Barnet wrap – Barnet 0 Oxford United 3

A family trip to the theatre meant that not only did I miss Barnet – one of my usual away days – I was also completely out of touch with the progress of the game from start to finish. The theatre was an  internet blackspot so I had no updates at all. I came out to see a tweet featuring a ‘third wicog’, so I knew things had gone well.

Barnet away was always going to be tricky, they have good home form and Martin Allen is just the kind of manager Michael Appleton struggles to contain. A point would have been good, three excellent, 3-0 out of this world. The euphoria was understandable, even though seeing only the result is still disorientating when you don’t know how the points were won – were there sendings off? Did we actually get battered? Did Kemar Roofe get career-ending knee injury in the last minute?

The table also has a slightly disconcerting look to it. I saw that Plymouth lost and we were six points clear of third, but it was Bristol Rovers and not the Pigrims sitting behind us. Rovers, unusually for a form team in this division, have managed to penetrate the top three. A few times this year we’ve seen teams move threateningly up the table only to fall away; Portsmouth, Mansfield and Accrington. As a result, we are six points from third, which is great, but also six points off fourth which is as it was before Barnet. While the win against Barnet was a good one, looking at the table you could say that because both teams behind us have a game in hand, there are two threats to our automatic promotion place rather than one.

The question, I suppose, is whether Plymouth and Rovers’ current trajectories permanent or temporary. Have Plymouth blown a gasket which they can’t recover from? Are Rovers going to do a Northampton and barely drop another point for the rest of the season? We know both are good teams; both very capable of going up automatically, but what we don’t know is whether there are two teams charging after us or one… or indeed, none. Easter will be telling.

Any other business

On Saturday morning I woke to a minor Twitter storm, Firoz Kassam had made a rare public appearance to talk about building a fourth stand. It opened old wounds – was Kassam a slum landlord and asset stripper or someone who just wasn’t very good at running a football club?

My view is that it’s was a bit of both. I think he started with intentions of making Oxford a successful club, look at the managers he brought in – Joe Kinnear, Ray Harford, Ramon Diaz, even Ian Atkins and Brian Talbot had lower league pedigree. And then there are some of his player purchases – Tommy Mooney, Andy Scott, Paul Moody – not wild successes with hindsight, but they were established players who cost money to bring in.

While he won major battles off the pitch, winning a war that had lasted decades to move the club, Kassam couldn’t make it work on the pitch. Backed into a corner, he simply gave up and went back to what he knew best; making money from desperate people with few choices.

Anyway, now he’s back talking about completing the stadium in his name. I’m fairly certain he would like to complete the stadium if he could make it viable, which I think is the key. Making it viable requires approval for his plan to build houses near the ground. Rather than returning like a benevolent uncle, I think he’s using the current good vibes around the club to stimulate interest in his house building project. To be honest, if it does end up with a fourth stand, then the methods he uses to get it done doesn’t both me at all.

Barnet wrap – Oxford United 2 Barnet 3

Absolutes hang round your neck like a noose. After the Plymouth game I said we were watching the best football we’d seen from an Oxford team in over 30 years. I stand by that, but even before Saturday’s 3-2 reverse to Barnet, I was thinking that a statement like that needed careful qualification.

Firstly, I’m comparing five divisions of English football over 30 years. This is never going to be an exact science. The Conference promotion season was more enjoyable than most of our Championship campaigns, but were our non-leaguers a better team? Probably not. Would the Milk Cup winning team have beaten today’s vintage? Well, yes. But, as memorable as the Milk Cup was, our time in Division 1 (i.e. the Premier League) was characterised by a lot of struggle and a large number of defeats.

I can’t remember a period in which we’ve been presented with so many promotion challengers including a derby and a top of the table clash, and not only coped with it home and away, but coped with it with such panache.

Football has become an enjoyable thing to do again, which is remarkable because last season was the most stultifying experience. I didn’t got to Barnet, partly because of last season. When we were planning some time away in October towards the end of last season, I knew I was flying blind in terms of fixtures. The chances were that I’d be missing a home game and it didn’t bother me at all. What’s worse is that I’ve never felt like that before, last year I missed a home game in order to casually meet up with friends for a coffee. I haven’t done that before, missing games used to be restricted only to weddings and annual holidays. So as good as it’s been this season, last year was as terrible as it ever was. We don’t really know, still, which is the real Appleton team.

And this is the rub, ‘the best football in 30 years’ is a period of just fourteen games of which I’ve seen just 7. Jim Smith’s double title winners of 1984 and 1985 kept that kind of form going for two years, losing just two games at The Manor in 24 months. Promotion is brutal; by definition everyone that matters picks up points every week. You have to win to stand still; when others slip up, you have to win to gain advantage. It’s relentless.

The Barnet result reminds us of that fact; that any lapse of concentration will prove costly no matter who the opposition are, both in the context of a game and the context of the season. As good as the opening 14 games have been, we’ve got to keep this going for more than 30 more if we’re to achieve anything. It may be good for the defeat to Barnet to happened now, rather than in the middle of this month because it’s an early wake up call that there’s no slacking. It also puts the pressure on to get something out of Stevenage and that might be just what we need to focus the mind. It’s a sobering reminder that the coming weeks aren’t going to be easier than the last few games, just a different kind of difficult.

Coming up: Barnet

The drop

This game feels like a ship returning to shore. After a turbulent, but ultimately successful few weeks, we now head into a series of games against also-rans and makeweights. Barnet were promoted last year back from the Conference last year as champions but rather than storming the division, like Conference champions frequently do they’re the same old Barnet bumbling around at the wrong end of the table.
Rich pickings, then, not just this week, but for the next month. But, this brings its own pressure, of course, we should go into the next month confident of taking maximum points from every game. The pressure to be perfect is one problem, but also because we won’t win every game, the pressure not to capitulate through disappointment is always there.
It never goes, this pressure lark.

Old game of the day

So, when was the last time Michael Duberry and Edgar Davids face up to each other? Leeds United v Juventus in the Champions League? No. Oxford v Barnet in the Football League. I’m strangely in love with this fixture. Aside from the Duberry/Davids trivia, I was at Underhill when we forgot our kit, I once turned up there an hour and a half before kick-off because, for some reason, the game kicked off at 8.15. My favourite ever moment was when Davids, who up to that point had been running the game, got an Andy Whing reducer in the middle of the pitch after which Davids skulked around like a wounded animal and we went on to win.

Fittingly, this from 2010 may be one of the greatest videos ever produced.

From the blog

“It was the agricultural intervention of Andy Whing that indirectly gave us the win. You can have all the quality in the world, but the last thing you need when you’re running on a pair of 40 year old legs is to have them clattered into.”

Read on

Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good

Winning is usually a minimum requirement when you’re playing Barnet. Even with a world class midfielder in their ranks. We laboured to the win on Tuesday, which seems about par for the current course. Perhaps we need to accept that?

I remember seasons where we were good; ’83, ’84. I remember seasons when we were good, then bad; under Ian Atkins. I remember seasons when we were bad and then good; such as the 1996 promotion season. I even remember the odd season when we were just all bad. I cannot remember a season where we were bad whilst being good.

Looking at our points total, we fell behind last year’s run rate during the six game losing streak back in September. After that we’ve pretty much kept pace with last year. Given our current form, and the poor form we showed towards the end of last season, we could easily end up with a better points total. By that purely objective measure; progress will have been made.

It doesn’t really feel like that, of course. Some of that is down to mindset. Take Tuesday, for example, you could say we missed a hatful of chances, or you could say that we battered them. Michael Raynes’ goal was either a lucky break, or a deserved, if very late, breakthrough.

Barnet aren’t a great side, but I was quite impressed with Edgar Davids. Admittedly, him joining Barnet is, for him, the equivalent of playing for my works’ six-a-side team; something to do to keep himself fit, but comes from a particularly diva-ish era of Dutch football and doesn’t have to do it. I’m sure there are clubs across Europe and the middle east willing to offer him managerial and coaching positions simply on the fact he’s one of the most recognisable faces in world football. Instead he’s taken on this ramshackle project; rather like my ambition to set up a fully Subbuteo stadium in my shed one day. It’s not as if he’s come in a Di Canio-esque way and demanded that the club bankrupt itself to satisfy his own personal ambitions.

The bloke next to me, whose considered assessment of Davids was that he was particularly small, claimed that he didn’t do much in the first half, but it was his crisp, simple and particularly efficient passing that gave Barnet their shape. While we did manage to crack the code to their game on several occasions, I suspect without Davids the chances would have been easier and more frequent and the goals would have come earlier. His quality was demonstrated through the odd sight of the attacking Alfie Potter struggling to take the ball off the the defensive Davids.

It was the agricultural intervention of Andy Whing that indirectly gave us the win. You can have all the quality in the world, but the last thing you need when you’re running on a pair of 40 year old legs is to have them clattered into.

Thereafter Barnet’s shape began to fall apart. Davids demonstrated admirable fitness throughout, both tracking back and supporting the odd Barnet attack. But the Whing challenge seemed to knock a lot of Davids’ vigour out of him. The Barnet manager readily admitted that his side switched off in injury time; which was illustrated by the sight of 8 of his team clustering around the front post when Liam Davis’ cross was clearly gong long.

The reaction wasn’t euphoric. With the goal breaking twice and over six minutes of injury time, many had decided to call it a night. Those of us left, perhaps, were the hardened few who have become largely anaesthetised to the vagaries of our form. We’ll be there whether we’re rubbish or brilliant.

For now, our form has the oddest quality; it is both poor, or perhaps that should be dour, whilst winning. Something that Chris Wilder alluded to being a necessity given the state of the pitch. Chris Wilder and Ian Lenagan are paid to win games, which was the general message in the programme criticising the boo-boys. In all likelihood this isn’t going to change any time soon due to our current circumstances. Perhaps, for now, we need to be happy being bad.

The next Peter Fear?

After quite a bit of searching, I finally found a fact I’ve been looking for. A statistic that judges the true performance of a referee.

Referees’ performances are typically judged on a self-selected sample of what the cabal of pundits, players and managers call ‘Crucial Decisions’. The hypothesis is that referees tend to get the Crucial Decisions wrong. This is useful rues for managers, after all, how can they be at fault when referees, tend to get Crucial Decisions so wrong?

But it’s easy to say that a referee gets all his decisions wrong, if you the sample you’re getting this from is both subjectively chosen and based on a bunch of marginal calls (which you think are going to be wrong in the first place).

What would happen if you measured every decision? Given that every decision has some baring on the outcome on the game, each is, in its own way, crucial. Obviously there’s a degree of subjectivity in what constitutes a right and wrong decision, but research suggests that on average referees get between 92% and 99% of all decisions right.

This stands to reason; football would have been hoisted by its own petard long ago if results were entirely at the mercy of random refereeing decisions. The skills of players, so central to the attractiveness of the game, would be an irrelevance. In the end, the good teams end up winning, the bad teams end up losing. The referee doesn’t have much influence on the outcome of the game, he keeps things from becoming a brawling mess and he’s a convenient target for frustration.

It is reliant, then, on teams to manage games to their own advantage rather than rely on referees to help them win by making the ‘right’ Crucial Decisions. It is this savvyness which is missing from our game at the moment. Parts of what we’re doing are fine; but at the same time we seem so brittle. We get biffed by Chesterfield in the last minute of the first and second halves. The first half we were beyond designated injury time, the second half they took a quick free kick while we dozed. It’s not the referee’s responsibility to protect us. The moments at which we seem to rely on the referee to help us survive are the moments when the players should be taking responsibility for the situations they find themselves in.

At Barnet on Tuesday, in horrible conditions, we should have had enough to shut the game up once Andy Whing had put us ahead. We never really seemed to be in control; we just seemed to hope we’d survive the remaining 44 minutes of the game. We always looked vulnerable throughout, particularly from corners and crosses. Not so much that we’re not very good at defending set-pieces, more ilke that we don’t actually believe we can defend set-pieces.

It’s easy to blame Chris Wilder; it makes us feel better when there’s someone to blame. But, the reality is rarely that simple. We have geared ourselves heavily towards experienced players able to take responsibility on the pitch. A Wilder decision, no doubt, but you buy experience to give you experience. If you are in your late 20’s or older and you’ve sustained a professional football career, you shouldn’t have to rely on the manager to tell you what to do.

The player most frustrating with this regard is Peter Leven. Apart from That Goal and a couple of neat flicks in the games around that, Leven is not acting like a senior pro.

Last night, when the game needed to be slowed, the weather suggested the ball needed to be kept on the floor. Leven could have been slowing the pace, playing keep-ball. But, for some reason, he and Chapman let them run at us, through us, putting pressure on the back-four. The frustration I have is not so much what he does when he’s on the ball, it’s what he does when he’s not on it.

Leven, of course, was quickly branded a genius by Oxford fans. He could do anything. But he’s been injury prone and drifted in and out of the team. His purple patch seemed to last only a few games last season, we keep expecting the genius to re-emerge. But could we be waiting a long time? Is he just another Peter Fear; a player with the reputation of mercurial talent that persistently fails to deliver.

He’s no more the single point of weakness than Wilder is, but it’s another fracture in the way we are at the moment. The brittleness extends into the stands; gallows humour on the terraces may be funny, but we don’t seem to have the heart for the fight. The Ultimate Support Saturday couldn’t come at a better time, as The Boys From Up The Hill exude in a recent post.

What to be done? You could fire the manager, but you’d have the same players. You could spend more money on players, but that puts us into a financial mess. For me, one thing that could be done is to look at one of the successes of Kelvin Thomas’ era. Thomas could have been a bit of a maverick, but he knew how to draw together club and fans. If I were Ian Lenagan, recognising the constraints that surrounds the club at the moment, I’d look towards some initiatives in the vein of the 12th Man which made fans a contributor to the solution, not a critical outsider picking away at everyone’s confidence. Cohesion between fans and club will help give the players strength, like at the end of the season in Wilder’s first year; where a bunch of moderately talented players suddenly felt invincible. That’s the missing ingredient at the moment.

Underhill, underdogs and up for the cup

Each round of the FA Cup has its own distinct character. Like Christmas, the first round is best viewed through Victorian sepia. The fixtures are smattered with names of northern works teams –Ilkinthorpe Trombones, towns that are famous for things which aren’t football – Melton Mowbray Bromwich Albion, and clubs that may well actually be the name of newly brewed real ale – Old Rumdungler.

The first round, in many ways, is the lower league Christmas Day. The weather turns wintery, the wind blows through ramshackle stadiums where ramshackle defences, and the occasional one-time successful striker, and Jamie Slabber, gain a national platform. As much as the Premier League hubris tries to overshadow the day, it singularly fails. Like a modern day high performance sports car sitting at a red light; it’ll burn us up when the light turns green, but it’s gauche and self-absorbed in comparison to our vintage Daimler.

The ITV coverage was better than my Twitter feed suggested. The trick for a good FA Cup highlights package is to station yourself at a Hereford ‘Lookathisfacejustlookathisface’ style giant killing. This means heading to some non-league shithole where the TV positions are on rickety scaffold or on the floor, away from the club’s only season ticket holder and his arthritic dog.

Modern thinking says you’ve got to cover every tie so morons like me will watch the whole programme for 13 seconds coverage of my team. The convention means spreading resources thinly – 15 ties were held at non-league grounds unlikely to have all the necessary TV gubbins in situ. In addition all the 37 ties have to fit into little more than an hour, broadcast four hours after the final whistle. That’s because advertisers say so and they’ve got some straight-to-DVD forgotten Goonies sequel on at 2.30am. You’re just not going to get the opening sequence from Saving Private Ryan.

One of the interesting things about the coverage is the adverts. Amidst makeweight promotions from the big brands –part of their Coronation Street and X Factor packages – are promotions for dating sites and criminal gangs offering short term money lending services to the infirm. Evidently horn-rimmed hipster advertising types who skateboard into work look at lower league football fans as lonely, socially incapable people.

My main beef with modern day highlights are twofold. In the past, crowd shots were of people looking disinterested smoking the arse end of a Marlboro light. Like proper football fans. Now, media-aware supporters punch the air, shout “C’mon!” and “Get in!” and kiss the badge on their shirt like practically nobody you’ve ever seen do at a game of football in your life.

My other beef is that highlights never contain kick-offs. Kick-offs are part of the game, but editors choose not to cover them. Now you know the first action you see will lead to something really important. If you do see a kick-off, then you know an early goal is coming. Similarly read: innocuous yellow cards are covered only when a red card will later be brandished to the player and substitutions are only covered when said substitute is going to score. The visual narrative of the game continually gives away its plot twists. But I digress.

We have no great tradition in the FA Cup. People older than you and I put together will talk of the Blackburn Game from a time when chicken conglomerates weren’t even invented, let alone owning football teams. Aside from the occasional upset – Leeds in 1994, and the occasional good day out – Highbury in 2002, we don’t have anything particularly thrilling to write home about.

Our first rounds are similarly lacking in thrills; being beaten by Marlow ranks as a particular low. Alongside the Saville-like investigation into Peter Rhodes-Brown’s duplicity playing for Marlow and the fact someone at the club gave Les Philips a massage as a favour before the game.

Even our wins have been tinged. When we played Morecambe in 1999, they weren’t the well run lower league ambitionless vacuum they are today; they were a collection of arc welders and candy floss salesmen, or whatever it is they do up there. We scrambled to a 3-2 win with a scrambled goal from a striker bought in a panic; Ben Abbey (a proto Manny Omoyimni who was a proto Yemi Odubade).

We go into the cup in hope more than expectation. Barnet away offered the potential for an ignominious exit leaving us, in years to come, to look at the record books and singularly fail to remember anything at all about the fixture.

But, we were uncharacteristically dominant. Perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised, we’re coming into some form and they are Barnet, an oscillating crisis magnet. OK, they had Edgar Davids, but there is a reason that Davids is playing for Barnet and not, well, the 91 clubs currently ranked higher than them in England. It seems unlikely that he’s joined the Bees in order to force his way back into the Champions League, or even to gain some traction in the management market. More likely, he fancies keeping fit and out of the way of the kids by running out for his local team on a Saturday afternoon.

If the first round is like Christmas, the 2nd round is like Easter. Nobody particularly looks forward to it, but they aren’t going to turn it down. The camera angles on the TV coverage gets higher, as do the stakes. Or so people would have you believe. A win promises a third round tie against one of the big boys, but, more likely, will result in a whimpering away defeat to Huddersfield. It is the fantasy that fate will eventually place us in the clutches of a 60,000 seater enormo-dome that makes the cup, as they say with eyeballs rolling to the back of their skulls as though in the clutches of Derren Brown the 21st Century Paul Daniels with a budget greater than the GDP of Mali, magic.