Hayes and Yeading 2 Yellows 1

It’s August and Oxford United head out for their annual ‘well-season’ health check-up on Harley Street.

“Ah, come on in Mr…” the doctor pauses as he riffles through a pile of records “United, so good to see you again, how are you?”

“Good” says Oxford United “Better than I have been for a number of years in fact.”

“Hmm” says the doctor barely listening “I see you’ve had a few problems in past seasons, but you’ve been following our advice, I trust. Well, let’s see how you’re getting on. Go behind the screen and whip your trousers off.”

Following much rummaging, poking and coughing, Oxford United emerges from behind the screen buttoning his shirt up.

“So, how’s it looking doctor?”

“Hmm, not too bad” said the doctor looking over his half moon glasses “Your Stevenage and Luton look OK given your past. Your Wimbledon looks OK, Crawley, Ebbsfleet… good, very good.”

“There is on thing” he continued after a pause “Your Hayes and Yeading is a bit off colour. Has it always looked like this?”

“Well, yes.” said United a little perturbed “I’m sure it has” The truth is he never really checked it. It didn’t look terribly important.

“OK, well it’s probably nothing. Keep an eye on it. If it becomes painful or changes shape, come straight back in”

Several months pass, Oxford United’s Hayes and Yeading starts to itch, go a bit hard, change shape. Oxford United ignores all this; everything else is fine, life is generally good.

Eventually United returns to the doctor.

“Well Doc, I’m feeling really good, but I thought you ought to have a look at this” he says revealing his Hayes and Yeading.

“EE GADS!” says the Doctor, forgetting his bedside manner for a moment.

Startled, United asks the doctor to explain.

“Well, that’s a text book example of Minnows Stabuinthearse. It’s a common complaint, basically it’s a very small part of your body, you probably don’t even know it exists when you look at it in August. But you need to look after it as you would your Stevenage or Luton. If you don’t, there can be complications…”

“And what does it mean Doctor?” Said United

The Doctor looked United in the eyes and spoke.

“Oh, you’ll be dead within by April.” He said.

Stevenage 1 Yellows 0

I’ll let you into a secret. I didn’t think we’d win the title. I wanted us to; for a while I believed we would. But the team I thought would win the title was… Stevenage. Last year I thought it’d be Burton, the year before that Aldershot. I would say ‘I told you so’ except, of course, I didn’t.

The Conference isn’t so much won as built up to. The league is made up of a handful of basket cases (Chester, Grays) who bring the whole show into farcical disrepute. A vast majority of the league is made up of hard working, well organised defensive units that can’t score. This leaves a bunch of clubs who are well organised defensive units with a striker – these will typically occupy the play-off spots.

This leaves just two clubs. There’s The Club. The Club are the team that came down and expect to bounce straight back through the sheer force of their personality. Us, Luton, Torquay, Wrexham perhaps. They come in and suddenly realise that the league is full of hard working defensive units that will take more than a Jedi mind-trick to break down. Distraught at being relegated, they suddenly expect all their troubles to melt away as they walk away with the title. Then they find out that they actually have to play and suddenly all their insecurities are revealed.

And finally there’s the team that wins the title. As Fred Westley said prior to yesterday’s game; their success reflects three or four years of hard work. It’s this stability, plus a hard working defensive unit, plus a striker, that will win you the title. Such is the fragility of the Conference, the challenge of maintaining stability for a couple of years is something only one club a season seems capable of.

We’re just 15 months from our last fallow period; we probably have another 6 months before we can realistically sustain a title bid. I thought for a while we bucked the trend, but the science caught us up eventually. The trick now is to avoid the temptation of slinging the year’s good work out the window. Build, build, build; that’s got to be the mantra.

Of course, where the science is thrown out of the window is during the play-offs. If we can shake the feeling of failure, it may suit us better. You don’t need to sustain the stability for months and we should go into any head-to-head confident that we can be successful. People shouldn’t be writing the season off just yet.

Of course, if we do make it to Wembley, it’s going to be against Luton isn’t it? And what a game that’ll be.

Yellows 2 Gateshead 1

When we eventually find out that the Premier League is, in fact, completely staged for the purposes of TV we will feel a little like we felt for most of today. We won’t be so much surprised but relieved and betrayed. Betrayed by the time and effort we’ve invested in it, but relieved that the hyperbolic and bullshit is, in fact, the product of scriptwriters not normal human behaviour operating in the real world.

For much of today’s win over Gateshead we seemed to be going through our paces; dominating, taking the lead, inevitably conceding in ‘controversial’ circumstances. Once that happened I think most people were envisaging that we’d trudge off to find that Stevenage and Luton had both had thumping wins ruling us out of the title race completely. Inevitable, as nothing good ever happens to us. Even James Constable admitted that he’d spent the last 10 minutes wondering what would be said in the changing room after the final whistle.

It was like we’d all conceded that the curse was in place and that, in some way, it was a relief to finally succumb to it. We thought we’d learnt the lessons of three years ago; strengthen when you can, don’t underestimate the opposition, don’t rely on ‘league quality’. We taken all the right actions and yet still we’re going to get pushed out of it. There was an acceptance that the conspiracy was complete and that it didn’t really matter what we did, we’d forever fall short.

Few seem convinced that Matt Green’s last minute winner was the turning point, but it’s nice that the Stevenage game still means something. And, if we can pull it out of the bag, then yes, suddenly the machine might splutter into life propelling us forward.

And this is how we go into Tuesday; unlike previous must-wins, there’s little anxiety of defeat, more a gentle hope of success. This could work in our favour. Or is that being too hopeful?

Tamworth 0 Yellows 0

One of the frustrating things about the current run is that it’s very difficult to pin point what’s going wrong. You can speculate about the changes of personnel or the supposed curse that says we’re destined to throw this away, but it’s not like we’re playing badly per se, we’re just not getting the results.

Perhaps it’s better to look at the season in a different way. The reason that the championship is awarded at the end of the season is because only then, when everyone has played everyone else, do you get the true picture of who is the best team. The league table at any other point in the season, is merely a distraction.

Look at the current ‘bad’ run: Hayes was the absolute shitter, undeniably bad; but then every team would expect one shitter a season. Manchester United lost to Burnley this year, Chelsea to Wigan that’s been their shitter. We shouldn’t be surprised to have one ourselves.

You’d expect to get the occasional away draw against dogged, unspectacular teams like Cambridge and Tamworth. You might, at some point in the season, also expect a team chasing the play-offs to escape the Kassam with a point, as Kettering did.

It just so happens that these games were drawn to be played together. Had they been scattered throughout the rest of the season, we wouldn’t be looking for reasons that it’s gone horribly wrong. We’d be here now knowing we were in a title fight.

Form and luck barely plays a part in the outcome of a season. When all the games have been played, the good teams are always at the top and the bad teams at the bottom. For every Luton disaster, there’s a Miracle of Crawley, for the points dropped against Kettering, there are points gained against York. If you’re a team that’s going to lose 5 games in a season, that’s what you’ll do – you may lose all five in a row, or one every six weeks, but in the end it’s your class will determine where you end up.

Looking forward, we can’t be shocked if we drop points against Rushden and Stevenage away, but we’d expect to beat Gateshead. After this, we have six games all of which look winnable whilst Stevenage have Luton, Wimbledon, Kidderminster and York, games where you might expect them to drop points. They may be building a reasonable lead at the moment, but, unlike us they haven’t played all the nasties.

Anyone who thought we’d be walking it by now was being naïve. A vast majority of league titles are won in the last couple of games a season, why shouldn’t we expect it to be the same here?

Yellows 1 Kettering Town 1

There are few more endearing images in Oxford’s history than Nick Harris at the Milk Cup Final patrolling the Wembley running track with an enormous portable radio transmitter on his back. Nowadays that amount of technology can be fitted into your average iPod Shuffle, back then it was like seeing a lower league funded moon landing.

Perhaps this is what inspired Radio Oxford to employ (Kass Stad) Kate Adams as a post-match roving reporter. Unlike Nick Harris, Adams is a pretty blonde, which seems like a low pre-requisite for a radio career. I guess the boys – who you get the impression don’t tend to talk to girls much – like having her around; you’re only as young as the woman you feel and all that.

There is presumably a panel of linguists and football historians working on the questions she asks of passing fans. The sheer banality of her approach cannot be the work of one person alone.

On Saturday she asked “We’ve got one point against Kettering, is that enough?” (or something). One punter, no doubt dragging his fists along the floor as he hauled his club foot towards her, claimed that the Kettering result was proof that we wouldn’t even make the play-offs.

Now, I know better than to take any notice of this carnival of morons, but this view seemed indicative of those being shared around the ground.

But let’s think this through, the Hayes result was a freak, everything about it was so strange that it’s difficult to include it in any reasonable analysis. Kettering, on the other hand, have the best away record in the league, and on this basis it wasn’t unreasonable to think that a draw was a possible, even likely, outcome.

There was comment that we needed Constable, Murray and Potter back. Well, those three haven’t played together for two months. To lose players like them is going to have an impact, you can’t just replace them like for like.

Some people have thrown in the towel even though there’s we’re one point short with a quarter of the season still to play. And the only team that are close to us, Stevenage, are demonstrating form no team in any league would live with.

And, even if the title is beyond us, there’s a route to the Football League via the play-offs – surely it’s by any means possible.

Fans are rarely objective enough to be self critical, but if we’re to throw our toys out of the pram every time things start to turn against us, then we’re deserving of everything we get. If we can’t win the title by 15 points, well, we don’t want to play anymore. We can’t claim to be loyal Oxford fans simply because we’re prepared to turn up to games when it’s a bit chilly.

Yellows 1 Hayes and Yeading 2

There was one discussion lighting up the Grenoble Road following yesterday’s masterclass in abjectness. Chris Wilder is losing the plot with a glut of loan signings few can see we need.

It’s totally unfair to damn Wilder on the basis of this defeat given what he’s achieved in the last year or so. And the knee-jerk reaction from many is hopelessly irrational. However, there is an uncomfortable truth that Wilder plays a high-risk game.

Look back to the end of last season. Having steered the team to the brink of a miraculous promotion, he disbands the team almost in its entirety and rebuilds again. Then at Christmas he breaks up a back four that conceded but a handful of goals. Then he has four or five proven forwards, but insists on signing Franny Green and John Grant.

Chris Wilder is a tinker, how many times have we seen players jogging across to the touchline to be given another minute tactical tweak. Are we to believe that the likes of Hayes & Yeading are so tactically sophisticated that constant adjustments are needed to slay them?

Nope, I think that Wilder’s tinkering is his nervous tick. He just can’t leave things alone. Claudio Ranieri was the same; he couldn’t leave his team alone. Mostly Ranieri was a successful manager, but he famously overcooked his twiddling at a Champions League Semi-Final against Monaco in 2004 that eventually cost him his job.

Like Ranieri, Wilder’s tinkering got the better of him last night. His constant re-dealing of the pack will inevitably produce a duff hand eventually. Yesterday was a case in point; a combination of tinkering with the loan system, injuries and suspensions produced an insipid performance. But worst still, when it was going wrong, there was no proven plan to fall back on – the playbook is too full.

Had there been more stability he could have called a plan B that the players could have confidence in. Instead they ended up playing yet another system with players who’ve barely met before. It’s difficult to know how you can dominate a game when you’re still working out who the bloke to your left is. This might not have been the single cause of last night’s debacle, but it was a big influence on our ability to rectify the position we found ourselves in.

But, let’s look at the positives. Yes, we have a squad with almost too much choice, inviting Wilder to fiddle endlessly with. But it is one with the quality to take the title. The margins have narrowed, but the title is still in our hands. Stevenage are on a hell of a run, but they have a lot of games and a similar history of choking. Don’t tell me that they won’t feel the pressure. And, above all, for all his fiddling, Chris Wilder gets it right far more often than he gets it wrong. This isn’t over.