Weekly wrap – AFC Wimbledon 2 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 4 Rochdale 0

January was always looking to be a tricky month. It’s always a bit of a challenge juggling the transfer window and a schedule disrupted by cup games. Last year, the stakes were higher with promotion on the cards, this year we were on the road for almost the whole month, apart from THAT game in THAT trophy and THAT doesn’t really count at all (or does it?).

We also went into the New Year on the back of a goal drought and apparently poor form, although this was a little overstated. If January’s road trip HAD gone wrong, then things could have looked rather bleak. Instead, we’ve seen three wins in four, four in five if you count THAT game, and we’ve scored 13 goals.

The blip was against Wimbledon which proved, if this needed proving, that we are not particularly good against more direct, robust teams. But otherwise, where has it all going right?

I’ve consumed most of the games via brief YouTube clips; each one seems to start with Marvin Johnson collecting the ball and running at the opposition’s defence. Johnson’s ever ascending stock has been key to the upturn in form. He’s like a high performance sports car, he’s so effortlessly powerful, he doesn’t look like he’s going quickly, but everything around him goes backwards.

Ryan Taylor is on his best run in the team, featuring in the last 14 games. This will have helped him settle into the system as well as build his fitness. As well as three goals himself, he’s helped 10 different players score in those 14 games, showing, I think, the value of a centre forward who can hold the ball, occupy defenders and bring others into the game.

Last year, January was like a big night out; epic fun with a crucifying hangover. Last year we won four of the first five games of the year, but only won one of the next six. It’s something we have to guard against.

The Newcastle FA Cup game is a free-hit; a bit like Swansea last year, they’ll play a second string and we’ll be up for it. If we don’t win, nobody will blink, if we do, then we’re getting to the interesting end of the competition.

Talking of interesting ends of competitions; the other curiosity is the EFL Trophy. With the Under-23 makeweights all gone the competition is gaining a different complexion. Yes, I understand the principles of the protests and the point has been well made. But ultimately, I’ve seen Oxford play at Wembley three times in 40 years. That’s a lot of time not seeing us play at Wembley. And life is very short. There is also the added incentive of finals against Luton, Wycombe or Coventry which would all make another grand day out. When does sticking to your principles just simply become pigheadedness?

Gillingham wrap – Gillingham 0 Oxford United 1

I might sound like a wizened old farmer, but if you weren’t around during the great goal-drought of 1996 then you don’t know what a goal-drought is. This was when we managed to go through six whole games without scoring.

We weren’t short of creativity or firepower, we just couldn’t score; Paul Moody was going through one of his lumbering oaf phases, Nigel Jemson was skulking around like a teenager who’d had his Commodore 64 confiscated. By the time we got to the seventh game, against Stoke City, people were genuinely asking what would happen if we never scored again. Like, EVER?

The deadlock was broken by human crab and sideways pass specialist Martin Gray, the first of just four goals he scored in 128 appearances for the club. It’s fair to say that nobody was looking to Gray to break the deadlock.

It didn’t stop there, we actually went on to win 4-1 and having gone 6 games without a goal, the next 6 produced spunked 13.

It was almost as if the only thing that would knock us out of the deep rut we were in was something unexpected. Chey Dunkley’s goal against Gillingham, not his first, but his first with his feet, may just help kick us out of the mini-rut we were threatening to fall into.

It’s been easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we can’t score after we drew blanks against Walsall and Northampton, but it’s easy to forget that we’d scored six in the two games before that.

It’s easy to forget that we don’t have Wes Thomas or that Joe Skarz is only just coming back from injury meaning Marvin Johnson can’t move further up the field. Or that Liam Sercombe, often a source of attacking drive, isn’t available. Or that, in terms of goals scored last season, we lost no less than 67% of our fire power over the summer, 84% if you include Sercombe. Or that the transfer rules have changed making signing new players outside the transfer window nearly impossible.

With Sercombe and Skarz coming back, offering more firepower from midfield and freeing up Marvin Johnson then we should become much more threatening going forward. This might even give more supply to Kane Hemmings, but if we can add a striker, then we’re going to be just fine.

Walsall wrap – Oxford United 0 Walsall 0

Years ago having a minute’s silence at football was the reserve of rare and profound events; even Remembrance Day wasn’t routinely recognised like it is today. Gradually the number increased; not because of a significant increase in deaths but more that the overall attitude towards these things changed. Suddenly everything was worthy of a tribute from the death of life long fans to the recognition of unrelated world events.

I don’t know what other clubs do, but we seem to have taken the idea of a minute’s silence to new, mawkish levels. Before the Walsall game the club organised a minute’s silence to remember everyone associated with the club who had died in 2016. I think I’ve read that there will be another one at the start of the season to mop up everyone who had died over the summer.

Lots of people die, it happens all the time. It has a profound impact on those close to that person, but in the main, for most of us, life continues regardless. Death is part of everyday life. It’s like we’re being forced to feel something that we almost have no right to feel – the deep sense of loss of a turnstile operator or season ticket holder from Wantage who followed us home and away for 30 years.

Of course, it’s not asking a lot to stand in silence for a minute, but that’s the whole problem; to do it as a job-lot is generic and impersonal. To do it at every possible event renders it completely pointless, belittles the moments of genuine grief that sometimes engulf clubs whether it’s the death of Martin Aldridge or the Bradford fire.

The death of Lewis Mangan aside, who was just 20 when he was killed in a car crash in September, it’s not like the club have had a particularly tragic year. That’s not to belittle the passing of anyone else related to the club over the last year. The club rightly organised a tribute to Mangan and there’s a permanent tribute to him on the halfway line in front of the North Stand. Beyond this, as uncomfortable as this might sound, it’s been a fairly routine year.

I don’t think I’m in the majority when I say that the approach is peculiar but we have developed a sense of groupthink about such things. When the actions become subconscious and routine, they also become thoughtless and meaningless, which is a shame because when there is meaning behind the act the effect is truly moving.
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Weekly wrap – Oxford United 1 Oldham Athletic 1, Oxford United 3 Macclesfield Town 0, Bury 2 Oxford United 3

It’s been a good week on the whole; two wins and a draw soured, to some degree, by flag-related acrimony off the pitch.

I’ve always felt that it would be difficult to truly judge the team this season until Christmas; so the Bury win gives us the opportunity to take stock of where we’re at and where we’re heading.

This week’s events did seem to confirm what emerged over the last few weeks – this is a year of transition but we’ll be OK. We’re only 5 points from the play-offs, but our goal difference is probably more telling; for most of the season its sat at zero with the odd variant either way. That says we’re competitive without being truly outstanding.

It’s not that much of a surprise; it’s wrong to say that last year was fortunate, but it was unusual to have the amount of talent we had playing in a League 2 side. Roofe and O’Dowda alone were worth £4.5 million. In addition, there was the curious case of Danny Hylton, signed by Gary Waddock, Jake Wright; a stalwart of the Chris Wilder years and the likes of George Baldock, who played in the Championship, and John-Joe Kenny who was on the bench in the Merseyside Derby on Monday.

It was almost a perfect combination, it still needed focussing and organising, but we had the assets to exceed our objectives. We went into this season playing in a higher division with most of that golden squad gone. The key question was; could the club’s core infrastructure re-build and sustain the level of success?

Thankfully, the answer appears to be yes. We’re not as breathtaking as we were last year, but the opposition is generally better and people are quick to forget that players like Jon Lundstram, Joe Skarz, Alex MacDonald and Liam Sercombe have all played a huge number of games in the last 12-18 months. We tend to think players are completely re-set at the beginning of each season but it’s the same (slightly rested) bodies and minds that finished last season. Maintaining the physical and mental intensity is always difficult so it’s probably not a surprise that their form has dipped slightly at times and they’ve been more prone to injuries.

As I say, last season’s squad was worth at least £4.5 million from Roofe and O’Dowda alone. Look at the whole squad and that figure could have been pushed certainly over £5 million, perhaps six. It’s been years since the club had playing assets of that nature in the squad. In essence we had a £6 million-plus squad assembled for virtually nothing.

While there was clearly investment in the squad, it’s not like we needed to buy big last season so the club could focus on building value elsewhere. Essentially this meant building relations with the fans – organising club holidays, embracing the enthusiasm of the Oxford Ultras, improving merchandise, strengthening branding, actively working on social media, improving the match day experience and innovating with tactical marketing campaigns to get more people through the gates.

Most, if not all of it worked; crowds grew and I suspect merchandise sales did too. But it all comes at a financial cost there needs to be an increase in revenue to match it. The Roofe and O’Dowda money should still be there to some extent, some has been invested in the squad, more will be servicing debt, so it’s not infinite. Assuming that Darryl Eales doesn’t have barrow loads of cash, if the club is to progress onto the Championship – the level at which it is most likely to have sustainable future – it needs to find new ways of making or saving money.

This is the constant balancing act for all football clubs, a few weeks ago I was at the Etihad, they have banners which say ‘The only club in Manchester’ – implying their parochial roots of being the club of the people of the city. On the other side is a banner which say ‘Thank you Sheik Mansour’ acknowledging that it is not the people, but oil from the Arabian peninsula which has paid for their success.

All clubs have the same problem – they need to retain their core values because that’s what fans buy into, but they also need to find new ways of funding success.

The podcast The Fence End Pod recently tweeted some Pathe News footage of our 1964 FA Cup tie against Blackburn as part of a Christmas advent thing. Footage showed no advertising boards around the Manor, no sponsors on the shirt, not even a kit manufacturer’s logo. This is football at its very purest, played, run and funded by The People with no part compromised in the name of money. Most fans would hanker for such a thing now.

But it won’t work now; attitudes have changed and the stakes are higher and more expensive. Clubs have to sell off bits of the equity they have in order to fund themselves, in more emotive footballing terms, they need to sell bits of their soul.

We generally accept that a bit of the sacred club shirt can be sold to a sponsor or manufacturer, or that your home ground can be festooned with adverts of companies trying to make money from your success. But it is a challenge to know when you’ve crossed the line.

Take, for example, the flag issue. Flags and displays have become a key part of Oxford United fan culture over the last few years. It has filled a void resulting from the move to the more sterile Kassam where people have to sit more passively in rows to watch a game.

But flags get in peoples’ way, they obscure the view; it’s why the club have agreed certain rules about when the larger ones can and can’t be waved. In essence, you apply those rules in order to try and give more people a comfortable and consistent viewing experience in the hope that they will keep spending money to keep coming to games. So, we compromise some of the fan culture of the club – sell it off – for extra ticket sales.

There is nothing wrong with this in essence; it’s generally accepted that if you go to the cinema or theatre you will be expected to behave in a certain way so that everyone enjoys the same experience. But in football, when does a comfortable fan experience turn into one which is sterile and meaningless?

It’s a judgement call, but I think the club have got this one wrong in trying to apply restrictions to the use of flags during games. Each area of a football stadium needs to develop its own culture. When I started going, I would go onto the safe, and not too expensive, Osler Road with my dad. As I got older, I wanted to be in the more fevered atmosphere of the London Road – that was where all the noise and action came from. When we moved to the Kassam, I went into the Oxford Mail Stand but started to realise that those around me were getting younger as I got older. I became distracted by horny teenagers trying to impress girls, or the games of giving each other wet willies or simply the banal abuse of players and games. I found that I wasn’t really enjoying being part of that experience so about 7 years ago I moved to the South Stand Upper because the overall experience suited what I wanted from a game.

The East Stand needs to be as fevered as it’s possible to get; flags and singing are part of that, they are the engine room of the atmosphere. So long as people aren’t getting hurt (and they’re not, despite what Health and Safety zealots tell you), the more fevered it gets the better. If you don’t like what comes with that – flags getting in the way or people falling over the top of you after a goal celebration, then there’s the North Stand. If you get to an age where even that’s too much, then the South Stand is a much calmer experience.

While the response from the Ultras seemed a bit over the top, it revealed a level of hurt that people haven’t really talked about. The argument is not about whether a flag should be waved, it’s whether the effort those fans put into the club is valued more or less than the commercial aspects of providing a consistent fan experience. If you think that there seems to be a core of 4,000 supporters who will follow the club whatever state it’s in, there are currently another 4,000 per game on average who are more casual. The atmosphere in the ground and performance on the pitch are the two key influencing factors as to whether those 4,000 attend or not. That’s £80,000 per game minimum, or £1.8m a year. I would rather we protected that than the odd fan who finds themselves in the wrong area of the ground and is distracted by a flag in their face. I say; let the flags fly.

Shrewsbury wrap – Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 0

Immediately before we beat Swansea last year in the Cup, we were swimming in media coverage. It provided an opportunity to gain an insight into Michael Appleton’s revolution at the club. One thing that stuck out was that he said he had a small group of players who took responsibility for getting the players organised and solving the team’s problems. Appleton didn’t tell the players what to do, he provided a framework for them to figure it out for themselves.

Who were those players? Jake Wright seems an obvious choice, Johnny Mullins? George Baldock? For me those three strike me as leaders in that squad. Where are they now? Sheffield United, Luton Town and MK Dons.

The Guardian had an interview with Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp about their revitalisation under Chris Wilder. Sharp cited Wright as a key influence in The Blades change of attitude; one that was described as ‘old school’ and ‘back to basics’.

Chris Wilder’s football may have lacked sophistication, but he could pick a leader. One of my abiding memories of our 2010 promotion from the Conference was of the dual dome heads of James Constable and Adam Murray haranguing a referee over something very minor. Key to Wilder’s success that year was his ability to turn our relative size into a virtue; with Mark Creighton, Wright, Constable, Murray and Dannie Bulman we became an almost unstoppable force.

Fast forward to 2016 and we sit a point above the relegation zone. No need to panic just yet, I don’t think anyone is expecting us to get promoted this season, a good solid mid-table finish will do if it provides a platform to work from next season. But, it’s not really a secret that we struggle against team who are more direct and physical.

In short, we’re being bullied out of points, another three on Saturday against Shrewsbury. If we get to play football, we’re fine, but a bit of muscle and we’re floundering. What is lacking is a hard centre and Michael Appleton’s got to find ours pretty quickly.

All is not lost; Chey Dunkley has it, Curtis Nelson has it, even Chris Maguire has it. But do they know they have it and are they ready to fill the gap left by Jake Wright et al. In that interview with Appleton last year he said how long it took to encourage players to take ownership of their affairs. I don’t think we’re there yet, we still need a one or two more with ‘it’ to shore things up.

Millwall wrap – Oxford United 1 Millwall 2

On Saturday night while with friends, the Sam Feldt version of Show Me Love came on the stereo. If you’re not familiar with the name, you’ll know the tune. It’s the one that was played last season during the players’ presentation. It stirs the emotions; a reminder of a magical time, the best season we’ve had in my lifetime.

I miss last season, although that’s partly because I know how it turned out. What makes it even more remarkable is that the season before that was so dismal. As bad as any in my lifetime. Most managers wouldn’t have survived such awfulness, in fact, I’m pretty sure we were the lowest placed team in the division not to sack our manager that year.

It took a brave decision to stick with Michael Appleton, but it worked spectacularly; a two-year plan that came good.

This season has been fitful, nowhere near as bad as Appleton’s first year, nowhere near as good as his second. But are we just at the start of another two-year cycle?

I’ve always thought that Appleton’s preferred system is a team that moves the ball around quickly creating chances for a big unit up front. The principle is that if that unit doesn’t score, he creates enough mayhem to allow the midfield playing around him to pick up the pieces.

Going right back to the loan signings of Carlton Morris and Tyrone Barnett, Michael Appleton has constantly been in the market for a goalscoring lump. Ryan Taylor and Danny Hylton did it to some degree last season, but we’ve yet to find a sustainable solution. He’d have loved Paul Moody.

The performance against Millwall was, generally, pretty good; 64% of the possession, 12 chances to their 7, 9 corners to their 2. But they were more direct and more efficient in front of goal. As a rule, we do everything right, but we’re just not quite up to it physically – more muscle upfront and we’d be there, I think.

Whether we’ll sort the striking issue out before the season peters out is another question. We’re about to enter a particularly fractured phase in the season; last year between the 1st Round of the Cup and our semi-final second leg against Millwall in February we played nearly as many cup games as we did league games. Will we be able to get a settled team with so much disruption in the schedule?

While we’ve spluttered a bit so far I suspect, like Appleton’s first year, we’ll start to see the shoots of what he’s hoping to achieve from February onwards. If, as he suggests, there are 14 teams looking to put a run together for the play-offs, then we might still have a late surge. More likely, this season is simply going to become a foundation for next.