A League of Gentlemen

Tom Peters says in business you’re either different or you’re cheap.
The announcement on Friday that the EFL Trophy, formerly the JPT, would include Premier League Academy U21 teams was greeted with all the contempt it deserves.
It was a cynical announcement, timed to coincide with the start of Euro 2016 when the media’s attention was already elsewhere.
Initially it appears that Oxford had reflected the fans’ view and voted against the plan when Darryl Eales told OxVox he opposed it. Later it turned out we had voted for it and that Eales had been outvoted by his board. Oxford are, to date, the only club to have confirmed their support for the move but we’re not a lone wolf here.
The fact that the board outvoted Eales is interesting. He clearly isn’t the benevolent dictator we sometimes perceive him to be, it’s good that there are opinions at board level, if everyone thought the same, then some of its members are redundant. There should be debate, that’s what will make the club a healthy one.
The club broke their silence on Saturday with what I thought was a pretty a cogent argument for voting with the plan. The Trophy is a dying competition, it has no sponsor, falling TV interest, there’s little that attracts the fans and it’s clearly a distraction for players and managers.
Having now been through an entire Trophy campaign, I can confirm from my perspective that excitement rarely gets beyond mild interest, even in the latter stages. As I said after the final against Barnsley, Wembley was like a works day out rather than a milestone in our history. It was nice, but it wasn’t vital.  
Don’t get me wrong; adding Premier League U21 teams to the mix is a terrible idea. I can’t imagine why anyone – media, sponsors or fans – might be attracted by the prospect of Stoke City Under 21s v Rochdale or even a Wembley final featuring West Brom v Southampton juniors. Last year’s FA Youth Cup final between Manchester City and Chelsea had an attendance of 8,500, even the Premier League has only so much appeal.
But, it’s difficult to know what else to do with it and the alternative is probably to abandon the competition altogether. The reality is that there is just too much football, and the trophy itself is being squeezed out. 
A friend of mine’s husband suffered a near-fatal brain injury 6 years ago. He’s been subjected to progressively more radical treatment in an attempt to save and then stabilise him. This idea seems to be along those lines, a terminal tournament being nursed with increasingly radical treatments.
But, like my friend’s husband, who is now in a wheelchair, suffers depression and bouts of extreme anger and is probably going to lose his leg; all the radical treatment can really achieve is to prevent it from dying, not allow it to thrive.
There is the suggestion that this is a Trojan horse strategy to allow these teams into the Football League. If it is, it’s a pretty dumb one, the equivalent of the Greeks climbing out of the horse at the gates of Troy to ring the doorbell. If this is part of a secret strategy then it’s obviously failed; Oxford may legitimately be able to vote for the idea as a test, but knowing the fans’ views, could it now vote for Premier League entry into the Football League? If it’s a test, then it’s clear that the results are negative, which is good to know, now let’s drown the idea forever.
There’s no doubt the Premier League holds a lot of the cards; they could end loyalty payments, the loan system, promotion and relegation, and throttle coverage of the Football League on Sky and BT. But the answer to those threats is not to become a cheap assimilation, it’s to become something different.
The Premier League is not an English league full of English clubs. Owners, players, managers, and increasingly, fans are not English. I’m no jingoist, I’m fine with it; I quite enjoy the Premier League although I can’t engage with it any deeper than as a form of entertainment.
But I like the uniquely English phenomenon of having three professional leagues (four if you add the Conference), I like the fact that five years ago we were in the Conference and next year we could be fighting to be in the Championship. I like that fans of obscure clubs travel up and down the country to support their team. As the Premier League becomes global, the Football League has a great opportunity to build itself as something successful and local; a Costa Coffee to the Premier League’s Starbucks.
The Football League will be making a grave mistake if it chooses to suckle on the teat of the Premier League in an attempt to succeed. It has so many assets, the Championship is the fourth best attended league in Europe, it needs to build on what it has rather than assimilate itself to a global phenomenon that doesn’t care about it.

As Tom Peters says, in business you have two options – let’s be different, not cheap.  

Barnsley wrap – Barnsley 3 Oxford United 2

The anxiety started early and unexpectedly. Wembley announced a ‘100% bag check’ and my mind started racing. What did they know? Did ISIS consider the lower league’s showcase final to be a ‘soft target’? I’ve never been that bothered about watching the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, I definitely didn’t want to die doing it.
Then there were the 35,000 Oxford fans travelling down the Chiltern line. Twitter ablaze with ungodly start times; would I be too late leaving when I’d planned? What if I couldn’t get on a train? What if I lost my daughter in the crush? A sense of dread about everything apart from the game itself.
In the end ISIS didn’t attack, we did get on the train and my daughter had the time of her life. The place buzzed in the spring sun. We passed a playground full of children dressed in Barnsley and Oxford shirts. They played together, like hamsters in a cage, oblivious to their rivalries until some Barnsley kids, completely without malice, commandeered a roundabout chanting ‘Oxford BOO’. An anthropologists dream.
It was more like a works outing than a football match. People ate lunch in Prezzo, perused the shopping centre shops and stopped to chat awkwardly with people they only vaguely knew because they happen to sit near each other at home games.
A cup final devoid of tension; while the Milk Cup Final in ’86 was the pinnacle of our history and the play-off final critical to our very survival, this wasn’t even the most important game of the week.
But it was difficult not to be impressed by the mass movement of the yellow army. Reassuring that, though you and I choose to watch Mansfield at home over the Bake Off, many thousands of others are with you in spirit; today they’re here in body.
I met Brinyhoofat the Bobby Moore statue, we bumped into each other with our dads at the Milk Cup Final 30 years ago. Last time it was accidental; this time it was planned; completing some kind of circle. We headed to our seats via escalators, bar code scanners and glass doorways. This isn’t 1986 anymore, this isn’t any kind of football we’ve grown up with.
Oh what a joy, a bank of yellow and blue, a happy, united, contented club. A glorious noise. We see a couple of people wearing Weiner Neustadt t-shirts; what Brinyhoof calls ‘Our Sex Pistols at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall’, one day we’ll all claim to have been there, at the start. But, for now, this, we’re all here for this.
In the stadium the pre-match entertainment is underway, it’s cheesy and choreographed, but absolutely necessary. Wembley is so comfortable it feels like you’re at the theatre, it’s tempting to sit passively and enjoy the show. Something needs to ignite it. There are flags and flames, women in tight tops and short skirts, men in military uniform – an anthropologists dream.
Eventually the players appear, Wembley’s great design flaw is that they come on from the side of the pitch rather than one end as at the old stadium. That epically long walk could break players, this short walk from the side doesn’t have the same effect.
The great unspoken is finally spoken, Jake Wright drops to the bench. It’s been on the cards for weeks, he hasn’t done anything wrong this season, but Chey Dunkley’s form makes him hard to drop. Joe Skarz isn’t fit after a season of sterling service, life just isn’t fair.
We start well, though, looking entirely comfortable. After some probing, Alex MacDonald swings a huge cross over and Callum O’Dowda attacks the ball, beating his man and nodding home. The stadium fills with noise; O’Dowda, one of our own, belts down the flank until he’s caught by his team mates. Modern day footballers are too knowing of the cameras that film them, goal celebrations are choreographed for the TV, but this is visceral and real. If his team mates hadn’t caught him, he’d have ended up in the crowd never to return.
Half-time comes and it’s difficult to imagine being more comfortable in a final at Wembley. There’s none of the grizzly angst of the Play-off final or the shock of the Milk Cup.
My half-time routine was pretty straight forward; a trip to the toilet and then a drink. I have to queue for both. I walk back past groups of people casually drinking pints and plastic cups of wine. As I get back to my seat the players are already out. There are thousands of people still under the concourse as we kick off, it creates an oddly sleepy atmosphere.
And it kills us, Barnsley have to come out positively if they’re to get anything out of the game. We need to be disciplined, we need to slow everything down. Call it inexperience, but Wembley is a big pitch, legs become heavy, particularly after a half-time break. We need to hold out for 15 to 20 minutes, control the game, but that’s not really our game at all. Suddenly everyone looks like they’re wading through treacle.
In a flash we’re 2-1 down and then there’s a moment of magic from Adam Hamill. The game threatened to be a shoot-out between Hamill and Kemar Roofe. Hamill took his moment, Roofe didn’t, and that pretty much made the difference between the two teams. Everything else was equal.
Roofe does make his contribution, providing a perfect cross for Danny Hylton to make it 3-2. In the context of the game, it’s meaningless, but it’s a great moment for the club and players.
Waring and Bowery come on, but we’re missing John Lundstram’s more expansive passing. Ruffels has been excellent but his compact game means the strikers are picking up balls 30-40 yards from goal. Man, it’s such a big pitch.
There is no Potter moment, no Jeremy Charles moment, the game peters out. I’m not sure I wanted extra-time, in the end, you know, because of the trains and ISIS. I wanted to win, I didn’t want to lose our unbeaten Wembley record, particularly not like this, but losing was never going to be a heartbreaker. I just hope that the players recognise it for what it is and that it doesn’t distract them from the real objective of the season. Not just because it’s important, but because we, they, deserve the recognition for what our club has become in the last 12 months. 

Millwall wrap – Oxford United 0 Millwall 1

Up until the last quarter of an hour on Tuesday I couldn’t quite decide whether I wanted us to win or simply to avoid screwing it up. This isn’t an unusual feeling for me, I lost the idea of winning as a target a long time ago. Winning is just a by-product of avoiding humiliation.

There was a bit more to it than that. We’re a happy club these days, we do positive things and try to enjoy ourselves. Millwall are a club built on misery and anger; ‘No one like us, we don’t care’; if you extrapolate that to its logical conclusion and they achieve the goal of no one liking them, they wouldn’t exist. It makes you wonder whether they support their club or whether it just happens to be a convenient prism through which their anger about life can be channelled.

It’s not fair to tar everyone with the same brush, of course. I’m sure there are many nice and friendly Millwall fans, as a team I thought they looked good and I’ve always liked Neil Harris, but if there was a reason to win the tie it was to show that being positive is better than being negative.

Tactically we were much more astute than against Blackburn. We absorbed their attempts at gaining an early advantage and played our way into the game. Alex MacDonald, not a player you naturally think of as a leader, was magnificent both in terms of his play, but also the way he calmed everything down, including the ballboys who he felt were returning the ball too quickly.

This had a hugely positive impact on Jonjoe Kenny who seemed to grow up in front of our eyes. His cameo on Saturday was all nervous and jelly legged, which lead to a clumsy foul and a booking. On Tuesday, in almost the same situation, just moments from the end, when the pressure was at its peak, he momentarily looked like he was about to lunge in again. Instead, he stood up, timed his tackle perfectly and picked the ball off the toe of the oncoming attacker. If he can keep it up, then the loss of George Baldock may not be as keenly felt as we thought.

So, a risk-free trip to Wembley beckons; a celebration of what the club has achieved and become, a reward for everyone, on and off the pitch, in the stands and the board room. A reward for positivity. These are special times.

Coming up – Millwall

The drop

Wembley? Well, yes. It’s hard to imagine a scenario a more relaxed way of getting there. It’s the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, we’re at home, we’re 2-0 up. Without getting too complacent about it, you could almost rest some players and be reasonably confident about getting through.
This isn’t bragging or complacency, it’s the simple fact that the JPT is a bonus. Defeat will, in the long term, be forgotten, victory gives us a big day out.

Old game of the day

Millwall wrap – Millwall 0 Oxford United 2

If I’m honest, I thought this would be the one when the wheels fell off. In an already extraordinary couple of weeks, off the back of an extraordinary 8-9 months, everything about the Millwall game was, well, even more extraordinary. I thought that, temporarily at least, the sheer force and velocity of our development and trajectory would blow us to bits. In the same way that a Formula 1 racing car is the most powerful, expensive, high performing car in the world but has tyres that last less than 40 miles, I thought this would be the point at which we’d be destroyed by our own power.

Four days after beating Swansea and becoming media darlings, on a Thursday, two games from Wembley, away to a League 1 team; I thought the frailties that have caused these players to drop into League 2, which have been so hidden all season, would show just enough for Millwall to exploit. Surely at some point tiredness; mental, technical and physical, would kick in.

But, and I am running out of ways of describing us at the moment, we were brilliant. Again. To have expectations heightened to the level they were and then meet and exceed them is mind blowing. And the fact it’s us is more astonishing still. It’s not just the application and heart, it’s the craft and creativity. It’s where we were this time last year and where we are now. And, and, AND, it’s the way we’re doing it; there’s no billionaire investment, these aren’t players lured to the club by endless riches. We’re not, in short, financially doped.

But also, this isn’t just about the result, this might just be about keeping the squad together. When Roofe’s first goal went in, I could see him leaving in the next three weeks, when the second one did, I changed my mind. Roofe, O’Dowda, Lundstram et al now have something beyond the transfer window to work towards; the opportunity to play at Wembley. They won’t get that by moving up the divisions. That and the opportunity to progress in the FA Cup, and promotion, and to do all this together as a squad. They will become club legends.

Moves to bigger clubs and the riches that come with it might well be in their future, maybe even this summer if they keep this up, why the hell would you want to move now?

Coming up: Millwall

The drop

I thought that the closer we’d get to Wembley in the JPT, the more important I’d find the games. In fact, I feel increasingly conflicted and confused. We are two games from Wembley and a chance of some silverware. That’s significant because although we got silverware for our 2010 play-off final win against York, I’m not really a fan of the idea that you get a cup for coming second. This could be the first title we lift for 30 years.

On the other hand, it’s still the JPT, it’s more clutter to our fixture calendar and it’s a pointless risk to our perfect Wembley record. I just can’t quite calibrate it all. I want us to win, I don’t want us to lose. I think ultimately, if we’re going to win this and gain promotion, then I want it to continue. If not, then I don’t.

This season is a bit like the Star Wars film; a modern reboot of an old classic. In 1985/86 – the year we won the Milk Cup and played in the top flight – we had another chance of a Wembley final when we made the semi-final of the Simod Cup. Technically the Full Members’ Cup, it was an attempt to fill the fixture calendar after English clubs had been banned from Europe after Heysel. It was as unloved as it sounds, like the JPT, we managed to make the semi-final to play Chelsea – a widely disliked London club – like Millwall. We lost and they went on to win 5-4 in front of 70,000 people at Wembley. I have a vague recollection of feeling the disappointment of missing out on that day (even though I hadn’t given a monkeys about the tournament). Perhaps I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Old game of the day

This is from1995/96 in the FA Cup. It’s an absolute barnstormer which ended 3-3 with a goal direct from a Bobby Ford corner in the last minute. On the way home, I saw a Millwall fan, so incandescent  with rage, insist that his wife walk in the gutter rather than on the pavement.  Also features a ludicrous Paul Moody back heel for the first goal.