Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 2 Southend United 0

Earlier in the season I described the current squad as a rebel alliance; a ramshackle band of brothers with a good heart, but one that was likely to take heavy losses. The Oxford machine, as much as it existed, was rocked by the losses of Michael Appleton, John Lundstram, Chris Maguire and Marvin Johnson, what it was replace by was no less worthy, just less reliable.

Ricardinho is likely to win player of the season, not so much because of his performances week in week out (he hasn't played week in week out), but because he's offered rare moments of joy. Those calling for him to play every week are forgetting the insane two-footed tackle which got him sent off against MK Dons, or worse, the times when his positional sense has been so wanting he's left us exposed at the back. He's not perfect, but it's not been a perfect season.

But, aside from joie de vivre, what Ricardinho has offered is the willingness to take a risk. His goal on Saturday was the perfect example of that. The highlights don't really show where he picked the ball up from, but the coaching manual doesn't say that you should abandon your defensive duties to go on a potentially suicidal attack when you pick the ball up on the edge of your own box. Nobody would have complained had he played the ball inside for it to be worked into midfield, but that's what Southend were expecting. He did the same against Oldham, which didn't end with a goal but did, at least, animate the crowd.

James Henry similarly has these moments; whether that's delaying a run into the box or driving through the defence like he did on Saturday. Henry's limitation this season seems to have been what he's been played in the wrong position, whether that's by design or necessity, who know? Karl Robinson does seem to have found a system which allows him to be effective.

We have been lacking unpredictability which, coupled with a solid defensive unit, makes the difference between a good and bad team.

The frustrating, and scary thing about the win on Saturday is that everyone around us won, meaning we remain 5 points ahead of the drop-zone. But, it did pull Walsall into trouble, meaning we now needs three out of six teams below us to pass the 50 points mark. Not quite there yet, but very very close.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

The wrap - Shrewsbury, Oldham and Fleetwood

We are not doomed... yet.

The Shrewsbury game had been largely dismissed as a defeat long before we kicked off. Oldham was supposedly the opportunity to scramble to safety, we'll never get anything from Wigan and Blackburn because they're too good, or Fleetwood and Southend, because they're bogey teams.

We're doomed.

There are lots of reasons that this is nonsense. I didn't get to the Fleetwood game, so I didn't get that visceral sense of despair resulting from their winner. However, objectively, we appeared to dominate, which suggests we're not quite as useless as some would imply.

Karl Robinson has suggested that we need a bit of luck. Which is sort of true, what we need is a bit of maths - keep doing the right things and eventually, by the law of averages, we'll get the right result. Against Fleetwood it seems we did a lot of the right things, keep going in that direction and the results we need will come. 

Second, we are still five points clear of the relegation zone. In one sense, very close, but it's still very much in our hands. In the 35 games played by the seven teams below us, just seven have been wins and eight have been draws - that's roughly 4 points per team over the last five games. There are about five games to play, so we're still looking at quite a few having to find a run of form, while we gain nothing, to drag us down. It's not comfortable, but all is not lost.

Third, and this is might sound perverse, we are one of only five teams in the division currently without a win in our last five games. Logic says that this will change eventually. Look back to our game against Bury, they had gone 8 games without a win, but beat us. Not because they are materially better than us (they are 14 points off safety, 19 behind us), but because, eventually, things run your way. We are, inevitably, getting closer to that point, or specifically, those three points. 

The point being that while nobody is too good to go down, we're good enough to stay up and there are plenty around us struggling for form. Talk of bogey teams and bad luck is baloney, if we focus on process, we should secure the necessary points to stay up. Or, at least, not enough teams will accumulate the necessary points to catch us.

And, staying up is all that it's about, one place above the relegation zone, one point away, it doesn't really matter at this stage. There are reasons we're not higher up, which we can pick apart to our hearts content during the summer. But until that point, the focus is on getting little more than one win in the next five. And that is wholly doable.

Monday, April 02, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 1 Scunthorpe 1

On Wednesday I hit a pothole so hard it caused my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat, to spontaneous yelp ‘fuck’. I looked at her as if to say that was unacceptable and understandable in equal measure… just don’t tell your grandparents.

On Friday, before setting off for the game I saw two worrying bulges in my tyre, clearly caused by the impact of hitting the hole. After wrestling with the dilemma of choosing between the game and my life – a struggle more real than it ever should be - I eventually I decided I needed to get the tyre sorted. It turns out you can get quicker than a Kwik Fit fitter and I missed the game.

I got home about 10 minutes into the game. I can’t remember watching a home game live on TV before; it gives you a curious sense of detachment. Presumably Sky don’t thow as much kit at League 1 game as they might a Premier League game, so crowd noises are largely absent. But, you’re released from the groupthink that creates anxiety (or occasional ecstasy), you’re also subject to the bias of the commentary – well, not bias as such, more a question of a pundit (Lee Hendrie) choosing a narrative, and then refusing the migrate away from it regardless of what was happening on the pitch.

The benefit of this is the opportunity to analyse; what was pretty evident was the recruitment mess we’ve managed to get ourselves into. In the first half we were overwhelmed as we have been on more than one occasion this year. Thankfully, unlike against Wigan or Blackburn, we didn’t concede a bucketful.

Our problem is that we have a team full of the same kind of players – for Mowatt came Rothwell to play alongside Ledson, Brannagan and Napa, with Ruffels coming on later in the game. With Kane and Smith-Brown we’ve got a team packed with small, talented ball-players. The consequence is that we’re one dimensional, we have a bunch of ‘cultural misfits’ - to quote Darryl Eales - sitting on the sidelines and what results is a great big hole in the squad.

John Mousinho, James Henry and Jonathan Obika all have experience, and showed how important they are likely to be in the run in. None have enjoyed their best form (or fitness in Obika’s case), but when they are playing well, they can fill gaps left by Lundstram, Johnson and Hemmings in the summer.

The problem is that neither Mousinho, Obika nor Thomas have been able to sustain any form and they don’t have age on their side to suggest that this might improve next season. If we are to progress, the big hole in the squad is a major priority.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The wrap - Portsmouth 3 Oxford United 0

The good 
For the first hour before everything changed, we looked good. Very good, even. Napa was probably over-eulogised by the TV commentators as the new messiah we’ve ALL been talking about, but he looked bright and caused enough problems. James Henry playing off the front two works well and we should have gone into the break at least even.

The bad 
After the opening goal, my overriding thought was that we are a top eight team that can’t defend, and that’s what makes us a lower-middle table team. There are two principle reasons for this – Chey Dunkley and Curtis Nelson. Both were an immense physical presence in the back-four last year, which we’ve lost. Rob Dickie looks good on the ball, but lacks physicality – as was evident in the first goal. John Mousinho’s last two games have been solid, but he lacks pace and is a shadow of the legend we supposedly signed from Burton. They’re probably the best pairing available, although I’m not alone in wondering why we let Charlie Raglan go to Port Vale.

The ugly 
The game turned, quite obviously, on the penalty and the resulting dismissal of Alex Mowatt. It illustrates the thing I absolutely despise about football. It was a high-pressure moment, had the ball gone a millimetre to the left it would have gone in, a millimetre to the right it would have bounced out and the players would have been pre-occupied by the rebound.

Mowatt was clearly frustrated by the margin of his error, Nathan Thompson clearly elated. Both acted instinctively in their reactions. There were 17,000 people showing similar emotions and yet the two most involved were supposed to control theirs. The result was unsavoury, but neither player was in any genuine physical danger. But, because the rules say so, Mowatt was dismissed for violent conduct.

There are rules in football which have been created to deal with particularly elements of the game which are not conducive to its spirit. The offside rule was invented to prevent goal-hanging, the penalty box to stop players unfairly preventing goal-scoring chances. Violent conduct is clearly to stop people getting hurt.

In all three cases, the rules has been ‘gamed’, players will battle for the ball to get in the penalty box, but collapse on the fall at the merest touch, offside traps are set 30-40 yards from goal.

What Mowatt did wasn’t violent in the sense that Thompson was in any danger. If you see the physical punishment of boxing, ice hockey or rugby, it’s clear that Thompson was a long way from being seriously injured in the incident. I don’t blame him for his reaction immediately after the ball bounced off the post – it was the equal and opposite reaction to Mowatt’s. But, because he knew that violent conduct has been denigrated to ‘raising your hands’ he gamed the system by falling on the ground as though he’d been hit square on the jaw by Roberto Duran. It’s a reaction so deeply ingrained in football, it makes a mockery of its original purpose, and that should be a wake-up call.

We expect players to play with passion and commitment – the whole game is sold on it - but at the same time, act dispassionately and with detachment even in its most extreme moments.

As a result, not only did we lose the game, it degenerated as a spectacle at the moment it had reached boiling point and we’ve lost Mowatt for three games for what was little more than a light push. Plus, Mowatt is expected to act with deep remorse and everyone should fall in line with sanctimonious lines about how ‘you just can’t do that’.

The solution, in this case, is an adjustment to the law by adding something about having a clear intent to harm, and empower the officials to make that judgement. Sure, book players for being a bit silly and to defuse an argument, but sending him off and banning him is a ridiculous penalty for something so minor.

We’ve lost sight of the original purpose of the violent conduct rule, and as a result what we have is a pantomime in which players have learnt certain behaviours to use it and advantage their team. In this case, falling to the ground as though shot. A small adjustment to the rules, rather than expecting the players to act like robots, would improve the game significantly.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wow, it's Karl

Was Karl Robinson really Tiger’s ‘wow’ appointment? Who knows? We don’t know the scope of his ambition; where ‘wow’ begins and ends. Maybe he was thinking about Patrick Kluivert or maybe someone decidedly more down to earth. Like an erratic firework, a wow appointment could have seen us sparkle in the sky or blow up in our faces.

It was an unfortunate phrase, because there’s no such thing as a wow appointment, every manager carries a risk, virtually no manager has universal appeal – unless its Pep Guardiola (or whoever's the de facto best coach in the world at that time) or a returning hero (think: Bobby Robson at Newcastle). The only genuine wow appointment for us would have been Michael Appleton.

It was quite conceivable that Tiger would try to appoint a ‘name’, quite a few were bandied about – Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Sven Goran Eriksson, Jaap Stam. Any of those would have been a coup, it would have given Tiger and the club plenty of exposure, but ultimately it would have been a vanity appointment; Eriksson’s farcical reign at Notts County and Teddy Sheringham’s disastrous career at Stevenage should act as a sobering reminder of what typically comes of these appointments.

The idea of David Unsworth or Craig Bellamy would have been very Darryl Eales style appointments. Young, ambitious and thoughtful coaches looking to break into the next stage of their management career. Superficially, these would have followed the mould of Michael Appleton, although that ignores the fact Appleton already had experience as a manager before he came to us.

Whether Tiger was just a bit too liberal with his hyperbole, or whether his ambition was tethered somewhere along the way, Karl Robinson represents a good appointment for us. He has nearly 10 years managerial experience and he's still only 37. He has a decent track record of success. So, while no managerial appointment is devoid of risk, Robinson is as good a fit as we could hope for.

The next step for Tiger in gaining the confidence of the fans, is establishing a stable, well-funded, foundation on which Robinson can do his work. For all the machinations around MK Dons, their owner runs his club well and Robinson thrived in such an environment.

It's more than just opening a cheque book; the executive team needs sorting; managing director Niall McWilliams has been absent throughout the management debacle, we can't have this dithering when signing players. Either Tiger takes over that role, empowers the current incumbent or brings in someone he trusts to do his bidding, but it doesn't look sustainable at the moment.

There's work to be done, but that's in the future. Robinson is a good resolution of a painfully drawn out process; a good start for Tiger. Perhaps we can start thinking about football again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 2 Peterborough 1

Even during the darkest days of a relegation season I can’t remember a game being anticipated as negatively as Saturday’s. Even with the weight of the concrete boots that anchor you to the bottom of the table, there’s an ember of belief that somehow good fortune will descend on you and turn things around. Not on Saturday, the mood started bleakly and got darker as kick-off approached.

Nothing seemed to dispel the dark clouds that hung over the club, the Tiger takeover had been largely absent of substance, the disquiet amplified by the brief rumour of the club being served a winding up order. And then, the lack of a manager, an achingly slow process which is apparently resolved, but still not complete.

Perhaps appropriately, there was the strange otherworldliness of the weather; sub-zero temperatures and hours of fine, wispy snow, but not a hint of a postponement.

Into this void steps the universally loathed Steve Evans and his perfectly competent Peterborough side. Evans will mercilessly kick at every Achilles heel until it snaps, and then carry on kicking. Evans doesn’t respect others, he doesn’t care what they think, he won’t just kick a man when he’s down, he’ll use him as a foot stool to reach for the bucket of deep-fried pies that sit on the top shelf asking to be inhaled as a light snack in between meals.

Our talented, put-upon, listless team of juniors – many of whom will not be here for much more than six weeks once the manager is in place - would surely capitulate in the misery and the gloom of relegation would descend further. Their fatherly temporary manager would do little more than protect them from the worst of the criticism, covering their ears, in a vain attempt at blocking out the baying hoards.

Instead, Derek Fazackerley out-thought his rotund counterpart, causing him to panic about formation and personnel barely before the clock had ticked past 20 minutes. Weighed down by more than just the obesity timebomb only he appears not to notice, Evans bounced around his technical area, and beyond, complaining and barking instructions maniacally trying to regain control of what was already lost.

On the pitch we looked more like the Oxford we had hoped we’d become. Brannigan was the key, sitting in front of the back four, given Mousinho more time for messages to transfer from his brain to his feet while Ledson snapped away at second balls and James Henry exploited the holes their tenacity created. Obika and Thomas looked bright and mobile, albeit inevitably for only a short period.

The wind swirled and buffeted, the snow danced lightly without settling. “Farcical”, complained Evans, a man you suspect boasts about how effective his 4x4 is when others aren’t prepared to venture beyond their front door when the neighbourhood's roads are impassable. It was far from that; it was not so much a question of who would deal best with the conditions, but at what point the game would seize up in the cold.

The answer was pretty much immediately after the break, perhaps it was ‘game management’ but neither side showed much urgency to take free-kicks or throw-ins as muscles seized up and ambition was packed away for another, warmer day. The referee became increasingly befuddled in the blizzard and the game gently descended into a glacially slow, desperately cold, pantomime. The man next to me shivered so much as players niggled each other over something trivial that I genuinely became concerned he might slump across my lap and expire.

Between Henry’s wonder goal and their immediate retaliatory strike, the two teams seemed to bicker and gossip almost as if they were trying to negotiate a way of finishing the game early. All the while Evans bellowed to nobody in particular the frustrations of a man processing unresolved childhood emotional issues. Todd Kane seemed to revel in his bluster, which madden him more, we were totally in control.

Appropriately enough, the assistant referee’s electronic board packed up leaving it to Nathan Cooper to announce seven minutes of injury time. Defending our first win in six, in semi-arctic conditions, it seemed wholly inappropriate to introduce a flamboyant Brazilian into the mix, but Ricardinho showed he's more than a cliche and helped us see the game out.

The distant threat of relegation has become slightly more distant, thankfully it looks like there will be a reasonable platform for the new manager to work from over the summer. I’m concerned about Tiger’s desire to ‘wow’ us with his appointment. There are three types of wow managers; past-wow managers whose star has faded far more quickly than their media profile, now-wow managers who have jobs and future-wow managers who are untested but will eventually come good. I doubt any of them will be greeted with universal approval from the fans, so I hope that Tiger finds a manager with the right attributes to lead the club forward than try to impress us with a name that still commands a substantial fee on the after-dinner circuit.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The wrap - Wimbledon 2 Oxford United 1

When does a transition become a debacle or a debacle become a transition?

Do you remember when Nick Merry turned up in his cowboy boots to install Jim Smith as manager and take us into the Conference?

Or when Darryl Eales took over and installed Michael Appleton as manager to lead us to lower-mid table in League 2, playing 42 players in the process?

With both takeovers, things got worse before they got better (Merry was a front for Ian Lenagan, who eventually funded our promotion back to the league), both involved managerial as well as ownership changes. One was at the end of the season, one was during the summer, and both brought significant levels of disruption.

Takeovers cause disruption, particularly in smaller clubs which don’t have a big corporate infrastructure with the ability to keep things stable. Just how much of this is avoidable is open to debate. But, whether it's at the end of the season, the start or in the middle, it inevitably causes a problem.

Perhaps the disruption could have been reduced by keeping Pep Clotet in position; but he was rapidly losing favour with the fans and Darryl Eales largely confirmed that his sacking was more complicated than simply a bad run of results.

The appointment of Clotet’s replacement has clearly been caught up in the transition from Eales to Tiger. For Tiger to sanction Eales’ preferred candidate – Craig Bellamy – would have been daft. Lining up a replacement without actually owning the club would have been similarly difficult. He would already be on the back foot had it gone wrong. Tiger needs to be comfortable with the appointment so that he can back his man - with words and money.

What is certain is that the club isn't moving forward until the management issue is resolved. Staff don't know whether they'll have jobs, players don't know whether they'll have contracts, everything is on hold. Football games are won and lost in the margins, which is why you have to play over 40 games to decide who is best. If we've lost a few percentage points from the disruption, then that's what is turning draws into defeats.

Inevitably, much will be forgiven once the new man is in place, with the exception of a few names - Graham Westley, Steve Evans - almost all new managers bring a sense of optimism and purpose, and I'm sure that this will be the case with us. In the short term, at least.

The delay is damaging to Tiger's credibility, something he may not be too worried about; rich people understandably tend to have a high degree of self-worth. But the problem comes in the summer when it's time to renew season tickets, if fans can't see a substantive move forward, they are more likely to hold back on renewals, particularly as it seems we have reached a ceiling price for watching Oxford in League 1, judging by the criticism received after last year's price rises.

Whether relegation is as inevitable as some fans seem to think is open to debate. It is far from certain that we'll avoid the drop. However, although there is a gap of 4 points between us and Fleetwood in 21st, there's 10 between us and 22nd. Assuming that three of the four slots are all but confirmed, in a mini-league table where we, in 16th, are top, the potential of going from top to bottom by the end of the season remains distant.

But, a win is what we need, of course, to settle the nerves and remind ourselves that we can do it. A manager coming in to instill a sense of direction will help that immeasurably.