George Lawrence’s Shorts: International bright young things

Saturday 7 September 2019

There was a right old punch in the guts on Saturday and for once it wasn’t administered by Joey Barton. A late goal against Barton’s Fleetwood Town saw Oxford go down 2-1.

Sunday 8 September 2019

Oxford’s greatest ever Lichensteiner, and hero of George Lawrence’s Summer Shorts, Benji Buchel returned to the white hot heat of international football on Sunday with a 1-1 draw against Greece in Athens. The 68,000 seater stadium was throbbing for the encounter being just 65,000 fans short of a sell-out.

Monday 9 September 2019

Having missed the opportunity to miss Saturday’s Fleetwood game, Jedward orphan Mark Sykes missed the opportunity to sit on the bench for Northern Ireland’s plucky 2-0 defeat to Germany in Belfast. Sykes sat in the stand while his fellow former Oxford Jedward, Gavin Whyte, came off the bench after the Irish back-stop had been breached.

Giving a new slant on the term ‘international break’, Ben Woodburn also didn’t play in Wales’ 1-0 win over Belarus. It’s a shame really, we think he’d have asked some searching questions of the opposition. Questions like: ‘Would you like me to introduce you to Gareth Bale?’

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Operation YellowCadden has revealed that Motherwell’s hopes of sunlit uplands is likely to end in a great pile of dung while venal rich fatcats make a financial killing. Cadden is, of course, on loan from Columbus Crew having left Motherwell in an entirely legitimate move which wasn’t in any way designed to avoid making a solidarity payment in lieu of Cadden’s development in Scotland. Motherwell’s boss has revealed he is in dispute with the Crew and is not expecting any resolution in the next couple of years.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

It was centre-back central on Wednesday as two former Oxford defenders opened up about their latest career moves. The top man’s top man Jakey Wright wright wright explained why moving to Bolton is the right right right move for him. In Leicester, Phil Gilchrist was chased down the street for an interview for their club website revealing that he nearly left Oxford at the same time as Matt Elliot, but wasn’t allowed to until they got in a suitable replacement. In the end, they didn’t get one, so they signed Brian Wiiiiiillllllsterman instead. 

Thursday 12 September 2019

KRob was in the hot seat for Radio Oxford’s Six Minute Eighteen Seconds Fans’ Forum, which ended up sounding like the lottery numbers being announced. The stadiumsituation played second fiddle as fans wanted their say on the club’s woeful form. Maureen from Witney thinks we should play 4-3-3 while Brian from Abingdon prefers 4-2-3-1, perhaps KRob should go with Beverly Hill’s 9-0-2-1-0, though Flavor Flav phoned to say that 9-1-1’s a joke in our town.

Friday 13 September 2019

The club said there was good news and bad news on the injury front. Matty Taylor who has had so many Oxford comebacks he might be Benedict Come-ber-back, could feature against Tranmere on Saturday while Jamie Hanson will be out for three and a half months. They didn’t say what the bad news was.

No, you’re a cheap shot, mate.

Match wrap: Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 1

Let’s face it, a 2-1 defeat away to Fleetwood is not, in isolation, an unexpected result, but it means just one win in seven and 20th place in the division. It’s opened all the old debates about Karl Robinson’s suitability and our prospects for the season.

It’s not a simple question of Robinson’s competence, or if he’s likeable or not. I can see both sides of those arguments. For me it’s about the compitablity between his approach, and the club more broadly.

Robinson wants to play a fast, all action style, but with late summer signings and the loss of Gavin Whyte, we currently have a squad trying to bed in while travelling at a thousand miles an hour.

Had we been in League 2, I think he could deliver a season in the vein of 2015/2016; fast, exciting, full of goals; sweeping all before us including a few higher league scalps in the cup. To ape an old Viz comic strip; we’d be all special weapons and no tactics.

But, League 1 is more savvy and we’re being undone by solid, streetwise teams – Fleetwood, Burton and Bristol Rovers. It reminds me of the scene in Indiana Jones where faced by the swashbuckling swordsman skilfully wielding his weapon, Jones simply pulls a gun out and shoots him dead.

We don’t yet have the cohesion to wield our sword skilfully and execute the kill. Worse, we don’t have the bedrock of Curtis Nelson at the back and even Simon Eastwood seems shakier, particularly with shots from distance.

All this against a backdrop of a ownership which, tentatively, seems to be finding its feet. The emergence of Zaki Nuseibeh as a calming voice of reason – talking about building sustainably and responsibly has replaced the eery silences of last year. In addition, we have enjoyed some good PR with the squad numbers, the symbolic signing of Kash Siddiqi and Zaki himself talking about the regulation of clubs in the light of what has happened to Bury.

But despite that steadying hand, Robinson pursues his campaign to please with a maddening thrill-ride of entertaining, but ultimately unproductive football.

Based on last year, the results should come. With Bury’s demise and Bolton’s points deduction, the trapdoor is significantly smaller. But, if we are to do more than simply survive then we seem to have gone the wrong way about it. Wycombe are currently top; a team who specialise in working within their limitations and not over-stretching. The fantasists may have one eye on the Championship at the moment, but I suspect internally they see each point now as a step towards survival from relegation in May. If they’re in a similar position at Christmas, perhaps they’ll readjust their expectations.

At the moment we’re not recognising our limitations – cohesion, fitness, a shaky defence – as a result, we’re over-stretching and being picked off. Stopping the rot should be the focus, even if it means abandoning some of our principles.

George Lawrence’s Shorts – A yabba Dabo doo

Saturday 31 August 2019

There was a right old ding dong at The Kassam on Saturday. Coventry were first to ding going 1-0 up, then donged along to double their lead. Jamie Mackie dinged a 20 yarder just after the hour before Fantaky Dabo donged one into his own net for 2-1. In the last minute they danged in what looked like the winner before Dabo dinged into his own net again for 3-3, four minutes into injury time.  

Monday 2 September 2019

KRob’s wife went mad when he turned up at home with another midfielder to add to his gargantuan collection. ‘THAT’ she said pointing an accusatory finger, ‘IS NOT STAYING IN MY HOUSE’. Oussama Zamouri is a Moroccan who has joined until Christmas. ‘I think I’m quite a technical player’ said Zamouri with a surprising lack of self-awareness. KRob’s has yet to tell his wife that he’ll be going to MidfielderCon in the summer to hang out with all the other midfield nerds dressed as Simon Clist.

The top man’s top man, Jakey Wright, Wright, Wright has signed for Bolton Wanderers on loan from Çhrîßtøphē Ŵîłdę’s Sheffield United. He’ll go right, right, right into the squad to face Oxford on the 17th.

Tuesday 3 September 2019

It’s an ill-conceived battle no one cares about fought by grown men acting like toddlers in which nobody ultimately wins. The Brexit of football tournaments, the MySpace.com Trophy, vomited into action with a 2-1 over Premier League Muppet babies; The Norwichlets. After going a goal down, Oxford’s equaliser came from Cameron Branagain-again with the winner coming from Shandon Baptiste, who KRob has labelled the best player in the whole damn universe.

Meanwhile, Tony McMahon has left the club by mutual disinterest.

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Jedward orphan, Mark Sykes will be donning his neon orange winkle pickers and making self-conscious peace signs to every available camera when he joins up with Northern Ireland to miss their games against Luxembourg and Germany. As a result he’ll miss the game against Fleetwood that he was never going to play in.

Thursday 5 September 2019

It was the Six Minute Thirteen Seconds Fans’ Forum on Radio Oxford with Zaki Nuseibeh on Thursday. There was a question about the stadiumsituation which was good because we hadn’t heard anything about the stadiumsituation since it was mentioned four and a half minutes ago. ‘It’s key to our sustainability’ claims AlanOUFC738472 #FPBE  in Wantage, who has really been thinking about it.

Reluctant commuter and former Oxford United assistant shoutsman Shaun Derry has resurfaced as Head of Isotonic drink distribution at Crystal Palace. Twinkletoed turncoat Gavin Whyte twinkled his toes in Northern Ireland’s 1-0 win over Luxembourg while Mark Sykes watched longingly from the bench.

Friday 6 September 2019

Tomorrow Oxford head north to play Fleetwood Town, who are managed by misunderstood nasty piece of work Joey Barton, a thoughtful thug who has read books without pictures in.

Oxford are looking for their second league win of the season, and first ever over Fleetwood, but KRob’s not worried. If we maintain our performances , he said, we’ll climb the league, thus demonstrating an alarming misunderstanding of the fundamentals of how league tables work. We just need to stick to our principles, he said; one of which appears to be to concede a goal roughly every half-an-hour.

The wrap – Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 2

At the start of the season I suggested that in a division which, bar one or two clubs, there is much of a muchness in quality, it’ll be those who are best organised, tactically and financially which will succeed, and by definintion, the least organised will fail. Obviously, I assumed that would be someone else.

Take, for example, Luton Town – a team with a very similar profile to ourselves. We’re a similar size, have similar resources and have faced similar challenges. They are second and we are not.

There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch where, dressed as Nazis, David Mitchell looks at his uniform and its sinister iconography and says in slow realisation; ‘Are we… the baddies?’

At half-time on Saturday, I was thinking about my early season thoughts as tweets about ‘shambles’ and not signing a striker fluttered onto my timeline. We were facing our fourth successive league defeat, five if you include Brentford, we hadn’t scored a goal and we had no strikers on the pitch, let alone coming in.

You live life as a football fan hoping; for wins, turnarounds, convincing yourself that something good will be round the corner. You may think Karl Robinson is hopeless, but you still live in hope he’s got a striker up his sleeve. You have faith in the people you have least faith in.

But then, facing another defeat and even the potential to drop to the bottom of the division, it dawned on me in a David Mitchell-like way – what if we are the least organised team in the division?

You hope not, sometimes you know you’re punching above your weight so success is a bonus and failure, when it comes, is broadly accepted. I don’t think anyone thought our years in the top flight during the 1980s were sustainable. More often, you hope you’re a good team but you can’t definitively say. People talk about us having ‘Championship-potential’; but we haven’t been there for nearly 20 years. If you look at the evidence of more recent times, League 1 is punching above our natural level.

And then we scrape a point and some of the hope returns. In five games we’ve taken two points – one from a seventh minute injury time goal, the other coming back from two-down away from home. These are not normal results, they happen once or twice a season, they don’t indicate any kind of turnaround. Last year Bury did the double over us, but were still relegated 15 points from safety. Even terrible teams pick up points sometimes.

So, yes, I think we are one of the least organised teams in the division, and that puts us in real peril. Our worst patches of form have come during transfer windows – why? Is it just how the fixtures have fallen? Is Karl Robinson too stretched – preparing for games and chasing down signings? His post-match ramblings become more bizarre when he’s trying to sign players. Is it because his mind is elsewhere and he’s stressed and not prepared? For some, a ‘bad transfer window’ is about not signing your primary target, for us it seems to seep onto the pitch.

Periodically people mention that Michael Appleton is out of a job. Can he come back and bring back the glory days? I genuinely don’t think so; Appleton was part of a machine which involved Darryl Eales and Mark Ashton but also an effective scouting network and a communication and engagement strategy. Plus, there was consistent cashflow, a key priority for Eales, something his successor has yet to achieve. The Eales-world is not the environment Appleton would be coming back to, at times it felt like he waved a magic wand, but it just wasn’t that simple. We should put the Appleton fantasy to bed and focus on fixing now.

In fact, it’s slightly worse than that. If Tiger could persuade Appleton return he may believe what the fans are telling him and that success is a gimme. That’s when complacency will really set in.

We’re not relegated yet, regardless of what happens in the transfer market, we can still stay up; but that’s where the ambition lies now; avoiding relegation. It’s hugely frustrating, but perhaps it’s time to realise at the moment, we are just one of those teams.

The wrap – Barnsley 4 Oxford United 0, Oxford United 0 Fleetwood Town 2, Oxford United 2 Coventry City 0

I have to confess, I don’t get a buzz from the new season. It disrupts my summer and messes with commitments I had to make before I knew the fixtures. Football in the summer, without a coat, is not football. I want to leave the ground when it’s dark, desperate to get back to the car to put the heating on and thaw my fingers out. Football is my ‘silence’; a routine that allows me to escape from everyday life, I prefer football when we’re deeper into the season.

It wasn’t always like this; when I was young we seemed to always be coming back from holiday when the season started. I remember sitting in the car as we gradually came into range of English radio as games were kicking off. The holiday had ended, but something much better was in its place.

Over the years things have changed. Clubs don’t add a couple of players to their squad anymore; post-Bosman, teams are overhauled, so you have to get used to a load of new players. I keep up with our signings during the summer, but when they turn out for the first game of the season and can barely tell one player from another. Even the kit changes every year now, so each new season can feel like watching a completely different club. As I say, it’s the routine and the constant of the fans that makes football fun, not the novelty of the new season.

Not everyone feels like this, of course, Twitter was buzzing with people who were buzzing about the new season. For them the season burst into life at Oakwell and the heavy defeat to Barnsley. This was followed by the defeat to Fleetwood. Not just Fleetwood, Joey Barton’s Fleetwood. Suddenly we’re bottom of the league and doom was settling in.

The reaction was like we were 15-20 games into the season. Bottom after two games is far from ideal, but nor is it terminal. Nobody wants to lose two games in a row, but it does happen – it just happens to be that these two games are the first two games.

I do think that we didn’t have a great summer; it came together eventually with late signings and Karl Robinson has more than hinted of the upheaval surrounding the new training ground, but the process of gelling the team together starts now, where you’d prefer it to have started on the first day of pre-season training.

The win against Coventry in the League Cup has gave us some rest bite, but as with all cup competitions nowadays, you can’t really judge anything because it’s impossible to know how any team view cup competitions. Under Michael Appleton, every game was treated equally so cup and league games were approached with the same vigour, and mostly the same team. Judging by the number of changes made by Karl Robinson, he’s perhaps taking a more strategic view. It’s not exactly what the fans want to see, but one of the issues Appleton had was his teams running out of steam towards the end of the season – essentially as a result of being too successful in the cups. I’m not convinced the physical tiredness is that big an issue, but the mental fatigue takes its toll. If the objective is promotion or the play-offs, then discounting the cups maybe the best option.

We have a tough start to the season, which is perhaps being overlooked. We play all three teams that came down from the Championship, two away, inside the first month. The season doesn’t really settle down until the middle of September when we face Wycombe, Walsall, Luton and Southend, we can only start to judge the team in October, by which point the squad will be more settled.

The wrap – Shrewsbury, Oldham and Fleetwood

We are not doomed… yet.

The Shrewsbury game had been largely dismissed as a defeat long before we kicked off. Oldham was supposedly the opportunity to scramble to safety, we’ll never get anything from Wigan and Blackburn because they’re too good, or Fleetwood and Southend, because they’re bogey teams.

We’re doomed.

There are lots of reasons that this is nonsense. I didn’t get to the Fleetwood game, so I didn’t get that visceral sense of despair resulting from their winner. However, objectively, we appeared to dominate, which suggests we’re not quite as useless as some would imply.

Karl Robinson has suggested that we need a bit of luck. Which is sort of true, what we need is a bit of maths – keep doing the right things and eventually, by the law of averages, we’ll get the right result. Against Fleetwood it seems we did a lot of the right things, keep going in that direction and the results we need will come. 

Second, we are still five points clear of the relegation zone. In one sense, very close, but it’s still very much in our hands. In the 35 games played by the seven teams below us, just seven have been wins and eight have been draws – that’s roughly 4 points per team over the last five games. There are about five games to play, so we’re still looking at quite a few having to find a run of form, while we gain nothing, to drag us down. It’s not comfortable, but all is not lost.

Third, and this is might sound perverse, we are one of only five teams in the division currently without a win in our last five games. Logic says that this will change eventually. Look back to our game against Bury, they had gone 8 games without a win, but beat us. Not because they are materially better than us (they are 14 points off safety, 19 behind us), but because, eventually, things run your way. We are, inevitably, getting closer to that point, or specifically, those three points. 

The point being that while nobody is too good to go down, we’re good enough to stay up and there are plenty around us struggling for form. Talk of bogey teams and bad luck is baloney, if we focus on process, we should secure the necessary points to stay up. Or, at least, not enough teams will accumulate the necessary points to catch us.

And, staying up is all that it’s about, one place above the relegation zone, one point away, it doesn’t really matter at this stage. There are reasons we’re not higher up, which we can pick apart to our hearts content during the summer. But until that point, the focus is on getting little more than one win in the next five. And that is wholly doable.

The wrap – Rotherham and Fleetwood

Oxford United 3 Rotherham 3
“I wasn’t at the game today Jerome”; this is a phrase that will strike fear into the hearts of most Oxford fans. The opening gambit of a Radio Oxford post-match phone-in caller typically precedes a tactical dissection of the game they didn’t see, a dewy eyed gushing praise of BBC Oxford’s coverage, including detailed description of the reason why they can’t make games (‘my wife had a vaginal prolapse three years ago, but we listen every week.’) or an opportunity to ask the real question: ”ave you heard what’s going on with the stadium Jerome?”.

For many years I couldn’t comprehend what people who didn’t go to football did at weekends. This is not purple-faced vein-bulging faux-passion only us proper football fans feel. It’s simply that I was brought up with weekends defined by football – on Saturday morning, my Roy of the Rovers would be delivered, Saturday lunchtime was Football Focus or Saint and Greavsie (often both), then the date would taper towards 3pm and the game itself. Sunday would be spent scouring the paper for a couple of paragraphs about our game.

I still struggle with the idea of having a Saturday which isn’t defined by a match although I can see that full and complete commitment to the club, home and away, week after week, is a path to madness. I’ve twice been to games which I would consider beyond the norm – Carlisle away in 2002 and York away on a Tuesday night the following year. On both occasions there were happy coincidences which meant I could make the game – friends who lived in Carlisle and a work commitment in York. A few occasions I’ve traveled home from a holiday and gone straight to a game. But to do this every week is surely commitment too far. There’s a bloke who I see at every game wherever I go, I wonder what impact it has on his family on friends.

I was on holiday for Saturday’s humdinger against Rotherham on an annual trip to Devon. It was all Michael Appleton’s fault, in his dire first season I told myself that I wouldn’t be bound by the fixture list in the way I had been before. I previously only missed games for weddings and work, and while that was, in my head, the honorable thing to do, it also meant that I ended up going to games when there were better things I could be doing. In that first year we booked late which meant missing a 1-2 defeat to Carlisle, the year after I followed the 2-3 capitulation against Barnet while touring the Eden Project. Last year it was the 2-2 collapse against Port Vale.

This year we were travelling for most of the game, I saw we’d gone 3-1 up then next picked up the final score. In between, apparently, Ryan Ledson missed a penalty and someone turned up with a drum; though I didn’t find out about either until Sunday. While I’m generally happier with the balance I’ve struck between football and real life, the lack of  detail does leave a disconcerting sensory deprivation.

Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0
It’s been the Baseball World Series this week. Baseball is a game that’s hard to love, superficially it looks like a series of tedious repetitive activities punctuated, very occasionally, with moments of excitement.

You have to put in a bit of graft to understand baseball – teams play 162 games a season – practically a game every day. A pitcher will only throw 100 pitches before being rested for a week, about two-thirds of a match.

A game every week wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t differentiate the good teams from the bad ones. It requires this level of intensity over a prolonged period for the better teams to emerge. As a fan, therefore, you have to stick with it to enjoy the drama.

Football is generally more forgiving; moments of excitement are more frequent, wins mean more as an end in itself. But being a football fan, like being a baseball fan, is really about living the narrative in its totality. The defeat to Fleetwood was a disappointing result, but it comes off the back of a five game unbeaten streak, in a year of the best football in a generation in a decade of steady progress.

In baseball, it is perfectly normal to lose an individual game, it’s the reason that the World Series is held over seven games, it is possible to win or lose via a freak game. Football is not that different; yes, we lost to Fleetwood, but it was the result of a goal in the closing minutes (plus a second in the chaos that ensues when you’re chasing a game). While maybe not a freak in the baseball sense, it hardly constitutes a definitive message about our ability.

Chris Wilder, who seems to have become a bit of a golden boy in recent weeks, used to eulogise about keeping on a level in both wins or losses, whatever you might think of him (and it’s only flat-earthers and climate change deniers that would consider him a ‘bad manager’) it’s a sage piece of advice.