Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The wrap - Peterborough United 2 Oxford United 2


James Henry's signing was a bit of theatre; the squad were in Spain, he was flown out to meet them, a fan bumped into him at the airport and took a picture which was posted it on Twitter with his face blocked out. Fans (well, me) started to compared the tattoos on his arms with pictures of him on the internet to try and confirm who it was.

And, that's pretty much where the theatre ended. It was an interesting signing, our squad was made up of young, ex-Premier League academy players, Henry was in his prime. Was he part of the recruitment programme that Michael Appleton left behind? Or the first of a new wave under Pep Clotet? Nobody let on, of course, though I suspect it was more the former than the latter. In that sense, he was a bit like Danny Hylton; signed by a previous era, adopted by the next.

And that's pretty much where the comparisons to Danny Hylton ended. If you could compare James Henry to anyone, it would be someone like Steve Basham. Basham quietly got on with his job of scoring goals. You probably won't remember any of them, you won't remember any of his post-match interviews, and you won't hear any of rumoured off-the-pitch antics. Nobody sings songs about Steve Basham, and nobody ever did, but he scored 43 goals - only eight other players have scored more in the club's league history. It was only years later when he scored a sublime hat-trick for Hayes and Yeading against us that I came to realise just how good he was.

Henry is similar in that through the chaos of Clotet, the painfully extended search for his replacement, and the turbulent opening months of the Tiger/Robinson revolution, he's just got on his with job chipping in with critical goals and generally offering a cool head.

I remember back in 2016, Alex MacDonald mentoring Jonjoe Kenny when he came from Everton to fill the not insubstantial hole left by George Baldock. That sense of ownership, without the benefit of a captain's armband, is essential in all teams. A number of times, you can see Henry geeing up his team mates or calming them down, he's not the most flamboyant character, but he gets on with the job and people respect him for it.

His brace on Saturday against Peterborough, like his crucial goal against Doncaster last season which effectively kept us up, shows just how pivotal he has become. He has become the difference between defeats and draws, draws and wins. With Marcus Browne and Gavin Whyte marauding on either side of him and Jamie Mackie causing a mess up front, Henry enjoys the freedom they give him. Suddenly it feels like we're a threat up front.

People talk about having a 20-goal a season striker, and there's little doubt that it helps to have one. But having a 10-15 goal midfielder like we did with someone like Liam Sercombe, ghosting in to pick up scraps created by people like Danny Hylton is nearly as important. Henry's role has become increasingly crucial in everything we do.






Sunday, December 02, 2018

The wrap - Forest Green, Bradford, Rochdale, Plymouth


I haven't written anything on this blog for a while. It's not as if things aren't going well on the pitch. Since the last post we've won three and lost one and we're in the third round of the FA Cup after an excellent win over Plymouth.

Not only was that win important in terms of progressing, it was our first one away from home against a team at our level (Checkatrade aside, which it always is). We're scoring goals and we've stopped conceding. The performance against Rochdale was, at times, as good, if not better than performances under Michael Appleton in League 1.

But, something is missing. The opening months of the season have been brutal, and the recovery from the start of the season has been slow. I admire Karl Robinson for getting us out of the hole we were in. I can see why people struggle to warm to him; he's like your mate in the pub who is full of energy and a great laugh. Except when you get home and all you want to do is go to bed, he's the one still going, plotting something, badgering you to go back out to some club or other.

He needs that energy, it's a thankless task being a football manager, harder still turning a team around in the face of an endless stream of criticism. Even harder in the modern game when you can't bring players in outside transfer windows. When everyone was down, he had to be up, he had to keep coming into work and putting the hours in to solidify the defence and create an attacking style that wins games. He's done all of that.

The Nile Ranger affair, as much as it was anything, didn't help with the mood. You can't blame Robinson for looking where he can for players given the constraints they're under. It's not that Ranger doesn't deserve a chance while he's free to take them. If we simply punish people endlessly for things they've done, what is the point of trying to turn yourself around? You might as well keep trucking on with your errant ways. But still, the last thing we need is to become a club that attracts negative press or appears to put its morals aside in the pursuit of league points.

We're also being wound up, apparently. HMRC are taking us to court in an attempt to make us pay our bills. I don't really know how serious these things are, they sound serious. I don't know how easy these things are to resolve. My guess is that, practically, all HMRC want is a cheque and the whole problem will go away.

Yellows Forum is not exactly a good barometer for how serious this is, but OxVox are sufficiently concerned to have written an open letter to the club about it. My guess is that it's not the lack of money that's the problem, more the poor administration of that money to pay bills. It doesn't bode well for January.

But, and I think this is where my head is at the moment. What I felt sitting in the stands against Rochdale is that the club doesn't currently have a narrative. At least not one I can easily relate to. Results on the pitch are good, and that's an important start, but the spirit of the club isn't there. There isn't a buzz on social media for each game, crowds are hardly booming, the relationship with players still seems quite distant, fan culture seems a bit flat, the club doesn't feel part of the city or fans or something.

This season has been one about the mechanics of surviving a terrible start. Perhaps the FA Cup will give us something to believe in, a spark, perhaps January will bring us some inspiring signings and we will take our form into the New Year and, like in 1996, we'll go on a run which will bring a tilt at promotion and everyone together. But, the club have got to resolve its issues, off the field has got to feel better than it currently does, otherwise the results will be a side issue and those with a casual interest in us - who turn 6,000 crowds into 8,000 crowds - will continue to stay at home.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 0 Forest Green Rovers 0, Oxford United 1 Gillingham 0


I used to have a Commodore 64 and the game Rambo II First Blood. The gameplay was even more primitive than the plot of the film it was based on. Essentially, a notably blocky and top heavy eight-bit Rambo runs headlong into a hail of bullets surviving as long as he can before getting shot to shit. I wasn't very good at it and barely lasted more than a minute. I wasn't alone; there's a 10 minute clip on YouTube of which 6 and a half are the load screen and credits. The gameplay is a mere side issue. 

The tactics on Saturday reminded me of that game; give the ball to Ricky Holmes or Marcus Browne and let them run headlong at the defence in the hope of affecting some kind of breakthrough. Pretty much every raid resulted in a predictable, Rambo-style failure until eventually, Browne managed to draw the keeper into a moment of madness and the game was ours. It was hardly sophisticated, but we'll take the points where we can get them.

It's not particularly entertaining and it won't work against better teams, it clearly didn't work in the draw against Forest Green last week. But, with a newly stingy defence, it's aiding a recovery of sorts.

Earlier in the season I was complaining about the sheer chaos of our gameplay - players running into each other, defensive errors and the like. The system we have now is disciplined, but obvious. It is suited to a team full of strong personalities brave enough to embark on kamikaze raids into the opposition defence, which is something we have plenty of.

This is where I think Sam Smith struggles, he's only a few months older than Harvey Bradbury, who many is think of as a raw prospect. In this team, you only get to play if you're prepared to bully your way into the game and Smith is not that kind of player. I suspect Kemar Roofe would have struggled in this team due to the lack of service and team play. Jamie Mackie will demand to be involved because of his personality and experience, Smith doesn't seem to have the personality or game to bully his way into a game.

Bradbury, as Sam Long said afterwards, is a big lump. Karl Robinson's observation was exactly right when he said that while not offering an obvious goal threat, getting centre-backs booked and putting them on the back foot played an important role in securing the three points. I'm not sure about Robinson's view that we should start looking at the top 10, but between Bradbury and Mackie, and looking at our upcoming fixtures, it feels like we just have enough to get us to the January transfer window in a solid state.

Only Robinson knows what who has lined up in the New Year, but for me, I think our recent form should mean we rule out a move for Nile Ranger. The morals arguments aside, Ranger is an opportunity, and also a risk, but now we have established a precarious stability and I would rather we focused on planned development rather than speculative opportunities.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The wrap - Scunthorpe 3 Oxford United 3


But, I can’t even...

As frustrating as it was, a draw having led 3-0 is still a freak result. I can’t remember the last time it happened to us before Saturday, less still when we did it to someone else. What is tricky about this Oxford side is knowing what was freak about it. Is it that we scored three times? That we conceded three times? That we led so comprehensively away from home? That we capitulated so badly?

Which of those is us, and what's the freak? It’s so difficult to tell.

The good news is that we would probably have been happy with a draw before we started, and it extended our unbeaten run to 6 games. So, it would appear that the result is not so much a failure as a missed opportunity. Should that be the end of it?

Last week it was announced that Nile Ranger was training with us, apparently unattached players train with clubs all the time, but Ranger is tabloid box office due to his extensive rap sheet of misdemeanours and so the news made the Daily Mail.

This is not the first time we’ve been faced with the dilemma of considering a player surrounded by negative connotations. Adam Chapman killed a man in a car accident and was sent to prison while Luke McCormick was signed to cover a goalkeeping crisis despite having spent time in prison for killing two children while drink driving.

Ranger’s problems are more extensive than both these players, but he’s never killed anyone. He’s been involved in largely petty crime for most of his adult life and has got into disciplinary problems at pretty much every club he’s been to. Understandably, there was little support from the fans for signing him.

But, there was support for re-signing Adam Chapman after his release, and McCormick was, to some degree, accepted when he turned in some half-decent performances. It’s quite difficult to apply different rules to different people facing the same problems. It’s OK to have opinions, but difficult to arbitrarily decide what is acceptable and not depending on personal prejudice. We’re not Tommy Robinson, after all.

Tommy Robinson is quite a good reference here. His failure is to recognise the rule of law. You make a law and then you apply it. You don't see something you don't like and make up a law to cover it. So with Ranger, whatever you think of him should really be consistent with whatever you thought of Chapman and McCormick.

To my mind, as a free man he should be treated no differently to any other professional footballer. As difficult as that might feel to us individually, and it does to me, he has to be treated fairly. Karl Robinson is aware of Ranger’s past and said his previous actions aren’t in keeping with the values of the club or a professional footballer. But, if he shows he’s sorted himself out and he can be an asset to the club, then he could get a contract.

I agree with Robinson's assessment on this, so I don’t object to Ranger being considered. But, the fact we are having this debate is symptomatic of the difficulties we face. In short, we shouldn’t be here in the first place. It’s normal to have players with long-term injuries, but good squads and decent set-ups can absorb those problems and carry on regardless. They don’t find themselves scratching around looking at players who most clubs wouldn’t consider. In simple terms, we’ve been on the back foot  since August.

And so it seems with the Scunthorpe result; freaks happen, they happened under Michael Appleton and Chris Wilder, they happened under Pep Clotet. But, the club needs to be robust enough to minimise the impact of freak happenings. It may be that we threw two points away, but we shouldn’t need those points Saturday as much as we do in the same way we shouldn’t have to scratch around for a striker in the way we are.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 3 Shrewsbury 0


The father of the bride at a wedding I once went to was heard to say ‘if a wedding made a marriage, I’d have spent more money on it’. Hopefully the bride didn’t hear him rationalise her day into a meaningless frivolity, though she knew what he was like.

It was the same thinking which threatened to derail our 125th anniversary celebrations. The symbolic changing of kit to the colours of Headington United was rationalised as the club ripping off the fans with an over-priced t-shirt. The national press put the boot in - attacking a cynical money making scheme that was nothing of the sort. It got to the point that the club felt the need to issue what almost amounted to an apology. Even the special pricing of £12.50 and £1.25 was questioned by some season ticket holders because they didn’t get a financial benefit from the game.

You can distill football down to its basic transactions - we pay money, we deserve value for that money. If we’re loyal we should get a reward like we’re buying something from Amazon. By extension, perhaps if we lose we should get a refund. If that’s the point of football - to get entertainment in return for money - then it has no point at all.

A special programme, a book from the Oxford Mail, a walk from The Brit to the Kassam, a huge display on the terraces, a parade of previous players; all can be rendered meaningless if you put your mind to it. But then, if you keep going with that thought, the whole thing is pointless. Like if a wedding doesn’t make a marriage; if football is just about getting value for money, then you’d be better going to the cinema.

In 1893 Dr Robert Hitchins and Reverend John Scott-Tucker walked to the Brittania Arms in Headington with an idea about how to occupy young men during the winter. Let’s break that down - they finished their day’s work, probably had something to eat and walked to a local pub to present an idea. You could do that today; walk to your local pub with an idea. Most likely it won’t last a week, let alone 125 years.

Before that idea, there wasn’t a football club, there was precisely nothing. We assume football clubs come into existence fully formed, part of the package that makes a major town or city. It's just there, forever. But, perhaps millions of ideas for clubs fade and die before they're born. Thousands last less than a few years, fewer still become institutions that last more than a century.

The idea evolved and grew, it engaged and consumed local people from a city to a county, it battled through two World Wars, countless financial difficulties, one attempted merger, it moved location, it played at the most prestigious stadiums, won national competitions and played and beat some of the best teams in the world. Above all, it was a common thread through generations of people.

The amber shirt, the programme, the walk, the banner, the former players and let's not forget the win reminded me of how incalculably lucky we are to be part of that idea, to have benefitted from it and to contribute to its lasting legacy. When we die, if we treat it right, the idea will be passed onto to others. A tiny fragment of us, and what we created and curated while we were involved, will live on in the club. Saturday reminded me of that, and that's why all the effort was important. A wedding doesn't make a marriage, it reminds you of what you've achieved and what you need to protect into the future.

This isn’t a brand invented by venture capitalists and taken to market with a multi-million pound marketing campaigns, it’s an institution created, run and sustained by the people based on a simple idea. We are lucky that the idea endured; that there are people who pushed it through difficult times, who keep it alive, either by putting money into it, or through their endless energy, or just turning up for pointless games, or by playing. A mere interest in the club motivates the efforts of others. Thousands of people, keeping an idea alive, evolving it, changing it, growing it into something else and passing it on; all the while maintaining its core values.

Something for young men to do during the winter months is now something for young and old, men and women to do all year round. If you can't play, you watch, if you can't watch you listen, if you can't listen, you validate just by being interested. Through all the frustrations and difficulties, hopefully it teaches people something about camaraderie, working to achieve things and dedication. Perhaps it changes people’s lives, or gives them moments of light in darkness. Perhaps it just acts as a distraction from a tough life. Maybe it's just fun and a bit of a laugh with friends. Perhaps those friends help you from time to time. Somehow that simple idea, does amazing things. It's pretty cool.

So, the 125th anniversary is our anniversary and should be embraced for what it is. Attacking it, cynically crushing or dismissing it damages us and what we stand for. If the club goes, it can't be replaced, the history, the people, the club. We have a responsibility to treat it right, to pass on the idea we've inherited in the best possible way.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The wrap - Charlton Athletic 1 Oxford United 1


Spoiler: I'm not going to talk about Charlton or another decent point or Gavin Whyte's wonder-strike.

Sometimes you just can't win. The club have announced a one-off limited edition shirt for the 125th anniversary game against Shrewsbury which will retail for £75. Predictably enough, there's been a bit of a backlash. It's a numbered orange and black Puma shirt carrying the original Headington United badge. So far so good?

No, the shirt is from a standard template which makes it both 'boring' and 'overpriced', and therefore 'a rip off'.

It's one of life's great disappointments to find that almost all football shirts are generic templates being used over and over again. What you think is yours is nothing of the sort. But, if you take a look at Oxford United's kit history you'll see there's not much to work with.

If we'd had a replica of the original kit from 125 years ago, it would have been a yellow polo shirt, like you can get from Marks and Spencer and similar to our 2012/13 kit. After that, and for the best part of 30 years, we wore yellow and blue stripes, a style which sent many Oxford fans into apoplexy when it was re-introduced in 2010.

The chosen design is a nod to our late-Southern League, early-Football League days. Big Ron Atkinson and all that. What many would consider 'olden days', but not 'ancient history'. For the best part of 20 years we stuck rigidly to this livery with only minor variations. Surprisingly enough we've never re-visited it. A plain orange shirt may appear boring, but it does represent an untapped part of our heritage.

A shirt doesn't really mean anything until something significant happens while wearing it. Take the 1986 Milk Cup shirt - another significant design which couldn't be replicated for the anniversary because it was rebooted in 2015. The yellow is washed out, it has a horizontal shadow stripe; and a sponsor which sounds a bit like a willy. But it was worn on our finest day, and then again in one of our finest seasons, it's not a nice design, but it is a classic.

With no sponsor, another nod to our heritage, what is left is a plain orange shirt with an old badge on it. Exciting? Not when you distill it down like that, but that's not really the point. The point is the club are trying to make Saturday a meaningful occasion, and something slightly different is part of it.

Which brings us to the second point - the cost. £75 is expensive for a t-shirt, no doubt. But, that's not how pricing works. No club shirt is ever really worth it in the sense of cost versus utility (what you wear it for). You could buy a template of the Puma version for £8 and put a badge on it; in fact, someone has. But, that's the hollow victory of a smart arse because as much as it looks like it, it's still not the actual shirt. The shirt, plus the badge, plus the occasion, plus the limited availability gives it a value beyond its cost price. What that value is, is ultimately a bit of a punt but it still has the characteristics to be priced at a premium.

Are the club profiting unreasonably from the shirt? If they sell out the whole lot, they'll make just under £10k. Knock off the cost of the shirts in the first place, the design of the badge and a bunch of tomfoolery around getting it produced, and you're talking about a profit which pays the salary of a mid-ranking squad player for a month. It's hardly profiteering.

For something to be collectable, it has to has to have 'significance', which is ultimately defined by the collector. If you think the shirt is over-priced and boring, then you're probably not its target market. There are some people who absolutely love this stuff; others who are cold to it. I sit right in the middle. I could browse the Oxford United Kit History website for hours, but I can't bring myself to spend hundreds on shirts I don't have. I'm quite attracted by the novelty of a one-off shirt, regardless of its design. My first reaction was that I could take it or leave it, but I'm now thinking that if it's in stock and I've got the money, I might get one. Am I being ripped off? Well, you could argue 40-odd years of watching mediocre football is a bigger rip-off, but that's not really the point of supporting your club; I still do it, and so do you.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The wrap - Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 0


I’m in Devon. It’s partly Michael Appleton’s fault. In his first terrible year, I was so bored, I started to form my exit strategy from football fan to football consumer. Before giving up my season ticket completely I decided that I’d no longer wait for the fixtures to come out to make non-footballing plans. So, in 2015 we decided to go on holiday in Devon during half term week regardless of how the fixtures fell, and have been doing it ever since.

Then we had the best season ever and I never gave up my season ticket.

As the result of a traumatic traffic based experience around Cribs Causeway one summer a few years ago which resulted in a similarly traumatic mercy stop at the lawless Gordano Services in peak season to relieve aching bladders and ease mental fatigue, we decided this year to leave early to avoid delays.

We always stop at Chieveley Services, it acts as the gateway to our holiday. I like Chieveley for this and other reasons. If I’d had the foresight to spend my life doing something fulfilling, it would have been to undertake deep anthropological studies of the nation’s service stations on Saturdays.

I love service stations on Saturdays, particularly around lunchtime. You’ll be idly choosing whether to spend your last six pounds on a Mars bar or a single packet of peanuts and you’ll see someone in a Barnsley or Newport shirt come in. Or better still Cindeford Town or Bromsgrove Rovers. Then there’ll be others, bursting for the toilet, or a coffee. They’ll have just decanted from a supporters' coach, like bees in a smoked out hive, the journey has made them soporific and so it's time to stretch the legs. It’s less intimidating than a pub, the most aggressive thing that happens is someone asks for an extra gherkin in their Big Mac.

If they’re really daring, there’ll have their eye one of the naughty top shelf magazines. The pack mentality emboldens them. They wouldn’t buy it for their own gratification, obviously, just for laughs; a trophy to take back to the coach.

Incidentally, in a world of plentiful bosoms and vaginal exposure in digital form, this cannot be the way Razzle or Men Only survive in print form. Our local village shop maintains a small selection of specialist gentlemen’s literature. How big is the market for people who are desperate enough to seek sexual stimulation from pictures of naked women, and have enough bravado and means to happily buy this stuff - often from a thickset judgemental woman in her sixties who knows nothing of professional client confidentiality - but who are also not able to access the internet? That's one venn diagram with a small intersection; which is no reference to something you'd see in Readers' Wives.

Back at the services. So, ever since I was a child, whenever I’ve seen fans from other teams I’ve followed their fortunes for the day; who they’re playing, what the score was and what that means to their league position.

It’s an underrated branch of study, we know all about football through the lens of the media, and by attending games, but we never talk about the bit in the middle. Service stations are an administrative necessity for going to football, but they act as a cultural clearing house for fans dedicated to their own petty cause. Each one, heading off on a campaign to foreign parts from which a story, of some kind, will emerge. Football is a commonwealth, but it’s only at a motorway service station do we ever meet and accept each other as equals.

So, we’re at Chieveley, but it’s a bit early for most football fans, there’s a hockey team milling around in their team kit, and a couple of people in the colours of Jersey Reds, whoever they are. I still enjoy the hubbub; the curious mixes of inter-generational groups, a woman on her own with more children than she can have reasonably conceived, a couple of such an age that you wouldn't trust them to leave their own front garden let alone drive down the M4, and another, so appallingly obese their bodies slide at a 45 degree angle from the roles of chin fat as though they've been inflated, they are not so much sitting in their chairs as being propped up against them. They are staring in opposite directions furtively as though the empty plates of full English breakfast they have evidently just inhaled are the only thing to have given away their dark secret that heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes are mere moments away.

Within this swill of people and their stories, I see a familiar light-blue top and an even more familiar yellow badge. Chieveley is only 60 miles from Bristol, so it is possible I will see the odd Oxford fan, although unlikely given that there's still nearly five hours until kick-off. My heart lightens, this must be what it's like for a panda to have a prospective mate introduced to their enclosure.

But, it's not a fan, it's Luke Garbutt, on his own, in his training kit with his washbag under his arm. He looks a little lost, and perhaps he is, he's a long way from the changing rooms at the Memorial Ground. I hope to see John Mousinho shaking the last drops of wee into a urinal in the gents, or Derek Fazackerley trying the travel cushions fashioned to look like slices of watermelon outside WH Smith, or maybe Shandon Baptiste panic buying an over-priced iPhone accessory from a small kiosk. Perhaps Jamie Mackie is outside contemplating AA membership now he's over 30 and has to think about his future. But there's nobody. He's on his own in what I assume to be a practical measure. Presumably it's more convenient for him to be picked up by the team coach than to drive down to the Kassam and back along the M4.

I wasn't bold enough to talk to him, after 'I'm an Oxford fan' we have nothing in common. And, let's face it, being an Oxford fan isn't something we have in common either. I point him out to my largely disinterested family; "I thought he was just a normal person" said my daughter afterwards. So did I, there he is ambling towards Costa, like, well, a normal person. I feel a bit guilty about whatever I might have said about him in the stands when I didn't think he was a normal person, but just a footballer. Luckily, it probably isn't much; he seems to have been OK whenever I've seen him.

Obviously I follow his day - which ultimately involved him not playing in our 0-0 draw. I'm pleased with the point; it's another step in a slow recovery, and also sympathetic to Garbutt whose day seems to have been a largely pointless ball ache. I just hope he knows that they start charging if you park for more than two hours.