Dagenham wrap – Oxford United 4 Dagenham and Redbridge 0

In another world, Michael Appleton steps forward for his post-match interview following the win over Dagenham and Nathan Cooper asks one of those questions, like he does, which contains the answer.

“So Michael, a comfortable night and a professional job, you can only play what’s in front of you, I guess?”

In this other world, rather than Appleton parroting back that it was a professional job and you can only play what’s in front of you, he says…

“To be honest, it was a piece of piss.”

And it was, if there was going to be an easy game, it was this one. Pretty much the only thing that remains of Dagenham’s League status is the font on the back of their shirts. This was a game against a Conference team, and not a good one either. If you want more proof, watch our final goal, we turned into the Harlem Globetrotters.

So it’s kind of difficult to know if we’ve turned the corner at home. The wins over Dagenham and York have as much a distorting effect on our form as the quick-fire defeats by Northampton and Accrington did last month.

We do seem to be seeing the benefits of having more direct players in the team; Chey Dunkley is a proper no-nonsense defender, Alex MacDonald is an intuitive firebrand, despite his manager’s preference for him to calm down a bit, and George Waring is a player who seems to know his role in life is not to do sophisticated round-the-corner flicks.

For a team that has a habit of over-playing things, the structure offered by Dunkley, MacDonald and Waring allows the likes of Roofe to run amok; it worked last night and I can see it working again.

But, whether this is the solution to take us through to promotion, it’s almost impossible to say from this game alone. Tuesday was about turning up and banking the points, the club recognised this with their email just to say thank you for making the effort; in another world it might have said ‘Frankly it was a pretty crap night to have to come out, but thanks anyway’ which would have pretty much summed it all up.

Coming up: Dagenham and Redbridge

Braintree wrap

Ultimately, the 3-1 win over Braintree in the Cup was fairly routine. Michael Appleton’s team selection felt like a snooker player building a break; it wasn’t a team to beat Braintree, even without the likes of Kemar Roofe and Liam Sercombe we would have probably been good enough. It was more an assurance because the path through to the third round looks more than negotiable and that’s where the bigger paydays lie.

That kind of thinking demonstrates the confidence with which Michael Appleton appears to be managing his team. He’s moving away from the text book, something he seemed such a slave to last year, and towards his own instincts. The more his decisions prove to work, the more confident he will become.

Dagenham – The drop

How can it be the 21st of November and only the second league game in a month? I guess it’s just that time of year. Saturday’s game against Dagenham and Redbridge demonstrates one of those curiosities in football; a few weeks ago we played them in a meaningless JPT game against them,  now we play the same team at the same venue, but now it’s in the league, so it’s critical.

With only one league game played this month it’s difficult to truly assess how we’re doing. Cambridge last week was more uncomfortable than we’d expected, but we came away with the three points and it should have been more comfortable than it was.

The cup games offer little further evidence; by all accounts we should have put a hatful past Braintree in the opening tie, the aforementioned JPT game was comfortable, but we were playing with a second string team, on Tuesday finally eased into the second round. Did we play well, or did we just do what we should have done in the first place?

Old game of the day

If anyone was to ask, which they never do, but if they did, and they asked me what was my favourite moment of the Conference years, even beyond York it was a period of about 10 minutes during our game against Dagenham and Redbridge in 2007. In a sense it was a title decider, but by that point, they were well clear and we’d fallen away. However, it was a warm spring night in a tense and feral environment. They went a goal up and then we brought Yemi on. For literally 10 minutes, football could not have been more fun.

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.

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.

The toughest in the infants

The win over Dagenham saw both sides of our season; a team in good, perhaps, dominant form but one which had to battle to get a result. It’s a timely reminder that quality is not always enough. Perhaps it’s this regular dose of realism that is keeping this team on track.

During a rare rendition of “Chris Wilder m’Lord” from the East Stand, the manager put his hands above his head and clapped his appreciation vigorously. It was a rare moment when the manager broke free from his sometimes scratchy external self to reveal a warmer, connected side. A bit like his knee slide at Wembley, or the three-finger salute of triumph after the JPT win over Swindon, or the blood curdling scream of frustration after one of our draws during the promotion season – a clip seemingly now lost to YouTube.

Wilder is a fractious, guarded, character. Not a nasty person, someone who wants to please, but won’t bask in it if he does. He’s an introvert; not shy, but internally aware. Being a football manager must do that to you; you’re not a fan who is free to make irrational irregular judgements, you’re not a player enjoying an extended childhood with all the freedoms that offers, you’re not the owner or the board, who can do anything you please. It’s a lonely experience; you’ve got to connect and earn the respect of all three parties, but stay distant and objective at all times. If you become indulgent in the role; like Paolo DiCanio, then you’re more likely to rub people up the wrong way.

The reason Wilder acted in such a comparatively emotional way to the song was that it effectively represented a welcome back. It was the first time he’d been on the touchline at home since the Portsmouth story broke, and his name being sung was the fans appreciating what he’s done for the club and also, most maturely, that they understood his reasoning behind talking to Pompey. In short, we were ‘tight’ and Wilder appreciated being welcomed back so warmly.

It was only a couple of weeks ago, before one of our home games, that while sitting in second place, someone on the radio was talking about Wilder needing to be replaced. Because; she said, the players need to understand that it’s the home crowd that pays their wages (as if the team somehow decide to perform poorly as home to spite fans). The Wilderout lobby remains like a sleeper cell. There’s no evidence of its activities; but you know it’s there somewhere. It’s a cowardly position to take, 95% of manager’s leave under some kind of cloud – which means the Wilderout campaigners know that ultimately they will be proved ‘right’ in saying he should go. The other 4% of the time, the manager will go step up a level – proof, to the campaigners, of a lack of loyalty. 1% of the time it’s all mutual and good natured. If you believe in Wilderout then you are a coward, there’s no bravery in supporting something you know will almost certainly happen at some point in some undetermined time. Bravery comes from backing him, even when it feels like you shouldn’t.

Wilderout still lingers, along with our still questionable home form and the tightness of the league – something which the doubting media seem intent on reminding everyone of as though we’re lucky to be top of the pile. However, this may be a healthy thing. Over the years we’ve been tended to be good for about half a season. Generally speaking that’s been until Christmas before falling away, occasionally it’s been average in the first half followed by a drive for success. We haven’t had a full season of relentless, title winning, success for nearly 30 years. Malcolm Shotton, Denis Smith, Ian Atkins, Jim Smith and Chris Wilder have all felt the pain of a team that historically chokes. It’s not a manager or player specific thing; it’s a club thing. It’s an ‘us’ thing.

Perhaps, as a club, we’re so desperate to see a repeat of the spectacular successes of the mid-80s – either because you were there, or you weren’t and people (like me) keep going on about it. As soon as we see something resembling success we believe this is it. It’s like seeing pictures of Jesus burnt into your toast; you’re so desperate to see a sign, you over-interpret what you see.

This season, nobody can comfortably say this yet feels like a title winning season. Of course, we’ve kept the points ticking over; which has kept us top of the table. At home, it doesn’t fell much different to last year. The natives are not yet excitable for a trophy come May; and the radicals are still campaigning, quietly, for the removal of our most successful manager in nearly 20 years. The  ‘normal state’ remains, which is good for our prospects in the long term. When we get excitable and emotional, that’s when things, invariably, go wrong.    

The muted response to the ‘boring’ FA Cup draw to Charlton is one case in point. It is not so much that it was boring; more that it wasn’t big enough to be a distraction. There’s no doubt that we’ll take a good number and we’ll be hopeful of a win. But there’s no belief that the fixture represents some kind of arrival, there’s work still to be done. That’s a very healthy position for us to be in.

This is particularly important for the fans; we’re the ones who set the tone and create the expectation. If we’re workmanlike then so are the players. If we expect success, then we risk the players getting a sense that we have already achieved. That’s when the effort drops just enough to make a difference. It helps, perhaps, to have the polarised squad we have, a group of seasoned senior pros who understand the need to remain patient, balanced and hard working, and a group of juniors who don’t know any differently. I can see why Ian Lenagan is reluctant to add to the squad with panic loan signings; we don’t need the addition of jaded players, disillusioned and tired of the system, just looking for a break.

Saturday spoke volumes for the season. Yes, undoubtedly the best team, playing some of the best football we’ve seen at the Kassam for years, but still a struggle to pull a result out of the bag. A sage lesson.

But beware, Juggernaut January is coming. Such a juggernaut it starts in December, Boxing Day – Plymouth is deliberately not a business as usual fixture – but remember Woking. Then Charlton, Portsmouth, Wycombe – unusual games because of their comparative scale. If we do come out of January unscathed, psychologically, maybe we can begin to start planning the end game of the title.  

Calling out for an unsung hero

The Radio Oxford phone-in is like crack, you know it’s not good for you, but there’s something that can’t stop you from taking part. On Saturday after the draw against Torquay, Dougie, a regular I think, came on to put his point across. Lenegan was a liar, Dougie said, he lied when he said he couldn’t spend any more on players because of the salary cap. Because Dougie knows better; he could spend more, if he put more money into the club. Which reminded me of the Paul Merton joke about the Olympics; they had to double the budget in order to come in under budget.

Jerome Sale, who is always good in these situations pointed out that the salary cap was in place to prevent clubs from chasing an unrealisable dream. Endless spending puts you in a falsely elevated position; like Portsmouth or Luton. Swindon did it, said Dougie. To which Sale pointed out that the chairman had been removed and they had been placed under a transfer embargo as a result.

Now, the natural law about Oxford United is that the longer any debate goes on, the more heated it gets, the more likely that someone will mention Firoz Kassam. Dougie was on the defensive and blurted out that Lenegan is just another Kassam. All he wanted was the stadium and surrounding land. To which the slightly exasperated Sale responded that Lenegan didn’t own the stadium and the surrounding land. Which makes Lenagan at least one stadium and surrounding land less than Kassam. What he didn’t mention, but could have, is that he’s also largely given up on acquiring it in the short term. If Lenagan’s only interest is the facilities, he’s going a pretty terrible way about it.

Just before Dougie, was an American interloper who has been working in the area and following our fortunes in recent weeks. Despite occasionally sounding like a Floridian life-coach he offered perhaps the most intelligent assessment of us I’ve heard in years. Fans are inconsistent, said The American, fans do the easy bit in celebrating success, but are hysterical when things don’t go our way. It is very difficult to find consistency when one key component is so bloody inconsistent.

Amongst the many things I’ve been thinking about doing with this blog but never get round to is a series on unsung heroes – in which I will make a case for Joe Burnell. It strikes me that we don’t currently have an unsung hero. Inconsistency has blighted us this season on and off the pitch; one of the things unsung heroes offer is a steadying hand. During our last two promotions key to our success has come from an unsung hero. In 2010, Simon Clist regulated the surges of energy that came from Dannie Bulman and Adam Murray and back in 1996 Stuart Massey got the ball down and passed when the temptation was pump the ball up to Paul Moody. There was more thrilling talent elsewhere in the team, but Massey and Clist offered an understated, but essential, contribution to our successes.

On Tuesday, when we flip flopped to defeat against Dagenham a lot of the focus was on our inability to defend corners; and specifically (and probably rightly) the decision to play Raynes over Mullins. But while we dithered, nobody took control and took us back to basics. On Saturday we barely registered a performance in the first half and pounded them in the second. But we needed someone to regulate Peter Leven’s indulgences; which, at the moment, seem to involve waiting for the game to slow down enough for his prodigious talents to flourish.

Similarly, we need someone to regulate Adam Chapman’s complacency. Chapman’s problem is that he doesn’t care. This is a virtue sometimes; during big games he just plays without fear of the consequences, for example; Wembley, Swindon at home and the penalty he scored against Rushden in the Conference when we were going through a particularly scratchy time. Late last season he described his productive relationship with Asa Hall as having a laugh trying stuff out. This is just what we need when the pressure is on. But then, like on Tuesday, sometimes Chapman needs to play percentages to give us some rhythm.

Cox, I think, is supposed to be the one to play this role, but it needs some serious personality to exert influence in the squad that’s needed. He hash’t yet grabbed the midfield as firmly as he needs to.

The obvious candidate for this role is Andy Whing, not exactly unsung, but someone who has improved us, even from his Siberian posting out of the right. If we can get Damian Batt healthy then perhaps Whing can move into the middle to give the creatives something to work off. Of course, continually having to stir the pot is a central theme of our season. In the meantime weeks drift by and we’re still floating around at the foot of the table.

The good news is that every other team seems to be in a similar position regarding inconsistency. Automatic promotion seems beyond us, but it still looks like there’s going to be an almighty shit fight for the play-offs. If we can find our unsung hero, we might just replicate the successes of ’96.