Weekly wrap – Oxford United 1 Fleetwood Town 3, Walsall 1 Oxford United 1

In many ways, the last couple of games have been a story of two players.

Michael Appleton made the point recently that players coming through the youth ranks at the club have to develop faster than the first team progresses if they want to earn a place in the starting eleven. So, we’re not currently looking for the next Callum O’Dowda because he was a youth team player who played for us in League 2. We’re now looking for a youth teamer with League 1 or Championship ability; the next Joey Beauchamp or Chris Allen. Every step forward the club takes, makes it harder for youth team players to get game time.

Canice Carroll’s debut in the defeat to Fleetwood, therefore, was a significant achievement in a team which has progressed towards the edges of the League 1 play-offs. In the past, debutantes would attract warm applause simply for touching the ball or running vaguely in the right direction, now we expect them to be fully baked and ready to go. Twice in the opening minutes he was caught out of position, the second time leading to the penalty for Fleetwood’s opener. The people behind me were chastising his lack of experience and tactical awareness and questioning where Phil Edwards was when we’d barely played for 15 minutes.

We don’t really know what Carroll’s ‘thing’ is; is he a Joe Skarz safe pair of hands or a Marvin Johnson marauding winger? That’s part of the problem, until we know his thing, it’s difficult to know whether he’s playing well or not. He seemed to grow into the role as the game progressed and overall had a solid game.

At the other extreme, we have Chris Maguire. Maguire very much has a carefully crafted ‘thing’ in that he plays on the edge. He’s like the person at work who light-heartedly flirts with women in the office. Everything is generally fine until one day he says the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person and he gets into trouble.

What makes Chris Maguire special and different, is also what kills him. The second goal against Fleetwood is the best illustration of this. There’s a gif going round of Maguire against Swansea last season doing keepy ups in the corner. It was a very Chris Maguire thing to do; a moment of panache in a high pressure situation. Against Fleetwood, in almost exactly the same place, he got caught out trying to be too clever and it lead to the goal. Had he dribbled his way out of the corner as he intended, he’d have been heralded a genius.

Fleetwood proved that this division is basically made up of Bolton and Sheffield United at the top, a few waifs and strays at the bottom and then a whole bunch of teams like us in the middle. We have are doing what in cycling is known as en chasse patate – literally, potato hunting. We’re stuck in a no man’s land between the leaders and the back markers. We are neither good enough to go up nor bad enough to go down, so we dangle frustratingly somewhere in the middle. 

The Fleetwood and Walsall results have turned our thoughts to next season and what we do to turn this promise into a promotion push. The first question is around squad size, it only takes a couple of injuries and we’re in trouble. Michael Appleton’s options – or more specifically Darryl Eales’ options – are to increase the squad size or reduce the burden by forgetting the peripheral cup games. If we did play weakened teams in the EFL Trophy, then Appleton would be abandoning a core part of his philosophy – that success comes from the repetition of good practice. You don’t pick and choose when to perform.

The other question surrounds the composition of the squad; both Sheffield United and Bolton have shown the value of maintaining solid, dependable squads, less thrilling than us, but ultimately more consistent and therefore successful. The question, then, is whether we should be looking at a few less Canice Carrolls and Chris Maguires and a few more solid and dependable experienced pros. We might lose a bit of sparkle in the process, but we might pick up the extra points we need for promotion.

Weekly wrap – Chesterfield, Birmingham City, Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town

Oxford United 1 Chesterfield 1

If this makes any sense, I remember our first game of the last season we had in League 1. The last season at The Manor, Denis Smith had a close season to forget; his attempts at re-signing many of the previous year’s crocks had failed and so, in their place, he signed an even bigger pile of crud. Things weren’t looking good.

In a season which would see finish bottom, concede 100 goals and, of course, get relegated, we opened against Peterborough at home. We dutifully applauding so many new signings that my hands hurt when we finished, though I barely knew any of them.

Though the mood and quality is somewhat different this time around, we have similarly replaced a whole team this summer. The consensus in the car was that Michael Appleton had a good summer with each new signing offering something new and exciting to the squad. The big question that hadn’t been answered in pre-season was whether he could make them gel.

Appleton kept most of his new toys hidden as Saturday’s selection smelt of, if not stability, then experience. It reminded me of our first home game back after the Conference against Bury. We’d expected to storm the division, but we got caught out by a team with more sophistication than we’d anticipated. We didn’t want the same thing to happen here and the focus on experience seemed to suggest that was at the forefront of Appleton’s mind too.

We looked solid enough, Wes Thomas is a kind of Danny Hylton character; he doesn’t make sense context of the squad in general, but looks reliable. Ribiero’s injury was a blow, but Sam Long seems to have had a growth spurt and looked completely settled in his place. The loss of Dunkley was a worry, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll be out for long.

Difficult to know whether we looked at home in League 1. Chesterfield were certainly better than most of League 2, and Swindon from last year, but not a patch on Millwall or Barnsley. With Ched Evans’ signing causing consternation and a laughable crisis involving a fake raffle to deal with, they presumably, like us, will look on mid-table security as success. If they are the benchmark for mid-table, then we should be fine and maybe should hope for more from the season.

Nobody is really expecting promotion, though it would be nice, so ticking off the points rather than storming the division is perfectly acceptable. With three away games coming up, a point is OK. Nobody wants to get to September with people pining anxiously for Hylton, Roofe, Wright, Mullins and O’Dowda.

Birmingham City 0 Oxford United 1

So, for the third year running, we delivered a League Cup giantkilling barely worth of its name. Nobody really knows what Birmingham City are; Premier League pretenders? Relegation certainties? Neither? Can we truly benchmark the result in terms of its achievement? Can we really call this a giantkilling?

City made nine changes from their opening game against Cardiff, such is the sniffiness of Championship managers towards the League Cup. They will talk about the league being a priority as if that sort of pragmatism is supposed to impress us. There are typically three trophies to play for per season (League, FA Cup and League Cup) and on average each team will win a significantly less than one of them. For most teams a couple of memorable wins is what leaves a season in the memory and the cups should offer those moments. But, the idea of glory being is lost on most managers who choose to effectively ignored the cup in order to concentrate on standing still.

I like the Appleton mentality that every game is there to be won, it plays to both the romantic notion of a football team wanting to win every game they play, but, more importantly, it creates a template in which the team learns how to win games. There are precious few players, if any, who can decide when to perform and when not so developing a habit of winning has to be an advantage. Whatever the benefits of resting players are they have to be balanced against the lost opportunity to practice winning games.

Honorable mention has to go to Liam Sercombe. The departure of Jake Wright in the summer brought an era at the club to a close. It wasn’t immediately obvious who might take the captain’s armband when the likes of Sam Long and Josh Ruffels are the longest serving members of the squad. Sercombe must have been in the running for the job.

It’s not so much that he leads by example; he just does what comes naturally with seemingly endless energy. If he’s like that at home, it must drive his fiancé mad, but it must also be completely infectious for young players at the club. If they plan to model themselves on anyone, it’s not the superstar pretentions of the Premier League, it’s the boundless enthusiasm of Liam Sercombe where they should look.

Sercombe has been in the middle of everything that’s been good about the club over year or so, his goal against Birmingham was another chapter in a stellar Oxford career.

Bristol Rovers 2 Oxford United 1

… And just as Sam Long and Liam Sercombe emerge as heroes of the first week, they conspire to make a significant contribution to our first defeat of the season. Brilliant.

The response has been, as you might expect, completely binary. From the innate confidence of promotion to the abject failure of defeat. We are in trouble, or perhaps not.

Frankly, who knows at this stage? I don’t, and nor do you.

Rovers are a bit of a benchmark for us, we’ve always competed at roughly the same level, so a defeat probably feels like we’re falling below a perceived watermark. However, they held onto their core squad and star striker, and we didn’t. So they’ve started the season a bit more established, whereas we’re likely to evolve into it.

Talking of strikers, the good news is that Kane Hemmings got off the mark, which is important despite the result. The figures may be moderate in wider footballing terms, but transfer fees are an unequivocal measure of perceived quality. Goals are an unequivocal measure of the return on that investment. As a striker that brings a pressure that other players won’t feel. If the goals don’t come, then everyone gets restless and the pressure builds. Dealing with that pressure takes a special mindset.

If the goals do come then the pressure goes away. A few more goals in the coming weeks and another jigsaw puzzle will be slotting into place.

It’s been an OK week, and not one that should have been wholly unexpected. One win, one draw, one defeat; fairly predictable. It could have been any order. We were always likely to start more slowly than last year and it was always likely to be a bit harder. This is no time to jump to any conclusions.

Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0  

Some people seem to suggest that our defeat to Fleetwood is a sign of impending crisis. That’s two defeats in a row, meaning we’ve taken only a point from three games, time to panic.

But, in every sense, it is too early to tell whether this is how our season will pan out. It is only our third league game, we’ve only had one game at home, and, lest we forget, we are playing in a higher league. This seems to be one of our problems; we’re ‘only’ playing Fleetwood, a team that we ‘should’ be beating. But we forget that while they don’t have any heritage at this level, the team is there on merit and by definition they, like everyone else in the division, are going to be harder to defeat than  the teams we faced last year.

When will we know our direction of travel? Looking at the fixtures, I don’t think we’ll have a clear picture until October at the earliest. The early season is fraught with difficulties,  MK Dons, Sheffield United and Bolton away, Swindon at home. Things look more settled into October, but it’s not until January that we start to play batches of teams more like us. We might need to be patient, while the team find their feet.

Perspective and cool heads are needed right now, as Michael Appleton says, it’s time to focus on the basics. That said, with Brighton next Tuesday and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United away the following Saturday, a nerve settling result over Peterborough will do everyone the power of good this weekend.

Pompey chimes, Pompey bleats

Just as everyone was basking in the unlikely glory of a last minute goal at Fleetwood and even more improbably, in the fact we’re still top of the league a story broke. Portsmouth want to talk to Chris Wilder. But, would this a good move for him?

Twitter is at its best moments after a story breaks, and at its worst for the 2 weeks after. I hadn’t really kept up with our draw at Fleetwood; I was in Tesco when Danny Rose missed his penalty. By the time I’d got in the car Jerome Sale was winding up the game saying we were still unbeaten away. Somewhere in between Dave Kitson scored.

By the time I’d got home I knew that Radio Oxford would have been heading round the grounds to people like Headley Feast to find out how the Oxford City Nomads got on, or giving out the results of the Cherry Red Records 8th Reserve Division. I didn’t bother putting the radio on.

Later, I checked Twitter; something had happened. Wilder, Pompey, #wilder, #pompey. Mick Brown said something, Ian Lenagan said something. I love these moments, when fragments of a news story start coming together into something vaguely coherent. Twitter is perfect for something like this.

Eventually it transpired that Portsmouth had made an approach for Chris Wilder. Mick Brown appears to have revealed it to the media despite there being no official acknowledgement of the approach from either club.

This is big news; Portsmouth are a massive club, FA Cup winners in 2008, they were finalists in 2010. How could Chris Wilder resist the lure of such a massive opportunity to manage a such a massive club…

… who are currently languishing in 18th in League 2 without a win in 5.

Ian Lenagan referred to them as a ‘failing club’ which is a little ungracious but ultimately true. In his defence, it was said under pressure, but Portsmouth fans were incredulous at the slight. They’re fan-owned, they’re HUGE and they’ve got a history to die for. Hear them roar.

This delusional behaviour should be enough to put Chris Wilder off whether we were top of the division or not. Portsmouth may have taken a worthy step in the right direction, but the corner they’re turning is a very long one.

When I started going regularly to football, Portsmouth were just another lower-league team. They were, to me, no different to, say, Lincoln City or Exeter. We seemed to be kindred spirits for a period; having very similar levels of success, mostly around the Championship.

Since 1980 Portsmouth have won two domestic divisional titles, three promotions and one major domestic trophy. We’ve won two domestic titles, two promotions and one major domestic trophy. On balance, their successes probably slightly outstrip ours, but what I’m saying is that this massive club, in reality, has a fairly moderate history.

In the mid-2000s, as our world collapsed, they suddenly did something remarkable; Harry Redknapp got them promoted to the Premier League almost without warning.

They established themselves by signing a slew of top players; Peter Crouch, David James, Kanu, Jermaine Defoe, er, Dave Kitson. One thing that never added up was how they were doing it – signing such players with such a ropey infrastructure. The PR keeps it pretty simple – the line goes that there’s such an enormous amount of money flowing through the Premier League from Sky that everyone’s getting rich.

In reality, as Alan Sugar pointed out at the league’s inception, the money flows straight through the clubs and into the players’ pockets. The size of the TV deal doesn’t really matter to the clubs, they won’t get to see any of it because it goes on the colossal wages that need to be paid to keep you in the league. If you keep the money, you go down, if you spend the money, you’ve got nothing in the bank. Portsmouth were hugely trapped in this cycle; they looked and spent like a Premier League club; but they had a ramshackle ground and an owner of limited means.

Only two things breaks you from that cycle; better facilities and/or a mega rich benefactor. When the new stadium failed to materialise and the owner sold up to an Arabian who, it seems, didn’t actually have any money, it became clear the club couldn’t service their debt. They had to liquidate their assets; sell their players. What followed was three relegations and two periods in administration.

So Portsmouth’s massiveness is overstated; their history artificially over-inflated only by a brief, recent period in the Premier League they couldn’t really afford.

The artifice of their size brings with it a complacency. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that Portsmouth are currently the 85th in the football league; that they haven’t won in 5, that, on current data, the only way is down for them.

However, it is not their on-the-pitch situation that is of most concern. What they have been through is deeply traumatic; the psychological damage that they have suffered lingers on, the cognisant discord between being a club 10 times the size of those around them, but not 10 times better brings with it a deep trauma. Every defeat by an insignificant spec of a club is another mortal blow to their confidence and self-esteem.

We speak from some experience; we were a terrible team with a glorious past and, apparently, money to burn. Guy Whittingham is Mark Wright, the former star who failed to reignite the club. Chris Wilder, in this case, is John Ward or Chris Turner 7 years ago – a good manager we should just bring in to solve all our problems. As easy as picking up a bottle of milk from the newsagents.

Perhaps Portsmouth have got everything in place to turn the corner, there’s no evidence on the pitch that this is the case, and it’s difficult to ignore the lingering financial burden of having to pay-off former players eye-watering amounts.

A big club? A glorious history? Turning the corner? Ready to return to the big time?

I don’t have anything against Portsmouth, I hope on a human level that they survive and prosper. On a football level, I’m not that bothered either way. However, from what I can see, they’ve got a long way to go before they’ve recovered and may well fall some way yet. From Chris Wilder’s perspective, unless the financial offer is breathtaking, he would be mad to accept the job at this stage in their evolution.

Is it time to start pointing fingers?

Playing a blame game is very tempting, but rarely particularly helpful. But after two home defeats in a row, and a run of five without a win, the knives are out and everyone is sniping at each other. So who is at fault for our current predicament?

The manager

There’s little doubt that Chris Wilder is under pressure and it’s difficult to see quite how he can pull the fans around to give him sustained support. Each run of form feels like a patch over a much longer decline. Like an old car that breaks down more and more and becomes more expensive to fix; there’s a point at which you just need to buy a new car. That said, managers rarely get the opportunity to turn their team around, they’re fired before they get to that situation, so there are few reference points to imagine him going from zero to hero.

On Tuesday, against Fleetwood, there was a sense that it wasn’t so much that he should be fired, more that he should be released from the purgatory of the situation he finds himself in. Though there are harsh critics of Wilder, only the truly demented will deny that he’s been dealt a tough hand. Money is tight, the pitch is terrible and injuries have desecrated us; it’s not an easy ride. One bloke behind me bemoaned that Lewis Montrose was “Another Wilder choice” ignoring that every player in the squad is a Wilder choice, even the good ones. A fit Ryan Clarke, Andy Whing, Michael Duberry, Peter Leven and Tom Craddock – all Wilder choices – would have undoubtedly given Fleetwood a better game – most of Wilder’s good decisions are not currently available.

He looks a bit of a spent force at the moment, without ideas and without anyone to turn to for support.

The owner

In the main I trust Lenagan’s ownership. He has a track record in running decent professional sports clubs and is clearly a successful businessman. Like many very clever people he seems able to process lots of information and distill his options into a series of apparently simple yes/no decisions. Emotion and indecision doesn’t come into it; as long as you’re not too risk averse, this is a good thing for running a business.

But Lenagan’s clear thinking comes at a cost; he lacks the empathy of people who are less clear thinking than him, which means he struggles to understand what makes football fans; with their baked in irrationality, tick. As a result he appears cold hearted and distant and some of his decisions – such as the signing of Luke McCormick – seem ill-judged. What’s more, he’s almost too honest. Suggesting that some players have been signed without a medical during the most acute injury crisis in several generations leaves him vulnerable. And, at the fan forum, failing to mention that the club were about to hand over their shirt sponsorship space to a local charity was a missed opportunity for some good PR.

The landlord

Firoka have a lot to answer for. There is more to being the landlord of a professional sports stadium then providing a patch of grass, or as it has become now, rutted mud and sand. The science of hosting multiple sports exists; Cardiff, Wigan, Swansea and Hull all successfully run stadia featuring both rugby and football. And Firoka have actively sought a rugby tenant for some years. So this season’s difficulties were all predicable. Kassam isn’t providing a multi-sport facility; it’s a football pitch with rugby being played on it. The Firoz Kassam business model is the same throughout his empire; identify a desperate group of people; whether that be rugby and football teams or asylum seekers and provide them with a bare minimum service. In his purely transactional world, he ignores the benefit of collaboration – better facilities mean larger crowds mean more money and higher rents.

There is a chance to sort this out over the close season so that it never happens again, but the state of the pitch could be the route cause of a whole lot of our problems. If it does result in the manager losing his job, key players getting injured and crowds dropping, then Firoka should (but won’t) be held to account.

The team

There’s no lack of commitment in the team, and no lack of quality, at least not in the treatment room. We just can’t keep the good players on the pitch and the likes of Potter and Chapman need good players around them to help them perform. With so much going against them, the sense of helplessness, the lack of confidence is becoming overwhelming. What’s more worrying is that the season doesn’t really offer any respite from the gloom. There’s no cup or derby to distract us from the solemn trudge from here to May.

The injury problem has been so extensive that you can look at it two ways; either it points towards a systemic failure in the club’s sports science set up, or it’s so bizarre that you cannot imagine that you’ll be inflicted with it again for a generation. Certainly the club should tighten up in giving players fitness tests before signing them, and the investment in sports science promised at the end of last season needs to begin paying dividends. But there have been a surprising number of in-game ‘impact’ injuries, particularly at home in the first half. While players may be carrying injuries into games that they aggravate, a lot of these injuries do seem to be the result of bad luck; or perhaps a badly rutted pitch.

The fans

Whilst understandably angry and frustrated, the fans have been spoilt in recent years; Wilder has produced three derby victories, a win at Wembley and, in his first season, a thrilling, if ultimately doomed dash to the play offs. We expect to be entertained. During the latter months of the Kassam reign the fans were in a similar rut; in a game against Rochdale the crowd spontaneously started chanting and banging the many empty seats around them. The fans had taken it upon themselves to claw back the club.

The same sense of helplessness, coupled with a degree of expectation, means the the fans are sitting back, or not even turning up. It’s certainly hard to raise yourself when faced with defeat after defeat, but sitting back and waiting to be entertained, is not going to help.

… And the solution?

Don’t fire the manager. At least not yet. Admittedly, Wilder’s future is an entirely valid discussion to have. It might make us feel better for five minutes because it’ll give us a sense of doing something, but it’ll instantly lose us 4 years of collective learning, and if Lenagan is to be believed then it’ll cost us £200,000 in compensation and recruitment fees, money that could easily be spent on something more positive.

You can’t isolate our performances down to Wilder’s decisions alone. So what could you do that would address the influencing factors? I would appoint a new chairman. Whilst Kelvin Thomas may be a little devil-may-care in this age of austerity, somebody who can dedicate time to engaging with Firoka, provide some support for the manager and give the fans something to get behind. This could create a galvanising force would pay huge dividends.