Last week Karl Robinson was having one of his rants. Characteristically, the vexations came thick and fast; no, signings hadn’t been easy; yes, we do know the season’s coming; yes, we are about to lose our best player. It was a thinly veiled, probably unplanned attack on the keyboard warriors of Twitter and Facebook who constantly demand instant success.
Twenty-four hours later, with Gavin Whyte leaving, he signed Ben Woodburn on loan, then a day after that, Anthony Forde joined, Rob Dickie signed a contract extension and, perhaps most surprisingly Karl Robinson himself signed a three year contract. The following day, Elliot Moore signed to fill the vacant centre-back role.
It’s difficult to know which is more surprising, that Robinson was offered a new contract, that he chose to sign one or that he’s still here at all. This is a man who led the team to a lengthy relegation scrap last year and who, on a regular basis, shoots his mouth off to the evident frustration of the fans. Put all that into the context of a distant owner who, if you believe a stereotype, will not tolerate humdrum performances, particularly from an English manager.
So how, despite everything, is he still getting away with it?
Of course, the phrase ‘getting away with it’ implies that he’s managing to avoid the most logical conclusion that he shouldn’t be in post. This might be the heart of the issue, perhaps we need to challenge our norms to find an explanation.
Let’s start with our owners. It’s easy to paint a foreign owner as being untrustworthy and impatient. It’s easier still to paint our owners as conniving fraudsters given the problems they’ve had with paying bills and signing players.
But, perhaps they are doing things the right way, there has been investment in the training ground and the youth team set up. Results improved last season once the training ground was in a fit state. Signings, though slow this year, seem more sensible and robust.
The fans too are perhaps not as anti-Robinson as it may initially appear. The Absolute State of Oxford United survey rated him only a fraction behind the squad. In the main, the squad are considered positively, and so – according to the numbers – is the manager.
Then there’s Robinson himself; I’ve always said that he improved both MK Dons and Charlton in less-than-perfect circumstances. You might even argue that he has improved Oxford in a post-Clotet world where he had to shed the squad of the likes of Tiendelli and Mehmeti and deal with key players with itchy feet from the Michael Appleton era such as Ledson, Johnson, Rothwell and Nelson, while achieving, if not stunning progress, then stability.
There’s absolutely no doubting Robinson’s work ethic; his desire to succeed spills out in interviews, which doesn’t always serve him well. He’s barely gone a few days without talking to the press this summer and at times he’s looked exhausted. He understands the system – he knows that he can’t stop Nelson and Gavin Whyte pursuing their careers elsewhere – or Ledson or Rothwell – but he kept them all performing right up to the point they left. In addition, the signing of Woodburn – like Marcus Browne and Luke Garbutt last year – shows he has contacts in the right places. How much did his links to Liverpool secure the friendly with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers?
The Radio Oxford pre-season special with Robinson, Zaki Nuseibeh and Niall McWilliams saw the trio, if not finishing each others’ sentences, then at least starting them. What it seemed to show was a cohesive group with a shared vision of the future. Robinson’s signing of a new contract is perhaps the most telling; concepts of loyalty and ambition are probably over-stated in League 1, but Robinson evidently trusts the club to protect his reputation, which is critical to sustain his career long-term.
McWilliams, who I’ve been critical of, also made a tellng contribution. He said that when people asked him about the club’s strategy, he tells them about the ‘six pillars’ only for them to ask when they’re going to sign a new winger.
Which might be why Karl Robinson is ‘getting away with it’; because there is a shared long term vision for the club which will deliver its benefits more slowly than many fans (and many other managers) would want. That vision, alongside a robust, sensible, sustainable strategy, is more likely to deliver sustained success than the abilities, or otherwise, of a single individual. Perhaps Robinson is getting away with it, because he is not the genius with a gift of footballing alchemy, but because he understands his role in a bigger machine, a strategic thinker, which might be just what we need.