There are basically two theories about mince pies; either we hate them and tolerate them only at Christmas or we love them and abstain from having them at any other time in the year. The same goes for turkey, Christmas pudding and almost everything else we associate with Christmas. We could quite easily break Christmas – a curry on the 25th December, a mince pie after a barbecue in August, we could buy each other presents on, say, 13th February, just because that would be a nice thing to do. But, it wouldn’t feel right; it wouldn’t be right. We want to believe that Christmas exists, so we defer to its traditions.
It’s much the same with the Eales/Ashton/Appleton revolution; most want it to exist; better football, new stadium, a whole bright future; but for the first time on Boxing Day, it did appear that even the most devout converts were beginning to doubt its existence.
The display itself was gutless. A true demonstration of just how far behind the standard we’ve fallen in the division. Shrewsbury were stronger, faster and more efficient with the ball and far better in every department imaginable. We trudged around trying to pass it on a boggy pitch increasingly tiny triangles; if Shrewsbury weren’t out-muscling us, they were simply waiting for a mistake to happen. When they got the ball, they moved it quickly and looked a continual threat. When they chose to shut us down, they did. It was much the same against Wycombe. It was much the same against Burton.
Post-match, Appleton tied himself up in knots. He was, he said, ‘man enough’ to admit we were beaten by a better team, as if this was a positive. It certainly paints him as an intelligent, reflective, objective individual; all of which are good qualities to have. But it ignores the fact that it’s ultimately his job to ensure we aren’t swept aside by better teams in the manner that we were. No matter that a team is better resourced, we should expect to compete with every team that comes to the Kassam rather than passively wait to see what turns up. He reinforced his normal stance that he wouldn’t be stepping back or ranting and raving at the players; a point he regularly makes. He appeared to take a swipe at the club; pointing out that we’ve not been higher than League 2 for over a decade and that it’s not as if they’re playing in front of big crowds. It’s something that both David Kemp and Chris Wilder did in the past when they were under pressure. He failed, as he increasingly does, to explain what he was trying to do; If they were simply a better team, what was the plan to neutralise that?
Then Ryan Clarke came on to try and explain things from the players’ perspective. Players rarely say anything of genuine interest; it’s not really in their professional interest to do so. To criticise your employer in the media is career limiting, so we shouldn’t expect a player to come out and blame tactics or lack of investment or whatever. However, Clarke seemed to struggle to contain his frustration. He followed the party line; he praised being treated like an adult by the management and the commitment to playing ‘proper’ football. He also claimed he had nothing to do beyond the two goals, although this ignored at least one shot coming off the crossbar and one cleared off the line. He just seemed to want the interview to end before he said something he shouldn’t.
If he was frustrated, then it would stand to reason. Clarke has played in successful Oxford sides and now finds himself defending a team that barely resembles that of the past in terms of quality, character or results. He may be telling the truth about being treated like an adult; but does that mean that everyone is acting like an adult? Jamie Cook describes Chris Wilder ‘a good coach but a terrible man’, but maybe that’s what is needed sometimes – somebody has to take a bunch of fit, healthy alpha males and tell them what to do and how to work together. Is Appleton almost giving the players too much leeway to express themselves, because when they do, they become disjointed and ineffectual.
How much longer will the players believe the philosophy, whatever that turns out to be, when it’s not producing results? At one point against Shrewsbury, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis broke free down the left flank. He was fouled and lay prone on the floor in the mud. But what was significant was that he would have looked up around him to see five Shrewsbury players, surrounding him ready to put a challenge in or at least shepherd him into a neutral position. Being dominated like that must become demoralising, not getting results even more so.
The Plymouth result was welcomed, of course, but papered over the cracks. It will be some time yet before we find out whether the result resembles a turning point or whether it was simply a chink in the prevailing direction of travel that was evident against Shrewsbury. We benefited from an early sending off and another James Roberts special. There’s something melancholic about Roberts’ emergence as, possibly, the biggest talent to come out of the club since Jamie Brooks. On one hand, it’s great to see him thriving but you also suspect that if he continues to do so then he’s unlikely to score more than 20 goals for us before being picked up by a bigger club. We should enjoy him while he lasts.
As 2014 concludes we’ve conceded about 10 places in the league for this new philosophy, we’ve taken a point less at home compared to the same point last year, we’ve scored the same number of goals and conceded 2 more. We’ve won the same and lost one more. Our away form, of course, doesn’t compare. The statistics suggest we’re going backwards, Christmas has proved a microcosm of the season, patchy and unconvincing punctuated by flickers of a new future. Outwardly Ashton and Eales remain committed to Appleton, but they can’t completely ignore our league position. If he was under threat, then Plymouth will have bought him some more time. January’s form – with a number of games against teams around us – will be more telling.