It’s fair to say that Karl Robinson splits opinions; even within individual opinions, there are split opinions. It’s not uncommon to hear things like ‘I can’t stand the man, but I don’t think he should be sacked’ or ‘I respect what he does, but he can’t go on like this’.
Whether it’s the start of a season, game or interview, it’s difficult to figure out Robinson’s modus operandi. There seems to be a common theme of there being a blizzard of confusion followed by some kind of clarity or success. Is that deliberate? Is it luck? Is the assumption that if you throw enough Karl Robinson at a wall, some of it will stick? Is there a science to all this that we can’t see?
It’s almost, and I use this comparison advisedly, Trump-esque; it is near on impossible to figure out whether Robinson is a stable genius, or wanton lunatic.
The result is similar to Chris Wilder’s time at the club; Jamie Cook once described him as a polarising figure; ‘a great coach but a terrible man’. The result was streaks of poor form, followed by unlikely wins and unbeaten runs. Whether Karl Robinson can be defined in quite such a binary way, I don’t know, but he’s consistently inconsistent.
On Saturday, Michael Appleton was in the stand preparing to take over our opponents Lincoln. Appleton is a methodical theoretician, a scientist of the game. He’s a good fit for Lincoln who seem to have learnt through the appointment of the Cowley brothers about the power of building.
It was Robinson’s worst nightmare; following the debacle against Bolton, he not only had to get us back on track, but do it with one of Oxford’s greatest managers glaring down on him.
And then he goes out and does this. Seven shots, six goals, all of the highest quality. A record breaking win, the win we thought we might get on Tuesday, and a moment of utter razor sharp clarity in a sea of confusion.
Tariqe Fosu, as we’re regularly reminded, has known Robinson for years. You could argue that not only does he understand Robinson’s methods, he’s a product of them. Perhaps it’s of no surprise that he seems to have settled so quickly in a way that others haven’t. Where Luke Garbutt, Sam Smith and perhaps Ben Woodburn made slower starts, Fosu is flying because he knew what to expect and what was expected.
The Lincoln result is no more an indicator of our prospects for the season than the Bolton result was, finding the new normal under Robinson feels like an endless quest.
While doing a little side project on the best players of the 1990s, I found a surprising fact. Between 1990-1999 Oxford United fielded 107 players, between 2000-2009 that number doubled with a similar number for 2010-2019. If Robinson is to succeed, he needs players to understand his methods, and if you’re new to that, it can take time. Without that, you’re always playing catch up.
The challenge is that modern football doesn’t offer stability. The turnover of players is so great, the onus is on the manager to be clear about his intentions and for them to respond. Last season it took months to get the message over and while this season it seems to have settled more quickly, the contrasts between Bolton and Lincoln show, it’s still not clear which Oxford United we are.