Friday, June 22, 2018

World Cup Yellows #3 - Matt Elliot - 1998 France

Matt Elliot is the best defender Oxford ever had, arriving from Scunthorpe in 1992 he formed a formidable partnership with Phil Gilchrist which, with Les Robinson and Mike Ford as full-backs makes one the the classic Oxford United back-fours.

Elliot was a giant, dominant in both boxes and not just a 'knucklehead centre-back', his goals against Swindon and Carlisle, a breathtaking long-range effort in 1996 showed what a class act he was. In that promotion campaign Oxford's season was a tale of two halves. 17th at Christmas, in the final 17 games of the season we lost one - it was the only game Elliot didn't play.

In the Championship we started to gain a foothold we'd lost years previously; Elliot was commanding at the back, Nigel Jemson scoring up front alongside Paul Moody. But, there was a goldrush in the Premier League and as soon as Elliot came to the attention of clubs in the division above his days at Oxford were numbered. We were drawn against Watford in the FA Cup in 1997, Elliot wasn't playing, and the writing was on the wall. He'd scored a remarkable 21 goals in 148 appearances.

Elliot moved to Leicester City who were flying high in the Premier League for £1.6 million, a club record which stood for nearly 20 years until Kemar Roofe moved to Leeds in 2016. Elliot's fee would be the equivalent of over £11m today. There, he established himself as one of the best defenders in the country. In 1999 he appeared in the League Cup Final against Spurs, losing 0-1. A year later, against Tranmere, he scored both goals in a 2-1 victory and captained the side to lift the trophy.

Born in Wandsworth, Elliot had been a late starter - he was 29 when he left us - although one of the best defenders in the league, Leicester were unfashionable and the England national side already had Tony Adams, Gareth Southgate, Sol Campbell, Martin Keown and Rio Ferdinand ahead of him. In 1997, 10 months after leaving us, Elliot made his debut for Scotland in a friendly international against France.

Everything in Elliot's career seemed to happen a year or two too late. He was selected for the 1998 Scotland World Cup squad in France. It was an ageing squad, but Craig Brown stuck with trusted 30-somethings Colin Calderwood and Colin Hendry for the opener against reigning champions Brazil. An obstinate Scottish display saw them lose 1-2 with only a Tommy Boyd own goal separating the sides.

Six days later, Scotland scraped a draw against Norway, and a week later they bowed out 0-3 against Morocco with David Weir partnering Hendry. Elliot didn't get a sniff of the action.

Elliot then played in half of Scotland's 2000 Euro qualifiers, scoring his only international goal against the Faroe Islands, before being ever-present through their 2002 failed World Cup qualifying tournament. Despite picking up 15 points, Scotland finished third behind Belgium and Croatia. 

Elliot finished off with 18 caps, his last being the final qualifier against Latvia. Berti Vogts took over as manager and that was the end of his Scotland career.

Had the '98 World Cup happened a year later or Elliot been born a year earlier, he probably would have played in France, in the end, he watched from the sidelines. A disappointment in an otherwise triumphant career.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

World Cup Yellows #2 - Alan Hodgkinson 1958 - Sweden, 1962 - Chile

After our 2010 play-off win, the camera panned up to the Royal Box at Wembley, three men were seen hugging. The Sky commentator spotted Jim Smith, didn’t recognise Kelvin Thomas and was contractually forbidden from mentioning ITV’s Jim Rosenthal.

The sense of relief and triumph from three men at the heart of Oxford United was palpable; with the players celebrating on the pitch there was a visceral sense of the bond across the club and the sheer bloody hard work both on and off the pitch that got us to that point. One man who was missing from the scene was goalkeeping coach Alan Hodgkinson.

Hodgkinson played a funny role at the club, at times it seemed like they were getting a grant to allow him to come to training, or that Jim Smith was doing a favour for his wife who just wanted him out of the house.

He was part of the wallpaper at home games, at half-time he would trot out to gently kick the ball into the hands of the substitute keeper like a lads and dads trip down the park. After a couple of minutes, they’d usually stop to watch the half-times scroll through the scoreboard. If they weren’t there, you wouldn’t miss them, but you’d get the sense that something wasn’t right.

But there was depth to Hodgkinson, who was sprung from the Old Boy Network, a mafia-like operation of which the Godfathers were the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Robson. We are often led to believe that players become stars through talent alone, but in truth, they are the product of a surprisingly small pool of greybeards with the ability and experience to create great players. Like Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, when this network needed goalkeepers, they turned to Hodgkinson.

The doddery old guy on the pitch was a legendary ‘keeping coach, the first, in fact. The man who discovered Peter Schmiechel, Andy Goram, Jim Leighton and coached David Seaman.

He was in the 1958 World Cup squad in Sweden. It wasn’t a great tournament for England; three draws and a defeat saw them heading home before those other footballing giants Wales and Northern Ireland.

The tournament was significant in that it heralded the end of the era of Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Johnny Haynes and the emergence of the likes of Bobby Charlton (a non-playing substitute) and, above all, Pele. This was the generation that would herald George Best and all the rubbish that came with him. With the 60s just around the corner and the global cultural shift that came with TV, 1958 marked the end of the gentleman generation and the start of the football superstars.

So, how was Alan Hodgkinson’s World Cup? Well, not spectacular. The official FIFA record says he was in the squad, but other sources say that he and Maurice Setters didn’t even travel. It seems that nobody has ever thought to ask Mr Hodgkinson, although perhaps he couldn’t remember himself.

Four years later, in Chile, Hodgkinson had clawed his way up the ranking making it to second string ahead of Gordon Banks, behind Ron Sprigget. In it, England won through their group as runners'-up before being put to the sword by eventual winners Brazil. Again, Hodgkinson watched from the sidelines.

He had already played the last of his five England games by the time he went to Chile and although his club career with Sheffield United went on until 1971, he wasn't considered for the 1966 squad.

He made a brief return to the World Cup in 1998 as Craig Brown brought him in to coach Scotland's goalkeepers for the tournament in France. Over 40 years later, he came to Oxford where he coached current Oxford keeper Simon Eastwood in his first spell and transformed Ryan Clarke's career, a pivotal player in our promotion back to the Football League.

"I worked at Man United and Rangers and in some big European finals but I can honestly say that play-off final at Wembley [in 2010] gave me as much pleasure and as much excitement as any other day in football." he's quoted as saying, and you believe him.

He died in 2015 aged 79, a genuine footballing revolutionary.

Friday, June 15, 2018

World Cup Yellows #1 - Steve Foster - Spain 1982

Steve Foster was a pretty remarkable player. Known for his trademark headband he played over a 100 games for four different clubs (five if you count his two stints with Brighton), for us, he played 112. In a nineteen year club career, he averaged 42 games a season, for an combative outfield player, that's a pretty amazing feat.

Foster was iconic at nearly every club he played. Ask people of a certain age about Steve Foster and they'll talk about the Luton legend who led them to the 1988 League Cup, or the Brighton legend who led them to the 1983 FA Cup final.

Foster wasn't a legend at Oxford though; he joined in 1989, two years after we'd been relegated from Division 1. There was a dawning reality that our odyssey to the top of English football was over, perhaps forever so, in a sense, we were stuck in a middle-aged fug - lamenting our lost youth, dreading our dotage. But, like at every other club he played he captained the side by leading a mediocre team to achieve precious little under the leadership of the uninspiring Brian Horton. It was quite a weight to carry.

Foster's international career was as fleeting as his club career was enduring. He managed just three games spread over a period of four months. He made his debut in the Home Internationals against Northern Ireland in 1982, this preceded a friendly against Holland. It was a surprise, then, when he found himself on the plane to Spain for the '82 World Cup ahead of Russel Osman and Alvin Martin in an England squad which only featured three centre-backs. It was a time of renewed fervour as England were making their first appearance in the finals since 1970.

England's first choice duo was Terry Butcher and Phil Thompson, a partnership that contributed two wins in England's opening games over France and Czechoslovakia. Qualification for the second phase gave Ron Greenwood the opportunity to rest some players and Butcher stepped down to be replaced by Foster, who hadn't even made the bench previously.

Foster contributed to a clean sheet in a 1-0 win against Kuwait with Trevor Francis scoring. It was the peak and the end of his international career at 24. His only other notable contribution was providing backing vocals to the squad's 1982 World Cup song, the number 2 hit This Time.

Foster played for another 14 years in a stellar club career, we got him for a couple of years when he was on the way down and didn't see anything like the best of him, but that doesn't detract from the fact for 90 minutes, he played on the world's greatest stage.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The wrap - Blackburn Rovers 2 Oxford United 1

This weekend felt like football was sorting out its affairs – relegations and promotions were decided, gongs were given out, fans were rewarding themselves for 10 months of slog. I went to see the finals of some junior football and there was a congratulatory sense among parents that the months of freezing cold mornings were over and it was time to celebrate.

Of course, our race was already run and minds were turning to the summer. It was the equivalent of waiting for your taxi to the airport in the hall while others fussed around doing last minute packing. There was, of course, some minor last-minute admin for us to complete – the equivalent of deciding to pack a sandwich maker just in case the hotel doesn’t have one.

Our principle role on Saturday was to act as a stooge to Blackburn’s promotion party; like the hapless opponents that make the Harlem Globetrotters look good.

In the end, we were more than just makeweights, but then Blackburn weren’t really chasing the title either. There was just a sense of ticking the box to complete the season - the mood was no different to the junior finals day I went to.

The most concrete assessment you can make about the game is that you can draw no conclusions – nine players were already omitted, although only Wes Thomas might have expected to start normally. Kane and Mowatt are going back to their parent clubs, a couple more were there to get experience, Ricardiniho was running down the clause in his contract. Others were probably playing their last game for us, but maintaining a poker face about it.

Ledson’s inclusion was a surprise, Karl Robinson claims he might now stay and that ‘the power of the fans’ is a key factor. It's a nice idea, but that doesn’t seem likely - unless Ledson, and those around him, are incurable romantics.

My guess is that the deal with Preston isn’t as imminent as they initially thought, and Robinson is keen to play hard-ish-to-get to keep his fee high until a suitable deal can be done. If Preston do pull out, there are quite a few others who can easily pay what it will take to spring him from our grips. He'll still go, I'm fairly certain of that.

The reaction to Robinson’s original comments about Ledson saw a significant shift among Oxford fans. In the past, these sales have been viewed with suspicion and anger, this time there was acceptance. Robinson’s tone helps – he’s pragmatic about how we need to operate if we’re to compete. Yes, we need to sell players, but we also need to buy judiciously. We are not spending beyond our means, but with the model we have, we can compete and hopefully succeed.

All this is to be resolved in the coming months, I don’t really miss football during the summer in the way others seem to. I quite like the feeling of release from the constant chug. The (slight) worry of relegation has gone away, and now there's a bit of freedom to cleanse and refresh ready for another bash in August. 

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 2 Rochdale 1

So, we’re safe and Ryan Ledson is player of the season, bring on the summer. I like Ledson a lot, who doesn’t? But, in seasons like this, how do you go about choosing a favourite? I remember goalkeeper Richard Knight getting player of the season when he shipped 100 league goals in 2001, which just seemed to be a vote for his stoicism as much as anything.

Did Ledson take the gong because he clearly loves what he does? Was he the most consistent? Least inconsistent? Because he was the man who gave us the season’s only highlight? Or is he just the bloke we’d most like to go to the pub with? Ledson’s effervescence is certainly infectious and I can see why he picked up the award, even though there weren’t that many genuine contenders.

Personally I would have given it to James Henry, because every time he had an impact it was significant in the mission we were ultimately burdened with: avoiding relegation. But, I can see why he didn’t get it because he didn’t play enough games and when he did, it was often out of position. A Twitter account which tracks these things claims Henry’s goals contributed 7 points, when you’re 8 points clear of relegation, that’s a decent contribution.

I pondered all this as we eased to the win, and safety, over Rochdale. Rather than immediately honing in on the best player, it was more a question of discarding them one-by-one until you got to a shortlist of the least-worst. It struck me that it was a squad of what-ifs – what if James Henry had been played in position, or Curtis Nelson, Rob Hall and Joe Rothwell had been fit? What if John Mousinho had played more like he has done under Karl Robinson? What if Jon Obika and Wes Thomas’ soft tissues weren’t quite so soft? What if aged journeymen players with injury records were, in fact, immortal?

There were less what ifs about Ryan Ledson, he was rarely injured, played consistently well and never looked like he’d given up the fight, all those things were a big advantage for him.

What-ifs dominated the season; what if Ryan Ledson hadn’t blasted in the winner at Charlton? What if James Henry hadn’t ghosted across his marker to get the winner at Doncaster? And what if Josh Ruffels hadn’t scored his daisycutter in the 96th minute in the home game? The margins are so fine, we may have gone down.

What if we’d appointed a manager earlier? What if the takeover had gone through before Christmas? We may have gone up.

It feels like it’s been both a long and short season. Losing Michael Appleton, John Lundstram, Marvin Johnson and Chris Maguire feels like a long time ago, as does the 3-4 debacle against Cheltenham in August. Also, the air of optimism as we won our opening three games, beating Portsmouth along the way, and then holding Bradford in the best tactical performance for years.

Then there was the slow realisation that it was unsustainable as we lost Christian Riberio, Rob Hall and Curtis Nelson, and aged players like Mike Williamson, Dwight Tiendelli showed their age. Karl Robinson said on Saturday that it’s easy to under-estimate the league both in terms of how many games are played (the most in Europe) and the quality that’s required to compete. Sol Campbell’s belief that it can’t be difficult to figure out the lower leagues forgets that it’s still Europe’s ninth biggest league by attendance and in the top 20 by revenue. We had the players to deal with some of that, but not all.

Perhaps the season feels like a short one because of the final phase; after the farce of Wigan and Bury, and going out to Port Vale in the Cup, and then the extended hiatus of being managerless; a long dark night which only recently made way for this final period in which things have gradually improved in a race to accumulate enough points to avoid relegation.

Three or four seasons in one season, then. Thankfully, the disruption doesn’t seem to have had the negative impact it could have done; we're still in League 1, Tiger’s talking a good game, Karl Robinson wins over more fans with each passing interview, form is improving, players are leaving, and soon some will be arriving. There could have been an air of disappointment and failure, but instead there's a sense that we’ve got away with it and can use the summer to re-group and start afresh in August.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The wrap - Doncaster Rovers 0 Oxford United 1

Safe? Surely. You know this because you've looked at the table over and over as well, but let me articulate my anxiety. MK Dons and Northampton can’t catch us, meaning from our perspective, things are very simple. We are at the top of a six team league table with the only objective being to avoid dropping to the bottom. We're six points clear with, for some, three to play. Barring everyone finding form including Rochdale going on a run which will see them winning the same number of games in the next three as they have in the last fifteen, phew.

I had been fairly optimistic about our prospects of avoiding relegation, things would have to swing against us in a big way for it to have been a realistic proposition. But, I'd written off the Blackburn games as obvious defeat, so by the time we got to Doncaster, we were rapidly running out of games to make ourselves safe.

My peak moment of panic was immediately before James Henry’s winner. The live league table had us four points clear with Rochdale and Oldham winning, and Walsall drawing - all having played a game less. It wasn't nice, particularly with our ability to concede late goals; a late Doncaster winner would have made things significantly more unpleasant.

Then Henry scores on 63, Oldham equalise at Wimbledon in the 74th minute, two minutes later Scunthorpe get their winner at Walsall and 14 minutes after that Bradford equalise at Oldham in injury time. 27 minutes and our season turns round.

Relegation threats do that to you; games become merely an exercise in computation and prediction. Numbers are more important than style. All cultural and social aspects of the game are abandoned for the accumulation of points. Your gaze narrows to nothing.

Great credit, then, to Karl Robinson. Results haven’t been perfect, but he’s had to work with the players he's been given. Everyone knows that the squad is likely to get an overhaul in the summer, yet he’s kept motivation high and held things together enough to get the results we needed. Once safety has been mathematically secured the re-set button can be pressed, for now, his finger can hover over it.

I have a lot of sympathy for both Robinson and Ricardinho for the situation they both find themselves in. The Brazilian didn’t start due to a clause in his contract which would have given him an automatic renewal. But, he'll be 34 at the start of next season, an age where players can switch from being experienced pros to costly liabilities in a heartbeat – think Dwight Tiendelli and Mike Williamson (or going back; Phil Gilchrist or Rufus Brevett). For Robinson, he can’t afford to use up a salary on a player he can’t be certain will play next year. It may not be the end for him at the club; once the contract clause is no longer live, there may be other roles or deals possible, but automatic renewal not good for the club.

Robinson's ability to keep the squad together when many know they're likely to leave during a high pressure time has been his most impressive quality. He's right in saying that Charlton were in a similar position last season, as were Shrewsbury, both of whom are likely to be in the play-offs this year. The rules around signing players now mean that sometimes you have to wait a little longer to see the true impact of a manager.

So, we're very close to the point where we can file the season as one which is transitional and forgettable. We can start to look forward again. Robinson said that he wanted us to develop a big-club mentality, something Chris Wilder was particularly good at in our Conference days. Getting over the imposter syndrome related to being a successful League 1 club may be one of the biggest challenges he'll face.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The wrap - Wigan Athletic 1 Oxford United 0

The book Inverting the Triangle covers the history of football tactics; which is significantly more interesting than it sounds. One point that struck very hard with me was the disconnect between the manager and his tactics, and the supporter. Supporters look to win a game, managers look not to lose it. The distinction is important; losing games loses the manager his job, so avoiding defeat is the priority, winning is the bonus. It's why managers build teams from the back, but supporters always want a 20-goal a season striker.
There was a curious approach to the game against Wigan, which illustrated the difference between what we perceive as supporters and how managers look at the game. We are at the sharp end of the season and both teams still have a lot to play for. Yet, both chose to play weakened sides. Neither Karl Robinson nor Paul Cook seemed to look at the game as one to win, at least not handsomely. It was as if Wigan were fielding the weakest team they could get away with to get three points, and we were generally accepting that zero points was the most likely outcome. As if the result was pre-destined.

It meant the game effectively was set up as attack versus defence; we were never going for the win, just to see whether we could avoid a defeat. Karl Robinson confirmed as much, saying that the goal, when it came, was the result of thinking we might be able to score.

Even though the defeat was expected, its manner was no less of a kick in the teeth. Perhaps this is another difference between supporters and managers; managers find it easier to rationalise results. I haven't expected us to get anything from Shrewsbury, Wigan or Blackburn, yet the first two defeats are no less frustrating.

The other curious thing about the result is that, because of where we are in the season, the impact on points is different. At the start of the season, the aim is to accumulate points, so a defeat is three points lost. At the end of the season, the loss or gain is relative to the position we're targeting (us, avoiding relegation, them, winning promotion). So, we lost one point from the defeat not three because the gap narrowed to from five to four points, they gained six because of Shrewsbury's defeat.

It is still not comfortable, but in my more rational moments, I don't see MK Dons or Northampton catching us, and that still leaves four teams to overcome our 50 point total for us to go down. We can, of course, make life much easier by picking up points against Doncaster and/or Rochdale, but even without them relegation is far from certain.