The inevitable consequences of success

Dying is a lonely business. People have their own prolematic lives to be burdened with its imprecise process. Best not to get involved at all.

Death, conversely, is very popular because it is a finite commitment. You attend the funeral, eat the sandwiches, and go home to convince yourself you’ve witnessed a celebration not a mourning. Then life carries on as it was. Darlington found that out on Saturday when their crowd doubled for what may be their last ever home game. We experienced something similar when we were relegated from the football league in 2006 – never were we so popular than when we died as a football league club.

Success is also a popular place to be, and with it comes a unique, and new to us, set of challenges.

So, we have players that attract interest, with real money, from other clubs. This puts us in the position of having to balance our needs as a football club with those as a viable business.

As prone as I am to mythologising the comings and goings of Oxford United, the response to Swindon’s third and successful bid for James Constable takes some beating. Being a bit busy when the story broke, I was a slow to the news. By the time I’d connected it was becoming our 9/11. There were visions of Constable sitting at a table in a darkened room, while the evil Paolo Di Canio in full length leather coat broke the strker’s spirit, persuading him that his dark and evil ways would see the peace in our time.

Meanwhile Kelvin Thomas and Chris Wilder tore off their human masks to reveal their alien lizard faces. While they shoveled piles of gold onto their spaceship, Constable stared back in disbelief as all that he considered good crumbled around him. Across this abyss he stared at the crying hordes of Oxford fans, doomed to death by their Machiavellian ways.

On one level, I love this. the evil empire launches a series of unprovoked attacks in an attempt to rip our spiritual leader from our grasp. Football would be a fraction of what it is without this kind of drama.

But, this is is the myth, so let’s recognise that for what it is.

I doubt very much that the Oxford/Swindon rivalry has bypassed Kelvin Thomas and Chris Wilder. They are, therefore, not out of touch with the fans. They will also recognise that they run a company which has the turnover smaller than your local Tesco. They will also consider their long term ambition and how to fulfill that. Somewhere in this equation is a figure which considers the need for revenue and a premium for any reputational damage that might occur. Swindon’s bid exceeded that figure.

I also doubt that James Constable followed the story via Twitter alone. So, when the bid came in, it seems unlikely that he was bundled into a taxi and transported to the County Ground without a word. More likely, someone from the club will have explained that they have been offered a figure they can’t turn down, they don’t want to lose him, but nor can they ignore the offer.

It seems equally unlikely that Constable’s decision not to talk to Swindon was a simple one of loyalty over money. Be careful of the word loyalty – it suggests an emotional decision over something he fundamentally feels is the right thing to do. I would hope that staying at Oxford is a decision based as much on logic as emotion.

Constable’s dad seems to be involved in helping him with his career choices. This has got to be a good thing because it will help him consider more than just the money issue. He will need to consider the level of comfort he currently has, the risk of moving both in terms of his lasting reputation and the potential for failure – which is quite high given the pressure he’ll be under. Amidst all this, he needs to consider the financial compensation for making that move in that environment with that risk. Constable didn’t think Swindon’s offer would be enough. 

So, far from this being Constable demonstrated superhuman powers to resist the lure of evil through a moral fortitude and innate sense of good. More likely he enjoys the job he does, where he does it and what he’s payed for it. Why wouldn’t he, given the three years he’s had? A move to Swindon, like any club, is to start again.

This is all relatively new to us. Peter Leven was shoved into the limelight via Twitter, Michael Duberry is a target for opposing fans due to his comparative fame. Suddenly our success has delivered a raft of new issues to deal with. This includes living up to the caricatures that develop from such hero worship. Constable goal scoring feats, Duberry the immovable object, Leven, he can do what he wants. Add to this Ryan Clarke’s England credentials, Alfie Potter the lower league Lionel Messi.

The reality on the pitch is different, of course. Yes, these players have proven themselves among the best we’ve seen at the Kassam. But they can’t turn it on and off like a light switch. For the last couple of weeks; the defeat to Crewe and the bizarre draw with Hereford, we’ve seen them demonstrating flashes of brilliance; Little backheels, passes round the corner, sublime exchanges and a couple of near misses. Then, it all begins to taper out. Chris Wilder described it against Crewe as as losing heart. But, inevitably, the more extraordinary you are the closer you are to becoming ordinary. It’s what scientists call regression towards the mean.

We need patience and shape. We are amongst the 4 or 5 best sides in the division. The pass and move philosophy drilled into the players is the right one, but when it doesn’t come off, we have to take a breather, regain control and go again. When things didn’t come off against Crewe and Hereford, we tried to solve the problem by rolling out our super powers. When they stopped coming off, everyone gets frustrated.

We’ve been picked off by a couple of teams who have kept their shape and waited for an opportunity.

The problem is that we haven’t been in this position for years. The crowd, manager and team all need to learn to play the game for 90 minutes, not in a burst of 30 minutes of intense brilliance followed by an hour of frustration. Against better sides our tempo will be maintained, but where we need to dictate the tempo – at home, against ‘lesser’ teams, then we need to learn a bit more control.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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