Weekly wrap – Oxford United 1 Oldham Athletic 1, Oxford United 3 Macclesfield Town 0, Bury 2 Oxford United 3

It’s been a good week on the whole; two wins and a draw soured, to some degree, by flag-related acrimony off the pitch.

I’ve always felt that it would be difficult to truly judge the team this season until Christmas; so the Bury win gives us the opportunity to take stock of where we’re at and where we’re heading.

This week’s events did seem to confirm what emerged over the last few weeks – this is a year of transition but we’ll be OK. We’re only 5 points from the play-offs, but our goal difference is probably more telling; for most of the season its sat at zero with the odd variant either way. That says we’re competitive without being truly outstanding.

It’s not that much of a surprise; it’s wrong to say that last year was fortunate, but it was unusual to have the amount of talent we had playing in a League 2 side. Roofe and O’Dowda alone were worth £4.5 million. In addition, there was the curious case of Danny Hylton, signed by Gary Waddock, Jake Wright; a stalwart of the Chris Wilder years and the likes of George Baldock, who played in the Championship, and John-Joe Kenny who was on the bench in the Merseyside Derby on Monday.

It was almost a perfect combination, it still needed focussing and organising, but we had the assets to exceed our objectives. We went into this season playing in a higher division with most of that golden squad gone. The key question was; could the club’s core infrastructure re-build and sustain the level of success?

Thankfully, the answer appears to be yes. We’re not as breathtaking as we were last year, but the opposition is generally better and people are quick to forget that players like Jon Lundstram, Joe Skarz, Alex MacDonald and Liam Sercombe have all played a huge number of games in the last 12-18 months. We tend to think players are completely re-set at the beginning of each season but it’s the same (slightly rested) bodies and minds that finished last season. Maintaining the physical and mental intensity is always difficult so it’s probably not a surprise that their form has dipped slightly at times and they’ve been more prone to injuries.

As I say, last season’s squad was worth at least £4.5 million from Roofe and O’Dowda alone. Look at the whole squad and that figure could have been pushed certainly over £5 million, perhaps six. It’s been years since the club had playing assets of that nature in the squad. In essence we had a £6 million-plus squad assembled for virtually nothing.

While there was clearly investment in the squad, it’s not like we needed to buy big last season so the club could focus on building value elsewhere. Essentially this meant building relations with the fans – organising club holidays, embracing the enthusiasm of the Oxford Ultras, improving merchandise, strengthening branding, actively working on social media, improving the match day experience and innovating with tactical marketing campaigns to get more people through the gates.

Most, if not all of it worked; crowds grew and I suspect merchandise sales did too. But it all comes at a financial cost there needs to be an increase in revenue to match it. The Roofe and O’Dowda money should still be there to some extent, some has been invested in the squad, more will be servicing debt, so it’s not infinite. Assuming that Darryl Eales doesn’t have barrow loads of cash, if the club is to progress onto the Championship – the level at which it is most likely to have sustainable future – it needs to find new ways of making or saving money.

This is the constant balancing act for all football clubs, a few weeks ago I was at the Etihad, they have banners which say ‘The only club in Manchester’ – implying their parochial roots of being the club of the people of the city. On the other side is a banner which say ‘Thank you Sheik Mansour’ acknowledging that it is not the people, but oil from the Arabian peninsula which has paid for their success.

All clubs have the same problem – they need to retain their core values because that’s what fans buy into, but they also need to find new ways of funding success.

The podcast The Fence End Pod recently tweeted some Pathe News footage of our 1964 FA Cup tie against Blackburn as part of a Christmas advent thing. Footage showed no advertising boards around the Manor, no sponsors on the shirt, not even a kit manufacturer’s logo. This is football at its very purest, played, run and funded by The People with no part compromised in the name of money. Most fans would hanker for such a thing now.

But it won’t work now; attitudes have changed and the stakes are higher and more expensive. Clubs have to sell off bits of the equity they have in order to fund themselves, in more emotive footballing terms, they need to sell bits of their soul.

We generally accept that a bit of the sacred club shirt can be sold to a sponsor or manufacturer, or that your home ground can be festooned with adverts of companies trying to make money from your success. But it is a challenge to know when you’ve crossed the line.

Take, for example, the flag issue. Flags and displays have become a key part of Oxford United fan culture over the last few years. It has filled a void resulting from the move to the more sterile Kassam where people have to sit more passively in rows to watch a game.

But flags get in peoples’ way, they obscure the view; it’s why the club have agreed certain rules about when the larger ones can and can’t be waved. In essence, you apply those rules in order to try and give more people a comfortable and consistent viewing experience in the hope that they will keep spending money to keep coming to games. So, we compromise some of the fan culture of the club – sell it off – for extra ticket sales.

There is nothing wrong with this in essence; it’s generally accepted that if you go to the cinema or theatre you will be expected to behave in a certain way so that everyone enjoys the same experience. But in football, when does a comfortable fan experience turn into one which is sterile and meaningless?

It’s a judgement call, but I think the club have got this one wrong in trying to apply restrictions to the use of flags during games. Each area of a football stadium needs to develop its own culture. When I started going, I would go onto the safe, and not too expensive, Osler Road with my dad. As I got older, I wanted to be in the more fevered atmosphere of the London Road – that was where all the noise and action came from. When we moved to the Kassam, I went into the Oxford Mail Stand but started to realise that those around me were getting younger as I got older. I became distracted by horny teenagers trying to impress girls, or the games of giving each other wet willies or simply the banal abuse of players and games. I found that I wasn’t really enjoying being part of that experience so about 7 years ago I moved to the South Stand Upper because the overall experience suited what I wanted from a game.

The East Stand needs to be as fevered as it’s possible to get; flags and singing are part of that, they are the engine room of the atmosphere. So long as people aren’t getting hurt (and they’re not, despite what Health and Safety zealots tell you), the more fevered it gets the better. If you don’t like what comes with that – flags getting in the way or people falling over the top of you after a goal celebration, then there’s the North Stand. If you get to an age where even that’s too much, then the South Stand is a much calmer experience.

While the response from the Ultras seemed a bit over the top, it revealed a level of hurt that people haven’t really talked about. The argument is not about whether a flag should be waved, it’s whether the effort those fans put into the club is valued more or less than the commercial aspects of providing a consistent fan experience. If you think that there seems to be a core of 4,000 supporters who will follow the club whatever state it’s in, there are currently another 4,000 per game on average who are more casual. The atmosphere in the ground and performance on the pitch are the two key influencing factors as to whether those 4,000 attend or not. That’s £80,000 per game minimum, or £1.8m a year. I would rather we protected that than the odd fan who finds themselves in the wrong area of the ground and is distracted by a flag in their face. I say; let the flags fly.

Macclesfield wrap – Macclesfield Town 0 Oxford United 0

What was that all about? 
On Friday night against Macclesfield, we looked like the brittle, fragile Oxford United from a few years ago. The team that came with expectation and returned with nothing. For the first time in a long time, the assured professionalism deserted us and in its place was something worryingly familiar.
Chey Dunkley, often the archetype of modern Oxford, typified the display. Jamie Cook tweeted that he didn’t think Dunkley was ‘good enough’ from what he’d seen. On this showing it was true, he looked over-eager to stamp his authority on the Macclesfield defence making him look clumsy and ponderous in the process. It reminded me of one of his previous TV appearances against Bristol Rovers last season in which he probably should have been sent off in the opening minutes.
What was the problem? An over-willingness to dominate? Nervousness of being on TV and wanting to show his class? Or was he simply bamboozled by the pacey Macclesfield attack? Whatever it was, it put us on the back foot from the opening minutes.
They were never going to maintain their blistering start, and did bring them to heal as the half and game went on. But, then there was a second problem; if we could create a chance, who would score the goals? 
In a team that was packed with midfielders, there just didn’t seem a viable outlet – Maguire and Roberts have lots of worthy attributes, but they don’t always offer an efficient route to goal you might get from a proper striker.  As a result, we just didn’t seem to have anything to lance Macclesfield’s enthusiasm.
The problem, I suppose, is that with Wes Thomas out, do you risk Hemmings when you should win comfortably without him? Does anyone believe Taylor offers a goal threat? Rob Hall is a potential striker, but he’s still coming back from injury. If we can’t rely on any of them, then it’s a question of taking your pick from a wealth of attack-minded midfielders. But, do we really need to out-think them or should we just try battering them instead? Will Michael Appleton ever find the target man he seems to crave?
We seemed to get caught in two minds about how to approach the game; on one hand we wanted to put out a strong team to win comfortably, on the other we wanted to protect the squad and see if we could squeeze through with minimal effort. In the end, we achieved neither.

Macclesfield Town 1 Oxford United 1

I don’t like runs, especially ones that threaten to be record breaking. Losing runs are, of course, demoralising and agitate people into rash decisions, whether that be making grand proclamations of failure, replacing managers or dropping players.
Equally, winning runs become debilitating. Before Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Macclesfield we were looking at a record equalling fifth straight away win (although whether the JPT win over Aldershot should count should probably be disputed). Had we won, the Gillingham game would have been record breaking.
But winning runs are like inflating a bike tyre, at first every pump is a noticeable improvement and really welcomed. But each additional pump takes you closer to over-inflating and another puncture. The more you inflate, the more dramatic the pop.
This is because a run takes you further and further into the unknown. Drawing with Macclesfield should be considered the best result possible – even better than a win in the long term. I know everyone likes winning, but the draw acts as a valve, releasing a bit of pressure. We can go into the Gillingham game with our form in tact, but no talk of records.
I do like trends, because trends give you an indication of the real picture. Trends include the vagaries of lucky wins, dodgy defeats, injuries and suspensions and any seasonal factors. Nobody ever won a title by winning every game so defeats and draws – Sir Alex Ferguson’s squeaky bum time – need to be accepted as part of the rough and tumble of a season. Promotion is won by ensuring the standard remains high and the fluctuations are less varied.
My favourite trend is the 46 game moving annual total, this accounts for those fluctuations: the points accumulated from the last 46 games give you an idea of our form on an annual basis. Last year we accumulated 63 points, we needed 68 to be in the play-offs, and 80 to be promoted automatically.
The 46 games up to and including Saturday’s game saw us accumulate 72 points, which is play-off form. It is also by some distance the best form we’ve been in since we returned to the Football League. And, if fail to pick up points in Gillingham, this is not a sign that the bubble has burst, because the annual total will simply remain on 72. 

Yellows 2 Macclesfield 1

For a game heavily marketed to be full of colour and verve, the win against Macclesfield turned into a rather grey affair as everyone became pre-occupied with two very English obsessions; the football and the weather.

In between intermittent bouts of intricate attacking football inspired by Steve MacLean and some fast and loose defending, which is more effective than it is comfortable. The season’s best crowd of over 9000+ regressed to almost silence when thick fog enveloped the ground as if an evil master criminal had released a noxious gas from his island lair.

With distractions aplenty, it was fitting that the last game of the year showed no evidence of that third, very English obsession; our Empire Complex.

Macclesfield brought 86 fans, although there was nowhere near that in the stands at 3pm, and very little evidence of them when they finally evaporated in the toxic cloud just before half-time. It’s a club barely deserving of a place in the football league, when you consider those swimming with the pond life in the Conference.

And yet, we took them on as equals. In the past, our sense of entitlement and superiority has been the source of our downfall. In the past we’ve assumed victory because of who we are. But whatever wrapper Macclesfield come in, they are still a team of half decent lower league professionals with a bit of pace and ability. They made it uncomfortable for us, but rather than being shocked at what we encountered, we took it on face value. So when James Constable was needed on the goal line to clear our lines, he was there doing the job without complaint.

Off the field, it was much the same, there was none of the old ‘you should be beating shit like this’. We now recognise that teams at whatever level need to be respected. They’re all capable over any 90 minute period of winning a game. For all the distractions – the weather, the crowd, the marketing, the Christmas pudding – we’re actually playing teams at football, not at willy waggling.

Chris Wilder is right, our empire, the one built in the 1980’s is gone; as glorious as that was and as sad as it sounds. The best thing we can do with it now is clear the rubble and start building a new one. As we reach the end of 2010; I think we’re as close to starting this new era of success as we’ve been for the last 10 years.

Macclesfield 3 Yellows 2; Yellows 3 Northampton 1

My first ever driving lesson was in the deserted car park of the local industrial estate. I sat in the driver’s seat and my dad told me that all I had to do was lift the clutch, press the accelerator and I’d be off.

I did just that, and kangarooed off around the car park, unable to get my foot firmly onto the accelerator to truly pull away. It was driving, but not perhaps as it was envisaged.

Yesterday, we saw the next evolution of Chris Wilder’s blueprint. Following last week’s miserable capitulation to Macclesfield, it was evident that all-out attack was being sacrificed for something a bit more sophisticated. Instead of launching forward, we took a leaf out of Herbert Chapman’s old playbook and decided that we didn’t need to attack all the time.

With a back-four of full-backs, Northampton were clearly expecting an assault. But, by holding the ball we were able to draw them out allowing us to probe throughout the whole 90 minutes, not until we ran out of ideas around the hour mark.

Comfortable, though, it was not. I was reminded of Graham Rix’s first game in charge. Insisting on playing ‘the right way’ we witnessed the likes of Andy Crosby and Paul McCarthy (both classically trained in the Ian Atkins ‘put some snow on it’ school) attempting to pass the ball along their own six-yard line. You could see what they were trying to do, but it was nothing like the slick passing side that Rix envisaged in his head. As he tried to re-train a bunch of whorey old pros to play Total Football, we slipped out of the play-off positions.

Like my first driving lesson, what we witnessed yesterday was a rough-cut version of the Oxford Wilder is trying to fashion. Effective though it was in terms of the result, you suspect there’s some way to go before we see it in its completed form.