The wrap: Accrington Stanley 4 Oxford United 2

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.

Tiger out?

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.

Robbo out?

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.

Appleton in?

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.

In conclusion

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.


The wrap – Oxford United 2 Accrington Stanley 3

Success, it is said, is a fine balance between having enough confidence to believe you can achieve something and enough doubt to convince you to put in effort to achieve it. If you are too confident, you may not put the effort in, if you have too much doubt you’ll give up or you won’t start in the first place.

Performance-wise, I didn’t think Tuesday’s defeat to Accrington was too bad at all. I don’t have a benchmark this year, but it seems to me that Karl Robinson wants to play an intense, high-tempo game and in the main we achieved that.

But that kind of game carries risk; if you bomb forward and lose the ball, you’re susceptible to counter-attack. If you pass the ball quickly, one misplaced ball can cost you. If you close down quickly, mistiming can result in a foul. It is no riskier than, say, Pep Clotet’s or Michael Appleton’s approach.

With Clotet, the strategy was to draw teams on by retaining possession in midfield and defence before attacking at pace. In fact, the team would often get lost passing it along the defence and midfield, unsure of when to attack. While the players bought into Michael Appleton’s strategy of simply out-performing your opponents, sometimes we would be out-thought in the process.

So every strategy carries risk. The fact that we lost doesn’t invalidate the strategy. On Tuesday night, the players seemed to have confidence in the approach and bought into it. All over the pitch there were players stepping up, but the fact every step forward resulted in a step back eroded confidence. It wasn’t just the steps back, but the nature of those steps – an own goal and a penalty – like some higher being has decreed we should struggle. You got a sense of the deflation when the penalty was given, as Robinson said afterwards – it just feels like nothing is going right for us.

This should be short term, but we risk drifting into despondency, a loss of confidence that it’s not worth even trying. Karl Robinson’s post-match interview, I think, was designed to avoid that happening. Everyone did everything right, we were unlucky, if the players keep going they’ll be OK.
On the pitch it’s important that senior pros like John Mousinho and Curtis Nelson step up to provide the leadership. I get a sense that Browne doesn’t lack for confidence and Whyte should be pleased with his start. Most areas had positives.

The most volatile group in all this, of course, are the fans, who stayed with the team and appeared encouraged with what they saw. It’s was quite different to the echo-chamber of social media where everything is bad and will continue to be.

I don’t think we’re far away from getting going, but looking at the upcoming fixtures against two teams relegated from the Championship, it’s important that we get a foothold on the season soon. Maintaining confidence won’t last much longer, and then it’s a long way back from Karl Robinson.

Accrington wrap – Oxford United 1 Accrington Stanley 2

Football fans are pretty unforgiving, despite the gasps every time the ball hung in the air from a goal kick on Saturday, the assessment of our performance against Accrington completely discounted the impact the wind had on the game.

First half with the wind at our backs we looked OK, but with the wind in our faces we looked like we were running into a brick wall. Some viewed it as a sign of fatigue, which may be true, although I think mental fatigue is probably a bigger factor right now. The difference between the two teams was not who was more fresh or who had more skill, but who managed the conditions best.

In the first half, Accrington positioned two players on the edge of their own box at goal kicks to guard against the ball not making it out of their half. At one point when playing with the wind they put a player on the edge of our box, way beyond our back line. They knew that the ball would get caught in the wind and the player on the edge of the box meant that Dunkley and Mullins had to deal with it or let it through for a chance on goal.

Once they’d equalised, which was an absolute shambles from our perspective, Stanley could play conservatively – a point would have been fine. They used the wind to get the ball forward and put pressure on us to play, and, because of the way we play with lots of short passing, wait for the possibility of us making a mistake.

Which is where the problems start, we have a playing philosophy which doesn’t account for the conditions its played in. They, on the other hand, played the game that was in front of them. I suppose the idea is that our system should work more often than not. It’s the kind of philosophy that might work for a middle ranking Premier League team whose definition of success is maintain a level of consistency which ensures you don’t fail. But, for a team looking for promotion, can we really afford to wait for the conditions be right for us to succeed?

It’s a gamble, although we’re moving towards March when conditions should start to suit us more. But, if we have too many more games like Saturday we’re going to have to decide whether we want to lose pretty or win ugly.

Coming up: Accrington

The drop

The biggest game, massive, gigantic. If you needed any reminder of how massive this game is both fans and Michael Appleton have implored each other to understand its sheer massiveness.

Way to put pressure on everyone. Yes, a win would be particularly helpful against Accrington at this point in the season. But, Stanley are another of a succession on teams that have appeared in fourth place off the back of a half decent run, and the ineptitude of those around them; Mansfield (now 7th) and Bristol Rovers (8th) have both been our primary threat in recent weeks.

That implies to me that onky three teams have shown consistency this season, and the rest are typical of League 2, producing fitfully throughout the year.

There’s a particularly disingenuous piece in the Northampton Chronicle about Tuesday’s game, but one this Chris Wilder does say is that football is a physical, technical, tactical and psychological game; if we perform consistently in all four areas, then we should be just fine.

Old game of the day

Coming up: Accrington Stanley

The drop

Our trip to The North was supposed to give us a bit of rest bite before tougher fixtures later in the month, which includes the amuse bouche against Swindon on Tuesday. Our midweek win against York was more stressful than it had any need to be and next is promotion chasing Accrington Stanley.
Stanley are defying gravity at the moment. By rights they shouldn’t exist at all; surrounded, as they are, by a stack of larger, more established clubs. If the fact they exist is a bit of a miracle, their current position of fourth in the table even more so.
My guess is we won’t see them in this position in May; injuries and general fatigue will begin to kick-in and that’s when resources really start to count. Those around them look more equipped to cope as we head into the deep winter. In reality, rather than chasing promotion, they’re really banking points to ensure safety.
While things are going well, there’s a sense of invincibility and confidence, the trick is to break their spirit at the moment they think they can’t be beaten. Saturday could be that day.

 

Old game of the day

Who are they? Now, here are two clubs who share a peculiar history. Both teams’ most high profile moments are synonymous with the marketing of milk. When we came into the league we replaced them, when they came into the league, they replaced us. Yet, our first ever fixture was just five years ago. A fixture wholly archived by YouTube.

This one is probably the best of the lot; a rip-snorting cup game from 2012. Days after the death of Mitchell Cole, we seemed to be carried on a wave of emotion. Michael Raynes is one of my favourite players of recent years, so his last minute goal is particularly sweet.

From the blog

“I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon. A win is definitely better than a defeat; I am not one of those people who claims to want to see their team lose to affect a change of manager. For one, that’s a buffoon’s logic and two; from what I hear of him, I quite like Michael Appleton. I’m not convinced by him as a manager for obvious, tangible, reasons, but he speaks well and appears willing to take responsibility for his team. I don’t particularly like myself for not being convinced by him as a professional.”

A win is a win

A win is a win, right? Well, yes, and no.

I found the standing ovations for Callum O’Dowda, Brian Howard and Danny Hylton slightly troubling. Not because they didn’t, in their own ways, have very good games against Accrington. It was because it reminded me of a phenomenon that seemed to arise in the late days of The Manor and early Kassam years. Despite ever falling quality of our performances, the frequency of standing ovations at substitutions increased.

There was a time at The Manor when you knew a player had done something special by the wave of people rising to their feet in the Beech Road stand. It happened very rarely. By the end of the Millennium, simply running around in a yellow shirt had become reason for wild applause. Our standards had slipped.

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon. A win is definitely better than a defeat; I am not one of those people who claims to want to see their team lose to affect a change of manager. For one, that’s a buffoon’s logic and two; from what I hear of him, I quite like Michael Appleton. I’m not convinced by him as a manager for obvious, tangible, reasons, but he speaks well and appears willing to take responsibility for his team. I don’t particularly like myself for not being convinced by him as a professional.

And, I’ve had worse Tuesday nights at The Kassam; Howard’s ball to Hylton for the first was excellent and Collins’ goal was spectacular, Callum O’Dowda’s performance shows he’s developing well and there was plenty of entertaining, attacking football to watch. As an isolated 90 minutes, it was definitely entertaining.

But. This was us winning against a moderate team, at home, who had ten men in order to pull within a point of the fourth bottom team of the whole football league. We hadn’t won in seven games – it wasn’t a must-win game, it was a ‘should win’ game by virtue of the law of averages alone. On other days Collins’ shot sails over, Barnett wouldn’t have been given such a daft opportunity and the referee would miss the sending off and it all ends up decidedly more close than it was. Eventually it was going to come together, but could you say it’s the start of something?

While it would be great to be goldfish-like and receive every victory like it was the best one we’d ever seen, the win remains tempered by the context. Last year; and in fact, for the last 8 years, we have had aspirations of winning promotions. And, particularly early in those seasons wins meant going top, or staying in the play-offs, they dared us to dream.

I don’t expect every game to have the same feeling as a win at Wembley or in a derby, but while I am satisfied with the win over Accrington, I can’t quite get excited about it in the context of our terrible start to the season.

Perhaps this is the start of something; but there’s still a lot to resolve before it becomes clearer as to whether it is or not. Can Hoskins and Howard stay fit? And Hylton? And Clarke and Whing? Has whatever turned Tyrone Barnett from a million pound player to a free transfer in two years been left behind at his former club? Does Appleton have the ability? Does Eales and Ashton have the money?

This will only become clear when looking at the context; in other words, the runs we go on. If we’re to even have an average season we’re going to have to hit a run to compensate the awful start – five or six wins in seven or eight games, that kind of thing. If we’re actually going for promotion; which seems frankly ridiculous right now, that run will have to be more sustained. Was there enough evidence from the Accrington game to suggest we will put that kind of run together? No, because it’s impossible to judge over 90 minutes.

It’s not easy; football should be a visceral and spontaneous experience. But, it’s difficult to divorce the experience of a game from what’s going on around it. Perhaps that’s a plague of growing up; it creates a clutter of history; a ramshackle filing cabinet in my head full of scraps of memories. So, Callum O’Dowda’s performance had me delving into that filing cabinet to try and remember how it compared to Joey Beauchamp and Paul Powell, Collins’ goal was quickly compared to Leven’s. A win is tempered by the context in which it happens; good in itself, but far from conclusive as to whether this is the beginnings of the return of the good times.

Any other business

The end of the home campaign was, perhaps inevitably, a major non-event. It leaves us with little more to do than mop up the bits and pieces of any other business.

The home campaign ended as if it were a dying elderly relative; there was a sense of sadness, but a far greater sense of inevitability and relief.  Far from the dizzying hedonism you see around other grounds at this time of year; end of season at the Kassam is, once again, anti-climactic. Last year felt like the end of something, this year feels like the end of something, is this just the slow ending of everything?

Farewell Beano?
It seemed to come very late in the week, but there was a sudden dawning that the Accrington game could be the last we’d see of James Constable at the Kassam. He sits just two short of the all-time goalscoring record.

Constable hasn’t exactly been negotiating himself into a strong position making repeated claims on Twitter that he’s desperate to sign again. Would Gary Waddock be similarly desperate? It seems unlikely, as despite the folklore that has built up around Constable, he simply doesn’t score frequently enough to make a new contract an inevitability.

What may be more significant is what happens around Constable. It seems unlikely that Deane Smalley will get a new contract having cashed his chips in terms of performances and it seems inconceivable that he might be kept over Constable. Could Waddock recover from the PR disaster that would result?

Dave Kitson seems also to be heading for the door, albeit more by his own volition. There’s no doubt that Kitson is different, sometimes a different class, but not always. His fight seems to have gone and any enthusiasm for the game is fitful at best. This is no real surprise if you constantly ache all over from a career in the game, you have a fledgling, but secret, second career as a journalist and you’re earning £10k a month from your former employers. Whether the Kitson experiment has worked or not is questionable.

That would leave Constable as the only out-and-out striker at the club. Is Waddock brave enough to strip out his strike force out completely? Sure, he’s angry, but I doubt it, he doesn’t have much capital himself after the end-of-season we’ve had. Constable does something to the team and squad, although perhaps not at the salary he’s currently on, which may be a sticking point. Constable has probably one more contract in him as a functioning first choice striker at this level. After which, he is likely to be on a glide path to retirement via a series of Conference and League 2 clubs. He’s not likely to attract too many Swindon-type bids anymore. Northampton on a free is a possible destination, of course.

Keepergate
Late on Saturday night Wayne Brown tweeted that both Ryan Clarke and Max Crocombe were too good for Oxford. There was a predictable reaction from some Oxford fans. No doubt it was a clumsy way of putting it, but he’s probably right. I don’t know so much about Crocombe, but certainly Clarke could play at a higher level.

But, footballers are like house prices, they are only worth what others are prepared to pay for them. Clarke, like Constable, is at a stage in his career where he should expect first team football. But are clubs investing in goalkeepers of Clarke’s age? I’m not sure. It seems clubs are investing in young prospects or reliable veterans. Clarke is not quite either, and while he’s under contract, the prospect of paying a fee when others are available is likely to put many off.

Oxblogger player of the season
There’s no doubt that Ryan Clarke’s performances, particularly towards the end of the season, have been a rare highlight. However, I think if you look over most of the season; you’ll find his performances were less spectacular. That’s simply because we were playing better and he had less to do. As such, the vote for Clarke was really a reflection of his recent form than for his play over the whole season.

It’s funny how quickly players drop from the consciousness when they get injured. For me, the player who has performed consistently well throughout the year and made Clarke’s job far easier earlier in the year is Johnny Mullins.

Does Ian Lenagan really want it?
One underlying criticism is that Ian Lenagan is reluctant to invest to succeed. I don’t believe that it’s possible to deliberately steer any business, let alone one as unpredictable as a football club, to the brink of success but not to success itself. If someone had the ability to invest 95% of what it takes to be 95% successful, wouldn’t you use that same ability to invest so precisely to get the right result? It would require such immense skill to be so precariously close to success, that skill could similarly be used to actually succeed.

I don’t buy the idea that Ian Lenagan is deliberately preventing us from getting promoted. I can however, believe that Lenagan won’t pay over the odds to achieve what he wants to achieve. He won’t, for example, do what Manchester City and Chelsea do and pay 150% to become 100% successful. That makes no sense unless you’re drowning in money and so damaged that you need to buy that kind of false happiness. Firstly, I don’t believe that Lenagan has the money to be so profligate, secondly, even if he does, it is not in his manner to risk himself and the club through reckless spending.

No, Lenagan won’t be bullied into making short-term, speculative purchases to achieve success. That’s why we got Nicky Wroe and David Connolley and not a whole new team of loanees at Christmas. A moderate investment to push us over the line. At the time is seemed proportional, afterwards, of course, it appears lacking ambition. It isn’t to everyone’s taste, but Lenagan isn’t going to bet the farm to achieve instant success.