Lockdown wrap: The lunatics running the asylum

There’s a steam engine at the Science Museum where you can see the cogs and pistons working in mesmerising synchronicity. This week we’ve been exposed to the inner machinery of the Football League, it’s like someone has opened up the Flying Scotsman to find it powered by elastic bands, Sellotape and custard.

The centrepiece of the whole affair is, of course, what to do with the rest of the season since its suspension in March, and specifically, what to do with League 1. Agent provocateurs in the saga are Peterborough United who will lose most if the season is brought to a premature end. 

Peterborough are a two headed beast made up of owner Darragh MacAnthony and director of football Barry Fry. Fry, if you need reminding, once brought himself to near bankruptcy buying Peterborough before finding that he hadn’t bought them at all. In 2018 he was fined £35,000 and banned from football for betting irregularities. MacAnthony re-employed Fry, who would surely be unemployable in any other business, when the ban ended. MacAnthony himself was in court in 2012 accused of ‘theft by swindle and misappropriation of funds’ and was once forced by a court to pay an ex-employee nearly £160,000 in unpaid commission. 

The main thrust of Posh’s argument seems to be that because they’re going to win their remaining games, the season should be played out. Fry claims that teams are only ahead of them because of their results, which is obviously unfair. On Oxford specifically he argued that we were only third because ‘If Oxford hadn’t won [at Shrewsbury] they would be eighth and outside the play-offs’. The Peterborough press think this is a credible argument because we ‘only’ won after coming back from two goals down against ten men. Pfft, so not a proper win, then. Fry has more confidence in something that might happen in the future than something that objectively did happen in the past.

MacAnthony announced via Twitter that he was speaking on behalf of a number of teams, including Oxford, in saying they wanted to play. Oxford confirmed that this is their preference though they’ve yet to confirm whether they support some of MacAnthony’s other plans such as forcing teams to forfeit games or suing anyone who doesn’t agree with him. Let’s not forget that Oxford are largely unaffected by almost all scenarios being suggested, so a neutral position is probably more favourable than promoting one so obviously biased.

For example, Southend’s owner Ron Martin has called for the season to be voided for the purposes of ‘sporting integrity’. By extraordinary coincidence, voiding the season would save Southend from relegation. Southend are sixteen points from safety and may even be caught by Bolton who started with no players and minus-12 points. But, Martin argues, by not playing the remaining games we would never know if Southend could suddenly find title winning form, and that wouldn’t be fair, would it? 

OK, so let’s play, you might argue. On no, this isn’t possible either because we should only play ‘when it is safe to do so’, a phrase nobody understands. For Ron, there is no scenario by which we can complete the season safely, therefore VOID, VOID, VOID. 

Some players agree, a number are aghast that people are sick-minded enough to even talk about football when people are dying. This is one of those football humblebrags – acknowledging that people are dying while always using football as a central reference point. People are talking about lots of things happening while people are dying, in fact people die all the time while things are happening. The world is trying to find a way of functioning while minimising the risk. Football, it seems, cannot function without concrete certainty, including getting access to endless testing that’s not routinely available to most regular folks.

If only there were a central governing body in England to sort this mess out on behalf of the Football League, some kind of English Football League. The EFL have chosen to devolve responsibility for resolving their problem to the individual divisions. This is like the government devolving responsibility for managing the infection rate to each individual within the country. Yes, you can go to the beach, but use your common sense. Common sense, if it exists at all, is common to everyone, so if one person uses their common sense to go to the beach safely, so will thousands of others, it’s, well common sense. By devolving responsibility to resolving the issue to the clubs, the clubs are likely to use their common sense and back positions most favourable to them, that means there’ll be winners and losers which creates a schism.

Only in the last few days have the EFL finally provided a framework for resolution. But, if the Oxford Vaccine Group can start developing a vaccine for Disease X – an unknown virus which will cause a pandemic before it happens, you might think that the EFL could have come up with a democratic method for resolving ‘Critical Issue X’ – a massive unknown problem which would affect the entire league. It seems not, there appears no established decision-making protocol for proposing or choosing possible resolutions, it’s taken weeks to come up with one inviting the shysters and vagabonds into the vacuum.

Still, at least League 2 is all resolved and congratulations to Swindon Town for winning the title. Or have they? Court papers this week revealed that Swindon’s owner Steve Power has been less than honest with, well, everyone. Swindon are, in effect, owned by a company called Swinton Reds. Back in 2013 Power entered into an agreement with an anonymous investor to take a 50% stake Swinton Reds (and therefore Swindon Town). Michael Standing, who Oxford fans will remember for his seven-game stint in a yellow shirt including a 1-0 defeat at Histon claims he was the mysterious financial muscleman. Power, however, claims that he sold the interest to Standing’s friend and Premier League diesel Gareth Barry. Weirdly, this all happened in the same meeting and nobody took the time to clarify just who Power was talking to. In fact, seven years later, nobody has taken a moment to check who provided the money.

What’s more, Standing is Barry’s agent, and both are prohibited from having a financial interest in another football club. So, whoever is backing Swindon’s title appears to be doing so illegally. A fitting way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Swindon’s last demotion for financial irregularities, perhaps they’re planning to livestream a recording of the FA disciplinary panel meeting from 1990.

There are many challenges that have come out of this crisis, but also many opportunities. One can only hope that ridding the game of even a small percentage of these chancers would be a decent start.  

Match wrap: Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 3

I’ve had a funny week, before the Southend game I met with The Fence End podcast to talk about the possibility of taking part in an episode. When they tweeted this, the response came as a bit of a surprise. Someone said that they didn’t want this blog to be run by a person, more a mysterious ‘thing’.

I like the anonymity of Oxblogger; it’s partly intentional but mostly just evolved. It’s never really been tested before, it’s not like there’s much of a prize in unveiling me; I’m not the owner of a creepy theme park in Scooby Doo. I’ve never thought about the impact it has, but it turns out that some people quite like it as well.

So the reality that Oxblogger is written by someone real and normal, to the person who is actually writing it, and not a omnipotent super computer is quite a curious thing. I’m not equating myself to a superhero, unless I’m Benign and Mildly Diverting Man, but it made me think that it’s one thing buying himself a Lycra morph suit with a spider’s web on it, quite something else to step out into the street and demand people call you ‘Spiderman’. The difference between giving myself a name and that being a thing is quite big.

In 1998, Tony Adams, then England captain, said that the expectation of achieving a semi-final place in the World Cup was quite different to the reality of achieving it. When you’re a fan, you look at players with ability and think it’s just a simple process of switching it on at the right time. What Adams was pointing out was that the mental, physical, technical and tactical efforts required to achieve your goal are some way beyond simply just going out and expressing yourself.

The win over Shrewsbury, coming back from 2-0 down, and more broadly moving from 11th to 3rd in five games, underlines a similar principle. Some fans had given up on us a few weeks ago, and after 34 minutes many had given up yesterday. But, if we are to be a promotion chasing side, then we’ve actually got to be a promotion chasing side. The physical effort and the psychological application to want to turn the game around and not simply give up, is not to be under-estimated.

Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, talks about how an elite athlete has to strike the balance between the confidence to perform and enough doubt to want to put the effort in to be able to do that. If I’m going to run a marathon, I’ve got to believe I can, but I’ve also got have enough doubt in my fitness to train to do it. Too much doubt or too much confidence will lead to failure. In a football season, that balance has to be struck for ten months.

We seem to have found that sweet spot; the last five games and the comeback against Shrewsbury illustrating that we feel we have a right to be fighting for promotion. I can’t say I shared that view, I thought the play-offs could only be considered an unexpected by-product of an overall improvement at the club, I didn’t really see promotion as a goal in itself.

But now, in the same way I may need to accept that I am ‘Oxblogger’ – whatever that means, we need to accept that we’re a team on a promotion hunt. When Karl Robinson is asked about his future beyond May, he’s right to dismiss it because these opportunities are rare and don’t simply take care of themselves. When Robinson talked about being ‘a big club’ in the transfer market, it transfers to the rest of the show. Playing well, not accepting defeats, but also filling the stands home and away and supporting the team even when they’re 2-0 down after half-an-hour. We need to match the mental fortitude the team have shown.

Which is the final point – when we were in the doldrums in the Conference, Chris Wilder instilled an expectation that we would not only talk like a club too big for that level, but with Mark Creighton, Adam Murray, James Constable and others, we would act like it. When Michael Appleton instilled a dedication to technical professionalism akin to teams in higher divisions it paid dividends. Now Karl Robinson has implemented a mental toughness that deserves success, and given the challenges he faced when arrived and whatever happens now, he deserves to be recognised for that.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Southend United 1

In 1987 Terence Trent D’Arby released his debut album Introducing The Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. It was a tightly produced record borrowing heavily from the funk and soul classics of James Brown and Stevie Wonder. D’Arby himself was a phenomenal presence with a sensational voice; the tight rhythms gave him the platform to perform. It was an instant classic, selling 1 million copies in three days and winning a Grammy and Brit Award.

Two years later, emboldened by his success, D’Arby released his follow-up opus; Neither Fish Nor Flesh. He produced and wrote the record himself, unhindered by his previous production team. It was a sprawling mess of pretentious diarrhoea. To illustrate his indulgence; D’Arby appeared in three different guises – as himself, the Incredible E.G. O’Reilly and Ecneret Tnert Ybra’D, the latter accredited with providing ‘vocals and kazoo’. It bombed, and D’Arby’s career was largely over.

I was reminded of this sobering tale as we laboured to three points against Southend. In the past, having seen us fall apart against poor sides too many times, I would worry about our complacency in this kind of game. Now, I have such confidence in the side, I’m the one who risks being complacent. Such has been our desire to entertain and score goals, I expected us to sweep them aside.

From the get-go, something was up; but it wasn’t just our obvious fatigue or the fact we were playing into a headwind. We were untroubled by the clock with little sense of urgency. This isn’t that unusual, our patience at the start of games must be a deliberate tactic; we’ve come unstuck with it a few times this year when teams have started quickly.

But, then it started to feel like a cup game against a non-league side. Us, not quite able to muster the energy to really take the game to them, them providing a confusing mix of ability and ineptitude. As the game progressed, we got bundled up in their ball of confusion like a pair of trousers becoming entwined with a duvet cover in a tumble drier.

Terence Trent D’Arby openly declared his genius to anyone who’d listen, and many who wouldn’t. He surrounded himself with people who agreed with him, which provided no compulsion to compromise. He claimed (to some degree justifiably) the failure of Neither Fish Nor Flesh to be the result of institutional racism at his record company, when to most of the paying public, it was just a terrible record and he was an arrogant arse.

Did someone say Sol Campbell? Aside from the weather and the tiredness, what was particularly difficult to deal with on Saturday was the apparent lack of any tactical underpinning in the Southend team. They looked physically tiny; when fighting relegation its normal to at least establish a physical presence, but Campbell doesn’t seem concerned with that. Neither were they fast, nor did they press, but at the same time, they weren’t awful.

Where was the song? Amidst a mess of ideas and endeavours, there was no recognisable pattern. There was nothing for us to dance, sing or cry to, we seemed bemused, unable to engage. What resulted was a game of jazz noodling and meandering experimentation. Perhaps there was genius in there somewhere, but the nine minute kazoo solo ensured we couldn’t hear it.

In the end, it took Marcus Browne’s brutish physicality to break through the garbage, like a drummer hammering out a standard four-four beat to bring the other musicians into line. Like D’Arby’s original production team, sometimes you need someone to step in and drag everyone back to what you’re supposed to be achieving.

Browne chased across the field to rectify his own mistake and then swung the ball into the box for Matty Taylor to fire home. While others celebrated, Browne lay on the turf like a dying bumble bee having fulfilled its biological compulsion to protect its fellow bees after a sting. At that moment we needed that discipline and simplicity.

And that was all we needed, to get out of February with three points and a place in the play-offs. Sometimes it’s OK to have a staccato syncopated rhythms inspired North Africa, sometimes you just need a groove and a decent hook.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Accrington Stanley 0

Brinyhoof and I were talking about the Conference Play-Off semi-final against Rushden during our win over Accrington. He couldn’t remember whether he was at the game, what the score was or who scored. I can’t distinguish between George Thorne and Anthony Forde, so I can forgive him his forgetfulness.

My summary of the Rushden game was that it was a big game which went entirely to plan. In a sense, the Accrington game was similar; nobody saw it as a big game in terms of crowd or anticipation, but a comfortable three points was expected. And it delivered; a non-event of the highest quality.

The texture for the evening came from the news the club have turned down an approach from Blackpool for Karl Robinson. It had been mentioned a few days ago, but was given added credibility by Jacqui Oakley who was covering the game for Sky. 

Robinson claimed ignorance and the club were quick to confirm both the rumour and why Robinson seemed so blindsided.

For some, Robinson’s post-Accrington interview was a broadside at the board about what happened in January; a hand crafted threat to back him or he’ll walk. 

But, Robinson is not usually the most considered interviewee and the board are prone to its own missteps. So, the idea that everyone was suddenly hardballing in a game of high stakes nine dimensional chess seems unlikely.

The club’s claim that the offer came in before the Accrington game leaving no time to discuss it with Robinson is entirely logical. It’s certainly more logical than the conspiracy theories being hatched on Twitter.

But, it did raise an important point; Accrington are a team built to survive League 1; big, strong and organised and we showed ourselves to be a class apart from that. I genuinely think we’re capable of making the play-offs and even getting promoted, our weakness being the depth we have in the squad to sustain the form we need over a long period. With things beginning to fall our way at the right time, a play-off spot is not out of the question.

But, this summer our loans will return to their host clubs and we’ll probably lose a couple of players to high spending Championship sides. This will make us weaker than we are currently are, even with promotion. Pep Clotet faced similar blight losing John Lundstram and Marvin Johnson, along with Chris Maguire and Conor McAnely in 2017. The small but solid squad he inherited suddenly had gaping holes in it. 

This summer, the club will have to work hard to maintain its current position, harder still to move on from it. If we are in the Championship, we’d have to bridge, or at least narrow the financial gap between League 1 (with teams turning over around £6m a year) and the division above (around £25m).

For Karl Robinson there’s a decision take as to whether he feels able to recover from any losses he might sustain in the squad over the summer, and whether there’s any prospect of moving beyond the status quo to the fabled ‘next level’. If there are other clubs out there more readily able to meet those needs, we’re naturally vulnerable. Whether Blackpool offers that specifically, I don’t know, but someone out there will. 

For the board, it’s a question of whether they are willing or able to step beyond our current comfort zone. That’s no demand that they should, the club’s future is more important, but pragmatically, the club will eventually have to keep pace with the growing ambition of those who are making it the success it currently is.

As we get to the end of February, things are falling into place for a genuine charge towards the play-offs and beyond. It’s time to enjoy the ride and see where it takes us, but that shouldn’t prevent us, and Robinson from thinking… and then what?

Match wrap: Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 1

To paraphrase Half Man Half Biscuit, I was a pre-teen armchair Ipswich fan. When I was three, my dad let me choose my first football kit, and given the choice between old gold and black – his preferred Wolves option – and a blue and white ‘other’ – I picked the blue. When I asked who played in blue, dad said Ipswich Town and that was that.

It coincided with their glory years and fuelled many little obsessions I have about football. The FA Cup, flags, shirt number fonts, sponsors, penalty saves – Paul Cooper was the king – and a whole range of kit related things from away shirts to alternative coloured shorts.

I cried when Ipswich lost the 1981 FA Cup semi-final to Manchester City. Then they threw away the league title when they should have won it. They did win the UEFA Cup, but it was the beginning of the end of everything for me and them. In 1982, Oxford, who I’d been watching in real life, appointed Jim Smith. A few months later Ipswich manager Bobby Robson left for the England job sending them into a steep decline they’ve never really recovered from.

My transformation from Ipswich fan with an Oxford flirtation, to Oxford fan with an Ipswich past was all but complete. We soared as they struggled; in 1986, fresh from our Milk Cup win, we beat Arsenal to stay up sending Ipswich down in the process. It was kind of fitting.

Still, Ipswich Town v Oxford United holds a certain resonance for me. I can’t name any of their players, but I look at them as if staring through an opaque window at my lost childhood and the innocent wonder I used to find in football, most of which is lost never to be recovered.

With their brief period of glory bonded to my DNA somewhere deep down, I wasn’t expecting us to win on Saturday. A team like us, don’t simply go to Portman Road and beat a team like them. Ipswich were pre-season favourites for the title and still feel like an unobtainable benchmark we’d struggle to better. But, like a lot of teams that drop from the Championship, they’re clearly more damaged than they superficially appear. Even then, the club, it’s history and the ground still promotes something, for me, that is beyond us.

But, the win was a timely reminder of who we are and what Karl Robinson and the board have built. It has opened things back up for us as they go into free fall. It reminded me of our 1-0 win at Portsmouth in 2016 on the way to promotion. It wasn’t just the three points, it was the quality of the goal and management of the game in that setting that shows the maturity and potential we have.

It’s no coincidence that the core of Eastwood, Dickie, Brannagan, Gorrin, Henry and Taylor is back together, fit and healthy. That’s the unit that brought success earlier in the season. Keeping them all on the pitch at the same time has been the challenge. It’s a rare combination that we’ll struggle to maintain over the summer, so prepare yourself for more wailing about a lack of ambition, but for now, they have to be amongst the best in the division and we should just enjoy that.

The win turns what had been a daunting month into one of some promise. The remaining two games of February are both at home to lower placed teams and you get a sense there’ll be no complacency. We don’t feel like a team that does complacency. We’re the robust unit that lots of other clubs in this division aren’t, they trade off their great names and great histories, but they have a troubled soul. We probably shouldn’t forget that.

The season’s end is coming into view and it feels like after a brief wobble, we’re steadying the ship ready for the final charge. With fixtures starting to fall our way, we could build a head of steam that will take us into the play-off places leaving behind the more illustrious names the division has to offer. That is a memory that’ll be worth keeping.

Match wrap: Oxford United 5 AFC Wimbledon 0

There’s a romanticism about playing under the lights at Oxford which is a bit of a myth. It’s a treat to go out when most others are dutifully staying in, but a midweek game is typically cold and often wet, it’s watched through the slight foggy tiredness of a day’s work, the crowd is usually down on a normal Saturday leaving the atmosphere a bit empty and flat.

It wasn’t always like that, there was something slightly magical about the way The Manor, largely hidden from view during the day, set back from the London Road, lit up the night’s sky on a Tuesday or Wednesday night as everything else darkened. It was a beacon that enticed you into something joyful. Or maybe that’s just whimsy too.

On Tuesday, I left the house at my normal time and parked in my normal spot. I say ‘normal’, I haven’t been able to park there for weeks due to the crowds we’ve been attracting. The weather and opponents, as well as the inconvenience of a Tuesday night meant the place was quiet. It was both unusual and, at the same time, familiar.

Tiger’s programme notes were terse, addressing the brooding criticism of the club since January. There was a sense that all the goodwill built up over a surge up the table and two good cup runs was crumbling in the wake of two lads leaving for Brentford.

But, from the opening moments it was clear that we were so much better than Wimbledon. A class above. For all the talk about tiredness, injuries and a lack of transfer activity, we outplayed and outfought them. There was no harrying the full-backs from the opening seconds, no break-neck counter attacks to fend off, things which seemed to come so easily to our more recent opponents were completely absent. Against others, it’s felt like we’d been found out, whereas, in fact, maybe we’ve just been playing a lot of very good teams.

As the goals started to flow, for the first time in a couple of months, I felt we could breathe. In that workaday atmosphere, we could just be who we are. It felt as normal as games against Newcastle and Manchester City feel abnormal. For weeks nearly all our games have felt like a teeth-grinding hold-your-breath rocket ride, this just felt like a game of football in the mould of which we’re more familiar.

It reinforced to me that this is League 1 with its two divisions – the Championship, even Premier League, aspirants, and the League 2 over-performers. When you’re only playing the teams at the top, it feels like you’re failing, but then you start facing the teams at the bottom it shows that it’s not all doom and gloom. Overall, it provides a much better perspective as to where we’re at this season.

Of course there’s more we could do; we could take more financial risks to bring in players or resist bids from others. That’s a choice, mostly for those whose money is at stake. Demanding that we take those risks implies we’re failing and that any degree of prudence is ignoring that particular reality. We’re not failing, we’re a good side who are still in with a chance of the play-offs, which may even bring about promotion. But those things aren’t an ambition in itself, it’s the by-product of progress and, if you look at the season as a whole rather than small segments of it, it’s hard to argue that we aren’t progressing.