Mansfield wrap – Oxford United 2 Mansfield Town 2

There was a thing on the news last week about researchers who were trying to work out whether dogs were intelligent. The researcher said she was using only Border Collies in the experiment, aiming to eliminate all possible variants that might determine why one dog might be able to do something and another not. For example, if a labrador is more intelligent than a dachshund, is it because they’re better at learning or because the labrador has longer legs? Don’t ask me, that was just what she said.

With three consecutive home defeats, in front of full houses, two against teams from higher divisions, in the glare of the media, it was difficult to really work out whether we were in a bad run of form, or if it was just an unusual sequence of games. Tuesday felt like we were eliminating the variables to work out just where, exactly, we were at.

Of course, it’s difficult to know what normal is nowadays. The last home game which you might describe as ‘normal’; that is, typical of a game from the last five years or so, was Carlisle in mid-December. Maybe big crowds and big games is the new normal.

At first, on and off the pitch, we looked shell-shocked that 6,000 people had suddenly found that our promotion push took a lower priority to Pancake Day, central heating and Holby City. We sold more than 5,000 tickets for Wembley on Monday, I doubt we sold more than 50 in advance of Tuesday. For all rhetoric about dedicated, real fans and how promotion was the most important thing; for most people, there’s nothing better than a big one-off set piece.

This was anything but a big one-off set piece. Adam Murray knows exactly what he is dealing with at Mansfield; as his first managerial appointment and working with a limited budget, he sees the value in keeping things physical and functional. Nicking goals from set pieces and hanging on for grim death is a key part of the plan. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it was very effective, and we didn’t know what to do about it. The corner routine that lead to the goal, which was comically agricultural, and Sam Slocombe’s inability to deal with the sheer physicality of it all, was a microcosm of the rest of the game.

Thank god, then, for Danny Hylton; while most of the team seemed to take a sharp intake of breath at the quiet and cold, Hylton just seems to enjoy the chance to run around in the fresh air chasing a ball regardless of the occasion. His enthusiasm seemed to drag us out of our stupor.

We did wake up eventually,  but we could still benefit from being more direct in the final third, we’re constantly overplaying things, which can be great to watch but frustrating when you need someone to slam the ball in the net. As I say, thank god for Danny Hylton.

The last minute goal was frustrating, but it does happen, it may even be a blessing in disguise, showing that just because we’re at Wembley and have beaten teams in every division this season, that it’s called a promotion fight for a reason.

Coming up – Mansfield

The drop

I’m not bothered about winning the title. I’m really not. Perhaps it’s because it’s such a weird concept for us after more than 30 years of resolutely not winning titles. I figure the title is a by-product of winning promotion and that only after that happens do you start worrying about the top spot. By that point, of course, the title may be long gone, but if it isn’t then you have a little scrap over it. Just for bad.

So, at the moment, it’s all about looking down rather than up. We’ve only played three league games this year and, despite this, we remain 4 points clear with games in hand on all the teams around us.

The Mansfield game provides an opportunity to put more points into Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth, who you’d imagine are real contenders for the automatic places. It’s no gimme though; Mansfield are 4th although they’ve played three games more than us, and this will be the first game in a while where the Kassam with echo with Tuesday night disinterest. It’s going to be an interesting and very different test of our promotion credentials.

Old game of the day

Mansfield wrap – Mansfield Town 1 Oxford United 1

Teams that win promotion show a relentless quality. If you consider the difference between promotion and the play-offs last year was one point and you spread that across 46 games, that’s just 0.02 points per game. The good teams and the less good teams broadly do all the same things; difference between success and failure is right in the margins.

I remember playing Crawley in 2012 when they were promoted. We had aspirations for promotion ourselves and played with a fantastic intensity. It felt like we were playing at maximum capacity which was great to watch. But what we considered to be extraordinary was what they considered to be under-par. We led, but in the last minute, with a certain inevitably, they equalised. Extrapolate those moments of marginal difference across the entire season and the margin grows considerably. We ended the season 16 points behind Crawley.

Maintaining that intensity throughout a season is the biggest challenge facing any team hoping for promotion. This is particularly true against teams like Mansfield. In many ways, this was the first true test of our potential. It was away, it was off the back of a top-notch performance, it was against one of those teams it’s difficult to get too excited about. What drives the performance is not the opposition, but the inner intensity to perform, which in turn, is driven by the objective.

So, as a result of the draw with The Stags, are we demonstrating that relentlessness and intensity? Not yet, but there’s no doubt we’re robust. We’ve now played four games and conceded first in all of them. And yet we remain unbeaten. That’s a team with a solid resolve. Those statistics point towards a team who should be harbouring ambitions for the play-offs. Going beyond that requires a bit more; Jim Smith used to say that to win the title you had to win at home and draw away. The draw against Crawley on the first day of the season means we’re slightly behind that sort of run rate. As a result, as encouraging as the signs might be, the jury remains out as to whether we’re quite at the point where an automatic spot, or better, is realistic.

Coming up: Mansfield Town

The drop 

It doesn’t feel like it, but Tuesday was only our third League game of the season; two against just-relegated teams and one against someone that is heavily tipped to do well. And we’re doing more than fine, unbeaten – plus the destruction of a Championship side – and with a dizzying performance against Notts County under our belt.

And now for something completely different. When Saturday Comes’ season preview had a lot of fans, including our own representative, predicting a mid-table finish for their club. It illustrates a malaise pervasive across League 2 which hopes for the best and expects, if not the worst, something rather uninspiring.

Mansfield, up next, is one of those teams whose initial requirement is basic survival. These are teams that are harder to beat; more conservative, less interested in putting on a show, more interested in picking up points. There is a huge wodge of these teams, each one needs knocking down, its relentless and exhausting, and not very pretty. In some ways, the real season starts here.  

Old game of the day 

Mansfield Town, one of those teams that were once an irrelevance to us, but who now seem to be locked into a similar trajectory. This is from 2008 and you could argue that it was the first game after we’d hit rock bottom. We’d just gone out of the Cup to Torquay, which resulted in Darren Patterson being relegated. Jim Smith was in charge for this one, which was live on Setanta, and therefore probably played at 3am on a Tuesday morning or something. Shortly afterwards we recruited Chris Wilder and the revival was on.

From the blog

In 2012 we went to Mansfield with James Constable sitting on 99 goals. He went on to score his 100th goal; a bona fide modern Oxford legend.

“You hope, of course, that perhaps Gary Twigg can be the next John Aldridge, or Alex Fisher the next Paul Powell. I’ve lost count of the number of wingers I hoped would turn out to be the next Joey Beauchamp. 

Yes, Courtney Pitt, you failed me.”

Read on.

Feed the fans and the rest will follow

Oxford United’s first ever tweet said “Testing to see if anyone spots we are here.” It was a typical first tweet of the the time which was populated mostly by techie, marketing and media types; early adopters who tried this stuff out with no real expectation as to whether it would take off or not. The club adopted the handle ‘OUFClive’; it was probably the best they could come up with on a quiet afternoon, a decision made with little consideration to social media strategies or such piffle.

Followers began to notice that, when read quickly, the ‘Clive’ bit stuck out. It became a running joke that the club’s Twitter account was actually someone called Clive. ‘Clive’ played along; he became our mate at the football. Even the top brass at the club got involved with Kelvin Thomas once playing the role of Clive for a pre-season game in the US.

Then, recently, without warning, the club changed its handle to OUFCOfficial. There was consternation; Clive, our mate at the football, became ‘official’; and as we know, nothing in football that is ‘official’ is any good – referees, police, stewards.

It’s been suggested that it was changed for the club to appear more professional. A hashtag was introduced; #together; which, in the current climate seems a bit passive aggressive to me. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, that sort of thing. Context is everything; if the club had used the hashtag #believe during the Malcolm Boyden campaign in 2009, I would have been on board. Ultimately, these things work when they reflect how you feel rather than tell you how to feel. I did ‘believe’ in 2009, I don’t really feel ‘together’ in 2015.

Clive was a rare piece of fan-driven PR that worked well, and the club’s drive for so called professionalism wiped it out. Football clubs, particularly in the lower leagues need to recognise and capitalise on the wonkiness of football clubs not try to eradicate it to present a facade of credibility.

With every new regime or manager, history tends to get wiped out and everything starts again. Apart from in the fans, of course, we treasure the past. Successive manager’s have vocally criticised those who are nostalgic, but it’s a key driver for why we turn up each week; we want to try and recreate or build on the magic of the past that has made us supporters in the first place. If it were a wholly logical decision based on the quality of the service being provided, our crowds would be so low the club would be able to phone everyone to check if they were coming each week.

This isn’t just romantic whimsy, there’s money to be had in nostalgia-porn; on Saturday I went into the club shop, I had an itch to spend some money, I’ve no idea why. I couldn’t find anything but generic polyester leisurewear. I’ve been looking for a copy of the 2010 Wembley DVD for ages, but nothing, what about a t-shirt with some oblique in-joke? I would buy something that said, for example, ‘Right side for life’ or ‘Ford, Elliot, Gilchrist, Robinson’. There’s value in the past; it’s a rich seam with a lot of potential; the club should use it.

Then, I walked into the stadium to hear the iconically gravelly voice of Nick Harris commentating on a Peter Rhodes-Brown goal coming over the PA. There were others, a Beauchamp goal, Alfie Potter at Wembley. They played Use Somebody by Kings of Leon and If The Kids Are United by Sham 69. It’s a shame that Gary Glitter’s Do You Wanna Be In My Gang is kind of inappropriate these days, if they played it, I reckon I would have been able to smell the London Road. While, I don’t care much for any of those tracks musically, I don’t come to football to hear new music, they are songs which evoke memories of the past. As far as I can work out, it was a conscious effort to generate some momentum in the face of a potential relegation battle. I was stirred, it felt important to support the club at the moment, not because I like what’s happening at the moment, but because we need to preserve the club and its memories.

It was a masterstroke, we were immersed in the club; it’s history and it’s purpose. If they can sustain and build on it in the future, we may indeed come #together as a club.

But we still need to slot a successful team into this environment. It was probably fitting that the buzzier pre-match atmosphere drifted into the ether once the actual game got underway. It’s probably an appropriate metaphor that the club appears to be finding its feet while the team stumble. The crowd fell into such a silence it was possible to hear the players shouting at each other from the South Stand Upper. It was scrappy and uncomfortable, the application was there, but we still lack quality.

The win was both needed and welcomed, but it didn’t suggest any kind of tuning point in our fortunes. Like a recovering alcoholic who just needs a quiet night in rather than an evening in the pub resisting the optics behind the bar, we needed a normal, comfortable, home win like that as a reminder that we could do it. It was important in that respect. All in all, it confirmed my suspicion that while our league position is deeply uncomfortable, there are just about enough teams in the division who are notably poorer. Despite our woes, relegation shouldn’t be a threat. Nobody is ‘too good to go down’, but avoiding relegation is in our hands. The problem is that while there are six or seven teams notably worse than us, there are still way too many that are notably better.

A good day, with signs of hope, but still a lot to do.

What’s the difference between a coach and a manager?

What’s the difference between a manager and a coach? In the chaotic world of professional football, it’s probably little more than semantics, certainly the definitions seem to have been blurred since he good old days when the manager wore a sheepskin coat and the coach was a wiry bald man in a tight tracksuit.

The concept of the ‘head coach’ is an affectation of the modern game. A reaction against the omnipotent management tradition styled by the likes of Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s a message from the owners that says; ‘you may be the one in the limelight, but I run this schizzle’.

The head coach is quite exotic, a hipster move, something foreigners do. But, like many things adopted by Britain from abroad, it’s not taken on wholesale. Much as we admire the German approach, we’re still fond of our despotic owners. When things are going wrong, fans call for ‘someone’ to come in spend money – it’s rare you hear them calling for the club to be run as a not-for-profit democracy.

So, there is almost certainly no consensus on the difference between the two and perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps, but perhaps not, because if you do confuse the two, then how do you know you’ve got the right people running your team in the right way?

By definition, the coach is there to develop players. It is a positive, nurturing role; taking players to their full potential. As such, it’s fairly easy to be the good guy. In fact, it’s pretty important that you are the good guy if the players are going to respond to the things you want them to do.

The manager, however, is almost the opposite. Within his arsenal has to be the ability to be the bad guy, he has to make decisions which are not always popular – scratch that, no decision is popular. Every decision will upset someone; players, fans, owners or media. He has to earn empathy and respect, but he needs mental robustness to resist criticism and the emotional detachment to remain objective. In a world where ex-players continually lament the banter and camaraderie of the dressing room over almost everything else the game offers, the idea that you might want to move into a role where you are almost always going to be disliked by someone can’t be for many.

So, like anyone in a senior role, a football manager, to be successful, has to be a sociopath. And this could be after a career where the idea of the individual is beaten out of you. Of course, many coaches are considered for managerial roles because they are amiable and they do the right things playing football the right way. They follow the textbook, which sounds just great if you’re an owner.

We’ve had a few managers who were good coaches; by all accounts Graham Rix was an excellent coach, David Kemp’s career in the Premier League shows that he was a much better coach than manager. Ian Atkins and Chris Wilder were very good managers, as was Jim Smith who always needed a very good coach to make things work. It doesn’t stand to reason that a good coach makes a good manager, or that a good manager makes a good coach. So you interchange them at your peril.

When Danny Hylton slotted home the equaliser at Mansfield on Saturday, it seemed like we might have escaped with a barely-deserved draw. The first reaction of the players was to get the ball from the back of the net in order to hurry up the restart. We did the right thing by the fans, and the spirit of football, and we went for the three points.

But, having suffered a home defeat on the opening day and with a gift of an away point eleven minutes away, is going for the win the right thing to do? Or, given the nervousness that comes with being one of the handful of teams without a point, should it be time to shut up shop?

His decision was a coach’s decision, not a managerial one. The coach goes for the win; sticks to the principles of the game, does the right thing. The manager recognises the value of an away point which settles everyone and puts us amongst the pack.

Perhaps it illustrates an inability to operate in the managerial role. We don’t know whether that’s a permanent thing or whether he will gain a managerial mindset. Let’s face it, his previous roles have hardly given him scope to spread his wings. Securing points by any means is one of his easier decisions. As the season progresses, things get harder – there will be decisions about playing injured players, rushing them back to do a short-term job, he may look at fixtures and decide they’re worthy of sacrifice because of more significant jobs coming up. Then there are the habits, bad or otherwise, that players begin to adopt. He will need to develop some of those habits, but he will need to suppress others. He may also need to make decisions about players who are good and decent people – players he perhaps brought in – who will need replacing. In short, the job will get dirtier.

Partly, this is about Appleton’s ability, but it’s also about the strategy of the football club. Is Appleton’s role to be the manager? To make tough and unpleasant decisions? Or is he the coach? To develop players’ technical ability? Do we know what a head coach is supposed to do? To date, it’s not clear. While the single point of failure concept that operated for most of Chris Wilder’s reign is not desirable, we currently have a gap in ability which needs filling, or developing, quickly.