based on the trust they have with key institutions; the local football club being one. It is not in their interest to break the trust they have with the club. Lose that because of tittle tattle and they lose their weekly privileged briefings from the club, access to its personnel and games, and so on. The reason they are silent, is because there is nothing of substance to say. Yet. And what about the club? Well, 90% of football rumours are untrue, trust me, I’ve counted. If they were to comment on speculation, 90% of it would be talking about things which aren’t happening. The club won’t talk until there is something to talk about.

The Mirror and the dozens of Twitter accounts who claim to be in the know on these things thrive on the referrals they can get from speculating. Validation isn’t that important, people love a gossip and that’s what sells papers and gets retweets.

Journalists stating that ‘they’ve been told’ things are happening rarely tell you by whom. Perhaps they have been told by someone with genuine knowledge, perhaps they’ve been told by the same Twitter account that you’re reading. You will never know. It’s in the interest of a journalist to appear to have their finger on the pulse, their reputations are built on having access, or at least appearing to have access. Plus of course, it is natural for people to want to promote that they are in-the-know because it promotes a sense of power.

The truth is that the truth isn’t the truth until it’s, well, the truth. And the truth isn’t driven by silence, it’s driven by evidence.

So why do we react like we do? Well, most of our brain has evolved to ensure we survive, as a result we have a highly evolved sense of fight or flight. If we’re confronted with something that unnerves us, then our brain initially processes the information as to whether it will hurt us or not. If that assessment results in a belief that we might get hurt then we start fighting to protect ourselves or running away, or, in a combination of the two, panicking. This can be triggered by anything, even the vague idea that the manager of your football club could be leaving.

If the assessment is that you are not in danger, then the information is handed over to a much smaller part of your brain which assesses the situation more logically and rationally. In the modern world, the reality is that very little will genuinely hurt you so the trick is to pass the information from one part of your brain to the other so you can assess the situation properly, not quickly.

So, many fans have been startled by the news that Michael Appleton might move to Leicester and have ‘catastrophised’ wildly about what this means. Pass it over to the more considered part of your brain and think that most of the trusted sources of this information remain silent on the subject. This probably means there’s nothing to say.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Ain't nobody, like Chey Dunkley

History will eventually establish a ‘classic’ line-up for the 2016 promotion. Some members; Kemar Roofe and Danny Hylton are obvious, but others are more marginal calls – do you go with Jonjoe Kenny or George Baldock? John Mullins or Chey Dunkley?

To the surprise of surely nobody Chey Dunkley brought his Oxford career to a close with the announcement that he’d signed for Wigan. Dunkley originally appeared in a blizzard of signings during Michael Appleton’s first season in charge. At first it looked like he’d been brought in as a cheap Michael Raynes. He spent most of his time warming the bench to such an extent that at one point he described himself on Twitter as the club’s mascot.

But that act of diffidence was out of character for a player who was studying for a degree and worked with a fierce intensity to get himself into the best possible physical shape. Clearly Michael Appleton valued his work ethic and what threatened to be just another random signing started to evolve into a serious contender for a starting place.

Early on, however, he revealed an underpinning weakness in his game, he just seemed to think too much. In early 2015/16 against Bristol Rovers he nearly conceded a penalty and could have got sent off in the opening minutes just through over-exuberance; as if he was struggling to control his nervous energy. It did seem when Dunkley was faced with a pressure beyond a normal game – perhaps a TV appearance or a cup tie – he tried a little too hard and mistakes crept into his game. As a back-up he seemed fine, but it seemed unlikely that he'd evolve much beyond that point.

Around Christmas he seemed to hit a sweet spot, suddenly he was dominant at the back and a threat at set pieces. He ousted John Mullins from the regular centre-back spot and never looked like conceding his place. The hard work seemed to be paying off. No crowd was too big that you couldn’t hear his foghorn bark organising players insisting those around him ‘hold’, at least that’s what I think he said.

Dunkley evolved into an immense presence in the team, strikers cowered in his presence and he became a attacking threat at corners not seen since the days of Matt Elliot. With Chris Maguire delivering crosses with pinpoint accuracy, corners lead to goals, something largely been missing from our game for nearly two decades. By April he was doing Cruyff turns at Wembley and was, perhaps, the best player of the second half of our promotion season. He acquired a song to the tune of Chaka Khan's Ain't Nobody, because there wasn't anybody, like Chey Dunkley.

Fittingly, his pinnacle was in the 54th minute of the promotion decider against Wycombe. With a win needed for promotion and results going against us, the clock was ticking gradually into the red zone. Muscles were tightening and jaws grinding, Chris Maguire swung in a corner of such precision it was inviting someone to break the deadlock. Easier said than done; with tensions rising it would have been easy for the ball to pass through with players watching frozen in fear, but Dunkley; seething with confidence from his stellar season took the initiative, met the cross like a bullet and emphatically forced the ball home. Watch the video back and you'll see only one player attacking the corner, Cheyenne Dunkley.

Photos show Dunkley’s celebration, a visceral joy, a lightening rod, channeling the surge of energy generated by the 12,000 delirious fans. This was no cold orchestrated celebration, it was as real and raw as the celebration of those fans who had been burdened with decades of misery. Dunkley's relief and joy matched our own.

League 1 was a reasonably comfortable step up, Dunkley faced strikers with more craft and strength and he seemed to take it all in his stride. But, as the season progressed, he began to look heavy legged. It was difficult to know whether he was flat lining because of ability - and relative improvements in his opponents - or simply because of the number of games he had played. I suspect it was the latter.

Reports suggest that the club made a number of offers to renew his contract, almost doubling his salary in the process. This probably sounds grander than it was, given that his first contract was signed as an unproven non-league neo-pro moving into League 2. Some have suggested that he's joining Wigan for the money rather than to progress his career, but I don't imagine the two are mutually exclusive in the lower leagues - good money and long contracts count as career progression when you're one dodgy transfer from oblivion.

Some have spitefully chosen to remember Dunkley as a bit of a blundering oaf of limited ability, but this is just a way of deflecting the level of affection we invested in him in the build up to promotion. His emergence from the shadows of the squad coincided with the club's awakening. Mocking him is just a way of hiding the hurt. This is not how he'll be remember in the long term.

He was absolutely magnificent in our promotion season and more than capable last year. Any dip in form was surely because there was no one better to take over when he got tired. Above all, Dunkley was one of those players that fans can relate to; not someone with an otherworldly talent, but someone who succeeded because of a work ethic that was evident in everything he did. Our loss is Wigan's gain. 

Monday, May 01, 2017

Shrewsbury wrap - Oxford United 2 Shrewsbury Town 0

To give some sense anticipation to Sunday’s dead rubber against Shrewsbury the club revealed next season’s home kit. It reminded me of FA Cup Finals in the past when teams would play in a new kit; something that would bring a sense of novelty which added to the occasion.

Nowadays, new kit reveals are part of the annual cycle so it’s as predictable as Christmas. Usually, the club wait until August, probably more out of being disorganised than clever marketing, but seeing the new livery at a time when football-starved fans will devour anything like a polar bear after a hard winter brings a sense of impending excitement.

There’s a view that new projects start with all hope and no certainty and end with no hope and all certainty. Revealing the kit at the end of a season is a time when there is no hope and total certainty; when anticipation is at its lowest. While parading the new shirt on the last day of the season makes good commercial sense, offering the club a late cash boost, it loses a little something when it’s being worn by players who clearly won’t be here playing in a game which doesn’t mean anything.

There’s seems little doubt that Chris Maguire won’t be with us next season. Not only was the manner of his substitution a clear indication of his intentions, his increasingly ludicrous attempts to bow out with a goal seemed to signal that he’s on his way to pastures new.

You suspect that Oxford, the location, rather than the club, is what doesn’t work for Chris Maguire. He’s a raw and emotional player and that seems to bleed into his personal life. If he was a single-minded professional, sacrificing everything, including family and friends, for his career then you suspect he wouldn’t be playing for us anyway, but he also wouldn’t be Chris Maguire. Instead, it seems Maguire is set to follow his heart back to Scotland. Judging by Michael Appleton’s greeting of him as he came off, it seems the management know there’s nothing they can do about it.

Marvin Johnson’s future is likely to be decided by more straight forward commercial means. If there were scouts watching, then he’ll have done himself no harm, effortlessly driving at and through the Shrewsbury defence. You suspect the only thing now is whether there’s a club prepared to put the money up. At 26, he’s probably not one for the future, but the club will struggle to resist a figure similar to Kemar Roofe’s, chicken feed to lower ranking Premier League and high ranking Championship clubs. Kemar Roofe, with his goals, was more impactful, but Johnson has the physicality and versatility that is an asset to any squad.

Of others, the fact that Phil Edwards wasn’t brought on despite losing both full-backs would suggest he won’t be here and the preference of Raglan over Dunkley appears to bring his time at the club to a close; although maybe not Raglan’s.

But what Sunday did show is that even if we do lose Maguire and Johnson, the nucleus of the squad remains a strong one. Finding the next Roofe or Johnson may be good for business, but it’s not necessary to see us progress. What we’re lacking is not ability but capacity; it’s the numbers rather than the quality that has seen us just fall short this year. Address that, and we could be looking at Championship football this time next year.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Millwall wrap - Millwall 0 Oxford United 3

The last few games of the season feel a bit like the crew of a Navy frigate going on shore leave. We stop off at a port – Port Vale’s fight against relegation last week, Millwall’s push for the play-offs this – carouse around visiting the whorehouses and gin joints without much of a care for the long term consequences we might leave behind.

It’s fun to play without consequences, particularly when it results in emphatic wins that put other peoples’ noses out of joint. How many times have we had end of season visitors to the Kassam where we’ve got an outside chance of promotion (or avoiding relegation) only to have our hopes dashed? It’s nice to turn those tables once in a while.

It feels slightly different to the 2014/15 season where we ended with a similar flourish. Then, particularly as a result of the form of Kemar Roofe, it felt like we were on the verge of something new and exciting. This time, it feels more like we’re at the end of something, although quite what it is  is difficult to ascertain. Players who have served us well look set to leave, our best players are likely to be subject to transfer interest, Oxvox may even be ready to announce plans to buy the stadium and effectively release the club’s potential as a business. We might even have new investment that catapults us into the Championship.

Or not.

Which brings us back to the shore leave analogy. Is this just the reckless end of season party which brings to the conclusion an intense tour of duty or the sign a we’re just a couple of signings from being promotion contenders next year? Will we return to our loved ones for a couple of months before joining up again for another adventure or will we never see each other again?

Talking of which, Saturday was completed with the confirmation that Swindon are going down and Leyton Orient will start next year in the Conference. I just don’t understand the Orient animosity, the fact that they were promoted on the day we were relegated from the Football League in 2006 was nothing but happenstance. They were dancing on our pitch to celebrate their success, not to rub our noses in it. Our failings were firmly in place before that game.

On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to see Swindon suffer for a while. The signs have been there for a while, they’ve have looked absolutely terrible when they’ve played us over the last couple of years, so it’s little surprise to see them struggling. Their bizarre ‘mates together’ management structure, which seems to involve Tim Sherwood taking all the responsibility and their coach taking all the blame, screams failure. Knowing what we know about failing teams and just how hard it can be to pull up from that kind of trajectory, Swindon’s relegation could genuinely signal the end of our derby meetings for years to come. How bittersweet does that feel?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Sercombe - slight reprise

So, Michael Appleton is playing hardball with Liam Sercombe’s contract by triggering an automatic extension clause. The motivation, pretty obviously, is to prevent Sercombe being free to leave when his contract expires. Or more specifically, to retain his registration, which is what has really value as it's not likely that he's actually going to play.

As a tactic, it’s an obvious thing for the club to do; it gives them a degree of control in a world where players, good players, are often king. From the club's perspective, it’s about managing your assets. Without a stadium, the club need to manage what has more closely and carefully.

It’s possible that the unilateral triggering on the clause is a root cause for the disciplinary issue which has resulted in Sercombe being cast aside. Sercombe will understandably want as much control over his future as he can get but, in fact, he’ll feel imprisoned by an agreement made in happier times. The fact that one side can trigger such a clause is the fault of whoever negotiated the contract on Sercombe’s behalf but that's likely to be of no comfort.

Rather than negotiating the best deal for him and his family, Sercombe, you might assume, will have to go through proper channels to gain permission to talk to other clubs. That means his own options are more limited to those who are prepared to meet whatever price the club place on the players’ head. There were rumours that he might go back to Exeter, but that's not really his decision anymore.

Not that it'd be looking at a lot of money to prize him away from the club; it’s clear that Sercombe has lost favour at Oxford, which is hardly likely to bump his price up. Plus, his own motivation is likely to be severely limited, the longer it goes on, the less likely he going to want to play, and the less likely it is that the club will want to play him. Other clubs will know this so will surely be pretty happy to play a waiting game. The longer that goes on, the lower Sercombe’s price drops.

Sercombe is clearly a very good League 2 player and pretty solid in League 1. There will be clubs who will want his goals and commitment, but at 28 they are unlikely to be investing in an asset with with much resale opportunity in the way we have with, say, Curtis Nelson. None of this suggests we're talking big numbers.

Unless, of course, Oxford set a price, truly dig their heels in and refuse to budge. Then they are left with a player that they have to pay for another year and that they can’t get rid of because nobody will meet their valuation. At that point it risks becoming a spiteful war of attrition, but one, ultimately, nobody can win. Sercombe won't want to stagnate for a year in the margins and we don't want to have to pay for a player who isn't going to have an impact on the pitch.

Which would lead us to the same kind of situation the club faced with Eddie Hutchinson back in 2008. Hutchinson was considered surplus to requirements and not registered to play, but he couldn't find another club and was left on the sidelines. An administration error meant that when he was needed Hutchinson played without being registered which resulted in a points deduction that cost us a place in the Conference play-offs for that season.

It seems unlikely that such a blunder is going to happen this one, but the club doesn't want to end up lumbered with a player it won't play but it has to pay. It's a tricky balancing act.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Weekly wrap - Bradford City 1 Oxford United 0, Oxford United 2 Port Vale 0

As the season peters out, so it seems so does Liam Sercombe’s Oxford United career. According to Michael Appleton, Sercombe is embroiled in a ‘discipline issue’ which he implied is more than just a manager/player falling out.

Sercombe has had a difficult season. He came into it as the first choice attacking midfielder with John Lundstram, but facing better teams meant we needed to become a little more conservative. Lundstram became the playmaker with Ledson providing the defensive cover. It squeezed Sercombe out to the wing where he looked a bit of a spare part in comparison to Marvin Johnson on the other flank.

By rights he shouldn’t even be in the team having been ruled out in November only to return like some kind of bionic man in January. Plus, this is the first time he’s really faced the prospect of being out of contract during the summer. He had been at Exeter since he was a schoolboy and chose to turn a contract down in order to move to us. He’s never been in the position of his future being out of his hands before.

Wembley was pivotal; a late burst of form from Joe Rothwell saw him sneak a starting place ahead of Sercombe who appeared from the bench, with us 2-0 down, like a caged animal. He got our consolation goal; proof that he should have started? He seemed to think so, although it was hardly definitive. He followed up by uncharacteristically re-tweeting fans’ praise about his performance.

We don't know exactly what the problem is but all this pressure, then, seems to have got to him, which is sad to see. It could be all manner of things; ill-discipline in training, a fight with another player, discussing contract negotiations, bad mouthing those involved. Or perhaps a combination. Or something else.

It seems that 12 months after promotion, only John Lundstram and Chris Maguire (if he stays) will start next season at the club. Both Joe Skarz and Chey Dunkley, along with Liam Sercombe, have stripped their social media profiles of Oxford references and Benji Buchel is sure to move on. If you consider that the last remaining member of the 2010 promotion winning side – Jake Wright – left six years after Wembley, it shows how impatient Michael Appleton is to move the club on.

None of this is great for nostalgics, we all want to believe that eras go on for years and that players are immortal. But even the greats either decay slowly or get sold onto better things. In the modern age things are a bit different; with the exception of Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda, who were subject to lengthy speculation, the promotion squad is simply evaporating with little warning. Last season we packed in a lifetime of achievement, perhaps that' why it feels like the golden era is passing so quickly.

Sercombe’s contribution last year was immeasurable; Roofe may have stolen a lot of the limelight, but included in Sercombe's 17 goals there was the equaliser against Swansea and his fabled goal away at Carlise, this season he got the winner against Birmingham, the equaliser away to Swindon and, of course, the goal at Wembley. He may be leaving the party prematurely, but his contribution will be felt for years to come.

In this context, Port Vale was a curious affair, like a game of park football where tactics were set aside for a test of pure ability. As a result, Vale showed themselves to be full of endeavour but ultimately not very good, we showed ourselves to be lacking in motivation but ultimately with too much quality to lose.

Michael Appleton admitted that he had to recognise that there was nothing to play for and that many of the players’ heads were elsewhere. It wasn’t clear when he said that if they were players on the pitch, the bench or elsewhere.

On the pitch it was difficult to see who he was referring to. At a stretch (and it would be quite a stretch) maybe Joe Skarz didn’t quite seem to be on the money but, overall, it looked like a team that was playing without pressure rather than one which was unmotivated.

To some extent, after more than 60 games this season and nearly as many last, it's a bit of a relief to be able to run the season down free of pressure, but as calming as that feels, it also seems changes, and big ones, are afoot.