Match wrap – Bristol Rovers 1 Oxford United 0

My dad doesn’t go to games anymore, he follows Oxford from home. His separation from the actual game often gives him a two-dimensional perspective stripped of nuance, but there are times when the distance gives him an objectivity you can’t get from being immersed in the spectacle. 

If Chris Wilder left James Constable out of the starting eleven, he’d point out that regardless of the specifics of Constable’s form – which he couldn’t know about from his living room – he always scored goals. It’s not a deep insight, but it was true, while his performances ebbed and flowed, a goal was never far away. 

When I phoned him after I got back from holiday this week, he asked if I’d followed the games against Cambridge and Swansea as though I’d been trekking in Nepal with nothing more than a long wave radio and the scantest contact with civilisation.

‘They’ll start selling tickets just for the 93rd minute’ I joked. 

‘Hmm, it doesn’t always work like that.’ He deadpanned back as though this might be a realistic proposition. This is the downside of a stay-at-home fan, the badinage can be a bit stilted.

He’s right; it doesn’t always work like that and the sobering defeat to Bristol Rovers highlighted the fortunate nature of both Tyler Goodrham’s goal against Cambridge and Cameron Brannagan’s against Swansea. 

The euphoria of those goals have helped mask some flat performances, it’s reasonable to say that they could easily have turned out differently. Conversely, I don’t think we can say the same about the games we’ve lost – we didn’t really do enough against Derby or Rovers to win those games. We could have been looking at a point and a cup defeat rather than three and the visit of Crystal Palace. 

Now is not the time to panic; signings came late and we know Karl Robinson tends to build momentum rather than fire out of the blocks at 100 mph. But we’re already four points behind where we were this time last season and we ended up seven short of the play-offs last year. By that crude measure, somewhere we’ve got to find eleven more points.

If that sounds unnecessarily alarmist, it is. It’s unnecessary, rather than alarmist. It’s too early for big statements, but I don’t know where those points will come from. Last season was an easier start, this year Wycombe, Barnsley and MK Dons are all in a similar position to us or worse, and we’re expecting them to come good. We’re only three games in and no team in the division has a perfect record, which shows just how inconsistent and competitive it can be. 

There were moments against Rovers when we could have snatched something, perhaps even a win. We withered in the heat but looked good for twenty minutes. But these were only moments, and this is not exactly an unfamiliar pattern. For several seasons we’ve claimed we’ll get our business done early then signed players late, started slowly and gained pace, while the fightback is thrilling and memorable, the truth is that with this approach we’ve always fallen just short. 

If the objective this year is to get promoted, and I’m not convinced the club is all-in with that idea, then it’s surely reasonable to ask why isn’t this pattern isn’t being addressed? Is a slow start priced in? Are we being too picky with the players we pursue? Is our recruitment too sluggish? Are things being changed and still not working? 

While we look a stronger physical unit this season, it should be no surprise that we’ll face teams like Bristol Rovers who are set up not to fail. These are the teams we’ve always struggled against. If anything, given the quality of some of the bigger clubs and the success of Wycombe in recent seasons, we have to expect more physical, well organised teams, not less. It can be a successful strategy for not only for staying in the division, but even going up against the odds. And yet, it still comes as a surprise when teams play like that.

There’s a concept called the Icarus Paradox, where your strengths become your weaknesses. You over-invest in your strengths because that’s where you get instant rewards, while your weaknesses grow unaddressed like a dry rot, deep in the foundations of your organisation. 

Robinson’s investment in and commitment to the Oxford project is undeniable, he feels it very deeply, but there is a point where underlying blind spots – the loss of objectivity, the lack of pragmatism – stop being lovable quirks. It’s not unique to Robinson, everyone has the same problem. Some, like Michael Appleton, get out before they become too apparent while others, like Chris Wilder stay just a bit too long and their achievements become tainted. There’s no doubt that Karl Robinson is edging closer to that point and if the turnaround is slow, then the pressure will grow.

The good news is that in a week, things could easily look significantly better, both Lincoln and Morecambe at home are winnable and if we catch Crystal Palace off their guard, we could be in for a memorable night. It’s either a critical week or an excellent opportunity, depending on your perspective. 

Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Swansea City 2 (Oxford win 5-3 on penalties)

I came to bury the League Cup, not to praise it… 

The dappled half-light of Lake Garda was too much of a draw to plug into iFollow. When I saw the team to play Swansea last night, it confirmed that if Karl Robinson doesn’t care for the tournament, then neither should I.

The League Cup is our competition, it made our name, it gave us our history and saved us in ways we often miss. Had Jim Smith not been able to use it as a catapult towards the big league in the 1980s, would he have retuned in 2006 to help wrestle the club from Firoz Kassam? I doubt it. Would we have sustained decent crowds in The Conference? Probably not. Without the League Cup, I suspect our history would be very different. 

But it’s changed; you can resist it and deny it, but it has. Its original purpose was to give additional commercial opportunities to impoverished clubs between the start of the season and the start of the FA Cup. It served a purpose, it added value, with a rare trip to Wembley for the finalists, there was prestige. Now it gets in the way, the early rounds are little more than a pre-season friendly after the season starts.

You had to have patience to enjoy it; it wasn’t the explosive knock-out of the FA Cup. Games would be over two legs often weeks apart, in later rounds there would be replays and second replays, now there isn’t even extra-time. The manager’s ultimate objective seems to play the least-best team to get by; an eternal game of one-downsmanship. The only next step is to deliberately lose. That’s a big step, but if you don’t care about winning, then losing isn’t such a big thing. 

Boris Johnson was right about one thing, but only one, the herd instinct is strong; and the herd has moved on from the League Cup. When I checked my phone after 25 minutes and we were two down, I’d moved on too. It was time to declare it meaningless. 

Mountains and lakes have a funny way of giving you a perspective of what’s important and what isn’t. I wondered why we’re bothering to flog this dead duck, when you’re the smaller team and playing at home, and you’re still making eight changes, it’s clear how important it really is.

There were people perambulating along the lake, a few children jumping off the jetty and goups of young, tanned, beautiful Germans and Italians sitting on the grass as my phone announced that Alex Gorrin had pulled one back. If it had meaning in the confides of the Kassam Stadium, apart from it’s great to see him back playing, it didn’t reach the province of Trentino. 

We were back in our apartment as the game drew to a close, I tapped refresh to get confirmation that it was over when suddenly, there it was, Brannagan. Goal. Isn’t that just typical?

Penalties came thick and fast, if you follow both Oxford Mail and the official account on Twitter, then everything is double-time and sometimes out of sequence. Green tick emojis invaded my timeline, everyone was converting their spot kicks, then a red cross, McGinty saves. For the second game running, the hero appears from a file marked ‘Ones For The Future’. They seem to be for the now.

And, as if pre-scipted, here’s Cameron Brannagan to finish the job. Brannagan’s like Paul McCartney; others battle away playing their best songs, then Brannagan takes to the stage, breaks out Hey Jude and brings the house down. 

As the ball hits the net, it all means something again, the mechanics of the tie – two goals down, a fortuitous first, a last minute equaliser, a win on penalties against a Championship side – mirrors our 2019 win over Millwall; the last first round game in front of a crowd at The Kassam. That enabled a 4-0 win over West Ham, a breathtaking sweep of Sunderland and a full-house quarter-final against Manchester City. Maybe this thing does still have meaning, you just need a little more patience to enjoy it.

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Cambridge United 0

As the clock ticked into injury time on Saturday, I tried to console myself that at least I’d achieved a lifetime ambition of seeing Oxford United play in Europe. A biblical storm had been brewing around our Italian holiday apartment, so with kick-off approaching, we found a fertile wifi spot and fired up iFollow.

The storm, which belched out foreboding rumbles for at least an hour before it finally unleashed its full force seemed strangely analogous of the action being squirted down the recently installed super-fast, and ultimately shaky, fibre. Something was threatening, but it never quite arrived.

It had been a busy week, after the defeat to Derby I was at Wembley watching England’s women win the Euros. The reward of a rare moment of prescience on my part. A year ago, I decided there was little to lose from filling my boots with tickets for group games at Stadium MK, the semi-final between Germany and France and Sunday’s final at Wembley.

I loved it; my whole experience of the tournament, and of the women’s game more generally, reminded me of a study done by former Oxford United director Desmond Morris of football Oxford fans in the 1980s. His observations, which became the book The Soccer Tribe, had led him to conclude that football should remain a primal, combative and explicitly male game. Attempts to modernise – there was growing pressure because of financial problems and hooliganism – to make it more family friendly, less aggressive and more inclusive, he felt, would kill its core value.

I see that, if you over-sanitise football it becomes very boring. It needs a competitive edge. But, as Robyn Cowan pointed out on the Guardian Weekly podcast, nobody booed the German national anthem, nobody stuck a firework up their backside, nobody was arrested at Wembley or in Trafalgar Square. There were plenty of German fans around us, nobody made a single derogatory comment about them, spoke in a funny German accent or mentioned the war. I don’t remember anyone swearing (apart from Jill Scott, but we didn’t know that until we saw Twitter). My daughter habitually joins in with any football song regardless of the language being used, if people don’t call the referee a cunt, then neither will she. That must be a good thing.

And yet, the final still had edge, needle and tension. I know this because when the Germans equalised my immediate reaction was to disown the whole thing as a pointless façade and resist the urge to go home, which is the same feeling I had after Ryan Clarke dropped the ball into his own net at Wembley in 2010.  

It turns out that many accepted football norms; aggression, abuse, xenophobia, racism, are a choice and not priced into what makes the game great. Sunday showed that and Desmond Morris was wrong; football can offer all its glories without the primal baggage he believed fuelled it. He just didn’t have the imagination to see things differently.

The preceding 92 minutes on Saturday had been an extension of what happened at Derby. We looked solid and able to withstand a well organised and robust Cambridge side, but we failed to bridge the gap between strong and threatening.

There’s a line from the book Inverting the Pyramid that always stuck with me; fans want teams to win, managers want teams to avoid losing. Their job is so precarious, they become naturally conservative in the way they operate. If you listen to the BBC podcast, The Moment of Truth, about us and Rotherham last season, you’ll get a sense of the fear of failure that Karl Robinson has. How consumed he becomes about letting people down. There’s a risk that by addressing our weaknesses we supress our strengths, there have been some signs of that this season, we look more solid, but chances have been at a premium and Matt Taylor has been relatively anonymous as a result. 

I’m torn by the view that England’s success last week was ‘football coming home’; a lament about breaking a long sequence of failure. Yes, the women’s success sits alongside the men’s success, but theirs wasn’t burdened by that history of failure. Theirs is a re-imagining of the game, the righting of a ludicrous decision to ban the women’s game in 1921, to persevere and succeed against a tide of people who believed they didn’t deserve it. It’s justice and the right to be judged as elite athletes not as women playing a man’s sport. It’s all success.

So, with injury time approaching, it took a player also without a burden of history and expectation to pick the ball up on the left and see what he could do. Tyler Goodrham wasn’t weighed down by the expectation the play-offs or by defending any personal reputation. The point we were defending didn’t mean anything to him. He’s just a young player who wants to prove himself. He has everything to gain and little to lose. In a few years maybe he’ll cut that ball back or try to find a more reliable and sensible route to goal. I hope not. 

Not this time, he danced through the Cambridge defence, defying logic and team instructions, taking a risk to score a goal. Sometimes we have to reimagine history and play without fear of judgement to succeed.

We needed that, Tuesday’s game against Swansea and an always tricky game at Bristol Rovers could have seen us staring at a crisis of confidence four games into the season. As Goodrham wheeled away, he was consumed by the rest of the team, a great suffocating pile-on in front of the South Stand. From down the touchline appeared the manager body slamming all of them into the turf. The weight of a football club on top of one teenager. Some might see that as that as an analogy for his future. But maybe now is not that time.

Match wrap – Derby County 1 Oxford United 0

League football in July is not really my scene, it’s too early. Granted, every season has to start somewhere, but it feels disjointed and unfinished; holidays disrupt the rhythm of going to games, squads are incomplete and sub-optimised and results have no context. It’s like buying a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle from a charity shop, it’s daunting and you don’t know if you have all the pieces to complete it anyway. 

Although Derby was high on my list of away-days from the off, when it came out as the first game of the season, I was disappointed. Normally, I’d give an opening day 200-mile round trip a miss, I’m not so engulfed in a frothing unquenchable desire for ‘The Football’ to make the effort. 

But Derby versus Oxford is a family derby, my aunt and uncle are season ticket holders at Pride Park, we’re practically the Maxwells. The lockdowns mean we haven’t seen each other for years, so it was a rare opportunity to catch up, exchange news and gossip and compare notes about our football clubs. They even have a very convenient gym membership at the David Lloyd centre ten minutes from the ground, so we could benefit from the ample parking and pleasant bar area pre-match. I even had my nails done in the spa (I didn’t, but I could have done). Based on our experience, if Oxford can’t benefit economically and socially from a stadium development offering something similar, then there’s something deeply wrong.

I’d obviously been aware of Derby’s plight – financial collapse, mismanagement, skulduggery, administration, points deductions, relegation, then last minute deals, recovery, new players and a new dawn – but I hadn’t appreciated fully the damage it did along the way.

My aunt and uncle looked vaguely haunted, the collective wisdom of Twitter had suggested Derby had risen like Lazarus, ready to storm the division, but that wasn’t the impression I got. It’d been suggested they’ll run away with the division, but the more we spoke, the less convincing that seemed. They didn’t know the players, season tickets were distributed a week before the season started, there’s no payment plan in place, the kit has just been announced and has no sponsor, it won’t be available to fans until the autumn. They’d played three pre-season games, had four players at their first training pre-season session. I noticed later the lack of backroom staff warming the players up, unlike the larger clubs in the division, where each player seems to have his own coquetry of fitness coaches, tactical advisors and zen masters.

By comparison, we seem a model of stability. Leon Blackmore-Such, Amy Cranston, Wayne Brown, the little fitness guy who dishes out the Lucozade sport. Different kit, same people. We even wore alternative yellow shorts and socks which won’t be available in the club shop, which is exactly how it should be for a proper club.

They’d been saved, and for that they were relieved, but at what cost? There are many legal and financial hurdles to negotiate. How deep is the iceberg? How rotten is the core? How emotionally exhausted is everyone involved? Perhaps we did have a chance.

When we got into the stadium, the atmosphere was wild, Oxford fans as noisy and colourful as I can ever remember. Over 30,000 fans and this is lower league football. It’s easy to forget that we’ve become the patrons of the division, only Shrewsbury and Fleetwood have been in League One longer than us. We pick at the minutiae, but we were loud and confident, not a little team on a big day out, but a club comfortable with who it is, used to this kind of thing, readying itself for more. 

It was difficult to hear beyond our own noise, but Derby fans seemed subdued, perhaps happy just to be there, feeling slightly uncomfortable – not sure about the division they were in or even their own players – like buying a pair of new shoes, where they feel like they’re wearing you rather than the other way around.

On the field, we looked like we’d shed our notorious flimsiness, no more elfin wingers like Sykes, Whyte and Holland being bullied to the margins. McGuane prowled the midfield with menace, Browne strong, probing and mobile, Finlay assured, and of course, the recently anointed religious artifact, Brannagan, buzzing around with a confident maturity tying it all together.

But we didn’t seem to know what to do with this new-found muscle. Like a steroid filled, balloon-armed gym obsessive unable to apply their strength to anything but posturing in front of other steroid filled, balloon-armed gym obsessives. We wouldn’t be bullied, but how do we win games like this?

Understandably, they too seemed unsure and for all the spectacle, the game seemed to meander without purpose, punctuated only with half-chances. Perhaps we were just all too happy to go through the motions, still a bit pre-season-ey – perhaps if we’d taken some more risks, we could have rattled them.

The game drifted beyond half-time and into the last half-an-hour and we moved into a phase of which the science is still to be established; how to use your five substitutes. It’s a completely different dynamic when you can replace half you team.

Derby manager, Liam Rosenior, moved first throwing on Louie Sibley. Almost instantly, the dynamic changed, Sibley’s movement started to stretch us. A defensive muddle gave them the first real opening, but they were denied by a heroic goal-line clearance from Brannagan. Who else?

Karl Robinson was unmoved, even as we wobbled he seemed unwilling to make a change. Now their fans were making the noise, maybe a sign that it was time for us to manage the game into submission. But, even if we were trying to do that, we didn’t seem to be able to grasp it.

Eventually, Murphy and Gorrin were introduced. Gorrin will need games after a long lay-off, Murphy’s movement suggested he could have an impact, but the connections weren’t there, we didn’t know the runs he’d be making. 

Momentum was against us, we continued to wobble and backed off as Hourihane advanced on the edge of the box and let fly. A shot, a novel idea in an afternoon characterised by graft rather than craft. It was worth a try I suppose, the ball nestled in the bottom corner for 1-0. Cue: goal music.

We never really looked like getting back, with seven minutes added on, there was just enough time to enjoy the pantomime of sending Eastwood up and Brown on for a desperate last minute free-kick and us comically knocking the ball along our goalkeeperless back line before the referee brought the game to an end.

The whistle went, a cathartic roar filled the stadium, it was their moment and I don’t begrudge them it at all. But, based on our experience of League One promotion hopefuls, there’s work to do, they’re not the finished article but then, neither are we. 

Oxblogger’s Oxford United Survey 2022 – Predictions

It’s not even August and we’re ready for the off. I suppose it’s important that we’re all inconvenienced so that Sepp Blatter can buy a spare helicopter and the Qatari government can pretend they’re a beacon of humanity for a few weeks in November.

In the Oxblogger Oxford United Survey 2022, your predictions for the season are a mixed bag. You’re reasonably confident we’ll be at the right end of the table come May, but less confident that we’ll find the last few percentages that’ll get us over the line. All-in-all, it looks set to be an intriguing season.

League

How to summarise where you think we’ll finish? Unequivocally indecisive? Optimistically pessimistic? If we finish in the automatic promotion positions, it will be at the bottom and if we finish in the play-offs we’ll be bottom of those as well.

Last year’s votes were similar, second, fifth or sixth, but not first or third. Last year, the largest vote went to second place, this year, that’s dropped to fifth with sixth creeping up not far behind. A big drop in optimism. However, there was also a strong showing last year for eighth – outside the play-offs – and even votes for fifteenth. It seems we’re much more confident in reaching the play-offs, and more confident that we’ll avoid complete failure, but we’re less confident that we’re amongst the very best.

An odd dynamic, to be sure, but perhaps a converging of the realists and the optimists into a single view.

Prediction Table

TopBottomDifference
1Sheffield Wednesday29.5%0.7%28.8%
2Derby County26.8%3.4%23.4%
3Ipswich Town20.8%20.8%
4Peterborough United5.4%5.4%
5Barnsley6.0%0.7%5.3%
6MK Dons4.0%4.0%
7Bolton Wanderers2.7%2.7%
=7Oxford United2.7%2.7%
9Plymouth Argyle0.7%0.7%
10Accrington Stanley
=10Charlton Athletic
=10Portsmouth
13Wycombe Wanderers1.3%2.7%-1.4%
=13Cambridge United1.4%-1.4%
15Shrewsbury Town2.0%-2.0%
=15Bristol Rovers2.0%-2.0%
17Burton Albion2.7%-2.7%
=17Cheltenham Town2.7%-2.7%
19Lincoln City3.4%-3.4%
20Exeter City6.1%-6.1%
21Port Vale12.9%-12.9%
22Fleetwood Town13.6%-13.6%
23Forest Green15.6%-15.6%
24Morecambe29.9%-29.9%

The prediction table shows the challenge, and perhaps the reason for the loss of confidence. Last year there was a clear us and them, this year there’s them, us and them. Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and Ipswich Town are considered the biggest bears. There are five or six – including us – who will fight it out for the remaining play-off spots with everyone else falling behind. One of the interesting things are the lost teams of the division – Charlton, Portsmouth and Accrington who nobody considers worthy of either promotion or relegation. Charlton and Portsmouth, in particular, would surely expect more?

FA Cup

We’re a little less optimistic about our FA Cup prospects with nearly 75% of people think we’ll progress to the third round or beyond. Last year that number was 77%, so not much in it.

League Cup

Similarly our optimism in the League Cup is falling away, 16% said we’d make it beyond the third round compared to around 30% last season.

Manager

You predict a pivotal year for Karl Robinson. There may be calls for his head if we start poorly, a consequence of his struggles bedding players into the Oxford way. One of you expects him to square up to Wayne Rooney, which will be a surprise to all of us.

Quite a few expect Robinson to leave, perhaps as early as Christmas, but maybe later, if we don’t go up. Rest assured, he won’t leave before buying some wingers or taking offence at the opinion of Steve Kinniburgh.

Performances

We’ll start the season with a 5-game losing streak (or, win 16 out of the first 18 points available) we’ll need to toughen up because we don’t have enough defenders. But we’ll beat Derby away and remain unbeaten at home even though we lose in the play-offs (or go up automatically). Alternatively, we’ll start well and end well and score set piece goals which will propel us to challenge for automatic promotion.

Along the way, we’ll beat Bristol Rovers twice and a Premier League club in the cup (maybe Manchester United). Derby will implode and suffer a points deductions, we’ll have a bad December and lose Cameron Brannagan in January (hmm?) before pulling it around in the spring. Rollercoaster.

Players

When it comes to players, Cameron Brannagan will stay or go by August or January to Bristol City, but not before scoring five penalties in a game.

Matty Taylor will score 20 goals (or not break into double figures), with him and Baldock scoring 30 goals between them by Christmas. Baldock will be top scorer and claim the golden boot.

We’ll re-sign Chey Dunkley, Gavin Whyte and either Tariq Fosu or Shandon Baptiste on loan, and Marcus Browne will fulfil his potential.

James Golding, Gatlin O’Donker and Tyler Goodrham will establish themselves in the first team squad but we won’t sign enough proper full backs or wing backs or defensive minded physical players. Of those we do, one will be an Irish prospect.

There will be a marquee signing that no one expected (Josh Murphy?) and Alex Gorrin need to be sent off at least once, we may even sign a defender – I’m guessing that could be Stuart Finlay.

Stadium

Our new owners will finally be confirmed which will lead to the stadium being approved. It may also not happen with someone lodging a legal objection against the Stratfield Brake proposal, possibly from Kidlington Parish Council, NIMBYs or environmentalists. One punter thinks we’ll sign a long term extension with the Kassam Stadium and may even be given an offer to buy it by Uncle Firoz.

Other

In other news; as well as there being a dog on pitch, we’ll have a red third kit and clash despite having 37 kit combinations to choose from. One of you expects us to have to change our shirts at half-time due to a clash, or to borrow another team’s shirt. I am here for all this stuff.

Stevie Kinniburgh will get really angry about a player nobody else is bothered about about, the SLO might speak to other fans (is this a thing?) and the queue for a drink in the bowling alley will reach Grenoble Road. Pretty standard, really.

Obviously someone on Sky Sports will call us Oxford City and, getting back to the World Cup, we’ll suffer one of our lowest ever attendances during the tournament.

Wishes

In terms of what you wanted out of this season, there were lots of things, but four very clean themes:

Promotion
A new stadium
Cameron Brannagan staying 
A decent defence

You don’t want much, do you? Good luck everyone.

Oxblogger’s Oxford United Survey 2022 – Ratings

Is Karl Robinson on the brink? Not really. The results of the Oxblogger Oxford United Survey show that the club is in a good place with solid results in all areas. But, there’s a but. There are signs that the improvements are slowing. That might just be because as ratings get higher, it’s harder to get the top marks; it’s relatively easy to move from, say, a four to 4.5, but very difficult to go from 9.5 to 10 because few people are going to describe something as perfect. But, it might also be that people are gradually losing patience and want to see promotion. Either way, it does feel like we’re approaching a pivotal season. This is part 1 of the results from the survey, next week I’ll do part 2 – predictions for the season ahead.

Overall

The overall mood has dropped since Christmas, when we were in the play-offs and seemingly heading for promotion. However, the overall picture remains pretty static compared to this time last year. Last year the overall rating was 8 out of 10, this year it’s 8.1 or, more specifically, 8.06.

My view is that we’re now in nearing a perfect equilibrium, balancing the literal – we’ve gone backwards because we’ve gone from the play-off final to semi-final to missing out – with the comparative; we’re as good, maybe better, but the opposition has become tougher. These two forces are cancelling each other out at the moment. My guess is that eight out of ten is close to the highest rating we’ll see now without promotion. That means the only way is down, which means the pressure will begin to ramp up.

This shows the distribution of rating this year. the spikiness of the curve is important because it shows the level of consensus amongst fans. This seems to show that we’re all in agreement as to our current mood with nearly half of people rating us eight out of ten. What it doesn’t explain is why people feel like that, for that we might need to look elsewhere for clues.

Manager

Karl Robinson’s rating has gone down from this time last year, but again by a tiny margin. There’s an obvious calming of the wave over the last eighteen months suggesting we are satisfied with his performance. We’re not on a rollercoaster ride of delight and disappointment. Looking back to 2019 and the first survey, when he was rated by 6.1 out of ten, this year’s rating of 8.2 shows a strong upward trajectory. But, again, have we become a bit spoilt and is patience running out?

The distribution might give us more evidence of the mood around the place; there’s a strong consensus that Robinson is an objectively good manager – there’s little to suggest any movement towards wanting him to be replaced. But there’s a bit of indecision creeping in; is he an eight or a nine? Compared to last year’s curve, there is a slight shift to the left showing a very gradual loss of confidence. It’s not a trend yet, but worth keeping an eye on.

Squad

Is the issue the manager? Compared to last year, the quality of the squad has increased, but they consistently rate a whole point lower than Robinson. The other thing to note is that the line is still quite wavy, unlike in other areas, it still doesn’t appear we have total confidence in how the squad is progressing. Although good business, the sale of Luke McNally after just thirty-three games probably illustrates that we’re still quite vulnerable in terms of fluctuations in the squad’s quality.

There will be those who will blame Robinson for that, he either signs the wrong players or doesn’t sign enough of them. Most likely, any problems are systemic, a combination of finding the right players, having the money to sign them, for those players to perform to their potential, plus the economics of needing to sell players to keep the show on the road.

Consensus about the quality of the squad his strong, over half gave them the rating seven out of ten. I wouldn’t normally look at the outliers; the lunatics rating the manager or players ten out of ten, or who think of them as perfect – but it might be relevant. Only 1% of you rate the squad as perfect, but 10% think Robinson is. So, is it that confidence in Robinson is wobbling or confidence in the squad? This would suggest the latter.

Board

The board have enjoyed a significant improvement in their rating from the doldrums of 4.9 in 2019. As elsewhere, the rating has improved very slightly since this time last year, but broadly flatlined. This seems a bit odd to me, the downtime and a lack of activity in the transfer market might explain why the summer tends to poll lower than Christmas, but the investment in the training ground and, more importantly, the tangible progress made with the stadium doesn’t seem to have filtered through to the ratings.

This is reflected in the distribution of ratings – a relatively high 5% rate the board as only five out of ten as well as the longish tail of low scores you don’t see in other questions. The bulbousness of the bell seems to reflect a degree of uncertainty. Despite the progress with the stadium, its future is still not certain and that might be a factor. Is there a distrust because they’re not British? That might be simple xenophobia, but there’s a valid argument to suggest that one of the issues with foreign owners is that you can’t be absolutely certain that they have the emotional attachment to the club to keep going when things are tricky. The owners seem committed to long term investment, but will it be sustained if, for example, the stadium situation drags on. Another clue may be in one of the comments that was left; we still don’t officially know who owns the club, and that is taking a long time to resolve.

There’s a clear appreciation of what the owners have done for the club, but there is a detachment that they probably need to keep an eye on. Poor results, a lack of signings or a stalling of progress on the stadium could see fans start to turn.

Relationship

The slight (and it is only slight) uncertainty around the club seems to reflect in the relationship with the club has with the fans. There is a slight improvement on last year and not that big a drop from mid-season. This is all solid stuff and a significant improvement on 2019, but it has been higher and appears to be tailing off a little bit. Like most of the survey; something to keep an eye on.

There are few additional clues from the distribution curve, there’s a reasonable consensus – a solid 39% rated the relationship with the club 8 out of ten, but a not inconsiderable 16% rated the relationship six or lower. It’s worth noting, this is all an improvement on last year (after a year of lockdown, of course) when 32.8% of people rated the peak of 8 out of ten and 24% rated the relationship six or less.

Compared to five years ago

Looking a bit longer term, and you are unequivocal about our progress; 75% of you agree things are better than they were five years ago. I don’t know how many people think closely about this, but five years ago was the end of the Appleton years. Factor in the ‘no-change’ numbers and 99.3% of you agree that things are either the same or better than five years ago. There will be plenty of clubs who would kill for that kind of stability and progress.

What you can see here his the growing satisfaction with our long term development. Back in 2019, the jury was out about whether the club was progressing with less than 20% thinking it was ‘considerably better’ even though we were in a higher division. Even last year, less than half thought things were considerably better, but there is quite a hop upwards for 2022.

In five years time

Casting forward to five years time, and over 75% think that things will be better in the mid-to-long term. Only 0.7% think it will be a bit worse. Despite the apparent flattening of ratings, there is a underlying confidence and satisfaction in how the club is progressing. There will always be people who will look at seasons and even individual games to draw their conclusions, but the underpinning long-term stability of the club its as important, if not more-so.

Again, you can see the confidence growing as the curve shifts to the left. Even compared to last year there’s been a massive increase. No doubt the stadium and return from covid have contributed to that.

Players

Cameron Brannagan’s dominance of the favourite player chart its pretty remarkable, polling nearly 60% of the votes. More notable still is that Matty Taylor is a distant second place despite being local and our top goalscorer. Is Brannagan moving into legend status? I can’t think of too many players who would have dominated similar polls in the past. There’s also the consistency with which he’s polled at the top of the table over the years, often being in the top-two. Now, he’s struck out on his own – the perfect combination of ability, loyalty, competitiveness and an affinity with the fans. Luke McNally came third, and was dominant in terms of the player who has developed the most, it’s a pretty amazing result given that he was a regular for little over half-a-season.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the reason this survey exists is to keep tabs on our mood. It’s easy to be disappointed that we don’t make the play-offs when we lose the last few games of the season, but if we didn’t expect to make it in the first place, is that really a disaster? What I think this is showing is that the club is in rude health, the squad is strong, the manager liked and the board are trusted. However, fans are a funny group, there was a time just over ten years ago when just being a league club was an aspiration, then getting into League 1, then surviving League 1. We’re now edging towards the point where staying in League 1 is an underachievement. So, this season may be pivotal, not because we’re failing, but because we’re not succeeding enough.

Next week: the predictions