Altrincham 0 Yellows 1; Yellows 0 Cambridge 0

Sorry, I zoned out there for a minute. Surely we can’t maintain the pretence that these games mean anything? I understand why people expect a performance every week regardless of whether we’re playing the Cup Final or a meaningless chunter away against Altrincham but sports science is fairly complicit that this simply isn’t possible.

A professional road cyclist can expect to maintain top form for around three weeks. Athletes are sacrificing world titles in order to peak for London 2012 and the concept of resting footballers is an accepted practice despite it being against all league rules.

In a regular league programme, each game counts, but now the objective is very very clear. We’re not good enough to turn our form on and off; nobody in the Conference can do that. But we shouldn’t write off our chances based on a few meaningless misplaced passes versus Cambridge.

Luton will cartwheel into the play-offs with a bewildering sequence of results. But, like our unbeaten streak at the start of the season, as it goes on it gets closer to an coming to an end. When it does, gnawing doubt sets in, why isn’t it quite flowing like it did? How do we do it when it worked? When Luton come out and don’t score six, their resolve will be truly tested. That day will come, and it’s not too far away.

The key is to peak for the play-offs, not thrash Cambridge (as cold and bloody boring as that game was). Defensively, we’re looking sound. Adam Chapman is finally coming into some form and filling the gap left by Adam Murray. Up front, we need to firmly decide who partners Constable. My vote, like many, I think, is with Jack Midson with Deering, Potter and Green best coming off the bench.

Luton will go in favourites, but sustaining their form for another three weeks gets less likely as time goes on. Rushden and York… who knows? We have three more games to fine tune, which will allow us to enter the play-offs on an upward curve, I think there’s some evidence that we will.

Yellows 1 Altrincham 0

29 December 1979, about 3.45pm. I was standing with my dad in a near deserted Manor as hundreds of frozen London Roaders queued to consume three months worth of salt in a cup of half-time Bovril. We were drawing 0-0 with Hull City in what was a terrible game. Not that I knew, of course, as far as I was concerned, John Doyle was the best player in the world because he kicked the ball hardest in the warm up. That was the sophistication of my analysis. The one thing I did know, however, was that I couldn’t feel my fingers and that the fur lined hood of my parka would not be sufficient for any trek to the South Pole I might be planning.

My dad turned and asked if I wanted to go home; I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a pivotal moment. If I said yes, I would probably be an Arsenal fan following my team religiously through my Sky subscription. Football; live, winter, lower league football would have been an experience cast aside alongside other idiotic childhood obsessions like scrumping, fishing and heavy metal. We stayed and won 3-0.

This is the best part of the season; behind us is the grand departure, the sunshine and ticker tape. We’re the Tommies in the trenches, fighting the war in the dark, cold, rain and wind. Victories are ugly and gritty; with little satisfaction, just relief that it’s one step closer to being over. Ours is not to enjoy, but to expose our spirit and shred our souls, not for reward, just because without it we are but empty vessels adrift on the sea. That dreadful day against Hull tipped me from football hobbyist to football fan by giving me purpose whose charm is in its pointlessness.
Come the day of victory, you will cover us in garlands and kiss us passionately on the lips, and celebrate us with us as one, but as much as we will tell you the stories of Damien Batt’s 20 yard drive, you will never know what we’ve been through.

Yellows 1 York 1, Yellows 1 Altrincham 0

As we contemplate what impact Manchester City’s £100 million pursuit of Kaka will have on top flight football, we should also contemplate what the long term impact of our five point deduction and defeat to York will have on us.

The reality is that it could well have set us back 10 years. The next new tranche of money (aside from a cut of any future Dean Whitehead transfer) will come in the summer with the season ticket renewals. By this time we’ll be a below midway non-league team in its fourth year of Conference football… deep in a recession.

The recession is all relative of course, we’ll still have the biggest crowds and income, but we’re also living relatively way beyond our means. It’ll take some feat to lever us out of the league in that situation.

The departure of Phil Trainer prior yesterday’s win over Altrincham leaves Oxblogger without an official favourite player. I spent most of yesterday’s game trying to decide on who should replace him.

Turley, Foster, Constable and Yemi are all too obviously ‘good’, although Yemi has a bit of the Vern Troye about him. He may be ineffective, but he’s sooo cute. Dress him up in a teddy bear outfit and he’d win player of the season every year.

What’s more, the Oxblogger Official Favourite Player is a player that stands for something. Phil Trainer appealed because he punched some way above his natural talents. It was this sense of achievement in adversity which appealed.

Lewis Haldane is the complete metaphor for the whole club and therefore was a candidate. He’s got a great infrastructure that we don’t own but manages to disappoint week after week.

Others are either too young or too injured. Which makes Oxblogger’s Official Favourite Player… Chris Willmott.

Yesterday, as I looked around me to see a sea of acne’d faces, I’ve sat in my seat since we moved to the new stadium, but all others around me have moved on and been replaced by another tranche of teenagers lured by an afternoon out with their mates (only to eventually find out that girls are much more interesting). I feel like an old oak tree in the middle of a new business park that has a preservation order on it.

And, this, pretty much describes Willmott. All others around him change, but he keeps plodding on. Presumably he’s learnt that it’ll never get much better than it is at the moment, this is it for him, this is his job. He is me, and I is him. I feel we have a connection. Congratulations Chris.

Altrincham 1 Yellows 0, Yellow 2 Burton Albion 1

In the car park there was a transit van painted like the Dream Machine – yes, it seems that the mystery surrounding Friday’s fire attracted Scooby-doo and the gang. You just know it was Firoz Kassam in a rubber fright mask. He would have got away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids…

To stretch an analogy to breaking point, the biggest mystery of all has yet to be solved. How can you lose to Altrincham and then dominate and win against Burton – the team I have down as favourites for the title.

Currently, my thinking is pace – we have, for the first time, a team that enjoys playing at the Kassam. It enjoys playing a high tempo, expansive game. Murray spreads the play, Haldane, Yemi and Deering prowl the flanks, Constable and Guy pull defenders all over the place. One of the reasons Phil Trainer has had a goal-rush is because he’s been able to exploit the space being created behind the front two.

The problem, then, is guile. When pitches are small and teams are compact, breaking them down is going to be difficult with the personnel we’ve got. I’m not necessarily suggesting that we need more creativity in midfield – Adam Murray is pretty capable at mixing up his passing. The key, I think, is in the efficiency of set pieces. When we gain territory, we’ve got to make it count better than we do currently. Oddly, our season may be defined by the number of goals our centrebacks end up getting.

Us 4 Altrincham 0

The forefathers of Rome; Romulus and Remus, found their great city by standing on Palantine and Aventine Hills and waited for a sign from the gods. When more eagles soared over Palantine, it was considered gods’ way of decreeing where the city should be built. On such divinity great empires are built.

As I stepped out of my car and into a puddle prior to yesterday’s demolition of Altrincham I glanced down to see the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle swilling around in the muddy waters at my feet. Is this a sign?

The two new pieces of the puzzle introduced yesterday changed everything. OK, so it was only Altrincham, but they’re there to be beaten and we’ve a few more of their types to weave their way down the Grenoble Road in the coming months.

Murray’s contribution was harder to judge as typically much of the game by-passed the midfield. However, as the game progressed and opened up, Murray was still able to get his passing game going. He took a lot of pressure off Trainer and kept good shape in the middle of the park.

McAllister was the real star of the show. Everything he did was good; what’s more, he offered others’ the opportunity to play. Duffy’s problem has never been his composure on the ball; it’s been getting him on the ball in the first place. McAllister’s work-rate and intelligent touches gave Duffy the space to do what he’s good at. Yemi was relieved of his goalscoring duties and freed to stretch the Alty back four down the flanks. McAllister was the glue that allowed these two to do their stuff.

There have been too many false dawns to think of this as a turning point, but it all felt so much better.

Altrincham 1 Us 3

Like losing weight or getting fit, being a football fan is not a transient thing; it’s a lifestyle choice. Fundamentally, it’s about routine. I, like many others, live their supporting lives by a set of arcane rules. Some culturally programmed; like picking a team and sticking with them, some entirely individualistic.

For example, I only miss home games for three reasons; work commitments (occasionally), pre-planned holidays and weddings. When I am at a game, I don’t leave until after the final whistle (although I can be moving at the first blast of the referees whistle). I was there when Dean Windass nodded home our consolation in the annihilation by Birmingham in 1998. I’m also one of those standing waiting for the pain to end whilst others head off to queue for cup tickets or catch the kick-off of some international.

It is this compliance that means clubs are chosen over countries every time. Breaking the routine for you country takes you outside your comfort zone. On Saturday I was at a wedding with no signal on my phone. I was, therefore, out of touch with Saturday’s comforting win over Altrincham. I didn’t find out the result until Sunday morning, although I was kept intimately informed of the progress of the England game.

This, however, was of little interest. For one, I am half Scottish, and I suppose the purgatory of supporting Oxford means I am naturally more aligned to supporting the underdog. I am not interested in the self styled ‘best in the world’ English who persistently prove they are nothing but.

It’s not always been like this; I used to take a keen interest in the progress of the England team. But the marketing of the team and the league from which it derives (the best in the world) has eroded my interest to nothing. Take Frank Lampard, no JJB Sports is complete without a brooding shot of him staring into the middle-distance in the latest incarnation of the national uniform. Yet, Lamps’ exalted status is not as a result of his performances. It is because he is a ‘superstar’ and superstars play for their country – regardless of how well he does it. Blame it all on Gazza, but in some ways, it seems to enhance his status if they lose; then he can show how real his pain is. Wadda guy.

England games become more of a brand awareness campaign than a sporting contest. I simply can’t get excited by an advert; especially one which lacks imagination and ends in disappointment. Supporting Oxford may be a chore, but at least it has some meaning.

My relationship with top flight football is getting increasingly strained; the chances of Oxford ever achieving such status again is increasingly remote and, even if we were to achieve it, all likelihood is that we’ll end up with a foreign billionaire owner and a bunch of players from some obscure North African feeder team. This isn’t how I understand supporting a football club. I’m not particularly happy about where we are currently; but I’m not overwhelmed by the prospect of where we’re planning to go. Which makes my OCD routines of fandom all the more comforting.

Consistently inconsistent

As Freddie Flintoff has demonstrated, even elite athletes fall off the wagon, or pedalo, sometimes. There was a time when he could do no wrong – after a long, conveniently forgotten, period where he could do precious little right – now temptation has got the better of him again which is showing in his indifferent performances on the pitch.

The contrast between victory and defeat is so apparent and life in general so complicated and unpredictable that retaining consistency is the single biggest challenge to any sportsman. I once heard the coach of the British badminton team explain that they choose which tournaments to win and which to sacrifice because it isn’t possible to deliver performances of the required standard in more than a couple of top ranking tournaments a year.

To perform at a top level fifty times a year, therefore, seems a very tall order indeed, but that’s what’s required of a professional footballer. The further down the leagues you travel the more inconsistency you see, and it’s infuriatingly evident at the Kassam at the moment. Four wins, then two winnable home games lost, then a 3-0 stroll in the park away. Who knows what to expect next?

It suggests there may have been a strategic error in the original approach to this season’s squad. Jim Smith focussed on a small squad of quality league players. which worked at first. The starting 11 picked itself; when a player was out, another seemed to be available to slot in. But, there are only so many Matt Day’s available at one time.

Quality league players are playing in the Conference for a reason; inability to resist the temptations of footballer’s life, age, injury, a combination of all three. What this means is that the variance in performance is likely to be much broader in these players than in those more appropriate for this level. In fact; the players whose performances have varied least are Eddie Anaclet, Danny Rose, Martin Foster, Yemi Odubade – are all players with a handful of league appearances between them.

There is so little opportunity to bring players in during the season and the wage cap is further restricting still; it seems that a big squad of solid professionals is preferable to a small squad of quality. It would be difficult to argue against the original strategy, but not having the bodies to call on may be the difference between success and failure.