George Lawrences Shorts: Exiter Pity

Saturday 30 November 2019

A master of his craft, even at 35 James Constable still knows where the goal is. He was stood right behind it for our 1-0 annihilation of Walsall in the FA Cup on Saturday. Beano was welcomed into the away end with open arms, but wouldn’t be drawn on his rebuffing of an Italian former Swindon Town manager with right wing peccadillos.

Sunday 1 December 2019

Walsall manager Darryl Clarke is a barrel of laughs isn’t he? He had nothing but uplifting and positive comments for his charges following their exit from the FA Cup “My players aren’t at their level, anywhere near it to be honest at the minute.” said ray of sunshine Clarke.

Alongside the bearded lady and the pushmepullyou, Sheffield United are turning into one of history’s great freakshows. The Telegraph – who always look at outsiders with suspicion – did their 426th profile of Christophe Wilde on Sunday and how he dragged himself up by the bootstraps. The story has acquired magical legend now featuring a magical sprite, pocket racist, Sam Deering; ‘his best player’ when he joined Oxford in 2008.

Monday 2 December 2019

If it’s Monday, then it must be another reference to rummaging in a velvet ball bag. Oxford have been drawn to play either Our Friends in the North – Hartlepool or our friends in the South – Exeter City

Tuesday 3 December 2019

To the Championship, all the way. Stat virgins FiveThirtyEight have crunched the numbers on our current form and predicted that we’ll finish second in League 1 this season.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Oopsy. Oxford missed out on a trip to Wembley for a game against Bournemouth’s Walking Football Team in the Trophy on Wednesday. The 0-0 draw meant there were only marginally less goals than supporters. We trolled the competition by missing three penalties in a row in the shoot out. That’ll show them.

Before the game KRob said he’d secured the services of a stand-in ‘keeper after Simon Eastwood picked up a boo boo on his knee against Walsall. As an early for Christmas parlour games, KRob mimed some clues as to his identity; four syllables, promoted from League 1, full international. This rules out Alan Judge, which is a shame as he was ironing his goalie gloves in preparation for a recall at the time.

Thursday 5 December 2019

It was the Seven Minute Six Second Fans Forum on the radio on Thursday with charisma hoover Niall don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. Mrs Don’t Call Me Niall McWilliams will be pleased to hear that he mostly plans to do his Christmas shopping in the club shop, so she’ll be stealing herself to smile thankfully when she unwraps her novelty Jamie Hanson thong and bra set on the big day.

Friday 6 December 2019

It’s everyone back to the Kassam on Saturday to watch eager families heading into Vue to watch Frozen 2. The visitors are Shrewsbury who are led by angle faced ex-Oxford full-back Sam Ricketts.

Oxford’s glovesman will be Jordan Archer who has been signed to cover Simon Eastwood. Archer was released by Millwall in the summer and appears to have been scratching a living as a Kane Hemming’s impersonator. The job involves turning up to things which have long been decided and taking credit for its success by making a last-minute meaningless contribution.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: For Leven’s sake

Saturday 16 November 2019

If you’re an Oxford fan; when the fun stops, don’t stop. There was no game on Saturday, but the draw for the Trophy more than made up for that. Like the FA Cup draw being on BBC prime time TV, this was given all the prestige it deserved; being made during a 2003 re-run of Top Gear on Dave. We play Exeter away.

Elsewhere chisel faced millennium guy Dean Whitehead left his role at Huddersfield to become coach at Shrewsbury, who are managed by chisel faced millennium guy Sam Ricketts.

KRob had no one to talk to, so he talked to the Blood Red Podcast. He talked about coaching Ben ‘Woody’ Woodburn, Trent ‘Trento’ Alexander-Arnold and Deli ‘Delo’ Ali. It’s so difficult to keep track of all his previous charges, if the players KRob coached were his children, he’d give Boris Johnson a run for his money.

Monday 17 November 2019

When he played for Oxford his head wrote cheques his legs couldn’t cash, but that won’t worry Armand Gnadulliet, who is being linked with Derby County and been added to a team of the season in front of a yellow wall of James Henry, Cameron Brannagan and Tariqe Fosu.

Meanwhile, he may look like he’s just been caught smoking behind the music block, but The Mirror has hailed sulky sixth former Rob Dickie as the new Harry Maguire

Tuesday 18 November 2019

He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; KRob has asked for a GoPro and a Stretch Armstrong for Christmas, or failing that Matty Taylor. It’s one of three areas he feels need addressing in the January transfer window. 

The claim that Oxford United are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen is a bit of a stretch. But it turns out we do effectively run New Zealand. After the revelation that Ceri Evans is the secret behind the All Blacks miserable semi-final exit in the Rugby World Cup, former Oxford coach Des Buckingham has been talking about taking the footballing Kiwis he’s leading to next year’s Olympics.

Wednesday 19 November 2019

The FA Cup is full of magic, as Walsall and Darlington fought it out for the right to host the Mighty Yellows in the second round. A wave of the wand and slight of hand resulted in all skill and entertainment disappearing in a puff of smoke. In the end Walsall triumphed 1-0.

Elsewhere, a penalty shoot out between Taunton and Truro nearly toppled Oxford’s record after it took thirty-four kicks to settle Southern League Challenge Cup tie.

Thursday 20 November 2019

It was the Six Minute Forty-Six Second Fans Forum with marketing hotrod Matt ‘Kenny’ Everett on Thursday. He answered fans questions in the best possible taste. He announced the intention to have a Student Night in the New Year. The themed game will serve Snakebite for £1, have discounts for dungarees, while a Levellers tribute act will play at half-time. The concern is that with the game kicking off at 7.45pm, it may be a struggle for many of the students to get out of bed in time. 

Friday 21 November 2019

It’s Mark Rawle Day tomorrow as we’re back in action against Southend who are managed by stable genius Sol Campbell. Campbell famously said how easy it is to manage in the lower leagues. His job must be getting easier every week as the Shrimpers plummet down the table.

Meanwhile, Tap-in Tarquin, Peter Leven is on the verge of the Champions League with outsiders Dynamo Brest in Belarus where he now coaches. Leven compares the achievement to Leicester winning the Premier League. Well, we know how much Peter Leven likes a long shot.

Exeter wrap – Exeter City 1 Oxford United 4

Do you know what happened as a result of our win over Exeter on Tuesday night? Nothing. Our form remains moderate, just seven points from the last fifteen, exactly the same amount as in the five games up to and including Accrington. We remain just three points ahead of Accrington having played two games more. We are in precisely the same situation as to the one we were in at 4.45pm on Saturday.

Do you know what happened as a result of our win over Exeter on Tuesday night? Everything. Belief came back. At the final whistle people weren’t looking down at Accrington, but up at Plymouth who had dropped points. We were no longer talking about players playing being dead on their feet. According to Jerome Sale, Liam Sercombe was playing his way to renewed freshness, because medical science presumably suggests that the best thing when suffering from the effects of over exercise is more exercise. That’s pub logic – let’s drink ourselves sober, it’s 2 in the morning and I’ve got to be at work at 9, let’s just power on through, I’ll be more tired if I go to bed.

To be fair Sale did cut one caller dead on Saturday who had suggested that we had all but destroyed any promotion chances reminding him that we’d won only a week before at Morecambe.

We became fixated with the idea that players were in the ‘red zone’; a phrase that had emanated from the club at some point in the last week. Not that anyone really knows what a ‘red zone’ is or how it effects people. Presumably, unless it’s just a metaphor, it’s a combination of measures which indicate  a player is not performing at a level they might expect, but it’s not going to be sophisticated enough to be able to identify precisely how far a player is from his next injury or patch of poor form. That’s what everyone is working towards, but we don’t have it yet.

The reality is that on Saturday, we were beaten by a team that handled the conditions better. The defeat and idea of running out of steam fitted a convenient narrative. On Saturday we were the nail, on Tuesday we were the hammer, it just happens like that. Nobody knows if Accrington are going to go on a devastating run or blow themselves out of the race, we can only live in the moment and keep plugging away.

Exeter and Yeovil wraps

Oxford United 3 Exeter City 0

Exeter was the tale of two halves, the first half was all about Chey Dunkley. I think the referee called it about right, the two challenges in question amounted to more than a yellow card, but they were less than a full red. I’m not a fan of players being sent off for ‘technical’ fouls rather than malicious challenges or things that deny clear advantages. To lose a player for more than a half would have been a disproportionate punishment for the challenges. There will be those who will argue that the letter rather than the spirit of the law should be followed, which is fair enough. It’s an argument that will never be resolved as it’s usually dependent on whether you’re the beneficiary or the victim of the situation.

Dunkley has been one of our outstanding players in recent weeks, but he is a player that is susceptible to pressure; some of his early performances were shaky to say the least but once he was in the groove, he looked a real asset and a threat to the Wright/Mullins partnership. On Saturday the wind, coupled with the pace of the Exeter attack put him in all sorts of trouble. Although I don’t think he deserved to be sent off, he was just a minor infringement from a red card; it was the right thing to do to replace him at half time.

It wasn’t Dunkley’s replacement that changed the game in the second half. We had been, just about, the better team throughout, although the overall performance was similar to most of this season, lots of possession, not enough penetration. But, it began to feel like when I compare my bike speed against others on Strava. While they may only be a few seconds faster than me over a mile, over 20 miles, they’re out of sight. Straight after half-time it looked like the elastic snapped; we were faster to everything. The goal came at the right time, I suspect another 10 minutes and it would have been a familiar scene, with us looking to snatch a single goal as Exeter regressed to defend a point.

But the goal stretched the play and everything fell into place. I was in the North Stand with a friend who occasionally joins me for the Boxing Day game. As I always do, I took him through each player he was likely to see. This is typically a summary based on 20 games of performances and, in reality, very few of the players I describe show anything like what they can. But for the first time everyone played to their potential; Roofe’s trickery, Lundstram’s passing, Sercombe’s surging, Baldock’s endless overlapping. The results were obvious.

Yeovil Town 0 Oxford United 0

Yeovil always felt like the forgotten game. When Christmas falls late in the week, it seems slightly odd to try shoehorn another fixture into the schedule. As much as I like the ‘busy Christmas period’, it would have been perfectly fine to play the game on Tuesday evening or even not at all. Two games in 48 hours, 110 miles apart seems slightly unnecessary. 
But, this isn’t going away any time soon and we may be suffering a degree of fixture overload. That risks mental rather than physical fatigue. When you’re always going for the win that requires a higher level of concentration and application and the pressure of games where the margin of error is smaller can have an effect. When you’re mid-table an away point is a good one; where you’re trying to average two points a game to get promotion a point isn’t enough and the pressure keeps building.
If we are feeling a bit of a slump, it’s not a bad one at all; 4 points in 2 games is hardly reason for panic. However, as well as just getting our heads down and getting through this period, some fresh faces may be helpful.

Coming up: Exeter City

The drop

It’s Football Christmas Day! Is there a football fan in the country that doesn’t love Boxing Day? There’s a real sense of togetherness, family and friends, some coming to their only game of the season, coming with a sense of collective excitement. 
This is a game that sells itself, and it is probably a good thing that the club haven’t put in the effort they has in the past – I’m thinking of the disappointments of Plymouth and Woking. We need to approach it, as much as possible, as a normal game. 
Last week’s defeat to Wycombe and the announcement that Mark Ashton is leaving the club has added weight to the game. I would love us to put on a show against Exeter, and then again against Swansea in the Cup, but there’s a piece of me that just wants all this period of the season to be over as soon as possible so we can get our heads down and really deal with the issue of promotion in May.

Old game of the day 

Deep down I still feel a certain animosity towards Exeter who ‘stole’ our place in the Football League in 2007. It’s funny how things play tricks on your mind. Looking through this (recorded in a form which appears to be about 13 grades down from HD), we went into the second leg a goal up, went two goals up, conceded our lead, allowed Rob Duffy to roll the ball harmlessly into their keepers’ arms when clean through in extra time and then our goalkeeper tried to ‘right the wrong’ of our relegation by taking a penalty. He missed, of course. Suicide.

Realising Lenagan’s dream

With five of the thirteen players on duty against Exeter from the youth development system, Saturday saw the realisation of Ian Lenagan’s vision of 18 months ago.

Granted, that vision; which forecast a successful Oxford United driven by a core of homegrown talent, was probably borne out of the financial reality he faced rather than some dewy eyed prescience along the lines of Martin Luther King – only Michael Duberry could do that. However, as visions go, it was the most cogent I’ve heard come from the club in forty years. Yes, we’ve had owners stressing the importance of building and then owning a new stadium. But in terms of turning that into a playing reality, that vision rarely stretched much beyond “… and then, um, something something something beat Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League!”. Lenagan’s visions was realistic, tangible and above all attractive.

Long, Ashby, Ruffels, O’Dowda and Roberts were pivotal in digging Appleton out of yet another mess. It demonstrated what rude health the development system is in. The work done to date is an credit to Chris Allen, who was the player you’d consider least likely to turn out to be a top class coach.

But, is Lenagan’s vision the solution to this season? Well, no, not at the moment. The second half against Exeter proved that much. We were bright and switched on in the first half but became conservative and sluggish in the second. Fitness was a factor; it’s asking a lot for a young team to put in a 90 minute shift at the intensity of any League 2 game, let alone one demanding the high technical component that Appleton insists on. ‘Game management’ was another factor. Nathan Cooper persists with this topic week after week with Michael Appleton. He has a point; we seem to approach the natural phases games go through exactly the same way, rather than assess and adapt as the game progresses. Is this part of Appleton’s ‘No Plan B’ philosophy?

Appleton, when pushed on the subject, seemed to imply that organising teams to manage games was difficult, that is, almost impossible to train. And yet, organising a disciplined unit seems a darned sight easier to train than, say, teaching Jake Wright to play like Glenn Hoddle.

And this seems to be at the heart of the problem; while the emergence of Lenagan’s dream should give everyone heart, what we need is a core of players who are going to manage the game on the pitch. In the past we relied on the likes of Wright, Mullins, Clarke, Whing, but these are looking a shadow of their former selves, and, if you add Hunt, Newey and even Constable and Kitson from last year, you have to question why do we seem so devoid of leadership now?

Injuries are always factors; Clarke, Wright and Whing have all suffered recently and each bounce back is inevitably going to be a little less bouncy. There is an issue of playing style; anyone criticising Wright this season is ignoring the style of football he’s suddenly being asked to play. Ask him to be a defender, and he excels, ask him to be a playmaker and he looks deeply uncomfortable. And then there’s an issue of age and authority. Appleton isn’t that much older than some of those he manages so it would be far easier for senior players to not respect his authority or ability. This was, apparently, a factor in Dave Kitson’s sudden decision to retire once Appleton arrived at the club. Perhaps some of those older heads, frustrated by how we’ve stalled this season, are doubting their manager’s ability and approach.

If that is happening, Appleton, has the right to bring in people he can work with, but while so many of the core Wilder squad have left or hit poor form, those signed to replace them have been at best patchy, at worst woeful – Riley and Barnett were both established, and then slipped through our fingers, Junior Brown, Carlton Morris and Alex Jakubiak didn’t look ready, Will Hoskins and Brian Howard were spent forces before they even appeared at the club. Only Michael Collins and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis have sustained success so far; and Collins was dropped shortly after telling Radio Oxford we were in a relegation fight. Even, Holmes-Dennis, looks in need of a rest after an extended run of games; again, it’s a lot to ask of him.

Of the four signed prior to the opening of the window, Campbell and Hobarn have yet to come to terms with the rigours of League 2, Wes Burns seems another with bags of potential but not the endurance to sustain it, and Chey Dunkley looked decidedly shaky against Southend. It’s an uninspiring batch of signings so far.

For all the potential we now have at first team level; perhaps the best crop of youngsters I’ve seen at the club in terms of both quality and numbers, we are woefully lacking in leadership (and the motivation to lead) that experience gives, with the transfer window winding shut, time is running out in terms addressing the issue.