Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Weekly wrap - Oxford United 4 Coventry City 1, Oxford United 1 Gillingham 0, Scunthorpe 1 Oxford United 1

If there was anything that characterised our start to the season it was as nice as our football could be, we kept getting beaten up by the big boys. If there was anything that characterised our last week it was how suddenly we'd toughened up.

The defeat to Shrewsbury took us to just outside the relegation zone. Darryl Eales gallantly suggested that he looked at the points total rather than our position, but it was little comfort. What was more concerning was the general impotence of our display – in particular, our start – it was not just like we'd been found out, it was like we were resigned to taking a beating whenever we came up against a bit of muscle. Then, something changed and against Coventry we were out of the blocks like lightening.

I moved seats to sit with Brinyhoof so we were in line with the six yard box at the home end. We seemed to spend the whole of the first half watching Chris Maguire take corners. It was a surreal level of dominance; at one point I looked over at the scoreboard to see how long it was until half-time and saw that we’d only been playing 20 minutes, such was the dynamism of our display, we packed a game's worth of attacking into a few minutes.

A Coventry newspaper described their display as one of the worst in their history; which brings the obvious question; were we good or were they bad? It made me think that the Gillingham game could be a bit of a let down. In the end it was a different kind of display, but no less pleasing.

The whole display was characterised by graft, punctuated by a moment of genuine class from Marvin Johnson. It’s interesting that Johnson and Hemmings seem to be slowly settling into their roles. Johnson is having a growing influence on our play while Hemmings is slowly finding his goal touch. The bloke behind me thinks Hemmings is ‘useless’ despite him now scoring more goals than Danny Hylton had this time last year. It’s easy to forget sometimes that these are young men coming into a new environment, possibly living in a new area; it’s going to take a while for them to settle and perform. This seems to be one of the things that Michael Appleton excels at; I cannot think of a player he's signed in the last year or so who hasn't eventually performed.

Surely then, with our erratic form, after two good displays a trip to league leaders Scunthorpe would see us finally blow it and return home with nothing. If nothing else, two such committed displays did seem to have taken their toll with Wes Thomas, Joe Skarz and Chey Dunkley all coming off with injuries in the previous two games.

Well, no; once again with this new found resilience we came away with a point and maybe deserved three. Seven points in seven days is impressive, but what is more important is the new found steel we seem to have acquired across the team.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Shrewsbury wrap - Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 0

Immediately before we beat Swansea last year in the Cup, we were swimming in media coverage. It provided an opportunity to gain an insight into Michael Appleton’s revolution at the club. One thing that stuck out was that he said he had a small group of players who took responsibility for getting the players organised and solving the team’s problems. Appleton didn’t tell the players what to do, he provided a framework for them to figure it out for themselves.

Who were those players? Jake Wright seems an obvious choice, Johnny Mullins? George Baldock? For me those three strike me as leaders in that squad. Where are they now? Sheffield United, Luton Town and MK Dons.

The Guardian had an interview with Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp about their revitalisation under Chris Wilder. Sharp cited Wright as a key influence in The Blades change of attitude; one that was described as ‘old school’ and ‘back to basics’.

Chris Wilder’s football may have lacked sophistication, but he could pick a leader. One of my abiding memories of our 2010 promotion from the Conference was of the dual dome heads of James Constable and Adam Murray haranguing a referee over something very minor. Key to Wilder’s success that year was his ability to turn our relative size into a virtue; with Mark Creighton, Wright, Constable, Murray and Dannie Bulman we became an almost unstoppable force.

Fast forward to 2016 and we sit a point above the relegation zone. No need to panic just yet, I don’t think anyone is expecting us to get promoted this season, a good solid mid-table finish will do if it provides a platform to work from next season. But, it’s not really a secret that we struggle against team who are more direct and physical.

In short, we’re being bullied out of points, another three on Saturday against Shrewsbury. If we get to play football, we’re fine, but a bit of muscle and we’re floundering. What is lacking is a hard centre and Michael Appleton’s got to find ours pretty quickly.

All is not lost; Chey Dunkley has it, Curtis Nelson has it, even Chris Maguire has it. But do they know they have it and are they ready to fill the gap left by Jake Wright et al. In that interview with Appleton last year he said how long it took to encourage players to take ownership of their affairs. I don't think we're there yet, we still need a one or two more with ‘it’ to shore things up.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Merstham wrap - Merstham 0 Oxford United 5

They came to watch a public execution; a symbolic act, a nod to a forgotten past, an annual ritual turned into a form of entertainment. It wasn’t Guy Fawkes Night, it was the FA Cup.

BT, along with the BBC and the cup’s corporate sponsors have bought a narrative which involves small teams beating big teams. This is particularly true in the earlier rounds, before the big teams take over. Global sponsors don’t want the big teams getting beaten, that would spoil the product for the worldwide audience. Early on, though, they salivate at the prospect of a giant killing, with blood dripping from their teeth, they seek it mercilessly.

I doubt even people in Merstham care much about Merstham football club. They probably lie awake in the dead of night worrying about how they’re going to maintain the mortgage payments on their extravagantly overpriced houses as a result of Brexit. Football, in the main, is something that happens on TV, not in their village. I

In truth, the TV companies don’t care about Merstham or Oxford, they just care about The Narrative. The Small Team of normal people beating The Big Team of overpaid superstars. Every year they want to recreate a Ronny Radford moment, but it never quite comes. They keep trying; if they can get themselves a giantkilling, then they will be sated never to return again, the only sign they were ever there are the tyre tracks from their mobile TV trucks.

We have to talk about pluckiness and giving a good account of themselves, but Merstham didn’t understand their role; their manager seemed like a lovely bloke, so happy and excited by the whole thing, but tried to turn the occassion into a football match, talking about ‘false nines’ in an attempt to gain the upper hand.

Tactics, though, only really work when everything else is broadly equal. He was never going to outfox a club with our quality. Really, he should have focussed on turning the game into a brawl; a big mess of a game that we didn't recognise. But it was all too friendly and polite, they would play on our terms, not theirs.

Of course, the corollary of the giant killing is the minnow killing. It is what makes the giant killing such an attractive narrative; that it happens rarely, certainly not to the demands of television. Ours was a killing which had all the classics of the genre; the moment of true class from Alex MacDonald, the killer goal just before half-time when minds have started to drift, the swift double which destroys spirit and souls, and the late killer blow when legs have turned to jelly. Typically only one or two of these is enough, we conjured up a raft of them.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Millwall wrap - Oxford United 1 Millwall 2

On Saturday night while with friends, the Sam Feldt version of Show Me Love came on the stereo. If you’re not familiar with the name, you’ll know the tune. It’s the one that was played last season during the players’ presentation. It stirs the emotions; a reminder of a magical time, the best season we’ve had in my lifetime.

I miss last season, although that’s partly because I know how it turned out. What makes it even more remarkable is that the season before that was so dismal. As bad as any in my lifetime. Most managers wouldn’t have survived such awfulness, in fact, I’m pretty sure we were the lowest placed team in the division not to sack our manager that year.

It took a brave decision to stick with Michael Appleton, but it worked spectacularly; a two-year plan that came good.

This season has been fitful, nowhere near as bad as Appleton’s first year, nowhere near as good as his second. But are we just at the start of another two-year cycle?

I’ve always thought that Appleton’s preferred system is a team that moves the ball around quickly creating chances for a big unit up front. The principle is that if that unit doesn’t score, he creates enough mayhem to allow the midfield playing around him to pick up the pieces.

Going right back to the loan signings of Carlton Morris and Tyrone Barnett, Michael Appleton has constantly been in the market for a goalscoring lump. Ryan Taylor and Danny Hylton did it to some degree last season, but we've yet to find a sustainable solution. He’d have loved Paul Moody.

The performance against Millwall was, generally, pretty good; 64% of the possession, 12 chances to their 7, 9 corners to their 2. But they were more direct and more efficient in front of goal. As a rule, we do everything right, but we’re just not quite up to it physically – more muscle upfront and we’d be there, I think.

Whether we’ll sort the striking issue out before the season peters out is another question. We’re about to enter a particularly fractured phase in the season; last year between the 1st Round of the Cup and our semi-final second leg against Millwall in February we played nearly as many cup games as we did league games. Will we be able to get a settled team with so much disruption in the schedule?

While we’ve spluttered a bit so far I suspect, like Appleton’s first year, we’ll start to see the shoots of what he’s hoping to achieve from February onwards. If, as he suggests, there are 14 teams looking to put a run together for the play-offs, then we might still have a late surge. More likely, this season is simply going to become a foundation for next.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Port Vale wrap - Port Vale 2 Oxford United 2

Before Football Manager was Championship Manager. I played the 1993 edition religiously when it came out. I started, as I always do, at Oxford, and signed, as I always do, all my favourite players from the past, regardless of their stats, age or form. Alongside these I’d add some ageing ex-internationals who were affordable, but clearly past their best.

Inevitably my time at the club was short and I moved onto Fulham. There, I found my feet and had a half decent season in Division 3. I speculatively applied for the Everton job and inexplicably got it. With a near bottomless transfer kitty of around £10m a year and the discovery of a Lionel Messi-esque English child prodigy, I went on to conquer English football and then the world.

I would play all night collecting trophy after trophy in a stellar career that lasted into my late-80s (my Championship Manager age, that is). I played so long that the player database kept re-generating players by jamming together first and second names with random nationalities and clubs. So I ended up with players like a Cameroonian international called Diego Shilton and a Frenchman called Steve Gullit. Bored of my ludicrous levels of success, when the Oxford job came up some 40-odd (Championship Manager) years after I left, I took it. But I had no money and it all became too difficult, and though I was biologically in my 20s, in my head and my computer, I was more worried about the state of my digital prostate and my mortality. It was the end of a glorious period.

From time to time I try to recreate those halcyon days by buying a new copy of Football Manager, but the game is more sophisticated now and I have less time so I invariably get frustrated with my poor form and give up.

I know things are going wrong when I resort to the tactic of playing an almost random starting eleven of squad and youth team players in an attempt to stumble across some glorious combination that will catapult me up the leagues.

Sometimes you see real-life managers adopting a similar approach. There was something odd about Michael Appleton’s starting line-up against Port Vale. Sercombe and Skarz were back, Raglan was replaced by Nelson. Johnson was in and Crowley was up front.

Did Michael Appleton’s selection come from a frustration or boredom of our erratic form? We have had a pretty decent start all told but the Swindon win aside our wins this season have come as a result of very (very) late goals. Our general form has been pretty good but the margins of our wins have been paper thin. We can’t rely on last minute winners all season.

So maybe Appleton was throwing caution to the wind, or perhaps it was a glimpse of his original plan for the year. Our early season has been blighted by frustrating injuries; Ribeiro, Nelson, Ledson and Hall. But maybe Saturday was about playing Crowley in a role he’s earmarked for Hall and maybe Nelson’s inclusion was about trying to piece together the back-four he’d always planned to play.

It seemed to work early on; the goals came early rather than deep into injury time, but we still haven’t mastered controlling a game or coping with a more direct physical approach. If there is a plan, then the speed at which we learn to implement it will dictate whether this is a possible play-off season or one which meanders to mid-table nothingness.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Coventry wrap - Coventry City 2 Oxford United 1

My first away game was against Coventry City in 1982. I'd been to big stadiums before, but this was the first time as a bona fide away fan. We'd just tanked Brighton in the FA Cup - a moment that might later be looked on as the Big Bang that sprung The Glory Years. Coventry City were next up and me and my dad decided to go.

I remember us having to weave our way through towns and villages as the M40 link from Oxford to Birmingham wouldn't be complete for another year. It made the journey feel decidedly more epic than it does today. The scene on our arrival at Highfield Road could have been a parody documentary on 1980s football hosted by Danny Dyer - I opened my door and was nearly knocked over by an Oxford fan being pursued by a group of Coventry fans; it was the beginning of a particularly unpleasant day.

Coventry felt like a big, modern club, they were in the 1st Division, they were the first to have an all-seater stadium and they had embraced the commercialism of the modern game with a kit that embedded the logo of their sponsors, Talbot, into the design. I thought it was the greatest kit ever, although they didn't wear it on the day.

We conceded late in the first half and were pulled apart in the second, eventually going down 4-0. Oxford fans spent most of the second half ripping seats out and throwing them on the pitch. When my dad asked a policeman what we should do to avoid the trouble, he said we should throw our scarves in the bin and run. Interestingly, the game was part of a document submitted as part of the Hillsborough review.

The experience stayed with me, there was a sense of fear and awe, Coventry were a big club. This continued through their FA Cup win in 1987 and into the 90s when they eventually succumbed to relegation from the top flight in 2001. But, recently I found out something remarkable; they have not finished in the top six of any division for fifty years.

Half-a-century and barely a whiff of joy. The Cup win apart, they have suffered a slow, imperceptible decline. It feels like one of those people who dies on their own and nobody notices because their standing orders kept paying the bills. Dying of sadness in a way that nobody else cares enough to know about.

They are embroiled in their latest crisis, an existential battle with Sisu over their ground and ultimately their future. They might look and feel like a big club, but this is League 1, the elephants graveyard. I think we all thought they were a dying animal waiting to be put out of its misery.

I would like to offer some kind of analysis of the game, but I was sat practically at pitch-level. This didn’t stop the bloke behind me being able to argue about offside decisions which he could only have seen if he was using a camera mounted to a drone.

Whatever our tactical failings, this felt like the Wimbledon game, a lesson in self-destruction. We seemed to assume we’d turn up and perform, but nothing seemed to work as it should. We seem to lack the experience we got from people like Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins which meant we kept our focus whoever we faced. It was something that Michael Appleton commented on last year, he had a small group of players that would lead discussions and solve the squad's own problems. Do we have those players now?

John Lundstram came in for quite a bit of criticism, but rather than dropping him ,as some seem to suggest, I think we need to look at whether his captaincy plays too heavily on his shoulders. But then, if not him, who is the captain? Chey Dunkley has the greatest presence in the team, but he’s also young and would we want to be risk his development giving him the burden of the armband. Which brings back to the key point; how many leaders have we got?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Bradford wrap - Oxford United 1 Bradford City 0

“Alright Dave, I’ll see you next time” said the bloke in front just as Chris Maguire was tee-ing up a freekick on the edge of the box.

There were six empty seats in front of me when Maguire foxed the Bradford keeper to win the game on Saturday. I get both sides of the ‘leaving early’ debate. On one hand, if you’re young with too much time on your hands, then football is life and you support the boys to the bitter end regardless of the consequences or futility. On the other, there’s traffic and convenience to consider, football is good, but so is Strictly and a curry.

Neither view is particularly wrong, but football is made of moments and you miss them at your peril. Saturday’s was a tight high quality game punctuated by three moments; the penalty, the free-kick and the non-penalty (which was one).  

As we progress through the divisions these moments will become more fleeting, but also more intense. Games will become tighter, the reliance on technical quality – and the ability to execute it at a moments’ notice - over raw physical ability will grow. When Nathan Cooper suggested to Chris Maguire that he had some kind of magical ability to produce on demand his response was ‘Well, I do practice them’ echoing his manager who’d spoke moments earlier.

The big signings of the summer, Marvin Johnson and Kane Hemmings will do well to recognise these points. Both came with reputations for rampaging through defences, but have found space and opportunity much more limited down south. Hemmings seems to be coming to terms with this although Johnson seems more frustrated. He has the physical attributes and if he maintains what is sometimes referred to as a growth mindset, then he should come good. He’s at the right club to do that.

You get the feeling that we’re becoming sharper and more competitive as the weeks pass. John Lundstram spent good chunks of last year spraying 60 yards passes over the heads of League 2 lunks, this season’s lack of space came as a bit of a shock, but he’s starting games quicker now and becoming more physical. As a result he’s started earning the space and right to get his passing going.

Ryan Taylor had his best game in a yellow shirt in the most unfamiliar of positions. In a sense, he’s also benefitting from his ability to adapt to his surroundings. He’s been OK holding the ball up playing as a striker, but playing on the left where he was able to use his physical attributes alongside his short passing ability was a masterstroke.

Two points off the play-offs and our growing confidence makes ours a very happy place to be. As we climb the division, we should expect games to become tighter and the moments of magic to become more special. Just make sure you don’t miss them.