Some weeks it’s difficult to keep up with the comings and goings of Oxford United; sometimes nothing happens and you find yourself drawn to writing misty eyed pieces about standing on the London Road. This isn’t one of those weeks.
While the win over Swindon was, by some distance, the most thrilling of the season, Port Vale on Saturday was by some distance the best. While we don’t appear to have strength in depth from a quality perspective, as we showed on Saturday, we do have a lot of heart in depth.
King of the triers is Andy Whing, who came on a minute before half time for Adam Chapman in a move which gained more significance as the week progressed. He, alongside Tony 'Smoking Jacket' Capaldi, putting in block tackles deep into injury time, galvanised the team in the middle. Something that was woefully missing against York. Up front, Dean Smalley worked tirelessly, as he always does on the odd occasion that he’s fit and deserved his goal.
While we’re talking about triers; it worth mentioning Michael Raynes who feels like a player who is always one managerial decision away from the end of his career. Surely brought in as a fourth, perhaps fifth or even sixth, choice centre-back when it was clear that Michael Duberry wasn’t going to feature much, he's been under quite a bit of pressure from fans and the general air of gloom surrounding the club at times, but he’s always been vocal and willing. I have a sneaking admiration for him, again he showed ample heart and endeavour on Saturday.
The spine of the team; patched together from marginal players and those coming back from injury showed what was possible.
Three days later and fourteen minutes of madness saw us slip to a nutty 4-0 home defeat to Rotherham. While clearly adding some fuel to the Wilder-out fire, this wasn’t indicative of the wider problem. Recognising that this is the second time we’ve conceded four at home this season, the result was still a freak anomaly and some way from the yawn-a-thon that was the York game.
The most concerning thing is that Wilder chose to change both a winning team and formation, at home. Was he spooked by the prospect of facing Steve Evans? Is the pressure he’s under from fans causing him to over-think his selection? A more confident manager might have kept things simple and kept a winning team in place.
Heslop seems to be on a season-long downturn, I can’t think of a player who has previously performed so well going through such a sustained and evident period of poor form. You’d almost question whether there’s something more seriously wrong with Heslop, but he’s shown nothing to justify his selection.
The first goal was unfortunate, but the others were the result of poor defending at set pieces and Rotherham making progress down the flanks beyond Batt and Davis who were pushing up as you’d normally expect when playing with five. Whether Duberry is fit is questionable, but also, the extra body in the back line changes everyone’s game, as it showed.
Wilder’s post-match reaction, I thought, however, was entirely correct. The players didn’t need locking in the dressing room to be told that losing 4-0 at home wasn’t acceptable. He just needed to get things back to normal as soon as possible. Andy Whing was on the radio within 20 minutes of full-time saying that it wasn’t good, but that dwelling on it was not going to improve things; especially with the team in otherwise reasonable form. I don’t deny the validity the Wilder might need to move on, but this wasn’t the conclusive proof of it.
Adam Chapman is out and presumably gone for good. The Wilder Out runaway train were quick to scream foul, as you might expect. We love Chapman; Chappy, Chappers he’s the crazy mate who jumps off a boat in the middle of the sea on a stag do. A whole load of bloody fun who does things you’re a bit scared to try.
He’s also the kind of guy who goes missing when you’ve suffered a family bereavement. A perpetual child, he was always at his best when the pressure was on. At Wembley, against Swindon at home and during a crucial game against Rushden in the promotion season where he scored a penalty. While all those around him fretted, Chapman just got on with it.
But when we needed him to grown up; play controlled percentage football, he couldn’t do it. It wasn’t fun enough.
The childlike quality, of course, affected him off the pitch. In an interview after he’s burnt a nipple on baby milk he said something like ‘Eeh it always happens to me don’t it?’ This is true. But while burning your nipple on baby milk is a 1 in a 100 chance, Chapman is the kind of person who has done it 100 times and got away with it, thereby almost guaranteeing that it will happen to him at some point, whereas most people might overheat milk once and never again.
The most stark reminder of this was when he was sent to prison for killing a pensioner in his car while texting. Again, you might argue that we’ve all done it and he’s been unfortunate, but how many times did he do it and get away with it? As I once heard said of Mario Balotelli and his ‘Why always me?’ t-shirt; because it’s always you Mario, because it’s always you.
Some screamed that Chapman’s loan to Mansfield was further evidence that Chris Wilder has lost his mind. But, there is a point at which the lovable cheekiness wears thin and, for everyone’s sanity and future employment, people have got to knuckle down and start to work at getting us out of the hole we’re in. Billy Turley on Twitter, a mentor to Chapman during his time at Oxford took a rare moment from the self-aggrandising blathering of an idiot to point out that Wilder thinks the world of Chapman, which is evident by the support he’s offered him over the years. Turley also pointed out that the club needs a chairman to provide leadership and connect with the fans. I couldn’t agree more.
Apparently Oxford United Ladies are in the FA Cup and the shortlist to join the Women’s Super League. Good on them. It does feel a little bit like people are using their success as a stick to beat the first team up with, much in the same way that the Olympics was used to beat up football more generally, but there does seem to be a warm glow around the margins of the club that hasn’t been seen for some time. Time will tell as to whether the Women’s team can sustain the success or whether it will slowly ebb away to nothing when a few results go against them.
I’m quite into the idea of Oxford United being a football club in the literal sense rather than just a professional sports entertainment company focussed entirely on the product being delivered every other Saturday by the men’s team.