One does not simply walk into Oxford United

I feel a bit conflicted; I’ve long been an advocate of the long steady development of a football club. Less boom and bust, less hire and fire. I was proud of the fact we had a manager that was the third longest serving in professional football. I liked that we were committed to investing in local talent for the long term. What’s more, it worked, the steady progress saw us improve annually; albeit by decreasing margins in later years.

But, only five games into his reign, I am finding myself critical of Michael Appleton. He hasn’t benefited from a stellar start, like Chris Wilder did, but at the same time he’s yet to match Wilder’s seasonal winless streaks, although not by much. By the token that we should look to the long term, Appleton needs time. So why am I frustrated by him so soon?

Defenders of Appleton say his style of football is an improvement on what went before and that good will out; if we play the right way we will win games, we just need to be patient. The style has improved, chances were being created against Portsmouth, but another defeat and with it a drop to the bottom of the table shows that at the plan isn’t working in terms of results.

I struggle with the results/performance equation. I agree with the aesthetic of playing football the right way, but only if you get the right results. The best times I’ve had as an Oxford supporter at the Kassam were under the pragmatic tactics of Ian Atkins and Chris Wilder. The common factor was we won games.

I’m not sure, on reflection, that it is Appleton where my frustrations lie. During the summer, Ashton and Eales came piling into the club; all toothy smiles and promises of passion. The callous removal of Gary Waddock suggested that they had arrived with a sure-fire winning plan. But instead, they’ve installed a manager and starved him of resources. Or at least, struggled to get their act together. Time will tell as to whether they were unable or unwilling to invest in players, but at best it appears that they beyond a hectic PR schedule, they didn’t have a plan, certainly not on the playing side.

I’m not for a second suggesting that Waddock was the answer, but I’m guessing he did have a plan for the season and had that not worked, and we’d opened with four defeats, then the decision about his tenure would have been an easy one, given his performance at the end of last year.

Ashton pleaded for time; but the first shot in anger, the appointment of Appleton, showed that time wasn’t a key consideration. Waddock was gone within hours of them taking over. But what they replaced it with was a void rather than a another, better, manager.

Appleton may still come good once he’s found his feet and Ashton has found his phone book and chequebook amongst the packing boxes in his office. Will Hoskins is an interesting signing, which could be the game-changer, but also could be another Peter Leven. In the meantime we’re relying on passion, talent, hope and other immeasurables.

It’s probably fair to say that we’re not far off; each game to date has been lost by the odd goal to teams who are currently first, second and fourth, but we’re relying on the law of averages to pick up points; currently we’re slightly on the wrong side of average, presumably over the season we’ll come out on the right side. But, by that token, ultimately, we’ll end up average.

The concern, of course, is that this isn’t a concern to Eales and Ashton because buying into the club is just the latest move in a big land deal. And that for them this isn’t a results game. Promotion, relegation or mid table doesn’t impact the value of the land they’re hoping to acquire, so why invest? It’s possible that Appleton is a stooge; he seems a reasonable chap who is probably happy to have any job given where he’s been previously. Plus, he is wealthy enough not to work. Unlike, say, Wilder or Atkins, who needed to be successful to pay the mortgage, Appleton may just be the passive front man Eales and Ashton need. It would explain why Waddock was ousted so quickly.

I should say, that I’m not convinced the real story is quite so linear. I doubt anyone wants to fail, presumably the duo want to impress the masses (and I mean masses) of people who now occupy the executive box at home games. However, I can see that in a world of competing priorities; some things are more important than others. If Eales is going to spend, say, £100,000 – there’s a far greater, and more certain, return on investment paying for legal fees on a land purchase than on a 27 year old, fit, proven goalscorer. It probably wouldn’t be a one-or-other option; but if his resources are limited, it seems to me that the allocation is likely to go on the land deal, not the player.

As an aside, I like Danny Hylton more than I thought I would; stuck amongst Wilderian players and Appletonians, it seemed he was destined to become the Sansa Stark* of the club; stuck between the houses of former and emerging kingdoms while being part of neither. But, he ran himself ragged on Saturday and seems to have thrown himself at the challenge like no one else.

I feel for Morris; he seems keen to get on the ball, with players preferring to pass rather than put the ball in places for him to attack, he keeps dropping deep and out of position. At one point in the first half, the pattern of play suddenly presented itself with an opportunity. A quick cross to the edge of the box, where a gap had opened up, and Morris would have been in. Then I realised that Morris was the man on the ball and the space in the box was the result of him not being there. Another time he was tussling with Portsmouth’s deep lying midfielders leaving the back four as an untroubled final defence.

On the hour, Morris suddenly seemed to be going backwards. He’s a hulk of a player, but nearly a decade from his physical prime, spending an hour dropping deep and looking for the ball had taken its toll. At that point the game became a war of attrition, and it was likely to be a survival of the fittest. Experience will eventually teach him to take his time, but it would also be nice to think that his habit of looking for the ball might be coached out of him.

Neither side really looked like they were going to win it at that point. Both teams were likely to get a chance or two, less through talent, more by virtue of the fact that eventually the ball is going to end up near one or the other goal. They bundled in their chance and Junior Brown headed ours over the Oxford Mail stand. As I say, we’re relying on the law of averages. At some point Eales and Ashton need to tip the odds more in Appleton’s favour; this week’s activities are likely to be telling.

 * A character from Game of Thrones whose family is all but wiped out by a powerful, ruling, family during a bitter civil war. By this time she is promised to marry the king; a member of her family’s killers. A deal she is unable, now on her own, to renege on. She subsequently finds herself neither a member of her own family – all of whom are dead or on the run – nor that of that which she is expected to marry into. Like Danny Hylton. 

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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