Thursday, April 10, 2014

The phoenix from the flames

Whilst things have been markedly worse than they are right now, both off the field and on it, in some ways it doesn't feel that way. There is an alternative, of course, but it's not one to be taken lightly.

A couple of days before our soul crushing defeat to Fleetwood, one tweeting wag made a suggestion, it’s a suggestion that has been tabled before. Sometimes it has been made casually, sometimes more forcibly. It was the suggestion that perhaps now was the time to unleash a new strategy, in fact to close one chapter and open up an entirely new one. Maybe it was time to form a 'phoenix club'.

In the good old days when football didn’t have problems, there was no such thing as phoenix clubs. That was because clubs didn't go bust (you see, there were no problems). As Denis Smith implies in his typo typhoon of an autobiography, the Bosman ruling changed all that. After that case it became much harder to liquidate your playing assets when money ran short. If you add the introduction of transfer window, cash-flow really becomes issue. As such, financial problems had a much more devastating effect on the future of a club.

Still, clubs tended not to go bust, although many, including us, ran themselves worryingly close. Maidstone went bust almost as soon as they were promoted to the football league, Aldershot closed down, although they had the good grace to hide in the backwaters of non-league to die. Scarborough also cashed their McCain chips. In 2003, the FA lost its moral compass entirely and moved Wimbledon to Milton Keynes all in the name of progress. Telford, a grand old non-league side with FA Cup traditions went bust employing Sam Ricketts while Chester and Halifax both limped along for years before finally falling to ash.

Most if not all of these clubs were replaced by, well, other clubs. It was only when Wimbledon and then Aldershot started to enjoy success that the idea of the ‘phoenix club’ emerged. This presented the idea that the new club could actually be better than the old club.

Manchester United fans took the concept on a step when they created FC United of Manchester after rejecting the takeover of the Glaziers in 2005. On one level I quite sympathise with those who object to the Glaziers; they are quite the ugliest group of people you could hope to meet and were far from the corporate dignity with which United were once associated. But, this was the first phoenix club to emerge from a club that hadn’t actually died. They were created due to the Glaziers breaking some arbitrary moral code where it suddenly seemed acceptable, in the name of ‘fan power’ and ‘keeping it real’, to reject your club and set up another one just because of something you disagree with.

There is a lot of attraction of forming a phoenix club. If your club has liquidated. It's a way of getting a replacement which is almost the same. If your club does exist and you've become disengaged to the point where you can no longer support it, it releases you from the tyranny of the club's owners.

But, with this comes its own quandaries. What, for example, do you take across with you? The club's colours is an obvious one, Wimbledon reclaimed their royal blue and yellow when MK Dons abandoned all pretentions of being the Dons reincarnated. Wimbledon eventually got their FA Cup win in 1988 after a bit of a tussle. You do wonder whether anyone would really believe that MK Dons actually won it if they saw it in their trophy cabinet; so it wasn't much to lose for them.

Could we justifiably take our Milk Cup win, if the original club continued to function? FC United can't claim the 1999 Champions League title, can they? Lots of people would be happy to sacrifice the Kassam; which is the real source of all our problems, some would accept that our league position would be sacrificed, but so would James Constable and his goals, for example. What about Jim Smith, John Aldridge and the Glory Years? We'd want to keep them, but maybe not Robert Maxwell, who funded the whole thing.

And it gets more complicated; some will be relieved to write Deane Smalley out of our history; but are they happy scratching his goals from the away win at Portsmouth?

In short, unless your club has been completed destroyed, you can't simply start up a new version of it. If you walk away from the bad stuff, then you have to walk away from the good stuff. And if you're going to do that, why bother starting again? Why not just go and watch Oxford City or Brackley Town, or your local non-league team?

As frustrating as our current form, and this season, is and has been, and as attractive as starting again is; the reality is that, like nobody believes FC United are a reincarnation of a more pure version of Manchester United, you can't simply start again when things get uncomfortable. We are products of history's mistakes - we are both its victims and its beneficiaries. In the end you have a simple binary choice; support the team or you don't.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Are we too middle class to succeed?

You can blame Dean Smalley or Ian Lenagan for any failings this season, but this is nothing new. Why are Oxford a club with a capacity to collapse so easily? Is there a darker reason we're not prepared to address?

Timmy Mallet used to have a  joke where he’d say something clearly preposterous - ‘a cow’s favourite food is jelly’ - following up with the punchline; ‘and we know that’s a fact because we made it up ourselves.’

You might argue the same thing happens with Oxford fans - or all football fans for that matter - we know we're the best fans in the world because we made it up ourselves. An away following is typically viewed to be 'brilliant' and 'dedicated' with no objective benchmark to prove that's so. We can take 1000 or 12 to an away game and this is universally declared to have been amazing. Oddly, when home gates fall, that's the team or owner's fault, it's definitely not the fans, they're still brilliant.

After the calamitous own goal which saw us fall to defeat against Dagenham, it feels like the late season collapse is happening all over again. After an early season surge, we’ve fallen away and barring a significant change of form, we will slip out of the play-off places to another season in League 2. I still wouldn't rule out a revival, but I wouldn't be surprised if this collapse is terminal.

This isn't unusual, in fact you might argue that it's the Oxford way. It's not specific to a manager or any players; we did it in 1995, 2004 and 2007. We’ve had other seasons which have been the other way around - a terrible start from before a late and futile dash of form at the end of the season. Promotions in 1996 and 2010 came about despite big chunks of faltering form. It's been 30 years since we had a season which was excellent from start to finish.

If this is the Oxford Way, then one of the few constants in all of this is us, the fans. Is there something in the DNA of the club, carried from generation to generation that makes success all that much harder?

It’s quite possible; while players and managers are judged by their performances in a ruthless and unequivocal way, we are not objectively assessed at all. Greatness is bestowed upon us as fans by us based on little more than the fact we turn up to games.

A recent economic survey backed up many surveys about Oxford and the surrounding towns and villages. There is virtually no unemployment, we have one of the most robust local economies in the country and the general the quality of life is second to none. Oh Oxfordshire, indeed, is wonderful.

In short, if Oxford and Oxfordshire were distilled into a single person, they would be part of the very comfortable middle class. Of course, there is a range of 'classes' living in Oxfordshire, but they are still blessed with employment, high house prices and above average wages. Their equivalents in Manchester and Liverpool may not be any more skilled, but they will be significantly worse off. Even those working in 'blue collar' jobs do alright from living in Oxfordshire.

Class is an emotive subject, of course. I take it to be a way of describing the 'natural order' of any society. Toby Young says that the UK benefits from knowingly having a class system. All societies have stratification - haves and have nots - its almost a necessity. If everyone had everything they need, then the economy would fall apart.

Young argues that the UK’s conscious class system is far better than America’s stealthy unconscious system - the American Dream perpetuates the myth that anything is possible, when it clearly and demonstrably isn’t to most people. If you’re born poor, then statistically you’re likely to stay poor even though you are told that only by being rich can you be successful.

Anyway, Oxford has its middle class roots wrapped around every part of it. It's not that everyone drives a Volvo and holidays in Tuscany. It's just deep in our cultural capital; in the same way that the docks, Catholicism and Irish immigration weaves its way through the culture of Liverpool, for example. Oxford is a seat of great thinking and a source of scientific and medical innovation. If you haven't been part of that, sure as eggs are eggs you've been influenced by it in some way.

The middle classes are the ‘professional’ class; accountants, lawyers, managers. They are paid to be objective and clear headed. Might that influence your attitude to your football club? Is it that when things go wrong we can simply rationalise it; it's not that important, there's always next week, and there are more important things in life.

Compare this, say, to Manchester United and Liverpool - the two most successful British clubs of the last 50 years. Both have working class roots; even if today it is barely perceptible in their modern incarnation. Going back decades life was hard; poverty was rife and, beyond the basic need to eat and have somewhere to live supporting your club became the end in itself. As such, having a successful club was a necessity; a failing club had a much larger baring on the general well-being of those who supported them.

While it may not be quite the necessity it once was - people of Liverpool and Manchester both enjoy economic privilege - but in order to gain entry to the club; to be a bona fide supporter of either club, you have to behave in a certain way. Part of that is a culture that winning is everything. After all, if you rationalise David Moyes' reign at Old Trafford, it's ridiculous to suggest he has failed. But when winning is a minimum expectation, then Moyes hasn't a prayer. That raw expectation of success, I'd argue, is less evident at Oxford. Winning is good, but it is only football.

Of course there are passionate and dedicated fans at Oxford. There are zealots who think about the club constantly and will travel up and down the country as though that means something. But many, if not most, are not born that way; if Oxford United begin to fail, then there are many other similarly fulfilling things to do than worry about why it's all going wrong. The ambivalence drifts onto the field and into results. This perpetuates any wobble - of which there is always going to be at least one in a season - and turns it into a sustained crisis.

Quite what we do about it, I don't know. We can't change who we are. Perhaps we need to use our middle class-ness to our advantage; if we are rational people, then we should write off freak own goals as just that, a freak. Instead we look forward with a clean sheet, as though nothing before has happened. It's a 6 game season and we can still go up, I didn't say we were beyond dreaming.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Shooting sacred cows

Gary Waddock put on a brave face in front of the television cameras as we were annihilated by Southend on Monday night. Deep inside he must have been wondering what he's inherited, and more importantly; where does he go next?

It's pretty easy to get carried away by any defeat; especially one that's been magnified through the medium of TV. It's easy to think that the world spent all day thinking about the game and how it might pan out when in reality many will probably have been unaware it was even on.

However, it's fair to say that if the Southend defeat confirmed anything at all, it's that if we do get promoted this season, it is most likely be down to the collective incompetence of the division rather than the brilliance of our play. 

So, while the season remains, astonishingly, all for the taking, it leaves you wondering what misery might be waiting for us in League 1 next season if we do make it.

A quick look at the current League 1 table suggests to me that the highest we might hope to finish should we get there is around 19th or 20th. Teams above that position just look too good for us to be able to trouble.

It seems pretty clear that changes will be needed regardless of where we are next season. With endless talk of 'new eras' under Gary Waddock (I think we'll let history decide whether his reign might be considered an 'era'), it may be time to think the unthinkable and shoot some of the sacred cows of the squad.

I'm not suggesting that there should be a arbitrary cull, but those you might think of as permanent fixtures, shouldn't be above scrutiny.

Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville
Call it the power of TV, but shots of Waddock hunched behind hoardings in the away dugout flanked by Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville looked like the three 'see no evil' wise-monkeys. Waddock, we shouldn't judge (although many did), but his new face did make Lewis and Melville's presence seem a little odd. Like trying to explain to a new girlfriend why your settee make a noise like a loud fart when you sit on it, it was almost as if Lewis and Melville were apologetically explaining to Waddock the failings of squad. It was like when you decorate a room in a house and all the other rooms suddenly look tired and in need of a refresh. Will Lewis and Melville add value to the new set up? It didn't seem as though they learned much from Chris Wilder, which might suggest their key benefit was in carrying out instructions of the man in charge. Perhaps that's a good thing, everyone needs able foot soldiers, but it would be nice to think we weren't reliant wholly on Waddock for ideas and insight.

James Constable
Constable is an interesting one, he's approaching the goalscoring record and he's a bona fide club legend. To get rid of him would be a massive risk to Waddock's credibility. Despite his goalscoring record, he missed two excellent chances against Southend and scores only fitfully now he's in League 2. Waddock may also view him as a relic of the past, and that moving him on would be symbolic of any change he might want to instigate. However, as is often the case, Constable was a rare positive with his work rate and commitment compensating for any failings in front of goal. My view is that Constable is worth keeping, but he needs pace and goalscoring ability to play off. I've no doubt he is willing to play any role, but his position as a key source of goals - and with it his right to a shirt - has to be under threat.

Jake Wright
There were times last season when Jake Wright was almost Bobby Moore-like in his command of the defensive arts. He didn't put a foot wrong all season. This season injuries have taken their toll along with the change of management. It's easily forgotten but Jake Wright, along with Constable and Ryan Clarke were lolling around in reserves teams or the non-league before Chris Wilder turned them into exemplary professionals. Wright has looked much shakier this season, perhaps a consequence of playing alongside so many different players, but it may be that injuries are getting the better of him, or the discipline Wilder instilled in him is on the wane. Can we afford to find out whether he'll shake off his current shakiness? Waddock may decide that Wright is, in fact, wrong.

Ryan Clarke
Only Sky's convention of awarding man of the match to someone from the winning team prevented Ryan Clarke from taking the accolade. Given that he also conceded 3, and he gave away an unnecessary penalty, that's a damning indictment of those who were playing in front of him. Waddock cannot have failed to be impressed by Clarke's performance; a minor bright spot in a bleak evening. Regardless of Max Crocombe's potential, it would be hard to see why Clarke's position would come under any threat.

Alfie Potter
Oh Alfie, when do you become the complete product you've always threatened to be? Potter enjoys a lot of protection due to his goal at Wembley and his ever present 'promise', but there is a point when promise needs to be converted into something more productive. On a good pitch and given plenty of space, Potter will excel, but in the rutted envrions of Southend and the like he tends to bimble along around midfield without much end product. How much time do you give him? When should we expect him to put in a season (or even half a season) of game changing wing-play? It pains me massively to say it, but of all the sacred cows, Potter could easily be the first to go.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

It's... Waddock

He's here!

I don’t want to pop anyone’s bubble but despite the brouhaha surrounding the appointment of our new head coach, the fate of a football club is not really in that particular decision. At least not wholly. It is decided via a very simple formula; budget plus or minus the tactical nous of your manager.

It is Budget that is overwhelmingly the deciding factor; if you rank clubs in any division by the money they have at the start of the season, that's pretty much where they'll finish at the end. Perhaps there should be similar levels of excitement when budget for the forthcoming season is announced.

The impact of the manager is surprisingly small when you think about it. There’s lots of accepted practice in football; most play with a goalkeeper, for example and four or five (rarely six) defenders, 3, 4 or 5 midfielders and 1, 2 or occasionally 3 strikers. These permutations are limited by broader decisions to attack or defend, which are determined by things like whether you’re home or away or playing a team above or below you.

Most managerial decisions serve to neutralise those of the opposition. Decisions that make a difference to a game or a season are comparatively small. In the end, a club will rarely improve more than a few places above their natural 'fiscal' level.

Those more informed than me suggest that Oxford have about the 7th biggest budget in the division. With a competent manager we should expect to finish in the play-offs. The challenge for the manager is to ease us into the automatic positions. Even before the season started, the title, almost certainly, was beyond us.

There are a whole range of reasons why people don’t get jobs; salary, terms and conditions, location. So it is difficult to say for sure why Waddock and not others got the job, but that notwithstanding, let's look at some of the candidates.

Paul Tisdale is one of the game’s theoreticians in the mould of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho or Nigel Adkins. Managers with no playing career to speak of who have progressed into management. Tisdale's came from the Team Bath experiment - a semi professional university team in the mould of the American colleges. There’s a lot of attraction of someone like him at Oxford. Ian Lenagan is trying to buck our financial position by implementing an innovative project based around youth development. That's not dissimilar to what Tisdale tried to pioneer at Bath; he understands the principles of player development.

Tisdale enjoys a reputation following his successes at Exeter. However, is that down to his innovation  and capabilities? On the face of it, yes, because Exeter are a small team who have recently been towards to top of League 1. However, in 2005 they had two FA Cup games against Manchester United. Those two games generated a significant amount of money; enough to make Exeter one of the richer, or at least more stable Conference sides. As we painfully know, in 2007 they  negotiated the play-offs and followed that up with a further promotion. However, more recently, the Grecians have struggled and rumours are the money is, again, running out. Is Exeter's success down to Tisdale, or that brief pot of cash they generated?

James Beattie was another in the frame. Now, romanticists live in hope of finding a Brian Clough or Sir Alex Ferguson. Managers with a streak of genius who take you to the top. They start in incongruous places - Clough at Hartlepools, Ferguson at St Mirren (Graham Taylor at Lincoln, Jim Smith at Boston). Young managers are an attractive proposition because they may just be The One. Beattie has shown promise; he's comfortable managing in the lower leagues despite his profile and he’s certainly bucked Accrington Stanley’s budget this season. However, the evidence pool for Beattie is just too small. Perhaps Beattie is the new Clough, do we want to risk promotion to find out?

Gary Waddock's name that hadn’t even been mentioned before Friday. The news was broken by Nobby D, who heard it indirectly from the horse’s wife’s mouth, as it were. Although the name came from left field, as soon as I read his text, it suddenly made sense.

Firstly, Waddock managed a hugely impressive Aldershot team that absolutely took us to the cleaners in 2007. It’s not often that you enjoy an away team; and Aldershot were a team I had a particular dislike of due to, pathetically, their over-pricing of FA Cup tickets in their tie against us in 1986. By 2007 they returned from liquidation a formidable force both on the pitch and off it. One of the significant points here is that Waddock, aside from being successful, was working in a broader system. With Aldershot being a fan-owned 'phoenix' club he was going to have to be in step with that philosophy.

After a spell, and promotion (and relegation) with Wycombe, he disappeared from view before taking on the role of ‘Head of Coaching’ at MK Dons.

Aside from the emotional and political difficulties with the Dons, and the fact that Pete Winkleman looks like a lost Munster, they are a very well run football club. I'd have a lot of confidence that Waddock is good at what he does. Also, ‘head of coaching’ is a technical role fitting in well with the Lenagan vision.

Ian Lenagan said on Friday that he was delighted with the selection process he’d followed. In fact he seemed rather more pleased with that than with his man, who he described as possibly not everyone’s preference. But that's the Lenagan vision; systems not individuals. It's how most businesses work.

It is telling that Waddock has been named ‘head coach’ as the club moves away from the traditional sheepskin coat wearing, ego-centric, autocratic British football manager. It is also telling that Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville both seem safe in their roles; again suggesting that Waddock will not be allowed to sweep away the existing set up for his own preference. Waddock also talks of being part of a system, which given his experience at Aldershot and MK Dons; both brand new clubs in many ways, it seems he can work within.

So, Waddock understands the rigours of the lower leagues, he has form in getting teams to perform beyond their budgetary means, he has the endorsement of a very well run club. More importantly, he can work within a wider plan. All of which points to a very solid, logical appointment; which is pretty much all you can hope for at this stage.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The blame game

On the pitch, off the pitch, in the stand or in the board room; apportioning blame when things go wrong seems to be a natural instinct. Just how much further forward does that ever get us?

Recently, Matt Murphy came to the Kassam as a returning legend. I can't have been the only long-standing fan to suffer some cognisant dissonance resulting from the idea of Murphy being a labelled a legend, a confusion which was compounded by his interview on Yellow Player; where he came across as a genuinely lovely bloke.

The thing is, during the mid-90s Matt Murphy was the London Road's boo-boy. Every team needs one, they're a counter balance to the 'star player', serving an equal and opposite purpose. With the inevitable fluctuations in team performances, you need someone to constantly love - a star player. This justifies your otherwise illogical devotion to something which is more likely to fail than succeed. Similarly, you need someone to constantly dislike to give you someone to vent your frustrations at. You need his constant because most players are good sometimes and awful at others; you don't want to appear like a reactionary nut job or undermine any previous absolute statements you've previously made about players.

The boo-boy is a constant, a punchbag. It acts like a pressure valve. In the immediate aftermath of our promotion from the Conference, and we were hidebound by that success. A moderate start to life back in the Football League left us in a position of seeking the root of our problem without being afforded the luxury of being able to criticise any of the players who had only a few weeks earlier performed heroically in our name.

It happens at every team; even at Manchester United during periods where silverware was almost guaranteed every year (I'm not kidding, ask your parents, kids). Ryan Giggs became a focus for criticism for those at Old Trafford. To everyone else the greatest player of his generation and one of the all-time greatest British players was a United boo boy because he didn't tackle like Keane, pass like Scholes, cross like Beckham or score goals like Gary Neville. It wasn't Giggs they were criticising, it was the collective need to have someone to beat up when things didn't go well.

Most people will agree the Murphy was very much like Giggs in so many ways. He is the club's 5th top scorer and played during a period of comparative success. But at the time he was the focus of almost constant criticism.

Deane Smalley is the Matt Murphy for the current age; it seems we have risen as one and decreed him to be useless. Rather like Murphy, the facts tend not to back up the perception. It ignores that Smalley is our most prolific goalscorer this season. It ignores that this is precisely what Smalley is; a goalscorer. It ignores that Smalley, the most prolific goalscorer in the team is being played woefully out of position or at least being slotted in wherever there happens to be a gap.

It beggars belief that Lewis and Melville worked alongside Chris Wilder for over five years and yet seemed to have learnt precisely nothing of their squad or how best to deploy them. Instead, we've been treated to Smalley and James Constable playing on the wing with no apparent game plan as to how their particular strengths might be used from that position. Constable, of course, enjoys the immunity that Smalley doesn't.

Standing amongst the bodies in the immediate aftermath of the 0-3 defeat to Chesterfield, Nick Harris joined the chorus of those claiming that it was no longer acceptable to wait to get the right man in, now was time to get anyone in. Even Jerome Sale, who is usually a rare voice of reason tabled the idea that the only solution now was to get someone like Martin Allen. Now amidst the shock and desolation of a three goal defeat with two men sent off and your best player stretchered off, perhaps rationality was in short supply, but this is the equivalent of deploying ground to air missiles to frighten off the cat that's been crapping on your flowerbeds.

Yes, there is no doubt that the appointment of the new manager has taken too long. However, panic is not the option right now. It is easy to blame Ian Lenagan, and without doubt the longer it goes on the greater the pressure to make the right decision. But blame is such a destructive quality; blame is something you assign to something or someone at the end of something. But like many things - particularly running football clubs - nothing has come to an end; so if you blame Ian Lenagan, how much further forward has that taken you? Has it put an effective manager in place? No.

The reality is that Lenagan was left in a bind; the mood of the fans was against Chris Wilder and our post-Christmas form was patchy, had he offered him a contract extension then there would hardly have been universal approval. However, sacking him didn't make sense given that we were in the automatic promotion places. Perhaps he shouldn't have given him the extension at the beginning of the season; but then what would this season have looked like?

So in a sense Lenagan was in no-mans land and when Wilder eventually found the exit door. It might have been reasonable to assume that Lewis and Melville along with a squad of experienced players might have kept themselves going for a bit. But, instead they have failed Lenagan miserably by simply falling apart. But even with that established, what is the point of laying blame and panicking? The problem, after Chesterfield is the same problem as before it.

History, they say, is a constant process of people clearing up their mistakes. So, wherever the club has got to, there's no point in kicking through the ashes of recent weeks in order to find out where it all went wrong. Whatever state we find ourselves in, we've still got the same players we had before this mess occurred. We don't need wholsale change or destructive revolution, but we do need a manager. Someone able to provide some structure and discipline to the squad; once that's been established, then the players should still be able to see us through to the play-offs.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mickey Lewis defies Newton's Law of Motion

Everyone thought that the Lewis/Meville combination was a safe pair of hands that could sustain the Wilder philosophy long enough to steer us through to the play-offs. It doesn't seem to be working out like that.

Nobby D lost his dressing room on Saturday morning. His Under 8s – who my daughter plays for – seemed to demonstrate the textbook definition of groupthink. Marshalling them into some form of productive training session seemed largely impossible.

The group are normally a happy and well disciplined lot under Nobby’s guidance, but early on it was clear that one or two had turned up in a bit of a scratchy mood. It was manifest in a lot of very low-level transgressions – smart-alec comments, answering back, playing with a ball rather than listening. Then, like ink being dropped blotting paper, the influence spread across the group.

I noticed it when my daughter came over for a drink. Generally she’s a bit of a follower and quite well behaved at football. A couple of the others had started squirting their bottles at each other and I could see a glint in her eyes and a change to her body language. To her delight, the rules of acceptability had apparently changed and the children were in charge.

Rather than absent mindedly dropping the bottle on my toe, as she’s wanton to do, she walked off with it; ready to join in the squirting game. I plucked it from her hands as she left and she shot off back to the group.

With almost nobody noticing, what was happening was a viral underground revolution that wrestled authority from Nobby’s hands into those of the group. Very Lord of the Flies.

Of course, managing an Under 8s team, Nobby is somewhat constrained by what he can do about it. There are parents watching and most children are there on a Saturday morning to enjoy themselves. Nobby gave them a stern admonishment at the end of the session and let it go in the hope that next week discipline will return.

On Saturday afternoon, against Burton, we started with apathy and listlessness. While Burton didn’t punish us initially, as soon as they found a gear, we found ourselves 2 and then nearly 3-0 down. The game was all bust lost within the first half hour.

The apathy was evident from early on. Perhaps it was the early spring sun, but we seemed to stroll onto the pitch and knock it around with little sense of urgency. Worse still, nobody was prepared to light the blue touchpaper. There was a distinct lack of leadership. Like with Nobby's Under 8s, it was as if the players had taken charge and that as a group they had become satisfied with their passive passing game. Nobody was prepared to tell them it was wrong - not even the manager.

Let's not wear rose tinted glasses, we were hardly rocket fuelled under Chris Wilder, but with him gone there appears to be a group-dynamic of some concern. Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion says that for every action, there will be an equal and opposite reaction. But does our squad have anything, or anyone, to react to or against?

Jamie Cook once described Chris Wilder as being something like ‘a great manager but a terrible man’. But that distance may be just what is needed. If a manager is too nice, too close to his squad, how can he make the hard, objective decisions that are needed to make a squad function?

Mickey Lewis has made a career out of being everyone’s mate – fans, players, management. He’s a reliable nice-guy. But does that mean we've lost the objectivity that comes with a manager watching from distance? If there's nobody correcting them, do the players start confirming each others’ behaviour as being right, even if the results are wrong?

Lewis’ post-match interview had an air of ‘shit happens’, a shrug of the shoulders, about it. This ability to roll with the punches has served him well over the 20+ years he's been around the club. But that shrug of the shoulders may well be spreading across the team. After-all, as Mickey says, there's always another game to play or another training session to get things right.

Cheltenham did little to change the perception of being leaderless. Lewis' response was almost trancelike; all we can do is work hard. But that was hardly the problem; Lewis gutted the midfield, putting Mullins in to add some steel along with Ruffels - a very similar player. With little creativity in the middle, we were reliant on the flanks, where stood James Constable who simply isn't built for playing on the wing. Only Williams offered any movement.

There just didn't seem to be a game plan; the players just needed to work hard. I've no doubt they did, but without any obvious direction.

The answer, of course, is a new manager, which by anyone's reckoning has proving to be a slow process. I don't buy the idea that we should get 'anyone' in, because that's currently what we have.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The gargatuan massiveness of large

There was a general consensus that Saturday's game was massive, bigger than last week's massive game and bigger than the massive game we played the week before. Perhaps even more massive than any game we've ever played.

I blame Professor Brian Cox. In the past, size has been a relative and generally comprehensible concept. At school I was genuinely proud to be one of the tallest in my class. I wasn't as tall as Mark Drayton, a freakish beanpole with tight ginger curls and pre-hipster NHS glasses who would be used by our useless house rugby team as a battering ram to flatten our more skilful opponents, but I wasn't one of those teeny weeny whippet types whose parents pestered their local GP to put them onto some kind of growth hormone programme. I was relatively tall, which I liked.

I can comprehend things that are smaller than and larger than a bus, for example. I don't mean that as a boast, I just can. When I saw the Alpine monster The Eiger when on holiday with my parents once, I generally got the principle that there were few things bigger than a mountain, although we then saw Mount Blanc and I came to realise that there were bigger mountains.

Then Professor Brian Cox came on the scene like one of those school teachers with an acoustic guitar and a working knowledge of Oasis b-sides. The type that everyone thinks is dead cool until the rumours about their biological practices with sixth form girls become intolerable. Cox introduced a whole new scale of massiveness with his slightly creepy endless wonderment at the universe and its many mysteries and dimensions. Before him, of course, was Stephen Hawkins, but he didn't have the haircut or post-Britpop button-up military style coat. It's Cox that really shoulders the blame here.

Cox, if you didn't know, used to play keyboard for D:Ream, the unloved disappointment from the Acid House family. He adopts a peculiar sense of childlike wonder about the world, which you'd hope, as a highly educated man, he'd have started to get to grips with. He's wanton to saying, in his dreamy Mancunian schtick, 'Imagine something absolutely huge; well the universe is even big than that, but then, imagine, if there was something even more massive.' before staring out into the middle distance of the Nevada desert as the sun sets a massive number of miles away.

The massiveness of our games have been getting progressively large for over a decade. Not a week goes by without someone reminding us just how massive each upcoming game is. I remember sitting in the car park before a game against Darlington in the pre-Conference days with Nick Harris growling about how massive the next 90 minutes would be. We were in a pit of apathy, I looked out of my windscreen at the Oxford Mail stand 10 minutes before kick-off, I'd just arrived and driven straight in. If it was a massive game, then it seemed that the fans had become overridden by the angst of it all and simply not been able to step over the threshold of their front door.

The size of Saturday's game could not be comprehended by merely comparing it to something big. I tried compose an ironic tweet about the comparative scale of the game, but couldn't actually imagine something large enough to compare it to. I felt the overwhelming urge to compare it to a theoretical algebraic equation. The game had acquired a size of multidimensional proportions.

The internet doesn't help, of course, between us we manage to crowd source the consequences of such a game to the point where, like the human genome project or the recipe for Coca Cola, it can no longer be owned by one person alone. The analysis starts in a reasonably neutral way with someone noticing that a team has a particularly high number of away games coming up or a lot of games against teams at the bottom. Before long someone will suggest that Southend's form is reliant on their left back whose loan move is coming to an end, while someone else will make comment on Newport's poor pitch and the likely impact that might have on form and points. Then someone will talk about a planning application that's been put in by Plymouth for an extension to their club shop that has prevented them from signing someone.

Suddenly we're confronted by our own mortality; that we are mere dots on humanity, controlling nothing, at the mercy of everything. Mass panic ensues, and each game acquires dimensions and depth of a scale whose power we can only sit and gape at in awe. No longer are we merely confronting an opponent; eleven men with a vague connection to a market town in Greater Manchester, we are confronting our own vulnerabilities.

The helplessness of being lone vessels tossed in an angry stormy sea; the anxiety is almost too much to bear.

Except, when you think about it, there is only one must-win game a season; the game that makes it mathematically possible or impossible to achieve whatever it is you're ultimately trying to do. Most of those you can discount as mere confirmations of a trend that has been evident for months. Occasionally there are games which genuinely define the fine line between success or failure - Leyton Orient in 2006, Exeter in 2007, Rushden in 2010 and then York at Wembley. In the last decade those have been the only genuine must-win games we've had.

Saturday's result didn't kill the season; it didn't even dent it very much. We remain, as we did at 2.59pm on Saturday, in with an outside shout of automatic promotion and a very good chance of the play-offs. The game appears to have put paid to Mickey Lewis' prospects of landing the management job permanently. Ian Lenagan claimed after the game to be over 50% through the recruitment process, which presumably means that Lewis isn't on the short-list, unless he's offering him the job in a particularly long winded and opaque way using a series of cryptic clues dotted around the Kassam Stadium. Lewis is a good bloke and a decent coach, but he doesn't have the pig headedness or tactical thinking to be a manager.

When will we confront our destiny? Not yet, but soon. As the games in hand held by others begin to unwind in the next few weeks we'll get a better picture of whether we're going for an automatic position or the play-offs. I suspect that we'll see ourselves comfortably within the play-offs, in which case destiny will come in the post-season. However, given the erratic nature of everyone's form in this division, we may still hold aspirations of an automatic slot come May; and then destiny could well lie in the last game of the season at Chris Wilder's Northampton.