The wrap – Forest Green, Bradford, Rochdale, Plymouth

I haven’t written anything on this blog for a while. It’s not as if things aren’t going well on the pitch. Since the last post we’ve won three and lost one and we’re in the third round of the FA Cup after an excellent win over Plymouth.

Not only was that win important in terms of progressing, it was our first one away from home against a team at our level (Checkatrade aside, which it always is). We’re scoring goals and we’ve stopped conceding. The performance against Rochdale was, at times, as good, if not better than performances under Michael Appleton in League 1.

But, something is missing. The opening months of the season have been brutal, and the recovery from the start of the season has been slow. I admire Karl Robinson for getting us out of the hole we were in. I can see why people struggle to warm to him; he’s like your mate in the pub who is full of energy and a great laugh. Except when you get home and all you want to do is go to bed, he’s the one still going, plotting something, badgering you to go back out to some club or other.

He needs that energy, it’s a thankless task being a football manager, harder still turning a team around in the face of an endless stream of criticism. Even harder in the modern game when you can’t bring players in outside transfer windows. When everyone was down, he had to be up, he had to keep coming into work and putting the hours in to solidify the defence and create an attacking style that wins games. He’s done all of that.

The Nile Ranger affair, as much as it was anything, didn’t help with the mood. You can’t blame Robinson for looking where he can for players given the constraints they’re under. It’s not that Ranger doesn’t deserve a chance while he’s free to take them. If we simply punish people endlessly for things they’ve done, what is the point of trying to turn yourself around? You might as well keep trucking on with your errant ways. But still, the last thing we need is to become a club that attracts negative press or appears to put its morals aside in the pursuit of league points.

We’re also being wound up, apparently. HMRC are taking us to court in an attempt to make us pay our bills. I don’t really know how serious these things are, they sound serious. I don’t know how easy these things are to resolve. My guess is that, practically, all HMRC want is a cheque and the whole problem will go away.

Yellows Forum is not exactly a good barometer for how serious this is, but OxVox are sufficiently concerned to have written an open letter to the club about it. My guess is that it’s not the lack of money that’s the problem, more the poor administration of that money to pay bills. It doesn’t bode well for January.

But, and I think this is where my head is at the moment. What I felt sitting in the stands against Rochdale is that the club doesn’t currently have a narrative. At least not one I can easily relate to. Results on the pitch are good, and that’s an important start, but the spirit of the club isn’t there. There isn’t a buzz on social media for each game, crowds are hardly booming, the relationship with players still seems quite distant, fan culture seems a bit flat, the club doesn’t feel part of the city or fans or something.

This season has been one about the mechanics of surviving a terrible start. Perhaps the FA Cup will give us something to believe in, a spark, perhaps January will bring us some inspiring signings and we will take our form into the New Year and, like in 1996, we’ll go on a run which will bring a tilt at promotion and everyone together. But, the club have got to resolve its issues, off the field has got to feel better than it currently does, otherwise the results will be a side issue and those with a casual interest in us – who turn 6,000 crowds into 8,000 crowds – will continue to stay at home.

The wrap – Oxford United 0 Forest Green Rovers 0, Oxford United 1 Gillingham 0

I used to have a Commodore 64 and the game Rambo II First Blood. The gameplay was even more primitive than the plot of the film it was based on. Essentially, a notably blocky and top heavy eight-bit Rambo runs headlong into a hail of bullets surviving as long as he can before getting shot to shit. I wasn’t very good at it and barely lasted more than a minute. I wasn’t alone; there’s a 10 minute clip on YouTube of which 6 and a half are the load screen and credits. The gameplay is a mere side issue. 

The tactics on Saturday reminded me of that game; give the ball to Ricky Holmes or Marcus Browne and let them run headlong at the defence in the hope of affecting some kind of breakthrough. Pretty much every raid resulted in a predictable, Rambo-style failure until eventually, Browne managed to draw the keeper into a moment of madness and the game was ours. It was hardly sophisticated, but we’ll take the points where we can get them.

It’s not particularly entertaining and it won’t work against better teams, it clearly didn’t work in the draw against Forest Green last week. But, with a newly stingy defence, it’s aiding a recovery of sorts.

Earlier in the season I was complaining about the sheer chaos of our gameplay – players running into each other, defensive errors and the like. The system we have now is disciplined, but obvious. It is suited to a team full of strong personalities brave enough to embark on kamikaze raids into the opposition defence, which is something we have plenty of.

This is where I think Sam Smith struggles, he’s only a few months older than Harvey Bradbury, who many is think of as a raw prospect. In this team, you only get to play if you’re prepared to bully your way into the game and Smith is not that kind of player. I suspect Kemar Roofe would have struggled in this team due to the lack of service and team play. Jamie Mackie will demand to be involved because of his personality and experience, Smith doesn’t seem to have the personality or game to bully his way into a game.

Bradbury, as Sam Long said afterwards, is a big lump. Karl Robinson’s observation was exactly right when he said that while not offering an obvious goal threat, getting centre-backs booked and putting them on the back foot played an important role in securing the three points. I’m not sure about Robinson’s view that we should start looking at the top 10, but between Bradbury and Mackie, and looking at our upcoming fixtures, it feels like we just have enough to get us to the January transfer window in a solid state.

Only Robinson knows what who has lined up in the New Year, but for me, I think our recent form should mean we rule out a move for Nile Ranger. The morals arguments aside, Ranger is an opportunity, and also a risk, but now we have established a precarious stability and I would rather we focused on planned development rather than speculative opportunities.

Forest Green and Yeovil Town wraps

Oxford United 1 Forest Green Rovers 0 

Forest Green was much more routine than it perhaps looked. They looked physically bigger than us all over the pitch, which may actually have been due to their vile luminous green shirts. Perhaps they were just conforming to the cliche of the part-time pub player, but I guess it’s more that they’re specifically built to cope with Conference football in the deep winter.

We may have been more lithe, but we also had added sophistication and class. Their strategy was to use their bulk to unsettle us and maybe get something – a goal – they could defend when they tired. It worked, to a point; we couldn’t settle on the ball and the referee couldn’t distinguish between a genuine tackle and a foul. As a result, we couldn’t control the game in the first half and they threatened to snatch a goal.

We just needed to weather the storm, if we could avoid conceding and not tire from the battering, we could press home our quality advantage late in the game. The risk was that they wouldn’t tire (although the way they started, it always it seemed likely they would), that we would concede (we didn’t) and that we were effectively planning to find a winner in a 30 minutes game. Of course, when you have a magician in your side, you’ve always got a chance.

So they leave having given it a good go, we scrape through and avoid the humiliation of a giant killing; which pretty much fitted the template of this kind of game.

Oxford United 3 Yeovil Town 2

Yeovil was an altogether more pleasant and enjoyable experience. Partly because of the performance, but mainly because they were pretty awful and the result, ultimately, didn’t mean very much. There was very little angst in the tie; it was more a cosy night in the pub with friends than a raucous all-nighter.

Even now, just two positive results from Wembley, it is kind of difficult to get excited about the JPT, that said, I did go, which might suggest something is stirring.

Millwall in the next round offers something interesting; Nathan Cooper’s passionate pre-match denunciation of the tie made an interesting point. Promotion from League 2 will not see a significant improvement in crowds – there are few ‘glamour’ clubs. What’s more it’s a heavily ‘northern’ division, meaning very few big away followings. So really, promotion only really means something – in a business sense – if you’re aiming for the Championship, where things really will improve financially.

Survival in League 1 is not really enough to justify the investment currently being made by the owners, so, if we do get promoted this year, we’ve got to compete and beat the likes of Millwall next. The tie will be a really interesting test of how close we are to doing that.

Coming up: Forest Green Rovers

The drop

Forest Green Rovers are a funny little club; for a period they looked like one of those clubs that would come piling in, in a hail of money – Histon, Greys – before burning to dust when it all becomes too expensive and difficult to sustain. Perhaps they could have been the next Fleetwood or Crawley; the kind of team that followers of the Premier League are shocked to find are in the Football League at all.

But rather than soaring high or crashing to the floor, they seem to have stabilised and are progressing rather nicely. I recently caught some Conference football on BT Sport and it seems the days when pretty much every club featured an ex-Oxford player are all but over. Eastleigh, of course, are a museum to our conference years, but otherwise it’s difficult to judge just how good a team they are at the moment.

What is true is that they started the season off like a train and now sit second behind Cheltenham. That suggests this isn’t going to be easy, but I also think that Michael Appleton will throw the kitchen sink at the game; it’s been 13 years since we had a Premier League team in the FA Cup and 15 since we had one at home, the law of averages dictates that the prospect of Premier League opposition in the next round is increasingly likely.

Yellows 0 Forest Green Rovers 0

It’s not easy thinking of what to write about when things are going well. You need a bit of drama and farce to get your teeth into. Everyone loves a good moan, but nobody’s given us a freakin’ bone this year.

So if there’s a void, then fill it. Before yesterday’s drab 0-0 draw with Forest Green Jerome Sale (I think) and Peter Rhoades-Brown engaged in a baffling conversation about the need to freshen up the squad within the next couple of months. And that was before the game.

Well, the soothsayers they spake the truth. Collapse! Catastrophe! A bloke behind me declared Potter ‘not as quick as Yemi’ and Green ‘just shit’. A caller to the phone said he didn’t agree with the signing of Green anyway, which suggests he’s spotted an otherwise imperceptible link between Green’s ‘greedy’ past and his profligacy in front of goal.

Yeah, let’s blame everyone else. Let’s blame them for our misery, our wasted money, our bad job prospects, our missed educational opportunities, let’s blame them for our sexless marriages, our worrying embarrassing ailments, our social failings and our addictions. It’s all so much easier that way.

Losing is a dirty addiction; people love losers, they’re so needy and The System is always to blame. Newcastle are on this self-pitying scag; the deeper in the shit they go, the more erratic they become. And we all love it because it deflects you from the truth. Winning is difficult, but it’s built on being boring and corporate. Great teams bore everyone else to tears because their success is monotonous and calculated. When they lose or draw everyone salivates… and then they win again.

We were flat against Forest Green but we didn’t lose and Matt Green missed a bunch of chances, but he was there to take a swing at them. It was generally a pretty awful spectacle, but we’re still top. The short answer to the problem is that we forgot to do the basic things that make us the best team in the division. The answer is not to tear the place to pieces and sign, y’know Jamie Cook or someone, it’s to get back to the basics, work our way through the gears and start winning again.

Stop press: Shit, we’ve only gone and signed ‘son of Joey’ Jamie Cook. Apparently we the fans contributed. Given that the 12th Man Fund was boasting an impressive, but not player-buying, pot of £4,900 suggests that the contribution is either a PR masterstroke or Jamie’s standard of living is akin to a living in a Brazilian favela. Welcome back Jamie, you might find the place has changed a little bit since you were last here.

Eastbourne Borough 0 Yellows 3, Forest Green 3 Yellows 3

During the death throws of our league days it was hardly unusual for us to enter the last twenty minutes of a game a goal down. I, and many others, would look out longingly as the cars parked in front of the Vue cinema began winding their way home.

Part of me wanted to join them but my principles said stay. A corner would raise my interest and hope, yet in my head I knew, by every logical measure possible, that victory was a near impossibility.

Which neatly summarises my attitude to this season as a whole. I want to be excited by our form and unlikely push for promotion, but every objective assessment tells me that it will all come to nought. We will end mid-table and some distance from the play-offs. Our post-Christmas form has given us some fleeting excitement. Fleeting and ultimately meaningless.

Then, of course, we give Eastbourne a good stuffing and I get to thinking that maybe destiny is with us after all. Then the draw with Forest Green brings me to my senses. The midweek games cause us to fall a further 3 points behind. Doubtlessly, our noses will be blooded further before there is a true picture of where we sit.

So, I want to walk away from this season and my head is telling me to do just that. But the sheer bloody enjoyment of the last three months wants it all to continue.

Yellows 2 Forest Green Rovers 1

Ricky or Yemi, Yemi or Ricky? Which do you play and which stays on the bench. It doesn’t seem to matter really. Both are impact players, one does the dirty work, then the other scores the goals. On Tuesday Yemi managed to put in at least one defensive header, confound us all, and himself, with a headed goal, before rounding it off with a inch perfect pass to James Constable for his goal. Inch Perfect Pass… three words you wouldn’t normally associate with Yemi.

Whether this is enough to keep Ricky at the club or Yemi off the list Chris Wilder has circulated, remains to be seen. He seems the kind of man who likes players that put in a 90-minute shift – especially if Yemi is on anything like the money people claim he’s on.

But then, who knows with Chris Wilder? Which may be the secret to his current success. His was a fantastically underwhelming appointment. We don’t know him and we’re culturally programmed to be shy of things we don’t know. This has given him space to work – we all knew Patterson, Smith, Wright and Shotton and our expectations were clear and instant. We shy away from commenting on Wilder’s decisions because he’s still an outsider and we don’t know how to approach him. Personally I quite like the distance, I don’t want to be the manager, I know I can’t do any better. I’ll play my role and let him play his.

Wilder has also stumbled on another secret to our success, which is to avoid playing away. League administrative issues aside, the visits to Crawley and Cambridge this week will teach us a lot more about our manager, our team and our season.