I was standing in my local Costa on Friday picking up a coffee and who should be standing in front of me? Only Michael Appleton. It was suggested that I should have said hello, which is not really something I’ve ever done to a stranger in the Costa queue before. Plus, I’ve met a handful of professional footballers in the past and have decided I like them like I like my women – distant and in caricature.
The way I see it, we only have a certain capacity to know and understand people. A handful become friends because we know enough about them to enhance their strengths and suppress their weaknesses. Everyone else is distilled into a relatively narrow profile out of convenience – there are bad people, good people, clever people and idiots. And in almost every case, they are far more complex and interesting, and probably well intentioned, we just don’t have time to get our heads around their nuances.
So my general position with regards to Michael Appleton is that he has made his position as Oxford manager almost untenable, and at times completely untenable, this season. But, that’s not to say I don’t warm to him when I hear him on the radio, or that he’s not a good coach (which is different to being a good manager), or that he could turn it around. And, being in the presence of a man ordering a tea, croissant and bottle of water on a Friday morning, like a normal human being, does make me feel a bit guilty about having doubts and dark thoughts about him as a football manager.
So, perhaps its time to be more reflective. The season is over, and we can finally take stock. Improbably, we ended up just one point behind our total from last year, although we’ve dropped five places in the process. Relegation, which sat like a shadow for large chunks of the season, ended up a gaping 20 points away. It’s not been great, but it’s not apocalyptic either. How odd.
Our late season surge helped, of course, we’re 5th in the form table over the last six games, with only the top 3 and Stevenage (who finished 6th) playing better. This has lightened the mood amongst Oxford fans, and it’s easy to assume that we’ve turned the corner. We are eternal optimists when it comes to turning corners. We have to be. I understand the feeling because, as I stood in the queue in Costa, I didn’t want Appleton to choke on his pastry; that’s a change of mood for me.
But, if we’ve turned the corner, then it’s only to the point of where we ended last season; the path to real success is remains uncertain. Is our recent form due to a quirk of having stumbled across enough players with enough form to dig us out of the hole we were in? Roofe was the catalyst to our revival, and there’s little guarantee he, or someone like him, will be back. Danny Rose has been a central character demonstrating a form that he’s barely shown in his previous stints at the club.
It’s not unreasonable to look at our form and suggest we’re in the ascendency, but then look back to 2007 when, after some mediocre results, Darren Patterson suddenly hit a patch of 5 wins on the trot to close the season with fans expecting promotion 12 months later. We thought that was a turned corner, but, we returned for the new season and to the moderate form of before. It is still the most likely scenario now; that our form next season will be no better than this season. There’s nothing apart from blind optimism that contradicts that. Blind optimism has it’s place; it sells season tickets, for example.
Bluntly, it has taken Michael Appleton 43 players to find 16 or 17 that can perform anywhere near the level we need, and for a period of 10-15 games. That’s a very low hit rate for a comparatively short period of time. He will argue mitigating circumstances, and he may be right, but we need that player conversion rate to be much better and for the form to be sustained for much longer. No manager is successful with every signing, but he needs to be somewhere around, perhaps, 30-35 players to sustain a successful squad of 25. Whether he can do that or not, we simply don’t know, we just hope.
Which is the reason why, if we were going to get rid of Appleton, it should have been done a long time ago. There have been countless opportunities. My personal low was our capitulation against Southend. Others cite the men versus boys encounters with Shrewsbury, and most recently the abject defeat to Hartlepool when things looked really bleak. Even our penultimate home game against Northampton was a terrible display. I would have had no hesitation in supporting his removal at any of those points and probably more. At least that would have given a new man the opportunity to assess what he had at his disposal and plan for the future.
However, if they were to do it now, then we are in no better position than we were last season with a new manager coming in to a squad he has little knowledge of and even less opportunity to assess. It would mean that, once again, we’d be sorting the squad out while the season was already underway, and probably losing ground in the process.
But, as much as our recent form has pacified many of the masses, there is no doubt the risk of failure next season remains high. But, it is no higher than bringing in a new man and starting again, again.
So, we might as well back Appleton to turn it round.If that sounds grudging, it is; it’s been a poor season. But I don’t dislike him to the point of wanting to get rid of him as a punishment. That’s not the point of changing manager.
He needs a good summer, and it sounds like the club intend to give him that, and he needs a good start next season. Any excuses of building for the future or operating in a difficult environment won’t hold water if we find ourselves sitting in mid-table or lower come September.