How’s Mickey doing?

Against Wimbledon he was the new messiah, but against Bristol Rovers he was a very naughty boy. So just how is Mickey Lewis doing?

There have only ever been two pieces of football punditry which have stayed with me. That’s partly because because most football pundits provide meaningless analysis and a lot down to the fact I’m forgetful and massively disinterested in the science of football tactics.

The first was from Gary Neville, who revealed that Manchester United’s fabled ability to score last minute goals comes from a focus on creating a single high quality chance rather than relentlessly pumping the ball into the box. The second was from Graham Taylor who said that anyone can organise a team, only a few can get it to score goals.

He said this after one of his stints coaching a team of celebrities in Sky’s The Match. The Match had a great concept – a team of young, fit celebrities are professionally coached to play a team of overweight ex-professionals. What the celebrities lost in skill, they gained in fitness. What should have resulted was an even game.

But, in three years, the celebrities scored one goal, a fluke. They could be organised and pass a ball around in a semi-competent way, but Taylor couldn’t train them to score when up against real footballers, albeit fat ones.

Which, in essence, is the challenge that faces Mickey Lewis. As a coach, he has proved more than competent organising a team, but can he up his game to win enough games to get us up?

After Wimbledon, the post-match phone-in for the mentally unsettled speculated that Lewis was worthy of immediate appointment. In fact, you could easily have deduced the Wimbledon result had secured us all of our 49 points on its own.

That win was generally heralded as a new dawn; positive, happy, more attacking and entertaining. There’s no evidence to suggest that’s true. Against Wimbledon we mustered 2 shots and enjoyed 48%  possession; compared to the 5 home games before that, our possession had only been worse once (against Plymouth) and our shots better only twice (Scunthorpe and Dagenham).

The difference, against Wimbledon, was that we were more efficient with the little we created. We probably shouldn’t rely on Tom Newey’s ghosted runs for goals in the future but David Connolly, a parting gift from Chris Wilder, could be the difference we need.

There have been studies done on the relationship between a working environment and productivity. It was proved that if you put plants into an office, productivity increases. However, it was also proved that if you take plants away, productivity increases. The conclusion is that it is not the plant that improves productivity, it is the change of environment. That it was the change we were benefitting from against Wimbledon, not Lewis’ tactical ability.

The subsequent trips to Bury and Bristol Rovers gave us two important points, but we didn’t quite have the extra guile to eek out a win in either game. It’s easy to be greedy, we’ve been so good away from home you might reasonably expect at least 4 points.

Between Lewis and Melville and a squad of players with their heads screwed on, it should be possible to hold things together long enough to reach the play-offs and perhaps better. But, it will be a close run thing.

Longer term, however, I don’t see Lewis having the ability to adapt the team’s composition and tactics to take us much beyond where we are. Aside from his tactical abilities, he’s always benefitted from being ‘good old Mickey’, loved by everyone, if he is going to be manager and he is going to be successful, then he needs to be happy being disliked because one day he’ll have to make unpopular decisions.

So, Mickey’s doing alright and, for the foreseeable future, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him continue to do alright, but as for the long term; I think we’ve got to look elsewhere.

Is it time to start pointing fingers?

Playing a blame game is very tempting, but rarely particularly helpful. But after two home defeats in a row, and a run of five without a win, the knives are out and everyone is sniping at each other. So who is at fault for our current predicament?

The manager

There’s little doubt that Chris Wilder is under pressure and it’s difficult to see quite how he can pull the fans around to give him sustained support. Each run of form feels like a patch over a much longer decline. Like an old car that breaks down more and more and becomes more expensive to fix; there’s a point at which you just need to buy a new car. That said, managers rarely get the opportunity to turn their team around, they’re fired before they get to that situation, so there are few reference points to imagine him going from zero to hero.

On Tuesday, against Fleetwood, there was a sense that it wasn’t so much that he should be fired, more that he should be released from the purgatory of the situation he finds himself in. Though there are harsh critics of Wilder, only the truly demented will deny that he’s been dealt a tough hand. Money is tight, the pitch is terrible and injuries have desecrated us; it’s not an easy ride. One bloke behind me bemoaned that Lewis Montrose was “Another Wilder choice” ignoring that every player in the squad is a Wilder choice, even the good ones. A fit Ryan Clarke, Andy Whing, Michael Duberry, Peter Leven and Tom Craddock – all Wilder choices – would have undoubtedly given Fleetwood a better game – most of Wilder’s good decisions are not currently available.

He looks a bit of a spent force at the moment, without ideas and without anyone to turn to for support.

The owner

In the main I trust Lenagan’s ownership. He has a track record in running decent professional sports clubs and is clearly a successful businessman. Like many very clever people he seems able to process lots of information and distill his options into a series of apparently simple yes/no decisions. Emotion and indecision doesn’t come into it; as long as you’re not too risk averse, this is a good thing for running a business.

But Lenagan’s clear thinking comes at a cost; he lacks the empathy of people who are less clear thinking than him, which means he struggles to understand what makes football fans; with their baked in irrationality, tick. As a result he appears cold hearted and distant and some of his decisions – such as the signing of Luke McCormick – seem ill-judged. What’s more, he’s almost too honest. Suggesting that some players have been signed without a medical during the most acute injury crisis in several generations leaves him vulnerable. And, at the fan forum, failing to mention that the club were about to hand over their shirt sponsorship space to a local charity was a missed opportunity for some good PR.

The landlord

Firoka have a lot to answer for. There is more to being the landlord of a professional sports stadium then providing a patch of grass, or as it has become now, rutted mud and sand. The science of hosting multiple sports exists; Cardiff, Wigan, Swansea and Hull all successfully run stadia featuring both rugby and football. And Firoka have actively sought a rugby tenant for some years. So this season’s difficulties were all predicable. Kassam isn’t providing a multi-sport facility; it’s a football pitch with rugby being played on it. The Firoz Kassam business model is the same throughout his empire; identify a desperate group of people; whether that be rugby and football teams or asylum seekers and provide them with a bare minimum service. In his purely transactional world, he ignores the benefit of collaboration – better facilities mean larger crowds mean more money and higher rents.

There is a chance to sort this out over the close season so that it never happens again, but the state of the pitch could be the route cause of a whole lot of our problems. If it does result in the manager losing his job, key players getting injured and crowds dropping, then Firoka should (but won’t) be held to account.

The team

There’s no lack of commitment in the team, and no lack of quality, at least not in the treatment room. We just can’t keep the good players on the pitch and the likes of Potter and Chapman need good players around them to help them perform. With so much going against them, the sense of helplessness, the lack of confidence is becoming overwhelming. What’s more worrying is that the season doesn’t really offer any respite from the gloom. There’s no cup or derby to distract us from the solemn trudge from here to May.

The injury problem has been so extensive that you can look at it two ways; either it points towards a systemic failure in the club’s sports science set up, or it’s so bizarre that you cannot imagine that you’ll be inflicted with it again for a generation. Certainly the club should tighten up in giving players fitness tests before signing them, and the investment in sports science promised at the end of last season needs to begin paying dividends. But there have been a surprising number of in-game ‘impact’ injuries, particularly at home in the first half. While players may be carrying injuries into games that they aggravate, a lot of these injuries do seem to be the result of bad luck; or perhaps a badly rutted pitch.

The fans

Whilst understandably angry and frustrated, the fans have been spoilt in recent years; Wilder has produced three derby victories, a win at Wembley and, in his first season, a thrilling, if ultimately doomed dash to the play offs. We expect to be entertained. During the latter months of the Kassam reign the fans were in a similar rut; in a game against Rochdale the crowd spontaneously started chanting and banging the many empty seats around them. The fans had taken it upon themselves to claw back the club.

The same sense of helplessness, coupled with a degree of expectation, means the the fans are sitting back, or not even turning up. It’s certainly hard to raise yourself when faced with defeat after defeat, but sitting back and waiting to be entertained, is not going to help.

… And the solution?

Don’t fire the manager. At least not yet. Admittedly, Wilder’s future is an entirely valid discussion to have. It might make us feel better for five minutes because it’ll give us a sense of doing something, but it’ll instantly lose us 4 years of collective learning, and if Lenagan is to be believed then it’ll cost us £200,000 in compensation and recruitment fees, money that could easily be spent on something more positive.

You can’t isolate our performances down to Wilder’s decisions alone. So what could you do that would address the influencing factors? I would appoint a new chairman. Whilst Kelvin Thomas may be a little devil-may-care in this age of austerity, somebody who can dedicate time to engaging with Firoka, provide some support for the manager and give the fans something to get behind. This could create a galvanising force would pay huge dividends.

At the beginning of the beginning

At Christmas parties people accuse me of being boring because I can’t force myself into dancing. What these people don’t believe is that I particularly like dancing. The reason you won’t find me dancing at a Christmas party is because the music doesn’t make me want to dance and I’ve learnt not to force something I don’t naturally want to do.

 I’m much the same when it comes to the new season. The first game of the season doesn’t be particularly excite me anymore. I tend to let the season’s story emerge over a few weeks and draw me. It can be as late as October before I’m fully engaged.

I used to love the first day of the season, a burst of relief after months of dormancy. Like most people, I gave far too much meaning to the first 90 minutes. But then, I remember 1999 and winning 2-1 at Stoke. Steve Anthrobus scored on his debut and the Oxford Mail heralded his new partnership with Derek Lilley. It turns out that was the beginning of a two year capitulation; Anthrobus’ goal one of 4 he scored in that time. This game is largely responsible for me not believing the hype of a new season.

That said, I think Saturday’s 2-0 win over Bristol Rovers is significant. In the first six weeks of the season, points look hard to come by and three points away from home against a big spending opponent will go a long way to recovering Chris Wilder’s battered stock.

Looking at our opening fixtures, I hadn’t anticipated us being particularly high up the table early on, although I do expect us to come back later in the year. However, a poor opening will provide others with the evidence they need that Wilder has lost it. If the pressure to make a change grows, then it is conceivable that he would move on before Christmas. Three points against Bristol Rovers on Saturday will help allay the risk of that kind of knee jerk reaction

This season to looks stronger than last year with Wycombe, Rotherham, Fleetwood, Northampton, Chesterfield, Bristol Rovers and Southend all expecting promotion with Cheltenham and Torquay being as hopeful as us of a play-off place.

So there are ten clubs who would expect to be in the promotion and play-off places at the end of the year with only 7 places to fill. It’s going to be a long tough season and more than ever we need to judge the performance of the club on the whole season and not just parts of it or even individual games

But, before we get into the season proper we need to get through the next few weeks unscathed. Picking up points early on will go a long way to achieving that initial aim.

Oxford United 3 Bristol Rovers 0

After last week’s freak heatwave, I looked out from the South Stand on Saturday at the slate grey sky with the floodlights glowing. Down below Simon Heslop received a pass, a feint shadow was caste on the pitch. My heart warmed.
We are the people of the gloaming. As the summer departs most recede to their houses, their weekends defined by X Factor and Strictly. We, on the other hand, appear blinking into the gloom; our weekends have purpose and focus.
Saturday’s 3-0 win over Bristol Rovers was English football at its very best.
It didn’t need to be like that, of course, neither side could boast particularly stellar form – us at home or them away. It was no local derby, no make or break.  Ticket prices weren’t slashed, like the day’s other big League 2 crowd at Bradford. On paper, it was just another lower league fixture. But, with good marketing by both clubs we got a sizable crowd and atmosphere that was a reminder of football’s good old days.
The surprise isn’t so much the size of the crowd, more that it doesn’t happen more often.
On the way in, Radio Five were in discussion with Joey Barton. As is so often the case with media-hate figures, Barton came over as articulate and thoughtful. He recognised that elite sportsmen, footballers in particular, are oddballs. They have to be, they spend their lives eating grilled chicken and pasta, they do their job with 50,000 people screaming bile at them and sports science means they have reached a point of physical fitness that makes them more machines than men. They have mind-boggling salaries, preposterously big houses and pneumatic wives. Barton recognises how bizarre this is, not to excuse his behaviour, but helps to explain it. If he wanted to play sport for sport, he’d have taken up rugby league, he said.
And yet, Premier League players are considered the definition of perfection – good looking, rich, skilful. But they are odd, as in, not typical.
On Friday, I turned over to see that England had qualified for Euro 2012. England games are now relegated to Friday nights, when QI, Outnumbered and Would I Lie To You are all perfectly adequate viewing alternatives. England had just conceded a two-goal lead against a micro-nation, but were slapping each other on the back stony faced, as a job well done. Although live on Sky the game had no coverage on terrestrial TV. You have to wonder, who were they doing it for, and who really cared?
The oddballs of the Premier League are achieving things I can’t bring myself to care about. It is increasingly pointless and joyless. I can’t have heroes who are over-evolved freaks, I want them to be flawed, I want them to take the tube once in a while and have mortgages.
It helps when you’re successful, well, competitive at least. It is easier to drag yourself to a game when there’s the prospect of a win. Ultimate Support Saturday helped sustain the momentum that has been provided by a good start to the season, but, it wasn’t just the result; if we’d lost or drawn it would still have been worthwhile.  

Yellows 6 Bristol Rovers 1

We’ve seen some bad sides in the last four years; Chester’s wheezing death throes, Wrexham neutered by their recent history, Tamworth running around like five-year- olds chasing a tennis ball in the playground.

None were quite as awful and shambolic as Bristol Rovers were last night. At least the others had good reason to be bad. Rovers seemed comfortable on the ball, athletic and strong, but they fell apart every time they tried to produce something. Like they couldn’t get their legs to do what their brains were asking. A kind of football Alzheimer’s.

I became preoccupied with it; I even gave an involuntary groan when Green latched onto one of Heslop’s through-balls. My new compadres in the SSU must have thought I was a Bristolian. I guess I’m just programmed to be sensitive to failure.

It made the game curious to watch. Everything we did worked; we were rampant, it could genuinely have been 8 or 9. Can we really have been that good? Trips to the Kassam are all about bulging veins and chest beating, the enjoyment of watching Oxford has come from the release from the agony of the game as it has about the thrill of victory. We’re not used to enjoying an exhibition in passing moving and finishing.

Last time we scored six was against Eastbourne and that included two penalty saves from Billy Turley. Before that, against Halifax, in 2001, we still struggled despite them being bottom of the league destined for the Conference. It was only when they were reduced to nine men that we took over. Before that? 6-0 against Shrewsbury… and then every goal was a header. Scoring six isn’t exactly conventional, but with us it’s been more that 25 years since we had a six-goal haul that was just, um, normal.

The evening reminded me of watching the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park one cool August evening 8 years ago. A thoroughly enjoyable evening out in warm friendly surroundings, but I’m buggered if I could work out what was going on.