Match wrap – Cheltenham Town 1 Oxford United 0

When you have a baby, your early concerns are fairly binary – you define the baby’s wellbeing by whether it’s sleeping or not. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security because as the days, weeks, months and years pass, the things you have to worry about grow exponentially; are they feeding? Responsive? Physically developing? Emotionally content? It’s like a cell of physiological and psychological wellbeing constantly doubling until you’ve totally lost control.

In the end, every child has a thing; you have a thing, maybe you don’t know it, but you’ll definitely have one. Anxiety, depression, compulsiveness, obsessiveness, fastidiousness, or perhaps the opposite of these things. The dad of a friend of mine once had a mental health episode where he became optimistic and generous. Sounds great, but he gave away thousands of pounds and went missing on a trip to the shops because he compulsively decided to visit his daughter hundreds of miles away instead. There’s a thing in us all.

These things shape our world; with a child, it’s not so much worrying about if they have a thing, they do, it’s knowing when to act. Too soon and you’re being neurotic, too late is neglectful.

It’s still early in the season and as we all know from experience, how we’re doing at the moment is not necessarily a reflection on where we’ll be in May. But, there does seem to be a pattern emerging; a ‘thing’; most obviously manifesting in our away form as illustrated by our defeat to Cheltenham. 

There’s a belief that you shouldn’t look at the league table until at least the tenth game. We’re a couple of games from that point, but as some of the other digits click from single to double figures, a pattern begins to emerge. We’ve scored and conceded nine goals; twelve teams have scored more, nine have conceded less. We’re ahead of Portsmouth and Ipswich, level pegging with Sheffield Wednesday, behind Sunderland and Wigan. We’re bang average; a lack of defensive steel is being coupled with a degree of attacking impotence, it’s not a great combination. 

In a sense, that’s OK, we’re well ahead of where we’ve been in the past, but we’re behind where we want to be. But, similarly, it’s not been the hardest opening to the season and we haven’t capitalised. Teething problems? Maybe. 

Mark Sykes almost represents the issue; he’s not lacking in ability, but he’s not a goal threat, goal provider or midfield disruptor. He needs to carve out a role, a reason to stay in the team. It’s not his form or effort, it’s about his contribution and unique selling point. That said, I thought he spoke well after the defeat and took time to talk to fans.

Sykes’ role aside, Steve Kinniburgh was right not to leap on the performances of Herbie Kane and Sam Long, both are easing their way into the season and now is not time to judge whether they’ve a role to play.

But, how long do you wait? When does a thing, become A THING? As a neurotic parent, an experienced doctor would probably provide assurances that every season develops at a different pace and that there’s little to worry about.

But, they might also know that the real tests are just around the corner. There are no more chances to find a way of playing away from home as we travel to Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday at the beginning of October. Before that, we have a homestand against Gillingham and Accrington which, if nothing else, is an opportunity to bank some points as an insurance against that future challenge. While these games still won’t fully define our season, they’ll provide the best indicator as to whether these are just developmental issues, or a thing. Navigate the next four games, then we should be able to relax a little, if we don’t, then perhaps we’ll need to act.

Midweek fixture: Oxford United’s biggest rivals… ranked

How do you measure a rivalry? Location? Envy? Superiority? Or is it just a feeling? A few weeks ago, I asked you who you thought were our biggest rivals. Well, here’s the top nineteen.

19. Peterborough United

Let’s not get carried away; it doesn’t take many votes to become our 19th biggest rival. This one is the result of a brooding dislike following the curtailing of last season and the antics of the Peterborough hierarchy.

18. Cambridge United

Really? I’m surprised so many lazy Sky Sports commentators voted. The tenuous varsity link between the two cities has never turned made it into the stands in terms of a rivalry.

17. Queen’s Park Rangers

While many of these lower rivals are based on a single issue, any rivalry with QPR is surely based on a single game, 34 years ago at Wembley.

16. Coventry City

Maybe a bit of a surprise to some, but if you live in the north of the county, you may be more familiar with Coventry fans than other parts.

15. Sunderland

The biggest team in our division probably attracts a few ‘pick me’ votes, but the added link of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Chris Maguire, mean that Sunderland make the list.

14. Stevenage

The team that denied us promotion from the Conference in 2010, but most likely, any rivalry is down to one man and his drinks break; Graham Westley.

13. Wimbledon

Familiarity breeds contempt, Oxford and Wimbledon have shared many seasons together over a very long time. Alongside Luton, they’re the only team we’ve played in both the top flight and the Conference.

12. Bristol City

I can’t fathom this one, we’ve played each other once in the last eighteen years.

11. Crewe Alexandra

In almost any other season, Crewe wouldn’t attract a vote, but the vitriol surrounding their double postponement earlier this season adds a bit of spice to an otherwise dormant relationship. The only rivalry based on not playing any games.

10. Cheltenham Town

Into the top ten and we’re beginning to touch on more sensible rivalries. Cheltenham Town’s relationship must be down to location.

9. Leyton Orient

Some will never let it go; some fourteen years ago Leyton Orient came to the Kassam looking for a win to secure promotion. They did it in the last minute, which sent us down to the Conference. They danced on our pitch, apparently, though I’d left by then. Some will never forget or forgive.

8. MK Dons

The newest rivalry in the list. It’s not exactly what you’d call white hot, but geographical location has always promised a good large following and made MK Dons a decent away day.

7. Portsmouth

Portsmouth sat on their own in terms of votes – some twenty ahead of MK Dons, and a similar number behind Northampton. We’ve shared many seasons with Portsmouth, I think secretly we’re a bit envious of their size and history, which makes beating them all the more sweet.

6. Northampton Town

Now we’re into the real rivalries. First up Northampton Town, another team whose path we’ve crossed countless times. Added spice came from Chris Wilder leaving us for them in 2014, then keeping them up. Then two years later, Wilder took them up as champions despite Michael Appleton’s assertion we were the better team.

5. Luton Town

There’s a genuinely visceral dislike for Luton Town, we’ve played them in the top division and the Conference, we’ve been promotion rivals and they’ve poached our manager. All of which adds up to a relationship with a bit of bite.

4. Bristol Rovers

A team we’ve played with almost monotonous regularity, any rivalry is spiced up by the fact we’re both very capable of winning away in the game. Matty Taylor helped turn the heat up a notch, he hates the Gas, pass it on.

3. Wycombe Wanderers

It’s not a derby, but of all the non-derbies out there, this is the biggest one for us. We won decisively in a key game on the way to promotion in 1996, they beat us in the FA Cup when we were on a roll in 2010, six years later we secured promotion against them, and last year they secured promotion against us at Wembley. It’s not a derby, but it’s getting there.

2. Reading

Perhaps at the expense of Reading? We haven’t played each other in 16 years and not as equals in 19. But, a rivalry still exists, apparently, though it’s kind of like the Korean War – it’s still technically happening, but in reality it’s made up of irritating each other on social media.

1. Swindon Town

The big one. But, this list wasn’t really about finding out who our biggest rival were.

Cheltenham wrap – Oxford United 3 Cheltenham Town 4 (aet)

Tuesday’s performance felt a bit like watching a school orchestra attempt Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. If you listened hard then you could hear a recognisable tune, but it felt slightly forced and disjointed, lacking in flow and rhythm.

The performance was better than the result implies, we have a rich abundance of creativity throughout the team, the likes of which we have rarely seen at the club. Each one; Xemi, Hall, Henry, Johnson, Obika, Rothwell, Payne all showed moments of class and ability, but not enough of them together and not for long enough.

In the past, there have been patterns that we could rely on; if you put the ball in the box then Sercombe was likely to be arriving late to fire home any rebounds, if you can get a set piece then Maguire would often deliver a quality ball and Dunkley was always good for getting on the end of crosses. If you need to stretch the play or relieve tension, then Lundstram could pass his way out of trouble. Last night, it felt like nobody quite knew anyone’s special move, so when we came under pressure, beyond sheer individual ability, there was no reliable fall-back to gets us on track.

Cheltenham, on the other hand, found a weakness they could exploit – principally whipped crosses. That’s what kept them in the game before Mo Eisa scored his stunning winner.

It didn’t feel like we’d been set up to win; it was much more about giving players a leg stretch, the plethora of substitutions felt more like simply giving players a breather than making tactical game-changing decisions. The result seemed less important.

Partly this is about familiarity, nobody knew what to expect from each new introduction (or those who started). It’s not necessarily Clotet’s fault, he’s learning too and at the moment he has to rely on training and intuition to see what works and what doesn’t. In time he’ll know the right players for the right jobs but I don’t think anyone could safely put their finger on what was wrong on Tuesday night.

Johnson – our current de facto match winner – has been given the label being the wrong ‘un but he too, rather than being disinterested, seemed to be getting a bit of stiffness out of his legs. I don’t buy the idea that he’s wasted at left-back, if anything it allows him to build up a head of steam when running at teams or ghost into advanced positions undetected.

What was lacking was the reliability that we need to sustain any kind of challenge. Creative players spark and pop, come into form and drop out, but they can’t do their thing if there isn’t a reliable core that won’t concede possession and goals. It’s like we have a number of effective Plan B’s but no Plan A.

That’s not to say we don’t have them in the club; Eastwood was pretty decent throughout as was Nelson, Williamson should be relied on. Ledson is only likely to get better while Pep Clotet described Ivo Pekalsi as someone who can carry the ball out of defence John Lundstram style. Everyone loves a reliable, 20 goal a season striker, which may be van Kessel. If these players can stay fit and gel, then they will provide the platform on which others can perform. Ultimately, this time next year we won’t remember Cheltenham, so the result is bothering, but not, ultimately, a disaster.

Oxford Dons

Education is a funny thing in football. Frank Lampard, for example, is privately educated and from a distinctly middle-class background. His dad was a (comparatively) well off professional footballer with West Ham. He is, by all accounts, an educated and intelligent man. But, this is suppressed through his outward persona; to the public, he will forever be ‘Lamps’; a diminutive version of his name indicating that he is, indeed, one of the lads.

Those who have had the temerity not to hide their intelligence – for example, Graham Le Saux or Pat Nevin, both well spoken Guardian readers, were, in their time labelled as being, amongst other things, gay (and by inference, therefore, bad).

And yet, almost all professional footballers at all levels demonstrate a religious commitment to their profession, a focus that requires significant intelligence to execute successfully. Frequently, these players aren’t able to commit to a formal education, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. David Beckham, considered to be an effete king of the morons, has not sustained a global brand for approaching 20 years without a professional commitment that would, with the right education, be an asset in almost any line of work.

Matt Murphy was frequently labelled as being intelligent because before turning professional because he once worked in a bank. Ceri Evans has a bona fide doctorate from Oxford University. Evans uses his ‘forensic psychiatry and ‘sports psychology’ background to now run what appears to be a generic management training company. His profile on that site claims that he played in the English top division. Rage Online begs to differ suggesting that his debut was in 1989 after we’d been relegated. It’s probably just some copywriter getting confused about the various re-brandings the divisions have gone through over the years, but perhaps its an example of Evans’ psychological approach to imagining where you wanted to be in life rather than where were.

Before the game against Wimbledon last week, Nathan Cooper described Chey Dunkley as a ‘fellow academic’ to Michael Appleton. According to Appleton’s dormant LinkedIn profile he has a UEFA Pro and A Licence, and HNC in Sports Science and an A1 NVQ Assessors Award, whatever that is. Dunkley is studying at Loughborough University, which would imply some kind of sports related study given their background. This doesn’t, in true terms, make them ‘academics’, it just makes them more formally educated than is typical. In most walks of life that wouldn’t seem unusual; it seems odd that a multi-billion pound industry sees so little value in traditional education that it is considered remarkable when a player or manager has undertaken some kind of formalised education. I suppose we all want our footballers to be all-action heroes not bookish, nerds.

The purpose of any education is to instill a sense of reflection, to overcome the emotional and irrational with rational and logical thought. You rarely bring what you learn at university wholly into the workplace, but the approach to learning that you, um, learn is essential.

Certainly Appleton comes across as highly rational to the point of being impassive. This should make him a good coach because he’s more likely to take an objective view on players, teams and tactics. This is somewhat different to the stereotypical nut-job manager. There was one story of Chris Wilder that Chris Carruthers’ career at Oxford was effectively over when he took the last dessert during a club lunch. No idea whether that’s true, but I can believe that it’s happened at some football club somewhere at some point. 

This considered approach presents Appleton as a thoroughly nice bloke, approachable and easy to talk to. A marked difference from the sometimes crotchety Wilder. I’ve heard it said that people tend to consider people they like to be more competent. So, if you like Appleton, then you’re probably more likely to think he’s doing a good job.

It’s self perpetuating; the club is much more media friendly than it used to be; Nick Harris was effusive on Saturday about the club going in the right direction despite, by more objective measures such as results and league position, it’s not.

The recent flurry of signings could be viewed as a signal of the new regime’s way of working – more effective, smarter scouting unearthing talent others are unable to find. But, similar signings have been made in the past – managers under Firoz Kassam were forced to dig into the lower Scottish leagues and non-league (Ben Abbey, Neil McGowan for example) for their ‘talent’. This wasn’t looked on as good scouting, it was considered a money pinching exercise at the time. Time will tell whether Jarrow Roofing and Dundalk were squirreling away talent that will propel us up the league or whether the players involved are just happy to take a reasonable wage.

It seems that Appleton has been able to buy himself time through his more rational, friendlier approach to his work. Perhaps it is not what a manager does that makes him acceptable to the fans, more it is how he does it.

The marshmallow club

I have a friend whose husband had a near-fatal aneurysm five years ago. At first, the doctors battled to save his life; he was passed up the food chain from one expert consultant to another even more expert consultant. He was regularly given just hours or days to live. He went from standard treatment to world class treatment to experimental treatment. He is, in short, a medical miracle.

And it worked, his life was saved; he still suffers setbacks, but he is no longer on the brink of dying. He is, to quote my friend, like talking to a marshmallow. The reality of caring for a human marshmallow takes its toll. It affects their children’s behaviour and development; he has lost the ability to empathise and is incredibly personally offensive towards her and he suffers periods of both deep depression and even more damaging euphoria (spending thousands of pounds on a whim). As he’s otherwise stable, he’s in his late forties, he could be like this for another 50 years. My friend, obviously, feels a great obligation to continue to care for him, but, she admits in moments of candidness, that there are times when she’d prefer he wasn’t around.

I think I might be coming to the same conclusion about Oxford United. Its 15 years since Firoz Kassam bought the club, cleared its debt, knocked its stadium down, built another one and sent it plummeting down the divisions. Then Ian Lenagan came in, stabilised things but took them as far as he was able given his resources. And now Eales and Ashton are in control and are threatening to drive it into the ground once again, or at best keeping it in its current vegetative state.

The difference now is that our league position, our form, none of it bothers me that much. I don’t find it particularly humiliating, we’ve been here before and for a long time, and the hope of a bright future is dwindling. We are becoming a marshmallow club; our options seem to be to make the best of a bad job or just to let it slip away.

Ashton was on the radio before the Cheltenham game, his PR onslaught continuing with the Radio Oxford ‘Ask Ashton’ feature. The ‘best’ of these questions received, apparently, were around the bias of the referee on Saturday and smoking in the toilets.

Are you actually fucking kidding me? Is this what the anaesthesia of the Ashton PR machine has done to us? It’s fine to have gone eight games with one win, be next to bottom of the table, had the lowest league attendance in five and a half years just so long as we can have a fag at half time.

There are two questions that Ashton needs to answer – how much money is going to be invested in the team? And how and when is the stadium going to be purchased?

On the former issue, it seems evident that the answer is; not a lot. Ashton and Appleton have pleaded for time to develop the squad. But it is them who lobotomised the management of the club when they came in. Should they be afforded time when they weren’t prepared to give time to what already existed? They were the great saviours; not Lenagan and Waddock, both of whom were removed or sidelined, and we all compliantly, and shamefully, cheered their demise because we believed the new broom’s bullshit.

But, what have they delivered? A handful of players, materially no better than those they replaced, and, judging by the results, worse. Pretty but ineffective football; I get that football clubs need to evolve into new cultures and styles, but this isn’t evolution; this is revolution into an abyss. It is more entertaining, but it is still losing football.

We’re not allowed to mention Chris Wilder, of course, but, by contrast, when he arrived at the club he, by his own admission, threw a team together; Sandwidth, Batt, Chapman, Clist, Nelthorpe. He came in with that plan – short term and a plan – longer term – to establish a squad to win promotion.

This didn’t happen with Appleton; nothing was thrown together; they talked about getting in the right bodies, not anybody. The rhetoric is fine, but what we’ve really had is neither the right bodies, nor anybody, we’ve had nobody, at least nobody who has changed the direction of travel. Perhaps Hoskins will when he’s fit, perhaps Jakubiak and Morris will with some more experience and game time. I have hope that, goals-wise, Hylton might compensate for the loss of Constable.

The next transfer window will be different, says Appleton. Will it? I’m tired of this constant gazing to the next horizon – wait until the next transfer window, wait until the stadium is bought, wait until Richard Branson buys us. But no, they want us to wait another three months by which time the season will have been trashed, or worse, a sullen malaise will have baked in and a relegation fight will be our only prospect. Appleton, by the next transfer window, nobody will care about your intentions, less your style of football. You may still be in a job, but you’ll be playing to empty stadiums.

Many say that patience is needed, but I’m not sure I care enough to be patient. With each passing failure – Cheltenham being the latest – comes ever growing indifference. There’s no longer a fear of failure and even less expectation or hope of success. If we get relegated, then it won’t be a novelty, nor will it be any greater shame than 2006. Then you begin to kind of wonder what is the point of blindly following something in which you don’t care the outcome.

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.