Newport and Hartlepool wraps

Newport County 1 Oxford United 1

On the eve of the anniversary of our best day, the Newport game felt like this year’s worst day. With question marks over the goalkeeper and illness and injury throughout the the team, it felt like all the hard work of the season was suddenly in jeopardy. It feels like we’re a middle distance runner going out hard in the hope we can hang on in the final stretch. It wasn’t so much our position or even the result against Newport, it was the overall direction of travel that was of concern.

And with good reason, we’ve not had form like this since we suffered back-to-back defeats to Hartlepool and Shrewsbury last season. At the final whistle we’d taken just six points from five games meaning we were left with four contenders fighting for two places with just a point between them all.

The following day the club gallantly knife and forked the Milk Cup celebrations; everyone smiled bravely while calculating the what-ifs for the rest of the season. It was like the gentry were celebrating the Queen’s birthday while a desperate war raged around them.

Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

The need for a Dunkirk spirit is one which can make or break you.

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.

But the spirit can galvanize you also and all ultimately played their part. Joe Skarz typified the spirit; where he could easily have written off his season, instead he got his head down and worked to drag himself back into the team. Just when we need experience and he comes to our rescue.

Earlier in the season, when we were flying, we benefitted from at least one player driving things forward, Roofe, Hylton, Lundstram and Sercombe all had periods of running the team. Skarz was always there, but he was never the star of the show. We’ve been lacking a star recently, maybe he’s going to be the unlikely hero of the final push.

In truth, ignoring the context, we were excellent and pretty comfortable throughout the game against Hartlepool. We benefitted from Ruffels and Maguire’s more compact game, we benefited from the tension and the need not to take risks. We were happy with the need to win rather than entertain. It drove a discipline with no silly lapses like against Luton. And at the same time we entertained in an uncomfortable, gnawing kind of way.

At the end our two enfant terribles; Maguire, who sometimes struggles to switch on and Hylton who struggles ever to switch off, held the ball at the corner flag balancing pragmatism and professionalism with impishness and creativity. It was a microcosm of the performance.

By god it’s tense, but the truth is that we’re not throwing away promotion, we’re thriving heroically in the face of growing adversity.

Hartlepool wrap – Hartlepool United 0 Oxford United 1

Top of the league. I suppose it had to happen at some point, and, let’s face it, it was probably going to happen this month. We’ve had a month of comparatively easy games, which is never a guarantee of success, but if you’re going to be successful, then you should be picking up points against teams at the bottom. As a club we’ve never handled expectation well, so ideally I’d like to be hiding in the rushes of the play-offs before taking over top spot on the final day of the season, but it’s very difficult to pretend to not be the best team in the division when you are. In football you can’t judge how others are doing so when you hit the front, you just keep running.

Are we the best? I still think there’s a gear to find to be absolutely certain; we’re the 7th highest top scorers in the division (scoring less goals than Morecambe in 17th). Our success is based on a tight defence rather than prolific goalscoring – which is a bit of a surprise when you consider Roofe and Hylton’s deification and that we’re playing attractive attacking football. With Jake Wright struggling with a back injury, we’re light at the back with just Mullins and Dunkley. I quite enjoy Dunkley’s blood and thunder style, but he’s not as assured as Wright. As injuries and suspensions kick in we may find ourselves a bit threadbare. We’ve already got away with it once – Mullins’ sending off at Braintree meant he only missed the JPT game at Dagenham which he probably would have missed anyway – but there are only so many meaningless games we can waste suspensions on, and there will be less of those as the season hots up after Christmas.

Which all sounds harsh when we’re sitting on top of the table and playing so well. It is, but promotions, even titles, are a harsh unrelenting business. If we keep this up for the rest of the season we’ll have 92 points – our second largest points haul ever, but but not enough to win the League 2 title in 4 of the last 9 years. Maybe I’m getting greedy; 90+ points will always get you promoted, which is still the real objective. One goal wins mean that we have pressure for a full 90-plus minutes; the accumulative effect of tight victories could become debilitating. We need to find a rhythm where we can rely on a comfortable lead and relax, mentally at least.

December brings new and different pressure – a generally better calibre of opposition, disruption of cup games, the peculiar pressures of Christmas – Boxing Day in particular – and the possible distraction of a New Year treat in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup.

The good news is that we’re on top of the table and that’s because of excellent form played in a fantastic style. Also, it’s come at a good time; we don’t have another league game for two weeks allowing this new pressure to soak in a little. And, unlike the Wilder-years, going top mid-season feels like the consequence of the process we’re following, not an end product.

Newport wrap | Coming up: Hartlepool

Oxford United 1 Newport County 1

Home advantage isn’t what it used to be, pitches are better, players’ preparation is better; traveling distances is less of an issue, all seater stadiums make away games less intimidating. Altogether playing away is no more a chore than being at home.

For all the talk about this being the best football we’ve seen in decades, we’ve only scored more than one goal in a home game in the league once since August, and that was the defeat to Barnet. The last time we’ve taken points and scored more than two at home was Yeovil, which feels a while ago now.

This leaves us vulnerable; if we’re only likely to get one goal, then we’re one defensive mistake or piece of magic away from conceding points. Against Newport we were hit by a world class strike from Lenell John-Lewis; a moment in which the tectonic plates aligned, timing, positioning and technique. You could tell even John-Lewis was surprised the way he trotted around the pitch aimlessly trying to comprehend what he’d achieved.

Newport were a decent side; their recent form implied that it wasn’t going to be the walk-over that it may have been when Terry Butcher was in charge. It does make you wonder what Butcher did to make them quite so inept. I have images of him standing in the changing rooms, eyes bulging, pressing a razor blade into his arm in a hopeless attempt at engendering some Butcher-style passion into their play.

Whatever Butcher was doing wrong, Sheridan is doing right, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually worried the lower reaches of the play-offs come the end of the season. But Tuesday showed how little it can take to turn an average side into a decent one. And if that happens, then our inability to score goals, and the vulnerability that comes with that, could cause a problem.

Coming up: Hartlepool United

Our tour of the lower reaches of the table concludes with a trip up to Hartlepool on Saturday. A curious team; they looked destined for the Conference last year before going on a mind boggling run that saw them avoid relegation. Along the way they gobbled us up in what looked like Michael Appleton’s darkest and, what at the time could have been, last hour.
But, while we have turned ourselves around in remarkable fashion, their revival seems only temporary. They appear to be regressing back to where they originally were. We should be reasonable confident that points can be taken here, which will make up for the disappointing result on Tuesday night. 

Old game of the day

Last year Hartlepool looked like the most inept team in history. Of course, they beat us, at home, on a Tuesday night. Who is more the inept? The inept or the team that’s beaten by the inept? It wasn’t always like that, of course. In 2013, we couldn’t stop winning away, this was a cracker.

Standard response

When Leo Roget arrived at the club in 2004 I thought we’d made a good signing. I’d heard of Roget, which was a good start; it was one of those distinctive names that echoed across the lower-leagues. We had been in reasonably good shape on the pitch, the previous season we had a solid back-four with Andy Crosby and Matt Bound and, although they’d left the season before, it seemed like we were learning lessons from the past and that Roget would fit right in. Plus, he was coming from Rushden, who at the time were nouveau riche and seemed to be going places.

But Roget’s first season was terrible, he was gangly and awkward, not a patch on his predecessors. If he used his height it wasn’t to dominate strikers, it was to fall on top of them. The following season he improved, in fact, he was a stand-out player. Fans seemed to like him and sang his name. By the end of that season, though, we’d been relegated from the Football League. So, did Roget really improve or did our standards drop? Did he play better or did he have to do more defending and blocking because we were getting worse?

Presumably one day Michael Appleton will be sitting in an interview for a new job and his prospective employer will ask about his achievements at Oxford. He may have to think hard, but perhaps he will cite this season’s highlight; the double over Bury.

That it: the highlight of our season so far is doing the double over Bury. In fact, up until Tuesday night, we were considered to be ‘in form’; a form which had seen us win 3 in 10, score 8, climb to 17th and be 9 points clear of relegation. Of relegation.

The fact is that the win at Bury shouldn’t have been a reason for celebration; it should have been a wake-up call. As decent as Bury might be this season, we should be expecting to pick off at least a couple of promotion chasers away from home, more if we have ambitions to go up ourselves. We should be expecting to win against Plymouth and we should definitely, definitely, definitely beat Hartlepool.

This is not because we deserve better because of who we are, progressively as the season has passed we’ve allow our standards to drop. At first it was good performances but bad results, then it was wins against poor teams, then it was a sense of celebration that our relegation fears were easing. Draws were celebrated as wins because we never seem to win. Now we’re losing at home to the bottom team in the division and Michael Appleton is applauding our ‘effort’.

He knows he is defending the indefensible now. I agree with him that the players put in a lot of effort against Hartlepool, but the merry-go round of players throughout the season means that for all the effort we remain utterly listless. There is no system. Does anyone know how Roofe or Gnanduillet want the ball in order to score? Well, no because neither have played more than a handful of games for Oxford and neither have the players passing to them. No wonder it’s so disjointed.

Appleton, by his own admission doesn’t have an angry gear, so he’s going to be objective and look for learning points and positives. It’s a good quality to have if you’re coaching youngsters who make lots of mistakes in the process of learning, but managing experienced professionals who are tired, demoralised and battle weary is different. Managers need to show players where they can go if standards do drop whether that be through a volcanic temper or whatever. Plus, they need to show it as the merest inclination of a problem; like the time Chris Wilder (yes him) criticised us for winning 4-0 against Eastbourne after being poor in the second half.

Slowly but surely corners have been cut, standards have slipped and the previously unacceptable has become acceptable.

A spineless defeat to the bottom club in the division – who are in dire trouble on and off the pitch – removes any last shred of credibility Appleton had in claiming that his philosophy will work given time. It’s like going down a hill with worn brake pads; you just have to hope something will stop you because you can’t rely on what you thought you had. This has been coming for a long time, but any lingering hope that we’re going in the right direction has been cast into the dustbin.

Where now? It’s so hard to imagine a scenario now where Appleton not just turns this round but sustains an upward trajectory toward the play-offs and beyond, this season or next. The squad is a mess of panic signings and loanees, players we’ve bought or haven’t bought, players that we’ve announced and never seen sight nor sound of. These are his players working to his confused philosophy stuck in a vortex between what is ‘right’ and what is needed. In order to change, he’s going to have to back down admit he’s been wrong – wrong players, wrong tactics. Not only will he lose face, this is going to take time or money or both to sort out. People are going to get hurt. I can’t see him doing that.

But, he’s not going to resign either; his managerial career has become an absolute wreck with not only this debacle on his CV, but also some of the football league’s greatest basket cases – Portsmouth, Blackburn, Blackpool – all with his name on them. It’s not all been his fault – far from it – but he knows how it’s difficult to shake a reputation.

So, we’re left with one option… Mark Ashton, over to you.

It’s… Waddock

He’s here!

I don’t want to pop anyone’s bubble but despite the brouhaha surrounding the appointment of our new head coach, the fate of a football club is not really in that particular decision. At least not wholly. It is decided via a very simple formula; budget plus or minus the tactical nous of your manager.

It is Budget that is overwhelmingly the deciding factor; if you rank clubs in any division by the money they have at the start of the season, that’s pretty much where they’ll finish at the end. Perhaps there should be similar levels of excitement when budget for the forthcoming season is announced.

The impact of the manager is surprisingly small when you think about it. There’s lots of accepted practice in football; most play with a goalkeeper, for example and four or five (rarely six) defenders, 3, 4 or 5 midfielders and 1, 2 or occasionally 3 strikers. These permutations are limited by broader decisions to attack or defend, which are determined by things like whether you’re home or away or playing a team above or below you.

Most managerial decisions serve to neutralise those of the opposition. Decisions that make a difference to a game or a season are comparatively small. In the end, a club will rarely improve more than a few places above their natural ‘fiscal’ level.

Those more informed than me suggest that Oxford have about the 7th biggest budget in the division. With a competent manager we should expect to finish in the play-offs. The challenge for the manager is to ease us into the automatic positions. Even before the season started, the title, almost certainly, was beyond us.

There are a whole range of reasons why people don’t get jobs; salary, terms and conditions, location. So it is difficult to say for sure why Waddock and not others got the job, but that notwithstanding, let’s look at some of the candidates.

Paul Tisdale is one of the game’s theoreticians in the mould of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho or Nigel Adkins. Managers with no playing career to speak of who have progressed into management. Tisdale’s came from the Team Bath experiment – a semi professional university team in the mould of the American colleges. There’s a lot of attraction of someone like him at Oxford. Ian Lenagan is trying to buck our financial position by implementing an innovative project based around youth development. That’s not dissimilar to what Tisdale tried to pioneer at Bath; he understands the principles of player development.

Tisdale enjoys a reputation following his successes at Exeter. However, is that down to his innovation  and capabilities? On the face of it, yes, because Exeter are a small team who have recently been towards to top of League 1. However, in 2005 they had two FA Cup games against Manchester United. Those two games generated a significant amount of money; enough to make Exeter one of the richer, or at least more stable Conference sides. As we painfully know, in 2007 they  negotiated the play-offs and followed that up with a further promotion. However, more recently, the Grecians have struggled and rumours are the money is, again, running out. Is Exeter’s success down to Tisdale, or that brief pot of cash they generated?

James Beattie was another in the frame. Now, romanticists live in hope of finding a Brian Clough or Sir Alex Ferguson. Managers with a streak of genius who take you to the top. They start in incongruous places – Clough at Hartlepools, Ferguson at St Mirren (Graham Taylor at Lincoln, Jim Smith at Boston). Young managers are an attractive proposition because they may just be The One. Beattie has shown promise; he’s comfortable managing in the lower leagues despite his profile and he’s certainly bucked Accrington Stanley’s budget this season. However, the evidence pool for Beattie is just too small. Perhaps Beattie is the new Clough, do we want to risk promotion to find out?

Gary Waddock’s name that hadn’t even been mentioned before Friday. The news was broken by Nobby D, who heard it indirectly from the horse’s wife’s mouth, as it were. Although the name came from left field, as soon as I read his text, it suddenly made sense.

Firstly, Waddock managed a hugely impressive Aldershot team that absolutely took us to the cleaners in 2007. It’s not often that you enjoy an away team; and Aldershot were a team I had a particular dislike of due to, pathetically, their over-pricing of FA Cup tickets in their tie against us in 1986. By 2007 they returned from liquidation a formidable force both on the pitch and off it. One of the significant points here is that Waddock, aside from being successful, was working in a broader system. With Aldershot being a fan-owned ‘phoenix’ club he was going to have to be in step with that philosophy.

After a spell, and promotion (and relegation) with Wycombe, he disappeared from view before taking on the role of ‘Head of Coaching’ at MK Dons.

Aside from the emotional and political difficulties with the Dons, and the fact that Pete Winkleman looks like a lost Munster, they are a very well run football club. I’d have a lot of confidence that Waddock is good at what he does. Also, ‘head of coaching’ is a technical role fitting in well with the Lenagan vision.

Ian Lenagan said on Friday that he was delighted with the selection process he’d followed. In fact he seemed rather more pleased with that than with his man, who he described as possibly not everyone’s preference. But that’s the Lenagan vision; systems not individuals. It’s how most businesses work.

It is telling that Waddock has been named ‘head coach’ as the club moves away from the traditional sheepskin coat wearing, ego-centric, autocratic British football manager. It is also telling that Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville both seem safe in their roles; again suggesting that Waddock will not be allowed to sweep away the existing set up for his own preference. Waddock also talks of being part of a system, which given his experience at Aldershot and MK Dons; both brand new clubs in many ways, it seems he can work within.

So, Waddock understands the rigours of the lower leagues, he has form in getting teams to perform beyond their budgetary means, he has the endorsement of a very well run club. More importantly, he can work within a wider plan. All of which points to a very solid, logical appointment; which is pretty much all you can hope for at this stage.

Does my football club hate me?

Another weekend, another win. But why so far from home? On the surface everything looks great, but is this a love unrequited? 

I was talking to someone about the misconceptions around the relationship between Oxford and Cambridge while at a work event last week. She works for an Oxford-based company and told the story that once she’d had a recruitment company tell her they’d found the perfect candidate ‘just down the road’ … in Cambridge.

I know, I said, I’m an Oxford United season ticket holder and when we play Cambridge, I’ve heard people say ‘Woh, bit of a local derby’. It’s crazy.

As an aside, I’m not sure this is entirely true. It’s more likely a combination of a number Oxford United-related conversations over the years that have misrepresented the club; in particular the erroneous perception that we have a close relationship with the university. Add to this a dash of Tim Russon who once introduced a highlights package with the line ‘Oxford versus Cambridge is most famously known as a boat race, but it was more like a boot race as the two teams met on Tuesday night at The Manor’. But my story was illustrating a broader point; the facts were a side issue.

Anyway, like a stolen 1969 Mustang shooting a red light through a crossroads in Grand Theft Auto, a bloke standing with us cut across the conversation flow. ‘How’ there was a slight air of incredulousness in his tone, which I sensed may have been because he too was a Oxford season ticket holder ‘have you come to be an Oxford United season ticket holder?’

Stand back, I’ve got this one sorted, I thought. I’ve rehearsed a credible, but self-deprecating explanation for this. I don’t have convenient shorthand like a Manchester United fan might – ‘I saw our Champions League win in Barcelona in 1999 and it changed my life’ (omitting the appendage ‘on TV’) or ‘I saw George Best in ’68 and I cried’. My explanation is more prosaic. My dad lived in Abingdon and was a fan from back in the Headington United days, when I moved to the area in the early 80s, I started following the club just as it headed into the glory years. By the time we peaked the club had me in a vice-like grip as we bombed down and out of the league. Rather like getting on a plane heading for the holiday of a lifetime, only to find yourself plummeting into the Himalayas once on board. It’s a coherent story for why I, an otherwise rational human being, have spent a good proportion of my adult life following failure.

On Saturday we notched yet another win hundreds of miles from home. I’ve seen only two home games this season, both of which were underwhelming draws. Despite decades of dedicated service, our best start in years has happened in places where I am not. It’s like there’s some kind of Illuminati conspiracy designed to prevent me from enjoying us being successful. Which begins to beg the question; does my football club hate me?

I don’t mean in the sense of being against modern football, where clubs tolerate fans simply because they provide an aesthetic backdrop for the TV show that’s played out on the field. I mean in the sense of Oxford United as an anthropomorphised partner or spouse who we love, but who never seems to love us back.

Certainly whilst captured in the tractor beam of the club, I have experienced years of misery and disappointment. There is no rational explanation for why this is my 20th season with a season ticket and 38th season since my first ever game (I was very, very young). But, every time I begin to have doubts, the club offers me an olive branch to me to keep following. I go still go to turgid mid-week defeats because it builds some sort of capital that makes the highs event higher. Supposedly.

Over the last thirty years, I’ve witnessed the glory years of the mid-80s, the promotion of 1996, and Wembley in 2010. In between have been years of Spartan nothingness. Whilst each peak has offered its own special memories, each has had less significance: a major domestic cup, a second place in the third division and a play-off to simply just to take our place in the Football League at all.

It’s like the disinterested husband who buys his wife a beautiful array of fresh flowers when he first meets her, then after 10 years of marriage he resorts to some supermarket blooms on her birthday, by their 20th anniversary it’s just a droopy set of daffodils from the garage if he remembers and the price is right. Whilst she is grateful for the occasional glimpses of interest he shows her, she’s also profoundly sad that her value to him has degenerated so.

We declare our love for Oxford every weekend – we love you Oxford, we do – but does it love us back? As I stare at the radio every Saturday with Jerome Sale screaming ‘And that just about seals it’, part of me is thinking; why isn’t this happening at home? I begin to wonder whether this is unrequited – does the club just want us to iron its clothes and cook its dinner whilst quite literally, and metaphorically, scoring while playing away from home?