George Lawrence’s Shorts: Karlito’s away

Saturday 22 February 2020

The big back wheels fell off The Tractor Boys’ promotion hopes on Saturday as Oxford strolled to a win 1-0 at Ipswich Town. Matty Taylor and James Henry combined to harvest the winner just before half-time.  

Sunday 23 Feb February 2020

Shandon The Baptiste has been talking about his step up to the Championship. ‘It’s the intensity that’s different’, said Baptiste reading from his Beginners Guide To Things To Say When Stepping Up A Division. The mind boggles when KRob’s ‘low intensity’ is like having colonic irrigation from a Karcher jet washer.

Monday 24 February 2020

Accrington are in town tomorrow and we’ve got some injury woes. Nathan Holland, Jedward Orphan Mark Sykes and Anthony Forde are all doubts. As a result Rob Atkinson has been recalled from Eastleigh. If Oxford United do throw away their chances of promotion, it’ll probably hit one of our midfielders and put them out of the game for six months.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Accrington, a team that was formed solely for the purpose of being a punchline to a milk advert, were semi-skimmed alive on Tuesday in a 3-0 win. Matty Taylor delivered the first before James Henry had the bottle to add a second, Taylor gold-topped it off with the third. We are now in such great form only a global pandemic can stop us.

The game was marred by the news that the club have turned down a move from Blackpool for KRob. It was the most unwelcome proposition in Blackpool since Rear View Rita, the landlady of the Seafront Vista B&B, suggestively offered GLS an extra special donkey ride on holiday last year.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

The club have acted quickly to quash those Blackpool rumours as KRob stood by smiling awkwardly like a Tory MP’s wife after he’d been caught in a flat in Streatham wearing a nappy and snorting talcum powder. 

Elsewhere, Shandon The Baptiste has continued his goalscoring form at Brentford neatly slotting past his own goalkeeper after nine minutes against Luton Town.

Thursday 27 February 2020

It was the Six Minute Forty One Second Fans Forum with KRob on Thursday, who at the time of writing is the manager of Oxford United. In it he removed all doubts about his future saying that the board hadn’t given him any reassurances and he didn’t want a new contract. He also reminded us how he walked out on Charlton mid-season. He’ll be on holiday when the club have their pre-season training camp in Spain and if we end up playing Swindon next season getting a good result it’ll be ‘nothing to do with him’. So that’s quashed that one.

Friday 28 February 2020

The greatest mind in football, Brexit Sol Campbell brings his Southend side to the Kassam on Saturday. Brexit Sol is on a different paradigm to us mortals, he joined the Shrimpers with the explicit intention of getting them out of the division as quickly as possible. So, while everyone else tries to get out via the top, Sol’s found a secret exit at the other end nobody else has thought of. Genius. He reckons with the application of his great intellect, he’ll be out of there by March.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Accrington Stanley 0

Brinyhoof and I were talking about the Conference Play-Off semi-final against Rushden during our win over Accrington. He couldn’t remember whether he was at the game, what the score was or who scored. I can’t distinguish between George Thorne and Anthony Forde, so I can forgive him his forgetfulness.

My summary of the Rushden game was that it was a big game which went entirely to plan. In a sense, the Accrington game was similar; nobody saw it as a big game in terms of crowd or anticipation, but a comfortable three points was expected. And it delivered; a non-event of the highest quality.

The texture for the evening came from the news the club have turned down an approach from Blackpool for Karl Robinson. It had been mentioned a few days ago, but was given added credibility by Jacqui Oakley who was covering the game for Sky. 

Robinson claimed ignorance and the club were quick to confirm both the rumour and why Robinson seemed so blindsided.

For some, Robinson’s post-Accrington interview was a broadside at the board about what happened in January; a hand crafted threat to back him or he’ll walk. 

But, Robinson is not usually the most considered interviewee and the board are prone to its own missteps. So, the idea that everyone was suddenly hardballing in a game of high stakes nine dimensional chess seems unlikely.

The club’s claim that the offer came in before the Accrington game leaving no time to discuss it with Robinson is entirely logical. It’s certainly more logical than the conspiracy theories being hatched on Twitter.

But, it did raise an important point; Accrington are a team built to survive League 1; big, strong and organised and we showed ourselves to be a class apart from that. I genuinely think we’re capable of making the play-offs and even getting promoted, our weakness being the depth we have in the squad to sustain the form we need over a long period. With things beginning to fall our way at the right time, a play-off spot is not out of the question.

But, this summer our loans will return to their host clubs and we’ll probably lose a couple of players to high spending Championship sides. This will make us weaker than we are currently are, even with promotion. Pep Clotet faced similar blight losing John Lundstram and Marvin Johnson, along with Chris Maguire and Conor McAnely in 2017. The small but solid squad he inherited suddenly had gaping holes in it. 

This summer, the club will have to work hard to maintain its current position, harder still to move on from it. If we are in the Championship, we’d have to bridge, or at least narrow the financial gap between League 1 (with teams turning over around £6m a year) and the division above (around £25m).

For Karl Robinson there’s a decision take as to whether he feels able to recover from any losses he might sustain in the squad over the summer, and whether there’s any prospect of moving beyond the status quo to the fabled ‘next level’. If there are other clubs out there more readily able to meet those needs, we’re naturally vulnerable. Whether Blackpool offers that specifically, I don’t know, but someone out there will. 

For the board, it’s a question of whether they are willing or able to step beyond our current comfort zone. That’s no demand that they should, the club’s future is more important, but pragmatically, the club will eventually have to keep pace with the growing ambition of those who are making it the success it currently is.

As we get to the end of February, things are falling into place for a genuine charge towards the play-offs and beyond. It’s time to enjoy the ride and see where it takes us, but that shouldn’t prevent us, and Robinson from thinking… and then what?

Midweek fixture: FA Cup 2nd Round memories

There’s no such thing as a good FA Cup 2nd Round game; it doesn’t have the anticipation of the 1st Round, nor the prospective glory of the 3rd Round. Although sometimes it’s OK.

2018 Plymouth Argyle 2-1

2018/19 was a difficult season, particularly on the road; we couldn’t buy a win until late in the season. There was a grim inevitability about our trip to Plymouth in November. Or was there?

2013 – Wrexham 2-1

After a delayed 1st Round game at Gateshead, we faced Wrexham just four days later. It looked like we might end up on the end of a giant killing until James Constable sparked a revival.

2012 – Accrington Stanley 3-3

So much more than a game. After it was announced that former Oxford player Mitchell Cole had died from the heart condition, we headed to Accrington Stanley for a tie which just wouldn’t let up. 2-1 down with four minutes to go, 3-2 down 2 minutes into injury time, then Michael Raynes popped up at the back post. A game of pure spirit. Afterwards Chris Wilder was absolutely magnificent.

2002 – Swindon Town 1-0

OK, sometimes the second round can serve up something special. Swindon Town visited the Kassam for the first time in 2003. It was Jefferson Louis who stole the show glancing home the winner. Then he immortalised himself in Oxford folk lore being filmed naked live on TV while celebrating our third round draw with Arsenal.

1995 – Northampton Town 2-0

A couple of weeks after beating Dorchester 9-1 in the first round, Northampton came to The Manor. The win catapulted us forward to a memorable cup run and, in the league, promotion.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Potato ROFLs

Saturday 5 October 2019

At the Wham Stadium on Saturday Tariqe Fosu proved He’s Our Man opening the goalscoring against victorian non-leaguers Accrington Stanley. Young Gun, Cameron Brannagain saw an opportunity to Go For It from 25 yards to make it 2-1 before we were pegged back to 2-2 with a low strike to the left of the goal; or was it a Different Corner? Jamie Mackie was booked for Careless Whispers with the ref.

Monday 7 October 2019

Liverpool wunderkind Ben Woodburn had a little bump playing with the big boys on Saturday. He was a very brave and didn’t cry, after a cold compress, a cuddle, a Paw Patrol plaster and twelve weeks on the sidelines and he’ll be out to play again. 

Tuesday 8 October 2019

In the MySpace.com Trophy, Oxford won through after losing in the draw against Portsmouth. The game of futility wrapped in a cloak of pointlessness, balanced on a plinth on inconsequentiality ended 2-2, with goals from Matty Taylor and Rob Dickie which left Pompey with the humiliation of having to win the penalty shoot-out and pretend it meant something.

In alopecia news; dome bonced Conference crushing pass-master Adam Murray has taken over as Barnsley manager after Daniel Stendel was sacked.  

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Weekly Scottish full-back news (that isn’t about Chris Cadden bowel movements or ice cream preferences): former loanee Todd Kane could be set to join the Scotland squad

Thursday 10 October 2019

After legitimate ice hockey fan and player Petr Chech joined Guilford Phoenix as a way of keeping fit during his retirement, Oxford City Stars announced the absolute mega-lolz and cry-face emoji news that the greatest Oxford goalscorer with a head shaped like a potato, James Constable, had signed for them. It was double ROFLs from hairdo’s worst nightmare Greig Box Turnbull who cracked the joke to acceptable apathy on Twitter a few hours before doubling down on it in a press release which was also royally ignored. As GLS knows more than most, there’s nothing funnier than a re-fried joke.

It was the Five Minute Thirty-Eight Second fans forum on Radio Oxford on Thursday with KRob. One fan asked whether we talk too much about formations before KRob talked too much about formations – inadvertently giving out his credit card PIN in the process. There was also extended chat about his sweat patches. And people think he talks too much.

Friday 11 October 2019

It’s Doncaster tomorrow and the air will be filled with a chorus of “We’re by far the 427th greatest team, the world has ever seen”. Website FiveThirtyEight – a team of crack statistical virgins – has ranked 628 teams from around the world. We were the third highest League 1 team, comfortably nestled in between Argentinians, Godoy Cruz and Sochaux of Switzerland, and 152 places ahead of Swindon, obviously. GLS doesn’t know how the rankings were done; so we looked at the methodology and realise that we don’t care.

Match wrap: Accrington Stanley 2 Oxford United 2

It wasn’t a question of if, it was always a question of when. When would we concede and when would we drop points? The longer our run of results went on, the closer they were to ending. We knew that, we just hoped it wasn’t true.

Another nagging question that hangs in the air is; what now? We’re the life and soul of the party; entertaining, dynamic and fun at our best; but can we keep it going or will we end up sobbing uncontrollably in the corner when the lights go on?

It is still difficult to fully trust this team; even when I talk about ‘team’ I’m not sure who I’m talking about. The squad clearly has plenty of ability and it rattles along at such a pace that the potential for the wheels to fall off remains very real.

After the Accrington game Cameron Brannagan was talking about the Portsmouth game on Tuesday as though it were a league match. ‘I’m a machine’ he said. It’s a machine whose throttle is permanently pressed to the floor.

But there is no better illustration of the risk than the substitution of Ben Woodburn for Anthony Forde and then Forde for Alex Gorrin in the first half. Gorrin had been rested because he’s been one booking from a ban since the opening weeks of the season.

Those injuries to Woodburn and Forde, along with Thorne and Hanson seem to be the collateral damage of the way we play. Two others are a booking away from a ban and we’ve had more bookings than anyone else in the division.

Karl Robinson creates so much heat and light through his boundless energy that for every last minute win, giant killing and breakneck run of results, there’s another player risking ban or six-week spell on the sidelines due to injury. No wonder he’s still looking to bring in more players in, he burns through them at such a rate.

For Robinson, this is probably how he’s lived his whole career – it’s probably normal to him. Powering on, hoovering up experiences, never looking back at the consequences. But, can we sustain this for the next eight months? Eight weeks? Even the next eight days?

There’s a notable chill in the air, which means things are getting serious. We’re about to go into a period of about four months where everything gets disrupted; cup games – with the addition of the League Cup – and international breaks are shoehorned in between the League.

I’m torn between enjoying the moments and building a sustainable club one block at a time. We’re ninth in the table, if we have a top 10 budget, then we’re exactly where we should be. Sometimes I feel we need to be more conservative because our peers are teams like Accrington, Wycombe, Burton and Wimbledon – conservative, sustainable and pragmatic.

We have Doncaster, Rotherham, Sunderland (in the League Cup), Ipswich and Portsmouth coming up. It’s a group of clubs which we would aspire to being part of. Perhaps we already are and this is the way we need to play to maintain our position or go higher.

Maybe the problem isn’t the team or Karl Robinson, perhaps it’s just me.

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.