Bury wrap – Oxford United 1 Bury 2

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the longer an unusual streak goes on, the more likely it is to end. If a sprinter breaks the 100 metres world record, their next race is most likely to be slower, even though their performance trend is in the ascendency. Bury losing 8 games in a row and not scoring for 14 hours was an extraordinary streak, it was increasingly likely that sequence would end sooner rather than later. It was just a question of who their victims would be. In turns out it was us.

The performance on Saturday, though, was worse even than the 7-0 defeat to Wigan before Christmas. There, we faced a very good team who won the game early and, unusually, kept the hammer down. Against Bury, we’d won the game and then conspired to self-destruct. Ironically, one of Pep Clotet’s dependables, Dwight Tiendelli has had a big hand in his demise with the suicidal back-pass that eventually led to the Bury equaliser.
I have a lot of sympathy for Clotet. Firstly, he seems like a thoroughly decent bloke. A truly excellent assessment by the Oxford Mail implied he was awkward to work with, but he didn’t come over as combative or aggressive towards the fans or the press, despite the mounting pressure. He was resolutely supportive of his players and was always focussed on the process of improvement, not on finding blame.

I could even see glimpses of what he was trying to do – our goal on Saturday was typical of a style he was trying to instil – patient build ups designed to draw opponents on, then super-fast in attack. When it worked, it looked OK. It just didn’t work as much as we needed it to and the patient build up was often dull to watch and looked listless.

He’d had his squad ripped to shreds with injuries and transfers and was only been given eight weeks of transfer window activity redress the imbalance. Those coming in seemed to simply be the players he could get his hands on at the time. He couldn’t be blamed for the transfers going out, but the injuries? There did seem to be a lot. Was it something in the way he did things? Overtraining? Who knows.

There were moments on Saturday when Clotet showed his frustration; I’m not sure he really wanted us to play like we did; patient? Yes. Ponderous? No.

We lack pace on the pitch and maybe a bit of leadership. But that’s a consequence of two lost captains, and potentially a third in Christian Ribiero, since he arrived. None of his failings are black and white.

It’s difficult to know if comparisons with Michael Appleton’s first year are helpful or a curse. If they are helpful, then Clotet’s Bury was Appleton’s Hartlepool. They came to the Kassam in 2015 bottom of the table and adrift, but with a new manager. We slopped around sluggishly while they smash and grabbed us with a miserable 2-0 defeat.

I thought Appleton’s goose was cooked after that, but he turned it round; losing the next game then going eight games undefeated. After that, we, and he, didn’t look back. Could Clotet have done the same after Bury? I’m not sure.

Appleton had inherited talismen. Danny Hylton was a player fans could already relate to, who appeared to buy into the new regime. I don’t think Clotet had that player – Ryan Ledson or Rob Hall, maybe, but neither have quite the qualities Hylton had.

Key to the turnaround in 2015 was Kemar Roofe, whose goals dragged Appleton through to the end of that season and then catapulted us into the summer by signing permanently. Clotet implied that he didn’t expect much more transfer activity before the end of the month, which suggests he didn’t have a similar hail-Mary signing up his sleeve.

And Appleton had the unflinching support of Darryl Eales and Mark Ashton, and that, above everything dragged him through the darkness. Clotet didn’t seem to have had the same backing.

I’m not ‘pleased’ to see the back of Clotet, that’s the wrong word, it just feels like everyone had got stuck and the gloom was setting in. Once that happens, it’s much harder to get the momentum going again. The club, fans, players and Clotet himself seem to have lost the appetite for the fight. A new manager, signing or owner can all spark a revival. It looks like our next managerial appointment will be the clearest indication yet as to where Darryl Eales’ ambitions lie.

The wrap – Oxford United and Bury

Oxford United 1 Walsall 2
Saturday was a bit of a mess from start to finish. So, where did it all go wrong?

Let’s start with the obvious, much discussed, strategic issue. Walsall wanted to overload the midfield in order to control the game, or at least subdue Ledson, Rothwell and Payne. With the pace of Roberts and Oztumer always offering an outlet against our paceless back-four, presumably the plan was to keep going for as long as possible in that vein and see where they were after, say, an hour.

I’m guessing they didn’t expect to be 2-0 up, and that’s because the issues ran deeper than that.

Starting from the back – John Mousinho is no full-back, but I doubt very much that’s why he’s been brought in. It’s difficult to be critical because his role is probably in the middle; in an ideal world, we’d perm any two from him, Williamson and Nelson. On the other side, Ricardinho is very much a modern full-back, but if things aren’t going his way he has a habit of reverting to petty fouls and histrionics. It’s too easy to blame it on his Latin temperament; I suspect it’s because he plays with such flare, he’s more likely to find himself out of position when under pressure. Lunging and fouling becomes necessary because his positional discipline is lacking.

The lack of full-backs has an impact on Rob Hall, he does his best, and usually very well, but he’s isolated and so his impact is more limited. Ledson and Rothwell were OK on Saturday, but they were overwhelmed and couldn’t get a grip on the game while Payne had no space to operate.

Which leaves us with the nub of the issue; the decision to play van Kessel and Obika together. It confused the shape of the team – do you play into Obika or over the top to van Kessel? Is it a question of Obika playing in van Kessel? That worked well against MK Dons, but we had the game more under control in the latter stages. The opening phase of any game is chaotic and the key is to try and bring it to heel before looking for the win. Obika is the better starter in my view; van Kessel better for latter stages. Playing them together also limits options coming off the bench. van Kessel’s pace might have hurt Walsall late in the game, if he wasn’t already tiring himself.

From the sweet spot of Bradford to two frustrating defeats. Curtis Nelson is right to say that we shouldn’t panic, but with a division full of teams with ambition, we can’t let the gap grow too much further.

Bury 3 Oxford United 0
It’s very easy in hindsight to criticism a wrong decision, so there was logic in bringing in Mowatt, Ruffels and Henry to face Bury. The aim, it seemed, was to maintain more control of the game than we had against Walsall.

For an hour it worked, albeit with a liberal use of the long ball to van Kessel. Had we held out for another 10-15 minutes we would have had options to either shut the game down and go for a steadying draw, or become more adventurous by introducing Rothwell and Payne.

We didn’t, of course, the eight minute aberration which resulted in the defeat all came down Ricardinho’s wing, plus some pretty clumsy defending once the ball reached the box. The penalty looked soft and the second goal clearable.

Is Ricardinho a fun liability? Less capable than we’d like to believe? Is he suffering from the imbalance across the back-four meaning he’s being forced to do things that aren’t his strength?

Consider, perhaps the question of Mike Williamson, but then Pep Clotet’s hands are tied to some extent because of Riberio’s injury and his belief that Carrol’s game-time needs careful management. Still, I think that’s the lesser of the evils, and would prefer to see John Mousinho moving inside to partner Nelson.

The underlying theme to all this is the constant juggling that’s needed to cover injured players – we have two long term injuries, while Obika, Thomas and Ribiero look set to be in and out constantly through the season, the disruption plays havoc with team shape and strategy.

Doubts are creeping in, but comparing Clotet and Appleton’s starts is unfair. Undoubtedly Clotet is in a more stable environment than Appleton was and pound for pound he has better players, but the disruption to the squad has been as significant as the one Appleton faced in 2014 and we can’t under-estimate just how difficult it might be to bed the team down. For all the woes of the last three games, we also shouldn’t forget strong performances against Gillingham, Bradford and Portsmouth.

Peterborough on Saturday means we’ll have faced five of the top six, and while we would want to be competing with those teams and higher up the table, there is plenty of opportunity to come to steady the ship and start moving forward again.

Weekly wrap – Northampton Town 0 Oxford United 0, Oxford United 5 Bury 1

When Donald Trump tried, and failed, to repeal Obamacare, he found it largely impossible to do. The problem was that the bill was structured like a tower of building blocks. If you took one from the top, it just produced a slightly less tall tower, if you took one from the bottom the tower would fall down completely. As a result, repealing the bill was too radical for some, not radical enough for others. Brilliant.

Sunday’s EFL Trophy Final to some a non-event, to others a low priority, but it might actually be the building block which might define the season. What does that do to your moral compass?

After Saturday’s non-event against Northampton, the game against Bury threatened to be a peculiar one. Five days before Wembley and with only an outside chance of the play-offs, it was difficult to predict which team would play let alone how they would react. Why throw yourself into challenges and risk missing Sunday? Why play your game changers when you need them fresh for the big stage? As our ninth game of the month, fatigue was always likely to be a problem.

Certainly the crowd seemed to take the week off with it being the lowest we’ve seen in over a year. The atmosphere was sleepy, those who did turn up seemed to be there out of a sense of duty rather than anything.

Bury came off the back of some solid form, avoiding relegation is the only thing they have to play for. With some application and a bit of organisation, they could have picked us off, which would have left us further adrift of the play-offs and with doubts going into Wembley.

However, they contrived to put on a display as inept as any team we’ve played this season. If this was an illustration of their ability they would struggle in League 2. Passes went astray, shots ballooned into the night’s sky, organisationally they were hopeless and their discipline was completely absent.

It was a non contest as we cut them to ribbons. If we’d scored seven it wouldn’t have been a surprise. It was the perfect pre-Wembley fillip, an opportunity for those who have struggled with form and fatigue to gain a bit of confidence. But, with results going our way we also suddenly found ourselves  just four points off the play-offs.

I’m not quite sure how; form this month has been pretty moderate. Two games in a week has looked too much for our small squad. But somehow we’ve negotiated our cluttered agenda and come out the other side with the season in tact.

So, to the weekend and what seemed like the least important game of the season might just be the most important. Ultimately, it’s a play in two parts; first, Saturday’s results have to go our way. If by 4.45pm we’re still within sight of the top 6, then the whole perspective on the season changes. Part two is Sunday; firstly, because it will get the distraction of Wembley out the way, but also the objectives for the season become clearer – either the play-offs are on or they’re not. If we win on Sunday, that might just give us the boost we need to propel us through the final stages of the season. Suddenly what might be the most innocuous building block of the season becomes critical to its success.

Weekly wrap – Oxford United 1 Oldham Athletic 1, Oxford United 3 Macclesfield Town 0, Bury 2 Oxford United 3

It’s been a good week on the whole; two wins and a draw soured, to some degree, by flag-related acrimony off the pitch.

I’ve always felt that it would be difficult to truly judge the team this season until Christmas; so the Bury win gives us the opportunity to take stock of where we’re at and where we’re heading.

This week’s events did seem to confirm what emerged over the last few weeks – this is a year of transition but we’ll be OK. We’re only 5 points from the play-offs, but our goal difference is probably more telling; for most of the season its sat at zero with the odd variant either way. That says we’re competitive without being truly outstanding.

It’s not that much of a surprise; it’s wrong to say that last year was fortunate, but it was unusual to have the amount of talent we had playing in a League 2 side. Roofe and O’Dowda alone were worth £4.5 million. In addition, there was the curious case of Danny Hylton, signed by Gary Waddock, Jake Wright; a stalwart of the Chris Wilder years and the likes of George Baldock, who played in the Championship, and John-Joe Kenny who was on the bench in the Merseyside Derby on Monday.

It was almost a perfect combination, it still needed focussing and organising, but we had the assets to exceed our objectives. We went into this season playing in a higher division with most of that golden squad gone. The key question was; could the club’s core infrastructure re-build and sustain the level of success?

Thankfully, the answer appears to be yes. We’re not as breathtaking as we were last year, but the opposition is generally better and people are quick to forget that players like Jon Lundstram, Joe Skarz, Alex MacDonald and Liam Sercombe have all played a huge number of games in the last 12-18 months. We tend to think players are completely re-set at the beginning of each season but it’s the same (slightly rested) bodies and minds that finished last season. Maintaining the physical and mental intensity is always difficult so it’s probably not a surprise that their form has dipped slightly at times and they’ve been more prone to injuries.

As I say, last season’s squad was worth at least £4.5 million from Roofe and O’Dowda alone. Look at the whole squad and that figure could have been pushed certainly over £5 million, perhaps six. It’s been years since the club had playing assets of that nature in the squad. In essence we had a £6 million-plus squad assembled for virtually nothing.

While there was clearly investment in the squad, it’s not like we needed to buy big last season so the club could focus on building value elsewhere. Essentially this meant building relations with the fans – organising club holidays, embracing the enthusiasm of the Oxford Ultras, improving merchandise, strengthening branding, actively working on social media, improving the match day experience and innovating with tactical marketing campaigns to get more people through the gates.

Most, if not all of it worked; crowds grew and I suspect merchandise sales did too. But it all comes at a financial cost there needs to be an increase in revenue to match it. The Roofe and O’Dowda money should still be there to some extent, some has been invested in the squad, more will be servicing debt, so it’s not infinite. Assuming that Darryl Eales doesn’t have barrow loads of cash, if the club is to progress onto the Championship – the level at which it is most likely to have sustainable future – it needs to find new ways of making or saving money.

This is the constant balancing act for all football clubs, a few weeks ago I was at the Etihad, they have banners which say ‘The only club in Manchester’ – implying their parochial roots of being the club of the people of the city. On the other side is a banner which say ‘Thank you Sheik Mansour’ acknowledging that it is not the people, but oil from the Arabian peninsula which has paid for their success.

All clubs have the same problem – they need to retain their core values because that’s what fans buy into, but they also need to find new ways of funding success.

The podcast The Fence End Pod recently tweeted some Pathe News footage of our 1964 FA Cup tie against Blackburn as part of a Christmas advent thing. Footage showed no advertising boards around the Manor, no sponsors on the shirt, not even a kit manufacturer’s logo. This is football at its very purest, played, run and funded by The People with no part compromised in the name of money. Most fans would hanker for such a thing now.

But it won’t work now; attitudes have changed and the stakes are higher and more expensive. Clubs have to sell off bits of the equity they have in order to fund themselves, in more emotive footballing terms, they need to sell bits of their soul.

We generally accept that a bit of the sacred club shirt can be sold to a sponsor or manufacturer, or that your home ground can be festooned with adverts of companies trying to make money from your success. But it is a challenge to know when you’ve crossed the line.

Take, for example, the flag issue. Flags and displays have become a key part of Oxford United fan culture over the last few years. It has filled a void resulting from the move to the more sterile Kassam where people have to sit more passively in rows to watch a game.

But flags get in peoples’ way, they obscure the view; it’s why the club have agreed certain rules about when the larger ones can and can’t be waved. In essence, you apply those rules in order to try and give more people a comfortable and consistent viewing experience in the hope that they will keep spending money to keep coming to games. So, we compromise some of the fan culture of the club – sell it off – for extra ticket sales.

There is nothing wrong with this in essence; it’s generally accepted that if you go to the cinema or theatre you will be expected to behave in a certain way so that everyone enjoys the same experience. But in football, when does a comfortable fan experience turn into one which is sterile and meaningless?

It’s a judgement call, but I think the club have got this one wrong in trying to apply restrictions to the use of flags during games. Each area of a football stadium needs to develop its own culture. When I started going, I would go onto the safe, and not too expensive, Osler Road with my dad. As I got older, I wanted to be in the more fevered atmosphere of the London Road – that was where all the noise and action came from. When we moved to the Kassam, I went into the Oxford Mail Stand but started to realise that those around me were getting younger as I got older. I became distracted by horny teenagers trying to impress girls, or the games of giving each other wet willies or simply the banal abuse of players and games. I found that I wasn’t really enjoying being part of that experience so about 7 years ago I moved to the South Stand Upper because the overall experience suited what I wanted from a game.

The East Stand needs to be as fevered as it’s possible to get; flags and singing are part of that, they are the engine room of the atmosphere. So long as people aren’t getting hurt (and they’re not, despite what Health and Safety zealots tell you), the more fevered it gets the better. If you don’t like what comes with that – flags getting in the way or people falling over the top of you after a goal celebration, then there’s the North Stand. If you get to an age where even that’s too much, then the South Stand is a much calmer experience.

While the response from the Ultras seemed a bit over the top, it revealed a level of hurt that people haven’t really talked about. The argument is not about whether a flag should be waved, it’s whether the effort those fans put into the club is valued more or less than the commercial aspects of providing a consistent fan experience. If you think that there seems to be a core of 4,000 supporters who will follow the club whatever state it’s in, there are currently another 4,000 per game on average who are more casual. The atmosphere in the ground and performance on the pitch are the two key influencing factors as to whether those 4,000 attend or not. That’s £80,000 per game minimum, or £1.8m a year. I would rather we protected that than the odd fan who finds themselves in the wrong area of the ground and is distracted by a flag in their face. I say; let the flags fly.

Standard response

When Leo Roget arrived at the club in 2004 I thought we’d made a good signing. I’d heard of Roget, which was a good start; it was one of those distinctive names that echoed across the lower-leagues. We had been in reasonably good shape on the pitch, the previous season we had a solid back-four with Andy Crosby and Matt Bound and, although they’d left the season before, it seemed like we were learning lessons from the past and that Roget would fit right in. Plus, he was coming from Rushden, who at the time were nouveau riche and seemed to be going places.

But Roget’s first season was terrible, he was gangly and awkward, not a patch on his predecessors. If he used his height it wasn’t to dominate strikers, it was to fall on top of them. The following season he improved, in fact, he was a stand-out player. Fans seemed to like him and sang his name. By the end of that season, though, we’d been relegated from the Football League. So, did Roget really improve or did our standards drop? Did he play better or did he have to do more defending and blocking because we were getting worse?

Presumably one day Michael Appleton will be sitting in an interview for a new job and his prospective employer will ask about his achievements at Oxford. He may have to think hard, but perhaps he will cite this season’s highlight; the double over Bury.

That it: the highlight of our season so far is doing the double over Bury. In fact, up until Tuesday night, we were considered to be ‘in form’; a form which had seen us win 3 in 10, score 8, climb to 17th and be 9 points clear of relegation. Of relegation.

The fact is that the win at Bury shouldn’t have been a reason for celebration; it should have been a wake-up call. As decent as Bury might be this season, we should be expecting to pick off at least a couple of promotion chasers away from home, more if we have ambitions to go up ourselves. We should be expecting to win against Plymouth and we should definitely, definitely, definitely beat Hartlepool.

This is not because we deserve better because of who we are, progressively as the season has passed we’ve allow our standards to drop. At first it was good performances but bad results, then it was wins against poor teams, then it was a sense of celebration that our relegation fears were easing. Draws were celebrated as wins because we never seem to win. Now we’re losing at home to the bottom team in the division and Michael Appleton is applauding our ‘effort’.

He knows he is defending the indefensible now. I agree with him that the players put in a lot of effort against Hartlepool, but the merry-go round of players throughout the season means that for all the effort we remain utterly listless. There is no system. Does anyone know how Roofe or Gnanduillet want the ball in order to score? Well, no because neither have played more than a handful of games for Oxford and neither have the players passing to them. No wonder it’s so disjointed.

Appleton, by his own admission doesn’t have an angry gear, so he’s going to be objective and look for learning points and positives. It’s a good quality to have if you’re coaching youngsters who make lots of mistakes in the process of learning, but managing experienced professionals who are tired, demoralised and battle weary is different. Managers need to show players where they can go if standards do drop whether that be through a volcanic temper or whatever. Plus, they need to show it as the merest inclination of a problem; like the time Chris Wilder (yes him) criticised us for winning 4-0 against Eastbourne after being poor in the second half.

Slowly but surely corners have been cut, standards have slipped and the previously unacceptable has become acceptable.

A spineless defeat to the bottom club in the division – who are in dire trouble on and off the pitch – removes any last shred of credibility Appleton had in claiming that his philosophy will work given time. It’s like going down a hill with worn brake pads; you just have to hope something will stop you because you can’t rely on what you thought you had. This has been coming for a long time, but any lingering hope that we’re going in the right direction has been cast into the dustbin.

Where now? It’s so hard to imagine a scenario now where Appleton not just turns this round but sustains an upward trajectory toward the play-offs and beyond, this season or next. The squad is a mess of panic signings and loanees, players we’ve bought or haven’t bought, players that we’ve announced and never seen sight nor sound of. These are his players working to his confused philosophy stuck in a vortex between what is ‘right’ and what is needed. In order to change, he’s going to have to back down admit he’s been wrong – wrong players, wrong tactics. Not only will he lose face, this is going to take time or money or both to sort out. People are going to get hurt. I can’t see him doing that.

But, he’s not going to resign either; his managerial career has become an absolute wreck with not only this debacle on his CV, but also some of the football league’s greatest basket cases – Portsmouth, Blackburn, Blackpool – all with his name on them. It’s not all been his fault – far from it – but he knows how it’s difficult to shake a reputation.

So, we’re left with one option… Mark Ashton, over to you.

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.