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.

An unlikely unsung hero?

Pretty much everyone came through Tuesday’s night with some credit. But one player is beginning to show that he’s at the very heartbeat of the club. And whoever you think it is, it’s not them.

Anticipating a another soulless evening at the Kassam, where the atmosphere disappears in a puff of blue seats, I already had an idea about this blog post before the 0-0 draw with Exeter.

I’ve been reading the Morrissey autobiography, which opens with a 10 page paragraph on his early life in Manchester during the 60s. It is a majestic avalanche of pretentiousness which acts as a passive aggressive threat to the reader. If you want to read about The Smiths, first you have to subscribe to the authors own very particular idiosyncrasies. His rules. Like almost everything Morrissey does it is awkward and uncomfortable – there are no chapters in the book – but his eccentricities and apparent discard of convention is also endearing and above all, fantastically skilled. You have to surrender yourself to his ways, it is a great book if you do.

I thought, expecting a drab encounter on Tuesday, that I could try writing a similarly lyrical tribute to evening games at The Manor. Talking about the old days is a crowd pleaser in terms of this blog and anyway, I quite like the challenge of trying to capture the memory in a similarly poetic floating style.

But the game on Tuesday wasn’t drab, it was entertaining, with a buoyant crowd and two good teams playing at high quality and pace. I was so taken by it, that had we conceded, I was going to do something on being a gracious loser. It had felt good to be part of something good; the result was almost an aside. I descended the stairs from the stand in a buoyant mood, it wasn’t an evening wasted as Tuesday’s at the Kassam frequently are. Had we taken all three points, it might have masked the general contentedness I was feeling. 0-0 had been a good and fair result.

Into the night I bounded, I could hear the murmur of post-match analysis around me. It’s difficult to pick out individual comments, but there seemed to be an acceptance of this being a good all-round result. There was warm appreciative applause at the end. But as I was touched by the night’s damp cool air, I heard a clear comment for the first time. “That Raynes is a liability”.

This deflated me; nobody really deserved criticism on Tuesday. Dave Kitson should be able to keep a lid on his bookings, but his sending off wasn’t in any way a dampener on the evening; it was just an everyday consequence of being competitive. However, it was the comment about Raynes that frustrated me most.

Back-up centre-backs are an unusual breed; your first choice centre-backs are like your mum and dad; trusted and dependable. Back-ups; Steve Wood, Brian Wilsterman, Rhys Day, Harry Worley, are like your uncle who comes to look after you for the weekend. He looks like your mum and dad, but his stay is littered with weird idiosyncrasies like feeding you baked beans out of a tin and letting you drink pints of beer at the pub even though you’re only eight. Raynes’ recent form has seen him nudge slightly beyond the label of back-up, but with Wright and Mullins looking so dependable, his inclusion still feels a little bit like you’ve got your crazy uncle staying over.

He looks like Spud from Trainspotting; you half expect him, when interviewed on the radio, to open with ‘My pleasure in other people’s leisure’ before kissing Jerome Sale and departing. At our school, sweatbands were considered the mark of a nerd; someone who wanted to be part of the crowd, but frankly didn’t get the look. Raynes wears two sweatbands. At our school that alone would have had him playing with the Joey Deacons and the infants. There’s a kind of sympathy towards him when he plays; on Tuesday he put in a clattering tackle at the touchline and was greeted by the kind of applause often reserved for children completing a Christmas play. A mix of sympathy, admiration and relief.

Raynes’ occasional tweets point towards questionable holidays. You imagine him to be the kind of person who finds himself in the hills outside Ibiza town with a broken moped, off his bonce on pure MDMA in the company of a 40 stone transvetite, two Druids, a member of ZZ Top and German Chancellor Angela Merkel thinking, ‘I shouldn’t have taken a flyer from that Swedish girl promising an unforgettable night’. He also seems like the kind of person who’d then find himself in a not dissimilar position the following night.

But, even at his wobbliest, Raynes is the one talking, geeing up the team. Wright may command more brooding respect, but Raynes is the most animated in the back-four. He’s the one who rises highest in the box at corners. My lasting memory of Tuesday was him in the 94th minute running back from another foray forward; arms and legs pumping but apparently running on the spot. Like an exhausted marathon runner from the 1918 Olympics. You suspect that as he made his way back up the field; powered only on fumes, that everything was turning black and white and those around him were fading from sight. I was half expecting him to simply drop to the floor in the centre circle in utter exhaustion.

There are other dimensions to Raynes, he spoke warmly and generously about his brother; Jordan, a goalkeeper for England’s Cerebral Palsy team. As he should, of course, but it is still good to hear. One tweet even suggested that he was engaged in a university course; a man thinking of his future?

Is Raynes the unlikely heartbeat of the club? An example to those around him; he plays as if it’s his last game – and given his position as a back-up centre back at a League 2 club, let’s face it, every game could well be his last professional game. I have fanciful images that at the end of training the likes of Andy Whing, Jake Wright, John Mullins, Dave Kitson, James Constable and Ryan Clarke retire to their mansions (Clarke’s being glove shaped, Kitson’s made of red and yellow card) to bask in their glorious assuredness. Raynes, on the other hand probably stays behind to help out in the ticket office just because being in a football club is just so bloody brilliant.

A dream perhaps, but Raynes strikes me as the kind of footballer you or I would want to be, someone never complacent about what he has, always trying his best. Always getting up, even when things get him down. No, he’ll never match up to the likes of Matt Elliot or Malcolm Shotton, but in so many ways he’s an absolute credit to both his club and himself.

Joyful and triumphant

Despite the perpetual moaning, we’re now unbeaten in five in the league. The most impressive result of that run came on Boxing Day and the 3-1 win over Exeter. A sweet victory at the best of times, but made sweeter still by the Christmas period.

It is natural to be nostalgic for the past. Christmas is full of nostalgia, much has nothing to do with our own person experience; Santa Claus in a red and white suit (derived from Coca Cola), snow (derived from Dickens), the timeless Victoriana which represents nobody’s life and yet is in every advert.

Football also places huge capital on tradition. As you get older, the world changes, you pine for things from the past. Everything in the past was better. The music was better, the films were better, the football was better. This is probably because the music you heard when you were a teenager was pretty much the first music you heard. Thereafter anything you hear is benchmarked against that visceral virginal feeling. It’s rarely, if ever, going to be matched.

In football, I pine for goalkeepers in green shirts wearing the shorts and socks of the rest of the team, for away fans flying their scarves out of car windows on the way to games, I don’t pine for terracing in the same way others do, but I can see why they do. Life changes and evolves, but one tradition seems to endure. Boxing day football.

Miserablist savants such as Arsene Wenger attack the tradition of playing through Christmas by calling for a winter break. But he also wants the right to field weakened teams for competitions he doesn’t value. In fact he may only be contented when the only games his team plays are Champions League finals, which presumably Arsenal will automatically qualify for. Unlike the goal line technology debate, the media haven’t jumped on the winter break bandwagon. Why would they? English teams remain successful in Europe despite their lack of rest and the national team debate is only really relevant once every couple of years. Plus, football sells really well when people are on holiday.

Sky and the Premier League actually enhances Christmas football. Scheduling was always peculiar over Christmas, so there’s no real change with the advent of Sky. It’s just that you get to see some of the games. For the last 20+ years, my Boxing Day morning has been spent hacking around the local park with a ramshackle bunch trying to shake the cobwebs. Afterwards, I ease myself into the shower and then spend a few minutes watching whatever live game is on before preparing myself to head off to the game.

Christmas day is a kind of autoerotic asphyxiation, we prepare fastidiously for it, and its discomfort and pain is the whole point. Boxing Day football becomes like opening the window after the claustrophobic suffocation of the previous day.

When we’re at home, the crowd is a decent size and there’s always a good atmosphere. The away following is normally pretty good and you can spot the families who are taking in a game just to get out of the house. There are more women around, it’s less aggressive. But that’s OK, it’s kind of nice and Christmassy. It reminds me of my own early football experiences when I’d go to The Manor with my dad when visiting my grandparents in Abingdon.

Of course, we haven’t had a Boxing Day game at home for 5 years, when Phil Trainer (PHIL TRAINER!) scored a rasping winner against Crawley. Despite the forces that schedule fixtures working against us, we’re quite good at Boxing Day football; in the last 11 years we’ve lost the game after Christmas day just once, Chris Wilder’s first game in charge (yeah, I know, Wilder out and all that).

Despite traditionally having good form over Christmas, the Boxing Day win over Exeter was still unexpected, as unexpected as it was emphatic. As a one-off performance, it was a sweet release from the jaw grinding, hand wringing of recent weeks. But, quietly, slowly, we’re building a run. Unbeaten now in 5 in the league (8 in all competitions); only Bradford and Southend have matched our form in the league and they’re both safely ensconced in the play-offs. It’s not yet showing in the league table although we’re now closer to the top points-wise, than we are to the bottom. In the main, it’s still not pretty; but there’s a doggedness from which we should continue to draw encouragement.

The quintessential bad day at the office

On Monday I tweeted a diagram I called my ‘full-time maths report’ of Saturday’s defeat to Exeter. It tried showed a normal distribution of ‘match types’ – home wins, away wins, thrashings, one-goal wins and so on. It also showed that a 4-2 defeat at home where you come back from three goals down to nearly grab an equaliser and then lose your substitute striker 10 minutes after he comes on could be classified as unusual.

So, what can you take from a game which is unlikely to be repeated for years? Not a lot, it would seem. Our current form seems to be an adjustment to our early season over-performance. At the start of the season we might easily have expected an opening day loss, but we took three points. Against Southend, you’d have been happy with a draw, but got the win. At some point those gains were likely to be clawed back. Perhaps we would have hoped for a point at York where we got none and a win on Saturday, and well, you get the point.

Damien Batt bravely came out to defend the team; he thought we were all over them. That was stretching things a little, but we weren’t outplayed. The game was a decent Exeter team including Jamie Cureton on form against a decent Oxford team without Michael Duberry and Peter Leven (and Andrew Whing, and all the others). Presumably there will be games this season where Cureton’s form and fitness won’t carry him and Exeter will stutter to defeat, meanwhile on that day somewhere else in the country we’ll see Leven unlocking the defence to create a winner. It will all even itself out.

Their first goal was a cracking strike (although we backed off), their second goal resulted from a dubious corner decision, their third scored on the break as we chased the game. At 2-3 we might have equalised through Dean Smalley with an ounce of composure. We lost James Constable to two dubious decisions. An accumulation of marginal incidents which ended with the result we got.

In football, marginal incidents tend to draw dramatic reactions. On one hand this might be some ridiculous fan phone-in rant-fest, sometimes it can result in a manager losing his job. If you’re Paolo Di Canio, you belittle your players.

I doubt we’ll see such a peculiar game next week or perhaps for the rest of the season. What we’ve learnt from it is that despite having a decent core of players, those who can give us a Cureton-style edge are not available.

Being practical about it, it is difficult to know what a lower league club can do when the players who give you an edge are injured. It’s not possible to simply throw more money at players of the quality you’ve lost – even if you can find them in the first place. The long term solution; as we know is improvements in sports science so that those injuries don’t happen. That investment has been made but we haven’t yet seen the benefits.

Perhaps the biggest impact of Saturday’s game was the dismissal of James Constable. For once he seemed back to his feisty best, perhaps buoyed by his contribution to Wednesday’s win over Swindon. Then, by being his old self he got sent off. He seems to have taken a long time to get over last year’s dramas, to suddenly, effectively, be told that his normal behaviour is outside the rules of the game is exactly the set back he doesn’t need.