Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The wrap - Oxford United 1 Northampton Town 2

Suddenly, so much to cover.

Off the pitch
Starting at the top; no corporate takeover discussions were ever improved by a running commentary for the benefit of East Stand season ticket holder Dave, a plasterer from Wantage. Fans have no formal right to know what is going on with ownership discussions. You might argue that there is an ethical right, and I would agree, and I think that should be formalised by giving football clubs a special status which affords financial and tax benefits in return for greater fan and community control. But, that's not where we're at now.

So while we have no right to know, what is it that fans expect to hear? Darryl Eales’ confirmation of what we already know? That Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth has been at a few games and they have, self evidently, had discussions? Do we want to know the detailed nature of those discussions? Do we want to agree whether Eales should sell or not via a Twitter poll? What exactly would we be planning to do with that information, even if we understood it?

The truth is, unless a key milestone has been achieved; there is nothing to say. Discussions are just that, part of an iterative dialogue where there is a tacit understanding that the conclusions may end up being significantly different to the start point. You're either in them wholly, or out of them, it's not a spectator sport. Take the Sartori episode, discussions started with a general understanding that there might be a deal and concluded that there wasn't one, updating on the to-ing and fro-ing in between would have been beyond de-stabilising.

But what about Mr Thanakarnjanasuth and his credentials? He may not be right for us. All club owners are a double-edged sword. As the Paradise Papers show, if you’re rich, you tend to be good at acquiring money; avoiding tax and getting rich. This is abhorrent to those of us less capable. There should be rules in place to control the avarice, but they don't appear to be adequate at the moment. The point is, no owner has ever made money simply by taking a reasonable wage home, they’ve taken a risk and got a reward. Darryl Eales, Ian Lenagan, Firoz Kassam, Robin Herd, Robert Maxwell, all had their successes, and all had their, sometimes significant, failings. Mr Thanakarnjanasuth will be no different, if you are waiting for a wholly ethical, straight up, benevolent billionaire with no question marks over his character to take us over, prepare yourself for a long wait.This is the bind of success, until we change the system, we're just going to have to suck it up.

In the stands
Fans do not have any right to be applauded; if only a handful of fans turn up to a game, they are celebrated for their amazing effort, if loads turn up, they are celebrated for their amazing numbers. Fans are always in the right, as judged by the fans. Players, on the other hand, are right when they win and wrong when they lose, as judged by, well, the fans. If fans walk out 10 minutes before the end, as they did on Saturday, or boo, as they did on Saturday, then that is their right, according to the fans.

I know you stayed to the end and applauded and screamed until your head throbbed, I know you haven’t slept since the final whistle, but we’re not talking about you, we’re talking about the collective force that is ‘The Fans’. And, while it might disappoint you hugely, The Fans are not a singular feverish hoard, they don't pulse with a great seething anger, you cannot divide them into those who are like you (and therefore proper fans) and ones who are not (and therefore not proper fans). Fans are a mixed economy of people and the club is far healthier for it.

Insisting that the players applaud The Fans, when The Fans boo and walk out on the players, is a form fan fascism, as is fans insisting that other fans behave to some predetermined template. When we lose, the players are not punishing the fans by not applauding, they are probably consumed in their own frustration, their thoughts clouded by their own exhaustion. Fans, it is not necessarily all about you.

On the pitch
Pep Clotet is not failing; he’s made a better start than Michael Appleton did. And if you argue that he’s had more to work with, you’re probably right, but he’s also had a better start than Michael Appleton did last season, which is as close as you’ll get to a like-for-like comparison.

Football matches are not won by passion. They are not won by talent, luck or form. Football is full of a language which implies that it is reliant on magical powers. Application, technique, preparation and organisation wins games. On Saturday, people were lambasting the lack of passion, only one caller to Radio Oxford picked up a genuine tactical concern – whether Rob Hall and James Henry should swap wings allowing them to cut inside and cross the ball rather than to shoot. This is a tactical and organisational observation which deserves reasonable analysis. The players' passion is not.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are currently struggling to organise as a unit; throughout the first half, Rob Hall could be seen pointing down his flank wanting the ball in front of him so he could run onto it. But the ball didn’t come and the play moved on. Ryan Ledson tried too many hail-Mary passes to get things moving, when he should have been playing calm simple passes that moved the play forward. His reaction to the first goal was to smash the grass with his hand in frustration. A sign that he was not functioning in a calm dispassionate and therefore effective way. Watch any good team, even when their backs are against the wall, and you’ll see they rarely deviate from their trusted template because that’s the most likely way of winning rather than doing something extraordinary.

So, if Pep Clotet isn’t failing, but we’re suffering from a lack of organisation, what’s driving that? I would say it’s injuries. We have a constant rolling programme of players entering and exiting the treatment room, the latest being Curtis Nelson. As such, the organised unit on the field is constantly having to adjust the way it does things. The squad is too new to have a clear pattern of play, a DNA, and it will struggle to develop one when the core is constantly changing.

Do we have an abnormally high number of injuries that will, by the law of averages, eventually even itself out? Or is there something in the way we play or train, or select or treat players which results in more injuries than in previous years? This is worthy of analysis.

While this run is frustrating, we are far from failing, throwing blame around from takeovers to managers to the players is simply a distraction from solving the problem. Tactical discipline, better injury avoidance, and above all, clear heads will see us progress.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

Maths of the Day - October

Five Game Form

It's fair to say, to date, the Pep Clotet era is characterised by highs and lows. Following three defeats last month, we then nailed three wins, followed by two draws, only the defeat to Fleetwood spoiled what would have been a very pleasing sequence for those who like symmetry. The impact is that we recovered during the month to a much more normal short term form.

46 Game Tracker

Given our propensity for short-term highs and lows, it's more important to look at the bigger picture. So although the ride has been a bit of a rollercoaster, we ended the month in 2 points ahead of where we were at the end of September, suggesting some progress.

Run Rate

This is reinforced when you look at the run rate. October was always an opportunity to pull ahead of last year's total given we had pretty average form. The draws against Rotherham and Charlton meant we didn't pull as far ahead as we might have done, but we still sit 4 points better off than last year.

Like for Like

A new one - a tracker of our points total against the same teams last year. As such, it discounts the games against Portsmouth, Blackpool and Rotherham, giving us a more precise indication of our progress relative to others. As the graph shows, we are 2 points better off than we were against the teams we've played this season. So, although the margins are fairly narrow, we're still ahead of last year, and that's difficult to argue against.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The wrap - Port Vale 2 Oxford United 0

So, for the first time in 17 years we’ve been the victim of a giant killing, the currency of the FA Cup and the ultimate humiliation. Yet, strangely, it doesn’t feel like it.

I love the FA Cup, but not because of us. I love the David and Goliath narrative, the journey into unknown territories for minnows and journeymen, the Wembley set-piece and its universal celebration of a season completed. But this is a football story, not an Oxford United one and I have come to realise that these are not necessarily the same things.

Only in the last couple of years is the Cup something I feel we’ve had much joy from. Swansea in 2016 was an epic triumph in a season of epic triumphs and Newcastle last year a joyous reprise. Before that, beating Swindon and facing Arsenal in 2003 was fun, as was beating Brighton and facing Coventry in 1982, but those highlights were 20 years apart. The story in-between offered very little.

The present never quite has the same effect as the past. In 20 years, we may look back at the Swansea game as part of our FA Cup heritage in the way my dad talks about The Blackburn Game in 1964. But, at the moment, it doesn’t quite have that sepia tinged feel about it.

On Friday, amidst the misery, the Oxford Mail asked Dave Langan what his favourite FA Cup memory was at Oxford; he could only think of his worst (0-3 v Aldershot in 1987). Even during our glory years, it was a competition where we never excelled.

The League Cup was always ours; the results and the significance of those results is what defines it – Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds, the heartbreak against Everton and, of course, QPR. Some of our biggest moments have happened in that competition, but not the FA Cup.

Perhaps it’s something about night games at The Manor, not only were the results better, but it was a better experience all round than the cold light of day that framed most FA Cup matches.

Plus, of course, nobody really wants to travel to Burslem on a Friday night, that’s enough to take the joy out of everything.

So, although the performance was desperately poor and half-hearted, the impact is somewhat less than it might have been. And, looking pragmatically, we won’t be having one of the chaotic Januarys which has threatened to derail our seasons in the last couple of years.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - virgins, appreciating, potatoes

Sunday 29 October 2017
The Daily Mail reported that Oxford United fan Seb Keenan has just picked up a world record for playing the most consecutive seasons on Football Manager. Seb, who is pictured in the story pulling a series of lame cool-guy poses impresses us all with stories of losing his girlfriend and missing great chunks of his university years playing the game. Seb also holds the world records for the deadest eyes and biggest virgin.

Monday 30 October 2017
PClot feels a bit hard done by after our defeat to Fleetwood. In what the Oxford Mail described as 'truly a game of two halves', as opposed to a game of three halves, his firm belief is that that the progress is clear for everyone to see. Having lost to Fleetwood last year, we've gone one better and lost to them this year as well.

Tuesday 31 October 2017
Nobody appreciates Are Leader Curtis Nelson like Are Leader Curtis Nelson appreciates. As a result of clocking up 60 appearances, the club now has to cough up an additional £80k to Plymouth for his services, which for those who can't envisage how much that is, this is 11% of a Jon Lundstram.  

Thursday 2 November 2017
PClot won't be making any major changes to the team that faces Port Vale on Friday night. Having just completed his FA Cup for Foreign Managers' Awareness Training, he has dutifully vowed to 'respect the competition' because of its 'great history'.

Friday 3 November 2017 
The magic of the cup was in full effect as we disappeared in a puff of smoke with a lacklustre performance against Port Vale. Still, PClot can be proud of his record-breaking run which smashed the 17 year sequence of not being beaten by a team in a lower division and the record of never having gone out of the cup before Oxford City. Norris McWhirter could not be more proud if he weren't dead.

Saturday 4 November 2017
All is not lost! Oxford City, a team made up of journeymen pros, part-timers and former Oxford United youth team players that you still follow on Twitter but can't remember why, created one of the shocks of the round with a 1-0 win away at Colchester. Mark Jones, part-man-part-potato, is manager at Oxford City. “We’ll take it one game at a time, but if we can get into the third round and draw one of the Premier League clubs it can actually sustain the club for many, many years.” Said Jones resolutely not taking it one game at a time. 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The wrap - Rotherham and Fleetwood

Oxford United 3 Rotherham 3
"I wasn't at the game today Jerome"; this is a phrase that will strike fear into the hearts of most Oxford fans. The opening gambit of a Radio Oxford post-match phone-in caller typically precedes a tactical dissection of the game they didn't see, a dewy eyed gushing praise of BBC Oxford's coverage, including detailed description of the reason why they can't make games ('my wife had a vaginal prolapse three years ago, but we listen every week.') or an opportunity to ask the real question: ''ave you heard what's going on with the stadium Jerome?".

For many years I couldn't comprehend what people who didn't go to football did at weekends. This is not purple-faced vein-bulging faux-passion only us proper football fans feel. It's simply that I was brought up with weekends defined by football - on Saturday morning, my Roy of the Rovers would be delivered, Saturday lunchtime was Football Focus or Saint and Greavsie (often both), then the date would taper towards 3pm and the game itself. Sunday would be spent scouring the paper for a couple of paragraphs about our game.

I still struggle with the idea of having a Saturday which isn't defined by a match although I can see that full and complete commitment to the club, home and away, week after week, is a path to madness. I've twice been to games which I would consider beyond the norm - Carlisle away in 2002 and York away on a Tuesday night the following year. On both occasions there were happy coincidences which meant I could make the game - friends who lived in Carlisle and a work commitment in York. A few occasions I've traveled home from a holiday and gone straight to a game. But to do this every week is surely commitment too far. There's a bloke who I see at every game wherever I go, I wonder what impact it has on his family on friends.

I was on holiday for Saturday's humdinger against Rotherham on an annual trip to Devon. It was all Michael Appleton's fault, in his dire first season I told myself that I wouldn't be bound by the fixture list in the way I had been before. I previously only missed games for weddings and work, and while that was, in my head, the honorable thing to do, it also meant that I ended up going to games when there were better things I could be doing. In that first year we booked late which meant missing a 1-2 defeat to Carlisle, the year after I followed the 2-3 capitulation against Barnet while touring the Eden Project. Last year it was the 2-2 collapse against Port Vale.

This year we were travelling for most of the game, I saw we'd gone 3-1 up then next picked up the final score. In between, apparently, Ryan Ledson missed a penalty and someone turned up with a drum; though I didn't find out about either until Sunday. While I'm generally happier with the balance I've struck between football and real life, the lack of  detail does leave a disconcerting sensory deprivation.

Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0
It’s been the Baseball World Series this week. Baseball is a game that’s hard to love, superficially it looks like a series of tedious repetitive activities punctuated, very occasionally, with moments of excitement.

You have to put in a bit of graft to understand baseball – teams play 162 games a season - practically a game every day. A pitcher will only throw 100 pitches before being rested for a week, about two-thirds of a match.

A game every week wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t differentiate the good teams from the bad ones. It requires this level of intensity over a prolonged period for the better teams to emerge. As a fan, therefore, you have to stick with it to enjoy the drama.

Football is generally more forgiving; moments of excitement are more frequent, wins mean more as an end in itself. But being a football fan, like being a baseball fan, is really about living the narrative in its totality. The defeat to Fleetwood was a disappointing result, but it comes off the back of a five game unbeaten streak, in a year of the best football in a generation in a decade of steady progress.

In baseball, it is perfectly normal to lose an individual game, it’s the reason that the World Series is held over seven games, it is possible to win or lose via a freak game. Football is not that different; yes, we lost to Fleetwood, but it was the result of a goal in the closing minutes (plus a second in the chaos that ensues when you’re chasing a game). While maybe not a freak in the baseball sense, it hardly constitutes a definitive message about our ability.

Chris Wilder, who seems to have become a bit of a golden boy in recent weeks, used to eulogise about keeping on a level in both wins or losses, whatever you might think of him (and it’s only flat-earthers and climate change deniers that would consider him a ‘bad manager’) it’s a sage piece of advice. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - crushed dreams, injured bottles, mechanised killing

Monday 16 October 2017
Like a droplet hanging on the end of a leaf or the light chill of morning air, it's the simple things that give us greatest pleasure. Just like the distant clacking of porcelain balls with two disemboweled voices announcing ties for the FA Cup 1st Round.

So, it is essential these delicate joys are crushed into dust, drowned in cliches and sold to the highest bidder. The magic of the Cup was rammed down our gullet with a cudgel on Monday, it brought heavily branded Magic aplenty as we were drawn away to the only team named after a faux-rustic supermarket in-house brand of spam; Port Vale.

Tuesday 17 October 2017
Oopsy, poor old Michael Appleton's career revival may be on hold, his old mucker at Leicester City, Craig Shakespeare has been given the old heave-ho by his Thai paymasters. Mr Big Guns has been put in charge on a temporary basis while the owners figure out which glamorous foreign big name has-been they'll bring in on far too much money to fire him.

Meanwhile, back in the present, I'm Ribiero popped up on the back stick to drive home the equaliser against Wor Jackie Charlton Athletic

Wednesday 18 October 2017
Gino van Kessel is currently undergoing 'preventative' treatment for injuries he's yet to sustain. GLS isn't sure exactly what that is, but we're sure the cast he's wearing to fix the broken leg he'll acquire in reckless tackle against Oldham in 2021 is certain to work.
Thursday 19 October 2017
Faz had to raid the change jar to pay his fine to the FA for slinging a bottle up in the air in celebration of a goal by Scuttling Joe Rothwell against Peterborough. His defence was presented in a letter to the aged misogynists at Lancaster Gate. In it, Faz offered to racially abuse a black female international footballer if they promised to let him off. The dusty scrotes were very tempted, but felt they couldn't ignore his heinous crime. The family of the plastic bottle damaged in the incident have released a statement commending the action taken.

Friday 20 October 2017
Hipsters' choice Josh Ruffels has sent shockwaves through wearers of neck tattoos everywhere by signing a mainstream deal with the club through to 2020. Ruffels said it was a 'dream' to play for the club he grew up watching at the Manor which was demolished several years before he reached puberty.

Saturday 21 October 2017
It was Mechanised Mass Killing Machine Day at the Kassam on Saturday where we celebrate people systematically de-humanised through rigorous marching. This was the only sign of anything resembling an organised defence as we played out a ding dong 3-3 draw with goals from the newly minted Hipsters' Choice Josh Ruffels, Teeny Tiny Jack Payne and Are Leader Curtis Nelson.

Monday 23 October 2017
The man Twitter extended its character limit for - Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth - was in the stand for the game of It's A Knockout on Saturday. The man they call Tiger has been prowling the directors' box at the Kassam for a few weeks now, which has given teen soothsayer Oxbible a funny feeling in his trousers.

Tuesday 24 October 2017
Future Banbury Town top scorer Shandon Baptiste is celebrating being called up by Grenada for their friendly with hat, canal and cigar enthusiasts Panama. Shandon joined every other Oxford player interviewed by the Oxford Mail over the last 3 months in describing his experience as 'a dream'.

Thursday 26 October 2017
Les Robinson's Lestimonial launched with a golf day for a couple of ex-pros and some fans who should really be at work, while challenging situational art pranksters the Yellow Army have announced that they will be having an away day at home next month against Northampton. No, we don't know what that means either.

Friday 27 October 2017
It's all AA memberships and prostate adverts in the urinals on Saturday as Oxford travel to Fleetwood Services. Dwight Tiendelli is set for a start, which is timely because he's due another spell on the sidelines starting next Tuesday.

Saturday 28 October 2017
Nothing doing at the Services as we fell to two late goals. Still, a packet of overpriced pork scratchings and a bottle of strawberry Yazoo made for a long journey home.

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.