Pottered out the door

It was surely of no surprise to anyone that Michael Appleton has told Alfie Potter that he has, to use Appleton’s own mangled analogy, ‘reached his shelf-life’.

Potter’s departure, which we must assume to be fairly imminent, brings the number of players left at the club from the promotion winning team of 2010 to just two – Jake Wright and Ryan Clarke.

Potter was part of the Wilder/Thomas aggressive signing policy in the summer of 2009. On loan from Peterborough, his reputation had been built, in part, through his performance for Havant and Waterlooville where, improbably, they took the lead twice against Liverpool at Anfield in the FA Cup.
He was brought into a squad of big names, big personalities and big bodies – Creighton, Constable, Midson, Green, Bulman.

Despite being slight, fast and tricky, the antithesis of someone like Creighton, he fitted right in, he’d bounce off robust challenges and react to nothing. He played with the arrogance of a team that was going to get promoted; something that shifted the club overnight from one that was a perpetual victim, to one that was simply going to knock over anyone who got in their way.

But, at the same time Potter was young and small; he looks like a little boy; even the name – Alfie Potter – the boy (wing) wizard. In 2010, just before the start of the first season back in League 2, it was reported that he had been arrested in connection with a nightclub stabbing. It turned out that there had been an incident in a club that he was in, and he was the innocent victim of an ‘arrest everyone, ask questions later’ policing policy.

In some ways, it was most startling that Alfie Potter was in a nightclub at all; was he old enough? In essence, his struggle was always about breaking out from being the youngster with potential into a being a senior and respected professional.

That would have required him to remodel his game; players like Alan Shearer, Steven Gerrard and, perhaps, the best parallel; Ryan Giggs, found that they had to change their games once their natural youthful talents were dismantled by injury and age.

Both affected Potter, but that’s not because he was unlucky, just because he was a professional footballer. It’s difficult, without the benefit of an army of crack sports scientists, to know quite what he was supposed to do about it.

So Potter was on a hiding to nothing; wingers thrill and frustrate with equal measure, they don’t always beat their man or get the cross in. When it works, it works brilliantly, but frequently it doesn’t. Even Joey Beauchamp used to drive fans mad with his inconsistency, and most will agree that Beauchamp was one of our best ever.

This season, a bloke behind me can’t help himself everytime the ball goes near Potter; ‘Ah, here we go again’ he’d say in a state of constant dismay before Potter got a chance to do anything. If he lost the ball trying to go past someone or was tackled, it was further proof that he was inept. It’s unfair, because every winger is inconsistent. It’s just that, once the tide is against you, it’s difficult, probably impossible, to turn it back. The writing has been on the wall for a while.

Like Chris Wilder, Potter seems to have been labelled some kind of failure at Oxford, which is sad and wrong. It might be that his time has come, but that’s not to say that he hasn’t been a success. Take THAT goal. A goal usually ignites a feeling of relief, that you’re going in the right direction, but it’s an incomplete feeling; a feeling that we need to get another goal, or defend. Even a last minute goal frequently gives the feeling that it offers a platform for the next game or the rest of the season.

Potter’s goal at Wembley was a rare and precious thing; the feeling of completeness, a sense of achievement. Football offers so few moments like that; in my near 40 years of supporting Oxford there was the Jeremy Charles’ third goal in 1986, the fourth goal against Peterborough in 1996, and Potter’s goal in 2010.

Not only that; he pretty much gave us that feeling twice…

Shooting sacred cows

Gary Waddock put on a brave face in front of the television cameras as we were annihilated by Southend on Monday night. Deep inside he must have been wondering what he’s inherited, and more importantly; where does he go next?

It’s pretty easy to get carried away by any defeat; especially one that’s been magnified through the medium of TV. It’s easy to think that the world spent all day thinking about the game and how it might pan out when in reality many will probably have been unaware it was even on.
However, it’s fair to say that if the Southend defeat confirmed anything at all, it’s that if we do get promoted this season, it is most likely be down to the collective incompetence of the division rather than the brilliance of our play. 
So, while the season remains, astonishingly, all for the taking, it leaves you wondering what misery might be waiting for us in League 1 next season if we do make it.
A quick look at the current League 1 table suggests to me that the highest we might hope to finish should we get there is around 19th or 20th. Teams above that position just look too good for us to be able to trouble.
It seems pretty clear that changes will be needed regardless of where we are next season. With endless talk of ‘new eras’ under Gary Waddock (I think we’ll let history decide whether his reign might be considered an ‘era’), it may be time to think the unthinkable and shoot some of the sacred cows of the squad.
I’m not suggesting that there should be a arbitrary cull, but those you might think of as permanent fixtures, shouldn’t be above scrutiny.

Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville
Call it the power of TV, but shots of Waddock hunched behind hoardings in the away dugout flanked by Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville looked like the three ‘see no evil’ wise-monkeys. Waddock, we shouldn’t judge (although many did), but his new face did make Lewis and Melville’s presence seem a little odd. Like trying to explain to a new girlfriend why your settee make a noise like a loud fart when you sit on it, it was almost as if Lewis and Melville were apologetically explaining to Waddock the failings of squad. It was like when you decorate a room in a house and all the other rooms suddenly look tired and in need of a refresh. Will Lewis and Melville add value to the new set up? It didn’t seem as though they learned much from Chris Wilder, which might suggest their key benefit was in carrying out instructions of the man in charge. Perhaps that’s a good thing, everyone needs able foot soldiers, but it would be nice to think we weren’t reliant wholly on Waddock for ideas and insight.

James Constable
Constable is an interesting one, he’s approaching the goalscoring record and he’s a bona fide club legend. To get rid of him would be a massive risk to Waddock’s credibility. Despite his goalscoring record, he missed two excellent chances against Southend and scores only fitfully now he’s in League 2. Waddock may also view him as a relic of the past, and that moving him on would be symbolic of any change he might want to instigate. However, as is often the case, Constable was a rare positive with his work rate and commitment compensating for any failings in front of goal. My view is that Constable is worth keeping, but he needs pace and goalscoring ability to play off. I’ve no doubt he is willing to play any role, but his position as a key source of goals – and with it his right to a shirt – has to be under threat.

Jake Wright
There were times last season when Jake Wright was almost Bobby Moore-like in his command of the defensive arts. He didn’t put a foot wrong all season. This season injuries have taken their toll along with the change of management. It’s easily forgotten but Jake Wright, along with Constable and Ryan Clarke were lolling around in reserves teams or the non-league before Chris Wilder turned them into exemplary professionals. Wright has looked much shakier this season, perhaps a consequence of playing alongside so many different players, but it may be that injuries are getting the better of him, or the discipline Wilder instilled in him is on the wane. Can we afford to find out whether he’ll shake off his current shakiness? Waddock may decide that Wright is, in fact, wrong.

Ryan Clarke
Only Sky’s convention of awarding man of the match to someone from the winning team prevented Ryan Clarke from taking the accolade. Given that he also conceded 3, and he gave away an unnecessary penalty, that’s a damning indictment of those who were playing in front of him. Waddock cannot have failed to be impressed by Clarke’s performance; a minor bright spot in a bleak evening. Regardless of Max Crocombe’s potential, it would be hard to see why Clarke’s position would come under any threat.

Alfie Potter
Oh Alfie, when do you become the complete product you’ve always threatened to be? Potter enjoys a lot of protection due to his goal at Wembley and his ever present ‘promise’, but there is a point when promise needs to be converted into something more productive. On a good pitch and given plenty of space, Potter will excel, but in the rutted envrions of Southend and the like he tends to bimble along around midfield without much end product. How much time do you give him? When should we expect him to put in a season (or even half a season) of game changing wing-play? It pains me massively to say it, but of all the sacred cows, Potter could easily be the first to go.

Good Friday agreements

The last minute draw against Morecambe brought the most vocal complaints yet from the East Stand. However, the more concerning thing has to be the fact that come the end of the season, we’ll have something like 18 players free to leave. 

The temptation, after Friday’s draw with Morecambe, is to launch into another debate about the future of Chris Wilder. But his fate is surely sealed one way or the other; whichever side Ian Lenagan falls on, he’s not likely to need anymore evidence to aid his decision. Friday’s performance was not bad, it was average and massively frustrating, like our season.

I do take some exception to two key criticisms of Wilder, however. The first is the complaint that his interviews on the radio are full of excuses, when in fact they are merely explanations. His explanation of the mistakes that were made in the lead up to the equaliser were descriptions of fact not excuses.

I also doubt that Wilder is not aware of the link between the players’ performances and his responsibility as manager. So while he talked about his players actions – not taking the ball into the corner, Constable getting caught offside – he’s not simply absolving himself of his ultimate accountability to deliver performances.

The question that Lenagan needs to answer is whether Wilder can establish forward momentum and more crucially, what impact his presence might have on the club in the short term, not least in terms of season ticket sales.

So, that’s me not debating Chris Wilder. The more concerning thing is the number of players who are about to go out of contract. By my reckoning 19 players can walk away come May.

The club have options on Crocombe, Marsh, Potter and Davis, and it seems fairly logical that they will be taken up. Crocombe and Marsh are a sign that there have been improvements, at least, in youth development. Davis can be a bit heavy footed, but he has pace and strength and gives options down the left. Potter’s form is fitful, but he offers creativity and, though its often difficult to see it, something approaching a goal threat.

You’d expect Damian Batt and Andy Whing to be offered new deals. However, I think Whing may go; he’s not stupid and will know that he has value in the market at League 1 or 2 level. The club’s potential is not what it was when he originally signed, there’ll be no Leven or Duberry type signings this summer, will he want to stick around to see whether things improve when there’s a risk he’ll spend another two years treading water? He’ll be 32/33 at the end of another contract, so you’d think this was his last chance at commanding a reasonable salary before he retires. Batt seems settled at Oxford, he’s got other interests, the manager likes him, and it’s difficult to see why he wouldn’t sign.

Last season, alongside Whing, there was a glut of comparatively big time signings. Tony Capaldi barely featured in his first year due to injury, and has done little to suggest he’ll be the first in the queue for a new contract. Deane Smalley has had a torrid time, although there’s something about his general application  that makes me think that he’s worth another year. Jon-Paul Pittman whose injuries suggest he hasn’t got the robustness we need; I can’t see him staying.

The big two from 2011 were Peter Leven and Michael Duberry. If Leven is offered a new contract, then it’s surely going to be on terms that reflect his general lack of availability. I doubt he’ll take that sort of offer and, while he still maintains some kind of reputation, will move on. Duberry, I think, may be interested in another season, especially as this season as been so wretched for him. I think there’s a chance the club may oblige in the vein hope that he’ll recreate the commanding form of his first season. I think that’s a mistake. When fit, he’s the best defender in the club and can be one of the best in the league, but age plays against him. Duberry was part of a strategy to have accelerated success, this doesn’t seem to have worked, it’s time to move to something else.

We’re also seeing the expiration of the post-promotion contracts with Tom Craddock, Simon Heslop and Harry Worley all up for renewal. I still think Craddock is a class act, but his style (less aggressive than Constable and Smalley) and his injury record play against him. His future, I think, is based on whether alternatives can be found, but I also think that his goalscoring record will see him getting other offers. I’d be surprised if he was at the club next year.

Simon Heslop has continuously flattered to deceive. Scorer of howitzer goals in his first season in particular, he now looks like someone who doesn’t even want to play football anymore. Worley also just doesn’t seem to have the extra gear in his development. He was part of a error prone defence in the first year back, it seemed Duberry could come in and steady the ship while Worley found his feet. While I think that he may have a future as an impact striker, there’s no way the club will take the time to test that theory. Neither will be at the club next year.

Which leaves more recent signings; I like Scott Davies and think it worthy of a new contract, and O’Brien offers reliability we’re looking for. Parker is willing, but replaceable. And I can’t see the club using up unnecessary wages on McCormick if Ryan Clarke is coming back with Crocombe and Brown as cover.

All of which could leave us with a gaping hole next season. All of which suggests summer risks becoming a massive scramble just for bodies let alone the class we need or that Wilder will be going and the decisions are being delayed to give his replacement more options.

2012 squad review – midfield and attack

On stable defensive foundations can a successful squad be built. In midfield and up front, however, despite having a decent pool for fish from, Chris Wilder struggled to find the right formula, at least not one that he could keep on the field for any length of time. The crucible of the argument about Wilder’s worth centres on whether the seasons failings were one of incompetence or bad luck.

Peter Leven showed moments of genius; not least his 40 yarder against Port Vale and the flick to play in Liam Davis at Barnet. Injury didn’t help him, but he lacked the consistency you get from the more industrious types like, say, Dannie Bulman.

Or Andy Whing; Whing’s Supporters’ Player of the Season award is wholly understandable. There are stories of people with anaemia who chew on metal in a vain attempt to get iron into their system. The Whing vote reflected a call for dogged consistency. He let nobody down and you suspect he never will.

While Leven, when fit, and Whing, when not deputising in the back four, probably makes up two of our first choice midfield three, the final member of the team is somewhat less clear. Paul McLaren, who was the steadying hand during 2010/11 faded from view. Not unexpectedly, his age suggested that he was only ever a stop gap while the club found itself a firmer footing in the league. Perhaps that was the role expected of Mark Wilson when he arrived, though he failed to make any impact.

Simon Heslop started in fine form, but was one of the early victims of this year’s curse of the folk hero – Leven ‘doing what he wants’, Ryan Clarke’s penalty saves, Asa Hall’s goals – as soon as their feats were verbalised, they stopped doing them. Heslop was struck by only moderate form and then injury; the two of which may have been related.

Perhaps the most interesting combination was that of Chapman and Hall. They were, in many senses, less explosive, but more consistent. Chapman’s return was remarkable he had a composure and awareness that others just don’t seem to have. His only problem is whether he can hold it together mentally; which is often the difference between good and great players. Hall had less crafted, but benefited hugely from the base that Chapman offered. Hall’s form also benefitted from having a bit lump, like Scott Rendell up front to follow up on knock-downs.The fact Hall has decided not to sign is disapointing; he and Chapman seemed to have a partnership that could be built on.

James Constable needs a break; not in terms of a goal off his backside, but a break from being James Constable; Oxford Icon. Last season he was the focal point of most of the drama involving Swindon; three transfer bids, two goals, one sending off. He seems mentally fatigued by it all, the sparky aggression that gained him so many bookings, but also so many goals in the Conference has been replaced by a subdued and isolated figure. There’s a point in every player’s career when they need re-engineer their game. Constable needs to be less of a focal point. A glimpse of what might be was seen on the arrival of Scott Rendell. Momentarily, Constable was freed from all his responsibilities, he was able to feed off the balls from the ever willing Rendell. That was blown apart with Constable’s sending off against Swindon. It may give us some clues as to how to play next season.

Controversially, amongst fans at least, Chris Wilder’s preference is to play 4-3-3. Which either means you end up with a proven goalscorer playing out of position (Midson during the Conference years) or you have players that frustrate and delight with equal measure. John-Paul Pittman had a curious season with his loan to Crawley, momentary spike of form, then – again due to injury – anonymity. Although I have a huge amount of affection for Alfie Potter as a member of the promotion squad, he seems to be rated more highly by others than me. He has his moments, but he puts lots of pressure on the likes of Constable. When Potter was injured, and Craddock struggle to return, Wilder turned to Dean Morgan – who wasn’t as bad as people say, but is clearly a bit of an oddball and Christian Montano – who was raw and inconsistent. Oli Johnson, however, was the most surprising omission from Wilder’s retained list. He of all the flanking strikers combined a decent supply of creativity with a reasonable number of goals.

For different reasons, we missed Tom Craddock and Dean Smalley. Craddock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I saw him as being an essential component to the season’s success. His sustained absence could easily have cost us 10-15 goals, which would have made all the difference. Similarly, Smalley should have contributed double digits in terms of goals. He didn’t seem to do much wrong, but similarly he didn’t do much right. If he lasts the summer, let’s hope we’ll seem him rejuvenated come August.

Wingers’ Week Part 4 – The resurrection of the winger

Darren Patterson didn’t enjoy a great deal of success on the pitch, he was stymied by a precarious financial situation and burdened by having the man he replaced sitting on his shoulder watching every move.

He could, however, spot a player; it’s easy to forget that he brought in James Constable for one. Sam Deering was another that he nurtured into first team action. Deering like Courtney ‘shit shit shit’ Pitt, he was ‘from Chelsea’, which always sounds impressive (like Danny Rose, Manchester United reserve team captain) but is a bit like hiring a 17 year-old gardener as chief executive of a small software company on the basis that he once pruned the borders at Microsoft HQ.

But, Deering, like Pitt could have been, became totemic in the club’s revival. As a winger, he already had our interest, he was small and could beat a player, and that’s all we wanted. When Chris Wilder arrived he announced Deering as our best player (he’d just broken his leg in Wilder’s first game at Salisbury). Where were times when he couldn’t reach the penalty box with his corners. We even forgave him for a racist post on Facebook, that’s how desperate for something to love we were. 

‘Suntan’ Lewis Haldane was another of Patterson’s signings in 2008. Like all good wingers he was frustrating but punctuated this with moments of thrilling. Not least a strike against Cambridge that was as clean as you’d hope to see. The club couldn’t quite make a permanent move stick, and Craig Nelthorpe, brought in by Wilder to help ignite a remarkable turnaround, couldn’t stop fighting with people. We ended the 2008/9 season with a renewed hope, but still no winger to get behind.

Alfie Potter came in during that summer. He’d already gained popularity when on loan at Havant and Waterlooville where he scored in a remarkable cup tie at Anfield. With his recent injury, it would be tempting, but slightly overstating it to say that he was pivotal in our promotion season. He certainly played an important role along with Deering, in stretching tiring defenders or offering new angles when things got stagnant. But then, like now, he frustrates with his lack of finishing and occasional dribbles into nowhere. That said, he offers something that no other players does. And while he does that, Oxford fans will have infinite patience to allow him to develop.

It seems fitting that in the last minute of the play-off final, what would become the last minute of a decade in the doldrums, that it was Deering and Potter, the two most traditional wingers at the club, breaking out from a melee to exchange passes for more than half the length of the pitch, like children playing in the park, before Potter slotted home. If anyone ever doubted the importance of wingers in Oxford’s history, that moment alone, nearly 30 years on from George Lawrence, Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas, proved that this club, its fortunes and wing play are a key part of its history and spirit.

Barnet 0 Oxford United 2

Perhaps Sam Deering saw it as just being professional; the little hitch-kick into tight tuck following the challenge from Jake Wright that resulted in Wright’s dismissal late on in the win over Barnet on Saturday.
To be fair to Deering, it seems unlikely he was aware that Wright was the man making the challenge and that he was on a booking. It does seem likely that he was simply executing a deeply ingrained response to a challenge. Forget the professional foul; that was the professional dive.
Pundits refer to this kind of cheating as ‘drawing the foul’, and use it in that patronisingly exclusive way that puts you as a fan in your place – ‘if you’ve never played professional football, then you wouldn’t understand.’
No doubt Deering will have brushed off the criticism he received from his former manager, coach and team-mates. Its just part of the game, that’s what Alan Shearer and Gary Linekar say.
But if you’re going to be a professional cheat, then you’ve also got to be very good with it. Sam Deering isn’t good enough to act all prime time. During his Oxford career, he occasionally came on to ignite some pace into a game when it lulled, but when used from the start, he rarely delivered.
Compare him, then, to Alfie Potter, both very similar players, both afflicted with a talent that is difficult to channel, particularly in the lower leagues. What makes Potter different to Deering, and why, I think Chris Wilder persists with him and disposed of Deering is because Potter works. You never get complaints from him; he bounces off lunging tackles, and he overall mentality seems pretty level headed. Wilder can see that Potter offers something, and is prepared to work with him to get the most out of him. Deering, on the other hand, became too labour intensive to be worth improving; whether that was making racist comments on Facebook, turning up to training late, or not delivering on the pitch.
Deering will never play for Wilder again, that’s for sure, so I don’t really expect him to show respect for his former manager specifically, but, as I say, these are deep-set learnt behaviours. The more he does it, the more he’s likely to do it, the more he gets a reputation the less likely he is for managers to bother with him. Potter, on the other hand, is much more likely to sustain a career in the game.