Identity crisis

I can’t remember the last time our season was effectively over by Christmas. Or is it? Does it even matter if it is? Because of, you know, the bigger, longer term picture?

There seems almost no consensus about whether we’re doing well, badly or otherwise. To some we’re doing The Right Things, building a new DNA within the club. The bigger picture is that these will come good given time.

Alternatively, we’re out of both cups and sit 17th in the league. We’re only 10 points from the play-offs, but we’re only 6 points from relegation.

There is no agreed benchmark about where we should be, and for that reason there is no real consensus about whether we are above or below where we should be. Fighting for promotion? Consolidating in preparation for some glorious future? Avoiding relegation? What’s the goal?

The jury is very much out on almost everything. Appleton’s style is more aesthetically pleasing than Wilder’s, but I don’t buy that this is the best football we’ve seen in years as some claim. Even under Wilder the promotion season was full of attacking flair with the three up front scoring a hatful of goals. Wilder eventually got stuck in a perfect storm of limited funds and the need to be more savvy to avoid being picked off by cleverer opponents. When he ran out of money trying to buy goals and creativity, he invested his limited funds in organisation and defensiveness. It wasn’t always thus.

The question of aesthetics seems to tax everyone, but I think it’s overrated. Nobody was complaining when we were top of the league under Ian Atkins, scoring goals and winning games is fun regardless of how many touches were taken getting the ball into the net. One of my all time favourite goals at the Kassam was by Julian Allsop in the last minute against Leyton Orient on Boxing Day. It was a long ball which Allsop lunged his ugly form at, getting the finest of touches on the ball he guided it past the keeper. We won and remained top. That was a happy day, the performance was awful. It’s only when the style stops working that it really looks cumbersome. A bit like Paul Moody – when he was scoring, we all loved him, when he wasn’t he looked like he’d taken root.

There’s ‘the DNA’, of course, Ashton mentions it again in his latest newsletter. But, if the DNA is judged by the effectiveness of signings, then you would have to argue that it’s been no better than patchy to date. Morris and Jakubiak looked out of their depth, Hoskins and Howard look like spent forces, Riley and Collins have both worked, while Holmes-Dennis and Barnett look the best of the lot. But, neither will be at the club in coming months.

Nothing has yet stuck. The reality is that the spine of the first team is still Wilderian – Clarke, Wright, Mullins and Whing. With Whing in the team we take, on average, nearly a point a game more than when he’s not. He’s played in less games than he’s missed, but we’ve still taken more points in total when he’s played. Whing, you suspect, is not the DNA that Appleton envisages for the club, but he’s one Jenga block he’s too scared to pull from the tower.

There is the flurry of signings from last month – Burns, Campbell, Dunkley and Hobarn. A sign of things to come? Ashton refers to them in the context of this fabled DNA, yet between them they’ve played just once. Are they the result of a sophisticated scouting network charged with alchemy? Or the signing of non-league no-hopers that might conjure up a gem or two. Certainly Radio Oxford seem to accept that approach; Jerome Sale is fairly open in admitting that some of those signings won’t work, and that, apparently, is OK as long as some do. For Hobarn and Dundalk read Twigg and Airdrie, for Campbell and Jarrow Roofing, read Ben Abbey and Crawley (not moneybags Crawley, the original, decidedly crap version). Today’s signings are viewed to be the product of scouting geniuses, in the past they might have been viewed as penny pinching. They haven’t played, so we still just don’t know.

When Ashton et al stormed into the club in the summer there were two questions that needed to be answered. Questions that have faced the club for decades. Questions that have acted like brick walls to all previous owners. The first is what is the plan to buy the stadium, or any stadium? That remains the key block to revenue generation which by definition is the key block to future success. The second is how much is being invested in players? Better players deliver better results which drives attendances. For all the guff about passion and commitment and DNA, about how special the club is and how deserving the fans are, if you don’t get the player issue or the stadium issue sorted; or even better, both, then the rest is largely meaningless.

Neither question is easy and the answers are in no way cheap. But these are the key.

Nobody is suggesting that we were going to win the FA Cup, but unless something unexpected happens in the league, then it was the last opportunity to take a memory from this season. Perhaps that’s not important; but the glorious failure of West Brom was a long time ago and will seem even further away come season ticket renewal time. That’s why you need season highlights, to inspire people into thinking there’s something worth getting involved in; to get them to renew season tickets.

Ashton has promised some exciting announcements in the future; perhaps it will be like the share issue they suggested at the start of the season? Perhaps it will be another ticket deal. Imaginative price promotions are certainly welcome, anything that gives the club the excuse to go back to the disinterested has got to help. But it’s not the whole solution, the only thing that will bring fans back is tangible and sustainable success on the pitch. And that means having a clear explicit strategy, until that’s in place, we’re all guessing whether we’re on the right track or not.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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