Match wrap: Blackpool 2 Oxford United 1

Predictably enough, the reaction to our first defeat of the season on Radio Oxford was apoplectic. According to some, the loss scraped away the veneer of a good start, exposing the inadequacies at the club from Board level down.

There isn’t a lot to support that, of course. We were playing the team currently top of the table (albeit after just two games), away from home, we dominated and lost, in part, to a soft penalty.

In a sense, the defeat serves us well. It gets it out the way; had we come away from a sequence of Sunderland, Peterborough (twice) and Blackpool unbeaten we’d have been delighted; which might have caused a problem.

Alternatively, had we come out of it with perhaps a point or none – which would have been far from unrealistic – then the pressure would be bordering on intolerable, and it’s still only the middle of August.

The prospect of us going up automatically remains remote, in the Absolute State of Oxford United survey, it was clear that the expectation was a finish anywhere from 8th-10th, higher than that would be considered over-performance, but it will also be a play-off place.

Maybe we have got a team capable of achieving more than was expected, but blasting out from the front and expecting to maintain that kind of form throughout the year is ambitious to say the least.

Three games in and we’re not panicking about where our first points are coming from, nor are we anxious about what our first defeat will do to us. We’re up and running, with a solid base to work from.

The true picture is unlikely to reveal itself before the clocks go back. In the interim, this period is about completing any transfer business, and setting our stall out and finding a rhythm. Getting a win and a defeat out of the way are both pretty healthy in my view. The nature of the defeat is like the one against Blackpool, far better than a tanking – as we did against Barnsley last year, or a defeat which should have been eminently winnable – as in 2017 against Cheltenham. In fact, this is the latest first defeat we’ve had since promotion in 2016 (defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup) and the latest in the League since 2013.

That said, we now enter a sequence of games against decent teams we should probably expect to compete with – Burton, Bristol Rovers, Coventry and Fleetwood all represent benchmarks for us in this division. In fact, in the survey, fans predicted they would occupy the four positions between 11th-15th. A positive set of results and maybe we should be recalibrating our expectations upwards a little; poor results and there may be grounds to worry.

The wrap: Blackpool 0 Oxford United 1

Following a turbulent week, a win. And not just a win, an away win that takes us out of the relegation zone. Go figure.

The defeat to Accrington was very real although according to OxVox the winding up from Firoka may be nothing of the sort. This suggests the leak of what appears just a threat was an attempt to embarrass the current regime rather than anything.

It worked; some fans turned their social media profile pictures upside-down in protest. While hardly an organised political movement, the precise purpose of the protest wasn’t clear. If the fictitious winding up order was the tipping point, you could even read it as demonstrating a degree of sympathy for Firoz Kassam and his unpaid bills.

That might be facetious, but the point stands; if you’ve turned your profile upside-down, what will cause you to turn it back? The removal of Karl Robinson? The departure of Tiger? Avoiding relegation? Winning promotion?

The first step in addressing any problem is recognising there is one. The protest may simply be an acknowledgement that things aren’t right. The next part is defining a solution to that problem. On that front, it’s the expectations are less clear.

Karl Robinson was criticised for saying that the fans shouldn’t turn on Tiger. Criticising Robinson is a habit for some and the response suggested he was pretending things were fine. Read the article and he admits there have been, and are, problems. But what he’s saying is that we shouldn’t mix criticism of what has happened with criticism of Tiger’s intent and will to make it work.

This is a fair point; do fans believe that Tiger has bad intentions? Despite everything, I still think his intentions are for the club to succeed. The OxVox statement suggested that there has been £1million of unexpected expense this season, giving some indication of the complexity he’s encountered.

In the meantime, the season rolls on, which is one of the biggest challenges of dealing with these issues between August and May.

Jordan Graham’s free-kick, which was bordering on world class, won it and took us out of the relegation zone. Graham may well be the difference between relegation and survival this season. Despite injury fears, he’s hit the road running, not only adding a new dimension to our play, but allowing people like Marcus Browne recovery time.

By taking us out of the relegation zone, the result hopefully reminds us that despite everything, relegation is far from a certainty and there is still lots to fight for.

In Game 3 of the last Baseball World Series, the LA Dodgers took 18 innings to beat Boston Red Sox 3-2. In baseball, a pitcher will make about 100 pitches before losing form and being replaced. The Red Sox worked their way through their pitchers for the game and the pitchers they’d planned to use for next game the following day. Their plans for the series appeared wrecked, putting what had been a record-breaking season at jeopardy.

At the end of the marathon, coach Alex Cora was asked what his strategy for the rest of the series was. His response was simple; it was as it had been all year – to win the next game. Amidst all the catastrophising; perhaps we should take a similar approach.

The wrap – Oxford United 2 Blackpool 0

It was good to see Alex MacDonald back at the Kassam on Saturday. The little bowling ball in skinny jeans has cemented his legend in the club’s history and will always be welcomed back with open arms.

The 2016 promotion team, and its re-incarnation in 2017 as a League 1 team will always be the benchmark by which all subsequent teams will be measured, up until they are superseded. But, they set a high bar, so it’s going to be difficult to knock them off their perch. But, it’s easy to forget through the giant killings, promotions, derby wins, and Wembley visits the club didn’t win anything.

As entertaining as it was, they fell just short. The margins were always close, their comeuppance pivoting around a few specific games; Northampton in 2016, Sheffield United and Bolton the following year; each team turned up with an unerring efficiency, cutting through our pretty football, taking one touch when we would take four, scoring lots of goals, not perfect goals.

As Michael Appleton famously said, we were the best football team in League 2. What he didn’t say, to Chris Wilder’s chagrin, was that we weren’t the most successful. Like most arguments, the fall out came because each side were arguing from different starting points.

Saturday’s win over Blackpool showed shades of the unerring rugged efficiency that proved to be Appleton’s nemesis. A nemesis which seemed to be critical if you have ambitions for promotion.

There were two opponents, the hideous weather, which could have been enough to turn the game into a complete non-event, and Blackpool themselves, a perfectly competent team with reasonable aspirations for the play-offs.

Neither seemed to trouble us, the job was largely complete in the first half. Given our start to the season, promotion, or anything approaching it, would seem beyond the realms of what is reasonable. But, the seeds are there if we can maintain and build on that core strength.

Marcus Browne will eventually go back to West Ham and Curtis Nelson seems destined to leave at some point, but if we can bolster in January and build in the summer, then after a tumultuous opening to the season, we might actually start to realise our ambitions.

Critical to this is what I think caused our problems earlier this year; not the manager or players, but the owners and senior managers. The amount of money available seems less of an issue than the speed at which it is approved and released. Solve that issue and the sky is the limit.

The wrap – Oxford United 1 Blackpool 0

On Saturday, someone behind me speculated loudly about what it would take for Pep Clotet to ‘go home’. While there was no overt malice, there’s an every day racism in the language he used. Among all the vitriol thrown at managers in football, nobody would ever talk about someone British needing to leave a club to ‘go home’.

It’s easy to de-humanise foreign managers and players as interlopers and charlatans. They only become valid, thinking, sentient people when we choose to validate them. And that only happens when they satisfy us. Otherwise, they come over here and get jobs because they dupe owners into employing them over more deserving English candidates, or so goes the narrative.

Amidst the muck and bullets of two grim battling victories there have been shoots of something good happening, and it’s not quite what anyone expected. Clotet’s appointment, we assumed, heralded a cosmopolitan revolution where we would sweep away all before us in a blizzard of pace, skill and technique. Summer football through an English winter.

But, Clotet has been dealt a tough hand – his predecessor was universally loved, he has lost the core of what the thought he was inheriting and he’s had less than one transfer window to re-dress the imbalance all that has caused.

But he’s never complained, he’s resolutely focused on his job. If you want to place a stereotypical national characteristics to it, Clotet has been Germanic in his appliance of learning from experience and British in his stoicism. 

What has started to translate onto the pitch is a team willing, not to be dragged down by their circumstances, but to graft their way out of difficulties. People mocked Clotet for describing Dwight Tiendelli as ‘the least disruptive option’ to replace Ricardinho. It was a funny phrasing, but that’s exactly what was needed. And in Tiendelli he knows he has a player with the experience, attitude and ability to be the least disruptive option. To work for the team, not himself.

Let’s not kid ourselves, the results have rarely been pretty, but they have been effective. People talk about our reliance on Simon Eastwood, but let’s not forget that he was our player of the season last year, meaning he was hardly a redundant onlooker . So, although we might look shaky defensively, we weren’t exactly rock solid last. Above all, however, last year we were accused of being bullied out of points. What has come out of the last couple of weeks, is a willingness to fight. In short, Pep Clotet is demonstrating more typically English qualities than his English predecessor. Rather than send him back to where he came from, it might be that England is where he is most at home.

Fans have grumbled about it not being like the last couple of seasons. What has been sacrificed is not the results, but the aesthetics of Michael Appleton’s football. The passing is not as slick, and in some cases it’s been below standard, what the flare has been replaced with may not be as pleasing on the eye, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that it’s not without merit.

The wrap – Blackpool 3 Oxford United 1

When I drove home after the Bradford game, which was as good a home performance as I can remember against decent opposition, Jerome Sale read out the league table. We’d dropped a couple of places, which didn’t seem terribly fair, but when he read the teams sitting above us, they were all names you could imagine having ambition to go up, and in most cases, automatically.

We’ve now dropped to 10th, albeit still only three points from the play-offs. But, what strikes me looking at those above us, and a number still below, is just how much potential there is in the division this year.

Of the top 13 places, Peterborough and Shrewsbury, the top two, are ironically the only two teams I probably wouldn’t have mentioned as being potential promotion contenders at the start of the season. Every other team has either recently spent time in the Championship or should have the resources and infrastructure to play at a higher level.

That’s not to say we’re doomed, last season I got a strong sense we weren’t ready to go up, this year we’re better equipped to do well. Plus, despite the names, who knows what hidden gremlins are eating clubs like Portsmouth, Charlton or Wigan from the inside? They are all well supported and financed, but they ultimately, they are League 1 teams for a reason. This is one of the things about League 1, it’s an elephant’s graveyard of ambition, what is yet to show this year, is who is actually dead in the water. Someone will suddenly capitulate, but it’s a question of who.

The Blackpool defeat reminded us of two things, the first, the difficulty we still face in getting out of this division and second, that it’s still early in the season. Blackpool may have their internal problems, but they were promoted last year, so they must have done something right. But, on the other hand they are still a deeply troubled club, and there has to be a question as to whether can they sustain their run throughout the season.

We, on the other hand, are comparatively stable particularly off the pitch, and if we discovered anything from last year, it was that tediously stable sides succeed.

The good news is that we have already faced four of the top six and that three of our next four league games are against teams at towards the bottom of the table, outside the current zone of clubs with ambition.

But, we are never far away from another challenging fixture, and while we wait for the season to settle down a bit and for a few of the contenders to fall away, we may have to simply eek out as many points as possible before we start thinking about a serious assault on the play-offs.