The blame game

On the pitch, off the pitch, in the stand or in the board room; apportioning blame when things go wrong seems to be a natural instinct. Just how much further forward does that ever get us?

Recently, Matt Murphy came to the Kassam as a returning legend. I can’t have been the only long-standing fan to suffer some cognisant dissonance resulting from the idea of Murphy being a labelled a legend, a confusion which was compounded by his interview on Yellow Player; where he came across as a genuinely lovely bloke.

The thing is, during the mid-90s Matt Murphy was the London Road’s boo-boy. Every team needs one, they’re a counter balance to the ‘star player’, serving an equal and opposite purpose. With the inevitable fluctuations in team performances, you need someone to constantly love – a star player. This justifies your otherwise illogical devotion to something which is more likely to fail than succeed. Similarly, you need someone to constantly dislike to give you someone to vent your frustrations at. You need his constant because most players are good sometimes and awful at others; you don’t want to appear like a reactionary nut job or undermine any previous absolute statements you’ve previously made about players.

The boo-boy is a constant, a punchbag. It acts like a pressure valve. In the immediate aftermath of our promotion from the Conference, and we were hidebound by that success. A moderate start to life back in the Football League left us in a position of seeking the root of our problem without being afforded the luxury of being able to criticise any of the players who had only a few weeks earlier performed heroically in our name.

It happens at every team; even at Manchester United during periods where silverware was almost guaranteed every year (I’m not kidding, ask your parents, kids). Ryan Giggs became a focus for criticism for those at Old Trafford. To everyone else the greatest player of his generation and one of the all-time greatest British players was a United boo boy because he didn’t tackle like Keane, pass like Scholes, cross like Beckham or score goals like Gary Neville. It wasn’t Giggs they were criticising, it was the collective need to have someone to beat up when things didn’t go well.

Most people will agree the Murphy was very much like Giggs in so many ways. He is the club’s 5th top scorer and played during a period of comparative success. But at the time he was the focus of almost constant criticism.

Deane Smalley is the Matt Murphy for the current age; it seems we have risen as one and decreed him to be useless. Rather like Murphy, the facts tend not to back up the perception. It ignores that Smalley is our most prolific goalscorer this season. It ignores that this is precisely what Smalley is; a goalscorer. It ignores that Smalley, the most prolific goalscorer in the team is being played woefully out of position or at least being slotted in wherever there happens to be a gap.

It beggars belief that Lewis and Melville worked alongside Chris Wilder for over five years and yet seemed to have learnt precisely nothing of their squad or how best to deploy them. Instead, we’ve been treated to Smalley and James Constable playing on the wing with no apparent game plan as to how their particular strengths might be used from that position. Constable, of course, enjoys the immunity that Smalley doesn’t.

Standing amongst the bodies in the immediate aftermath of the 0-3 defeat to Chesterfield, Nick Harris joined the chorus of those claiming that it was no longer acceptable to wait to get the right man in, now was time to get anyone in. Even Jerome Sale, who is usually a rare voice of reason tabled the idea that the only solution now was to get someone like Martin Allen. Now amidst the shock and desolation of a three goal defeat with two men sent off and your best player stretchered off, perhaps rationality was in short supply, but this is the equivalent of deploying ground to air missiles to frighten off the cat that’s been crapping on your flowerbeds.

Yes, there is no doubt that the appointment of the new manager has taken too long. However, panic is not the option right now. It is easy to blame Ian Lenagan, and without doubt the longer it goes on the greater the pressure to make the right decision. But blame is such a destructive quality; blame is something you assign to something or someone at the end of something. But like many things – particularly running football clubs – nothing has come to an end; so if you blame Ian Lenagan, how much further forward has that taken you? Has it put an effective manager in place? No.

The reality is that Lenagan was left in a bind; the mood of the fans was against Chris Wilder and our post-Christmas form was patchy, had he offered him a contract extension then there would hardly have been universal approval. However, sacking him didn’t make sense given that we were in the automatic promotion places. Perhaps he shouldn’t have given him the extension at the beginning of the season; but then what would this season have looked like?

So in a sense Lenagan was in no-mans land and when Wilder eventually found the exit door. It might have been reasonable to assume that Lewis and Melville along with a squad of experienced players might have kept themselves going for a bit. But, instead they have failed Lenagan miserably by simply falling apart. But even with that established, what is the point of laying blame and panicking? The problem, after Chesterfield is the same problem as before it.

History, they say, is a constant process of people clearing up their mistakes. So, wherever the club has got to, there’s no point in kicking through the ashes of recent weeks in order to find out where it all went wrong. Whatever state we find ourselves in, we’ve still got the same players we had before this mess occurred. We don’t need wholsale change or destructive revolution, but we do need a manager. Someone able to provide some structure and discipline to the squad; once that’s been established, then the players should still be able to see us through to the play-offs.

A small glimpse of Smalley?

The Internet doesn’t record the details, it doesn’t do that kind of thing. As a result, history has all but forgotten the game when Matt Murphy became a genius.

Murphy was the high priest of frustration. Playing in a half decent team he was the utility man, the spare part, the player who was good, but not quite good enough. He didn’t score goals like Paul Moody, he didn’t lock up the midfield like Dave Smith or Martin Gray and he didn’t create like Joey Beauchamp. He did all of those things, just not very well. To be fair we would probably kill for a player of his quality nowadays but at the time he was the most frustrating player in the squad.

The records tell us he’s our 10th highest ever goalscorer. That was because he had the canny lack of hitting a degree of moderate form at the end of every season; this alone seems to be the deciding factor in the renewal of his contract time and again.

As for his moment of genius, the sharpness of the image has faded over the years, I can’t remember the opponents or the year, but the smell, feelings, spirit, aura of the occasion remain with me. there were passes around the corner, probing runs and at least one heavy legged back heel.

As much as a former bank clerk from Corby can be, he was unplayable. the fact that performance remains etched in my memory has to put it up there amongst the greatest I have seen.

Except, after 20 minutes he pulled up with a hamstring strain and had to be substituted.

Was Dean Smalley’s performance during the 2-1 win over Plymouth the repeating of history? Did we see one of the great first half performances from a player whose Oxford career has frustrated all, including himself? A glimpse into nirvana, for a moment it seemed like Smalley was the answer to the Constable dilemma – a genuine alternative up front – but with his injury and half time substitution will he ever get to recreate it, let alone sustain, it?

In the first half we looked the efficient unit that has been a characteristic of our early season form. But, the second half, having lost Smalley and Forster-Caskey last seasons frailties emerged. Constable did OK, albeit as a target rather than a goal threat. However, Heslop and Pittman are not as neat and tidy as those they replaced. As a result we lapsed into a degree of complacency and over-rewarded Plymouth for their persistence with a goal (it was a decent strike, but we’d unnecessarily given them the territory they needed to set it up). Then the panic set in it, an uncomfortable meeting of past and present, like Marty McFly being fondled by his mum in Back to the Future.

Like Murphy’s 20 minutes of genius, or Smalley’s near perfect first half; the moments of brilliance can be fleeting. 3 games, 3 wins, now is not the time to be complaining.

2012 squad review – midfield and attack

On stable defensive foundations can a successful squad be built. In midfield and up front, however, despite having a decent pool for fish from, Chris Wilder struggled to find the right formula, at least not one that he could keep on the field for any length of time. The crucible of the argument about Wilder’s worth centres on whether the seasons failings were one of incompetence or bad luck.

Peter Leven showed moments of genius; not least his 40 yarder against Port Vale and the flick to play in Liam Davis at Barnet. Injury didn’t help him, but he lacked the consistency you get from the more industrious types like, say, Dannie Bulman.

Or Andy Whing; Whing’s Supporters’ Player of the Season award is wholly understandable. There are stories of people with anaemia who chew on metal in a vain attempt to get iron into their system. The Whing vote reflected a call for dogged consistency. He let nobody down and you suspect he never will.

While Leven, when fit, and Whing, when not deputising in the back four, probably makes up two of our first choice midfield three, the final member of the team is somewhat less clear. Paul McLaren, who was the steadying hand during 2010/11 faded from view. Not unexpectedly, his age suggested that he was only ever a stop gap while the club found itself a firmer footing in the league. Perhaps that was the role expected of Mark Wilson when he arrived, though he failed to make any impact.

Simon Heslop started in fine form, but was one of the early victims of this year’s curse of the folk hero – Leven ‘doing what he wants’, Ryan Clarke’s penalty saves, Asa Hall’s goals – as soon as their feats were verbalised, they stopped doing them. Heslop was struck by only moderate form and then injury; the two of which may have been related.

Perhaps the most interesting combination was that of Chapman and Hall. They were, in many senses, less explosive, but more consistent. Chapman’s return was remarkable he had a composure and awareness that others just don’t seem to have. His only problem is whether he can hold it together mentally; which is often the difference between good and great players. Hall had less crafted, but benefited hugely from the base that Chapman offered. Hall’s form also benefitted from having a bit lump, like Scott Rendell up front to follow up on knock-downs.The fact Hall has decided not to sign is disapointing; he and Chapman seemed to have a partnership that could be built on.

James Constable needs a break; not in terms of a goal off his backside, but a break from being James Constable; Oxford Icon. Last season he was the focal point of most of the drama involving Swindon; three transfer bids, two goals, one sending off. He seems mentally fatigued by it all, the sparky aggression that gained him so many bookings, but also so many goals in the Conference has been replaced by a subdued and isolated figure. There’s a point in every player’s career when they need re-engineer their game. Constable needs to be less of a focal point. A glimpse of what might be was seen on the arrival of Scott Rendell. Momentarily, Constable was freed from all his responsibilities, he was able to feed off the balls from the ever willing Rendell. That was blown apart with Constable’s sending off against Swindon. It may give us some clues as to how to play next season.

Controversially, amongst fans at least, Chris Wilder’s preference is to play 4-3-3. Which either means you end up with a proven goalscorer playing out of position (Midson during the Conference years) or you have players that frustrate and delight with equal measure. John-Paul Pittman had a curious season with his loan to Crawley, momentary spike of form, then – again due to injury – anonymity. Although I have a huge amount of affection for Alfie Potter as a member of the promotion squad, he seems to be rated more highly by others than me. He has his moments, but he puts lots of pressure on the likes of Constable. When Potter was injured, and Craddock struggle to return, Wilder turned to Dean Morgan – who wasn’t as bad as people say, but is clearly a bit of an oddball and Christian Montano – who was raw and inconsistent. Oli Johnson, however, was the most surprising omission from Wilder’s retained list. He of all the flanking strikers combined a decent supply of creativity with a reasonable number of goals.

For different reasons, we missed Tom Craddock and Dean Smalley. Craddock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I saw him as being an essential component to the season’s success. His sustained absence could easily have cost us 10-15 goals, which would have made all the difference. Similarly, Smalley should have contributed double digits in terms of goals. He didn’t seem to do much wrong, but similarly he didn’t do much right. If he lasts the summer, let’s hope we’ll seem him rejuvenated come August.