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.

The season in review: the attack

The revolving door in the striking department has ensured that we go into the close season with just four strikers vying for three slots.

Of those discarded, Simon Hackney was the HD Sam Deering. Like Deering he looked like the best player you ever played against at school, but some way from truly being a first team regular. Ryan Doble disappeared faster than he arrived, so you can hardly say he was given a chance.

Jack Midson is held in some reverence amongst Oxford fans. Part of the Conference Play-off team, he’ll always been fondly remembered. Due to the Miracle of Plainmoor, and the fact he’s a thoroughly decent and articulate bloke, some consider him hard done by.

Rationally, during Midson’s Indian summer post-The Miracle, his endeavour wasn’t enough to make him look like a player capable of challenging James Constable over the next 2 years. Likewise Matt Green, whose later aimless performances cast a shadow over his otherwise essential contribution to our renaissance.

Constable himself was questioned by some as to his ability to ‘step up a level’. Mostly this just seemed like self-fulfilling prophecies. Every game he drew a blank was considered proof. In reality we were always better when he played, although his role was as much a foil for McLean and Craddock as it was as a target man. It was bit of a surprise to see him getting player of the season given the scrutiny he was put under.

Despite Tom Craddock’s 15 goals, he still doesn’t seem yet to have been fully accepted by the Oxford fans. Perhaps it’s the Luton connection; maybe it was the way he was so coveted by Chris Wilder to the expense of the likes of Midson and Matt Green. He offers something no other player can offer; movement, awareness and finishing are all some way above others in the squad. I think he’ll flourish next season.

For a period Steve McLean was the quality mark that all others were supposed to be aspiring to. Latterly, however, he portrayed sniffy diffidence. He’s never going to be a player who pops a lung chasing back, but he’s a smart and gives us another dimension. Should we sign him? Yes. Should we bet the farm to do so? No.

Last year, I put Sam Deering on death row, saying that despite his popularity, he didn’t quite fit in. I’m not going to be popular when I say that Alfie Potter is this year’s Sam Deering. Potter is what Potter does. I like what it, but there is a point where he’s got to decide what’s he’s contributing. He’s certainly no goalscorer, and his assisting in patchy. Mostly he can seen dancing through the opposition’s midfield in a neutral zone about 20 yards outside their penalty box. It’s all very pretty but ultimately unproductive. There’s time to change, but he’s got work to do to become indispensable, I think we’ll see him out on loan sometime before next May.

Ten moments that defined the Conference era

1. Matt Day’s piledriver against St Albans
Relegation was a blip. Our return to the league was simple, all we had to do was beat everyone and go up as champions by Christmas. On a barmy September night, it was St Albans’ turn to go all the way down in Oxford-town. It was an enjoyable romp as we led and they equalised. A minute later Matt Day weaved his way through their defence and, 30 yards out put his laces through the ball, slamming it past the keeper and into the net. Afterwards I heard a defeated Saints fan telling someone how great it had been. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters.

2. A minute of madness at Wycombe
Unbeaten, we marched on Wycombe in the Cup. This was the moment when the naysayers would be silenced. At first it worked well; we matched them toe-to-toe. They scored but we equalised. For a minute we were back in the big time and we filled Adams Park with songs of victory. Whilst backslapping and telling each other stories of the bad old days, Wycombe popped down our end, scored, and put us back on the naughty step.

3. Sheer joy of Dagenham
The title had gone, but this was about bragging rights, which, in the street tough world of the Conference counted for so much more. The arrival of champions elect Dagenham was the perfect opportunity to show what marauding brawlers we’d become. We all turned up in heady expectation but despite good early pressure, we conceded early. Then Jim Smith introduced Yemi Odubade, he trotted on and ripped a hole in the time/space continuum with his fat arse. What we saw through the seam was a world where football was fun. Yemi scored one, then lobbed in another from forty yards. There were smiles and no teeth grinding. For 10 minutes it was magical.

4. Rob Duffy’s back pass against Exeter
We limped into the play-offs with the blind faith that we had destiny on our side. This was confirmed when we took a lead into the home leg of the semi-final. We weren’t playing well, but conspired to go two-up. The edifice began to crumble and we conceded twice forcing the game into extra time. Suddenly Rob Duffy broke clear and was bearing down on goal. In a moment of clarity he chose to release us all from the whole sorry façade. Rather than pop the ball in the net and send us to Wembley, he said ‘fuck it, I can’t let this go on’ and rolled the ball into the keepers’ hands.

5. Gnohere hands it to Aldershot
With Dagenham gone; the indefatigable logic was that the 2007/8 title was ours. If there was ever proof, our indifferent form through August and September confirmed that this title was going to be won with a thrilling post-Christmas sprint. If you said it enough, you believed it. Aldershot were the nerdy cousin you haven’t seen for years turning up to a family party looking like an FHM cover girl. Their fans were louder, their flags cooler. But despite this, it was OK, we were Oxford – champions elect. We took them on as equals until the 15th minute, when the big lump of a defender Arthur Gnohere inexplicably batted a cross away with his hand. And that was that. The season was over. In September.

6. Joe Burnell’s reducer versus Cambridge
We drifted into our third season, looking increasingly clueless. The season opened with away and home defeats. Following a win against Eastbourne, we drew two home games and lost another. High-flying Cambridge arrived on a warm September night with home form looking like used toilet paper. Seconds in, Joe Burnell took one for the team with a booking off a crunching tackle. This set the tone for a storming 3-1 win. We lost one more game at home all season. It took a better man than Burnell to turn this acorn into an oak, but this is where it all started.

7. Adam Chapman’s curler at Burton
By this point we were rampaging in a balls out, machete weilding banzai attack on the play-offs. One limb had been ripped off by the Conference’s disciplinary panel but we continued, maddened by the injustice and possessed by unfettered belief. The run had been thrilling, but it was all about to end, because we had to conform to the convention of letting the champions seal their title at in front of their own fans. Albion were hosting their promotion party when our gang turned up, drank all the beer, punched the arrogant jock, snogged his girlfriend, bent in a 20 yard free kick from Adam Chapman and drove off on our Harley Davison chopper.

8. Luton and the true carrier of hope
Don’t tell the morale majority, but the best games are ones that should be all-ticket, but aren’t. Luton was chaotic; people couldn’t park and the North Stand was a war zone. The crowd tipped over the 10,000 mark. The story, however, was already written; our deadliest Conference rivals were in town and our form was good. Surely this was set up for perfect failure. But Jamie Cook, the neo-Beauchamp and a time traveller from the good times, was back in the fold. Receiving the ball on the right, he feinted before guiding it into the bottom left hand corner. ‘Probably the best goal I’ve ever seen’ said the bloke next to me.

9. Injury time in parallel universes
In one paradigm, at Crawley, we look certain to forego our position at the top of the league with a defeat. In seven minutes we equalise, throw away the opportunity for victory and then reclaim it deep into injury time. In the other, at Luton, we lead and look certain to plunge a dagger into the hearts of one of our title rivals. First we throw two points away, then the third. We meet triumph and disaster, and treat the two impostors the same. It made us men, my son.

10. Potter, Deering, Potter
Potter to Deering, Deering to Potter, Potter shoots. Era over.

Yellows 4 Ebbsfleet 2

I got back to the car yesterday’s 4-2 win over Ebbsfleet to find all hell had broken loose on the radio. It seems there’s quite a lot of fuss over a short corner. Like someone being stabbed for questioning whether the shot putt is part of the decathlon.

To summarise. Wilder hates the ‘boo-boys’ and the Milk Cup, the Oxford Mail Stand hate the toffs in the South Stand who, in turn, hate the bumpkins in the Oxford Mail Stand. Nobody seems to hate the North Stand. Which makes them Switzerland.

In reality, the booing was a bit half-hearted, probably because we had a two-goal cushion and a man on a hat-trick; it wasn’t vitriolic. The post-game reaction was overwhelmingly one of warm, appreciative applause. It wasn’t primal screams of pleasure, but few teams will push us to that at home this season. Furthermore, not everyone in the South Stand is a toff with a blanket on their lap. Nor is the Oxford Mail stand full of bumpkins who sing in unison for 90 minutes and support the team unflinchingly. The North Stand, on the other hand, are all racists. Each and every one of them.

Perhaps there was a little more to it; despite never looking like we were going to struggle, it was clearly a battle. Perry injured himself within a couple of minutes of the start, and we ended with a back-four of which only Creighton was a regular playing in position. It seemed odd that neither Foster nor Deering even made the bench whilst Creighton and Perry seemed a bit touchy with each other. At half time there was an uncharacteristic huddle that Perry refused to join. Has something been said? Maybe this week has been a tricky one behind the scenes, which might be why Wilder was frustrated.

So, was he doing a Clough or a Keegan? Will we be the first team to blow a championship because of a short corner? History will tell us, I guess. Maybe they’ll show These Are The Days Of Our (non-league) Lives on SKY in 20 years time. If they do, I suspect Alfie Potter will bounce around on the settee, telling us how much fun it all was, such is the joi d’vivre with which he plays. Sadly his brilliant performance yesterday was totally overshadowed.

News round-up: aww, isn’t he sweet?

Matt Murphy’s eyes haunt me. It was the 25th November 2000, and Murphy had just slotted home to give us a 2-0 lead before half time against Notts County. Murphy got them both and started his celebration by glancing up to the London Road End with what can only be described as; come-to-bed-eyes.

I was a bit giddy with all the excitement and confess to being a little flattered. Then I saw something deep inside his eyes; something I’ve come to realise was Murphy, the soothsayer, the host, possessed by demons, channelling; “Laugh it up motherfucker, your future is wrought with the peril of failure.” It was chilling.

Jimmy Carter won FA, League and Cup Winners’ Cup before joining us from Arsenal. He had pedigree, and joined us on one of those ‘loans with a view to a permanent deal’ deal. I remember Nick Harris once commenting on a game that had ‘no class apart from Jimmy Carter’.

It all looked great, and then, he just disappeared. There wasn’t any announcement of him leaving. Part of me still thinks of him as a member of the squad. Like Germany being at war with Berwick, Carter has been left in limbo because nobody remebered to tell him to leave. A bit of me thinks of him turning up to training every day, wondering why successive managers have ignored his mercurial talents.

Players leave a lasting impression on me. Alfie Potter, signed from Peterborough, sounds like a cheeky Beano character. No matter how long he stays with us, he’ll always be an ‘ickle cutie pie we should avoid shouting at in case he cries.