The wrap: Gillingham 1 Oxford United 0

Conceding in the 89th minute on Saturday caused us to slip into the relegation zone but had we scored in the 89th minute we’d have been 15th.

We are in a division of the finest margins, where the difference between 13th and 21st is four points. We can take a crumb of comfort from this; although it feels like we’re constantly missing the mark, everyone else is in the same boat and we remain very much in the dogfight to stay up. The hope is that we’re sitting at the back of the pack, Mo Farah style, and will surge towards safety just in time for the end of the season.

Certainly stats website Experimental 361 seems to think we’ll be OK, and some analysis from the Oxford Mail pointed towards our comparatively easy run-in as an indicator of hope. But, a bit like the assumption that someone will come to their senses about Brexit and come up with something that will avoid food and medical shortages; who genuinely knows?

The difference between success and failure is hard to fathom in the division; the top five are mostly teams that wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship. But, Luton Town, a historically a benchmark for us, are top. Size alone doesn’t guarantee success.

The next group are looking at mid-table safety – while most have had their successes at this level or above, Wycombe are there. It also features Coventry and Blackpool, who are not exactly known for their stability.

So, what is the key? Despite their off-the-field problems, Coventry have Mark Robins, who is a very capable manager, Wycombe and Luton have established a solid, stable business model. Nobody can argue we’ve enjoyed stability off-the-field and there are many who will argue that Karl Robinson is not a capable manager.

I don’t subscribe to that view wholly, but it is difficult to fathom the logic behind current team selections. Robinson described his bench yesterday as ‘unbelievable’, but didn’t play them. He’ll argue about not changing a winning team, although that ignores how genuinely terrible the first half against Scunthorpe was last week.

That became the Jerome Sinclair show, but it was Gavin Whyte who animated the game coming off the bench.

I don’t think Luke Garbutt is as bad as some suggest, but it is difficult to argue that he has a significant influence over games, yet from somewhere in recent weeks, he’s become a first choice player. With Whyte appearing to be fit, it is hard to see why Garbutt is the preferred option. Someone suggested that Everton may be putting pressure on the club to play him, I don’t know if that happens, but it’s more logical than playing him because of his performances.

All season Marcus Browne has been presented as a finely tuned thoroughbred, constantly on the verge of injury, but he made the bench ahead of Carruthers, so we might assume he was fit to play some part. He remained on the bench.

Mark Sykes has had a reasonable start to his Oxford career, but by his own admission he’s benefitted from John Mousinho’s mentoring. Nick Harris raves about him in away games, but last week he was patchy. Cameron Brannagan is not exactly an old hand, but he was fit and available and didn’t get a sniff.

I could also make arguments for Jamie Hanson over Sam Long or Jamie Mackie over Jerome Sinclair. Although both are less obvious. I understand players carry injuries and that fatigue needs to be managed, but it is hard to see why the more marginal players – Long, Sykes and Garbutt and being consistently preferred to more established players. One or two, I get. More than that, less so.

Robinson can argue that we’ve just come off the back to two wins, and that the defeat to Gillingham was in the last minute. He argues we should have had a penalty, but ignores the fact that without Simon Eastwood’s save, that would have been immaterial. Plus, he’s got Rochdale on Tuesday to think about. It’s always more complicated than fans assume it to be. But, in a division of the finest margins, it feels like we’re marginalising those who give us the edge.

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.

The wrap – Gillingham, Bradford and MK Dons

It was generally acknowledged that December and the Christmas period would define our season and so it has proved to be. It seems most likely that the play-offs are beyond us, and even if we manage to sneak in, then the last few games seem to prove we are still not ready for the Championship.

Whether this is a good thing or not is open to endless debate and probably depends on how impatient you are to see the club achieve its ambitions. The four Christmas games were, of course, overshadowed by the Wigan thrashing. But, looking objectively, they are league leaders and look well equipped to be in the same position at the end of the season, then we played sure-fire play-off contenders Bradford away. Plenty of other teams will lose both those fixtures this season. The problem with them being so close together is that it put pressure on the Gillingham and MK Dons games to pick up points. Four points (and three minutes from taking six) is actually a respectable, if not thrilling points total. So, although Wigan was a humiliation, as a block of results they were probably not wholly unexpected or as disastrous as initially perceived.
Defensively there are issues, of course, if you think that last year we had Edwards, Johnson, Dunkley and Nelson – three of whom can comfortably play in a division above. The back-four we have now is makeshift, each can compete in League 1, but together as a quartet there are issues. 
While MK Dons oscillated gently from boring organisation to blythe incompetence, our performance did show glimpses of what we saw earlier in the season. We were far more mobile in attack, something that has only become possible in the last week or so with the return of van Kessel, Obika and Mehmeti. You could also see the intention to keep moving the ball to pull teams out of shape. English fans are notorious for their affliction to passes going backwards, but it draws the opposition on, helping us to attack on the break. How many times in the last 15 years have we complained about not being able to break teams down at home? This can be a very effective way of doing it.

Of course, the ultimate ambition is to be competitive with the teams at the top of the division. But, there is little doubt that the Eales project was significantly disrupted during the summer, so being on par with last year is not an unrealistic ambition in the circumstances and, despite the disruption, that’s pretty much where we are.
Pep Clotet’s arrival coincided with the gutting of Michael Appleton’s squad. He filled the gap with people he knew he could trust and, more importantly, were available. He’s implied in interviews that he didn’t expect to have to fill so many holes in the squad. So, what we we have seen to date is not so much the end state, but glimpses of Clotet’s philosophy.

If December was a test of our current credentials on the pitch, January may be more important off it. While it’s unlikely that we’ll fix all the weaknesses in the squad, the nature of any signings we make could give us a clearer indiction of the real Pep Clotet model. 

Gillingham wrap – Oxford United 3 Gillingham 0

I’ve got a mate who used to work in Formula 1. He’s a highly skilled engineer, when I asked him what he did, he said that he designed the bit which holds the wheel to the car, or as you and I might think of it, the thingy.

That’s all he did, designed, tested and built this particular thingy, and when he had one thingy, he went back to see if he could improve it. That’s it. Not only that, there were hundreds of engineers, all designing different thingies. You’d think that you just design a car, build it and drive it as fast as you can.

Football teams are a bit like that; it’s never quite finished. A constant balancing act between optimum performance and blowing yourself to pieces. Just as you think you’re reaching perfection, something happens – an injury, a loss of form, a transfer, a retirement.

The last few weeks felt like Pep Clotet was tightening the screws on his machine, perfecting his thingies; blending each component to work as one. We were gradually becoming more of a whole.   With the talent at his disposal, it seemed the question was; how long would it take to get to where we want to be and how long could we hold it?

Gillingham were a curiously deceptive opponent, they seemed competent, but at the same time useless. None-the-less, this was as complete a performance as we could hope for. Maybe more complete than any home game under Michael Appleton last year; and that’s saying something

Reaching a sweet spot after six games is impressive although there’s a risk we think the job is complete. Injuries to Ribiero and Obika alongside with Williamson’s brief parental leave show that this is as dynamic environment as a running Formula 1 car.  What seems certain is that Saturday showed we appear to be ahead of where we might have imagined we’d be given the summer we had.

Gillingham wrap – Gillingham 0 Oxford United 1

I might sound like a wizened old farmer, but if you weren’t around during the great goal-drought of 1996 then you don’t know what a goal-drought is. This was when we managed to go through six whole games without scoring.

We weren’t short of creativity or firepower, we just couldn’t score; Paul Moody was going through one of his lumbering oaf phases, Nigel Jemson was skulking around like a teenager who’d had his Commodore 64 confiscated. By the time we got to the seventh game, against Stoke City, people were genuinely asking what would happen if we never scored again. Like, EVER?

The deadlock was broken by human crab and sideways pass specialist Martin Gray, the first of just four goals he scored in 128 appearances for the club. It’s fair to say that nobody was looking to Gray to break the deadlock.

It didn’t stop there, we actually went on to win 4-1 and having gone 6 games without a goal, the next 6 produced spunked 13.

It was almost as if the only thing that would knock us out of the deep rut we were in was something unexpected. Chey Dunkley’s goal against Gillingham, not his first, but his first with his feet, may just help kick us out of the mini-rut we were threatening to fall into.

It’s been easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we can’t score after we drew blanks against Walsall and Northampton, but it’s easy to forget that we’d scored six in the two games before that.

It’s easy to forget that we don’t have Wes Thomas or that Joe Skarz is only just coming back from injury meaning Marvin Johnson can’t move further up the field. Or that Liam Sercombe, often a source of attacking drive, isn’t available. Or that, in terms of goals scored last season, we lost no less than 67% of our fire power over the summer, 84% if you include Sercombe. Or that the transfer rules have changed making signing new players outside the transfer window nearly impossible.

With Sercombe and Skarz coming back, offering more firepower from midfield and freeing up Marvin Johnson then we should become much more threatening going forward. This might even give more supply to Kane Hemmings, but if we can add a striker, then we’re going to be just fine.

Weekly wrap – Oxford United 4 Coventry City 1, Oxford United 1 Gillingham 0, Scunthorpe 1 Oxford United 1

If there was anything that characterised our start to the season it was as nice as our football could be, we kept getting beaten up by the big boys. If there was anything that characterised our last week it was how suddenly we’d toughened up.
The defeat to Shrewsbury took us to just outside the relegation zone. Darryl Eales gallantly suggested that he looked at the points total rather than our position, but it was little comfort. What was more concerning was the general impotence of our display – in particular, our start – it was not just like we’d been found out, it was like we were resigned to taking a beating whenever we came up against a bit of muscle. Then, something changed and against Coventry we were out of the blocks like lightening.
I moved seats to sit with Brinyhoof so we were in line with the six yard box at the home end. We seemed to spend the whole of the first half watching Chris Maguire take corners. It was a surreal level of dominance; at one point I looked over at the scoreboard to see how long it was until half-time and saw that we’d only been playing 20 minutes, such was the dynamism of our display, we packed a game’s worth of attacking into a few minutes.
A Coventry newspaper described their display as one of the worst in their history; which brings the obvious question; were we good or were they bad? It made me think that the Gillingham game could be a bit of a let down. In the end it was a different kind of display, but no less pleasing.
The whole display was characterised by graft, punctuated by a moment of genuine class from Marvin Johnson. It’s interesting that Johnson and Hemmings seem to be slowly settling into their roles. Johnson is having a growing influence on our play while Hemmings is slowly finding his goal touch. The bloke behind me thinks Hemmings is ‘useless’ despite him now scoring more goals than Danny Hylton had this time last year. It’s easy to forget sometimes that these are young men coming into a new environment, possibly living in a new area; it’s going to take a while for them to settle and perform. This seems to be one of the things that Michael Appleton excels at; I cannot think of a player he’s signed in the last year or so who hasn’t eventually performed.
Surely then, with our erratic form, after two good displays a trip to league leaders Scunthorpe would see us finally blow it and return home with nothing. If nothing else, two such committed displays did seem to have taken their toll with Wes Thomas, Joe Skarz and Chey Dunkley all coming off with injuries in the previous two games.
Well, no; once again with this new found resilience we came away with a point and maybe deserved three. Seven points in seven days is impressive, but what is more important is the new found steel we seem to have acquired across the team.

Does the Gillingham result reinforce the need to remove Chris Wilder?

The win against Gillingham surprised everyone, but it didn’t spark a renewed optimism amongst Oxford fans. We’re now 11th, but nobody is expecting a run at the play-offs. Our form seems to be returning, but most expect it to slip away again. Even if the football is improving, the mood isn’t; is there an argument for keeping Chris Wilder?

A dark veil has gently descended over Oxford United and specifically Chris Wilder. It started last year with the most vehement reactionaries screaming for the sacking of the manager after every home draw. Any tabloid journalist will tell you that if you react hard enough often enough, that you’ll eventually be right about something; but that doesn’t mean we should praise the supposed foresight of extremists. More moderate and thoughtful fans recognised what Wilder had quite a lot of credit banked with his achievements for the club.

Time was needed, and stability, there were mitigating factors such as injuries, financial constraints and the pitch. Plus, it’s a long season and all things being even results should improve. The assumption was that the severity of the injury crisis couldn’t continue forever and eventually there would be a period of stability where we could judge Wilder’s merits and abilities. Things got worse; the spine of the team was desecrated and almost every new injury seemed to come with the news that the player concerned would be out for the season.

Gradually, the darkness has engulfed more and more people and it seems now that almost everyone takes the view that Wilder’s time has come. The pedestrian draw on Saturday was met with grudging acceptance that the season, perhaps even our long term ambitions, were over. Of course, then, on Tuesday the team surprised everyone with the win at Gillingham, the third year in a row in which we’ve beaten the league leaders away from home.

Some have reacted by saying that the result is almost the exception that proves the rule. The ‘rule’ being that Wilder is incompetent. It doesn’t; it proves that Wilder is not a spent force. He’s far from perfect, but you don’t become the 7th longest serving manager in the league through without having some ability.

Following Tuesday’s result, we’re only one position lower than we finished last year. While the play-offs seem as distant a prospect as they’ve been all season, the football argument for replacing Chris Wilder is slightly more open than most will countenance.

However, the Wilder-out argument with the most credence is the economic one. We’re the 7th best away team in the league; another argument for keeping him on. But most supporters don’t see us away and at home we are lacking in confidence and quality; the pitch is sapping the legs of the likes of Rigg and Potter, the ensuing trench warfare either neutralises the game to the point of tedium or it gives the away team an advantage. Week after week of the same is dispiriting; for the players and the fans. The tide of vacant blue seats rises with each game.

The result is that crowds have dropped. Revenues are only being propped up by season tickets purchased in brighter times last season. Come renewal time, with precious little about the new season to look forward to, many more are likely to take a wait and see approach to next season’s involvement. From a customer perspective, with a product promising little, it seems better to keep a little cash in the bank than to commit to a year of disapointment.

The promise of new signings might make a difference, but the prospect of that seems unlikely. More likely is the mass departure of big wage earners replaced by less remarkable names. This may not be a bad thing; better to have moderate to good players playing than good to great players in the treatment room. However, a slew signings that might stimulate a surge of season ticket sales seems unlikely. The other option is to fire the manager to stimulate something.

This will undoubtedly trigger a flurry of interest – one of the most noticeable things about the amount of Twitter traffic during the win over Gillingham was the fact there wasn’t any – we stared at each other like an old married couple on Valentine’s Day sitting silently in a restaurant hoping no one suggests rounding the night off with some passionless rutting. A vacant manager’s seat will get us chattering again, but the malaise digs much deeper, if Lenagan does indeed ‘grow some’ and fire Wilder is this decisive act really going to jolt us into buying season tickets?

I doubt it. I also doubt that any replacement will be thrilling enough to trick us into immediate renewed optimism. But, on the other hand, it seems a better option than doing nothing and drifting helplessly towards the precipice. I’m a bit tired of the brief dawns of hope that come with wins like the one on Tuesday, and, although my head says that we should stay rational; I still think a new chairman is needed to galvanise and lead the club, a growing part of me says we should just give in and pull the trigger just to get the job out the way, and let’s move onto something else, whatever that may be.