George Lawrence’s Shorts: Hey Yaw!

Sunday 16 August 2020

The 92 Club is where overweight middle-aged men with Status Quo patches on their denim jackets try to visit every ground in the country. The 92 refers to the number of social media interactions they have every day with young girls in short skirts that claim to be both real and Ipswich Town fans. Sulky sixth-former Rob Dickie is closing in on his own 92 club landmark as Newcastle became the 88th club this summer interested in signing him.

Monday 17 August 2020

The draw for the world’s oldest socially distanced football tournament – the EFL Trophy – was made on Monday, or at least part of it. The draw was held in the middle of a desolate forest in the dead of the night by two druids and a mountain goat. Probably, but frankly who cares? In it, we drew Walsall and Bristol Rovers. Early games are likely to be played without fans, so no change there then. 

Tuesday 18 August 2020

Oxford announced that its new sponsor was the Thai tourist authority Amazing Thailand. Tourism sponsors are very much on trend in League 1 – as well as the sun drenched paradise of Thailand, Blackpool will be promoting their own town as the country’s chlamydia capital while Swindon are sponsored ‘Imagine Cruising’ or as they’re properly known ‘Imagine cruising on a coronavirus incubator’.

In the Type 2 Diabetes Cup, Oxford have been drawn against Fash The Bash and co – Wimbledon – while the Chelsea Muppet Babies have been added to our EFL Trophy group.   

Wednesday 19 August 2020

The club caused mega-ROFLs by ostentaciously announcing the new club socks before revealing their new yellow t-shirt for the season. The story of absolute bantz caused total scenes and was picked up by the Daily Mail whose reader Dandada14 lambasted the story for its poor journalism. Blimey, wait until he hears about the Brexit lies and racebating of Meghan Markle. 

Squad numbers were announced on Wednesday causing amateur numerologists everywhere to pour over the mystical meaning of each proclamation. Jedward orphan Mark Sykes has been elevated to the number 10 shirt, where he hopes to follow in the footsteps of previous Oxford number 10s Craig Farrel, Andy Thomson and Courtney Pitt by becoming a regular punchline to a weakly structured GLS gag.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Jack Midson, who increasingly looks like the local fitness instructor working his way around all the Year 2 mums at the local primary school, has signed for Sheppey United. Meanwhile in Preston, Ryan Ledson has put pen to paper and a late two footed knee-high lunge on a new contract extension

Friday 21 August 2020

Fixture release day is the day that football fans up and down the country excitedly plan the games they’re going to miss due to a catastrophic coronavirus second wave. Oxford’s season opens against one of the big guns; MApp’s Lincoln. The home derby against Swindon is scheduled for October 24th. For once Oxford United fans and Boris Johnson speak with one voice when they say they’d rather their gran died a slow painful death on her own of a respiratory illness than see that one played behind closed doors.

Elsewhere, Liam Kelly, who looks like the kid whose dad paid a substantial donation to the PTA so he could play the lead in the end of year rendition of Bugsy Malone, is back for a season’s loan. In a surprise move, Oxford also signed Frenchman Derick Osei Yaw; in terms of French Oxford United players, we don’t know whether he’ll be a gem-ey like Christophe Remy or as dead as a Doudou. 

Saturday 22 August 2020

On Monday Brian Horton publishes his autobiography; ‘Horton Out’. It’s not called that, of course, but we’re excited to read the true stories of the times he took teams like Oxford to lower mid-table finishes, along with the thrilling run to a Full Member’s Cup Semi-Final with Hull.

In a lengthy interview with Hull Live, Horton talks about the time Cesc Fabregas allegedly spat at him. He says of the spit “He denied it and got away with it … but it’s all covered in the book.” Readers are advised to give the book a good wipe before reading.

Elsewhere, Oxford beat Banbury 5-0 in a friendly with a scrabble score of goalscorers in Agyei, Osei Yaw and another new signing, Dylan Asonganyi. Nick Harris is expected to announce his retirement within days.

Wembley wrap – Coventry City 2 Oxford United 1

Apparently, drowning is a pleasurable experience. Something to do with the deprivation of oxygen and the feeling of euphoria that results. It’s a paradox, a bit like the idea that a trip to Wembley to see your favourite football team should be a miserable one.

I’m not just talking about the result. In fact, I’m not even talking about the result. The run up to the EFL Trophy final was full of soul searching and hand ringing. Tears (metaphorical or real) were shed, non-boycotters sent messages to boycotters like they were talking a depressive down from the window ledge of a tall building. Boycotters wrestled their consciences as they reconciled their split loyalties to their team and their principles.

Everything was so serious; this wasn’t the giddy mayhem of the past, the club and fan groups slogged away trying to sell tickets; the line that this might be the last trip to Wembley for a generation sounded like a threat; come to this because you might be dead next time. The sense of delirious fun of previous years was absent. This was about doing a job, winning the game and getting out before we could crack a smile.

Coventry fans seemed less distracted by the side-show; they have bigger problems to deal with, I suppose. Their 1987 Cup Final win aside, they haven’t finished in the top six of any division for 44 years. Even the perverse pleasures of relegation – that drowning feeling – have been largely absent given they’ve only gone down twice. They are, in effect, the saddest team in England; this was a rare chink of joy in the bleakness of their current and past experience.

But their troubles run deeper still; 85% of their matchday profit goes to Wasps Rugby Club, they have, effectively, no income. They want Sisu out, but Sisu aren’t going anywhere. They might try to escape to Coventry Rugby Club and their 4,000 capacity stadium, in short, they are stuck, suffocating in a vacuum.

So they gobble up as many tickets as they can get their hands on. Around the stadium there’s a distinctly retro feel about the shirts their fans are wearing – every era is represented, like a celebration of their past. Barely anyone seems to be in this year’s designs, none of them go to games anyway, I suppose. John Sillett is introduced to the crowd beforehand to raucous cheers.

Inside, the atmosphere amongst Oxford fans is rather less excitable, it’s almost complacent, the Coventry players appear to a deafening roar, we appear to warm applause. But surely once the game gets going, the difference in class will show?

We start slowly, which at first appears deliberate. Last year we started like a train, but ran out of steam at a key time. They scuff in an opener and we need to find another gear. But, it doesn’t come; we’re the better team but look less likely to win. Loads of possession but nothing is working, what’s going on?

Our game changers aren’t firing; this is our tenth game since the semi-final against Luton just a month ago. Marvin Johnson, who has started eight of them, looks lethargic and leggy. Chris Maguire is just back from injury, Ryan Ledson returning from international duty, Rob Hall is playing his seventh in eight and seems strangely blunted. We’re knackered and Wembley is draining any remaining energy we have.

Joe Rothwell, who has played just three games since Luton, is bright enough, dancing through challenges and threatening a break through, but he can’t do it on his own. Like against Bristol Rovers, where Michael Appleton made one substitution despite being 0-2 down at half time, the manager resists making changes. He knows he doesn’t have anything on the bench. The second smallest squad in the division, without Martinez, McAlney, Thomas or Martin and with MacDonald and Taylor long gone are blowing fumes.

Appleton’s only option is Liam Sercombe who has started just four times since Luton. As he warms up, they slot in a second and it looks to be all over. Sercombe comes out like he’s been fired from a rocket launcher. He doesn’t look like the type to get angry, but he’s like a snarling animal. Afterwards he retweets all the supportive messages he received, is he trying to make a point?

Coventry are tiring, it’s not been a defensive rear-guard, but they have been resolute. Cramping becomes endemic, suddenly they’re tiring more quickly than we are and the game evens up. Sercombe, inevitably, drills home for 2-1 and the game becomes ludicrously open. All discipline out the way, the last 15 minutes involve Curtis Nelson playing centre-forward and Simon Eastwood abandoning his goal. Rob Hall and Kane Hemmings break the Coventry defensive line but look unconvincing as they advance towards goal. Nobody is playing in their designated position anymore; Michael Appleton must be scratching his tattoos off at the sight of the chaos. There will be a chance, you feel and it comes in the 94th minute. Mayhem on the goal line, but nobody can put their foot through it and bring the equaliser. I’m not sure we’d have deserved it had it gone in or at least Coventry didn’t deserve to lose. They came to enjoy it, and we’d have spoilt their fun. That just didn’t seem right.

The aftermath is grim; fans who questioned whether they would attend at all vent forth at players for ‘not turning up’. Few players avoid the vitriol; some should never wear the shirt again. Oh my goodness. We’ve played 115 games in less than two seasons; won promotion, been to Wembley twice, won derbies and beaten teams in each of the top five divisions. The players and manager don’t get to pick and choose when and where they go to games, they don’t get to boycott things on points of principle, they turn up, home and away, capacity crowd or empty stadium and they have performed far more often than not. They didn’t today and that’s just the way it is, it’ll hurt them more than us in the long run. If it is another 20 years before we get to Wembley again, at least we’ll get to go. The players have the tiniest window to experience glory and it’s closing quickly.

Wembley is a rare treat, as is the team that has taken us there twice in a year. We’ve treated it like we’re dealing with a mundane chore. It’s time to get a grip.

Weekly wrap – Oxford United 0 Bristol Rovers 2, Oxford United 2 Sheffield United 3

The way my timings work for home games I typically see our subs bench before the starting eleven by scrolling through Twitter. When I saw the bench for our game against Bristol Rovers it was clear something was up.

Losing Chris Maguire, Rob Hall, Curtis Nelson and Kane Hemmings, plus Wes Thomas was always going to have a significant impact on the overall quality of the squad. It highlighted other anomalies; Liam Sercombe being too good to be dropped, not quite good enough to oust Ledson and Lundstram from his preferred position. The best defender in the land, Joe Skarz, being somehow less effective than the worst defender in the land, Marvin Johnson. We don’t know whether Conor McAnley is the next Kemar Roofe or the next Jordan Bowery. Add to this Charlie Raglan playing as though he was wearing someone else’s legs and you had dysfunction from the start.
We’re not a team built on a rigid system like an Ian Atkins team where you can take a player out and put another one in without a significant impact. Where players have such a tight brief that as long as you stick to it, you won’t go far wrong. Michael Appleton’s teams are more reliant on players playing with freedom and taking responsibility. It makes for a much more entertaining offering, but if you lose some of the talent it’s a real problem.
Rovers exploited the disjointedness by harrying in midfield and pressing on the back-four. Both goals came from Charlie Raglan and Joe Skarz being over-powered. Those positions in recent weeks have gone to Marvin Johnson who doesn’t get put under pressure in the same way because he’s usually on the offensive and Curtis Nelson who is also a ball carrier. Had they been playing, it’s possible that Rovers wouldn’t have been given the chances they got.
Michael Appleton seemed to know things were a bit threadbare making only made one substitution despite being 0-2 down at half-time. It almost as if he considered it a tactical defeat.    
I’m sure he didn’t quite throw the game; football teams are like blast furnaces; you can’t just turn them on and off. But with so many games to play, I wonder whether he was trying to keep people fresh by not playing Maguire et al. We have a punishing month ahead of Wembley. With all things being equal, we should go into that game as strong favourites, but with the number of games we’ve got, fatigue and injury could jeopardise that game, plus rob one or two of a Wembley experience. I wonder whether the injuries were as bad as suggested, or did Michael Appleton just turn the furnace down a little?
As if by magic all four returned to the starting line for Sheffield United on Tuesday. Only Chris Maguire showed any after-effects of an injury.  There’s no doubt Appleton wanted to win this one; we were at home, Sheffield United were top and the spectre of Chris Wilder the club. 
The fact is that Wilder is a better manager, and certainly better than many fans are prepared to admit. What he’s good at is taking big failing fishes in small ponds and using their strength as an asset; he did it with us and he’s doing it with Sheffield United. You have to have a very big and belligerent personality to force a change of direction when you take on a beast like Sheffield United. You have to give him some credit because he’s done it time and again.
Ultimately Chris Wilder teams are a Nokia 3310 to our Apple iWatch. The Nokia does simple things really well, we’re more sophisticated, but we don’t work quite as well. We competed gamely for two-thirds of the game but we fell away while they kept motoring at the same pace. That’s fundamentally the difference between the two teams.
Michael Appleton said after the game that we were 3-4 players away from competing consistently at the top of League 1. It might be stretching things to think that Michael Appleton has conceded the season completely, but he must be aware that on and off the pitch we’re barely ready for an unlikely ascent into the Championship. With Cup wins, a Wembley appearance and derby double already in the bag you get the feeling he’s pacing himself through the rest of the season.

I’m going to Wembley

The EFL Trophy, has there ever been a more divisive competition? Never particularly popular, it descended into farce this year with the introduction of Under 23 teams from the Premier League. A boycott by lower league fans sent a strong statement of intent, but we now face our fourth trip to Wembley and, perhaps, the best opportunity for silverware in over 30 years.

There has been lots of very worthy commentary why people are not going to Wembley. It is very easy to believe that boycotting is the only moral option.

I decided a couple of rounds ago that I would probably go to Wembley despite being a supporter of the protests around the country. In essence, I’m following my heart, which wants to go and not my head which tells me to stick to my principles. However, the more I think about it, the more I’m comfortable with the idea. Here’s why…

Boycotting Wembley won’t work 
The boycott certainly had a strong symbolic impact; but it was never a popular tournament in the first place so it wasn’t difficult to empty the stadiums. A bit like organising a boycott of Brussel sprouts; it would be full of people who would never eat them in the first place. Many thousands of people like me wouldn’t have gone to games in the early rounds anyway, so boycotting was hardly a chore. Those who would have attended early rounds but didn’t because of the boycott was relatively small. Comparable figures are difficult, but the crowd for Bradford this year was 2,247 compared to Yeovil last year which was 2,532. That’s a drop of just 12%. There was talk about the ‘1500’ who would have been at Luton if there’d been no boycott, but in reality there was only 40 fewer fans at Kenilworth Road than the last time we visited in the league. If 12% boycotted the final, we would take just under 30,000 fans; more than Barnsley took. Nobody is going to notice a 12% drop in a Wembley attendance, particularly in a competition that has had final crowds as low as 21,000 and as high as 80,000. Nobody knows what a good EFL Trophy Final crowd is anyway. The early rounds boycott made a statement, and it was more powerful because it spread across the tournament and across many teams, a Wembley boycott would have to be unimaginably massive to have any impact at all.

The boycott made A statement, it didn’t make THE statement 
When will we know the boycott worked? When b-teams are not playing in the Football League, I suppose. We know that they aren’t at the moment and they won’t be next season. We don’t know beyond that and sadly we’ll never know whether it will happen in the future. Let’s face it, Premier League clubs have enough money to buy their way into the Football League if they choose. If each contributed the equivalent of an average Premier League right-back, they would have more than enough to bribe their way to anything. If the Premier League want this to happen, then they’ll make it happen regardless of the moralising of a boycott. So, the boycott sent a signal – which the Football League will already be painfully aware of – but the boycott didn’t, and never will, solve the problem once and for all.

The experiment didn’t work 
Fielding Under 23s didn’t work on practically every level. It was grotesquely unpopular, damaging the Premier League brand. Several Premier League teams didn’t even engage in the experiment anyway, which shows just how little interest there is in the idea in the first place. Those who did materially failed to comply with the spirit of the idea. Several clubs fielded over-aged players from overseas, a clear snub of the idea of giving young English talent the opportunity to test themselves. Furthermore, those who did enter did really badly. The last Premier League team standing, Swansea, made it to the quarter-finals, a third went out in the group stage, 75% were gone by round two. Apparently Joe Royle said that Premier League youngsters had gained experience of ‘direct balls from Cheltenham’, which isn’t the best preparation for facing Barcelona in five years time. If there was an appetite for this idea, there’s not much to suggest it should be pursued.

There’s more than one way to protest. 
Why is there a protest in the first place? Because we believe that lower league teams have a right to compete and thrive. And what proves that? The thousands of people who attend games away from the glare of the Premier League. And what is the best way to keep proving that? To keep going to games. Say the final only attracted 10,000 people, does that prove the boycott worked or that the lower leagues don’t have the grassroots support it claims? What has more impact; nobody attending a game which people claim nobody cares about anyway or a capacity crowd that emphatically proves the vibrancy and relevance of the lower leagues? When the FA bid for the 2018 World Cup they made a point of highlighting the vitality of the English game using our Conference game against Luton as an example. There would be no stronger statement about the importance of the lower leagues than if the stadium was full.

The kids
I started going regularly to Oxford at the dawn of the Glory Years. In three years I saw two promotions and a Wembley appearance. The experience forged something very deep in me. Had I not been through that, it’s quite possible that me and people like me would have had no more than a passing interest in the club. The last 18 months have been the best Oxford have had in the intervening 30 years. Kids living through this period are collecting memories which will get them through any future and fallow years. Failing to use these experiences risks them drifting towards the bright lights of the Premier League where they have glory on tap (I would probably have been an Arsenal fan, for example). The kids don’t understand nuanced arguments about Premier League academy teams, they want to see teams picking up silverware at Wembley. If that is Oxford, they’ll stick with us for life.

John Lundstram
Last year John Lundstram missed out on Wembley. Lundstram is one of a raft of players who has been persuaded by Michael Appleton that there is more to life than hanging around in Premier League loungewear hoping that you might get a substitute’s appearance in the early rounds of the League Cup. Firstly, I want him to love playing for Oxford and him winning in front of 30,000-plus yellows will ensure that is the case. Secondly, the more young pros who see what is possible in an Oxford shirt, the more likely they are to sign, the more glorious that looks the more attractive we become. That makes us more sustainable and relevant.

Joe Skarz also missed out last year; these are players that we want to celebrate, we want them to win games in an Oxford shirt at Wembley in front of Oxford fans. This is a chance; why would you dampen it?

I’m 44
I have spent most of my life not seeing Oxford United get anywhere near Wembley. It’s conceivable that I’ll never get another chance. If I don’t take chances when they are presented to me, I’m frankly a bloody idiot.

None of this detracts from the effectiveness of the boycott. In August and September, it made a clear statement about the strength of feeling on the issue. But, those who are resolutely planning to stick to their principles for the sake of, well, sticking to their principles might find that they are turning from principled freedom fighters into ineffective ideological bores. Protest and disruption is certainly part of any activism, but offering some sort of demonstration of strength, a positive energy is similarly important. Going to Wembley is not necessarily an act of deceit but a demonstration of power.

A League of Gentlemen

Tom Peters says in business you’re either different or you’re cheap.
The announcement on Friday that the EFL Trophy, formerly the JPT, would include Premier League Academy U21 teams was greeted with all the contempt it deserves.
It was a cynical announcement, timed to coincide with the start of Euro 2016 when the media’s attention was already elsewhere.
Initially it appears that Oxford had reflected the fans’ view and voted against the plan when Darryl Eales told OxVox he opposed it. Later it turned out we had voted for it and that Eales had been outvoted by his board. Oxford are, to date, the only club to have confirmed their support for the move but we’re not a lone wolf here.
The fact that the board outvoted Eales is interesting. He clearly isn’t the benevolent dictator we sometimes perceive him to be, it’s good that there are opinions at board level, if everyone thought the same, then some of its members are redundant. There should be debate, that’s what will make the club a healthy one.
The club broke their silence on Saturday with what I thought was a pretty a cogent argument for voting with the plan. The Trophy is a dying competition, it has no sponsor, falling TV interest, there’s little that attracts the fans and it’s clearly a distraction for players and managers.
Having now been through an entire Trophy campaign, I can confirm from my perspective that excitement rarely gets beyond mild interest, even in the latter stages. As I said after the final against Barnsley, Wembley was like a works day out rather than a milestone in our history. It was nice, but it wasn’t vital.  
Don’t get me wrong; adding Premier League U21 teams to the mix is a terrible idea. I can’t imagine why anyone – media, sponsors or fans – might be attracted by the prospect of Stoke City Under 21s v Rochdale or even a Wembley final featuring West Brom v Southampton juniors. Last year’s FA Youth Cup final between Manchester City and Chelsea had an attendance of 8,500, even the Premier League has only so much appeal.
But, it’s difficult to know what else to do with it and the alternative is probably to abandon the competition altogether. The reality is that there is just too much football, and the trophy itself is being squeezed out. 
A friend of mine’s husband suffered a near-fatal brain injury 6 years ago. He’s been subjected to progressively more radical treatment in an attempt to save and then stabilise him. This idea seems to be along those lines, a terminal tournament being nursed with increasingly radical treatments.
But, like my friend’s husband, who is now in a wheelchair, suffers depression and bouts of extreme anger and is probably going to lose his leg; all the radical treatment can really achieve is to prevent it from dying, not allow it to thrive.
There is the suggestion that this is a Trojan horse strategy to allow these teams into the Football League. If it is, it’s a pretty dumb one, the equivalent of the Greeks climbing out of the horse at the gates of Troy to ring the doorbell. If this is part of a secret strategy then it’s obviously failed; Oxford may legitimately be able to vote for the idea as a test, but knowing the fans’ views, could it now vote for Premier League entry into the Football League? If it’s a test, then it’s clear that the results are negative, which is good to know, now let’s drown the idea forever.
There’s no doubt the Premier League holds a lot of the cards; they could end loyalty payments, the loan system, promotion and relegation, and throttle coverage of the Football League on Sky and BT. But the answer to those threats is not to become a cheap assimilation, it’s to become something different.
The Premier League is not an English league full of English clubs. Owners, players, managers, and increasingly, fans are not English. I’m no jingoist, I’m fine with it; I quite enjoy the Premier League although I can’t engage with it any deeper than as a form of entertainment.
But I like the uniquely English phenomenon of having three professional leagues (four if you add the Conference), I like the fact that five years ago we were in the Conference and next year we could be fighting to be in the Championship. I like that fans of obscure clubs travel up and down the country to support their team. As the Premier League becomes global, the Football League has a great opportunity to build itself as something successful and local; a Costa Coffee to the Premier League’s Starbucks.
The Football League will be making a grave mistake if it chooses to suckle on the teat of the Premier League in an attempt to succeed. It has so many assets, the Championship is the fourth best attended league in Europe, it needs to build on what it has rather than assimilate itself to a global phenomenon that doesn’t care about it.

As Tom Peters says, in business you have two options – let’s be different, not cheap.