‘no-excuse environment’ at Oxford United was a little lost in the noise. This is classic Ashton management-speak but for me it is slightly different to talking about 'DNAs' and getting unknown executives to write options papers about smoking around the ground; this time it means something.
Management is the art of removing excuses for failure. The job is to create the environment – the objectives, the funding and the autonomy that allows individuals to succeed in what they do. If you tell a team to go on the attack when 1-0 up with five minutes to go, there is a ready-made excuse for when you’re caught on the break. If you have a bad pitch, there’s an excuse for not passing the ball properly. If you remove that and assume everyone does their job properly, success should be assured.
Michael Appleton has been given the funding for players, a pitch to play on and an infrastructure to support him. Tickets have been reduced and are easier than ever to buy. The excuses for failure from a fan, player and management perspective are being systematically removed.
This is all good stuff; great stuff even. I wouldn’t say we were in our best pre-season shape since coming back to the Football League – the year we signed Peter Leven, Michael Duberry and Andy Whing has to be up there; but we’re close. Now, it’s time to deliver.
The bookies are convinced; in some quarters we’re favourites for the title. But, then again, Portsmouth are also up there despite a woeful couple of seasons and little evidence that they have yet to recover from the shock of the last few years.
We shouldn’t get too carried away with this; this is part guesswork and part maths – larger clubs will tend to attract more interest and bookies will reduce their price to encourage a wider range of bets to reduce risk. Once the Oxford bandwagon started – particularly with a lot of high profile early signings - the bets were likely to come in forcing the odds to shorten. The bookies are frequently viewed as great soothsayers and very much 'in the know', but their businesses are built on more than the football equivalent of water divining.
Pre-season is supposed to give some indication; we’ve had a good pre-season, but the benchmark – that is who we’ve played and the results we've gained – is a difficult gauge. We comfortably beat Eastleigh, a decent Conference team who you might expect to be upping their game when playing a league team. We drew with and outplayed Coventry, a team above us, but nothing like the force their name might suggest. For all we know we could have been playing teams destined for relegation, who knows?
And then there are the subjective assessments – what does the squad look like? I don’t think we’ve lost anyone last season that we wouldn’t want to lose. Ryan Clarke, yes, but he has been replaced and Andy Whing, although by everyone's admission, that would be more the Andy Whing of 2-3 years ago.
Sercombe, Roofe, Slocombe and Taylor have come in with solid pedigree, and join what was the best of last year's squad. There’s no doubt, in my mind, on average we have better players than we did at this time last year.
But, will they gel and are there enough of them? Those are big unknowns. My gut feeling is that we’re lacking numbers; although I couldn’t tell you where – midfield probably – I can name our strongest back five, and a number of capable combinations up front. Could I say with confidence that we have a capable midfield with options? I can’t name it, so no.
The gelling has to come from Michael Appleton and he remains the biggest unknown of the lot. Clearly a lot of people believe in him, although the evidence is heavily stacked against him, not just at Oxford, but everywhere he's been. A theoretician and a student of the game, yes. But does that always win games? Evidently, no. I’ve said before that we’ve no choice but to back him, but I’m not convinced, yet, that he’ll deliver what we want.
And what do we want? It has to be promotion – via the play-offs or automatically; there’s just no point in putting all this effort in and going for a marginal improvement on last year. We effectively lost a year last season; it’s 5 years since we returned to League 2 and 14 since we were last in League 1. There’s a point where we have to make the breakthrough. Under Ian Lenagan, we were more cautious and long term incremental growth seemed a reasonable, if unremarkable, ambition. But this is a different strategy – it’s aggressive and fast moving. I’ve said before, if you come in aggressively, you’ve got to succeed aggressively. Being charitable, we can write last year off as transitional; this year, there are no excuses.