Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The wrap - Bristol Rovers and Charlton

Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 1
You'll often hear people talking about us having aspirations to reach the Championship. It's where we belong, what we deserve. Looking objectively, most teams feel that their rightful level is slightly above that which they're likely to achieve. Tottenham have aspirations of winning the Champions League, Nottingham Forest of being a Premier League club, Eastleigh of making the Football League. As an outsider to those clubs, most people will argue that they might want to bring it down a peg or two.

Typically in order to break out of your natural position, something extraordinary has to happen - for example, Salford's investment by the Peter Lim or Manchester City's takeover by Sheik Mansour. For most clubs, this will never happen, and so, in the main, your normal level is one below where you'd like to be.

Where you believe our natural level is may be defined by your age. If you're an Oxford fan in your forties, for example, you'll have seen us in the Championship and can envisage us being back there. Maybe if you're in your 20s, your formative experiences have been of the Conference and League 2, and League 1 might represent us punching at a level above our natural weight.

But, if you want to benchmark our progress, then look to teams like Bristol Rovers. In the last 30 years we've been in the same division 18 times, and only two divisions apart on five occasions. Rovers represent a kind of parallel us, if we perform better than them, then we're ahead of 'normal' us, perform worse then we're behind where we should be. Like the football equivalent of a tracker mortgage.

So, the win on Saturday was another tick in the box of progress. We are outperforming our norm, not conclusively so, but as a one-off test. The result has us back among teams who genuinely might  aspire to be in the Championship next season. The next three games, against Charlton, Rotherham and Fleetwood should go a long way to confirm whether we're slightly ahead of the norm, or genuinely pushing up to where we feel we deserve to be.

Oxford United 1 Charlton 1
When the news came through that Craig Shakespeare had been sacked by Leicester, I searched my soul for a reaction to the news that Michael Appleton's job was suddenly under threat. The thing was I couldn't find anything.

It's not that I don't feel sympathy for him, he's found himself, once again, at the helm of a listless ship, one which has had three managers in three seasons, each has delivered a miracle of sorts (Nigel Pearson avoiding relegation, Claudio Ranieri winning the title and Craig Shakespeare taking them to the Champions League quarter final). Each has been sacked within months by unforgiving owners. You can't not feel some sympathy for Appleton's predicament given his experiences at Portsmouth, Blackburn and Blackpool.

And if I was forced to watch only one season for the rest of my life, it would be our promotion season in 2015/16. Chances are we will never experience the likes again. We should be eternally grateful for that and for Michael Appleton dragging us out of the dark ages.

But, could Michael Appleton sustain what he did at Oxford for much longer than he did? Finding players for a pittance and selling them on for millions, while still building the club and moving it forward? Last year did feel like we were reaching the peak of our potential, that had we been promoted to the Championship, that it would have been a step too far and that we were performing on the edges of what we could hope to achieve.

In truth, I doubt it we could have kept going in this way. Initially, I felt his departure was a significant blow, but while it was sad to see him go and bring to a close a particularly exciting era, now I'm not as sure. With hindsight, maybe Oxford didn't need Appleton as much as Appleton needed Oxford.

Under Pep Clotet we're beginning to look more robust, more at home against those we aspire to finish above. Charlton, like Bradford, looked a very good team and we comfortably competed with them. But, not only do we now have a settled team and clear options coming from the bench, there is more depth in the squad. Under Michael Appleton we relied heavily on youthful exuberance and talent, now we have John Mousinho, James Henry, Wes Thomas, Simon Eastwood and others; all have the experience to manage and think through games in a way we haven't been able to previously.

We also have a steel that we haven't seen before. Last season, and earlier this, we were being bullied out of games, but Tuesday was intense, blood and thunder with not an inch given, and yet we competed and beyond that, we thrived.

It is possible to want two competing things simultaneously; I would love to relive the Appleton era and by extension I hope that he does well, but I think we've moved on and, if we haven't reached it yet, we are moving into a better place under the new management.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - Light fingered Ricardinho

Monday 9 October 2017
Oxford's Idinho; Ricardinho claims he came over all giddy and didn't know what to do when he scored on Saturday. The cheeky monkey took the match ball and put it up his shirt to mark his wife's pregnancy, but then 'forgot' to give it back. A bit like that time he forgot he was marking his wife's pregnancy with Ryandrea Ledson's iPhone and Curtis Nelson's wallet in a pawn shop.

Having collected all his badges and lit enough many camp fires, Head Scout Craig Dean has dib dib dib and dob dob dobbed his last for the club. Dean has left god's own for Leeds United. He's been instrumental in going to Everton Youth Team games over the last few years picking up a number of gems with appalling diction.

Tuesday 10 October 2017
Henry James' James Henry has hailed PClot's positivity in getting through our three game losing streak last month. Focus, it seems, was on looking at the things that went right during those games by showing the players clips of the good stuff. Clips, gifs, whatever.

Wednesday 11 October 2017
Things have moved on at Shoot magazine since GLS was a boy. PClot didn't mention his White Ford Capri, his preference for pre-match lager and chips or his love of Simply Red in an interview with the long running mag. In it PClot reveals that he was inspired to join Oxford by Garry Monk's long running Oxford career of five games seventeen years ago. The interview is a must read for anyone wanting to see a Spaniard being mercilessly harangued about whether his team will finish 7th, 8th or 9th this year.

Thursday 12 October 2017
It's not all pass, move, flick, trick, entertain this football lark. Calientabanquillos Xemi is taking his time adjusting to life in England. "He's made a huge effort to realise how the game is played here." says PClot about the ex-Barcelona Reserve. This week he's been focussing on early-doors reducers and meaningless sideways passing while watching YouTube clips of Martin Grey in his pomp. Stick with us kid, we'll batter the talent and creativity out of you yet.

16 year-old starlet Owen James has been handed a professional contract a day before his 17th birthday. The striker is looking forward to making his debut in the 78th minute of a Checkatrade game, collapsing under the pressure of being the answer to everything during brief first team goal famine and being loaned out to Didcot Town before he's 20.

Friday 13 October 2017
We travel to Bristol Rovers tomorrow to face some of the greatest Combes of our promotion season. Liam Sercombe may be subject some barracking by the away fans, but he should be able to cope with it because he's got pretty broad shoulders. Meanwhile, Sir Dropsalot, Sam Slocombe, will be dithering at crosses in the Gas goal.

Saturday 14 October 2017
We ruthlessly Sercombe-cised the Pirates with a 1-0 win at the Memorial Ground. The goal was Slocombe-ing, but eventually arrived in the 82nd minute with Alex Mowatt-et-Chandon finishing off some champagne football.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The wrap - Oxford United 3 Wimbledon 0

There's a group of fans that sit behind me that I regularly tweet about; their analysis is endlessly unforgiving; if the ball goes into our half invariably one of them will groan 'Oh, here we go' suggesting the inevitability of us conceding. Any attack that breaks down is chastised for having 'no end product.'. Any goalscorer who hasn't found the net in the previous 20 consecutive games is labelled as 'having done nothing' for the club.

They were at it again on Saturday; some of our intricate, spectacular build-up play was viewed as 'all very well, but where was the shot?'. No thought is given to the fact that stringing passes together and hitting the back of the net is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. Nothing about using the ball to pull apart the opposition's shape and structure. No consideration, even, for the physical impossibilities of shooting with their back to goal, 30 yards from goal with two defenders jockying you out of play.

These are people who view a spectacular save to be lucky - 'Ooh, he only just got to that', and not the product of what Simon Eastwood had spends his entire week preparing for.

They're not alone; quite understandably someone like Richardinho enjoys cult status for his general demeanour. But our apparent return to form over the last week has coincided with us being able to play our dependable players in their most suited position.

James Henry gave a virtuoso performance, but not in a way that would have songs featuring his name cascading down the terraces. He understood when to keep things simple, when to pass, when to turn back, when to try something audacious. He pulled Wimbledon apart down the right flank creating chaos which goalscorers Xemi and Ricardinho benefited from.

John Mousinho looks increasingly comfortable in the middle of defence with Curtis Nelson, while up front Wes Thomas played with measured precision. It's an understated quality that has been absent in recent years. The systematic dismantling of Wimbledon, like those against Gillingham, Portsmouth and Peterborough, have been built on the stable influences of these new dependables, they may not thrill those sitting behind me, but they might just be thanking them in May.  

Sunday, October 08, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - Calientabancas, Thanakarnjanasuth and Vinnie the Ninny

Monday 2 October 2017
PClot has invented a new parlour game; How Long Can I Make An Answer When A Simple Yes Will Do? (working title). On Saturday he won by answering the question 'is that the best you've played this season?' with: "When we analyse it from the point of view of the attitude, the mentality, the resilience of facing a tough situation and keep believing in your principles, yes.”

Assist machine Teeny Tiny Jack Payne was never concerned about our dip in form; “It’s not like we’ve been getting destroyed by teams" he said, after three games in which we've been getting destroyed by teams.

Meanwhile, with a level of conviction not seen since Matt Day claimed eating four doughnuts a day was due to a religious awakening, Calientabancas extraordinaire Xemi revealed that he flew home at the weekend to watch his granny getting beaten by armed police in the Catalonia independence election.

Tuesday 3 October 2017
GLS hates the Checkatrade Trophy, mostly because erstwhile podcasters the Fence End Pod have already come up with the best joke about the games being 'behind closed doors friendlies'. Tuesday saw the arrival of Brighton Juniors to get some real life experience of the intimidating banks of empty seats at the Kassam. We say 'saw'; nobody actually saw it.

The most notable thing about the game was that even teamsheet-hogger Simon Eastwood couldn't be bothered to hang out between the sticks, thereby breaking a sequence of 75 consecutive first team games. The final result? Apparently we lost a 1-1 draw.

Before the game, el Bambino, Rob Hall was awarded player of the round which wasn't, actually, a round, but merely an initial set of games of a league format. But, when did the Checkatrade ever pretend to make sense?

Wednesday 4 October 2017
Faz isn't happy; he hasn't been this angry since his wife burnt his favourite steak and kidney pie. He's been fined for throwing a bottle into the crowd at Peterborough. The daft sod didn't mean to do it, flinging it over his head when we scored. A bit like the time he thought it'd be funny to give his granddaughter a scare by dangling her over the stairwell and she broke three ribs. He'll be contesting the action with the same vigour that he contested that charge for the 'intimate couples kit' he got when searching the mini-bar for a packet of Hob Nobs at the Holiday Inn that time.

To make matters worse, Agon Mehmeti has joined the Oxford United Strikers' Club in a secret initiation ceremony where you roll your trouser leg up and have a cast put on it.

In whimsical happy place in dark times news, Candice Carrol muffins didn't rise against Azerbaijan in the U19 Euro qualifier, as he was sent-off in a dank 0-0 draw 

Thursday 6 October 2017
Now Oxford Mail is reporting that Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth has been linked with the club. Of course, 'linked' could also mean 'mentioned by teen soothsayer Oxbible last week'. These are exciting times, Mr Thanakarnjanasuth's interest in Oxford  comes after he walked away from Reading because he couldn't fund them in the Championship. We don't know much about corporate finance, but he sounds just the man we need to fund us in the Championship.

Friday 5 October 2017
AFC Wimbledon travel to the Kassam from Milton Keynes on Saturday. The Ugly Gang will be channeling Fash the Bash and Vinnie the Ninny now they're a fully fledged modern day phoenix club run by fans for fans on Corinthian principles. The Wombles have redefined how football clubs should be run; buying their ground from impoverished non-league tenants to flog for a big profit to a club fattened by satellite TV money and run by a Russian oligarch. What a story, it's like that time MK Dons threw that club from London under a bus to secure their long term future; a true return to the innocent days of yore. 

Saturday 6 October 2017
If being a modern football club means you have to stand aside and watch your opponents outplay you, it's all a bit recherché for us. We concluded the week with a 3-0 with a not so tap-in from Tap-In Thomas, a goalinhio from Ricardinho while Xemi declared independence from the bench to smash home the third. What a Crazy Gang.

This week's further reading

The wrap - we need to talk about Josh Ruffels
Maths of the Day - September - short term tumble 

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Maths of the Day - September

You might want to look at this through your fingers; no three game losing streak is ever going to look good when you pick through the stats. Or does it? Not in the short term, but longer term, things might not be so bleak. It's Maths of the Day for September.

Five game form

It probably won't come as much of a shock to anyone that our form in September has plummeted from an all-time high of 15 points in five games to just four points from a possible 15. Only Michael Appleton's first weeks in charge were worse. Even the win over Peterborough didn't allow a bounce back, just replacing the 3 points won against Gillingham. 

46 game tracker

Looking longer term, however, shows a little kick-up from the Peterborough win. Michael Appleton had a pretty good September last year with two wins and two draws, so the three defeats against Blackpool, Walsall and Bury this year did take their toll. Those claiming terminal decline, though, might be being a bit premature; we finished last season on 72 points, and in the 46 games to Peterborough we picked up exactly the same number. The dip in form isn't comfortable, but what it's actually done is take us to where we were on the last day of last season, when confidence and optimism was high. Just shows how easily distracted we can be by short term form.

Run rate

To re-inforce the point, looking at the run-rate, we finish September on exactly the same number of points we finished with this time last year. Not as good as our promotion season, not as bad as Michael Appleton's first year; bang in the middle. What's more, if you cast forward you'll see a flatline from last season (6 points out of a possible 18). Even moderate form during October should see us improving on last year. If we consider that we finished the season just 4 points short of the play-offs, it shows that despite everything, we are still in a good position.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The wrap - Peterborough 1 Oxford United 4

People will say differently, but Peterborough was never a critical game. Even with good form we’d have been happy with a point. With poor form it was really just one to get out the way before focusing on recovering with more winnable games in the upcoming weeks.

In the end it was one of ‘those’ games, last year, after two home defeats without scoring, we went to Gillingham and won with a Chey Dunkley goal. Chris Wilder had a habit of beating promotion chasers and league leaders away from home, usually in the middle of a bad run - in 2012/13, with one win in seven we beat Gillingham away (again) 1-0 and in 2010/11 off the back of five straight defeats, we beat the then leaders Chesterfield 2-1 away.

Breaking runs often comes from unusual places, perhaps its the lack of expectation. In this case, nobody could have predicted such a comprehensive win away against a team looking for promotion.

A lot of people will rightly look to Jack Payne’s contribution to all four goals, but for me, it’s the fact that the recovery was triggered by a Josh Ruffels goal that is worthy of note.

Ruffels’ career is curious; he’s not quite homegrown; a local, but not a club lifer, he was signed during a period of austerity by Chris Wilder; a fairly anonymous member of batch of local players that Ian Lenagan said would take us to the Championship.

It was a romantic, if fanciful idea, probably born from necessity. But while the young players at the club were being earmarked as a golden generation, it was always likely they’d be ditched for more experienced players at the sniff of trouble.

Ruffels is a contemporary of Matt Bevans and Tyrone Marsh, players that, often through rose tinted glasses, fans saw as the future of the club. Bevans is now at Oxford City, Marsh at Macclesfield. Ruffels was less lauded, but he survived the last days of Chris Wilder and into the Michael Appleton era.

Appleton’s first season churned countless players through the squad, so it was something of a surprise that when it did finally coalesce into something coherent, Ruffels was still there. Not because he was a poor player, but because he was never spectacular and Appleton seemed to have little time for dependables.

Into the promotion season, Ruffels was a late sub against Swindon in the JPT, but in the next 30 games he started once in a addition to a single substitute appearance. He re-appeared against Wimbledon at the end of February and only missed three games, two of which we lost. He played against Barnsley at Wembley, Carlisle away and in the promotion clincher against Wycombe. All season he featured in just two losing sides - against Barnsley in the JPT and Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup.

Then came the second Appleton revolution which even the likes of Jake Wright and Danny Hylton didn’t survive. It looked like he would be squeezed out by Sercombe, Ledson, Lundstram and Rothwell but he became one of just four players in Oxford’s history to play at Wembley twice.

Into this season and another revolution; a fourth manager, more midfielders - Payne, Pekalski, Xemi and Mowatt in addition to Rothwell and Ledson, but Ruffels is still there - the longest serving player at the club despite playing only 40% of the games he’s been available for.

Football is a mercenary business and clubs need players who carry something of the spirit of the fans onto the pitch. It’s rarely the de facto best player - previous incarnations have been people like Michael Raynes and Chey Dunkley. People whose effort stands out, who reflect what the fans want to see of their team. It provides some kind of reassurance that the fans' faith in the team is in safe hands.

The role is difficult to define, but the fact Ruffels provides a steadying hand when things appear to be going wrong is critical. He may not be able to turn games on his own and its unlikely he'll ever be subject to a six-figure bid from a bigger club, but he lets nobody down. After five goals in seven starts and missing only one of our last six wins people might need to start thinking of him being beyond simply a utility player.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - the ghost of Chris Maguire

Monday 25 September 2017
"Sometimes you take two steps back and three steps forward", said PClot post-Walsall, who clearly hasn't seen Charlotte Hawkins dance on Strictly. He's identified that our current difficulties could be due to a lack of experience in midfield saying “I think our average age in the middle is 22”; we may have 99 problems, but an impressive grasp of our two times table ain't one.

Gino van Kessel's run in the first team has grabbed the attention of Curaçao who have called him up for to fall over a lot against those upstanding human rights fellows, Qatar. If the name rings a bell, it's either because Curaçao is the home of the Jedi Council in Star Wars or you've been encouraged by their Wikipedia page which has a section under 'Economy' dedicated to prostitution. He'll miss our relegation six-pointer against Wimbledon, although you might argue he'd miss it even if he was playing. 

Tuesday 26 September 2017
The team ventured north to face Chris Maguire featuring Bury and were downed by goals from Chris Maguire, Chris Maguire's team mate Darren Beckford and Chris Maguire's other team mate Michael Smith in a 3-0 win for Chris Maguire featuring Bury. Afterwards Chris Maguire said he was shocked that a Chris Maguire-less Oxford United capitulated in a way that no Oxford United that featured Chris Maguire ever would.

As Radio Oxford tried to pull their microphone away, Bury winger, Chris Maguire, crocodile tears pouring down his face, opened up about the painful break-up with the love of his life; attention seeking Oxford United. During the summer he walked until his feet were stumps just to get to the Kassam and would have signed if only they'd shown just a little bit of interest and more money once in a while. 

Thursday 28 September 2017
Jose Mousinho doesn't know why we keep losing shaking his head theatrically while surreptitiously pointing at Scuttlin' Joe Rothwell and Brexit Tory Ryandrea Ledson who were building Lego spaceships in the corner of the dressing room.

Remember teenage oracle OxBible? He's broken the news that we could be taken over by health drink specialists Carabao. Using little more than the power of his own imagination, apparently Sumrith Thanaknjnansuth, which also happens to be what was spelt out when GLS dropped his box of Scrabble down the stairs last week, is in the market for the club. It's true that some foreign types were seen in the executive box on Saturday, described by the bloke in front of GLS as 'a couple o'chinks'. We're certain that casual racism and our performance against Walsall convinced Mr Thanaknjnansuth to part with billions from his sugary gotten gains.

Friday 29 September 2017
Westeros international Agon Mehmeti is in contention for a start against Peterborough on Saturday if he can be bothered to play. Mehmeti says he's surprised at the intensity of training at the club and the fact that you have to be at the training ground 'all the time'. We can all accept the job title 'full-time professional footballer' is somewhat ambiguous in that respect.

The hipsters' choice Josh Ruffles Ruffels is confident that we'll turn around our current form. He's hopeful for a good result on Saturday. He just didn't say which Saturday that might be.

Star baker Candice Carrol will be unwrapped from his cotton wool when he joins up with the Irish U19s again for a European Championship Qualifying mini tournament. Candice will miss cake week against Brighton Juniors in the Checkatrade and the technical challenge of Wimbledon. He's not that bothered, because he likes the showstopper that is international football.

Saturday 30 September 2017  
If the hipsters' choice Josh Ruffles Ruffels keeps going like this; fixed wheel, chai latte drinking bearded millenials everywhere will be disowning him as a bit mainstream. Ruffles Ruffels got the equaliser in a scorching second-half performance against Peterborough. Scuttling' Joe, Tap-in Thomas and even lazy sod Agon Mehmeti weighed with goals for a 4-1 win.