The wrap – Scunthorpe 3 Oxford United 3

But, I can’t even…

As frustrating as it was, a draw having led 3-0 is still a freak result. I can’t remember the last time it happened to us before Saturday, less still when we did it to someone else. What is tricky about this Oxford side is knowing what was freak about it. Is it that we scored three times? That we conceded three times? That we led so comprehensively away from home? That we capitulated so badly?

Which of those is us, and what’s the freak? It’s so difficult to tell.

The good news is that we would probably have been happy with a draw before we started, and it extended our unbeaten run to 6 games. So, it would appear that the result is not so much a failure as a missed opportunity. Should that be the end of it?

Last week it was announced that Nile Ranger was training with us, apparently unattached players train with clubs all the time, but Ranger is tabloid box office due to his extensive rap sheet of misdemeanours and so the news made the Daily Mail.

This is not the first time we’ve been faced with the dilemma of considering a player surrounded by negative connotations. Adam Chapman killed a man in a car accident and was sent to prison while Luke McCormick was signed to cover a goalkeeping crisis despite having spent time in prison for killing two children while drink driving.

Ranger’s problems are more extensive than both these players, but he’s never killed anyone. He’s been involved in largely petty crime for most of his adult life and has got into disciplinary problems at pretty much every club he’s been to. Understandably, there was little support from the fans for signing him.

But, there was support for re-signing Adam Chapman after his release, and McCormick was, to some degree, accepted when he turned in some half-decent performances. It’s quite difficult to apply different rules to different people facing the same problems. It’s OK to have opinions, but difficult to arbitrarily decide what is acceptable and not depending on personal prejudice. We’re not Tommy Robinson, after all.

Tommy Robinson is quite a good reference here. His failure is to recognise the rule of law. You make a law and then you apply it. You don’t see something you don’t like and make up a law to cover it. So with Ranger, whatever you think of him should really be consistent with whatever you thought of Chapman and McCormick.

To my mind, as a free man he should be treated no differently to any other professional footballer. As difficult as that might feel to us individually, and it does to me, he has to be treated fairly. Karl Robinson is aware of Ranger’s past and said his previous actions aren’t in keeping with the values of the club or a professional footballer. But, if he shows he’s sorted himself out and he can be an asset to the club, then he could get a contract.

I agree with Robinson’s assessment on this, so I don’t object to Ranger being considered. But, the fact we are having this debate is symptomatic of the difficulties we face. In short, we shouldn’t be here in the first place. It’s normal to have players with long-term injuries, but good squads and decent set-ups can absorb those problems and carry on regardless. They don’t find themselves scratching around looking at players who most clubs wouldn’t consider. In simple terms, we’ve been on the back foot  since August.

And so it seems with the Scunthorpe result; freaks happen, they happened under Michael Appleton and Chris Wilder, they happened under Pep Clotet. But, the club needs to be robust enough to minimise the impact of freak happenings. It may be that we threw two points away, but we shouldn’t need those points Saturday as much as we do in the same way we shouldn’t have to scratch around for a striker in the way we are.

The wrap – Oxford United 3 Shrewsbury 0

The father of the bride at a wedding I once went to was heard to say ‘if a wedding made a marriage, I’d have spent more money on it’. Hopefully the bride didn’t hear him rationalise her day into a meaningless frivolity, though she knew what he was like.

It was the same thinking which threatened to derail our 125th anniversary celebrations. The symbolic changing of kit to the colours of Headington United was rationalised as the club ripping off the fans with an over-priced t-shirt. The national press put the boot in – attacking a cynical money making scheme that was nothing of the sort. It got to the point that the club felt the need to issue what almost amounted to an apology. Even the special pricing of £12.50 and £1.25 was questioned by some season ticket holders because they didn’t get a financial benefit from the game.

You can distill football down to its basic transactions – we pay money, we deserve value for that money. If we’re loyal we should get a reward like we’re buying something from Amazon. By extension, perhaps if we lose we should get a refund. If that’s the point of football – to get entertainment in return for money – then it has no point at all.

A special programme, a book from the Oxford Mail, a walk from The Brit to the Kassam, a huge display on the terraces, a parade of previous players; all can be rendered meaningless if you put your mind to it. But then, if you keep going with that thought, the whole thing is pointless. Like if a wedding doesn’t make a marriage; if football is just about getting value for money, then you’d be better going to the cinema.

In 1893 Dr Robert Hitchins and Reverend John Scott-Tucker walked to the Brittania Arms in Headington with an idea about how to occupy young men during the winter. Let’s break that down – they finished their day’s work, probably had something to eat and walked to a local pub to present an idea. You could do that today; walk to your local pub with an idea. Most likely it won’t last a week, let alone 125 years.

Before that idea, there wasn’t a football club, there was precisely nothing. We assume football clubs come into existence fully formed, part of the package that makes a major town or city. It’s just there, forever. But, perhaps millions of ideas for clubs fade and die before they’re born. Thousands last less than a few years, fewer still become institutions that last more than a century.

The idea evolved and grew, it engaged and consumed local people from a city to a county, it battled through two World Wars, countless financial difficulties, one attempted merger, it moved location, it played at the most prestigious stadiums, won national competitions and played and beat some of the best teams in the world. Above all, it was a common thread through generations of people.

The amber shirt, the programme, the walk, the banner, the former players and let’s not forget the win reminded me of how incalculably lucky we are to be part of that idea, to have benefitted from it and to contribute to its lasting legacy. When we die, if we treat it right, the idea will be passed onto to others. A tiny fragment of us, and what we created and curated while we were involved, will live on in the club. Saturday reminded me of that, and that’s why all the effort was important. A wedding doesn’t make a marriage, it reminds you of what you’ve achieved and what you need to protect into the future.

This isn’t a brand invented by venture capitalists and taken to market with a multi-million pound marketing campaigns, it’s an institution created, run and sustained by the people based on a simple idea. We are lucky that the idea endured; that there are people who pushed it through difficult times, who keep it alive, either by putting money into it, or through their endless energy, or just turning up for pointless games, or by playing. A mere interest in the club motivates the efforts of others. Thousands of people, keeping an idea alive, evolving it, changing it, growing it into something else and passing it on; all the while maintaining its core values.

Something for young men to do during the winter months is now something for young and old, men and women to do all year round. If you can’t play, you watch, if you can’t watch you listen, if you can’t listen, you validate just by being interested. Through all the frustrations and difficulties, hopefully it teaches people something about camaraderie, working to achieve things and dedication. Perhaps it changes people’s lives, or gives them moments of light in darkness. Perhaps it just acts as a distraction from a tough life. Maybe it’s just fun and a bit of a laugh with friends. Perhaps those friends help you from time to time. Somehow that simple idea, does amazing things. It’s pretty cool.

So, the 125th anniversary is our anniversary and should be embraced for what it is. Attacking it, cynically crushing or dismissing it damages us and what we stand for. If the club goes, it can’t be replaced, the history, the people, the club. We have a responsibility to treat it right, to pass on the idea we’ve inherited in the best possible way.

The wrap – Charlton Athletic 1 Oxford United 1

Spoiler: I’m not going to talk about Charlton or another decent point or Gavin Whyte’s wonder-strike.

Sometimes you just can’t win. The club have announced a one-off limited edition shirt for the 125th anniversary game against Shrewsbury which will retail for £75. Predictably enough, there’s been a bit of a backlash. It’s a numbered orange and black Puma shirt carrying the original Headington United badge. So far so good?

No, the shirt is from a standard template which makes it both ‘boring’ and ‘overpriced’, and therefore ‘a rip off’.

It’s one of life’s great disappointments to find that almost all football shirts are generic templates being used over and over again. What you think is yours is nothing of the sort. But, if you take a look at Oxford United’s kit history you’ll see there’s not much to work with.

If we’d had a replica of the original kit from 125 years ago, it would have been a yellow polo shirt, like you can get from Marks and Spencer and similar to our 2012/13 kit. After that, and for the best part of 30 years, we wore yellow and blue stripes, a style which sent many Oxford fans into apoplexy when it was re-introduced in 2010.

The chosen design is a nod to our late-Southern League, early-Football League days. Big Ron Atkinson and all that. What many would consider ‘olden days’, but not ‘ancient history’. For the best part of 20 years we stuck rigidly to this livery with only minor variations. Surprisingly enough we’ve never re-visited it. A plain orange shirt may appear boring, but it does represent an untapped part of our heritage.

A shirt doesn’t really mean anything until something significant happens while wearing it. Take the 1986 Milk Cup shirt – another significant design which couldn’t be replicated for the anniversary because it was rebooted in 2015. The yellow is washed out, it has a horizontal shadow stripe; and a sponsor which sounds a bit like a willy. But it was worn on our finest day, and then again in one of our finest seasons, it’s not a nice design, but it is a classic.

With no sponsor, another nod to our heritage, what is left is a plain orange shirt with an old badge on it. Exciting? Not when you distill it down like that, but that’s not really the point. The point is the club are trying to make Saturday a meaningful occasion, and something slightly different is part of it.

Which brings us to the second point – the cost. £75 is expensive for a t-shirt, no doubt. But, that’s not how pricing works. No club shirt is ever really worth it in the sense of cost versus utility (what you wear it for). You could buy a template of the Puma version for £8 and put a badge on it; in fact, someone has. But, that’s the hollow victory of a smart arse because as much as it looks like it, it’s still not the actual shirt. The shirt, plus the badge, plus the occasion, plus the limited availability gives it a value beyond its cost price. What that value is, is ultimately a bit of a punt but it still has the characteristics to be priced at a premium.

Are the club profiting unreasonably from the shirt? If they sell out the whole lot, they’ll make just under £10k. Knock off the cost of the shirts in the first place, the design of the badge and a bunch of tomfoolery around getting it produced, and you’re talking about a profit which pays the salary of a mid-ranking squad player for a month. It’s hardly profiteering.

For something to be collectable, it has to has to have ‘significance’, which is ultimately defined by the collector. If you think the shirt is over-priced and boring, then you’re probably not its target market. There are some people who absolutely love this stuff; others who are cold to it. I sit right in the middle. I could browse the Oxford United Kit History website for hours, but I can’t bring myself to spend hundreds on shirts I don’t have. I’m quite attracted by the novelty of a one-off shirt, regardless of its design. My first reaction was that I could take it or leave it, but I’m now thinking that if it’s in stock and I’ve got the money, I might get one. Am I being ripped off? Well, you could argue 40-odd years of watching mediocre football is a bigger rip-off, but that’s not really the point of supporting your club; I still do it, and so do you.

The wrap – Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 0

I’m in Devon. It’s partly Michael Appleton’s fault. In his first terrible year, I was so bored, I started to form my exit strategy from football fan to football consumer. Before giving up my season ticket completely I decided that I’d no longer wait for the fixtures to come out to make non-footballing plans. So, in 2015 we decided to go on holiday in Devon during half term week regardless of how the fixtures fell, and have been doing it ever since.

Then we had the best season ever and I never gave up my season ticket.

As the result of a traumatic traffic based experience around Cribs Causeway one summer a few years ago which resulted in a similarly traumatic mercy stop at the lawless Gordano Services in peak season to relieve aching bladders and ease mental fatigue, we decided this year to leave early to avoid delays.

We always stop at Chieveley Services, it acts as the gateway to our holiday. I like Chieveley for this and other reasons. If I’d had the foresight to spend my life doing something fulfilling, it would have been to undertake deep anthropological studies of the nation’s service stations on Saturdays.

I love service stations on Saturdays, particularly around lunchtime. You’ll be idly choosing whether to spend your last six pounds on a Mars bar or a single packet of peanuts and you’ll see someone in a Barnsley or Newport shirt come in. Or better still Cindeford Town or Bromsgrove Rovers. Then there’ll be others, bursting for the toilet, or a coffee. They’ll have just decanted from a supporters’ coach, like bees in a smoked out hive, the journey has made them soporific and so it’s time to stretch the legs. It’s less intimidating than a pub, the most aggressive thing that happens is someone asks for an extra gherkin in their Big Mac.

If they’re really daring, there’ll have their eye one of the naughty top shelf magazines. The pack mentality emboldens them. They wouldn’t buy it for their own gratification, obviously, just for laughs; a trophy to take back to the coach.

Incidentally, in a world of plentiful bosoms and vaginal exposure in digital form, this cannot be the way Razzle or Men Only survive in print form. Our local village shop maintains a small selection of specialist gentlemen’s literature. How big is the market for people who are desperate enough to seek sexual stimulation from pictures of naked women, and have enough bravado and means to happily buy this stuff – often from a thickset judgemental woman in her sixties who knows nothing of professional client confidentiality – but who are also not able to access the internet? That’s one venn diagram with a small intersection; which is no reference to something you’d see in Readers’ Wives.

Back at the services. So, ever since I was a child, whenever I’ve seen fans from other teams I’ve followed their fortunes for the day; who they’re playing, what the score was and what that means to their league position.

It’s an underrated branch of study, we know all about football through the lens of the media, and by attending games, but we never talk about the bit in the middle. Service stations are an administrative necessity for going to football, but they act as a cultural clearing house for fans dedicated to their own petty cause. Each one, heading off on a campaign to foreign parts from which a story, of some kind, will emerge. Football is a commonwealth, but it’s only at a motorway service station do we ever meet and accept each other as equals.

So, we’re at Chieveley, but it’s a bit early for most football fans, there’s a hockey team milling around in their team kit, and a couple of people in the colours of Jersey Reds, whoever they are. I still enjoy the hubbub; the curious mixes of inter-generational groups, a woman on her own with more children than she can have reasonably conceived, a couple of such an age that you wouldn’t trust them to leave their own front garden let alone drive down the M4, and another, so appallingly obese their bodies slide at a 45 degree angle from the roles of chin fat as though they’ve been inflated, they are not so much sitting in their chairs as being propped up against them. They are staring in opposite directions furtively as though the empty plates of full English breakfast they have evidently just inhaled are the only thing to have given away their dark secret that heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes are mere moments away.

Within this swill of people and their stories, I see a familiar light-blue top and an even more familiar yellow badge. Chieveley is only 60 miles from Bristol, so it is possible I will see the odd Oxford fan, although unlikely given that there’s still nearly five hours until kick-off. My heart lightens, this must be what it’s like for a panda to have a prospective mate introduced to their enclosure.

But, it’s not a fan, it’s Luke Garbutt, on his own, in his training kit with his washbag under his arm. He looks a little lost, and perhaps he is, he’s a long way from the changing rooms at the Memorial Ground. I hope to see John Mousinho shaking the last drops of wee into a urinal in the gents, or Derek Fazackerley trying the travel cushions fashioned to look like slices of watermelon outside WH Smith, or maybe Shandon Baptiste panic buying an over-priced iPhone accessory from a small kiosk. Perhaps Jamie Mackie is outside contemplating AA membership now he’s over 30 and has to think about his future. But there’s nobody. He’s on his own in what I assume to be a practical measure. Presumably it’s more convenient for him to be picked up by the team coach than to drive down to the Kassam and back along the M4.

I wasn’t bold enough to talk to him, after ‘I’m an Oxford fan’ we have nothing in common. And, let’s face it, being an Oxford fan isn’t something we have in common either. I point him out to my largely disinterested family; “I thought he was just a normal person” said my daughter afterwards. So did I, there he is ambling towards Costa, like, well, a normal person. I feel a bit guilty about whatever I might have said about him in the stands when I didn’t think he was a normal person, but just a footballer. Luckily, it probably isn’t much; he seems to have been OK whenever I’ve seen him.

Obviously I follow his day – which ultimately involved him not playing in our 0-0 draw. I’m pleased with the point; it’s another step in a slow recovery, and also sympathetic to Garbutt whose day seems to have been a largely pointless ball ache. I just hope he knows that they start charging if you park for more than two hours.

The wrap – Oxford United 2 Plymouth Argyle 0

When we did our house up a few years ago, the plumber who came to sort something out opened a door in the loft and was confronted by a myriad of pipes the like of which he’d never seen before. It was like a pit of vipers that had been turned to copper.

It turned out that the previous owner had been a builder, and had built the heating system himself using bits and pieces of pipes and valves from various jobs he’d done all across Europe. It worked, but as soon something went wrong, only he was be able to figure out where the problem was.

It felt a bit like that on Saturday. Despite the furore over Gavin Whyte during the week, the starting eleven was perhaps the best available in terms of both personnel and formation. John Mousinho sitting in midfield like the world’s first free-ranging centre-back was able to protect the back four from it’s own disorganisation. It also protected him from his predilection for getting caught in possession whilst being the last man.

Up front, Jamie Mackie defied age, injury and his ability to play exactly how you’d want him to play –  work hard, batter everyone, complain constantly. Get to the edge of exhaustion or a red card, whichever comes sooner, before getting substituted for someone more mobile. He was brilliant throughout, even in his interview afterwards. If you listened quietly, you could almost hear the words ‘Danny Hylton’ wafting over the airwaves. For a moment, it felt like he was back.

Marcus Browne simplified everything by running in straight lines at ferocious speed, frightening their back-four. He’s a curious specimen; his pace is extraordinary and fabulously damaging, but after each burst he’d have his hands on his knees or be visibly trying to catch his breath. Like a Golden Eagle, hugely powerful and dominant, but every exertion seems to weaken him.

Still, with Browne’s ability to make everyone run in straight lines; Ricky Holmes’ talent to disrupt becomes an asset rather than a confusion to his own players.

It worked, and worked well; it was three points we desperately needed. But it still doesn’t feel like the sustainable solution that is going to give us the 18 more wins we’d need to trouble the play-offs. Like the plumbing system; when everything works its fine, but what happens when it doesn’t? There isn’t another John Mousinho, Marcus Browne or Jamie Mackie in the squad. Each new mix of players produces a different system; some that work fine, some terribly. It is, at best, another holding solution.

Karl Robinson was more subdued, which appeared to be deliberate. For him, it was a no-win situation – a loss would have been catastrophic, a win, against Plymouth, at home was no more than a minimum requirement. For many, it was never going to be more impressive than turning up on time for kick-off. The result, whatever it turned out to be, was never likely to turn public opinion in his favour.

Part of Robinson’s problem was illustrated by the Gavin Whyte affair. He showed all the frustration of a fan in seeing Whyte miss a crucial game to sit on the bench for Northern Ireland, but his bargaining position was limited. As Michael O’Neill said, it’s not his fault League 1 games don’t get postponed during an international break, and the rules are clear about who decides who plays. Plus O’Neill probably had 10 times the media opportunities to get his view across than Robinson.

But, Robinson’s lack of strategic thinking meant his outburst about the disrespect being shown to the club and the disgrace made him look petulant and childish; particularly when it got amplified via various national media outlets to fill time between international games. From a PR perspective, he walked right onto a sucker punch.

With fans already against him, he was always going to look stupid picking a fight he couldn’t win. Fans were always going to spin it to prove their point about his inappropriateness for the role. Had he said, calmly, that he had made attempts to contact O’Neill to see what Whyte’s situation was and whether he could play, omitting all the stuff about it being disrespectful and a disgrace, it wouldn’t have made the national headlines and local fans may have seen Robinson as the hard working, always thinking manager he appears to be. With Sean Derry on interviewing duties, and Robinson spending long periods on the bench, the aim seemed to be to calm the whole situation down and avoid saying something stupid.

Derry said that Southend and then Plymouth were building blocks. Nothing is solved yet. There is no magic – black or otherwise – as Robinson frequently tries to claim, deciding our fate. It is what it is, a win, and that’s all that’s important right now.

The wrap – Southend United 0 Oxford United 0

The phrase ‘get out of our club’ or variations thereof have been bellowed at Karl Robinson more than once in the last week. It’s a phrase that makes me increasingly uncomfortable.

The use of ‘our’ insinuates mob rule which aims to isolate its target. It says ‘we’ are in agreement that ‘you’ are not part of this and therefore have no say. I’m no fan of bullying, and this is the dictionary definition of that.

The second is the implication that Robinson should do the honourable thing and fall on his sword. He should ‘get out’. This would be wholly to his detriment. Whatever you think about the club or Robinson, he has every right to try to fix the problems while the club are prepared to pay him to do that. He has a career to protect, and by extension, a family to support. People very rarely leave their job because of some unwritten moralistic standpoint; they keep working up until they find something better to do or someone tells them to leave.

Therefore, until he is told otherwise, he should be given the opportunity to fix the problems. Moreover, if he does fix them, then those successes should be recognised. A point at Southend does not solve the problems of the last few months, but it is a step in the right direction. For some, there was disappointment that it didn’t fit their preconceived narrative of Robinson’s failings.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to do. We’ve got to claw back five points just to get out of the relegation zone, fourteen to bother the play-offs; which is where success should lie if we’re looking to make progress. In addition, there’s a lot of trust to be won back.

I think relegation is more than avoidable, but the play-offs are a distant hope, and it’s a longer stretch still to think that the fans will fully embrace Robinson. The implication for the club is that without that trust attendances are unlikely to grow. Even if we finish bottom this season, it will be our third highest finish in the last 20 years, but nobody is going to get excited by that.

I think the likelihood of getting near the play-offs are virtually zero. As a result, I think the club have to look at whether Robinson is the long term solution. I wouldn’t argue against it if they decided he wasn’t.

But, I don’t believe he is an incompetent charlatan, nor a dishonourable man. I don’t believe he doesn’t feel it when things go wrong. I don’t believe he shirks work. When people talk about him ‘taking responsibility’ for the issues, he frequently does, but when he tries to explain where he thinks those problems are, which inevitably talks about players not doing what they’re supposed to, it’s viewed as blaming others.

Some of the things he’s done and said recently have been confusing, no doubt. But I think that’s down to the stress of the situation. I don’t think giving Shandon Baptiste the captain’s armband is clever, or disowning the signing of Jamie Hanson. Perhaps in hindsight, he knows these things are wrong. He needs a clear head, and that is going to be increasingly difficult if this run of form continues.

Earlier in the season I said you’d have to take stock after twelve games. That’s where we are at the moment. If Robinson were to be given the sack, then it would be difficult to argue a case against that. If not, then the we have to focus on the next 10 or so, rather than wait for him to get the bullet so we can all salivate over his execution, there’s a lot of lost ground to make up. If Robinson does somehow muster the troops and start moving us forward, then he’ll have my backing. ‘Our’ club’s door should always be open to success.

The wrap – Oxford United 1 Luton Town 2

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.