Cameron Brannagan sends over good quality deep corner, it somehow lands, via Sam Long, at the feet of Curtis Nelson, who bludgeons away at the ball with every part of his body until it stops coming back and stays in the net.
This is a season for the hackers and battlers, not the lovers and dreamers. In a mirror image of last week – the madness of the last minute aside – they were us; the better side but not good enough to win. We were overwhelmed in the opening minutes and it looked like we were in for a torrid afternoon, but they ran out of ideas and the threat subsided, as it often does with teams in this division.
On our part, we were wasteful, tried to get it forward too quickly, meaning the strikers couldn’t support the defensive effort by holding the ball. We were there for a point, surely. We simply had to wait for the ball to come back and hope that we’d stand firm, which we did, by and large. We were resolute and took the opportunity when it came. There were lots of good news stories; Sam Long was excellent, Ahmed Kashi is calm and efficient with the ball in a way that no others are, a gem hidden in full sight.
Walking back to the car, Coventry fans were complaining about their lack of ideas and how their limitations were being exposed. They could have been us trudging away from the Kassam, and they’re two points off the play-offs. The Ricoh is a lovely stadium, but they only open three sides, we have more in common than divides us, it seems.
This week Karl Robinson ‘celebrated’ his first year in charge with a retrospective in the Oxford Mail. He reflected on the problems he’s had – ‘reasons’ for failure if you’re generous, ‘excuses’ if you’re not. The training ground, the stadium issue, injuries, winding up orders and his best signing shaming himself on Twitter. If management is the art of removing the excuses for failure; then he’s got a few in his locker. Whether they are reasons or excuses is open to endless debate, but it’s hard to argue that he’s been given the ingredients for success on a plate. In a tight division, these are the margins which have tipped us onto the wrong side of the edge, regardless of the millstone of having a ‘top-eight budget’.
Normally, being thirteenth with seven games to go would have you reaching for a spreadsheet to place fancifully optimistic predictions that allow us to sneak into play-offs. Nobody ever writes off their season until it’s mathematically impossible. This year, we’re still looking down, at the four point gap, even though in terms of our position, we’re now closer to the play-offs than we are to the relegation zone.
As we turn for home this season, there’s very little fun to be had, it’s all about hacking and bludgeoning our way to safety. It seems unlikely that things will be fully decided until the last knockings of the year. But with everyone seemingly susceptible to the same failings, yesterday’s result was a big step towards staying in League 1 next season.
It’s 0-0 in a relegation six-pointer, we’ve been the better team, just not good enough to beat them. The board goes up, four minutes of injury time. Some people have left, accepting the point, but our pressure is showing encouraging signs that we could still get something from the game. There are 57 seconds of injury-time to play.
Let’s start with Bradford manager, Gary Bowyer who wound the whole hullabaloo back to a challenge by Curtis Nelson on Eoin Doyle in the build up to their chance. Bowyer described the tackle as ‘wiping out’ Doyle, for which Nelson should have been booked.
Nelson’s challenge is robust, Doyle’s run is checked in the process, but the referee waves play on; Bowyer describes this is as ‘fair enough’. As a result of the challenge, Nelson is out of position and Doyle is able to regain his balance and drive on. He’s the one who squares the ball with Nelson scrambling to recover. He’s clearly got the advantage; wiped out, he isn’t.
The ball is squared to Lewis O’Brien at the back post, he has an open goal; Cameron Brannagan slides in to make a challenge. O’Brien misses. The referee, Andy Davies, who has good sight of it, if a little behind the play, awards a goal kick. On Twitter, a Bradford fan said it was a corner, but the immediate reaction of the Bradford fans is that it was a miss not a block. Bowyer also claims O’Brien said it came off Brannagan, but he doesn’t seem to make a big play for that argument.
Given the velocity and direction of the ball from the shot, it doesn’t look like Brannagan made any contact. That’s not to say it doesn’t take a nick, but there are four Bradford players in the attack, none appear to protest at the decision. Doyle seems to gesture at something, maybe Nelson’s challenge, but he’s not the best sighted Bradford player. O’Brien holds his hand up at something as the play moves on, but spends more time mourning his miss than claiming a corner.
Simon Eastwood retrieves the ball from a quick-thinking ballboy, firmly places it in the six yard box and passes it to Josh Ruffels who is already on his way down the flank. There are three conditions for a legitimate goal kick; the ball must be played from the six yard box; which is fine.
It must leave the penalty box before it is touched. Nathan Cooper claims there’s some question as to whether the ball leaves the box before Josh Ruffels touches it. Gary Bowyer doesn’t make any reference to this, showing that everyone is looking for something different. Curiously, according to the rules, the ball isn’t ‘in-play’ until it leaves the box. So, from the moment Simon Eastwood touches it to the moment it leaves the box, the ball is in an existential crisis, stuck somewhere between being a football and not being a football.
Anyway. The official footage is inconclusive. This video on YouTube shows it from the North Stand; the incident is at about 8 minutes 55 seconds. It shows the ball from Eastwood to Ruffels, someone’s arm gets in the way at the moment he first touches the ball. There’s a still on Twitter which looks like he may have touched it inside the box, but on the video, he seems to be outside and allowing the ball to come across him. He’s predominantly left footed, so it would make sense that he would allow it to come over to his more natural side. It’s not conclusive either way.
There’s nothing in the rules to say why the ball should leave the box. If it’s to protect the defending team, then it’s fairly immaterial. If it’s to protect the attacking team, then it should be retaken because, somehow, they’re disadvantaged. The rules, and that rule particularly, tend to err on the former, not the latter.
With the onus on protecting the defending team’s right to take the kick unimpeded, you have to look at the context. O’Brien is sitting on the floor, two have their back to play and Jack Payne is talking to the ref. None are preventing Eastwood from taking the kick. Bowyer and Karl Robinson didn’t know the rule, nor anyone else, it seems. Nobody protests until the linesman makes a big deal about it.
We are 17 seconds into the incident.
Ruffels sets off, the linesman appears to stop, but the camera pans past him. He doesn’t seem to flag, the fan video doesn’t make any reference to him doing it, the referee doesn’t stop or signal anything, he’s watching Ruffels and would probably be able to see the linesman in his peripheral vision. There doesn’t seem to be a flag, I don’t remember there being one. The incident is over and the play has continued. Any errors made in the previous phase are no longer relevant.
Ruffels launches a glorious cross-field ball to Gavin Whyte. It reminds me of Bobby Moore’s ball to Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup for the fourth goal; massively over-looked in the wider context.
Whyte darts inside, but his shot balloons up, possibly off Jerome Sinclair. When Ruffels makes his pass from inside our half, Jamie Mackie is the closest player to him. When the ball drops from Sinclair’s ricochet, seven seconds later, it’s Mackie arriving to pick it up in the box.
In those seven seconds, Mackie has covered nearly 35 metres at an average speed of 11 miles an hour. His anticipation and desire to get in the box is remarkable. He controls the ball at hip height, and in a single movement, takes a couple of steps to balance himself, then slams the ball home on the volley. It’s a brilliant counter-attacking goal and a sensational finish; in the context of the season, and everything that’s happened in the previous 30 seconds, it’s a goal for the ages.
Pandemonium. The Oxford bench clears, last time we saw that was against Wycombe when we were promoted. There’s some suggestion that Mackie, who had already been booked, might get another card for his celebration. It’s difficult to know what he’s supposed to have done; he’s grandstanding, but it’s everyone else going bananas.
With the dejected Bradford players preparing to kick-off, the referee consults his linesman and appears to disallow the goal. Mackie falls to his knees. Quite why the goal has been chalked off is hard to fathom. A Bradford player picks the ball up and heads for the penalty spot. That’s wishful thinking, there’s no suggestion it’s a penalty, but it creates more consternation. On the advice of the linesman, the referee appears to be pulling the play back to re-take the goal-kick, presumably because of the players in the box.
Players and officials start pushing and shoving on the touchline; Curtis Nelson calls for non-existent VAR, Karl Robinson suggests afterwards he watches too much Premier League football (which doesn’t have VAR). He ignores that he also gestured to the video team at the back of the stand to see if they can help. We can see you Karl. Hmm.
Afterwards Jamie Mackie claims he asked the referee to take some time to reconsider. If he did, it’s good advice because if he disallows the goal, he’s got a major crisis on his hands. The ref consults his other linesman. Presumably that’s not because he’s seen something different, perhaps to get a second opinion. If he’s done that because of Jamie Mackie, then Mackie is a god twice over.
There are only 17 laws in football; the rest is process and interpretation. There were Bradford players in the box when the free-kick is taken, which is the only bone of contention, but the law says that a re-take ‘may’ be taken (not ‘must’) if the process isn’t followed. It’s not considered a foul, it’s a process issue. Nobody should be punished.
The interpretations of that law puts the onus on protecting the defending team (us). There was no reason for the referee to get the kick re-taken. If the Bradford players were protesting at anything, it was that the referee hadn’t punished them for getting out of the box for the kick. It’s a funny world.
The referee’s error in handling the situation was probably two-fold. The game had long moved on by the time the issue was highlighted. He should have decided that the incident was in the past – the game had restarted, in which case the incident is no longer up for discussion (Law 5) – and trivial in context.
The second thing is that he should have taken both his linesmen to the side and decided in a single decision. Moving from one side of the pitch to the other meant players followed him around creating more mayhem. If anything, the linesman’s pedantry was at fault as it put doubt in the referee’s mind. In a world where VAR is considered the answer to everything, maybe the ref needs to be praised for taking the time to figure it out, or for listening to Jamie Mackie.
That Brexit’s a funny thing; the most likely way of leaving the European Union by the 29 March in a way that minimises damage to the economy has been killed by the people who wanted that to happen.
It’s almost as if those who want Brexit are using it as a political tool to damage members of their own party. Or perhaps they know they’ve got it wrong and are working to grind it into the floor without losing face. Or perhaps they are just fantasists and don’t really know what they want. In short, it looks like those who said they wanted Brexit, don’t actually want Brexit.
Two hundred and twenty miles north of this debacle another was unfolding. Well, not quite; I was quite relieved with the 0-0 draw against Rochdale given what happened at Gillingham on Saturday. The difference between scoring and not scoring, though, was pretty significant. We’re still in the relegation zone, a goal would have put us 18th.
I’ve been pretty calm about the prospect of us going down; we had a tough January and negotiated it reasonably well. Some solid form between then and the end of the season would see us safe. It’s not where we want to be, but I thought we could get to May and restock.
Then I look at the table and see Rochdale are below us, Gillingham were just above us, on Saturday we’ve got Bradford who are also in the relegation zone. Then look further down our fixtures list we’ve got Luton, Doncaster and Charlton. Suddenly we’re running out of the free hits we assumed would get us out of trouble. When are we planning to run into the form which would see us safe? Like a Brexiteer not wanting Brexit, are we’re in a relegation fight but we’re not fighting.
The table gives us a sense of security; everyone else is missing the same opportunities we are. But it’s like a game of reverse chicken. Who is going to take the opportunity to blink and put in the shift needed to get out of trouble?
And this is where I’m beginning to pivot. Our players may not be as good as we’d like to believe, but they’re good enough to sit in a pack of teams with the chance to staying up. Many of our toughest fixtures are behind us and yet, we still seem incapable of creating a run to get us out of trouble. Like Han Solo trying to get to lightspeed and finding the Millennium Falcon failing him at the key moment, why can’t Karl Robinson find the edge that turns draws into wins?
I can’t answer that, but nor can he. I agree he’s been given a raw deal with the off-the-field problems, but he does seem to have been given just about the right tools and time to at least finish higher than 21st.
Robinson simply staring at his team and telling us that it was all supposed to work, there’s a point where you’ve got to get under the bonnet and find out why it isn’t. He may have the ability to deliver results in the right environment; I’m doubting it’s this is the right environment for him.
We are in a division of the finest margins, where the difference between 13th and 21st is four points. We can take a crumb of comfort from this; although it feels like we’re constantly missing the mark, everyone else is in the same boat and we remain very much in the dogfight to stay up. The hope is that we’re sitting at the back of the pack, Mo Farah style, and will surge towards safety just in time for the end of the season.
Certainly stats website Experimental 361 seems to think we’ll be OK, and some analysis from the Oxford Mail pointed towards our comparatively easy run-in as an indicator of hope. But, a bit like the assumption that someone will come to their senses about Brexit and come up with something that will avoid food and medical shortages; who genuinely knows?
The difference between success and failure is hard to fathom in the division; the top five are mostly teams that wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship. But, Luton Town, a historically a benchmark for us, are top. Size alone doesn’t guarantee success.
The next group are looking at mid-table safety – while most have had their successes at this level or above, Wycombe are there. It also features Coventry and Blackpool, who are not exactly known for their stability.
So, what is the key? Despite their off-the-field problems, Coventry have Mark Robins, who is a very capable manager, Wycombe and Luton have established a solid, stable business model. Nobody can argue we’ve enjoyed stability off-the-field and there are many who will argue that Karl Robinson is not a capable manager.
I don’t subscribe to that view wholly, but it is difficult to fathom the logic behind current team selections. Robinson described his bench yesterday as ‘unbelievable’, but didn’t play them. He’ll argue about not changing a winning team, although that ignores how genuinely terrible the first half against Scunthorpe was last week.
That became the Jerome Sinclair show, but it was Gavin Whyte who animated the game coming off the bench.
I don’t think Luke Garbutt is as bad as some suggest, but it is difficult to argue that he has a significant influence over games, yet from somewhere in recent weeks, he’s become a first choice player. With Whyte appearing to be fit, it is hard to see why Garbutt is the preferred option. Someone suggested that Everton may be putting pressure on the club to play him, I don’t know if that happens, but it’s more logical than playing him because of his performances.
All season Marcus Browne has been presented as a finely tuned thoroughbred, constantly on the verge of injury, but he made the bench ahead of Carruthers, so we might assume he was fit to play some part. He remained on the bench.
Mark Sykes has had a reasonable start to his Oxford career, but by his own admission he’s benefitted from John Mousinho’s mentoring. Nick Harris raves about him in away games, but last week he was patchy. Cameron Brannagan is not exactly an old hand, but he was fit and available and didn’t get a sniff.
I could also make arguments for Jamie Hanson over Sam Long or Jamie Mackie over Jerome Sinclair. Although both are less obvious. I understand players carry injuries and that fatigue needs to be managed, but it is hard to see why the more marginal players – Long, Sykes and Garbutt and being consistently preferred to more established players. One or two, I get. More than that, less so.
Robinson can argue that we’ve just come off the back to two wins, and that the defeat to Gillingham was in the last minute. He argues we should have had a penalty, but ignores the fact that without Simon Eastwood’s save, that would have been immaterial. Plus, he’s got Rochdale on Tuesday to think about. It’s always more complicated than fans assume it to be. But, in a division of the finest margins, it feels like we’re marginalising those who give us the edge.
There’s a point every week where I think ‘well, this is a microcosm of our entire season’ then something comes along and changes that. If you look at the table, you can see why it is so difficult to figure out exactly what our season has become – we’ve only had one less defeat and scored five more goals than Coventry in eighth, we’ve only conceded one more goal than Wycombe in 14th, and yet we’re 19th, at half-time yesterday, we were in the relegation zone. It doesn’t seem to matter how they come, winning is what makes the difference.
It is not only difficult to remember a first-half as pedestrian and impotent as yesterdays, it’s hard to imagine how any game of football could be worse. There were moments in which I reflected on our days in the Conference, was it ever as bad? Is this what we’ve become?
The highlight, if that’s the right phrase, was Jordan Graham, our most dynamic player, dribbling just inside our half, unchallenged with space to move into and players available, turning and putting the ball out for a corner. 30 yards out and under no pressure. The corner, then drifted over everyone and bounced out harmlessly for a goal kick. The sequence had ‘gif of how terrible football is’ written all over it.
Inevitably, there were questions about team selection. Luke Garbutt on the wing, Sinclair rather than Mackie, Browne and Whyte on the bench. Mark Sykes split fans down the middle – some thought he looked bright and dynamic, others thought he was a liability and naive. He was a bit of both, his interview afterwards probably explained it best – his instinct is to get forward and seek opportunities as he had done when he was in Ireland. In League 1 you have to be disciplined and he’s still learning that, principally from John Mousinho. There was one point where he broke through, even before his heavy touch wasted the chance, you got the feeling he didn’t have the composure to finish it. It reminds you that professional football is far harder than it looks.
It was hard to believe that the second half could be as bad as a spectacle, although it was easy to see us falling to a similar sucker punch to the one we got against Peterborough.
It did pick up; Whyte came on with his typical spirit. Sykes supplied for Sinclair for the first, John Mousinho’s breathtaking cross had pinpoint accuracy for Sinclair’s second. You know this.
Then, of course, as the unfamiliar feeling of having a comfortable lead was sinking in, Scunthorpe fans were drifting out of the ground and Sinclair was brought off in order to receive his applause, we concede, the referee adds five minutes to the game despite there being almost no action of note and panic sets in. Is that our season in microcosm? Frustration punctuated by moments of joy underlined by periods of farce?
The question has to be what comes next – more joy, more frustration or more farce? It’s hard to tell. What is interesting about yesterday is that despite reservations about the starting line-up, and the significant role Mousinho and Gavin Whyte played turning things around, most of our January transfer window signings played their part. Sykes supplied the first goal, Sinclair scored twice and was cleverer in his general play than most give him credit for, Jordan Graham has been high impact from the moment he got here.
Jerome Sale started comparing Sinclair’s situation to that of Kemar Roofe – a loanee without much of a track record who emerged to be a star. That might be overstating things a little, Roofe is a once-in-a-decade signing, but in the same way that the January transfer window in 2015 played a key role in our survival and then promotion the following year, maybe there are fragments of that here. In the most confusing of seasons, perhaps there is a pattern emerging.
It worked; some fans turned their social media profile pictures upside-down in protest. While hardly an organised political movement, the precise purpose of the protest wasn’t clear. If the fictitious winding up order was the tipping point, you could even read it as demonstrating a degree of sympathy for Firoz Kassam and his unpaid bills.
That might be facetious, but the point stands; if you’ve turned your profile upside-down, what will cause you to turn it back? The removal of Karl Robinson? The departure of Tiger? Avoiding relegation? Winning promotion?
The first step in addressing any problem is recognising there is one. The protest may simply be an acknowledgement that things aren’t right. The next part is defining a solution to that problem. On that front, it’s the expectations are less clear.
Karl Robinson was criticised for saying that the fans shouldn’t turn on Tiger. Criticising Robinson is a habit for some and the response suggested he was pretending things were fine. Read the article and he admits there have been, and are, problems. But what he’s saying is that we shouldn’t mix criticism of what has happened with criticism of Tiger’s intent and will to make it work.
This is a fair point; do fans believe that Tiger has bad intentions? Despite everything, I still think his intentions are for the club to succeed. The OxVox statement suggested that there has been £1million of unexpected expense this season, giving some indication of the complexity he’s encountered.
In the meantime, the season rolls on, which is one of the biggest challenges of dealing with these issues between August and May.
Jordan Graham’s free-kick, which was bordering on world class, won it and took us out of the relegation zone. Graham may well be the difference between relegation and survival this season. Despite injury fears, he’s hit the road running, not only adding a new dimension to our play, but allowing people like Marcus Browne recovery time.
By taking us out of the relegation zone, the result hopefully reminds us that despite everything, relegation is far from a certainty and there is still lots to fight for.
In Game 3 of the last Baseball World Series, the LA Dodgers took 18 innings to beat Boston Red Sox 3-2. In baseball, a pitcher will make about 100 pitches before losing form and being replaced. The Red Sox worked their way through their pitchers for the game and the pitchers they’d planned to use for next game the following day. Their plans for the series appeared wrecked, putting what had been a record-breaking season at jeopardy.
At the end of the marathon, coach Alex Cora was asked what his strategy for the rest of the series was. His response was simple; it was as it had been all year – to win the next game. Amidst all the catastrophising; perhaps we should take a similar approach.
At the start of the week, a group of Labour MPs announced they were forming The Independent Group because they could no longer trust the party system in politics.
The journalist Owen Jones, went on the rampage, working his way through each of the seven picking a personal policy view for each one in an aim to discredit them individually and as a group.
It was the kind of boneheaded attack which is getting us into a mess in all sorts of areas. You might not like one view of one person, but that’s not a sign they are wholly evil or wrong about everything. If The Independent Group stands for anything, it’s debate and nuance over dogmatic ideology.
Inevitably after the defeat to Accrington, a day after another winding up order, the response was understandably enraged; get Tiger out and take Robinson with him. Everything about the current club is wrong. Get Michael Appleton in or even James Constable as he represents the spirit of the club.
Squeezing a complex issue into a view offers no space for debate or discussion. So, let’s break it down a little.
Four winding up orders is not the sign of a well run club. But, they fall into two categories. I have a degree of sympathy for the argument that funding the club from outside the UK is difficult and that unexpected expenses have caused cash flow problems. These have impacted the club’s ability to pay its bills to HMRC. In truth, they appear to have been paid relatively quickly – suggesting there is money – after the PR damage has been done.
Then there’s the most recent winding up order from the stadium company, which appears to be something completely different. The stadium company are clearly tightening the screw on the club, it seems to be a contributory factor to the spat that led to the disbanding of the Oxford United Ultras at the weekend. It may also be a factor in how the team are preparing for match days. We’ve never had a winding up order from Firoz Kassam before, so why now?
It looks like a bit of grandstanding from Firoka designed to embarrass the owners at a time when he knows their stock is low. We can only speculate as to why, and Kassam will always fall back on the argument that they should pay what they owe. But he knows the pressures the club is under financially and winding the club up doesn’t help him longer term – he’d lose his tenant and there aren’t many alternatives out there. Perhaps it was anger and frustration, perhaps it’s a way of moving things on with the stadium discussions, if there are any. It may even be that with the club implying some progress on looking at alternative sites for a new stadium, Kassam is feeling under pressure and reacting accordingly.
I don’t think there’s a finance problem per se, although cashflow is something that needs to be sorted out. I’m assuming HMRC haven’t come knocking recently, so perhaps things are being put in place as Tiger suggested.
The club does have a massive communication problem with both its fans and the stadium company. Tiger appears not to have the time to dedicate to running the club himself, and so he needs an effective operational team with suitable delegated authority to run things on a day-to-day basis. I am often critical of Niall McWilliams who’s job is to nominally run the club. McWilliams might argue that he doesn’t have the cash or authority to run things as they need to be. He either needs that authority, or we need to bring in someone Tiger trusts to get on with things and rebuild damaged relationships.
Third from bottom is not acceptable. Sacking a manager for poor performances would be a completely normal thing to do.
I don’t think Robinson is a bad manager; he did well at MK Dons and dragged Charlton into the play-offs in a pretty toxic environment. He’s not always great in front of a microphone – he speaks too quickly and ends up in cul de sacs where he says things perhaps he shouldn’t. Listen more closely, however and there’s a good philosophy trying to get out. He knows his stuff. He also understands football fans and what they want. Think back to his first interview with Radio Oxford, he knew us, our history and what we wanted.
His problem, I think, is that he seems to be doing everything – club spokesman, manager, scout. When you’ve got too much on, you’re more likely to make mistakes.
He’s also got a family and a career; the notion of him honourably walking away is unfair. When have you walked out of a job, putting you and your family in financial difficulty, because it satisfies some else’s moral code? No, you either look for another job or you stick at it. Let’s not pretend he’s happy or unaware of the situation.
He’s also an employee; he has to work within the constraints he’s given. It may be driving him mad, it may be borderline intolerable, but he has to keep smiling and supporting the machine. We’ve all done it. Don’t assume he’s in collusion with the owner and that they’re plotting to bring the club down or deluded.
It might be that Robinson needs to go to relieve the pressure on him and the club more widely, it’s hard to see a situation where he’s driving us forward with everyone’s backing. However, I’m not convinced that a change of manager would bring a significant change in performance. In some ways it gives the owners an excuse not to sort out their deeper problems. Maybe in the short term there would be a revival, but there are bigger issues to do with money and player recruitment that need sorting out before any manager can come in and perform at his best.
Or James Constable? No.
A recent story about Michael Appleton going to Hibernian summarised his career as being a former Blackburn, Portsmouth and Blackpool manager. No mention of his success with us.
Appleton is tainted by his time working in impossible surroundings. He can’t work magic on his own, the difference with his time at Oxford was that everyone was pushing in the same direction. He thrived in that environment, but it’s not the environment he’d come into now.
Appleton is a theoretician; a scientist of the game. With resourcing, time and support he did wonders, but if you’re going to bring someone in to make an immediate impact, you need a hard nosed results man in the mould of Chris Wilder who is going to drag the team to success regardless of the circumstances.
Perhaps there is an owner and manager package with resources to meet our ambitions ready to step in and improve things, but I haven’t seen it.
In the absence of that, to get out of the hole we’re in we need to break the issues down and deal with them individually. The club needs to rebuild its relationships; with fans and with the stadium company. It needs people with the skills and authority to do that.
Sacking Karl Robinson may provide a short term boost that helps us get out of the relegation zone. But, the manager who replaces him needs to be the kind that will focus on results at all costs. Don’t expect it to be pretty. Think Steve Evans.
But also be careful; sacking Karl Robinson can create the illusion that the club has solved its problems. A nice PR boost for Tiger, but without a plan to replace him or build the club longer term, sacking him might just paper over cracks. If you’re bringing in a new manager, you have to decide why – to get us out of relegation zone, to be better prepared for League 2 (which suggests we’ve given up) or because there’s a new long term strategy with funding and a plan ready to take us forward.
It’s very tight at the bottom, despite Tuesday’s defeat we’re only a point from safety, three from the relative comfort of 17th. It is still within our powers to survive. We don’t, yet, need a miracle. If the club can relieve pressure on Karl Robinson by building positive relations, communicating more and sorting out its cash flow, it might just allow him to do his job, he should have the players. If there’s no prospect of that, then Robinson will continue to be dragged down with the club and someone with a different approach might be needed. Above all, however, let’s not pretend this is simple.
I walked to the stadium before yesterday’s game feeling quite optimistic; it seemed we were coming out of a tunnel. Since Christmas we’ve played teams which are currently second, third and fourth, plus Fleetwood, who we always find tricky, and Burton. In addition, there have been cup games to complicate the schedule. Peterborough, in seventh, brought that difficult sequence to an end.
Before kick-off, we had been unbeaten in the league during that whole period. Some were predicting we might not come out of that phase with a single point. Had we got a win, I think we’d have been happy with what we’d achieved.
A combination of the weather, dark nights and cup games make this part of the season stressful. Even in successful years, how we handled the first six weeks or so of the new year defined our season. 2016 and 2017 were successful, but it exhausted us and effected our run-ins. The other day Gary Neville talked about the ‘boredom’ of the middle of the season, even in successful teams – none of the freshness or expectation of the early part of the season, none of the excitement of the final push.
The day started badly with the Oxford Ultras getting into a spat with the stadium company over their flags. The handling of the Gordon Banks minute’s applause was messed up when there was nobody to announce it. The game started flat and disjointed and stayed there.
It’s easy to turn on Karl Robinson in defeats. To a large extent, he is accountable for the lack of drive in the team, though oddly, despite our position, that’s unusual with this particular set of players.
In a game that probably should have ended 0-0, the difference, of course, was the goal, but you can’t blame Robinson for that. The lapse in concentration has to be down to the players – it’s not like Robinson coached the team to leave Ivan Toney unmarked at a set piece. I can see many arguments for criticising Robinson this season, but yesterday, it was the players who have to take responsibility.
Jerome Sale went on a rant after the game about the toxic relationship between the club and the stadium company; something which extends to the fans. He’s right, it doesn’t matter who is at fault, there’s no escaping that performances are happening within a poisonous atmosphere.
His comments resulted from someone called Nedge, who made a key point that even if the relationship with the stadium company is bad, the club is in control over the relationship it has with the fans. The spat with the Ultras, which resulted in one flag being symbolically hung upside down, symptomatic of the problem.
Complaining is only part of the equation though; standing against how the club is being run is fair enough, but what do you stand for? Certainly, we want to be run on a financially sound basis with bills being paid on time. But only time will tell as to whether that’s been sorted or not. We want good players winning games, but with the transfer window closed, again, this won’t be solved quickly. Above all, we want belonging, we want to be friends with the club and for it to be welcoming. We want humour and warmth and empathy, it’s what we want the most and is what the club has greatest control over. For me, that’s where we are most lacking. Tiger’s distance and opaqueness, and Niall McWilliams’ stultifying offishness, makes the club difficult to love.
If anything, Karl Robinson over-compensates for those failings, he talks about heroes and excitement. He talks about the responsibilities that come with running a club and about history. ‘We run it on your behalf’ is how he put it last week. But he’s also got to be serious and methodical, he’s got to prepare players. He simply can’t be everything. You could sack him, but I think he needs help – not running the team, but removing the responsibility to uphold the whole club.
Ultimately, though, the Peterborough result leaves us just inside the relegation zone; that’s the reality. Many of our hardest games are behind us. I thought we might come out of the tunnel with a win, setting us up to ease towards safety. In fact, we’re in a dog fight. But it’s not all lost yet. We have players, we’re difficult to beat, relegation won’t bring any refreshment or cleansing, it puts us back to where we were before Michael Appleton. While there are so many big-picture issues to resolve, between now and the end of the season, we need to focus on preserving our League 1 position and not giving up on that.
The club worked hard for this one and were rewarded with the biggest crowd, if we discount all the bigger ones. I really like the work that Matt Everett is doing and he was rightly rewarded for his personal crusade.
The market is not easily tricked, though, and it was quite a slog to get over the 10,000 target. For all the success, it was still 200 less than for Luton on a Tuesday night in the Conference. To many of the less dedicated, we were just a team in the relegation zone and they were a team threatening the play-offs – like Peterborough or Doncaster. Sunderland were always going to draw more; but not sell-out more.
Some of the mythologising around Sunderland comes from their relative scale. Though rarely full, the Stadium of Light holds 16,000 more people than the next biggest stadium (Coventry) and is around ten times the size of the smallest (Wimbledon). Plus there’s also no escaping the fact they were in the Premier League less than two years ago.
It’s also helped by their Netflix documentary Sunderland Til I Die, which was supposed to track their return to the Premier League, but actually captured their calamitous fall to where they are today.
The series opens with a scene in a church as a local priest blesses their upcoming season. The first game shows a half-naked fat lad losing his shit in the street after a 5-0 friendly defeat to Celtic. It’s all ‘fabric of the local community’ stuff, though I wonder whether the Nissan factory has greater influence.
There’s also a sharp cut, fast paced sequence of their recent glories. The 1973 FA Cup win over Leeds and then a series of shots, some of which were inevitably caught during various relegation campaigns.
They’re filming the second series and there were cameras all over the place pointing in odd directions. One was trained on Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, Oxford fans and saviours of Sunderland (and Oxford, if we believe Methven). Another was obviously trying to capture those close on-field shots of players’ legs they use as cutaways. Just after the start someone appeared from the tunnel with a small camera, presumably having just captured a player shouting ‘Come on lads!’ as they headed to the pitch.
You wonder what they’re hoping to get; a redemptive story of their return from hell into a step just below the promised land? More disasters? Perhaps the worse thing would be a moderate, but ultimately unsuccessful bid for promotion. That might be exactly what they get.
I’d always seen Sunderland as a big team, but in a West Brom or second to last match on Match of Day kind of way. They were never capacity crowd at the Kassam massive.
Warming up they did have that big club vibe, each player seemed to be working with about three personal sports scientists and psychologists. There were people everywhere.
When they eventually came on for the start of the game, it struck me how small they were. Like a team of Chris Maguires, but without Chris Maguire. One Chris Maguire and his unpredictable talents is great, six or seven is less easy to gel as a unit.
They were quick and tricky, but for all the movement, they lacked any real purpose. Attacks broke down as much because of them getting in a muddle, or over-hitting a pass.
In reality, we had the better chances, Jordan Graham, Josh Ruffels and Jamie Mackie all should have scored. Those chance went in against Portsmouth, they just didn’t here.
Jordan Graham, when he could stay on his feet caused problems down one flank, Gavin Whyte down the other. They had Will Grigg, whose main claim to fame is that there’s a really good song about him, but Whyte was the best Northern Ireland international on the pitch by a country mile.
Their goal, when it came, was simple. One of the Chris Maguires swung over a decent corner, and Dunne – one of their few big lads – connected. Easy. You’d think they’d learn.
As the second-half progressed, it became clear that when you scratch away at the myth, there’s a better than average League 1 team fighting to get out. Their quick, but ineffective passing, started to blow itself out. Inevitable really, and they hadn’t got the cushion of goals they needed.
We seemed better equipped for the 90 minutes. Even creeping past the 80th minute I got a sense that there would at least be a chance for us. We don’t have a big squad, but we look more capable from the bench than we did before the January transfer window.
Was there a foul? I don’t think there was, but wouldn’t have been surprised if the referee had given it. By this point he was in a bit of a mess. Some odd decisions seemed to be influenced by the narrative of a big team being bullied by their inferior opponents. Referees watch Netflix too. Once the crowd twigged that something was up and Jamie Mackie and John Mousinho started to get in his ear, he wasn’t sure what was what. We might be small, but we’re not naive.
So he let it go, Jerome Sinclair, unfairly crucified before he’d stepped on the pitched worked it brilliantly for Marcus Browne and we were level. That was the set piece Everett needed to make all his efforts work at a level beyond pounds and pence.
Afterwards Karl Robinson spoke well about Sinclair; about how academy strikers are taught to be part of a team unit now, not just a selfish goal machines. You’ve got to look at his game, not just his goals. In the past, a striker in his position may have shot, but Browne was better positioned, so he passed. Assists are as important as goals nowadays. Robinson knows his stuff, he just needs to think a little when he’s under pressure. He also talked about what he and his players were doing for ‘our’ club, it was a nice turn of phrase.
It was no less than we deserved; you’d think that we might face the Alamo in the final minutes, but it didn’t come. You can’t survive on myths and legends, or a team of Chris Maguires alone.
A good day all round, the club got the spectacle they were looking for and, for once it didn’t blow up in our face. In reality we were good enough to beat the team, and for that we might be disappointed, but we can be happy with a draw against the myth.
In a division of tiny margins, we seem to have missed every opportunity to take points when they were available. Yesterday, Scunthorpe, Tuesday’s game against Barnsley, the defeat to Luton in the eighth minute of injury time, throwing away two leads to lose to Accrington. The list goes on. Each marginal mistake has a disproportionate effect – yesterday, we failed to snatch a goal and had chances which dribbled inches wide; but as a result we lost 2/3rds of the available points. That’s pretty punishing, all those marginal misses start to add up.
Looking at it, we’ve lost just four league games in our last 19. We’ve lost less games than Coventry in 11th. Nobody in the bottom nine have lost less games. Our goal difference is twice as good as Scunthorpe in 14th. There are seven teams who have scored less goals. Along with Sunderland; we’ve draw more games than anyone. But where they’ve lost two, we’ve lost twelve.
The accumulation of those marginal fails, and the fact we consistently fall on the wrong side of them, means we’re in the relegation zone. Promotion or the play-offs is always going to be an over-performance without more resources. Sunderland’s signing of Will Grigg for £4m shows just how big the gap can be, but a comfortable mid-table safety should be achievable for a club with our resources.
Which brings us to the dilemma; do we recognise we’re in trouble and start again with a new manager or simply deal with it with what we’ve got recognising the differences between success and failure are small. Turning draws into wins is where our difficulty is, we’re no longer being beaten soundly in the way we were at the start of the season. It’s wrong to write-off players like Jerome Sinclair just because he didn’t score yesterday, but some did. And his goalscoring isn’t necessarily the point; the point is, that we need energy up front so we can sustain ourselves as an attacking threat longer than if we have to rely on one player.
I don’t think disrupting the apple cart by getting rid of Karl Robinson is the answer, we aren’t tanking from a performance perspective and the issues that prevent us from making real progress run far beyond his office. Sacking Robinson will make us feel better for a bit because we’ve punished someone and relieved some frustration. As we’re sitting on a marginal line, I would rather we focussed on the 5% extra we need to pick up the points we need rather than risk losing 20% with the disruption.