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.

The unlikely saviour to our season?

The talk before the win against Cheltenham was the state of the pitch which has been turned into a near quagmire as a result of persistent rain and persistent rugby. But while the state of the pitch is never going to help the aesthetics of our game, it might just be the unlikely saviour of our season.

I’m afraid I’ve got something that makes the Saville enquiry look like a walk in the park. Back in the 1970s the BBC were a bit down on their luck, the recession was biting and the sports department in particular were in the doldrums. There weren’t enough journalists around to research the stories they were given and what’s more, they didn’t really care. So, a secret meeting was held with all the senior journalists and broadcasters, they needed to come up with a plan that meant they didn’t have to put in the work to do their jobs.

They invented The Slope. The Slope was the universal explanation for anything to do with lower-league football. In Cup competitions rather than talking about the merits of the players in the teams they were covering, the universal solution to everything was that the pitch had a slope, to, somewhat ironically, explain the levelling of the playing field between the team and their more illustrious opponents.

“How do you think it’s going to go today Brian?”
“Well the pitch has got a bit of a slope”

“Jimmy, Leeds are a goal up, but they’ll be kicking up the slope in the second half”

If you wanted Gary Neville-esque insight, then you might discuss the direction of the slope; end to end, corner to corner and so on. But fundamentally everything about football involving lower leagues pivoted around the slope of the pitch. The pitches didn’t even need to have a slope, it was just a journalistic code to tell others that, frankly, nobody knows anything about the day’s teams.

During the glory years of Oxford’s rise, The Slope conspiracy would regularly raise it’s head. The Manor slope explained victories over Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle and Leeds, it explained 2 championships in a row, it explained absolutely everything. It didn’t explain that you only ever played with a slope for half a game and it’s not as if the ball cascaded down the pitch like it had been rolled down a flight of stairs.

In the modern era even pitch care has become a branch of science. Thoroughbred footballers need carpet-like surfaces to perform, anything that is not lush and green is considered an absolute travesty. The Manor had a good pitch; I once met a referee who had officiated a game between us and Newcastle, he remarked at the wonder of the surface. “It’s all grass” he said, which is only remarkable when you try to keep your own lawn free of weeds and other interlopers.

The Kassam pitch was a step up again, there was no slope and it supposed to have some kind of synthetic mix which made it more durable; Real Madrid were interest in it. Our poor results were then blamed on the pitch being too good. Teams liked to come and play, although it didn’t really explain why our players seemed not to like to come and play.

Then modern football and modern rugby collided; rugby decided to adopt football’s get rich quick scheme. They needed facilities, and they had money. Ground sharing became a thing. Watford, Reading, Wycombe all had rugby cousins. Kassam looked for some rugby tenants, usually involving trying to move a team 70+ miles to the dreaming spires. It’s taken over a decade to actually land one with London Welsh. And now we’re back to talking about the pitch again.

The Kassam pitch now is not unlike the pitches of the 80s, which were a massive improvement on the pitches of the 70s. The ball is lighter now, of course, and boots were more substantial because of the higher likelihood of injury, so subtly the game is different. The game has adapted to its new palatial conditions. But we did play passing football on poor surfaces back then, it was possible for wingers and ball-players to thrive on rutted pitches. Peter Rhoades-Brown, an exponent of wing-craft in the 80s, didn’t seem concerned that the pitch had cut up. He was more worried that his guard of honour had been forced off the pitch.

It is taking a bit of getting used to. It’s not helping us in terms of style, but it does give us something we can unite to fight against. In the first years of Wilder’s reign we fought the Conference itself, and last year it was Swindon. This year we’ve started eating ourselves from within, which is how football clubs, regardless of the competence of the individuals involved, destroy themselves. That’s what happened under the Kassam regime. We were threatening to go back that way again.

Tuesday’s win against Cheltenham wasn’t pretty, but it was effective; two wins away over Christmas  and Cheltenham’s elevated position helped, but there was a renewed patience amongst Oxford fans. This was about getting the job done in difficult conditions. It was a disciplined display and we made the 3rd place team in our division look ordinary. After a frustrating period where we tried to play like Barcelona while looking like Barnstable perhaps the pitch might actually rescue our season.

Time to press the panic button?

I have to confess I had my first Wilder wobble after the heartless 4-0 defeat to Burton on Saturday. The results aren’t going our way, the manager’s position is uncertain; he’s either being sacked or moving to Coventry. The board is in transition with Kelvin Thomas and Jim Rosenthal standing down, and the fixture list looks uninspiring. What have we got to look forward to? Where are the wins? Where’s the derby? What is going to spring us out of our malaise? I can only see a procession of tough games. Are we going to trudge through the season only to end up in mid-table meaninglessness? That’s not why we support football clubs.

Football is escapism, we seek it because it give us something different to our normal lives. Everything else in our lives demands certainty. Our jobs are process driven, we want security; job security, financial security. Football is our unpredictable wildcard, our release, an opportunity to satisfy our animalistic urges. It is one of football’s great paradoxes; those who succeed in achieving predictability, notably the Premier League, are chastised by traditionalists for ruining excitement. And yet it is the traditionalists who constantly call for more sensible and rational thinking in the game. So do we want excitement or predictability?

When, as now, there seems so little prospect of excitement, we agitate to generate some. We like to target the manager to try and shake things up. There is the frisson of excitement; the period of speculation where, in full fantasy-manager mode, we pick a realistic, but attached, target like Paul Tidsdale, or a unrealistic and unattached target like Harry Redknapp. Then you end up with someone with a moderate, occasionally good, occasionally rubbish track record. He inherits a team low on confidence and form and criticises, without risk, the previous regime’s methods. I remember during the Kassam years, each manager coming in to criticise the players’ lack of fitness, for example.

Fundamentally, the new manager has the same resources to play with; things don’t change significantly. We then criticise and agitate to replace the new man (or even bring back the original manager, who with the blurring of time has returned to his previous state of being a legend). So many clubs fall into that cycle, it’s so tempting to do it to brighten up our sorry lives. But is it the answer?

Is changing the manager really going to solve the problem? And more to the point, what the hell is the problem in the first place? And don’t say it’s the fact we concede too many goals and have just gone four league defeats in a row. That’s not the problem, the defeats are the result of the problem.

We’re missing the players that Chris Wilder brought in to add quality to the squad; he doesn’t have Whing or Duberry in defence, Davis or (until Tuesday) Leven going forward, he hasn’t had Cox. These are all his signings; good signings and they’re all injured. Is that bad luck? Presumably it’s possible to put together an algorithm that will predict when multiple factors converge to create form like we’ve got in the situation we’re in. Or is it bad management? Is it wholly Wilder’s fault? In other words, if you took Wilder out of the equation and put in a replacement, are the injured players suddenly going become available? I remember the charmless David Kemp saying after he was sacked that he wasn’t going to take it to heart, because changing the manager hadn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future. Now, David Kemp is the worst manager we’ve ever had, but he was right, wasn’t he? Will a new manager, playing to different tactics turn this squad into league champions? I can’t conclusively be sure.

Is it a bigger issue? The policy of signing proven, older, players who are therefore more injury prone, without the infrastructure to keep them on the pitch. Is that the problem? Is it a bigger strategic issue; the focus of signings over science? Isn’t that a board consideration; how much do you spend on players, support of players and the business that funds the show? That’s not Chris Wilder’s responsibility, at least not wholly, that’s done higher up. So is it a board issue? Moreover, isn’t that being dealt with? The board changes could conceivably be an attempt to deal with a deeper problem and there is already a stated commitment into investing into sport science.

The Greiner growth model says that it is inevitable that organisations hit crises as they grow, and perhaps that’s the problem; a growing pain. He talks of a ‘crisis of control’; where delegating responsibility results in growth that is too quick and out of control. What results is a tightening of control; is that why Lenegan is at the head of the table in the board room? He’s managing the readjustment? If this is an inevitable wobble, then we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and sack everyone involved because it satisfies our frustration and discomfort.

We can comfortably demonise the manager, it’s a common thing to do. That’s what most clubs do; and yet most clubs are badly run. So, do we want to follow the pattern of others just because it’s the way football has always done it?

I don’t know, on one hand, Wilder’s position seems to be weakening, on the other hand, I can’t definitively say that his replacement will provide the solution. And is it even fair to judge him on four league games of which three were away? And, this is our (equal) best start to a season since we returned from the Conference.

Many have already made their mind up, but as it currently stands; I would argue that this difficult early season was predictable. We have three home games in the next four. The opponents will test all our credentials; can we dispose of a lesser team like Wimbledon? Can we compete with a high flyer like Gillingham? And can we develop the resolve to compete with Rotherham? The next 18 days will tell us a lot more, I think.