Match wrap – Gillingham 2 Oxford United 7 (seven)

Winston Churchill once said “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Motivational speaker Jim Rhone says “If you are not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” After scoring four penalties in a seven goal haul away from home at Gillingham, Cameron Brannagan says “It was mental out there”.

Seven goals is somehow the gateway to lunacy in football. If a team scores six it’s considered to be a dominant display, a meticulous deconstruction, something controlled and calculated, it sits in a realm of normality. Anything beyond that is a feeding frenzy, the difference between an assassin and a mass murderer.

A player scoring four goals is a freak; we have a word for scoring two – a brace – and three – a hat-trick. Four is just four, it’s so abnormal, we haven’t even found a way to describe it. So rare, we don’t need to try. In fact, in the world of Oxford United four goal hauls haven’t been scored by the usual suspects but by the outliers – Richard Hill and Tom Craddock. Years ago Paul Scholes was asked what his greatest experience in football was, he overlooked his international career and trophies saying it was seeing Frankie Bunn score six for Oldham in 1989. It’s other-worldly, transcending the norms of wins, titles and championships.

As a football fan, that’s the quest. The thing that Premier League billionaires don’t get, trophies are OK, but the real goal is to witness a freak. To be rewarded for your dedication. To be the one who stayed until the end to see Chris Allen make it 5-5 against Portsmouth in 1992 after being 5-3 down with a minute to go. Thirty years later, that game alone is the sole reason many people stay until the final whistle even when all seems lost, just in case.

The fact all four were penalties accesses a universe only usually available through hallucinogenics. The conditions you need to get more than one penalty in any game have to be perfect. It’s possible to win one marginal call; after that each one has to be increasingly obvious to be given. A referee isn’t going to be drawn into trouble with his seniors by pointing to the spot every time someone falls on the floor, particularly when it’s being awarded to the away team, that’s just human nature. I notice that the referee was Robert Madley, who was sacked by the Premier League 2019 after a video was released of him mocking a disabled person. He’s only just returned to English football and so is even more unlikely to be in the mood to facilitate a situation which brings him back into the headlines, unless he’s got no choice.

On top of that, you need a team with the imagination to take the opportunity when it’s presented to them. It would have been easy and normal to share the ball around with others, particularly once the game was out of reach. Brannagan might have put the ball in the net, but the others let him, they could see destiny in their grasp and didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. It was weird and unusual, but that’s what they wanted. And then, having been given the opportunities, you have to score them, which is easier said than done. Our penalty record is pretty poor.

Perhaps it’s right that Cameron Brannagan takes the headlines. In many ways, he’s a bit of an enigma; consistently in the fans’ top two or three players, but he doesn’t score lots of goals and he’s not a towering defender. He’s got a short fuse and can be very vocal, but is rarely given the captain’s arm band. Even some of his exquisite passing gets overlooked because we’re so used to seeing it. It’s not unusual for him to spray a ball thirty yards to barely a murmur of appreciation because that’s just what he does. Yet, he remains one of the most connected players to the fans.

His arrival in 2018 alongside Rob Dickie seemed to signal the fact we’d thankfully abandoned Pep Clotet’s international experiment and were returning to the Michael Appleton model of picking up young British players, developing them and selling them on. But, as Joe Rothwell, Gavin Whyte, Ryan Ledson, Shandon Baptiste and Rob Dickie have rolled through the system, Brannagan remains. Perhaps it’s part of his appeal, aside from his consistency and versatility. There have been rumours of moving to the Championship, and he may still go even before the end of the month, but unlike the others, nobody has come in with a bid the club can’t turn down. Moreover, he hasn’t agitated for a move, for someone who has always been impatient for success, that’s to his credit.

Sometimes, I think players need particular managers to perform. They understand the player as a person as well as a professional. I always felt that was the case with Chris Maguire, who only found consistency under Michael Appleton, but has been fitful elsewhere. Brannagan and Karl Robinson seem to go together; perhaps other managers are less certain of how to get the best out of him. Perhaps Brannagan actually enjoys being at the club and doesn’t see it as a stepping stone, like the others. It’s all to our benefit, when he’s fit, we have a midfield which consists of Brannagan plus two others. He can play further forward or sit back and let others play. He was probably the player more than any other that seemed destined for a couple of seasons before being sold on, but he’s become a mainstay of the Robinson era.

But, when he does finally leave, whether that’s tomorrow or when he’s 36 and his knees have gone, what would he leave behind? The memory of lots of players is more a feeling than a moment; Rothwell, Ledson and Dickie were good players, but did they have a landmark moment? A lasting legacy?

Now Brannagan has his his moment in history, he took us into the other realm, the other place, where national newspapers try to cobble together the story of a game they couldn’t be bothered to attend. Now, when his name is mentioned in the years to come, his four penalties at Gillingham will be the memory that everyone will recall. Everyone will claim to have been there. Maybe when they build the new ground at Stratfield Brake they can put four statues up of him stroking the ball home, one at each corner of the stadium. Kids will ask their parents why we have The Four Brannagans and they can tell the story of The Strange Day Out At Priestfield.

It is too easy to convince yourself that any out-of-the-ordinary event is a moment of history. People line the streets when an American president visits or a royal wedding happens. When interviewed, people say they’re here to witness ‘a little piece of history’. But, as special and unique as that moment feels at the time, it’s also something planned that will happen time and again. Real historic moments are unique and unexpected; you can’t plan to be in their presence. Most Oxford fans went to Gillingham out of duty or habit; the experience is notoriously one of the worst in English football and it’s a nightmare to get there, there’s no good reason to seek out history there.

But there it was, seven goals, four penalties by the same player, a unique and historic moment that will surely never happen again. It’s not often you get to say that.

Correction: The original post said that John Aldridge didn’t score four goals in a game, but he did, against Gillingham in 1985. The post has been amended.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Gillingham 1

I have a relative who is, let’s say, not that keen on the EU even though she’s lived an abundantly comfortable life in its apparent shackles. She’s never explained what she hoped to gain from being released from its constraints, and seemed entirely blind to the comforts it has given her. Now her fuel bills are spiralling, she can’t put petrol in her car and some of the food she used to take for granted isn’t there. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge the relative luxury she lives in, taking for granted the continuous flow of essential goods and services as if they arrived by magic. She remains blissfully unaware of how comfortable she is.

I noticed the other day that I’ve barely tweeted this month, there hasn’t been much to say about the club beyond the games themselves. Even walking to the stadium on Saturday it was so quiet, there was a moment when I wondered if the game had been postponed. Around the stadium, people milled around rather than buzzed. 

Once inside, it struck me how good the stadium is starting to look with the new perimeter fencing and the immaculate pitch. On the pitch was a hive of activity as players warmed up watched by a phalanx of coaches. Not only did it feel very professional, it also gave a sense of occasion even though there were relatively few people there to see it. After the game, there were gushing plaudits on the radio about the performance, which, let us not forget, was a 1-1 home draw against 19th placed Gillingham. 

In many ways it was a very good performance, we made plenty of chances and looked solid enough at the back. We’re very entertaining to watch and it’s difficult to identify a single player who you’d want to criticise or take issue with.

But, it was a 1-1 home draw against 19th placed Gillingham. The issue might be the relative comfort with where we’re at as a club. Matty Taylor’s early goal seemed to be greeted with the kind of response you’d hear given to a batsman reaching his half-century at county cricket. Granted it was early, but it was still more polite applause than frenzied excitement. The opening period threatened to bring a flood of goals, but we got a bit sleepy and Alex MacDonald fired in the equaliser after being given about three minutes to set himself for his shot. Nobody seemed to criticise the lack of closing down or vent their frustration, many were too busy gently applauding MacDonald’s strike. It was a good strike from a nice man, perhaps we needed him to knee slide while kissing his badge in front of the East Stand.

Afterwards, many people talked about how we needed to be more clinical. This means taking responsibility and doing something beyond what you’ve been asked to do. Yes, there will be goals that come direct from a training ground routine, but more often than not, goals result from players doing something nobody unexpected, breaking the rules. Moments after Mark Sykes came on, he nearly converted a chance by not being in the place he was supposed to be, but there was precious little of that. 

We lack an edge, all good teams have them, they often manifest in people that go against the culture of the team, perhaps even of the notions of professional football. In 2016 we had Danny Hylton, a player who was the polar opposite of Michael Appleton’s clinicalism, Wycombe have Akinfenwa, Gillingham have Steve Evans. Jamie Mackie used to play that role, a slightly absurd character for whom the plan is torn up the moment the game starts. Everything we did on Saturday we did well, but it followed a template. 

Ironically, in previous seasons both Gavin Whyte and Ryan Williams have had that wild card role, an ability to play their own game and find runs and angles that don’t exist on a tactics board. It throws the opposition off; obviously if you play enough balls into Matty Taylor he will score simply because he’s very good at that, but think about last season’s game against Gillingham and Sam Long’s last minute winner, nobody had that on their plan. James Henry has his moments, but he’s less influential when pushed out wide. Currently everyone is sticking to the plan and it’s the plan rather than the result which is of precedent. Herbie Kane showed glimpses that he may offer something in that vein, with confidence and fitness he could be the one who can offer something different. 

It flows into the stands; we haven’t won a league title for 36 years, nobody talks about wanting to do that anymore. Automatic promotion is rarely mentioned, our goals focus on reaching the play-offs. But there are clubs around us who are more anxious, more edgy, less patient to see success. While we wait for the jigsaw puzzle pieces to fall into place, others are picking up the gnarly, ugly points that make a difference at the end of the season.

Off the pitch too, there’s a sense of working to a template. Long gone are the days of the club’s Twitter alter-ego ‘Clive’ or the authenticity of Sarah Gooding, when she was at the helm. The club’s communication has become more anodyne; competent, informative but a little bit dull, too polished. I’m not pretending that Twitter defines the club, but, I suppose, it does maintain the dialogue in between games. Its like that the club’s Twitter character used to be one of the fans now it’s firmly within the club’s corporate structure.  

This has all made us very comfortable and maybe rather too accepting of a 1-1 draw with 19th place Gillingham. This is Karl Robinson’s club now, there’s so much to admire; the style we play, the progress we’re making off the pitch, the likeable squad and Robinson’s genuine appreciation of the fans. All is well in the House of Robinson, but that might be part of the problem.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Evans outsized

Saturday 17 April 2021

Fatberg Steve Evans was left swimming in a vat of his own high saturated frustration on Saturday as Oxford United came back from 2-0 to beat Gillingham 3-2 with three goals in the last fifteen minutes including two from Headington United’s Sam Long. Evans was fuming at the result; he hasn’t been this angry since his Deliveroo delivery driver said he couldn’t fit his order of 18 buckets of KFC in the boot of his Skoda Fabia.

Sunday 18 April 2021

Celtic’s Mark Wilson – who Celtic fans describe as the best player ever to play for the club called Mark Wilson – has said that former Oxford loanee Jonjoe Kenny – a player so good they named him thrice – shouldn’t be offered a permanent deal when his loan runs out. Celtic have had a shock this season as they’ve found other teams willing to score goals against them. Wilson doesn’t see Kenny as the man to cynically reclaim the Scottish game for the minority.  

Monday 19 April 2021

Asked about the European Super League, KRob implored the powers that be to look at the bigger picture; the future of all Saturday night family entertainment. He fears for the prospects for the future Steve Brooksteins and Honey Gs of this world if the plans were to go ahead – “This is about the game that we love and to take away the X-Factor is going to dampen the passion.” he said. 

Tuesday 20 April 2021

On the anniversary of the Milk Cup win, it was eighties throwback night on Tuesday as Oxford travelled to the new Plough Lane to face Wimbledon. Oxford thought Heaven Was a Place on Earth when they took the lead through Josh Ruffels, James Henry received a Lady in Red card after his handball on the line gave away a penalty. Wimbledon then got the Eye of the Tiger, scoring twice in quick succession to secure a 2-1 win.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Jose’s son John Mousinho has been elected to the PFA Players’ Board, an important role in a time of significant turmoil in the game. It’s important to give the players a voice on issues such as club finances, head injuries and the globalisation of the game. It also gives Mous the opportunity to buy a new clipboard and some box files from Rymans; ‘Watermelon shaped pencil case? Don’t mind if I do.’

Thursday 22 April 2021

It was the Seven Minute Twenty-Eight Second Fans Forum on Tuesday with Niall don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. The first question was about the stadiumsituation which was rapidly followed by a question about the stadiumsituation and then a question about the stadiumsituation. To which the answers can be summarised as ‘maybe’. McWilliams confirmed that the club were working on the assumption that the ground would be working at 50% capacity with no away fans next season; think the atmosphere of playing Accrington Stanley on a Tuesday night, but every week.

Friday 23 April 2021

The Peterborough Telegraph have gone all jet packs and power pills and looked at the team of the season based on, woo, statistics. Three Oxford players have made the cut based on, woo, statistics. Jack Stevens has bettered his expected saves by 7.6%, Rob Atkinson has 2.6% progressive runs per 90 minutes, Alex Gorrin has defensive duel success of 62.07%. Surprisingly Sam Long isn’t there, even though he has 100% no interest in this kind of claptrap.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Gillingham 2

A great hulk of a man with a reputation that echoes across the lower leagues. It’s a reputation that masks his limitations, but it keeps him at the forefront of our minds and, more importantly for him, it maintains a demand for his services. 

In December 2019, Ade Akinfenwa approached John Mousinho in a melee – we were 25 minutes into a tense almost-promotion decider, almost-derby – Alex Gorrin had floored a Wycombe striker and it all kicked off. With Akinfenwa already on a booking, Mousinho knew that any contact with the self-styled Beast would put pressure on the referee to produce a second card and eject the Wycombe striker from the game. Mousinho stood firm, he didn’t retaliate, he didn’t step back, Akinfenwa was now committed, if his brand was to be upheld, he would have to see it through. He pushed Mousinho in the chest, the lightest shove, and the experienced defender crumpled on the floor. The referee had no option and Akinfenwa, and Wycombe’s chances of victory, were gone. 

It was a rare moment of Oxford showing a mastery of the darker arts of football. Something we have missed this season at times. If you were to distill a good League 1 team into its component parts, somehow put it in a centrifuge to separate out it’s individual elements, you’d probably produce one lump of pure Oxford United and a lump of pure Gillingham. 

There’s nothing sophisticated about a Steve Evans team, no working the ball from the back because that’s how it’s done nowadays. Goal kicks go long, throw-ins; longer, attack in numbers, defend in numbers. Like Wycombe last year, it has its limitations, but it’s effective enough. If you can get your noses ahead and shut up shop, then you can frustrate your opponents into paralysis. 

You can see why clubs employ Steve Evans; he’ll never make you worse or cost you a lot of money; where other managers could force an owner into investing in a sophisticated system which has no material benefit, Evans will get a committed set of players together and work them into the ground.

We seemed surprised by it when we shouldn’t be; it’s probably the only club whose billing has the manager’s name preceding it; ‘we’ve got Steve Evans’ Gillingham on Saturday’. 

In truth, I thought we coped better with the onslaught than we have previously. In the opening minutes it was a bombardment, but when we did get on the ball, we slowed things down, moved it around and tried to take the sting out of it. We needed to kill the game stone dead, keep possession, tire them out, but while the beast stirred, we were always vulnerable.

We were dragged into Steve Evans’ world of harassing and harrying, some call it anti-football; but it’s still part of the game and one we’re rarely keen to touch. An engineered drinks break immediately preceded their opening goal; go figure. 

Their second was a sucker punch, Josh Ruffels limping in the box from a heavy challenge; a wounded gazelle showing a moment of vulnerability, the ball was worked out down his flank, allowing Jordan Graham to cross and Robbie Cundy slot home. We were being haunted by our 2016 promotion squad.

It was this season in microcosm; beaten by the darker arts, a lack of guile, experience and leadership. We didn’t do enough to slow the game down, to nullify their threat, even to take them on at their own game as Mousinho did with Akinfenwa last season. You can argue that it’s not right, but they’re the ones with the lead. Gillingham may lack grace and style, but does it really matter when the calculations are this simple; the winner stays on, the loser’s season is over.

A moment of class from Sam Winnall two minutes later reignited the game, but it still looked like a point was the best we might hope for, and that wasn’t really enough. But, it put Gillingham in a difficult position; continue to shut up shop and risk conceding again or follow the old game plan and go at our throats, potentially leaving them vulnerable – particularly with Dan Agyei offering a pace outlet. It was a lose/lose situation.

The game and season was concentrated into fifteen minutes; for us, it was simple, we needed another goal at least, it didn’t really matter if we lost 2-1 or 3-1 or 10-1. We needed something to get us back on terms.

But of course, it’s not just expensively constructed talent and cynical gamesmanship that makes a team great. A hail-Mary cross from Anthony Forde drops from the early evening sun to the back post and there’s Sam Long; the embedded spirit of the whole club powering through three Gillingham defenders to head in the equaliser. In the context of the game, it’s enough; a point, and a squint at the table, and we live to fight another day.

It’s not just that Sam Long is a local player whose been with the club since he was eight-years-old, he’s overcome near-career ending injuries at crucial stages of his life. As the club moved forward, he battled just to stand still, had the club decided the young injury prone defender was surplus to requirements, nobody would have batted an eyelid and there wouldn’t have been many clubs lining up to take him on. Even when he was back to fitness, there have been plenty of attempts to replace him; Ricardinho, Chris Cadden and Sean Clare have all been brought in; but he’s seen them all off. Sam Long knows that you can’t give up when there’s still a chance.   

So, maybe those experiences have galvanised something in him, a need to persevere, right to the end. Never say die. In the context of the game, a point would have been enough, a poor performance that we battled back from. But in the context of the season, in the context of Sam Long’s club and career, it wouldn’t have been enough. It would have been a wasted opportunity. There’s still a glimmer of hope; and while hope remains…

And so, there we were, 94 minutes on the clock, the strange bright early evening sun bathing the eerily empty stadium. It’s a hue I’ve started to associate with the pandemic; the same, strange glow that bathed our play-off game against Portsmouth last year. Cameron Brannagan is given space to set himself. Gillingham, for all their gamesmanship are broken, from 2-0 up, even a draw is a defeat – they’ve got to sit in front of a purple-faced Steve Evans in a few minutes – a draw isn’t enough for their efforts, their manager or their season. 

Brannagan’s long deep cross drops beyond its intended targets, perhaps the strange kick-off time made the flight of the ball harder to judge. But where others were waiting for it to drop in the middle of the box, at the back post one man is attacking it. Sam Long, the embodiment of that other crucial ingredient in a successful team, an undying spirit. It’s no easy chance, a deft, light, guided finish is needed to put it beyond the keeper. That’s 3-2 and that’s the game.

A position in the play-offs may still be a quirk of how the fixtures have fallen; but it’s a reminder that beyond tactics, style and gamesmanship, beyond the dark arts and the beautiful game, there’s always hope and while that’s alive, we keep fighting.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Crewe, Shrews, here is the news, Brandon, dribble, shot

Saturday 10 April 2021

OOOOOOHHHHHHH, OUR SIX WERE ON FIRE! Six different players scored as Oxford steamed through Crewe like a freight train on Saturday. The shock and awe included five goals in 13 minutes on their way to a record-equalling 6-0 win.

Sunday 11 April 2021

Former Oxford United CEO oil-slick Mark Ashton is set to take over the swirly leather big-boy’s chair at Ipswich Town. Ashton has spent the last four years at Bristol City, where his natural charm has seen fans really take him to their hearts. Tearful City fans have responded with comments like ‘Does he need a lift there?’ and ‘The best thing to happen this season’. 

Monday 12 April 2021

Arlesey Town have appointed Dave Kitson as their chairman. A surprising move that resulted from a recruitment company executive misreading the brief and finding someone who was ‘proper arsey’.

Meanwhile, Headington United’s Sam Long has signed a three-year contract extension. Long is having his best season at Oxford with fans Brazilifying his name to Longildinho. This is due to his widespread support of deforestation, the thong bikini he wears on the beach and the close shave he has in the pubic region.

Tuesday 13 April 2021

GLS is pretty big news in the bedroom department, but even he knows that hot rampant six should come after some sensual four-play. But it was the other way around on Tuesday as Oxford edged closer to the play-offs with a 4-1 win over Shrewsbury Town. Four different players scored meaning that Jedward orphan Mark Sykes is the only outfield player not to score in the last two games. He’s been asking himself what he’s got to do to get on the scoresheet; the answer being SHOOT GODAMMIT.

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Shrewsbury Town midfielder David Davis, so good, they nearly named him twice, has been reflecting on last night’s game. “Personally I don’t think it was a four-one scoreline’ he said of the four-one scoreline. The key, he said, was the advantage we gained by, checks notes, losing Brandon Barker to injury in the first half; “Their injury took the sting out of the game then we conceded two and made it hard for ourselves.” He’s smart that KRob, getting the upper hand by injuring one of his best players. 

Thursday 15 April 2021

It’ll be a family affair on Saturday when Oxford face fatberg Steve Evans’ Gillingham on Saturday. Ellie and Olly will pack their trunks and say goodbye to the circus as the brothers will each take a side in the big play-off shoot-out. Olly is quite the tactical whizz, knowing that Gills attending the game will give them a better chance of winning; “When we turn up, that is when we are at our best.” he said.

Friday 16 April 2021

It’s crunch time with everyone vying to promotion and play-off spots. have taking a break from drawing young people into a life of misery and crippling debt by running their ‘super computer’, which has just been upgraded to Windows Vista, to predict how League 1 will turn out. According to their sophisticated algorithm, an Excel spreadsheet with specially coloured cells in team colours, we’re set to miss out of the play-offs and finish eighth.  

Match wrap: Gillingham 3 Oxford United 1

I was talking with a someone at work this week who’d been beating themselves up about a conversation they’d had with our Chief Executive. In the preamble to a meeting, the CEO asked a couple of questions about something she was working on. She didn’t know the answer one of the questions and felt exposed and unprepared.

It was likely our CEO was just asking the question to pass the time. She readily admits she hasn’t got time to think everything through, prepare for every meeting, she’s not even very keen about being the polished, indefatigable leader people expect her to be. She likes to chat, she understands that people don’t always have all the answers at their fingertips.

My colleague said since she’d started managing people, she noticed how much they expected her to know everything and how every decision was taken as gospel, even though she was only ever making a judgement. She didn’t really like the pressure of being the sole decision maker, she wanted people to help her, question her if they felt the decision was wrong. But, at the same time she felt the pressure to be seen to know everything.

It’s very easy to assume that people in charge know everything, that decisions are precise, objective and well thought through. The illusion of control is part of leadership. Except, we are, ultimately all flawed humans winging it the best we can.

As a result, I’m not really keen on criticising people with responsibility for one-off decisions, most people are trying to do their best, single mistakes shouldn’t define a person. We all act irrationally sometimes, we all suffer anxieties, stress and blind spots. We make mistakes that we regret. Trends, data and track record should be the key to assessing someone’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses. 

Karl Robinson is over 900 days into his time at Oxford United; it’s been a progressive and positive experience. It’s hard to criticise both in the sense that it seems so unfair in the context of his success, but also because it’s not easy to find anything to criticise.

But, in that 900 days he’s never signed an experienced centre-back. Elliot Moore and Rob Atkinson were both signed with no league experience to speak of. John Mousinho, at the other end of the spectrum, pre-dates Robinson’s appointment. Likewise, he was gifted Curtis Nelson and Rob Dickie from previous managers.

It’s not like he’s lacked resources, he’s signed an array of strikers and midfielders. He’s been less successful with full-backs; perhaps over-ambitious. He got Chris Cadden over the line, but only by sacrificing control over how long he had him for.

This has been exposed this season, no more so than in the defeat to Gillingham, we had 31 shots and dominated possession. Robinson thought we deserved more, and we did. But it wasn’t a case of converting one of the chances for the three points, we needed to convert four because of our porous backline.

We’ve had a decade of success with centre-backs – a rolling programme through Mark Creighton, Jake Wright, Johnny Mullins, Chey Dunkley, Curtis Nelson and Rob Dickie. Dunkley, Nelson and Dickie are all in the Championship, a destiny that was evident long before they left. There was lots of time to prepare for their succession. John Mousinho has provided stability to allow the others to develop, but age is no surprise, and even Karl Robinson tried to encourage him into semi-retirement at the beginning of last season. This is a problem that has been over a year in the making.

Maybe Elliot Moore was expected to step into Dickie’s shoes, but Dickie stepped into last season with significantly more games under his belt than Moore has now. There’s absolutely no blame on either Moore or Rob Atkinson, it’s a more deep-rooted issue than individuals and their ability.

I’m generally satisfied with a manager if I can see the logic of what they’re doing, I could see what Ian Atkins was doing even if I didn’t like it, for example. If this is all planned, I can’t see how we’ve got to a position where we have such a lack of experience at centre-back. 

It isn’t quite as simple as that, of course, effective defences are units, full-backs, centre-backs and goalkeeper. They become greater than the sum of their parts – Joe Skarz and Jonjoe Kenny were improved by Jake Wright and Chey Dunkley, Mark Creighton and Jake Wright were improved by Damian Batt. But weaknesses in the unit impact everyone. Sean Clare seems to be taking some time to settle in, Simon Eastwood, Josh Ruffels and Sam Long all seem a bit out of sorts. It’s not likely to be a simple solution as each area will affect another, so isolating the cause is a real challenge. But, the lack of an experienced, mid-career central defender is an undeniable fact.

Simon Eastwood made a great point in the Oxford Mail this week, he doesn’t watch highlights, he said, because you never see any saves, just goals. it supports a theory I have about football fans; they love strikers, watch them all the time, they’re the ones that make the edit. We learn about their movement and ability. Midfielders are similar, we see the passes that make the chances. You rarely see a back-line simply shutting up shop, we’re not that interested in it, it’s boring. Ian Atkins is the person who Chris Williams described as ‘the man who taught him everything he knows about football’. Atkins was a master at creating defensive units. Fans have almost no idea what goes into that, more so about what makes a good goalkeeper, they’re judged only on how spectacular their saves are or how big a howler they made. The fundamentals – organisation, distribution, positioning is mostly lost on us. Andy Woodman never made spectacular saves because his positioning meant he never had to. 

I recently heard Bradley Wiggins talk about his Tour de France victory in 2012, it’s widely viewed that the course was suited to his ability because it contained lots of time trials, his speciality. He pointed out that he still had to ride the other stages and win those time trials. “Perhaps you should try becoming a world class time trialist.” was his trade off.

The same with goalkeepers; we have virtually no idea what it takes to make a good one. They train separately from the team, with specialist coaches. Even a penalty save is frequently described as being ‘at a good height’ as though it’s easy. Perhaps you should try saving a penalty that’s ‘at a good height’. 

One of Karl Robinson’s great qualities is how he relates to the fans’ experience of football. He gets it like no other manager I can think of. His football plays to the fans’ sensibilities – exciting, attacking, entertaining. It’s the stuff that makes the edit. Perhaps that other side, the technical, organised defensive line is simply a blind spot. He takes a fans’ view; defensive organisation is boring, goalkeeping saves are at a good height. He’s not as interested in what that takes; it’s the bit of his job that he puts off and puts off until it becomes a crisis. We all do it. 

There was so much in the Gillingham performance that suggested we’re ultimately going to be fine. But fine and successful are different things. We genuinely could have scored four. But, if we are a team that expects to concede one or two goals a game, then the margin of success narrows. If promotion is the goal, that’s a pressure we don’t need.