Joe Burnell won’t demand many paragraphs in the history of Oxford United. So much so, I had to look up his name, and then again when I forgot it twenty minutes later. But, he made a significant contribution to the resurrection of the club when things were at their lowest.
At the end of September 2008, having only won one league game at home, we faced Cambridge United. There were rumours we were going into administration and that the season was already lost. Burnell was captain, brought in by Darren Patterson. In the opening minutes he flew into what you might call an early-doors reducer, which drew a booking. It also set the tone to fight for a 3-1 win.
Ultimately neither Patterson nor Burnell survived long, but after that result we no longer felt sorry for ourselves and remained unbeaten in the league at home until the last day of the season. By this point Chris Wilder was manager and we’d gained enough momentum to threaten the play-offs. A year later, we were promoted.
That tackle galvanised that squad, last night confirmed this one is falling apart. At the heart of the problem is chaos. It’s everywhere you look.
Shandon Baptiste – ‘the future of the club’ – got the captain’s armband for the Manchester City game, principally for the experience. Then, with John Mousinho dropped, he got it again against Luton. Why?
According to Karl Robinson, being captain is such a distraction, that experienced players like Curtis Nelson can’t do the role while negotiating a new contract. And yet, it’s so trivial it can be handed over to a 20-year-old with seven league games under his belt during a losing streak. So, is it important or trivial? Has it been taken off Curtis Nelson to relieve some burden, or as punishment for not signing a contract? Nelson may well leave at the end of the season, maybe before, but what benefit is preventing him from being captain offering? If he’s not performing don’t play him, if he is, use him to his max. Wouldn’t making him captain hold him to account even if he were looking elsewhere?
When the players needed to pull together and keep their heads, the onus was on Baptiste make it happen. Not only did he lack experience and authority, he was already on a final warning before being sent off. It might have happened without the armband, but it was an unnecessary complication for him to deal with. Perhaps without that sense of having to lead by example, he’d have pulled out of one of his challenges and stayed on the pitch.
When Luton equalised, Cameron Brannagan was seen berating Nelson. Would he have done that if Nelson had been captain? Perhaps not. Does Brannagan – consciously or sub-consciously – look at Nelson as a weakened authority because he’s lost the captaincy? Maybe. Did Baptiste have the authority to defuse the situation? Probably not.
The ill-discipline spread. Baptiste’s sending off was inevitable and deserved. But Hanson was flying around with no discipline. He could have been the Joe Burnell, igniting some fight, Robinson said he’d ‘lost his head’, then went on to him being ‘the club’s signing’ (not his). And despite him deliberately isolating the player, he then claimed he was his protector. But which is it?
Up front, Jon Obika’s role was never going to look pretty; lone strikers never do. It’s you against three or four defenders. You run into walls, lose out on challenges and fall over a lot. Your role is either to hold the ball up for others, flick them on to runners, chase them down when sent over the top, or simply to wear their defenders down in order to let others with pace to exploit their exhaustion. Most of the time you’re just being crowded out or out muscled. It’s just maths, you against three or four others, you’re not going to win very much. It’s thankless.
Obika did some of these things he needed to do, some of the time, but those around him weren’t ready to benefit from his work. Was there a plan? Robinson claimed they’d talked about it, it’s just the players hadn’t done what they were told. This raises the question as to why? But, I think it was more flawed than that – Obika is the man you bring on late to exploit the damage done by a battering ram like Jamie Mackie. We did the opposite.
Now, look at Ricky Holmes’ goal – it was an excellent goal, driving to the edge of the box before threading his shot through six or seven players who were converging on him. Even then, look more closely, you’ll see Oxford players being caught up in Holmes’ break. There’s no shape to give him options, nobody anticipating rebounds, eventually everyone stops running because the space has become so crowded. Thankfully on this occasion, it wasn’t important and Holmes found the net, but he frequently runs into traffic and attacks break down or worse. Has Robinson got a plan for Holmes? It doesn’t look like it.
Here’s my theory. We often applaud managers that are good with a tight budget – John Coleman at Accrington is an excellent example, maybe Chris Wilder as well. Then there are managers who are good with a good budget. It’s often considered easy to have a big budget, but it isn’t. Having a big budget means having more players who expect to play and expect their talent to override the need for tactics or plans. You can’t manage things as tightly, you have to let players express themselves, but only within a framework that wins you games.
Robinson is the kind of manager that needs a good budget to be successful. It can be expensive and wasteful, but it can be very successful. There’s a skill in keeping stars happy, keeping everyone engaged and involved. Perhaps when Robinson says the players think they’re the best managed in the league he means his squad has the best fun. In these cases, organisation is less important than the vibe you create. If you get the right vibe, then the performances take care of themselves. If you get the vibe wrong the creative space become a chaotic space, then the failure is uncontrollable and spectacular. Those who like that environment no longer contribute, those who hate it become disillusioned. The discord is evident, the lack of product, the utter and abject failure is there for all to see. Look as hard as you like, there are no shoots of hope.
I think that’s where we are at the moment. Enough ability in the squad, but totally out of control. It’s impossible to see how ‘fun-boss’ Karl Robinson can suddenly pull rank in order to instill the discipline needed to win games. I’m not sure he has the ability to do that either, he’s the life and soul of the party, not a sergeant major. To not put too fine a point on it; it looks like we’ve reached a dead-end.