With five of the thirteen players on duty against Exeter from the youth development system, Saturday saw the realisation of Ian Lenagan’s vision of 18 months ago.
Granted, that vision; which forecast a successful Oxford United driven by a core of homegrown talent, was probably borne out of the financial reality he faced rather than some dewy eyed prescience along the lines of Martin Luther King – only Michael Duberry could do that. However, as visions go, it was the most cogent I’ve heard come from the club in forty years. Yes, we’ve had owners stressing the importance of building and then owning a new stadium. But in terms of turning that into a playing reality, that vision rarely stretched much beyond “… and then, um, something something something beat Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League!”. Lenagan’s visions was realistic, tangible and above all attractive.
Long, Ashby, Ruffels, O’Dowda and Roberts were pivotal in digging Appleton out of yet another mess. It demonstrated what rude health the development system is in. The work done to date is an credit to Chris Allen, who was the player you’d consider least likely to turn out to be a top class coach.
But, is Lenagan’s vision the solution to this season? Well, no, not at the moment. The second half against Exeter proved that much. We were bright and switched on in the first half but became conservative and sluggish in the second. Fitness was a factor; it’s asking a lot for a young team to put in a 90 minute shift at the intensity of any League 2 game, let alone one demanding the high technical component that Appleton insists on. ‘Game management’ was another factor. Nathan Cooper persists with this topic week after week with Michael Appleton. He has a point; we seem to approach the natural phases games go through exactly the same way, rather than assess and adapt as the game progresses. Is this part of Appleton’s ‘No Plan B’ philosophy?
Appleton, when pushed on the subject, seemed to imply that organising teams to manage games was difficult, that is, almost impossible to train. And yet, organising a disciplined unit seems a darned sight easier to train than, say, teaching Jake Wright to play like Glenn Hoddle.
And this seems to be at the heart of the problem; while the emergence of Lenagan’s dream should give everyone heart, what we need is a core of players who are going to manage the game on the pitch. In the past we relied on the likes of Wright, Mullins, Clarke, Whing, but these are looking a shadow of their former selves, and, if you add Hunt, Newey and even Constable and Kitson from last year, you have to question why do we seem so devoid of leadership now?
Injuries are always factors; Clarke, Wright and Whing have all suffered recently and each bounce back is inevitably going to be a little less bouncy. There is an issue of playing style; anyone criticising Wright this season is ignoring the style of football he’s suddenly being asked to play. Ask him to be a defender, and he excels, ask him to be a playmaker and he looks deeply uncomfortable. And then there’s an issue of age and authority. Appleton isn’t that much older than some of those he manages so it would be far easier for senior players to not respect his authority or ability. This was, apparently, a factor in Dave Kitson’s sudden decision to retire once Appleton arrived at the club. Perhaps some of those older heads, frustrated by how we’ve stalled this season, are doubting their manager’s ability and approach.
If that is happening, Appleton, has the right to bring in people he can work with, but while so many of the core Wilder squad have left or hit poor form, those signed to replace them have been at best patchy, at worst woeful – Riley and Barnett were both established, and then slipped through our fingers, Junior Brown, Carlton Morris and Alex Jakubiak didn’t look ready, Will Hoskins and Brian Howard were spent forces before they even appeared at the club. Only Michael Collins and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis have sustained success so far; and Collins was dropped shortly after telling Radio Oxford we were in a relegation fight. Even, Holmes-Dennis, looks in need of a rest after an extended run of games; again, it’s a lot to ask of him.
Of the four signed prior to the opening of the window, Campbell and Hobarn have yet to come to terms with the rigours of League 2, Wes Burns seems another with bags of potential but not the endurance to sustain it, and Chey Dunkley looked decidedly shaky against Southend. It’s an uninspiring batch of signings so far.
For all the potential we now have at first team level; perhaps the best crop of youngsters I’ve seen at the club in terms of both quality and numbers, we are woefully lacking in leadership (and the motivation to lead) that experience gives, with the transfer window winding shut, time is running out in terms addressing the issue.