The wrap: Dagenham and Redbridge 0 Oxford United 2

They say winning is a habit. Let’s assume you build a squad of players ready to step up whenever they’re needed rather than a squad of players made up of some you like and other you wouldn’t put out if they were on fire. A successful team drawn from that squad, even if technically ‘weakened’, should be motivated in the same way as your strongest XI. They all train together so the differences in attitude and approach should be fairly marginal.

In a successful squad, even a weakened team is likely to have all the attributes to be a successful one. Which means that unless you deliberately go out to lose, you’re likely to be competitive in every game.

This makes arguments about the relative importance of the JPT and FA Cup academic. Each game, regardless of the competition, is there to be won and if you’re a successful team, it’s very difficult to go out and try not to do that.

It’s an odd time of the season, and it’s going to carry on for the next few weeks with the replay against Braintree, a possible second round tie against Forest Green and another JPT tie. League games become a bit buried.

This has two effects; firstly switching teams on and off is very difficult so you might as well go for everything. Secondly, because of injuries and suspensions, which start to kick in over this period, it is almost impossible to distinguish between weakened and strong team. Take our back-four against Dagenham; on paper a ‘weakened’ defence, but with Johnny Mullins suspended and Jake Wright injured, even if that had been a league game the defence would have looked unfamiliar. Then, next week, with Mullins and Wright potentially back, they could get a run out against Braintree, a game they might otherwise have missed.

That’s the bind of being successful and the thing that successful managers complain about constantly. You get fixture congestion because you’re a decent side, so there’s no real point in prioritising one thing over another; just go for everything.

Coming up: Cambridge

The drop

I missed the Barnet game, so it feels like an age since we were last at home. In fact, my last home Saturday game was Wimbledon, and before that Morecambe. We continue our tour of the lower reaches of the division with Cambridge (18th). It’s still fill-your-boots points-wise, before the December challenge of a relentless cavalcade of fixtures.
We go in with confidence, of course, but a good performance and comfortable victory is important given that we lost last time out and the aforementioned games against Wimbledon and Morecambe were both uncomfortable. The Kassam holds less fear than it did, but Saturday afternoons down the Grenoble Road have yet to bring the best out of us.

Old game of the day

The derby. This is the fixture that all Oxford fans look for when the list comes out in June. The video I wanted to find was one of Phil Whelan trying a back-pass in a bog. I like the obscurity of this video, it’s only had 80-odd views and has little detail behind it. I spent most of it trying to identify our players, particularly who scored our goal, before working out that it was Cambridge, not us, in yellow. We’re in red. IN RED, I TELL YOU.

Show me the way to go home

Saturday was like a letter of reconciliation between a bickering couple deciding that it was better to agree to disagree in an attempt to try to move on.

Both sides – team and fans – were well intentioned even if they sometimes struggled to strike the right tone. The team performed better, really well, even, with a display as satisfying as any at home this season. We, in turn, leapt to our feet in a series of generally undeserved ovations every time there was an opportunity. It seemed out of keeping with what had gone before, but there was a general feeling that it had been tough for everyone and that there was still something in the relationship to fight for.

Just before the end we were asked – told – to stay in our seats so the players could complete their lap of honour. This was the equivalent of having make-up sex, which the magazines insist is the best way to end an argument even though its more likely to leave you feeling slightly used and degraded as you churn over in your head unresolved issues and things that still need to be said. In the end, most feigned a headache or tiredness and sloped off early, leaving the gratuitous love-in to those masochistic enough to go to Newport next week.

The atmosphere, as games like this always are, was of like a coach returning from a stag do. Some nursed the broken bones, ripped clothes and blackened eyes of the night, a handful sang gustily as though it were still peak time. The majority snoozed through the entire thing just longing for the end.

The post-game post-mortem was all about the ‘five or six’ players we needed to mount a challenge next year. It’s always ‘five or six’ a number large enough to show a degree of displeasure, but small enough not to appear too scathing. If challenged to venture where those changes are needed, it’s usually ‘a defender, someone in midfield and a striker’; a message to ‘just change stuff’ without getting too personal.

The assumption is that the very best players will stay but, as Jerome Sale said, it’s all very well saying that Kemar Roofe should be signed, but there are 70 odd teams between West Brom and Oxford; it’s quite conceivable that at least one offering more money or better prospects or both, will come in for him.

We’re creeping towards a point where the season might actually look, on the surface, respectable. But, perhaps a few weeks of release from the relentlessness of the last 10 months and the anesthetic of an end-of-season win will give a different perspective. There’s still work to be done.

Trial by TV

When I played football at primary school, we’d get the last hour of the day off in order to fit the game in before darkness fell. Games were on Wednesdays; you’d have lunch and then freewheel through to 2pm when you were fished out from class in order to prepare for the game. We departed like soldiers off to war; petals were thrown at our feet and teachers bowed down to us.

For away games we might be away even earlier. The journeys would be epic; sometimes as far away as Chinnor; about 10 minutes away. We once even went to Berinsfield, a distance Google tells me is about 14 miles away. Nowadays that sort of distance would require an overnight stay to prevent muscle atrophy or DVT.

This was natural selection; in the privacy of your own school work it wasn’t possible to truly work out who was top dog. In sport, it was unequivocal. Eggy Evans and Flid Davidson would be left behind along with Woggy Lawrence. These are actual nicknames we legitimately and openly referred to them by. I don’t know whether the teachers were aware that the only Asian kid in the school was known, always affectionately, as Woggy or Wog, but if they did, they didn’t seem to mind. It was a different time.

Anyway, with greatness bestowed upon us, we would disappear only to reappear the following morning with tales of derring do from distant primary schools of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

I had always imagined that being an England international was very similar; although I’m fairly certain they didn’t have to change into their kit on the plane to an away game. The general principle was the same – on a Saturday night, Brooking, Keegan and the rest would pack their bags and leave the humdrum of their club changing room for the exalted environs of the England ‘camp’. I loved the idea of England being camp – a tented village where Ron Greenwood and Don Howe would plot the downfall of Luxembourg or Poland. The camp would be set up half way around the world (Norway, for example) the raid would happen on a Wednesday, news of its success would be broadcast only on the radio, and the players would return heroes the following Saturday.

The point was that the domestic calendar wasn’t disrupted; playing for England was a reward for being the best, an addition to your domestic commitments. At some point it was decided that this was a barrier to international success and, as has been emphatically demonstrated at every tournament since, the domestic calendar was cleared to give the true greats of the English game the space to express themselves and come home dripping with silverware. That’s the equivalent of closing the whole school in order for the school team to play.

In even more recent times, those internationals don’t even seem to happen on the date that’s been cleared for them. Presumably this is some kind of experiment with TV audiences, although a less bloated, more competitive qualifying programme would have a greater impact in maintaining people’s interest.

Saturday’s are cleared of domestic football; and because the Premier League is now global that fixture clearance runs throughout the top two divisions. And then, England don’t even play. Where once the international games were a bawdy weekend in Amsterdam; the international weekend has become a meandering insipid long weekend in the Cotswolds with your girlfriend which starts on Thursday and drifts sometime into the following week.

What remains is the Eggy Evans’ and Flid Davidson’s of football; League’s One and Two. Sky pulls one of those games out as if to make an example of the ineptitude. On Saturday, presumably on the spurious reasoning that this was a varsity clash; Saturday was us against Cambridge.

It’s as if that fixture is a demonstration of the incompetence of what’s left over when you remove ‘world class’ Premier League from the calendar; hate the Premier League? OK, try watching this shit on a weekly basis. And when it comes to ineptitude, we have again demonstrated that we’re the Eggiest of all the Eggy Evans’.

The game completed a trilogy of appalling performances live on TV after Port Vale, Southend and now this – three games, three defeats, eleven goals conceded, one scored. Three different managers, three identically awful results.

There’s some indication that even some Oxford fans weren’t aware the game was on, so it’s difficult to believe that anyone but the truly demented or housebound were interested from a neutral perspective. But, despite this, TV magnifies the problem and reinforces our growing irrelevance.

Live football needs a narrative and context, and on TV it needs to be unsubtle for the neutral to engage with it. In a division starved of publicity, anything goes – spuriously constructed local derbies, top of the table clashes, even vague notions of nostalgia; for example the attraction of Wimbledon v Oxford in 2011; an opportunity to remember halcyon days of the 1980s. Increasingly, for us, these narratives become less plausible – it’s difficult to look on us as a big team with Wembley glory in our past or a team resurrected from the Conference and going places. We are, well, nothing much.

The implication of that is the growing ambivalence towards the club; the media is less attracted to you and so are the sponsors, and, ultimately the fans become disinterested. Perhaps it will act as a wake up call as to our parlous state. All the talk of Plan B being Plan A, sticking to The Principles and judging the new owners by their actions is just vacuous boohockey. The game against Cambridge would have had less impact had it not been on TV, but maybe now our failings have been the subject of public consumption people will begin to learn the lesson that we are failing fast.

Altrincham 0 Yellows 1; Yellows 0 Cambridge 0

Sorry, I zoned out there for a minute. Surely we can’t maintain the pretence that these games mean anything? I understand why people expect a performance every week regardless of whether we’re playing the Cup Final or a meaningless chunter away against Altrincham but sports science is fairly complicit that this simply isn’t possible.

A professional road cyclist can expect to maintain top form for around three weeks. Athletes are sacrificing world titles in order to peak for London 2012 and the concept of resting footballers is an accepted practice despite it being against all league rules.

In a regular league programme, each game counts, but now the objective is very very clear. We’re not good enough to turn our form on and off; nobody in the Conference can do that. But we shouldn’t write off our chances based on a few meaningless misplaced passes versus Cambridge.

Luton will cartwheel into the play-offs with a bewildering sequence of results. But, like our unbeaten streak at the start of the season, as it goes on it gets closer to an coming to an end. When it does, gnawing doubt sets in, why isn’t it quite flowing like it did? How do we do it when it worked? When Luton come out and don’t score six, their resolve will be truly tested. That day will come, and it’s not too far away.

The key is to peak for the play-offs, not thrash Cambridge (as cold and bloody boring as that game was). Defensively, we’re looking sound. Adam Chapman is finally coming into some form and filling the gap left by Adam Murray. Up front, we need to firmly decide who partners Constable. My vote, like many, I think, is with Jack Midson with Deering, Potter and Green best coming off the bench.

Luton will go in favourites, but sustaining their form for another three weeks gets less likely as time goes on. Rushden and York… who knows? We have three more games to fine tune, which will allow us to enter the play-offs on an upward curve, I think there’s some evidence that we will.

Yellows 2 AFC Wimbledon 0, Cambridge United 1 Yellows 1

Football is obsessed with tactics. Managers are ‘tactical geniuses’ or ‘tactically naive’, games and seasons are changed by a smart substitution and a referee needs to get the ‘big’ decisions right.

Constant and interminable discussions of tactical minutia are conveniently media friendly. You won’t get much discussion of strategy; it’s too involved, takes too long and is possibly too white collar for the sport’s working class pretence.

Talk of the strategy of football is coming into stark contrast with Manchester United’s debt problem and Portsmouth going into administration. It seems to be a surprise to some that strategic decisions have a direct influence on what happens on the pitch. To paraphrase Alan Hansen, football is supposed to be about grit, passion, determination, belief and a whole host of similarly hollow nouns, not sound investment and acquisition strategies.

The inconvenient truth is that you reap what you sow. Without a strong strategic base a clever substitution or having a man playing in the hole will not generate long term benefit. As much as Steve Bruce will tell you different, Sunderland are not a top four team who have had a few bad refereeing decisions go against them.

What’s that got to do with us? Well, our strategy is well and truly locked in; a been-there-done-that squad has been built and financed. The large customer base has been utilised through the 12th Man scheme (as opposed to battled and bullied against under the Kassam regime). 80-90% of the meaningful decisions that will affect the outcome of the season have been made. There is little more for anyone to do, but to sit back and see whether this is enough.

The destiny of the season is already all but decided. We shouldn’t panic about the draw against Cambridge in the same way we shouldn’t get carried away with the win against Wimbledon. The hard work has been done; Chris Wilder is right, this is now about points accumulation. When we remove our hands from our eyes on April 24th, we’ll see whether our strategy was good enough.

Comment: The season it cometh

With the Aston Villa Under 19 Turnstile Operators XI cast aside by the spellbinding work of Potter it’s time to get ‘down’ to the ‘serious’ ‘business’ of the new season.

…hark! Is that the first Harry/Alfie Potter reference of the new season?…

The bookies seem to agree we’re second favourites behind Luton. They’ll be favourites simply by the fact that it’s the name most people know. To be fair, they’re unusual because weren’t the worst team in League 2 last year and they have maintained stability throughout the summer. But they won’t be the first former League Cup winner with high expectations and Andy Burgess and (probably) Steve Basham on board to find it tough going.

We’re more hardened to this level; we’ve bought pretty much the best available players at in the division. There’s an off-field stability that characterised the titles of Burton, Aldershot and Dagenham in the last three years. We have everything going for us… gulp.

Of the rest, AFC Wimbledon have momentum, Stevenage have all the attributes of a title winning side, but frequently come up short. My original tip; Cambridge, have capitulated in the last couple of weeks.

Beyond this, any team could theoretically do a Histon and sustain a challenge from nowhere, but it will be through accident rather than design.

Our biggest enemy, as always, will be ourselves. We are not patient by nature and the title will not be won by September. There will be fallow periods that we will need to tough out. But if we can approach the season in a measured and confident way it is hard to see who will stop us. Which is enough to make anyone nervous.