George Lawrence’s Shorts: Lip up Matty

Saturday 17 August 2019

A hatful of easy opportunities, too much wood, then a return home full of regret. That’s always been GLS’ experience of a weekend in Blackpool. It was much the same on Saturday as Oxford went down 2-1 to The Seasiders, whose winner was scored by  Armand Gnandulliet, a player so unplayable even he doesn’t know what his legs are going to do next.

Sunday 18 August 2019

Cosmopolitan sophisticat Čhrïßtòphė Ŵîłdê’s Oxford United skipper fiddling fetish peaked on Sunday as former Oxford captain John Lundstram gave Sheffield United a 1-0 over Crystal Palace, in what was their first, and probably only win of the season.

Meanwhile the Daily Mirror, a tabloid so highly principled it allows page 3 girls to wear a bra, did a takedown of teenage loanee wunderkind Ben Woodburn. They report Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer has been ‘reduced’ to playing as a substitute in front of 3,000 fans. The paper neglects to mention that it was a League Cup game he was being rested for, or that he started in front of 33,000 fans 10 days earlier – two thousand more fans than his parent team did on Sunday.

Monday 19 August 2019

Matty Taylor, who you’ll remember from two Setanta Shield campaigns in the late 2000s, has signed from Bristol City on loan. Taylor will wear the number nine shirt previously worn by the man who put the ‘meh’ in Sam S-meh-th. Taylor joins a long line of illustrious Oxford number 9’s, begging the question; he’s good, but is he Tim Sills good?

*knock knock*
Hello mate, can I help you?
I’m George Thorne, on loan from Derby.
Right, OK, suppose you’d better come in.
*Shuffles in forlornly*
Oh, George.
*hopefully* Yes?
We’ve just signed Matty Taylor.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

No Carol, Fairy Liquid isn’t a good alternative to screenwash, it doesn’t have the necessary antifreeze or biocides. KRob’s fully operational battleship proved to have a few teething troubles on Tuesday night as Oxford went down 2-4 to Burton. Matty Taylor was the photon beam designed to destroy all-comers, but it needs a good dousing of WD40 as he was left frustrated.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

The Mirror’s favourite failed footballing teenager, Ben Woodburn has been called up to keep a welcome in the hillside with the Welsh national side. It means he’ll miss the opportunity to be rested for the EFL Trophy game against Norwich Juniors as well as the league game against Fleetwood Town.

Thursday 22 August 2019

Wearing silver drainpipes and doing peace signs has clearly become intolerable to John Mousinho and James Henry as they discuss the intricacies of the Irish backstop over a cup of herbal tea. Recently orphaned half of the Oxford United Jedward, Mark Sykes, has been made available for loan. Fans on Twitter were calling for Rob Hall to go on loan, which wouldn’t achieve the stated opportunity of giving Mark Sykes more game time.

Friday 23 August 2019

A packet of Twiglets, the half-tub of ice cream I left in the freezer for pudding that SOMEONE HAS EATEN and Piers Morgan will all have a place to go before tomorrow’s game against Bristol City. Bristol police announced that it would be supplying an amnesty bin for anything likely to incite hatred or abuse before Saturday’s game.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Burton Albion 4

I have to confess I’m not bought into the Matty Taylor narrative, at least not the romance of his homecoming. There are two reasons for this; the first is that once a player leaves our orbit I tend to lose track of them. I don’t remember Taylor’s initial stint at the club and I’m only vaguely aware of his movements since. I sometimes think I should be more aware of the comings and goings of clubs and players, but I think, in reality, everyone knows a little bit which when thrown into the social media melting pot, makes it feels like everyone knows everything. 

The second is that I remember the return of Joey Beauchamp, as far as I can remember the last genuine Oxford boy returning home. I expected the streets to be lined with well-wishers and the stands to be packed to the rafters. And then for Beauchamp to sweep all before him. In truth, his first game back was a workaday league fixture and his performance was muted. That’s because he’s human and not a cartoon character. 

I wonder to what extent Karl Robinson bought into the story. He gets the sentimentality in football clubs – but is it a rational or emotional understanding? He said before the defeat to Burton he’d planned to use Taylor from the bench – a more conventional approach with new signings – but the striker insisted he wanted to play; the emotional response. The story arc was Taylor’s triumphant return which would be capped with, obviously, with a thrilling winner.

But, this isn’t Taylor slotting into familiar surroundings; he left the club ten years ago, everything has changed. To expect him to suddenly transform us was always asking too much.

On Tuesday we started at a blistering pace with balls pinging about from one player to another. I saw a statistic recently that we have made more passes than any other team in the division by some distance. It’s a hallmark of the way Robinson wants us to play.

This approach may surprise good teams and should overwhelm limited ones, but Burton are a diesel – sometimes they fall behind, sometimes they creep ahead, but the pace of progress is steady. In essence, they allowed us to make mistakes and picked up the scraps and turn them, with greater efficiency, into chances. 

We improved after conceding the first goal; which was probably down to the fact there had to be a lull after the high energy opening. The urgency to move the ball and ultimately give Taylor the chances he wanted receded, but as a result, the passing was more accurate and purposeful and the chances, converted by Cameron Brannagan and Anthony Forde.

But it didn’t last; it struck me how short passing was, five or six exchanges would only gain a few metres. Burton could cover great swathes of the pitch in three or four. It wasn’t long-ball, it was just that their passes meant things more often. Only Brannagan really passed with any efficiency; continuing his phenomenal early season form.

Had we started with Mackie perhaps we’d have been less eager to fulfil the prophecy of Taylor’s triumphant return. I’ve no doubt that Karl Robinson is right when he says that Taylor improves the squad, and his experience should ensure he doesn’t dwell too much on the result or where his first goal will come from. But he won’t transform the team, he needs to grow into it and the team into him.

The wrap: Burton Albion 0 Oxford United 0

People who said that the draw against 10-men Burton was our best chance of getting our first away win of the season were wrong. It was the latest chance. Being 3-0 to Scunthorpe is probably the best, and we passed that one up as well.

In a division of tiny margins, we seem to have missed every opportunity to take points when they were available. Yesterday, Scunthorpe, Tuesday’s game against Barnsley, the defeat to Luton in the eighth minute of injury time, throwing away two leads to lose to Accrington. The list goes on. Each marginal mistake has a disproportionate effect – yesterday, we failed to snatch a goal and had chances which dribbled inches wide; but as a result we lost 2/3rds of the available points. That’s pretty punishing, all those marginal misses start to add up.

Looking at it, we’ve lost just four league games in our last 19. We’ve lost less games than Coventry in 11th. Nobody in the bottom nine have lost less games. Our goal difference is twice as good as Scunthorpe in 14th. There are seven teams who have scored less goals. Along with Sunderland; we’ve draw more games than anyone. But where they’ve lost two, we’ve lost twelve.

The accumulation of those marginal fails, and the fact we consistently fall on the wrong side of them, means we’re in the relegation zone. Promotion or the play-offs is always going to be an over-performance without more resources. Sunderland’s signing of Will Grigg for £4m shows just how big the gap can be, but a comfortable mid-table safety should be achievable for a club with our resources.

Which brings us to the dilemma; do we recognise we’re in trouble and start again with a new manager or simply deal with it with what we’ve got recognising the differences between success and failure are small. Turning draws into wins is where our difficulty is, we’re no longer being beaten soundly in the way we were at the start of the season. It’s wrong to write-off players like Jerome Sinclair just because he didn’t score yesterday, but some did. And his goalscoring isn’t necessarily the point; the point is, that we need energy up front so we can sustain ourselves as an attacking threat longer than if we have to rely on one player.

I don’t think disrupting the apple cart by getting rid of Karl Robinson is the answer, we aren’t tanking from a performance perspective and the issues that prevent us from making real progress run far beyond his office. Sacking Robinson will make us feel better for a bit because we’ve punished someone and relieved some frustration. As we’re sitting on a marginal line, I would rather we focussed on the 5% extra we need to pick up the points we need rather than risk losing 20% with the disruption.

The wrap – Oxford United 3 Burton Albion 1

When I listen to arguments about Brexit I often ask myself if those who voted leave genuinely believe it when the Daily Mail or Nigel Farage imply remainers are knowingly lying about them believing remaining is a better option. Or, is it just mock outrage to try and reinforce a more subtle point?

Similarly, how many people in the USA think there is a huge orchestrated conspiracy specifically against Donald Trump who is, in fact, completely honourable and truthful. Do his supporters actually think that somehow millions of people have got together to create a massive factory of lies?
I suspect the answer is there are far fewer conspiracists than we’re led to believe. Most people exist in benign ambivalence. Asked to choose who governs us and we’ll give an opinion, but whether we passionately follow the respective ideologies that sit behind them, I don’t get any sense ‘normal working people’ do.
Onto football, we all possess a hatred for Swindon Town, but do people genuinely believe everyone in a red shirt is wrong or evil? I suspect most know that most Swindon fans are probably like them just with a different affiliation, we just enjoy playing our part in the pantomime.
On Saturday, there was no limit to Karl Robinson’s histrionics on the touchline. Hands on head, hands in the air, arguing with the fourth official about whether standing in his technical area meant standing on or one inch behind the line painted on the ground. Does rational Karl Robinson genuinely believe this matters?
Again, I suspect not. He is either caught up in the moment, like all of us, as a way of releasing stress and tension. Being a manager is undoubtedly stressful, and the longer our losing streak went on, the most chance there would be that he would lose his job. People often argue that if we do a bad job in our regular work, we’d be fired. That’s not really true – lots of barely competent people retain jobs regardless of what they do – in football, even competent managers lose their jobs on a whim.
Apart from stress, I suspect Robinson is playing his part in securing the victory, but not in the way we might think. During the first half on Saturday, Trevor Kettle chose to punish a series of 50/50 challenges rather than give the benefit of the doubt. What he perhaps didn’t realise was he was awarding more of these challenges in favour of Burton, to the point where it was beginning to look very odd. The fans spotted it, Robinson spotted it, the players spotted it, and the anger grew. 
At half-time, the players moved towards Kettle to complain. Nothing particularly unusual about that. Robinson flew onto the pitch towards the referee – with panicking security in tow – looking like he might punch him on the nose. But, rather than complain to the referee, he pushed his players away and told them to get down the tunnel. 
This was a clever move; Kettle was left on his own with his linesmen still some way from the tunnel, flanked by security facing an invigorated home support. The boos were defeaning, I don’t remember them ringing out so loudly. Kettle was suddenly faced with the reality that in the tough game to control, he may have got some of his marginal calls wrong. The ‘performance’ of Robinson and then the fans sent an unsubtle message about a subtle issue. I don’t believe Kettle was consciously bias, it was just looking like that and the aggregated punishment we were receiving was far greater than the individual challenges deserved.
In the second half, he was faced with the option of continuing how he had been – calling things as he saw them – or unconsciously (or consciously) giving us a bit more leeway. If he had continued to give Burton the advantage, not only would be face the ire of the fans, but there are assessors in the stand who would start to question him. I don’t know if he deliberately evened things up – I doubt it – but it may well have made him re-evaluate how he was making decisions.
Having conceded a demoralising equaliser, Robinson created the theatre that served to re-balanced the game. Lets face it; Burton weren’t very good and we weren’t fantastic, but with their threat increasingly muted, we were able to ease to our first points of the season. And thanks god. 
Someone on the radio suggested that the half-time non-altercation could have been a turning point. For the game, yes. Perhaps for the season. Robinson took it upon himself to disrupt the flow of the game, which seemed to be following a similar pattern to Tuesday, helping shift the mindset, giving the players just enough space to perform.

It was a critical three points – we head up to Sunderland on Saturday and would be very happy with a point. The prospect of six games and no points would have seen us in deep trouble literally and mentally. That said, look at the table and by Saturday we’ll have played Sunderland (2nd), Portsmouth (3rd) and Barnsley (5th) all away, plus Fleetwood (6th) and Accrington (8th) at home. In the next six, we’ll be playing Coventry (16th), Wycombe (17th), Wimbledon (15th), Luton (10th) and Southend (11th) plus Walsall (4th). By that point we should have a clearer picture of the reality of our prospects.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The new season often looks unfamiliar. Fans look refreshed, new shirts are worn, people are in shorts. Pitches are a lush, deep, green colour; benefiting from a couple of months loving preparation rather than the usual 48 hours of intense forking and watering.

There is a buzz of anticipation because months of football deprivation play tricks on the mind. We begin to believe that we cannot fail, forgetting that every other team is similarly preparing and determined to succeed.

In the stands, the singing area worked to a point; I suppose when you put yourself in a singing area there is an obligation, of sorts, to sing. During the first half it was noisy and vocal, although it couldn’t be sustained. Expected, given the energy needed to sustain 90 minutes of noise and the result on the day.

On the pitch, players look leaner; hair cuts are sharp, Alfie Potter’s beard seems to have become more proportionate to his face. Danny Rose looks like he’s been taking some miracle dietary substitute you see advertised on Facebook, his tan looks like he’s been attacked by a creosote spray. The players who last year looked like children, look like men, like they’d grown into proper footballers over the summer. The football is technically better – at least for a little bit. And, of course, there are new signings which I can’t tell one from another.

On the touchline the familiar questionable tracksuits of Chris Wilder (frankly, I can’t remember what Gary Waddock wore) were replaced by the suited Michael Appleton. Mickey Lewis was barely visible barreling around the technical area.

Nothing was more different than in the executive box. It was rammed full of suits wearing those garish yellow club ties. Some people I recognised, most I didn’t. There were wives, girlfriends  looking like a lost wedding party. Some were self-consciously wearing Oxford scarfs which you suspect had been hastily purchased for the occasion. Were they investors? Officials? Or were they simply the family and friends of new regime offering moral support and coming to admire the owners’ new toy? Where did they all come from? And, will they still be here in November?

The area was so full that when Burton rolled in their winner just before half time, the phalanx Burton suits rose as one in their seats, not on the front row of the box as is usually the case, but about 20 seats to the left towards the open end. They seemed to have been ousted by the hangers on.

Nathan Cooper reinforced the sense of renewal by announcing the arrival of the players with a bellow of ‘A new era’.  Things were different, of that there’s no doubt.

Different until a ball was kicked, that is. Then there was a distinct familiarity about it all – decent shape, good passing, no urgency and no goal threat. As a bloke near me said ‘we won’t concede many, but we’ll score even less’ which, by any measure, is a withering assessment.

Even after we fell behind and the game ticked past the hour there was no change of plan. We remained pathologically averse to crossing the ball.

Channel 4 once briefly ran a series called the Sex Inspectors where a couple of self-styled er, ‘sex inspectors’ would try solve the problems of couples whose sex lives were damaging their wider relationship. In one episode a couple had become consumed with role play, sex toys and dressing up. 

The programme’s hook was for the experts to watch the couple in action and commentate on what was going on. If that sounds like fun, believe me it wasn’t. In this one episode, the bloke spent 25 minutes meticulously lacing up his girlfriend’s corset. It was all part of their ‘game’. She was pulled and yanked about and told off for not standing still until she got bored and cold. His obsession with dressing her up in ‘the right way’ meant he completely overlooked the objective of actually having sex with her.

That was us on Saturday; we were so obsessed with shape and technique that we’d forgotten to score any goals. Even into injury-time nobody was prepared to launch the ball into the box in one last attempt to salvage something. I don’t remember if the bloke and his girlfriend ended up launching the ball into the box to salvage something.

But, fans on the phone-in purred with appreciative sympathy. The ubiquitous ‘Dougie’, who might be one person, or perhaps, like Dr Who, lots of different people being a single character, carefully re-wrote history by claiming that Wilder and Lenagan would have come on and given excuses. To my mind Appleton’s assessment of us dominating was way off the mark, not an excuse, but misleading nonetheless. We were just compliant in failure.

Some of this is politeness towards the new regime, and nobody is suggesting that Appleton shouldn’t be given time, but a tame home defeat to Burton is not honourable in the way a cup defeat to a Premier League team might be. If you have ambitions of success, you don’t want to lose any more than 3 or 4 home defeats in a season. The first game is very early to be giving away one of your lives and to do it so cheaply has to be a worry.

Mickey Lewis defies Newton’s Law of Motion

Everyone thought that the Lewis/Meville combination was a safe pair of hands that could sustain the Wilder philosophy long enough to steer us through to the play-offs. It doesn’t seem to be working out like that.

Nobby D lost his dressing room on Saturday morning. His Under 8s – who my daughter plays for – seemed to demonstrate the textbook definition of groupthink. Marshalling them into some form of productive training session seemed largely impossible.

The group are normally a happy and well disciplined lot under Nobby’s guidance, but early on it was clear that one or two had turned up in a bit of a scratchy mood. It was manifest in a lot of very low-level transgressions – smart-alec comments, answering back, playing with a ball rather than listening. Then, like ink being dropped blotting paper, the influence spread across the group.

I noticed it when my daughter came over for a drink. Generally she’s a bit of a follower and quite well behaved at football. A couple of the others had started squirting their bottles at each other and I could see a glint in her eyes and a change to her body language. To her delight, the rules of acceptability had apparently changed and the children were in charge.

Rather than absent mindedly dropping the bottle on my toe, as she’s wanton to do, she walked off with it; ready to join in the squirting game. I plucked it from her hands as she left and she shot off back to the group.

With almost nobody noticing, what was happening was a viral underground revolution that wrestled authority from Nobby’s hands into those of the group. Very Lord of the Flies.

Of course, managing an Under 8s team, Nobby is somewhat constrained by what he can do about it. There are parents watching and most children are there on a Saturday morning to enjoy themselves. Nobby gave them a stern admonishment at the end of the session and let it go in the hope that next week discipline will return.

On Saturday afternoon, against Burton, we started with apathy and listlessness. While Burton didn’t punish us initially, as soon as they found a gear, we found ourselves 2 and then nearly 3-0 down. The game was all bust lost within the first half hour.

The apathy was evident from early on. Perhaps it was the early spring sun, but we seemed to stroll onto the pitch and knock it around with little sense of urgency. Worse still, nobody was prepared to light the blue touchpaper. There was a distinct lack of leadership. Like with Nobby’s Under 8s, it was as if the players had taken charge and that as a group they had become satisfied with their passive passing game. Nobody was prepared to tell them it was wrong – not even the manager.

Let’s not wear rose tinted glasses, we were hardly rocket fuelled under Chris Wilder, but with him gone there appears to be a group-dynamic of some concern. Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion says that for every action, there will be an equal and opposite reaction. But does our squad have anything, or anyone, to react to or against?

Jamie Cook once described Chris Wilder as being something like ‘a great manager but a terrible man’. But that distance may be just what is needed. If a manager is too nice, too close to his squad, how can he make the hard, objective decisions that are needed to make a squad function?

Mickey Lewis has made a career out of being everyone’s mate – fans, players, management. He’s a reliable nice-guy. But does that mean we’ve lost the objectivity that comes with a manager watching from distance? If there’s nobody correcting them, do the players start confirming each others’ behaviour as being right, even if the results are wrong?

Lewis’ post-match interview had an air of ‘shit happens’, a shrug of the shoulders, about it. This ability to roll with the punches has served him well over the 20+ years he’s been around the club. But that shrug of the shoulders may well be spreading across the team. After-all, as Mickey says, there’s always another game to play or another training session to get things right.

Cheltenham did little to change the perception of being leaderless. Lewis’ response was almost trancelike; all we can do is work hard. But that was hardly the problem; Lewis gutted the midfield, putting Mullins in to add some steel along with Ruffels – a very similar player. With little creativity in the middle, we were reliant on the flanks, where stood James Constable who simply isn’t built for playing on the wing. Only Williams offered any movement.

There just didn’t seem to be a game plan; the players just needed to work hard. I’ve no doubt they did, but without any obvious direction.

The answer, of course, is a new manager, which by anyone’s reckoning has proving to be a slow process. I don’t buy the idea that we should get ‘anyone’ in, because that’s currently what we have.