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. 

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Even-Stevevans

Saturday 18 January 2020

It was all-square on Saturday as we drew 1-1 with Gillingham. There’s no getting round the Govan Gut, Steve Evans, I mean it would literally take weeks, even by car. Despite taking the lead through the stepover kid Tariqe Fosu, Evans’ team hit back after the bookie monster, Alex Gorrin, conceded a reckless penalty. 

Sunday 19 January 2020

There are many things that ancient loyalty-phobe Jefferson Louis is famous for; going to jail, showing his arse live on TV, changing clubs, changing clubs, changing clubs, changing clu…

You get the idea, Louis is a rarity in the modern game; a true 39 club man. He’s been talking to Planet Football about as many of them as he can remember and how it’s taught him a lot about love, life and signing on fees.

Monday 20 January 2020

As we know, Glaswegian fatberg Steve Evans is a man with a highly tuned moral compass. He was aghast at Tariqe Fosu’s ‘antics’ on Saturday. Evans was left blushing behind his silk monogrammed handkerchief as Fosu appeared to feign injury after a heavy challenge. Easily shocked Evans had never seen anything like it – at least he’s never fallen on the floor and managed to get on his feet without the help of a winch before. 

Tuesday 21 January 2020

He’s the right-back with the come to bed eyebrows, heavenly Sheffield United full-back and former dreamboat loanee George Baldock is being considered for a call-up to the Greek national team. Baldock, or Baldockalopidas to give him his full name is wanted by Greek manager John Van’t Chip (translation: John’s Chip Van) for their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

George Thorne has signed on a permanent deal with the club after he left Derby County. The injury prone midfielder has had a nightmare couple of years in which he admits he fell out of love with the game. His loan move earlier in the season convinced him that a move would be great. ‘It was one of the most welcoming treatment rooms I’ve ever been to.’ he might have said.  

KRob and Steve Evans have been trading views about the length of Evans’ grass. KRob thinks Evans deliberately lets it grow naturally, Evans said that he always likes to keep things neat and tidy down there. Are we still talking about football pitches?

Thursday 23 January 2020

It was the Eight Minute Thirty-Seven Seconds Fan Forum on Radio Oxford on with Zaki the Unstoppable Sense Machine. As always, the forum covered never previously discussed topics in a decisive way, there were questions about the stadiumsituation (no deadline), fourth stand (maybe), safe standing (don’t know), park and ride (perhaps), parking at science park (maybe) and selling players (no, but in other circumstances, maybe).

We were also excited to hear about mysterious friend of the board Secret Barry; everyone should have a Secret Barry.

Friday 24 January 2020

Nothing says the FA Cup more than a Karrimor drawstring rucksack and Lonsdale vest, we head horizontally north and then vertical up for our FA Cup tie with Sports Direct’s Newcastle United on Saturday. Away fans will be housed in the seventh tier of Leazes Stand, the only away end in the country with views obscured by the curvature of the earth. 

The Aylesbury Ashley Young, Rob Hall was pretty excited to hear from KRob that he’ll be starting on Saturday. But, rather than playing in front of 52,000 carnivorous northerners, he’s been loaned out to sandal wearing vegans Forest Green Rovers.

Match wrap: Gillingham 1 Oxford United 1

I went viral last week. In Rotherham. My match wrap said enough nice things about them going top that lots of Rotherham fans picked up on it. As a result I got hooked into a sidebar conversation about their Championship potential.

Something similar came up in the Five Minute Fan Forum on Radio Oxford; could Oxford compete if they were promoted given the average wage bill in the Championship is five times that of League 1?

In the hullabaloo of the last few weeks it’s not something I’d really thought about. I was in the moment, I hadn’t given much thought to what it means.

The draw with Gillingham brought up some concerns that our season was becoming derailed. We haven’t won in four, we’ve got injuries to key players. The worry is that having got into this position, we’re about to blow it.

Back in 2015/16 we played Hartlepool three games from the end of the season. Joe Skarz climbed off the treatment table, ran himself into the ground to help give us three critical points. Quoting from that match wrap; “The week started with MacDonald on a drip in hospital, O’Dowda on his sick bed, Skarz out for the season, Lundstram breaking down in training and Roofe nursing an injury.” We were in bits, praying that we could claw our way to the end of the season.

Then, like now saw November through to January as the ultimate stress test on a squad, by the time we got to the end of the season we were nearing collapse and it was only the heroism of people like Joe Skarz and the adrenalin from what we might achieve that got us over the line.

We were promoted by a point, winning our last three games to do that. That’s 46 games of almost unrelenting success and still just 1 point in it. Seasons have to be long and challenging to really decide who’s best.

You can see similar pressure on the current squad now; injuries to Matty Taylor, James Henry, Ben Woodburn, Cameron Brannagan and others, the form of Tariqe Fosu and Simon Eastwood. There are challenges everywhere.

But, it’s something we should expect. The club can’t insulate itself from these challenges by signing a bottomless pit of perfect replacements. As much as we’d like certainty, we have to expect the squad to be battered, it’s a necessary part of the process.

We’re far from alone; most of the teams competing with us will be in a similar position. They also don’t have the resources to simply spend their way out of difficulties.

Gillingham are 14th and on a reasonable run; they’re just ahead of Blackpool and behind Fleetwood, Bristol Rovers, Peterborough and Doncaster, all teams that have had their moments this season. If we are having a dip in form, then to do that and still be fifth is good news.

We’d face exactly the same challenges if we were at the other end of the table. Once January is out of the way the objectives of the season become crystal clear; last year it was about avoiding relegation, this year it’s about potentially going up. I’ll take that.

So rather than worrying about injuries and fearing dips in our form, or even concerning ourselves with what we might achieve if we did get promoted, we should simply embrace that we’re here. There’s no guarantee that should we not get promoted or make the play-offs this year that we will simply kick on next. As they say in mortgage adverts; past performance is no indicator of future performance.

The truth is that we probably aren’t ready for the Championship; but we do have an opportunity to have a crack at it. It’s not likely to be pretty, but that’s sort of the point.

George Lawrence’s Shorts – Stormsy

Saturday 11 January 2020

*Stomp, Stomp, Stomp*

Fee Fi Fo Fum,
Forty minutes gone, 
It’s three-none. 

The monstrous colossi of Rotherham stomped all over Oxford with a blistering first-half display on Saturday. Marcus Browne’s goal being a consolation in a 1-3 gubbing.

Sunday 12 January 2020

KRob’s not paranoid, I mean you can’t be both KRob and self-aware, but he’s beginning to think that ‘they’ are listening to him via his iPhone. Just days after suggesting that the club were interested in a pre-season training camp in southern Spain, he was linked with a move to coach Malaga. KRob’s panic set in when it also emerged that he’s been linked with a move to Hot Grannies Being Spanked and is currently clearing his internet search history as we speak. 

Rotherham manager Paul Warne came to Oxford to park the bus on Saturday, then found that Creepy Uncle Firoz hadn’t unlocked the ground leaving his team stranded.

Monday 13 January 2020

Luke Garbutt has spoken glowingly about his year with Oxford last season. So much so that he took the opportunity to give his old club an insight into Ipswich’s tactical plans tomorrow. “It could be a case of us letting them come on to us.” he said before adding, “We don’t want to sit back and let them dictate the play.” While not sitting back and sitting back, he confirmed that they plan to be on the front foot winning the ball high up the pitch. Sitting back and not sitting back while on the front foot, this is proof that Garbutt is either a tactical genius or more confused than your mum when you explained she still needed virus software despite being with BUPA.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

It was all go in the 0-0 draw with Ipswich Town after a storm nearly resulted in the game being called off. A brief suspension in play allowed the players to change into dry kit. Unfortunately with the club shop sale starting the team were left a bit short of options. Elliot Moore was in a sponsor-free shirt for 3-5 year olds while Sam Long had to make do with Ollie The Ox’s foam mascot suit.  

Elsewhere, in three-for-two Slazenger jogging bottoms news, we’re off to Sports Direct’s Newcastle United in the 4th Round of the FA Cup after they beat Rochdale 4-1.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Sam Smith has admitted that going to Oxford on loan last year was a massive learning experience. Principally he learned that not scoring goals is not a good look for a striker. “You can only score goals if you’re playing” said the man who played five league games without scoring. He looks back on his time philosophically “I think first loans can go either way, you can either do really well or have an absolute stinker. It wasn’t a stinker.” he said re-defining the term ‘do really well’. 

Thursday 16 January 2020

It was the Seven Minute Seventeen Second Fans’ Forum with Tiger on Thursday. Regarding the stadiumsituation; ‘there might be some good news soon.’ he said reading from a file called ‘things to say in 2004’. He also wished Sam Long happy birthday, giving him the best birthday present ever by confirming that the club are trying to find a replacement for him.

KRob has organised an intra-squad practice match to get everyone match fit. The game offers an ideal opportunity for everyone to use the term ‘intra-squad’.

Friday 17 January 2020

Tomorrow we visit Gillingham who are managed by big-boned ball breaker Steve Evans. The Gills are on a reasonable run in challenging circumstances. “I have always been at a club which has been well resourced and I have never hidden that.” said the man literally convicted of tax fraud by hiding his club’s resources in 2006.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Keeping up with the Caddashians

Saturday 28 September 2019

It was so easy against Steve Evans’ Gillingham on Saturday, it was like stealing candy from a baby. Mmm, candy. Oxford scored two lucky goals from James Henry and Matty Taylor before Henry stuck another one in the onion-bag, just for luck. Mmm, onions. Bloaty McBloatface was magnanimous enough to recognise that his team were absolutely battered. Mmm, batter.

Monday 30 September 2019

Clearly playing on his mind while eating his fridge on Saturday night; the Lord of Lard has apologised to Gillingham fans for his team’s first-half mashing on Saturday. Mmm, mash. It was a rare moment of contrition, so rare he claimed that they were unlucky not to win the second half. Yes Steve, and you’re a likeable chap who everybody thinks is the dog’s bollocks. Mmm, dog’s bollocks.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

As we all know Oxford United fans are special, and they don’t come much more special than brainiac Matthew Simms, who this week was sentenced to 90 hours community work, fined over £600 and banned from going to football for five years for running on the pitch after last year’s ChickenTrade Trophy game at Cheltenham. This is a bit like the time GLS was caning it on four LSD tabs and two bottles of Jack Daniels at Auntie Joan’s eightieth birthday luncheon.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Massive news for the club as it announced WE ARE GOING TO OWN* OUR OWN GROUND** SOON***

Meanwhile Chris Cadden is becoming the break out reality star of Oxford United’s season. After last week’s revelations about living in Bicester Village and his inability to do his own washing, we now know how much he’s earning. It’s been revealed that Cadden is taking home a cool $56k a year as an employee of Columbus Crew. This makes him the lowest paid player in their squad; as Puff Daddy once said; it’s all about the Benjamins, just not as many as you’d think.

* manage
** training ground
*** probably

Thursday 3 October 2019

Zaki the Unstoppable Sense Machine was on the Six Minute Thirty Six Second Fans Forum on Thursday. There was plenty of hot ‘situation’ chat about the training ground situation, the car park situation – whether having the biggest in the country was big enough and – the pub situation. There was also a question about reality star Chris Cadden, and whether he will be commissioned for a second season. Zaki was tight lipped because we’re all still pretending that Cadden’s loan is a legit deal, and not a way of avoiding paying compensation to Motherwell. 

Friday 4 October 2019

Former Oxford striker and professional pillock Dean Saunders has had his jail sentence for drink driving over-turned and replaced with a different sentence for drink driving. His QC claimed Saunders felt humiliated by the sentence, no surprise to anyone who has heard the humiliation of any sentences coming from Deano. “He rapidly went from icon to laughing stock” or iconic drunk driver to laughing stock drunk driver, which, for GLS, is the only kind of drunk driver.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Gillingham 0

Steve Evans’ comment that our win over Lincoln last week was the result of two lucky goals was either an act of gross complacency or a bungled attempt at spooky mind games.

Either way it showed Evans up to be spent force he is. Once upon a time he was an intimidating character capable of squeezing out results from average teams and gaining an edge by unsettling officials and opposition managers. 

Now he’s just a slightly daft, dangerously overweight, old man ranting to no great effect on the sidelines. He reminds me of those fans you see at away games acting like testosterone fuelled teenagers even though they’re on the wrong side of fifty. Just a bit silly, really.  

The lucky goals comment was so obviously wrong, it was impossible for anyone to be derailed by it. As long as we focussed on the same things that brought us the wins over Lincoln and West Ham, we were good enough to win comfortably.

But keeping it simple has not always been Karl Robinson’s strong suit. You could have predicted Mark Sykes dropping out of the squad despite a near man of the match performance on Wednesday. For some managers, resting players seems to be a way of showing fans that you’re operating on a higher plane. It seems there are Premier League managers would only be happy if their best players were permanently rested, as if there are no games important enough for them to be risked.

Unless you’re Manchester City, where you can make eleven changes and still field a title winning side, changing players always risks derailing a winning team. But, some managers can’t resist the temptation of making destabilising adjustments to prove a point about how it is them, not the players, who are winning games.

So when Karl Robinson made the changes he did; it felt like rather than focus on simply beating Gillingham, he was setting out to prove how astute a manager he was. How he didn’t need to rely on lucky goals.

In some ways Gillingham was a tougher test than West Ham. Against a Premier League club there’s no expectations, you can lose and retain respect as long as you’ve put in maximum effort. In the league effort accounts for nothing, results are everything.

But, we have a core of experience – Eastwood, Ruffels, Mousinho, Henry and Taylor (or Mackie) which anchors the squad. These players are less susceptible to the ups and downs of a season and know that for all the highs of Lincoln and West Ham, they count for little against the likes of Gillingham. As a result, we were calm and purposeful and it gave us openings; we took them early and suddenly everything was comfortable.  

Apart from James Henry trying to complete his half hat-trick when better options were available, and Simon Eastwood getting in a muddle on the edge of his box at the start of the second half, it was the most straight forward and well-managed win we’ve had at home for a long time. The calm heads after the thrill ride of the last week was particularly encouraging.

I’ve been thinking recently about our 1996 promotion season and the last 17 games were we lost one and drew two. There was an avalanche of goals then as well. It felt like flying down hill on a bike; it was exhilarating but there was the nagging knowledge that the slightest wobble could see us mangled up at the side of the road. It feels like that at the moment; we won’t keep scoring bucketloads of goals for the rest of the season; so the real questions are – how long can we keep it going and more importantly, how well will we manage it when we don’t?