Midweek Fixture: The Absolute State of Oxford United Mid-season Survey – Results

Back in July I ran a survey – The Absolute State of Oxford United – in an attempt to get a benchmark for the season. You can read about it here, here and here. Being impatient, I decided to do a smaller survey to mark the mid-point of the season to see how things have changed. These are the results.

January is a funny month; the transfer window is open, there are hot flushes of optimism from new signings, disruption from cup games with all their highs and lows and then there’s the league. So unlike the summer survey, the Absolute State of Oxford United Mid-Season Survey doesn’t assess Oxford in a steady state.

That said, the results from the January survey remained fairly consistent throughout the three weeks it was open despite moving up to 2nd then down to 5th in the league, progressing in the FA Cup and signing five players. 

There’s been a notable uptick in the overall perception of the club. Understandable really, we’ve just come off an excellent run in the League Cup, beat the league leaders, risen to second in the table and progressed to an FA Cup tie against Newcastle on Saturday. In the summer, the overall average rating was 6.7 out of 10, the mid-season survey saw a hop up to 8.7.

This was higher than any of the individual components showing that the club is greater than the sum of its parts. The squad was rated 8.3 out of 10 – up from 6.2. Karl Robinson’s stock has risen sharply to 8.4 from 6.1, recognition that he’s driving the success more than anything.

The board’s ratings lagged behind a little, which is perhaps understandable because there’s always demand for more in terms of investment as well as a general mistrust any board’s intentions. In the summer, off the back of multiple winding up orders, the board were rated just 4.9 out of 10, mid-season it has risen to 7.6.

The relationship between fans and club also jumped from 5 to 7.6. While these scores are lower than the on-field scores, the difference between the summer and now is greatest off the field. I don’t think this is necessarily because the board have made the most progress, more that it’s easier to make progress from a low base. It would be a strange club where the board was rated more highly than the squad.

When it came to players, we’re not comparing like for like; the squad in the summer wasn’t complete and only 12 players picked up votes. Gavin Whyte led the way back then with 31.7% of the vote followed by Cameron Brannagan with 18.4%.

Brannagan has held his top spot this time around with a marginal improvement to 19.3%, but there’s notable movements below. 

The biggest mover is Rob Dickie picking up 16.5% of the vote putting him second, a 16.2 percentage point improvement. Shandon Baptiste was third with his share of the vote increasing from 4.1% to 12.8%. James Henry was 4th jumping by 8.8 percentage points. Of the new signings, Alex Gorrin just pipped Matty Taylor to top spot, which is perhaps a bit of a surprise, but showing an astute appreciation that success is not just about who scored the goals, something the average matchday sponsor might do well to learn.

The biggest losers in the vote, perhaps surprisingly, were Josh Ruffels whose vote share dropped by -13.5 percentage points and Simon Eastwood – 6.3. I don’t think this is a significant reflection the performances of either player, these things are relative. I think it’s more a reflection that there are plenty of new shiny toys in the squad to vote for.

A wave of optimism has seen expectations rise; 30.5% expect us to finish second at the end of the season with 13.5% expecting us to win the title. Just 8.5% of the vote don’t expect us to make the play-offs so the bar is pretty high. 

The FA Cup was a funny one given what’s coming on Saturday, 93.2% expected us to make the fourth or fifth round, but it’s not exactly the hardest thing to judge.

Oddly, fans see Coventry City now as title favourites despite them not hitting top spot at any point in the season, this was followed by Ipswich Town – who have been on a terrible run – and Rotherham United, who are top. We’re seen as fourth favourites. Early pacesetters Wycombe picked up 3.2% of the vote, nobody seems convinced by them.

At the bottom 74.2% expect Southend to finish bottom with Bolton picking up 24.4%. MK Dons were the only other team voted for, which may just be out of spite.

So, what does this all tell us; it tells us the brutal reality that every time you improve, expectations rise. The ultimate point is that expectations reach such a pitch it is no longer possible to meet them. But, until then, all the signs are good; we’re in a happy place with a lot to play for, we should enjoy it while it lasts.

Match wrap: Gillingham 1 Oxford United 1

I went viral last week. In Rotherham. My match wrap said enough nice things about them going top that lots of Rotherham fans picked up on it. As a result I got hooked into a sidebar conversation about their Championship potential.

Something similar came up in the Five Minute Fan Forum on Radio Oxford; could Oxford compete if they were promoted given the average wage bill in the Championship is five times that of League 1?

In the hullabaloo of the last few weeks it’s not something I’d really thought about. I was in the moment, I hadn’t given much thought to what it means.

The draw with Gillingham brought up some concerns that our season was becoming derailed. We haven’t won in four, we’ve got injuries to key players. The worry is that having got into this position, we’re about to blow it.

Back in 2015/16 we played Hartlepool three games from the end of the season. Joe Skarz climbed off the treatment table, ran himself into the ground to help give us three critical points. Quoting from that match wrap; “The week started with MacDonald on a drip in hospital, O’Dowda on his sick bed, Skarz out for the season, Lundstram breaking down in training and Roofe nursing an injury.” We were in bits, praying that we could claw our way to the end of the season.

Then, like now saw November through to January as the ultimate stress test on a squad, by the time we got to the end of the season we were nearing collapse and it was only the heroism of people like Joe Skarz and the adrenalin from what we might achieve that got us over the line.

We were promoted by a point, winning our last three games to do that. That’s 46 games of almost unrelenting success and still just 1 point in it. Seasons have to be long and challenging to really decide who’s best.

You can see similar pressure on the current squad now; injuries to Matty Taylor, James Henry, Ben Woodburn, Cameron Brannagan and others, the form of Tariqe Fosu and Simon Eastwood. There are challenges everywhere.

But, it’s something we should expect. The club can’t insulate itself from these challenges by signing a bottomless pit of perfect replacements. As much as we’d like certainty, we have to expect the squad to be battered, it’s a necessary part of the process.

We’re far from alone; most of the teams competing with us will be in a similar position. They also don’t have the resources to simply spend their way out of difficulties.

Gillingham are 14th and on a reasonable run; they’re just ahead of Blackpool and behind Fleetwood, Bristol Rovers, Peterborough and Doncaster, all teams that have had their moments this season. If we are having a dip in form, then to do that and still be fifth is good news.

We’d face exactly the same challenges if we were at the other end of the table. Once January is out of the way the objectives of the season become crystal clear; last year it was about avoiding relegation, this year it’s about potentially going up. I’ll take that.

So rather than worrying about injuries and fearing dips in our form, or even concerning ourselves with what we might achieve if we did get promoted, we should simply embrace that we’re here. There’s no guarantee that should we not get promoted or make the play-offs this year that we will simply kick on next. As they say in mortgage adverts; past performance is no indicator of future performance.

The truth is that we probably aren’t ready for the Championship; but we do have an opportunity to have a crack at it. It’s not likely to be pretty, but that’s sort of the point.

George Lawrence's Shorts – Stormsy

Saturday 11 January 2020

*Stomp, Stomp, Stomp*

Fee Fi Fo Fum,
Forty minutes gone, 
It’s three-none. 

The monstrous colossi of Rotherham stomped all over Oxford with a blistering first-half display on Saturday. Marcus Browne’s goal being a consolation in a 1-3 gubbing.

Sunday 12 January 2020

KRob’s not paranoid, I mean you can’t be both KRob and self-aware, but he’s beginning to think that ‘they’ are listening to him via his iPhone. Just days after suggesting that the club were interested in a pre-season training camp in southern Spain, he was linked with a move to coach Malaga. KRob’s panic set in when it also emerged that he’s been linked with a move to Hot Grannies Being Spanked and is currently clearing his internet search history as we speak. 

Rotherham manager Paul Warne came to Oxford to park the bus on Saturday, then found that Creepy Uncle Firoz hadn’t unlocked the ground leaving his team stranded.

Monday 13 January 2020

Luke Garbutt has spoken glowingly about his year with Oxford last season. So much so that he took the opportunity to give his old club an insight into Ipswich’s tactical plans tomorrow. “It could be a case of us letting them come on to us.” he said before adding, “We don’t want to sit back and let them dictate the play.” While not sitting back and sitting back, he confirmed that they plan to be on the front foot winning the ball high up the pitch. Sitting back and not sitting back while on the front foot, this is proof that Garbutt is either a tactical genius or more confused than your mum when you explained she still needed virus software despite being with BUPA.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

It was all go in the 0-0 draw with Ipswich Town after a storm nearly resulted in the game being called off. A brief suspension in play allowed the players to change into dry kit. Unfortunately with the club shop sale starting the team were left a bit short of options. Elliot Moore was in a sponsor-free shirt for 3-5 year olds while Sam Long had to make do with Ollie The Ox’s foam mascot suit.  

Elsewhere, in three-for-two Slazenger jogging bottoms news, we’re off to Sports Direct’s Newcastle United in the 4th Round of the FA Cup after they beat Rochdale 4-1.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Sam Smith has admitted that going to Oxford on loan last year was a massive learning experience. Principally he learned that not scoring goals is not a good look for a striker. “You can only score goals if you’re playing” said the man who played five league games without scoring. He looks back on his time philosophically “I think first loans can go either way, you can either do really well or have an absolute stinker. It wasn’t a stinker.” he said re-defining the term ‘do really well’. 

Thursday 16 January 2020

It was the Seven Minute Seventeen Second Fans’ Forum with Tiger on Thursday. Regarding the stadiumsituation; ‘there might be some good news soon.’ he said reading from a file called ‘things to say in 2004’. He also wished Sam Long happy birthday, giving him the best birthday present ever by confirming that the club are trying to find a replacement for him.

KRob has organised an intra-squad practice match to get everyone match fit. The game offers an ideal opportunity for everyone to use the term ‘intra-squad’.

Friday 17 January 2020

Tomorrow we visit Gillingham who are managed by big-boned ball breaker Steve Evans. The Gills are on a reasonable run in challenging circumstances. “I have always been at a club which has been well resourced and I have never hidden that.” said the man literally convicted of tax fraud by hiding his club’s resources in 2006.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Ipswich Town 0

As much as we may not want to believe it, football is increasingly predictable. Players and managers come from the same vast academies and are taught to similar FIFA approved standards. Money is the main differentiator between success and failure. Even then, the minimum stake in the game has been pushed so high it’s only the multi-billionaires that can disrupt the status quo. 

I have a soft spot for Ipswich Town having supported them briefly in my unenlightened pre-Oxford days. I liked their kit and when they started winning trophies it was good being the only Ipswich fan in school. Bobby Robson and his meticulously crafted team brought success to an unfashionable club, I liked being part of that. 

It’s unlikely that’ll ever happen again. At the top of the game, modern football seems to act as a data provider for other pursuits; betting, fantasy football, FIFA and Football Manager, this is where the fun is, the games themselves are entertainment products with mostly predictable outcomes.

When the rain battered Tuesday’s game, we witnessed a rare moment of unpredictability in an increasingly predictable sport. When the referee suspended play, Ipswich players stayed on the pitch to stay warm, Oxford players went off to the dressing room to stay warm, there was no precedent or protocol to follow.

The referee’s decision was understandable, considered and ultimately correct; we earnestly talk about player safety and it was true that Marcus Browne, Sam Long and Josh Ruffels all ended up sliding into tackles which were dangerously out of control. It was also clear the ball wasn’t running true but if you want evidence of the increasingly mechanistic nature of the game, just look at the pass Alex Gorrin played directly into the middle of the boggiest part of the pitch creating panic in our back line. Even the physical evidence in front of him couldn’t override the training that was ingrained into his muscle memory. 

But it was more than that, the physics of the game changed; a referee’s judgement is based on a range of visual clues; how a challenge is made, how a player responds, the direction of the ball before and after the challenge. All those norms were washed away with the rain. The main talking point was John Mousinho’s challenge on James Norwood, it looked untidy, though Norwood took an age to go down. Could the referee definitively say that the mess was created by Mousinho, by Norwood or by the conditions?

Tactically there was no provision for the conditions. On Saturday against Rotherham there were clear tactical patterns and intent, on Tuesday it was impossible to know what each team was trying to do or whether there was any attempt to adapt their plans to suit.

On paper, the game was a key promotion match-up, with both teams’ season on a knife edge. In normal conditions, the fixture could have given some signals about the direction both teams were heading. Ipswich had just ended a run of 12 games without a win, we’d suffered two defeats on the bounce. Was their performance a sign of recovery? No idea. Was our performance a sign of decline? No idea. Did Nathan Holland seem quiet? No idea. Was Simon Eastwood rusty? No idea.

The conditions removed any capacity for informed decision making and the game descended into park football. Afterwards, Nick Harris claimed we eventually got ‘a decent game of football’. A game of football? Yes. Decent? Less so.

With the conditions dictating more than any individual could, once the game became playable, the first half became a long meaningless meander. In the second-half, we emerged with half a plan – with the swirling wind and wet pitch, the idea to shoot at every opportunity was a sensible one, but eventually even that petered out as the players were battered by the conditions. What could have been a significant and entertaining game simply descended from farce to non-event, by the time the final whistle came everyone just seemed happy for it to be over.

Karl Robinson came to terms with what was going on much faster than Paul Lambert. At one point there was a disputed throw-in, Lambert was apoplectic – a default for him – Robinson walked over smiling, grabbing him as if to remind him to stop applying normal rules to abnormal conditions. Robinson, the hyperbolic gobshite calming the cosmopolitan sophisticat, Champions League winner and former Premier League manager Lambert? It was that kind of night.   

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Rotherham United 3

It’s funny how a pair of slim fitting trousers and a nice new stadium can influence your perception of a club. I always had Paul Warne and Rotherham down as a progressive bolthole, someone for us to aspire to being like. As is patently obvious, I don’t follow the fortunes of other teams that closely, I’d read about our clash of styles and their reliance on set plays but I was still surprised at their sheer physical presence on Saturday. I had to look it up; on average we conceded nearly 4cm in height per player.

Matt Crooks, their number 17, was case in point. Officially standing at 6 ft 3 inches (but looking bigger) you’d expect him to be in the centre of defence, or attack, or in goal, not in the centre of midfield towering over Cameron Brannagan. It was like a stunt you see in the Conference, where physical freaks are played in unusual positions to flummox the opposition.

This wasn’t anti-football though, Crooks can play as could the others, it was a souped-up version what we have seen previously from promotion winning teams at this level – physical, direct, organised. Unusually physical, but not a total abomination. It wasn’t complicated, but it was overwhelmingly efficient. There was a lot of talk about our failings, but much less about how good they were, it was as close as we’ve seen to a title winning side as anyone this season.

They double-teamed constantly, attacked with pace and aggression and when they didn’t have the ball, they expanded to make it impossible to get around them. Conceding early was only part of the story, the physical mismatch meant we were playing two teams – the actual team and the team that was in our heads. That’s what happens with bullying; it goes beyond the physical.

As a result, we were less committed in the tackle, less assured in the passing, less vociferous with the referee. Generally, the confidence drained out of us and there was nobody able to take control of the situation.

It was all done and dusted by half-time, so the post-mortem was a long one. Did Karl Robinson make the wrong selections? I could see the logic of keeping the same core side as we’ve had all season. Jamie Mackie was the more obvious selection in a physical match-up. Simon Eastwood looked understandably rusty and Cameron Brannagan was out of sorts, but the thinking was sound and that’s all I ask.

3-0 down at half-time, Karl Robinson did exactly the right thing, rather than trying to play them at their game, we played them at a completely different one. Mark Sykes was the only player in the first half that looked like he was getting any joy, so pace was clearly something that they would struggle with. We doused them with it with the introduction of Browne and Holland and suddenly they looked a little more human. The result was a reassuring display which occasionally teetered on a comeback. Had Matty Taylor put away his one-on-one and the referee been a fractionally less inconsistent we may even have scraped an unlikely point. In Rotherham we may actually be watching the title winners, but we’re not done yet for promotion or the play-offs.  

The other positive is that it’s out of the way and that future threats we face are more obvious. When the Rotherham fans were singing about being top of the league, I had to look it up; they’ve arrived at the top by stealth. Like League 1 is a Trojan horse; Wycombe were supposed to be the physical industrial unit that were streaking to the title, suddenly they collapse and there’s a new threat. We just happen to be the first team to properly face it. We knew they were good; I think we were surprised at just how good. 

What comes next is no less straight forward, but at least we know that. Our League Cup run benefitted from players like Sam Long and Elliot Moore, straight forward percentage players who wouldn’t leave us vulnerable when faced with quality. Games against Ipswich, Sunderland and Portsmouth may be more like League Cup ties than some of our more swashbuckling League displays of earlier in the season, but, let’s face it, that served us OK.

George Lawrences Shorts: The Kitching sink

Saturday 4 January 2020

Oxford cruised into the fourth round of the FA Cup with a 4-1 win over Hartlepool. After eight minutes, sulky sixth former Rob Dickie scuffed a backpass like he was kicking a stone after arguing with his mum which allowed Hartlepool’s Mark Kitching to nip in to score. After that, it was The Shandon the Baptiste Show who invented more new angles than a Daily Mail columnist racially bating Meghan Markle. Baptiste then weaved through the Hartlepool defence and half of next week’s Rotherham line-up to score our second. 

Sunday 5 January 2020

With Charlie Methven hanging up his suede moccasins last month, lonely Sunderland doe-eyed cash puppy Stewart Donald was seen looking lovingly at Oxford’s FA Cup win over Hartlepool rather than supporting his own team in their game against Lincoln. Donald recently bowed to the demands of entitled Mackems and put his club up for sale

Elsewhere, round the clock football website: Football 365 thinks Tariqe Fosu is ready for the Premier League. He will, just two promotions to negotiate first.

Monday 6 January 2020

There was more fondling of velvet ball bags on Monday as the FA Cup draw was made. Oxford will make the trip to Rochdale or Sports Direct’s flagship football club Newcastle United. Like zero hours Sports Direct factory workers seeing how many of their oversized mugs they can stack – it’s a big cup game.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

* cue: A Team theme tune *

In 2020, a crack football manager was banned from the touchline by a FA Tribunal for a crime he didn’t commit. This man promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Oxford underground. Today, still wanted by the FA he survives as a manager of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….maybe you can hire The KRob-Team.

At the same time, Hartlepool’s Gime Toure has been given a three match ban after decking sulky sixth former Rob Dickie on Saturday behind the ref’s back.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Holland and Kelly is a local friendly High Street estate agents in the town where GLS lives. Their attentive nature and unparalleled local knowledge is invaluable when we are looking at houses we can’t afford and have no intention of buying but need to waste time before the pub opens.

So, we were pretty surprised when its founders Nathan Holland and Liam Kelly signed for Oxford on loan, there’s a six bedroom town house on Arcacia Avenue we wanted to look around.

Thursday 9 January 2020

I mean, we’re not pretending it was an edifying sight, but Thursday saw KRob, buoyed by even more signings of Marcus Browne and Rob Atkinson, moonwalking into Radio Oxford giving flirtatious ‘call-me’ signs to the receptionist for the 5 Minute 48 Second Fans Forum.

In it, he confirmed that he didn’t expect Matty Taylor or Cameron Brannagan to go in the transfer window, but did suggest that Leeds have an interest in another player.

Friday 10 January 2020

It’s Rotherham tomorrow; ah, the tradition of football – the end of the working week, 3pm kick-offs, the smell of Bovril in the stands, yet another 1500 word essay on how Christophe Wilde dragged himself up by the bootstraps. The cosmopolitan sophisticate has just signed a new contract at Sheffield United.

Midweek fixture: Absolute state of Oxford United survey – summer results review

Back in July I ran a survey to see what people thought about the state of Oxford United. You can see the results here and here. There’s another, shorter, mid-season survey currently running here, if you want to take part. There were two reasons for the survey; to track progress over time and to provide benchmarks against which we can monitor our performance.  

We’re just past the halfway point in the season; so it seems opportune to review how we’re doing against the benchmarks we set ourselves in the summer.  

Overall

In the league, pre-season predictions were that we’d finish between 8th and 10th, so our current 4th position is polling higher than we’d expected. Just 1.1% of you thought we finish 4th, 1.9% higher, the rest lower. 

It probably goes without saying that we’re out-performing in the cups; over half expected us to make only the 2nd Round of the League Cup, so our quarter-final spot was some way in advance of that. 3.7% thought we’d reach that far, with 1.3% of people thinking we’d go further.

In the FA Cup,  49% expected us to make the third round of the FA Cup so we’ve already beaten that. 17% thought we would make the 4th Round. About 3% thought we’d go further.

So, on that basis – we’re higher in the League than 97% of you thought we’d be, we’ve gone further in the League Cup than 95% thought and in the FA Cup further than 80% predicted. Not bad.

The league pre-season favourites were Portsmouth who are 10th, one place behind Sunderland – who were predicted to finish third. Ipswich were predicted to be 2nd but are currently 5th. The biggest surprise of the lot, of course, is Wycombe who are top despite a pre-season prediction they’d finish 23rd.

Wycombe aside, those at the bottom were largely predicted – everyone knew Bury were in trouble and Bolton’s problems were well known. Rochdale were expected to finish 21st, but are currently 18th. Sol Campbell’s Southend were predicted 17th and are currently 22nd.

Board

Board predictions focussed on winding up orders so it’s good to see no more have materialised. Some predicted a change of chairman, but that hasn’t happened and while Stewart Donald may be trying to extract himself at Sunderland, it seems the prospect of him coming to Oxford are remote.

Firoz Kassam featured in a number of predictions, but he’s been notably quiet in recent months. On the other hand, the prediction that Eric Thohir would leave after being a damp squib turned out to be true. Overall, predictions of instability have not materialised.

Stadium

All sorts of things were predicted of the stadium, but despite some positive noises from the board, we appear to be largely where we were six months ago. The training ground, which nobody talked about, is probably the most important development in that area.

Manager

Predictions that Karl Robinson wouldn’t make it until October or would be sacked by Christmas haven’t happened. Some pleaded that he’ll get some credit, and that does seem to have happened, though he’s yet to be given the freedom of the city. He did sign a player he’s worked with before – Tariqe Fosu, he hasn’t punched a fourth official (but has come close), he has blamed the referee on a number of occasions. Derek Fazackerly has not announced his retirement.

Players

We’ve yet to see whether Cameron Brannagan, Rob Dickie or Mark Sykes will go in January. Recruitment has definitely improved, our top scorer isn’t a loan player, but Matty Taylor is in second. Top scorer James Henry is on track to grab 20 goals. Predictions that we won’t have enough firepower up front at the start of the season or that we’ll sign a striker who’s rubbish don’t seem to have happened. The idea that we’d concede too many goals because we haven’t replaced Curtis Nelson, again seemed baseless.

It was predicted that we’d sign loan players who would return in January, Chris Cadden fits the bill there, and we have had an injury crisis for no obvious reason.

Gavin Whyte didn’t go in January for £5m, he went for £2m in August it also means he won’t end as top scorer. Someone predicted that Rob Hall wouldn’t play more than 10 games, which he has, albeit mostly in cup competitions.

Results

There was no consensus about how things would go on the pitch, so we’ve been everything and nothing that anyone has predicted. It has been exciting rather than disappointing. We haven’t had a points deduction and Christmas was not in any way a poor one. We also won during an international break (against Doncaster) and we didn’t beat Sunderland away.

And other things…

Moaning has been largely absent this season, we won’t draw Swindon in a cup competition and Jim Smith, Womble and John Shuker are all Oxford legends that have passed away – a sadly accurate prediction from someone. I haven’t seen any dogs on the pitch and, as far as I know Ollie and Olivia Ox haven’t had a baby called Oswald.