Coming up: Wimbledon

The drop

This is a game that’s got a bit lost what with all the noise around the Swindon game. But it is more important in the great scheme of things. We’ve banked six points from two league games and with Plymouth and Leyton Orient coming up another three will make those games less fraught, particularly with Barnet at home at the end of the month, you might argue that a win in this game and that one will make the Plymouth and Orient results almost (but only almost) academic.

In many ways Tuesday was perfect; the atmosphere was amazing, the performance was flawless and the result, of course, couldn’t have been better. There will be a sense of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’ about this one. That brings it’s own challenges, but I get a sense we can cope with that.

Old game of the day

Oxford v Wimbledon; the most 80s fixture in League 2? So, here’s a League Cup tie from 1987 which goes quite a long way in showing that being Against Modern Football doesn’t necessarily mean that old football was better.

Exhibit A is Wimbledon nearly scoring the most Wimbledony goal you’ll ever see from a Dave Beasant punt, and a goalmouth scramble at the end which wouldn’t look out of place in a park game. The only thing uglier than this game was Wimbledon’s red and green kit.

From the blog

When we faced Wimbledon on Boxing Day 2011, the stench of nostalgia was in the air.

“Sky’s Boxing Day treat for those suffering from turkey reflux was pure 80s throwback. It was a decision that can only have been made by those battling with the ills of their late-30s. That generation of eternal children, with their converse trainers and ironic t-shirts, who have surfed the property boom without ever having to grow up. Now, with the dawning of the age of austerity and the end of the consumer electronics orgy, these souls are lost. Christmas needs re-defining, and where better to look for it than the magical Christmases of their childhood when a pinstripe Liverpool shirt* as a present was the pinnacle of all life’s possibilities and Oxford and Wimbledon were resolutely top-flight.” 

Read on.

Accrington wrap – Accrington Stanley 1 Oxford United 3

We all know Danny Hylton, he’s one of those crazy guys who just loves the game. His brains are in his boots. Booting the ball away late on in the win over Accrington when all was done and dusted was just an act of impetuous enthusiasm. But, oh no! He’s going to miss the game against Swindon and will only just be back in time for the league game against Wimbledon next weekend. If only he’d thought about the impact of drawing a pointless booking beforehand!

The Swindon game is proving to be something of a godsend. OK, it is important and we do want to win it. But it’s also an opportunity for Danny Hylton to sit out a game without it having any impact on our promotion campaign (I mean, we all know this right? We are now in a promotion campaign).

Having banked six points from two away games, including an unreasonably in-form Accrington, it would be easy to think of next week’s home game against Wimbledon (in 13th) as another banker. We are hopelessly optimistic like this. But for a club like Oxford, complacency has always been a curse.

Some have talked about the distraction of the Swindon game, but I think it could prove to be just the right kind of distraction. In addition to Hylton’s Suspension of Convenience, it’s a big pile of cash that the club wouldn’t have budgeted for.

And, it breaks up the sequence of league games between the two wins in the north and next week’s Wimbledon game. If it weren’t there, we’d probably spend all week convincing ourselves of how easy it was going to be. And, if history tells us anything, we’d probably fluff it.

A promotion will prove a major step forward for the club, whereas a win against Swindon will be a fun night but not much more. So, if you want to think of it as our cup final, the phrase of derision their fans level at us, then why the hell not? It’s a one-off game we’d love to win just for the glory. If we lose, it’ll be bitter, but not fatal and will help us recognise our own mortality and the hard work and focus needed to get three points against Wimbledon. I suppose we could be thanking Swindon for helping us keep our promotion charge on track.

Should I let my daughter become an Arsenal fan?

Somewhere in the back of my mind is a memory of a photo. It is of a Wimbledon team celebrating in a changing room. Maybe it was after a promotion was confirmed or perhaps it was an FA Cup win (but, not THAT FA Cup win). The team are in white, as far as I recall. Very vaguely, I remember it being shown on World of Sport or Grandstand, but I can’t be certain as to why. What I associate with this photo is that it was the first time I became aware of a phenomenon called Wimbledon and their then manager Dave Basset.

Wimbledon were in the process of doing something remarkable, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. To be honest, I never wholly bought the romanticism of what they eventually achieved; there was very little panache in their approach and we were living out our own glory days, which was much more important and interesting.

Still, nowadays Oxford v Wimbledon does leave me feeling somewhat nostalgic for a glorious past, even if Saturday’s game proved that the reality of the ‘now’ can be a bucket of cold sick over the sepia world of ‘then’.

That photo, and both teams’ remarkable rise through the divisions happened when I was about 12 or 13. I’d been going regularly to the Manor for a few years before that, the magic pretty much happened as soon as I started going, no wonder it hooked me in.

My daughter, M, is 8. That’s about the age I started going to the Manor on a regular basis. She loves football and has been to a couple of Oxford games. She says she supports Oxford, but there hasn’t been a lot to entrance her in the way it did for me. When I was around her age, my dad and I queued for tickets for games against Manchester United and Arsenal, we eventually saw us at Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Highbury and Wembley. That isn’t happening for M, and even if we did find ourselves drawn against a big boy in the cup, we can safely say we’d be annihilated.

M has Oxford shirts, she’s shown an interest in Crystal Palace, because a boy in her class is a fan. She has periodically flitted between all the big teams; Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, depending on who is on TV at the time.

In recent months she seems to have has settled on Arsenal, I have a soft spot for Arsenal myself because I used to go to Highbury fairly often as a child. I’m reasonably happy to accept this growing affinity. But now Christmas is coming and I’m toying with the idea that, perhaps, I should cement it and get her a Arsenal shirt.

This would potentially undermine any loyalty she might have towards Oxford, of course. But, in every other area of life you want the best for your children, why insist she be burdened with misery and failure by trying to force them into something as ungiving as a lower-league football club.

Supporting two teams isn’t necessarily new; my dad supported both Wolves and Oxford, I followed Ipswich in the early eighties while going to the Manor. The puritan in me wants M to support one team, her local team, in the way you’re supposed to. But perhaps we should be a bit more like the French in their attitude to sex and marriage – you have a wife for the practicalities in life, and a mistress for fun. Are we expecting too much for our children to get everything they want from one club?

The alternative might be another shirt from Europe, but Real Madrid or Barcelona both seem so obvious; a bridge too far. I was in Rotterdam recently and looked into getting a Feyenoord shirt, but that seemed was a very expensive way of being counter-culture, and she wouldn’t have appreciated the nuance of my decision. National shirts are an option, but I’m not English, at least not wholly. I have a strong sense of my Scottish-ness, probably because when I was growing up, Scotland were the dominant British team or at least on par with the English. Could I bear her in an England shirt, should I spare her the indignity of a Scottish one?

There are a lot of practical benefits of allowing her to become an Arsenal fan; they are on the TV quite a lot and win trophies (occasionally). My gnarled mind, riddled with the evil politics of modern football, cannot abide the thought of having a Chelsea or Manchester City fan in the family, Manchester United and Liverpool are more acceptable because their success is, at least, borne out of their success, Arsenal too. When she realises that Chelsea win everything, she may go back to them, so is it time now to bank what I’ve got and hope that as she grows up, a fondness for Oxford grows and overshadows the flighty glamour of the Premier League?

What next? A revolution?

From the state funeral that was BBC Radio Oxford’s What Next?, to David Connolly’s moment of class, this weekend felt like something of a turning point.

There was an odd connotation to the title ‘What’s Next?’ – the name of the Radio Oxford post-Wilder special on Friday. It implied a sense of desolation and emptiness. It’s the ‘What’ bit; ‘Who’s next?’ suggests we’re talking about people, ‘Where next’ implies direction. ‘What next’ suggests there’s no obvious future, a void.

There was something of the state funeral about its positioning. In most clubs, the change of manager probably wouldn’t demand a clearing of the local radio schedules, but this is the first time we’ve been looking for a new manager for over half a decade. This is an eternity in football, so perhaps there is a degree of public service in providing a platform to share thoughts on the matter. For sure, I viewed the length of Chris Wilder’s tenure; the third longest in English football, with pride. After a decade or so of being the club that changed manager almost every year, to become a paragon of stability – what the ‘thinking’ football fraternity believe is missing from most clubs – was something to be proud of.

The sense of loss didn’t transfer into the programme itself. In reality, it was a group of polite gentlemen who didn’t really know what was going on punctuated by the hysterical rantings of buffoons on the phone who think they did. That was probably a fair reflection of the supporter profile of almost every club. It was a bit like any Radio Oxford post-match phone in, just without the distraction of a game to talk about.

Ian Lenagan seemed to speak with a degree of extra freedom, that’s not to suggest that he was in some way being shackled by Chris Wilder. There was just nothing to defend – managerial appointments, investment, player acquisitions, he simply had to explain what would happen next.

If Lenagan has appeared uncomfortable in the media, perhaps it’s not a surprise. The manager is usually the focal point of a football club. The owner is often portrayed as an evil overlord starving the team of funds.

Although benefitting from there being no manager/owner dynamic to defend, Lenagan seemed in complete control. He will take his time with his appointment, he has not panicked during the transfer window with Nicky Wroe and David Connolly filling positions that were identified as being weak from the outset. The Connolly signing on Friday is, in my view, a good one. People expecting a 20 goal a season striker with resale potential were living in a fantasy. What we needed was someone with the experience to know that 6-7 goals may be enough, who is prepared to fit in and not disrupt.

So, what next?

Brian Clough once said the relationship between manager and owner is the most important in a football club. He also, famously, described his man management style as “We talk about [an issue] for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right all along.” Which you might surmise to say that the owner and manager will get on so long as everyone agrees with the manager.

I’ve also heard is said that ‘if you all agree with everything, then at least one of you is redundant’. So, if the manager and owner must be ‘as-one’, and that makes one of you redundant, does this mean the  traditional way of managing a football club is fundamentally flawed?

This brings us onto an interesting question. Do we even want a manager? Or are we looking for a coach with a director of football? Naysayers will reject the notion on the basis it is simply ‘too foreign’. But, Lenagan isn’t afraid of going against tradition; the model he’s working to he founded at Wigan Warriors, he stuck with the manager for longer than most and he’s investing in our youth set-up as others pull out of theirs.

I don’t have a problem with that; it’s how British Cycling and Team Sky work – Tim Kerrison, the mastermind behind Team Sky’s two Tour de France wins is applying principles he developed at Australian Swimming. Stealing with pride. It’s entirely logical; if we all do the same thing then the only differentiator between success and failure is budget. If you can’t be rich, then you need to be different.

It’s certainly true that Chris Wilder needed support in recent months. By his own admission the club seemed to be driving itself. It was difficult to see it changing dramatically from what it has become. And while some bemoaned Wilder’s competence, he was navigating unchartered waters with only Paul Tidsdale – who also appears to be stagnating at Exeter now – having any comparable experience.

So perhaps a director of football with a head coach is a way forward. That would give the club the long term strategy, with the short term impetus. Not relying on a manager’s ability to constantly change and develop in a chameleon like way – the only person who has successfully done this in the modern era is Sir Alex Ferguson. It seems that short of finding a genius to manage us, a different approach may be the future.

Is this what good feels like?

The clocks have gone back and we’re top of the league. It feels a bit weird, is that because it is weird, or because this is all a bit alien to us?

What do you do when we’re top of the league? Habitually look at table on the BBC website just to check you’re still there? This is a peccadillo of the occasionally successful. I doubt fans of the permanently successful do the same.

I can’t be certain – insomuch that I’m not planning on spoiling this blog with any fastidious research – but you’ve probably got to go back to the Ian Atkins-era to recall the last a time we were top of a Football League division outside the opening scuffles of August and September. Topping the league before the clocks go back, we know, is just a moment of transient pleasure. It’s nice and fun, but it means nothing.

But now we’re getting into the meat of the season and we’re still up there, right on the top, in fact. Pre-Atkins, I’m not sure we’ve topped the table in the meat of the season since the mid-80s.

Yes, there were two Conference seasons where we lead the pack, but in a sense that was what we were supposed to do. We were the big team in the division; if you sorted us by crowd size, playing budget, history or almost any other measure we’d still have been top. So although we didn’t stay there, it did feel like, within that company, we were merely fulfilling our destiny.

This is probably why it feels so weird. We’re back amongst our peers, we’re biggish but not the biggest – amongst a batch of teams that should on paper be doing well. But the truth is that we never lead the pack when we’re amongst our peers. We’re just not used to it.

And this is where the doubts creep in. I don’t know whether this is normal or not, so I don’t know how to react.

Saturday’s win saw us take our total points away from home to 17. This is freakish away form; but is it so freakish that by the phenomena of ‘regressing to the mean’ our form will inevitably, and soon, return to something more normal?

The reality is that titles are typically built on your home form. The hackneyed concept of a ‘fortress’ – pretty ironic for us given the gaping open end of the Kassam – a stadium that could be breached by a couple of water bombs.

Are we just kidding ourselves thinking that we’ve cracked it? You just don’t go a whole season unbeaten away from home; we will lose at some point. Maybe we’ve  even accumulated all our away points for the season; just in the opening 7 away games of the season?

At home, obviously, we’re no more than average, and this form is similarly freakish. Perhaps that will return to some kind of norm; although with the deep winter coming, god only knows what ‘norm’ actually is. Maybe our current form is normal.

The point is, is this what good feels like; because it feels really hard. It’s only October and I can’t imagine this title race slogging away for another 7 months with us just staying ahead of the pack.

Are we really the best team in this division? Somehow it doesn’t feel like it. Don’t get me wrong; I think we’re a decent side, but title winning teams feel like they sweep all before them. For them it all seems so easy, confidence oozes through the team and the fans. Away we seem to have a bit of that – once we’d gone ahead against Wimbledon on Saturday, I had little doubt we were going to take all three points – but not at home. Home games for title winning sides look like a year long party.

But, of course, that’s an outsiders view. I’ve only seen title-winning teams from the outside. Perhaps others look at us similarly aghast at our imperiousness. It’s been a long time since I was on the inside, and increasingly, our fans are made up of people who have never been in that situation. Perhaps that’s a good thing, the naivety of youth and a sense of endless optimism, or the naivety of youth being all instinctive and reactive?

This is what I remember of our title winning seasons in the mid-eighties. We were like the Harlem Globetrotters. Different teams would turn up and get roundly thrashed. It took me years to realise that defending was difficult because for the best part of two years neither Malcolm Shotton nor Gary Briggs failed to win an aerial header. I thought that the patterns of the game were set; the opposition would huff and puff and we would swamp them down the flanks getting balls into the box and scoring hatfuls of goals. I genuinely thought that no team ever lost at home because we were that good.

Has that changed? Is it that League 2 is not about being the best, but being the least bad? A few weeks ago I was casually predicting that Chesterfield were going to glide imperiously to the title. They were talking about going through the season unbeaten. Now they haven’t won in six. Since we beat what looked like a wretched Hartlepool team, they’ve won four of their last five and sit in mid-table.

But its rather like when you see Premier League players in real life; what looks so easy on TV is revealed to be the result of hard work. Even those who look like lightweights who’d crumple under the pressure of a clogging League 2 centre-back are tougher, stronger and more hardworking. The reality of success is that it isn’t easy. Perhaps I’m now better positioned to see that football is difficult.

I’m not sure I can handle it. Every week from now until May is going to be a battle. Both mentally and physically. And what’s more we need to win a majority of those battles. That’s a lot of work for a long time. Instinctively I am going to be waiting for the wobble, which will surely come. Every under hit pass will be suddenly stacked with significance; the bursting of a bubble.

I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one thinking like this. Which is why it’s imperative that the fans suppress their natural urges. It is only normal that in an unfamiliar situation we feel panicky and uncomfortable. But that’s not necessarily because we’re about to fail, it’s more that we’ve never been here before.

Is James Constable a dirty player?

James Constable’s sending off seemed to cast a shadow over the otherwise excellent 3-0 demolition of Wimbledon on Saturday. But who is at fault? Constable, the referee, Will Antwi, or is it something else?

James Constable was sent off for the 4th time since we’ve been back in the Football League. In that respect he’s our most indisciplined, dirty, player. But something about that doesn’t sound right. The straight red he got against Wimbledon threatened to overshadow what was another tremendous display. And, of course, the sending off was a complete travesty with Constable appearing to elbow Will Antwi in the face without the aid of any elbows. This follows his ‘elbow’ against Exeter earlier this season which was similarly innocuous, and another raised arm against Swindon which didn’t seem to contain any particular malice.

It’s easy to blame the referee in situations like that. Referees are subjected to an unspoken conspiracy  by managers, players and experts within the press (i.e. made up of former players and managers). Last week Mark Lawrenson came out with the classic ‘If that’s not a penalty then why didn’t the referee book him for diving’ line. This insinuates that the referee did think it was a penalty and for sinister and conspiratorial reasons decided against awarding it. Or he thinks the referee is a cheat. Which is slander. And yet totally acceptable, it seems.

Was the referee cheating when sending off James Constable? Probably not. The idea that all referees are, for some reason, are just trying to piss off the entire world by deliberately making bad decisions seems somewhat far fetched.

Let’s Consider three most common areas of contention within football. Firstly, the penalty. The purpose of a penalty box is to penalise those who prevent a goal from being scored. And yet, a striker apparently has a ‘right’ to go down at the faintest of touches. Secondly, there’s offside; a rule that exists to prevent goal hanging, that irritating little shit at school who used to hang around 10 yards from the goal and do nothing but pop the ball in net every time it dropped to him. Now, offsides have to consider whether a player is ‘active’ or not. The third is handball; a simple rule designed to prevent someone using their hand to gain an advantage. Now, we have the chicken and egg debate about ball-to-hand or hand-to-ball. Most handballs now are simply players being penalised for not getting their hand out the way fast enough; even if there’s no real intention to prevent the opposition gaining an advantage.

In each of these three areas the rules have over evolved from their simple purpose. The margin of error in judging it, though, has been eroded away to a point that no human can make a simple objective decision based on what they see. Instead, they have to interpret what they see. Video evidence won’t help because you still can’t get into the player’s head to understand the intention of their action.

Each of these situations are easily resolved by objectifying them. Did the attacking player deliberately get prevent the attacker from scoring? For offside, why not draw a line across the pitch, Subbuteo style, to signify where offsides begin? And a handball is a handball when the player’s hands are outside the contour of his body (i.e. if his hands are by his side or in front of him, then it’s not a handball).

In Constable’s situation, it seems referees are starting to interpret his actions as being violent or dangerous. He’s a physical and aggressive player, he’s always been better when he’s had that fire in his belly. During the Conference years in particular he could easily have been guilty of ungentlemanly conduct, that’s a fair cop, but a dangerous player? Never.

The referee, however, now has to interpret what he saw to decide Constable’s fate. There was a physical aerial challenge, a player fell to the floor holding his face, people reacted and, well, Constable has done this before hasn’t he? Therefore, the balance of probability is that there was a foul.

Why is the referee forced to make a decision on the spot? Judging the “intent” in a split second based on a series of circumstantial signals, it wouldn’t be difficult for him to pause and look at the player on the ground. Is his injury consistent with being smashed in the face? Given that Antwi hopped to his feet and allegedly gave the crowd a smile suggests perhaps not. A quick inspection of the injury would have helped make the referee’s decision. No injury, no problem. This won’t rid football of controversy, but it will take the subjectivity out of referee’s decision.

It’s not fair on the referee, it’s definitely not fair on the player. If the club are successful and rescinding James Constable’s red card, I suspect this isn’t the end. Constable’s card is marked; he’s a player gaining a reputation that he’s likely to commit red card offences. Referees are unlikely to take the Wimbledon mistake into account when making their decision. Given that Constable’s game is based his combative nature, he’s more likely to get into trouble when he’s on form. I hope that the undeserved reputation he risks acquiring doesn’t deaden his impact.

The beginning of the end of the deep depression

A few minutes into the second half on Tuesday night I started to wonder whether what I was watching was real. We were a 1-2 down and although it was clear there were going to be more goals, there was no pattern or structure to the game and it was impossible to tell who was going to score next.

It was more like basketball. Goals weren’t really celebrated; both teams would just keep scoring until the referee told them to stop, at which point they’d tot up the goals and find out who’d won.

We were staring at a seventh straight loss; nobody loses seven games in a row. Even the worst teams pick up the odd point here and there. If this was a set of laboratory statistics, the scientists would have dismissed them as a freak occurrence. We’d never had a run this bad before, but it didn’t make sense that our worst ever run was down to our worst ever team. It’s not a great team, but it is not our worst. It just isn’t.

The problem was partly physical; we have injuries everywhere, teams are usually built on partnerships and there wasn’t a single partnership in Tuesday’s line-up that had played more than 10 games together in the last year. Unless you count Potter and Batt on the right; but that’s hardly a telepathic combination along the lines of Beckham and Neville.

The problem is psychological. Players and fans alike were stripped of any belief that we could pick up any points at all. Like a deep depression, we were drifting through the game without actually participating in it.  After we conceded the first goal, a bloke behind me was berating Chris Wilder for not ‘going fucking mental’ at the team. But the team didn’t need telling that their defending was atrocious, it goes way deeper than that. And all the while we’re expecting Wilder to cure this deep psychological trauma.

There is nothing that Chris Wilder can do apart from tough it out and hope something sparks life back into the team. It came from some unlikely sources. There were better footballing performances, but Harry Worley came on and took some ownership in dragging us out of the mire. I like Worley’s attitude, he hasn’t got the class of Wright or Duberry, not yet anyway, and he looks like the kind of player who spends too much time moisturising, but he’s surprisingly dogged and committed. Faultless it wasn’t, but he was not scared to carry the ball, throw himself at corners, and chuck himself in front of shots.

Dean Smalley, a player who has not had the happiest time at the club, seemed comfortable in the gloom around him. Perhaps his rotten time at Oxford has taught him that any success was going to have to be down to him. He was bullish up front throughout. And Simon Heslop who has looked like he’d be quite happy just to walk off the pitch and out of football forever at times this season also seemed keen to make a difference.

Let’s not kid ourselves; we could have conceded five. And while we’re still a long way from competing at the top of the division, Tuesday was essential in knocking down some of the immense psychological barriers this team has managed to build around itself in recent weeks.