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?

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.