A so-so game against a so-so team in a so-so season. Mercurial playmaker Peter Leven breaks down a Port Vale attack in his own half, nudges the ball forward, then looks up. He hasn’t, has he? Yes, I think he has.
2013 Alfie Potter versus Portsmouth
Relegated but rejuvenated, Portsmouth sell out the opening game of the season; billed as a celebration of their club’s re-awakening. We’re the stooges for the occasion, there to be sacrificed for the entertainment of the locals. The script says they take the lead which they do, then Alfie Potter tears the script up and throws it in a bin fire.
2014 Nicky Rowe versus Wycombe Wanderers
Despite dominating our game against Wycombe at Adams Park, we can’t make the breakthrough. Then, with two minutes to go, Nicky Rowe picks the ball up just outside the box and lets fly with the sweetest strike you’ll ever see.
2016 Liam Sercombe versus Carlisle
Despite a season of highlights, with three games to go we need three wins to secure promotion. Hundreds make the journey north for the last game of the season against Carlisle. We take the lead early, but the signature moment of the game, of the season, of the decade, is Liam Sercombe’s marauding second. Absolute limbs.
2017 Toni Martinez versus Middlesborough
Limbs (part 2). An enjoyable run in the FA Cup is all set to end as Middlesborough take a two goal lead. It’s all over. Or is it?
2018 Ryan Ledson versus Charlton
Nothing seems to be going right; we’ve lost our manager and seem unable to get a new one. We head to Charlton, managed by Karl Robinson, who are threatening the play-offs and lose our only recognised striker to injury. With two minutes to go, we’re 1-2 down. Seconds later, we’re all square and heading for a decent, and important point. That’s never enough for Ryan Ledson.
2019 Jamie Mackie versus Bradford
We’re in the 94th minute of a relegation six pointer and Bradford are just about to score the winner to tear our hearts out and potentially send us down. They miss, we take the goal-kick, and seven seconds later, the ball drops for Jamie Mackie for a goal for the ages. Then things get really weird.
It’s 0-0 in a relegation six-pointer, we’ve been the better team, just not good enough to beat them. The board goes up, four minutes of injury time. Some people have left, accepting the point, but our pressure is showing encouraging signs that we could still get something from the game. There are 57 seconds of injury-time to play.
Let’s start with Bradford manager, Gary Bowyer who wound the whole hullabaloo back to a challenge by Curtis Nelson on Eoin Doyle in the build up to their chance. Bowyer described the tackle as ‘wiping out’ Doyle, for which Nelson should have been booked.
Nelson’s challenge is robust, Doyle’s run is checked in the process, but the referee waves play on; Bowyer describes this is as ‘fair enough’. As a result of the challenge, Nelson is out of position and Doyle is able to regain his balance and drive on. He’s the one who squares the ball with Nelson scrambling to recover. He’s clearly got the advantage; wiped out, he isn’t.
The ball is squared to Lewis O’Brien at the back post, he has an open goal; Cameron Brannagan slides in to make a challenge. O’Brien misses. The referee, Andy Davies, who has good sight of it, if a little behind the play, awards a goal kick. On Twitter, a Bradford fan said it was a corner, but the immediate reaction of the Bradford fans is that it was a miss not a block. Bowyer also claims O’Brien said it came off Brannagan, but he doesn’t seem to make a big play for that argument.
Given the velocity and direction of the ball from the shot, it doesn’t look like Brannagan made any contact. That’s not to say it doesn’t take a nick, but there are four Bradford players in the attack, none appear to protest at the decision. Doyle seems to gesture at something, maybe Nelson’s challenge, but he’s not the best sighted Bradford player. O’Brien holds his hand up at something as the play moves on, but spends more time mourning his miss than claiming a corner.
Simon Eastwood retrieves the ball from a quick-thinking ballboy, firmly places it in the six yard box and passes it to Josh Ruffels who is already on his way down the flank. There are three conditions for a legitimate goal kick; the ball must be played from the six yard box; which is fine.
It must leave the penalty box before it is touched. Nathan Cooper claims there’s some question as to whether the ball leaves the box before Josh Ruffels touches it. Gary Bowyer doesn’t make any reference to this, showing that everyone is looking for something different. Curiously, according to the rules, the ball isn’t ‘in-play’ until it leaves the box. So, from the moment Simon Eastwood touches it to the moment it leaves the box, the ball is in an existential crisis, stuck somewhere between being a football and not being a football.
Anyway. The official footage is inconclusive. This video on YouTube shows it from the North Stand; the incident is at about 8 minutes 55 seconds. It shows the ball from Eastwood to Ruffels, someone’s arm gets in the way at the moment he first touches the ball. There’s a still on Twitter which looks like he may have touched it inside the box, but on the video, he seems to be outside and allowing the ball to come across him. He’s predominantly left footed, so it would make sense that he would allow it to come over to his more natural side. It’s not conclusive either way.
There’s nothing in the rules to say why the ball should leave the box. If it’s to protect the defending team, then it’s fairly immaterial. If it’s to protect the attacking team, then it should be retaken because, somehow, they’re disadvantaged. The rules, and that rule particularly, tend to err on the former, not the latter.
With the onus on protecting the defending team’s right to take the kick unimpeded, you have to look at the context. O’Brien is sitting on the floor, two have their back to play and Jack Payne is talking to the ref. None are preventing Eastwood from taking the kick. Bowyer and Karl Robinson didn’t know the rule, nor anyone else, it seems. Nobody protests until the linesman makes a big deal about it.
We are 17 seconds into the incident.
Ruffels sets off, the linesman appears to stop, but the camera pans past him. He doesn’t seem to flag, the fan video doesn’t make any reference to him doing it, the referee doesn’t stop or signal anything, he’s watching Ruffels and would probably be able to see the linesman in his peripheral vision. There doesn’t seem to be a flag, I don’t remember there being one. The incident is over and the play has continued. Any errors made in the previous phase are no longer relevant.
Ruffels launches a glorious cross-field ball to Gavin Whyte. It reminds me of Bobby Moore’s ball to Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup for the fourth goal; massively over-looked in the wider context.
Whyte darts inside, but his shot balloons up, possibly off Jerome Sinclair. When Ruffels makes his pass from inside our half, Jamie Mackie is the closest player to him. When the ball drops from Sinclair’s ricochet, seven seconds later, it’s Mackie arriving to pick it up in the box.
In those seven seconds, Mackie has covered nearly 35 metres at an average speed of 11 miles an hour. His anticipation and desire to get in the box is remarkable. He controls the ball at hip height, and in a single movement, takes a couple of steps to balance himself, then slams the ball home on the volley. It’s a brilliant counter-attacking goal and a sensational finish; in the context of the season, and everything that’s happened in the previous 30 seconds, it’s a goal for the ages.
Pandemonium. The Oxford bench clears, last time we saw that was against Wycombe when we were promoted. There’s some suggestion that Mackie, who had already been booked, might get another card for his celebration. It’s difficult to know what he’s supposed to have done; he’s grandstanding, but it’s everyone else going bananas.
With the dejected Bradford players preparing to kick-off, the referee consults his linesman and appears to disallow the goal. Mackie falls to his knees. Quite why the goal has been chalked off is hard to fathom. A Bradford player picks the ball up and heads for the penalty spot. That’s wishful thinking, there’s no suggestion it’s a penalty, but it creates more consternation. On the advice of the linesman, the referee appears to be pulling the play back to re-take the goal-kick, presumably because of the players in the box.
Players and officials start pushing and shoving on the touchline; Curtis Nelson calls for non-existent VAR, Karl Robinson suggests afterwards he watches too much Premier League football (which doesn’t have VAR). He ignores that he also gestured to the video team at the back of the stand to see if they can help. We can see you Karl. Hmm.
Afterwards Jamie Mackie claims he asked the referee to take some time to reconsider. If he did, it’s good advice because if he disallows the goal, he’s got a major crisis on his hands. The ref consults his other linesman. Presumably that’s not because he’s seen something different, perhaps to get a second opinion. If he’s done that because of Jamie Mackie, then Mackie is a god twice over.
There are only 17 laws in football; the rest is process and interpretation. There were Bradford players in the box when the free-kick is taken, which is the only bone of contention, but the law says that a re-take ‘may’ be taken (not ‘must’) if the process isn’t followed. It’s not considered a foul, it’s a process issue. Nobody should be punished.
The interpretations of that law puts the onus on protecting the defending team (us). There was no reason for the referee to get the kick re-taken. If the Bradford players were protesting at anything, it was that the referee hadn’t punished them for getting out of the box for the kick. It’s a funny world.
The referee’s error in handling the situation was probably two-fold. The game had long moved on by the time the issue was highlighted. He should have decided that the incident was in the past – the game had restarted, in which case the incident is no longer up for discussion (Law 5) – and trivial in context.
The second thing is that he should have taken both his linesmen to the side and decided in a single decision. Moving from one side of the pitch to the other meant players followed him around creating more mayhem. If anything, the linesman’s pedantry was at fault as it put doubt in the referee’s mind. In a world where VAR is considered the answer to everything, maybe the ref needs to be praised for taking the time to figure it out, or for listening to Jamie Mackie.
I haven’t written anything on this blog for a while. It’s not as if things aren’t going well on the pitch. Since the last post we’ve won three and lost one and we’re in the third round of the FA Cup after an excellent win over Plymouth.
Not only was that win important in terms of progressing, it was our first one away from home against a team at our level (Checkatrade aside, which it always is). We’re scoring goals and we’ve stopped conceding. The performance against Rochdale was, at times, as good, if not better than performances under Michael Appleton in League 1.
But, something is missing. The opening months of the season have been brutal, and the recovery from the start of the season has been slow. I admire Karl Robinson for getting us out of the hole we were in. I can see why people struggle to warm to him; he’s like your mate in the pub who is full of energy and a great laugh. Except when you get home and all you want to do is go to bed, he’s the one still going, plotting something, badgering you to go back out to some club or other.
He needs that energy, it’s a thankless task being a football manager, harder still turning a team around in the face of an endless stream of criticism. Even harder in the modern game when you can’t bring players in outside transfer windows. When everyone was down, he had to be up, he had to keep coming into work and putting the hours in to solidify the defence and create an attacking style that wins games. He’s done all of that.
The Nile Ranger affair, as much as it was anything, didn’t help with the mood. You can’t blame Robinson for looking where he can for players given the constraints they’re under. It’s not that Ranger doesn’t deserve a chance while he’s free to take them. If we simply punish people endlessly for things they’ve done, what is the point of trying to turn yourself around? You might as well keep trucking on with your errant ways. But still, the last thing we need is to become a club that attracts negative press or appears to put its morals aside in the pursuit of league points.
We’re also being wound up, apparently. HMRC are taking us to court in an attempt to make us pay our bills. I don’t really know how serious these things are, they sound serious. I don’t know how easy these things are to resolve. My guess is that, practically, all HMRC want is a cheque and the whole problem will go away.
Yellows Forum is not exactly a good barometer for how serious this is, but OxVox are sufficiently concerned to have written an open letter to the club about it. My guess is that it’s not the lack of money that’s the problem, more the poor administration of that money to pay bills. It doesn’t bode well for January.
But, and I think this is where my head is at the moment. What I felt sitting in the stands against Rochdale is that the club doesn’t currently have a narrative. At least not one I can easily relate to. Results on the pitch are good, and that’s an important start, but the spirit of the club isn’t there. There isn’t a buzz on social media for each game, crowds are hardly booming, the relationship with players still seems quite distant, fan culture seems a bit flat, the club doesn’t feel part of the city or fans or something.
This season has been one about the mechanics of surviving a terrible start. Perhaps the FA Cup will give us something to believe in, a spark, perhaps January will bring us some inspiring signings and we will take our form into the New Year and, like in 1996, we’ll go on a run which will bring a tilt at promotion and everyone together. But, the club have got to resolve its issues, off the field has got to feel better than it currently does, otherwise the results will be a side issue and those with a casual interest in us – who turn 6,000 crowds into 8,000 crowds – will continue to stay at home.
It was generally acknowledged that December and the Christmas period would define our season and so it has proved to be. It seems most likely that the play-offs are beyond us, and even if we manage to sneak in, then the last few games seem to prove we are still not ready for the Championship.
Whether this is a good thing or not is open to endless debate and probably depends on how impatient you are to see the club achieve its ambitions. The four Christmas games were, of course, overshadowed by the Wigan thrashing. But, looking objectively, they are league leaders and look well equipped to be in the same position at the end of the season, then we played sure-fire play-off contenders Bradford away. Plenty of other teams will lose both those fixtures this season. The problem with them being so close together is that it put pressure on the Gillingham and MK Dons games to pick up points. Four points (and three minutes from taking six) is actually a respectable, if not thrilling points total. So, although Wigan was a humiliation, as a block of results they were probably not wholly unexpected or as disastrous as initially perceived.
Defensively there are issues, of course, if you think that last year we had Edwards, Johnson, Dunkley and Nelson – three of whom can comfortably play in a division above. The back-four we have now is makeshift, each can compete in League 1, but together as a quartet there are issues.
While MK Dons oscillated gently from boring organisation to blythe incompetence, our performance did show glimpses of what we saw earlier in the season. We were far more mobile in attack, something that has only become possible in the last week or so with the return of van Kessel, Obika and Mehmeti. You could also see the intention to keep moving the ball to pull teams out of shape. English fans are notorious for their affliction to passes going backwards, but it draws the opposition on, helping us to attack on the break. How many times in the last 15 years have we complained about not being able to break teams down at home? This can be a very effective way of doing it.
Of course, the ultimate ambition is to be competitive with the teams at the top of the division. But, there is little doubt that the Eales project was significantly disrupted during the summer, so being on par with last year is not an unrealistic ambition in the circumstances and, despite the disruption, that’s pretty much where we are.
Pep Clotet’s arrival coincided with the gutting of Michael Appleton’s squad. He filled the gap with people he knew he could trust and, more importantly, were available. He’s implied in interviews that he didn’t expect to have to fill so many holes in the squad. So, what we we have seen to date is not so much the end state, but glimpses of Clotet’s philosophy.
If December was a test of our current credentials on the pitch, January may be more important off it. While it’s unlikely that we’ll fix all the weaknesses in the squad, the nature of any signings we make could give us a clearer indiction of the real Pep Clotet model.
If I were to summarise Michael Appleton’s philosophy, it would be that if we couldn’t out-think our opponents, then we’d simply try to outplay them. It worked most of the time, sometimes spectacularly so, but there were critical moments during a season when we’d find ourselves undone.
While we may have been equals or even betters in terms of pure ability, teams who were tactically better organised by managers like Chris Wilder, Phil Parkinson and Phil Brown were able to find ways to pick us apart just when we needed the points.
Last night’s draw against Bradford saw a tactical awakening and a significant step forward. There was an article about Pep Clotet in the Football League Paper which described his philosophy as complete discipline in defence and midfield, complete fluidity in attack. Easier said than done because some players have multiple roles. But there was evidence of it in the first hour as the team shape expanded as it broke forward and contracted as a single unit when Bradford had the ball. While constantly threatening in attack, we squeezed the life out of their options when we had to defend. It forced them to revert to the spectacular. Many teams won’t have the ability to execute a goal like their opener, which means most teams simply won’t get a sniff of Simon Eastwood’s goal if we carry on playing like this. We’d mitigated the risk to such an extent that while the goal was a blow, the fact that we could only be beaten by a moment of extraordinary ability was a huge positive.
There were other benefits; a more disciplined approach is much more efficient; we weren’t reliant on Simon Eastwood’s agility, Chey Dunkley’s strength or Chris Maguire’s mercurial talents to get us out of difficulties. Players jogged into their positions, rather than sprinted or lurched, that’s expending less energy and reduces the risk of injury. If we can use our brains rather than our bodies to win games, we’ll sustain ourselves longer.
The final half-an-hour saw something slightly different. It might have been tiredness, the disruption of substitutions or the desperation to get something from the game, but the shape of the game changed. I’m tempted to say it was a deliberate change of approach – we started passing the ball along the defensive line, but while it was viewed by some fans as indecision, perhaps it was an effort to draw Bradford out and open up some space. There were other things that were odd enough to be deliberate – Ryan Ledson drifting into John Mousinho’s right back position allowing him to lumber into the centre of midfield. It didn’t feel like a loss of discipline, more a deliberate tactical shift. Perhaps it was a way of disrupting the shape in the middle, allowing fresh legs of van Kessel and Mowatt, along with the endlessly energetic and cunning Wes Thomas, to exploit the spaces that were created. If it was deliberate, it was very clever and it worked with two very well worked goals showing the concept of ‘full fluidity in attack’ in all its glory.
While their equaliser was a kick in the guts, I suspect, this is a point that we might not have got last year. Watching the game was like a great film where the story evolved out of the tension of the piece, rather than telegraphed through a series of dramatic set-pieces, as it might have been last year. The quality of the performance, rather than the size of the explosion making it an enthralling spectacle. This growing maturity is undoubtedly progress.
As the season peters out, so it seems so does Liam Sercombe’s Oxford United career. According to Michael Appleton, Sercombe is embroiled in a ‘discipline issue’ which he implied is more than just a manager/player falling out.
Sercombe has had a difficult season. He came into it as the first choice attacking midfielder with John Lundstram, but facing better teams meant we needed to become a little more conservative. Lundstram became the playmaker with Ledson providing the defensive cover. It squeezed Sercombe out to the wing where he looked a bit of a spare part in comparison to Marvin Johnson on the other flank.
By rights he shouldn’t even be in the team having been ruled out in November only to return like some kind of bionic man in January. Plus, this is the first time he’s really faced the prospect of being out of contract during the summer. He had been at Exeter since he was a schoolboy and chose to turn a contract down in order to move to us. He’s never been in the position of his future being out of his hands before.
Wembley was pivotal; a late burst of form from Joe Rothwell saw him sneak a starting place ahead of Sercombe who appeared from the bench, with us 2-0 down, like a caged animal. He got our consolation goal; proof that he should have started? He seemed to think so, although it was hardly definitive. He followed up by uncharacteristically re-tweeting fans’ praise about his performance.
We don’t know exactly what the problem is but all this pressure, then, seems to have got to him, which is sad to see. It could be all manner of things; ill-discipline in training, a fight with another player, discussing contract negotiations, bad mouthing those involved. Or perhaps a combination. Or something else.
It seems that 12 months after promotion, only John Lundstram and Chris Maguire (if he stays) will start next season at the club. Both Joe Skarz and Chey Dunkley, along with Liam Sercombe, have stripped their social media profiles of Oxford references and Benji Buchel is sure to move on. If you consider that the last remaining member of the 2010 promotion winning side – Jake Wright – left six years after Wembley, it shows how impatient Michael Appleton is to move the club on.
None of this is great for nostalgics, we all want to believe that eras go on for years and that players are immortal. But even the greats either decay slowly or get sold onto better things. In the modern age things are a bit different; with the exception of Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda, who were subject to lengthy speculation, the promotion squad is simply evaporating with little warning. Last season we packed in a lifetime of achievement, perhaps that’ why it feels like the golden era is passing so quickly.
Sercombe’s contribution last year was immeasurable; Roofe may have stolen a lot of the limelight, but included in Sercombe’s 17 goals there was the equaliser against Swansea and his fabled goal away at Carlise, this season he got the winner against Birmingham, the equaliser away to Swindon and, of course, the goal at Wembley. He may be leaving the party prematurely, but his contribution will be felt for years to come.
In this context, Port Vale was a curious affair, like a game of park football where tactics were set aside for a test of pure ability. As a result, Vale showed themselves to be full of endeavour but ultimately not very good, we showed ourselves to be lacking in motivation but ultimately with too much quality to lose.
Michael Appleton admitted that he had to recognise that there was nothing to play for and that many of the players’ heads were elsewhere. It wasn’t clear when he said that if they were players on the pitch, the bench or elsewhere.
On the pitch it was difficult to see who he was referring to. At a stretch (and it would be quite a stretch) maybe Joe Skarz didn’t quite seem to be on the money but, overall, it looked like a team that was playing without pressure rather than one which was unmotivated.
To some extent, after more than 60 games this season and nearly as many last, it’s a bit of a relief to be able to run the season down free of pressure, but as calming as that feels, it also seems changes, and big ones, are afoot.
“Alright Dave, I’ll see you next time” said the bloke in front just as Chris Maguire was tee-ing up a freekick on the edge of the box.
There were six empty seats in front of me when Maguire foxed the Bradford keeper to win the game on Saturday. I get both sides of the ‘leaving early’ debate. On one hand, if you’re young with too much time on your hands, then football is life and you support the boys to the bitter end regardless of the consequences or futility. On the other, there’s traffic and convenience to consider, football is good, but so is Strictly and a curry.
Neither view is particularly wrong, but football is made of moments and you miss them at your peril. Saturday’s was a tight high quality game punctuated by three moments; the penalty, the free-kick and the non-penalty (which was one).
As we progress through the divisions these moments will become more fleeting, but also more intense. Games will become tighter, the reliance on technical quality – and the ability to execute it at a moments’ notice – over raw physical ability will grow. When Nathan Cooper suggested to Chris Maguire that he had some kind of magical ability to produce on demand his response was ‘Well, I do practice them’ echoing his manager who’d spoke moments earlier.
The big signings of the summer, Marvin Johnson and Kane Hemmings will do well to recognise these points. Both came with reputations for rampaging through defences, but have found space and opportunity much more limited down south. Hemmings seems to be coming to terms with this although Johnson seems more frustrated. He has the physical attributes and if he maintains what is sometimes referred to as a growth mindset, then he should come good. He’s at the right club to do that.
You get the feeling that we’re becoming sharper and more competitive as the weeks pass. John Lundstram spent good chunks of last year spraying 60 yards passes over the heads of League 2 lunks, this season’s lack of space came as a bit of a shock, but he’s starting games quicker now and becoming more physical. As a result he’s started earning the space and right to get his passing going.
Ryan Taylor had his best game in a yellow shirt in the most unfamiliar of positions. In a sense, he’s also benefitting from his ability to adapt to his surroundings. He’s been OK holding the ball up playing as a striker, but playing on the left where he was able to use his physical attributes alongside his short passing ability was a masterstroke.
Two points off the play-offs and our growing confidence makes ours a very happy place to be. As we climb the division, we should expect games to become tighter and the moments of magic to become more special. Just make sure you don’t miss them.