Match wrap: Oxford United v Crewe Alexandra (Postponed)

I once read that Twitter is at its best during the first few minutes of a breaking story, and at its worst over the next few days. And so it was on Saturday when it broke that Oxford’s game against Crewe had been called off. 

In typical Twitter style, the timeline of events was still being established when the accusations, recriminations and resolutions started swamping the facts. So, let’s try and establish what happened first…

As far as I can tell, Crewe midfielder Ryan Wintle felt unwell during an EFL Trophy game against Newcastle Under 21s on Tuesday and went for a CoVid test, which came back positive. Defender Omar Beckles, who wasn’t showing symptoms, also got a test privately because he has a baby, which Crewe didn’t know about (the test, not the baby).

On Friday, Wintle didn’t travel to Oxford but Beckles did. On Saturday morning, Beckles’ test result came back positive. Knowing this, Crewe travelled to the stadium with the intention of playing the game, told Oxford about the positive test, which had already filtered through to the Kassam. Oxford then raised their concerns. After a lengthy discussion, including perhaps who would take the blame and therefore possible sanctions, Crewe said they were unable to fulfil the fixture.

Let’s break it down, fair enough that Wintle and Beckles got tests, and I hope both recover well. Crewe knew about Wintle which should have put them on high alert. Even if they weren’t able to provide tests themselves, it’s surely sensible to tell the players to report any symptoms or tests they may get privately.

Then there’s the attitude towards Beckles’ test. A friend once had a cancer scare when they found a lump and went to the doctor. They were alarmed when it was referred to the hospital as ‘suspected cancer’. This wasn’t because they had cancer (they didn’t), but because they couldn’t rule it out. So, they were put on the first step in cancer treatment, which is to find out if you have cancer. I know of a similar process at a local primary school, any Covid symptoms are considered a suspected case, the child isolates and gets a test. The assumption is that they have the virus until proven otherwise.

Crewe seem to have taken the attitude that a test is a precaution, but not a possible case. Which is admirable positive thinking, but boneheaded. Beckles seemed to assume that the test would come back negative because he was asymptomatic. Which is the opposite of what he should think. 

I’ve got some sympathy for him; he has no symptoms, a job, a family and isn’t likely to be high risk. Being stuck in the house with a baby would be no fun and he’s only just arrived at Crewe, so will still be establishing himself. 

But more than this, there is plenty of noise out there trying to downplay the existence CoVid and its impact. There’s a significant but growing minority of people who choose to trivialise it. No scientist knows what a second wave might look like – it might be a fraction of the first wave, it might be ten times bigger. There are still so many unknowns about the first wave – there have been 467,000 cases in the UK and 42,000 deaths – a ratio of 1 in 11. But 70,000 more people have died this year than in the last five, if that’s not CoVid related, then what is it? There are likely to have been more cases, and you’re much less likely to die than the official ratio suggests. There’s the question of dying with and dying of CoVid and who is vulnerable – people with underlying health conditions are not necessarily people who would die anyway, as some might choose the believe. Plus there’s the fact dying is only one consequence, there are unknown long term impacts, there’s pressure on services in the event of large cases. The truth is that nobody really knows and now is not the time to speculate. Until we know, people should assume the worst and be cautious. Beckles and others shouldn’t feel the need to hide their concerns. In fact, they should be praised for going for the test. 

But it goes further, Crewe travelled with Beckles on the team bus and stayed in a hotel, then travelled to the stadium to tell Oxford what had happened. Crewe manager David Artell’s response was nothing short of staggering: 

“We were prepared to play, Oxford probably quite rightly said we don’t want to expose our players to that, which is fully understandable. Let’s be honest, it’s fully understandable because they don’t know how many are infected on our bus because the infected player came down with us last night. All stayed in separate rooms. We’ll be tested Monday, whenever the test kits come to us to ascertain the extent of the spread, if there is actually a spread.” 

There are three potential explanations for this; the first is that David Artell is an imbecile. He incriminates himself, shows casual disregard of the impact of what he’s done, implies that Oxford are unnecessarily cautious. He even goes on to try and take credit for revealing the case, saying that he could have kept it quiet, but didn’t want to weaken us, which is good of him.

The second is that Artell knows he’s made a grave error in travelling to the ground, is trying to play it down and is just doing it really badly.

And finally, it’s possible that Artell is fully aware of what has happened but is simply the victim of the culture he’s in – a lack of openness in his squad, a lack of transparency, trust and proper priorities in his club, a lack of testing, leadership and accountability from the EFL, government or PFA. He’s just a victim of the world around him, as we all are, but he’s the one who has to face the press.

There was a lot of talk about testing regimes immediately afterwards and how all players and staff should be tested regularly. While that’s the ideal and should be the aim, it’s costly and complicated. Even if it isn’t in place now, then we should be working towards it.

But, in the absence of testing, there’s another key element to all this. Karl Robinson described Oxford’s approach to CoVid and how several key players nearly didn’t play against Accrington because of concerns. Players like James Henry, Elliot Moore, Sam Long and Cameron Brannagan absented themselves from the club for a few days when they thought they might be a risk. 

You could take the view that the club are too cautious, they believe the negative hype, they are too soft. 

But actually, it’s the openness and trust that exists within the club that sings out. It costs nothing to build that culture but takes a lot of effort, Karl Robinson has invested himself heavily to create that culture ever since he arrived at the club. As a result their response to the pandemic has been nothing short of exemplary. To use a favourite Robinson phrase, we should be ‘hugely proud’ that those standards didn’t drop under pressure from a club whose standards fall some way short of that. It should reinforce the benefits of openness. It’s not just a lesson other clubs could learn, maintaining those standards and treating this thing more seriously is something we could all benefit from. 

Midweek fixture: League 1 Kitwatch 2020/2021

There’s nothing better than a new kit; so the summer is new kit Christmas. Nearly everyone have revealed their kit for the new season. I’ll keep updating this post with new designs as they’re revealed. Here’s what we have so far…

Accrington Stanley

Accrington are punching above their weight adopting Adidas as their kit manufacturer. Thankfully they’ve managed to bring the tone down a notch or two with an experimental dotty sleeve. It’s let Accrington down, it’s let Adidas down, but most of all, it’s let the lovely white shirt down.

Blackpool

We’re all shocked to our core with Blackpool’s new shirt; tangerine with white trim, like every Blackpool shirt in history. That said, it’s a nice enough design. Eagled eyed among you will see this template replicated elsewhere. In the least shocking news ever the away shirt is a simple reverse out of the home version.

Bristol Rovers

The key to any artistic process is to know when to stop. Bristol Rovers have an iconic kit and it shouldn’t be difficult to pull a decent shirt out of the bag. This version has funny cuffs, collar, stripe down the arm, what appears to be some kind of camo shadowing. The second kit goes some way to redeeming things, but not much.

Burton Albion

Burton Albion may be the most forgettable team in the division, and their new home shirt lives up to that reputation. One of this season’s trends is the re-introduction of the button collar, which we can all agree is a travesty. And yet, the away kit is so awful, apparently modelled on the faux medical uniform of a cosmetic surgery nurse, that the button may just improve it.

Charlton Athletic

Without doubt Charlton have bigger problems than providing a decent new kit. The home shirt looks like every Charlton kit ever released, while the away shirt is probably a reflection of the mood around the club.

Crewe Alexandra

Crewe’s return to League 1 is marked by a retro red and black number, but it’s the away kit which is of most note, appearing to take inspiration from their shirt sponsor Mornflake Mighty Oats.

Doncaster Rovers

Thankfully Doncaster Rovers’ new shirt is identical to every Doncaster Rovers home shirt of the last decade. The red and white hoops are a classic not to be messed with. The away kit is also pretty sweet; maybe the best combo in the division?

Fleetwood Town

To some people, the fact that Fleetwood Town exist and are managed by Joey Barton is confusing enough. This kit, which seems to adopt about nine different styles in one, is a proper head scrambler. The away kit, however, works really nicely – silver and mint, who knew?

Gillingham

Bit of an odd one this; Gillingham are perhaps the most meh team in League 1, and it appears that they’re sticking with the same kit as last season. It’s OK, Macron, the manufacturer, have a nice style about them. You could describe this as a bit meh, really.

Hull City

Like all the teams coming down from the Championship, Hull have been slow to release their new shirt. The result is an unremarkable number, saved largely by the fact that it’s Umbro, giving it a nice traditional feel. The third kit (no second kit that I can ascertain) is a bit of an oddity; when I first saw it, I really liked it and thought it was one of the nicest in the division, then I looked again and find it a bit boring.

Ipswich Town

A tale of two shirts for Ipswich Town. An absolute beauty for the home shirt reminiscent of their heyday in the 1980s under Bobby Robson. The away shirt looks like someone has washed it with a tissue in the pocket.

Lincoln City

Lincoln City play a classic card with their new shirt. There are few teams that wear red and white stripes who haven’t gone for the disruptive inverted colourway at some point. There will be Lincoln fans everywhere tearing up their season tickets at the abomination, but I like it. The away number is solid but unremarkable.

MK Dons

A solid home option for MK Dons, but you can’t deny they work hard to be the most despicable team in the league, the away shirt is black with gold trim? What are they? A Bond villain? Yes, yes they are.

Northampton Town

I’ve always felt that Hummel offer a hipster’s choice when it comes to shirt manufacturing; typically because of their excellent work on the Danish national shirts in the mid-80s. I’ve also always liked Northampton’s colours. So, put together should be a sure fire winner. the away kit is OK until you look more closely, the strange central dribble, the fading pin stripes. They get away with it, but only just.

Oxford United

Look closely, well not that closely, and you’ll see the new Oxford shirt is the same Puma template as Blackpool and Swindon. Rumour has it that in real life it adopts the geometric pattern of the Peterborough shirt. It’s OK, for a title winning shirt.

Peterborough United

Last season Puma made a big deal of their sublimated flux shirt designs, this year seems to have some kind of geometric update. There are randomised white flecks in there as well. A real nearly, but not quite design, a bit like Peterborough. The away shirt utilises the 437th Puma template of the division, and it’s a bit of a cracker, while nothing screams ‘Revenge season’ then a neon pink third kit.

Plymouth Argyle

Plymouth return to League 1 with a couple of scorchers. The home shirt is spoilt a bit with what appears to be a button collar, the away kit is absolutely magnificent. It’s difficult to imagine under what circumstances they would need a third kit, but it ticks some boxes.

Portsmouth

One of the big favourites for the League 1 title next season have opted for a pretty conservative upgrade. What the heck is with that collar though? I quite like the away shirt with its white shadow stripes, it reminds me of our own away kit from the mid-eighties. Was there a three for two offer at Sports Direct? The unnecessary third kit looks like a reboot of our 2013/14 Animalates shirt.

Rochdale

You might call it armageddon chic; there’s a theme in a lot of kits where they’ve taken their standard design and given it a twist. Quite often it’s such a twist it comes off completely. Rochdale are just about the right side of acceptable with the blurred lined and shredded but at the top.

Shrewsbury Town

Aficionados of League 1 kit launches will know that Shrewsbury specialise in producing terrible promotional photography. For evidence try this, this or even this.This year is no different. Still, they get bonus points for adopting Admiral as their kit manufacturer. The away shirt takes inspiration from Oxford’s purple years when we were sponsored by Isinglass.

Swindon Town

Our friends up the A420 have selected yet another Puma kit variation. How many templates does one manufacturer need? It’s a nice and simple design, ruined by the addition of a Swindon Town badge. The away shirt could not be less imaginative if it tried.

Sunderland

Let’s not kid ourselves; all teams use standard templates, but Sunderland’s new Nike shirt absolutely screams ‘park football’. The away shirt is Portsmouth’s home shirt in a different colour way, but that’s OK, I quite like it.

Wigan Athletic

I was genuinely sad when I saw this; Wigan’s kit feels like a club that’s fallen apart with the off-the-peg template and the ironed-on ‘sponsor’ (let’s assume the Supporters Club have not paid a penny for this).

AFC Wimbledon

Have Wimbledon given up? They seem so bored with life they can’t be bothered to feature a decent logo of their sponsor and what can you say about the diagonal shadow stripe? They seem to trump it with the away shirt, which is going some. A shirt that screams relegation.

…And if you thought Crewe was depressing

There was a predictable wash of simpering good will from Oxford fans on Sunday when it was revealed that jug-eared goalscoring funster, and (perhaps) the last Manor legend, Dean Windass, has been suffering from depression leading him to twice try and take his life.

Depression in sport is particularly on-trend nowadays. Gary Speed’s suicide, despite his apparent balance, talent, good looks and happy-go-lucky demeanour – none of which are signs of depression or otherwise – jolted everyone.

Now they’re all at it, last week Andrew Flintoff presented a documentary on it involving some of the decade’s most celebrated sporting names. In the process he recognised that some of his own misdemeanours were a demonstration of some kind of depressive tendency.

You suspect that when The People, having spent weeks camped outside the Sporting Chance Clinic in the hope of spotting a big star through the tinted glass of some over-sized, pimped up four-wheel-drive, found out that Windass was prepared to come out, they were secretly punching the air in triumph. OK, it wasn’t a real star, but it was good enough.

The Windass story is a convenient one for a tabloid audience, but it is ultimately unhelpful. His is the standard narrative of a man who had it all, then without the structure and lustre of professional football lost his way. It involves; fast cars, loose women, money and booze. But he’s not the first to stare into an abyss after retiring from a profession offering such rewards.

I’m not suggesting that Windass is faking or just suffering from being a bit down. But it doesn’t help the wider message if people think you become depressed as the result of no longer being able to buy top of the range cars. Sadly, you can’t write a story that basically says ‘Everything was normal, nothing much happened and then I had the overwhelming urge to kill myself’.

When Neil Lennon and Stan Collymore both came out as suffering from depression years ago nobody took much notice. Both players were, in their own way, outsiders, and therefore, ‘typical’ of people with mental health issues. Lennon was a gnarly pitbull, maginalised by sectarianism, whose success was down to graft more than talent. Collymore had talent, but managed to throw Ulrika Jonsson across a bar in a depressive stupor. I mean, how can he be depressed? Mate, she’s gorgeous and therefore, you’re an idiot.

Now apparently ‘normal’ people, like Speed, and happy people, like Windass have got it. Accordingly, we react appropriately with a knowing sympathetic nod towards football’s last taboo (apart from the gay thing, obviously).

Hours before The People story broke, Oxford fans were lining up to lambast the team for its sloppy defeat to Crewe. Days after he was being begged to stay, James Constable was being pressed to leave because he’s ‘not up to this level’. Similarly, Chris Wilder should recognise his limited competence and step aside, after we lost our first in seven, conceding our second goal in 6,300 minutes.

Single events don’t, in themselves, cause depression but they can trigger depressive episodes in people who are prone to its grip. The best thing you can do for a depressive is create a healthy and stable environment in which they can function and manage their condition. They need to exercise, eat well, sleep and generally ensure that life remains devoid of extremes.

Football excels in creating an environment of extreme reactions to episodic success and failure. This is conveniently labelled ‘passion’ – the lifeblood of the sport which the media and marketers are happy to play up. Most people who actively attend football were brought up in, or are the product of, the football culture of the 1970s and 80s when football evolved from being a diversion from the working week to being overtly tribal, confrontational and aggressive.

It wasn’t always like this. There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC – the oldest club in the country – if they were the first club, then who did they play? Well, the members of the club formed teams and played each other. It was club for people who enjoyed football. It wasn’t concieved as a way of defining a town or region to the detriment of other towns or regions. In 1939 Southampton fans celebrated Portsmouth’s FA Cup win, now they tear each others’ throats out.

It makes me think of the difference between a patriot and a nationalist. A patriot loves his country; a nationalist hates every other country. I’m an Oxford United patriot and a football patriot, but increasingly we seem to be becoming football nationalists. We don’t love our team so much as hate everyone elses’.

Now, on the terraces, abuse is the norm, online it’s more venomous, on the pitch people kiss badges and rip their shirts off as a primal act of celebration following a goal, on the bench people get fired for losing a single match and referees are branded as the mentally retarded enemy of the game. And that’s not a description of the bad old days of the 1980s; it’s a manifestation of a culture that exists today. What’s more, it is wholly acceptable; a rebranded and remodelled version of the hooligan era. At least hooliganism was overtly bad.

Amidst this maelstrom, is the stricture of being a footballer. A cabal bound by common behaviours. Lee Steele’s homophobic tweet that lead to his dismissal from Oxford City last week was the illustration of the environment footballers are brought up in. To a man, it’s reported that Lee Steele is a decent bloke, and Mike Ford, despite firing him, was prepared to go on record to support him and say he isn’t a homophobe. It seems that Lee Steele’s principle crime is that he was engaging with a deeply learnt behaviour amongst footballers – banter. In the changing room this works because the rules are understood, it’s a mechanism for sifting out those who are in the football fraternity and those who aren’t. In any other environment, it’s deeply offensive. He just seems to have to forgetten where he was.

This enclosed environment, full of its extremes, isn’t a healthy one for anyone to be involved in, let alone those prone to depression. And yet, despite its current profile within sport and the apparent meaningful sympathy we have towards its sufferers (well, the famous sufferers, at least) we are quite happy to fuel that unhealthy environment by destroying and worshiping its protagonists with all the extreme passion we can muster.

Statistically speaking, in a squad of 20, 5 will suffer some form of anxiety or depression. James Constable and Chris Wilder, like Windass, Speed, Collymore and Lennon, could be among that number at Oxford. Or maybe Alfie Potter. Or Peter Leven. Or, well, anyone. They may not even know that themselves, but it could be lurking, waiting for something to trigger it. We would do well to recognise this and create a healthier environment than the one we are currently in. Not wait for one of our own to put a noose around his neck before reacting.

Crewe Alexandra 3 Oxford United 1

Football is a business of extremes. No other industry would employ Peter Ridsdale with his track record of taking sustainable businesses and depositing them on the brink of oblivion. No other business with a turnover less than your local supermarket goes from the virtual liquidation to sitting on £1.4 million in cash in barely 2 years.

That’s apparently the position that Bournemouth is in, if their chairman is to be believed. I work for a company with a similar turnover to Bournemouth, we’ve never come near to liquidation and we have twice that amount in the bank. Despite being a business with considerably more financial strength than them, we would consider it utter madness to make a snap investment decision of £225,000 (with ongoing costs of £200,000 a year), which is basically what they’re reportedly committing to with their pursuit of James Constable.

Last week, Sky trumpeted the £440 million spent during the transfer window as though this was a triumph. No concerns about the £3.1bn of debt these teams are already in?

These ludicrous extremes cultivate similarly extreme reactions by fans. The 3-1 defeat at Crewe, our first defeat in 4 (5 if you include the 90 minute score against Cardiff), has been greeted by fans as Armageddon.

And now there’s panic surrounding Constable and the possibility that he may go out on loan. The general consensus seemed to be that if he had played, then we’d have won. Which either suggests a) Constable would have grabbed a hat-trick or b) he is a demon in defence. Rationally, neither is true. The reality is that things went badly and we lost. Constable is not the single difference between good days and bad days. The reality is far subtler than that.

Should Constable go, the impact cannot be measured on any single game. Look at last year; he contributed 17 goals. The worst, and most unlikely, scenario is that those goals will not be replaced. Eight goals had no impact on the points gained from those games. If the team could find 9 more goals between them over the season, Constable’s contribution (in goals alone) could be mitigated. Simplistic, perhaps, but it illustrates that the No Constable = Instant Death scenario is nowhere near the truth.

I don’t want to lose Constable; he is pivotal to the team in its current guise. He gives it an identity it hasn’t had for years which has helped bring the fans and club closer together. But, the psychological impact of his departure far outstrips the tangible impact on the team’s performance.

We’re still working from a solid base, the adjustments required to neutralise his or anyone elses departure are relatively small. Losing to Crewe and Constable leaving does not equal capitulation. It doesn’t mean Chris Wilder is a bad manager. You have to look deeper than a single scoreline or individual player decisions if you want to know the state we’re in.

We have a level-headed chairman, a manager that has improved us every year for two and a half years, and a group of players who have proved themselves at this level. Adjustments are needed, partnerships need to grow, a strongest eleven needs to be identified, but the long-term trend continues upwards; only extreme reactions will prevent that from continuing.

Yellows 2 Crewe 1

“Ken” is an idiot. I didn’t catch all of his expansive diatribe on Radio Oxford relating to our ‘failed season’ but it seemed to involve listing a series of players (Bulman, Creighton, Deering) who were unceremoniously ejected at the expense of clearly ‘inferior’ replacements (McLean, Worley, Hackney, perhaps).

This may have been a joke, it may have been ironic, it may have been provocative, but it didn’t sound like any of these things. Subsequent callers quite rightly treated him with derision.

The dismantling of the Conference squad was the hot topic in town despite the perfectly adequate 2-1 victory over fellow play-off botherers Crewe. Jack Midson is off to Barnet with Simon Clist, Ben Purkiss and Wee Stevie Kinniburgh all available for loan.

Both Clist and Midson’s contracts are up in the summer and we have to think whether we envisage these players making a challenge for League 1 or even higher in the next 2 years (the tenure of a typical contract). As much as I would love for us to be able to run a living museum for our Conference squad, the answer is surely that there isn’t a place for them in the long term.

Midson’s situation has become increasingly embarrassing. Every home game he will appear on the touchline in his high visibility tabard to a smattering of sympathetic applause from the South Stand Lower. Like Red Rum being paraded at the Grand National, he skips purposefully as though he’s about to be thrown into the action only to find that he isn’t. The Miracle of Plainmoor was a mere aberration; the reality is that his time has come.

Like Midson, I have a huge amount of sympathy for Simon Clist, they are both good professionals who we owe a lot to as a club. They were a massive part of the promotion campaign and demonstrated huge strength of character to get us over the line at Wembley. But now is now and Clist has slipped behind McLaren, Heslop, Hall, and now Burge for a starting berth. Clist does what he does very solidly, but it’s difficult to see his game changing to the point where he’s challenging the others.

Purkiss and Kinniburgh have had uneventful seasons. Purkiss has been a perfectly able stand-in and despite Wee Stevie enjoying the kind of paternal sympathy normally afforded to a new lone arrival in a village church community, neither look set to mount a sustained challenge on the first team.

“Ken” is probably rolling around on the floor convulsing in disbelief at the latest news but many will simply take it with a gentle shrug of the shoulders. Things move on, but I for one look forward to welcoming back the likes of Midson and Clist as part of any Legends of Wembley Reunion.

Crewe Alexandra 1 Yellows 1

I’ve made an enemy. And when I say ‘I’ I mean, ‘we’ and when I say ‘enemy’ I mean the editor of and contributors to Crewe Vital Football. Man, they’re angry.

I made a joke on Twitter that got re-tweeted by said editor. He then went on to say that we’re worse ‘than Vale fans’. Which is presumably very insulting indeed.

Anyway, it got me reading his site and wow, he’s got issues. Take the definitive moment in Saturday’s 1-1 draw:

“Referee gives goal. Oxford players cry offside. At this point every single Oxford player has surrounded the linesman. After a few minutes kerfuffle the referee whistles for a free kick to Oxford.”

This, he says, is “unbelievable”. Too right, players intimidating officials, officials not applying the rules properly… Oh hang on, what’s this?

“Now, the decision ultimately was probably the correct one.”

Ah. So, the ref’s ‘unbelievable’ decision was, in truth, correct. Looking at the incident, I reckon it was about 4 seconds between the ball going into the net and the ref heading towards the linesman. Not quite the scandal it first appeared to be.

A discussion forum topic called Wilder – Idiot continues the polemic.

To be fair, there are contributions that point out that the Alex need to man up if they’re expected to compete at this level. This is great though:

“His [Wilder’s] comments, just like his teams’ tactics were dreadful – playing that high up the pitch at 1-0, well a better Crewe side would have stuck 3 or 4 past them easy.”

Oxford are shit, Chris Wilder is an idiot and Crewe are brilliant. Although, it should be pointed out that this is a fictitious Crewe playing scintillating football, not one that currently exists.

It goes on. Crewe have always been held up as a model of how a small club should be run. Modest, yet successful, four years ago they were voted the most admired club in the league. Their focus on player development and managerial stability should be an example to us all.

They’ve been relegated twice in the intervening four years. It seems, Crewe are some kind of art project and teams who don’t just stand aside are oppressors of their creative spirit. As a team that knows quite a lot about the damage a superiority complex can have, Crewe might do well to learn from us rather than treat us with such contempt.