Wednesday, July 20, 2016

O'Dear, O'Doubts, O'Dowda

Stick or twist?

It was always difficult to calibrate just how good Callum O’Dowda was. The fact he was one of our own biased any assessment of him. There were times when he lit up games, although often from the bench rather than from start to finish. He definitely scored a decent number of goals last year. But he started fractionally less than 40% of our league games, so it’s not like he’s leaving a gaping hole in the squad. He was made a full international but he didn’t go to the Euros; was that because he was genuinely deserving of his place or because the Republic were giving him a cap to bank him as being Irish just in case?

He’s young, of course, and that has to be factored in. Maybe in a couple of years all his qualities will be more immediate and all the potential will become a reality. I think only then will we really know whether this move is better for him, professionally, or us financially. With the deal including bonuses for performances and a 30% sell-on clause, it looks like others feel the same.

O’Dowda’s ambition has always been clear – you don’t get coverage in the Daily Mail about a move to Derby County without someone pulling PR strings and you don’t produce professional show reels on YouTube without wanting someone to watch it. Brand O’Dowda has been nurtured over a long period of time.

O’Dowda is professional in a way that others are not. He is insufferably polite and hardworking, both on the pitch and off the pitch. He seems to recognise that being a footballer isn’t just about what you do on the pitch. No footballer is successful by natural talent alone, hard work is key and O’Dowda undoubtedly has that at the heart of what he does. And for that reason, you suspect he’ll always have teams wanting his services, the question is, at what level?

Moving to the team that finished 18th in the Championship last season? In a few weeks’ time, although separated by a division, we may only be a handful of places below Bristol City. It seems such a moderate move for such a lot of hard work. Suddenly he’ll just be another player in a squad of players, not a homegrown talent fans are proud to call their own. This could be important; he’ll be expected to deliver at City – they need a return on their investment - whereas he’d have been allowed to grow at Oxford. And he still needs to grow. When he becomes a player at a moderate Championship club, will he ever be able to shake that label and move higher?

Maybe, maybe not. Maybe another season with us as a regular starter, developing as a player, becoming a more central figure, would have seen his stock rise higher. Appleton's Oxford United develop players, so it’s not like he was likely to go stale. But, maybe as a player you just take the money and opportunity when it’s available, because you may not get a second chance. Maybe Bristol City is a perfect springboard to other things. Maybe this was part of the Brand O’Dowda plan, but it’s hard to imagine anyone sketching out a plan with such meticulousness which had such an underwhelming objective.

The good news is that there’s little pressure to replace O’Dowda given the embarrassment of riches we have in midfield. While it’s always sad to lose a locally developed player, from our perspective, there’s little doubt it’s better to have the money now than the player if you think that players like Liam Sercombe and John Lundstram played more games and cost nothing.

Like all homegrown players, Oxford fans will follow O’Dowda’s progress with interest, perhaps lamenting what could have been had he stayed. I hope he has made the right move and look forward to seeing him playing internationals and one day in the Premier League. But will he? I just can’t tell.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Jake Wright - Oxblogger Player of the Decade

At the end of last season someone said to me that they were surprised that Johnny Mullins had been released and not Jake Wright. I said that I thought it was probably a question of timing; if Wright’s contract had been up and it was Mullins’ with another year to run, then Wright would probably have gone. Now, unexpectedly, he has.

The fact he featured in this season’s kit launch suggests Wright’s departure wasn’t planned. When Curtin Nelson signed, Wright’s fellow centre back Chey Dunkley posted an angsty tweet implying that four centre-backs into two slots didn’t fit. Logically, either Dunkley or Wright’s future at the club were suddenly under threat. 

My guess is that Wright wasn’t due to leave, but when the wheels began to turn on Roofe’s move to Leeds, and Curtis Nelson became available, suddenly the money and the will to land Nelson were both in place, despite meaning we would be desperately overloaded in the centre of defence.

With Aaron Martin already on-board and with Chey Dunkley’s form, age and wage, things were tipping against Jake Wright.

Wright’s time at the club was not universally a happy one. He was pretty shaky when he initially joined, replacing the very popular Luke Foster. He was generally better in an equal partnership or where he was the prime organiser. With the more dominant Michael Duberry he was more prone to mistakes, but with Mullins or Mark Creighton he was far better. His partnership with Dunkley was excellent, but Dunkley is becoming a commanding presence on the pitch and I can only see that growing next season. That could have affected Wright’s form. He was also a particular target in the aftermath of Chris Wilder’s departure to Northampton although Wright’s under-par performances were more likely due to a lingering back problem than a lack of motivation.

But, Wright could be an absolutely majestic defender, he timed tackles perfectly and read the game beautifully. He adapted brilliantly when we shifted from Wilder’s direct style and Appleton’s more technical, passing approach. If he needed to do the dirty work, then he could do that too. 

Above all, though, his overriding quality was as a leader. He was an enigmatic presence; serious and focussed. He didn’t have Twitter or Instagram, you only saw him on the pitch doing his work. When he did reveal his passion, when Alfie Potter scored in the last minute against Swindon in the JPT or after the final whistle against Wycombe, you felt privileged to have been allowed into his world. It was a rare quality and one that will be hard to replace.

On the pitch his influence was huge. Compare two incidences from last year. Against Orient at home, with Johnny Mullins as captain, an argument broke out between Chris Maguire and Kemar Roofe over a free-kick. Mullins didn’t interject and things got heated and players were left frustrated. Against Stevenage, it was Roofe and Sercombe, with Jake Wright wearing the armband, he strode up to the duo, squabbling over who would take a penalty, and made a decision that everyone accepted without a word.

In May I celebrated the 10th anniversary of this blog with a Twitter tournament to find the best player of the last decade. Despite competition from the likes of James Constable, Kemar Roofe and Danny Hylton, Wright romped to victory. It seems he benefitted from the ‘tournament’ format which forced people to think, and re-think about their choices. Perhaps in a straight vote he wouldn’t have won. Maybe that sums Wright up, not an immediate choice for a club legend, but a considered one, and no less deserving because of it.

Wright would almost certainly have left at the end of the season anyway. This season, he may have faded to third choice or further, which would have been a sad way to end his time with the club. Perhaps it’s better that he leaves while his reputation is intact. Yes, as a player his time was probably coming to a natural end but as a leader and captain, he is pretty much irreplaceable.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Kemar Roofe - the glorious misfit

The truth is, most people were mentally prepared for Kemar Roofe’s departure long before it was announced he was heading for Leeds. Nobody in their right mind expected him to last the summer at the club, it was just a question of when, where and how much, not if he was going to leave.

The reality is that Michael Appleton managed to pull off that rarest of coups in Roofe’s capture; a player whose actual ability considerably out-performed his perceived ability. He wasn’t considered good enough for West Brom, but there were more than 60 clubs above Oxford who also failed to see his potential. Lots of players fail to live up to their potential, many simply meet it, few exceed it and fewer still by the distance Roofe did.

Increasingly in the modern game, the good players are identified quickly and early, they find their level and that is broadly where they stay. People point to Jamie Vardy’s career trajectory as proof that the game is full of hidden gems, but in truth there are 4,000 other professional footballers in the UK who broadly prove that this isn’t the case. The market always wins, but if you can beat it for just a short while, then you win big; in our case it’s been worth £3 million, a promotion and a bundle of memories.

Because of this Roofe held an odd place in a much loved squad. He scored Playstation goals, 30 yard drives, direct free-kicks, he was the magician in a tight game. He transcended the club; a media darling for the period immediately after his match winning brace against Swansea. He collected armfuls of awards. He even had a branded goal celebration.

I once read about the differences in goal celebrations now and in the past. Players nowadays are aware of TV cameras and adjust their celebrations to suit, whereas in the past celebrations were more spontaneous and visceral. Roofe was a player made to feature on TV, not in lower-league backwaters with nobody watching.

Songs were sung in his name, but he never had the bond Danny Hylton enjoyed with the fans and there wasn’t the same sense of proud ownership of someone like Callum O’Dowda.

He was almost too good, like Ronaldo with Portugal, Gareth Bale with Wales or, closer to home, Dean Windass with us in the mid-90s. Not really an Oxford player, more a transient, otherworldly character, whose stay with us was brief and fortuitous.

So, almost as soon as he signed permanently, it seems almost inevitable that he was going to leave. Leeds is a perfect destination from our perspective because you sense money is plentiful and rationality less so. Commercially, that’s just the kind of people you want to do deals with. At £3 million, Roofe’s fee would be a big risk for most clubs, but if you have more money than sense, then who cares?

Whether it’s good for Roofe is open to debate, Leeds are a fly-or-die type club, you either succeed or you’re out. You only have to look at Roofe’s performances towards the end of last season where fatigue and fitness affected him to see that he is not yet the complete package. The fact his manager will be Garry Monk is some comfort in that his onus is on developing players, but how long will Monk survive with Leeds’ owner Massimo Cellino pulling the strings?

History will ultimately judge Roofe’s contribution to Oxford, but I suspect that he’ll never join the pantheon of greats in the way Matt Elliot or John Aldridge have. In return, I guess we’ll probably get less than a chapter in his autobiography. It was more a one-night-stand than a full blown marriage made in heaven. His time with us was just too brief to cement his legend and it will be a memory of the feelings rather than the actual moments themselves which will ultimately be Roofe’s lasting legacy. 

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Oxford United kit review 2016/17

As well as a cynical money-making exercise, new kit launches have become part of the normal cycle of the close season.

This season the club are going with the thematic ‘New Era’, which depending on your mood is either a simple reflection of the club playing in League 1 for the first time in 15 years, or the signal of a more radical, and for the die-hards, gut wrenching change of direction.

Darryl Eales is clearly no Assem Allam wanting to change his club’s name, or Vincent Tan wanting to change the shirt colour or Pete Winkelman, changing the club’s location, but he is the owner and he hasn’t been afraid to radically change things over the last two years. So, who knows what ‘New Era’ means?

Last season’s shirt was unashamedly retro, celebrating 30 years of the Milk Cup win. I wasn’t a fan of the original, it was too pale and I didn’t like the shadow stripes, so the reboot didn’t do much for me. It is understandable, however, how the designs have taken on new meaning given the successes of last year.

Such reverential nod to the past added to a wildly successful season should give Eales more licence to change the club to his vision. After all, Oxford fans literally let Robert Maxwell rob their grannies for success. 

Late last season the emergence of Oxford/Headington half-and-half scarves raised a theory that the club might revert to its original colours of old-gold. But Eales is a Birmingham fan, and it seemed unlikely that he would want to watch his club running around looking like Blues’ rivals Wolves.

The club also ran a Twitter poll about past kits with the Adidas yellow and royal-blue offerings of the 80’s being wildly backed. For me, having grown up with the club playing in those colours this would have been perfectly acceptable. But, you only have to think back to the last post-promotion kit in 2010/11 – the 1975-inspired striped shirt – to see how sensitive people are to change.

The grand reveal on Monday unveiled a kit which throws together references to glories past while at the same time creating something entirely new. Either this is very clever design or it shows that designers have basically run out of ideas.

The yellow and navy is loyally retained with a pinstripe that harks back to the club’s back-to-back titles in the mid-80s. The sleeves with the thick yellow trim is lifted directly from the 1996 promotion shirt.

The simple Ox’s head is now our ‘official’ badge despite having worn it for the last year. The pinstripe stops just above the head to allow it space before continuing directly below it. I like that, it shows a shirt which is designed to have a badge. Details, it’s all in the details.

Call me shallow, but last year’s unbranded shirt left it looking a bit cheap, and so the Starter logo gives it more balance aesthetically. Starter, who make what is now known as athleisurewear, have their roots in US Sports rather than football. Their logo is on what is apparently now known as ‘snapbacks’ or more simply ‘hats’ in the club shop and it first appeared on the JPT final shirt. It seems to suggest that Starter helped with the sourcing of the design rather than actually manufacturing it themselves. The benefit seems to be that we’ve got much closer to what we actually want rather than having to be a slave to Nike’s ‘England in different colours’ templates.      

If football kits are art, which they’re not, then this shirt continues a narrative of a club which is both a product of its history and forward looking at the same time. Ultimately, seasons make the shirt, not the other way around but, from a pure design perspective, it’s one of the best we’ve had.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A League of Gentlemen

Tom Peters says in business you’re either different or you’re cheap.

The announcement on Friday that the EFL Trophy, formerly the JPT, would include Premier League Academy U21 teams was greeted with all the contempt it deserves.

It was a cynical announcement, timed to coincide with the start of Euro 2016 when the media’s attention was already elsewhere.

Initially it appears that Oxford had reflected the fans’ view and voted against the plan when Darryl Eales told OxVox he opposed it. Later it turned out we had voted for it and that Eales had been outvoted by his board. Oxford are, to date, the only club to have confirmed their support for the move but we’re not a lone wolf here.

The fact that the board outvoted Eales is interesting. He clearly isn’t the benevolent dictator we sometimes perceive him to be, it’s good that there are opinions at board level, if everyone thought the same, then some of its members are redundant. There should be debate, that’s what will make the club a healthy one.

The club broke their silence on Saturday with what I thought was a pretty a cogent argument for voting with the plan. The Trophy is a dying competition, it has no sponsor, falling TV interest, there’s little that attracts the fans and it’s clearly a distraction for players and managers.

Having now been through an entire Trophy campaign, I can confirm from my perspective that excitement rarely gets beyond mild interest, even in the latter stages. As I said after the final against Barnsley, Wembley was like a works day out rather than a milestone in our history. It was nice, but it wasn’t vital.  

Don’t get me wrong; adding Premier League U21 teams to the mix is a terrible idea. I can’t imagine why anyone – media, sponsors or fans – might be attracted by the prospect of Stoke City Under 21s v Rochdale or even a Wembley final featuring West Brom v Southampton juniors. Last year’s FA Youth Cup final between Manchester City and Chelsea had an attendance of 8,500, even the Premier League has only so much appeal.

But, it’s difficult to know what else to do with it and the alternative is probably to abandon the competition altogether. The reality is that there is just too much football, and the trophy itself is being squeezed out. 

A friend of mine’s husband suffered a near-fatal brain injury 6 years ago. He’s been subjected to progressively more radical treatment in an attempt to save and then stabilise him. This idea seems to be along those lines, a terminal tournament being nursed with increasingly radical treatments.

But, like my friend’s husband, who is now in a wheelchair, suffers depression and bouts of extreme anger and is probably going to lose his leg; all the radical treatment can really achieve is to prevent it from dying, not allow it to thrive.

There is the suggestion that this is a Trojan horse strategy to allow these teams into the Football League. If it is, it’s a pretty dumb one, the equivalent of the Greeks climbing out of the horse at the gates of Troy to ring the doorbell. If this is part of a secret strategy then it’s obviously failed; Oxford may legitimately be able to vote for the idea as a test, but knowing the fans’ views, could it now vote for Premier League entry into the Football League? If it’s a test, then it’s clear that the results are negative, which is good to know, now let’s drown the idea forever.

There’s no doubt the Premier League holds a lot of the cards; they could end loyalty payments, the loan system, promotion and relegation, and throttle coverage of the Football League on Sky and BT. But the answer to those threats is not to become a cheap assimilation, it’s to become something different.

The Premier League is not an English league full of English clubs. Owners, players, managers, and increasingly, fans are not English. I’m no jingoist, I’m fine with it; I quite enjoy the Premier League although I can’t engage with it any deeper than as a form of entertainment.

But I like the uniquely English phenomenon of having three professional leagues (four if you add the Conference), I like the fact that five years ago we were in the Conference and next year we could be fighting to be in the Championship. I like that fans of obscure clubs travel up and down the country to support their team. As the Premier League becomes global, the Football League has a great opportunity to build itself as something successful and local; a Costa Coffee to the Premier League's Starbucks.

The Football League will be making a grave mistake if it chooses to suckle on the teat of the Premier League in an attempt to succeed. It has so many assets, the Championship is the fourth best attended league in Europe, it needs to build on what it has rather than assimilate itself to a global phenomenon that doesn’t care about it.

As Tom Peters says, in business you have two options – let’s be different, not cheap.  

Friday, June 03, 2016

Squad review - coming and going

May and June are difficult months for a football club and particularly for football fans. There’s the emptiness resulting from the end of the season where Saturdays are suddenly blank and the narrative runs silent. It's also a time when football goes on holiday, so real transfer news is typically scant. The void is filled by speculation, which is unsettling, and the real news that permeates beyond normal signings are the unusual ones, the ones that holidays simply can’t wait for.

So while we face uncomfortable truths about O’Dowda, Roofe, Maguire and Hylton, one might expect things to balance out across the whole summer. But, this week's events are interesting and unnerving at the same time, so where exactly are we and where are we going to be come August?

Who’s going?

Hylton and Mullins have already gone, and I’d expect Maguire to go as well. He should be able to secure reasonable level of interest and all his permanent contracts have been in the north; so, we’re not necessarily an obvious choice for his employer.

O’Dowda and Roofe also seem likely to move on; although both should secure fat fees for the club. There’s a lot of angst about this. Obviously fully focused, fit and on-form O’Dowda and Roofe are huge assets to any club and them leaving will be a blow. But, there is a point when players outgrow their clubs and start to become more of a burden than an asset. Say, for example, O’Dowda stays; he’s a full international who has just turned 21. There is a point where the attention and the possibility of playing at a much higher level becomes a distraction. To some extent we saw it with Roofe after Christmas; suddenly he’s a bit of a star, there’s pressure to perform, do interviews, tell his story and the potential of a big move grows. His form became more fitful as the season progressed. It’s not easy to stay focussed when that’s happening.

There are a couple of outliers that have been subject to some light speculation notably Lundstram and Sercombe. I doubt either will go as their contracts and the fees required to secure them are likely to put people off when there are other, easier, options available.

Who’s left?

Michael Appleton has admitted that we’re over-subscribed with goalkeepers, which is undoubtedly true. Buchel played enough to earn a contract extension, Slocombe remains under contract and the club have got to decide what they want to do with Max Crocombe, who hasn’t been around the club very much in recent seasons.

None are obviously first-choice ‘keepers and you’d think that one needs to go somehow. If another, more reliable ‘keeper can be secured, that might mean two will go. My bet is that Slocombe is the most vulnerable because Crocombe is emergent and presumably a cheaper back-up. If another ‘keeper is brought in, I doubt there’s much in it between Buchel and Crocombe.

The planned loss of Mullins leaves us with two very capable centre-backs – little worry there, although we’re lacking cover. Skarz is the obvious first-choice left-back, but we have a hole at right-back with Baldock and then Kenny leaving. I can’t see Baldock coming into the club, unless money becomes available from O’Dowda or Roofe, but even then I suspect that he will be available only at a premium to us and so I’d feel that we're more likely to fill the gap by looking elsewhere.

We look reasonably secure across the midfield – Sercombe, Lundstram, MacDonald and Ruffels are all in place.  Perhaps one senior pro, or maybe a good loan deal, along with the various younger players should give us enough cover early on.

Up-front suddenly looks threadbare; Ryan Taylor is the only senior striker left once Hylton and Roofe go. He’s no goal machine and his injury problems last year have to be an ongoing concern. This could be a break-through season for James Roberts, who in some ways has shown glimpses of being even better than O’Dowda. But, it is only glimpses and that’s not enough. If the O’Dowda and Roofe money is available, then this is an area we would do well to spend big on.

So what’s the prognosis?

We need to strengthen across the squad. Thin out the keepers, bolster in defence, strengthen the depth of the midfield and overhaul the striking department. It feels like quite a lot and the silence is deafening.

Say it quickly and the loss of O’Dowda, Roofe, Maguire and Hylton sounds pretty gut-wrenching, but there’s money to be had from two of the four and it does free up a reasonable amount of salary. Add to that a bumper year for merchandise and ticket sales, and a trip to Wembley this would suggest Appleton doesn’t have to scrape the barrel for reinforcements. Darryl Eales doesn't seem to have lost his enthusiasm yet, he still seems excited about what we can achieve.

Plus, it seems unlikely that Michael Appleton has been unaware of this prospect for some time. Hylton may have been a shock, but an ‘improved offer’ may not have been as enticing as it sounds given that he was originally signed during the austerity between Lenagan stepping aside and Eales coming in. If he was signed on the cheap by Gary Waddock, an improved offer may not have been that much money. And, if that’s the case, then maybe the club weren’t as set on Hylton staying as the fans. There’s certainly some evidence to suggest that this wasn’t a ‘sign at all costs’ deal with Hylton looking to be on his way out at Christmas.

Also, Appleton has admitted that some of his planning has been hampered by not knowing which division he was playing in until the last game of the season. Last year it was clear that the club would be in League 2 and the signing of Joe Skarz signalled the beginning of a new plan being executed, 8 months before the start of last season. It’s not the same this season.

So, given that this scenario was always possible, it might suggest that Appleton has got this under control. Given his meticulousness about everything else from his tactical planning to his physique and tattoos, it would be a surprise if this has all come as a shock. There should be money available and maybe he’s waiting for the Roofe and O’Dowda deals to be completed. Plus, it is still holiday season in football world and so the silence shouldn’t be too concerning.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hylton departs

It was like watching the final scene of a particularly gruesome episode of Game of Thrones. One where a much loved character gets eviscerated in front of your eyes.

When the news came in that Danny Hylton had turned down a new contract offer and signed for Luton, first there was disbelief, then shock, then anger, but all the while there was helplessness.

While Twitter screamed my office was silent as everyone soft-pedalled their way through the first day back after the Bank Holiday. On the screen there was indignation and barbarism. I wanted to claw at the screen to stop the news coming in, it was horrible.

There doesn’t seem to be a good footballing reason for Hylton to leave. He’s well loved and played the best football of his career at Oxford. It’s possible he feels like he’s pushing his luck being part of a League 1 squad and that if he came up against Sheffield United or MK Dons he’d get found out. 

I’ve heard players say (long after the event) that they chose to leave clubs because they were getting too successful and the pressure was too great. Could Danny Hylton be self-aware enough to think of himself as an imposter? Maybe he feels more comfortable in League 2.

Presumably the money was good and any smart agent will know that now is the time to cash in. The picture of Hylton with his Luton shirt hardly smacked of someone who had made his dream move, but you can read what you like into one photo.

Hylton brought a different quality to Oxford, he was an eccentric; a step away from increasingly measured and scientific approach Michael Appleton has brought into the club. Like Bez from the Happy Mondays, a googly eyed space cadet gooning around in front of a tight rhythm section. Signed by Gary Waddock, in many ways, he made no sense at all.

Is this a good move for Hylton? Financially, I imagine so, Luton are clearly spending heavily to secure their promotion ambitions having also signed Johnny Mullins. But, will Hylton perform outside the bubble of the Oxford coaching machine?

Over a career that’s lasted a decade, nearly half of Hylton’s career goals have come in the last two years, in 2012 he was charged with racist abuse. While I doubt that was malicious, it shows that there’s a fine line between genius and madness. There’s also his goal profile; 30% of his Oxford goals were scored in August. Half by October. While his workrate is immense he does appear to run out of steam quite easily. It’s telling that at Christmas it looked like he was leaving for Hartlepool.

Getting the most out of Danny Hylton is not easy, but it's something that Michael Appleton managed to achieve. I think it was the application of Appleton's science which complemented Hylton’s instinctive art. I don't think it will be easy to replicate elsewhere.

While I think he is replaceable, we lose a little something with Hylton's departure. I suspect if we are to compete in League 1 or go even higher, then we'll have to become much more measured and controlled, and in Hylton we had something very warm and human. We may never see his like again.