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. Bettingexpert.com 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. 

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.