After a seven game winless streak, KRob was thankful for the fact that toothless Tranmere were in town and that Tariq Fosu is made of helium. Fosu collided with a gust of wind to win the first of two penalties which set us on the way to a 3-0 win. James Henry hoovered up both spot kicks with Cameron Brannagain, again, slamming home a third, which was the second, and his fifth of the season. Elliot Moore was due to start but was struck down with The Newlyweds Curse, a back spasm.
Sunday 15 September 2019
Scotland manager Steve Clarke may be set to turn to Chris Cadden to shore up his leaky defence. Scotland have had a torrid start to their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign having conceded 9 goals in their last three games. Clarke’s looking for someone to better that, though with Cadden being part of a back four who recently conceded sixteen goals in six games, it might not quite be the betterment he was thinking of.
Monday 16 September 2019
The slayer of Edgar Davids and owner of Coventry’s most prodigious chin since Jimmy Hill, Andy Whing has a new job as coach at Hereford United. He’ll be bringing all his experience to his new role, creating a team of tough tackling midfielders with a never-say-die attitude. “All we want is a team of Andy Whings.” said Hereford owner Geoff Hereford.
Tuesday 17 September 2019
A live-streamed video of a bunch of kids from Bolton beating up some lame old men surfaced online on Tuesday. KRob’s approach to our away trip to Bolton Wanderers was the equivalent of holding a child at arm’s length by putting his hand on their forehead while they swing punches just out of reach. Sadly, KRob badly misjudged their range and took one clean in the knackers, limping away with a 0-0 draw.
Wednesday 18 September 2019
Lincoln City are planning to roll out the big guns in order to replace messanic manager Dan Cowley who has gone to Huddersfield. And there are no bigger guns than perpetual managerial bridesmaid Michael Appleton who is odds on to take over at Sincil Bank. MApp could be facing KRob in the technical area for our visit to Sincil Bank on Saturday. KRob is seeing whether he can get a girdle ordered on his Amazon Prime account as we speak.
Thursday 19 September 2019
It was the Six Minutes Forty-Seven Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford where Niall, don’t call me Niall, McWilliams was the Johnny Byrne on the spot. Fans nearly missed the opportunity to ask about the stadiumsituation which will be 100% resolved before the end of the year. McWilliams also publicly backed KRob in his role. Uh oh.
It’s Lincoln tomorrow, and who’s that sitting in the opposition bench doing bicep curls? Holy cow, it’s MApp. The man with more tattoos than Tatu on Tatooine has taken over the hot seat just in time to unleash an unedifying defeat on his former charges. Hold onto your hats everyone, MApp’s back in the game.
Elsewhere, in science, we’ve learned the largest unit of time is called a supereon. Previously determined by geological formations, scientists now describe this as the unit of time between everyone knowing that Tariqe Fosu was signing for us and the official announcement that he had. That day finally came on Monday.
Tuesday 2 July 2019
Deep fried pastiness ahoy, Sunday is the Steve Kinniburgh derby at Ibrox. Those thinking Rangers have been seduced by the glamour of a friendly against Oxfordshire’s finest need to think again. According their Head PT Instructor, Stevie G’s Tax Avoiding Army are wargaming the rigours of playing second rate European football followed by fifth rate domestic football every week until they’re knocked out by Maltese part-timers in mid-July. We don’t know if we’re Lazio or Cowdenbeath in their fetishised role play.
Wednesday 3 July 2019
Back home, things have gone a bit Thames Valley Royals as Oxford United director Horst Geicke has been announced as a Director of RFC Prop, a holding company of Royal Elm Park Development who are developing the land around the Madjeski Stadium in Reading. We’re sure this is absolutely fine.
Our favourite Ghanaian football website, where everything is true, claims Tariq Fosu’s signing on fee was £500k which also claims “he made 27 appearances last season where he made 27 appearances” – that’s an encouraging ratio of 1 game per appearance.
Friday 5 July 2019
Hark! The gentle lilt of the lute, for it is GLS The Bard with songs of bafflement and bemusement, Bard, sing us a tale from the kingdom…
Hey nonny nonny… KRob is frustrated, he doesn’t know what to do He wants to sign Chris Cadden, The Mackems want him too Sunderland can’t sign him, they’ve problems of their own Red Bull want to buy their club, Stewy’s waiting by the phone Until their deal is done, then Cadden’s is on hold But Columbus want him also, or so we have been told But, Crew can’t sign him either, too many from overseas Cadden can’t be added, until another leaves And yet they may still sign him, then loan him back to us Or perhaps it’ll just collapse, because of all the fuss So KRob is frustrated, he doesn’t know what to do He thinks he might get Cadden, but he thinks he might not too. With a hey nonny nonny…
Ah, thanks the bard, there he goes, on his merry way – those tights are a bit unforgiving, don’t you think?
KRob’s excited, but then what other mode does he have? The whiff of Tunnock Teacakes and Tenants Super is in the air as we head north for our first friendly of the summer. “They have some world class players” said KRob using a pretty liberal definition of the term – that is, players who can unequivocally be classed as living in this world. To illustrate the fact, among their number is Wes Fotheringham, who lest we forget, lost two derbies playing for Swindon against Oxford in 2012 before being released because it was deemed, and we’ll say this very slowly, he was not as good as The Red Card Ronaldo; Lawrence Vigouroux.
Sunday 7 July 2019
To those who have made the trip up to Glasgow staring into a grey slate sky, squinting to make out the features of people sitting opposite you. Yes, this is what they call daylight. The day has come, let football reign and for the 700 mile round-trip to be rewarded with something more competitive than Peter Rhodes-Brown’s hurdling over advertising boards half-time relay race. Now, we don’t want to ruin anyone’s holiday to what the World Health Organisation once dubbed ‘Europe’s Murder Capital’ but while you’ve been away travellers have moved into the Kassam Stadium car park.
‘Giein it laldy, ya great bawbag!’ as they might say in the streets of Auchenshuggle.
As they say in Game of Thrones; The North Remembers, unfortunately the south forgets. In the hullabaloo about new contracts and released players last week, the name T’ony McMahon was completely overlooked. The whippet worrying full-back remains on our books despite spending a good chunk of the year on loan at Scunthorpe who he helped steer to a comfortable relegation spot last season. KRob doesn’t expect him to return south next year; he doesn’t want to take a “bad signing and make it into a good signing.”; applying his trademark bewildering logic. Some would argue he spent a decent part of last season achieving the exact opposite. Not us, though, not us.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; so we can say with a degree of confidence that nobody killed Robbie Cundy during his time at the Kassam. With his career solidly rooted in a single Oxford United appearance against Dagenham and Redbridge in the JPT in 2015, Cundy dropped out of the Football League in 2017 eventually joining Bath City. As a result of his performances as The Romans’ Jake Wright to their Ryan Clarke, who also happens to be the actual Ryan Clarke, Bristol City have signed him up on a two-year contract.
Johnny Mullins has retired. Mullins was part of the promotion winning team of 2016 before leaving for Luton Town. He was at Cheltenham Town last season, but has chosen to jack it all in. Mullins was known as as The Magnet because he twice scored from a corner in 127 games. At approximately 5 corners a game, that’s a magnetism of 0.2%. Coincidentally, he also has an excellent, if slightly pricey range of kitchens.
KRob has spoken. Let’s face it this is not an unusual thing, he seems to have spoken continuously since the end of the season. So much so that it’s possible he’s still standing pitchside at Kenilworth Road speaking to an increasingly weary Nathan Cooper. That’s probably not true, although it’s exactly the kind of thing he’d do, isn’t it? His latest ejaculation focuses on his wish list for next season. Nothing remarkable about the list, although he did mention that he was hoping to bring back Wonderfoot Luke Garbutt and ban-magnet Ahmed Kashi and the sloth in the box, Jerome Sinclair.
Saturday 18 May 2019
It’s theday that the whole nation stops, gathers together around the TV set and watches a great annual institution play out in front of them. As well as Eurovision, it’s also the FA Cup final. It’s Watford’s first appearance since 1984 when they were captained by former Oxford United player and now Youth Team Officer Les Taylor. You can read him banging on about it like your drunk uncle here.
Our week closes with the news that conscientious objector Callum O’Dowda has joined us the the Republic of Ireland squad. Nothing unusual about that except he hasn’t played for Bristol City since March due to a mystery injury. Always a highly principled young man, O’Dowda and his medical team have searched for a diagnosis. It appears that it could be suffering from a broken contract resulting from an inflated ego with a number of Championship and Premier League teams interested in his signature. All very treatable if you apply a great pile of money to it.
Michael Appleton’s time in charge at Oxford will be remembered as nothing but glorious. It didn’t start that way though. He lost his first four league games in front of an increasingly suspicious home crowd, flirted with relegation and chugged along to finish 13th in his first season. During that time he played no less than 42 different players, performing what he now calls ‘major surgery’ on the squad as the season progressed. Have you ever wondered what happened to them all?
Once so much the future of the club (yes, another one) Chris Wilder named him on the bench of a Conference game just so ensure we could maximise any transfer fees we might get for him. Made a total of seven appearances before being released. Now at Oxford City.
An old mate of Michael Appleton’s from Portsmouth and former FA Cup winner. Ashdown came in late in the season to replace Ryan Clarke. Made a decent fist of it as we started to turn the corner. Now retired.
Gorgeous George was brought in with the help of Dave Jones from Sky Sports from MK Dons. Signed for another year on loan in 2015, but only lasted until January when one Karl Robinson dragged him back to help out with their relegation fight from the Championship. Bought by Sheffield United in 2017 by Chris Wilder.
For a short while Barnett was the answer to all our problems. The big strong target man that Michael Appleton had been looking for. At the end of his loan period, despite efforts to sign him permanently, he moved to Shrewsbury. Now at Cheltenham.
Sometimes there are players who play for minutes before disappearing, and for some reason you remember them when everyone else forgets. Richard Brindley is one of those players for me. Made 3 appearances on loan from Scunthorpe, now plays for Bromley.
Part of an original batch of signings at the start of the Appleton era. Showed precious little, lasted eleven games, including a half decent performance against West Brom in the league cup before being shipped out to Mansfield. Moved to Shrewsbury and was part of the team that nearly won promotion in 2018. Moved to Coventry City at the end of that season. Great hair.
A little glimmer of hope when signed from Bristol City showing plenty of pace down the flank. Lasted nine games before heading back to his parent club. After a series of loan moves, he eventually settled with Fleetwood.
Perhaps the weirdest of all the signings that season. Rumoured to have joined from Jarrow Roofing, it was announced that he’d gone on loan to Torquay before anyone had confirmed he had signed. Lasted three games before heading back north. Now at Whitby Town.
A club legend in the twilight of his Oxford career. Appleton stuck with him for most of the season before passing the gloves to Jamie Ashdown. Clarke joined Northampton Town the following year, but despite winning promotion, didn’t play a single game. He joined Wimbledon and Eastleigh before settling with Torquay and then Bath City.
One of the inherited players having been signed in 2014. Saw his contract out and left at the end of the season in 2016. Headed out to India for while before returning to play for Halifax and Leyton Orient. Eventually ended up coaching at Bradford and was somewhat thrown under a bus when he became head coach briefly in 2018
Perpetual understudy to Ryan Clarke, Crocombe was a New Zealand international whose highlight at Oxford was keeping goal in a heroic League Cup defeat to West Brom at the start of Appleton’s reign. Moved to Carlisle after being released, then ended up at noveau riche Salford in the National League.
Came from Kidderminster but spent much of his early career on the bench. He described himself on his Twitter account as the club mascot. Eventually overhauled Johnny Mullins for a first team spot, did a Cruyff turn at Wembley, scored a goal that clinched promotion, played his part in everything we did that was good for two years before going on to play for Wigan in the Championship.
A player with legs like out of control fire hoses. Seemed to specialise in finding new and interesting ways of not connecting with crosses or misreading through-balls. Went back to Chesterfield where he joined Blackpool.
Most famous for being the ball boy who got in an altercation with a Swindon player during the 2012 derby win. Played just 1 game before moving to Norway. Retired due to injury in 2017 aged just 21 and became a personal trainer.
A battering ram of a striker who came from Dundalk with a decent goalscoring reputation. Never really got going at Oxford, although scored a critical equaliser in a draw at Luton in the promotion season. Went to Mansfield before heading back to Dundalk where he’s started banging in the goals again. Very much found his level.
Yet another bright young thing signed on loan from Charlton. Holmes-Dennis started with a man of the match performance against Tranmere, but in his subsequent 14 games ran out of steam. Headed back to Charlton before going to Huddersfield. Managed a handful of games before heading to Bristol Rovers.
Arrived from Brighton with a decent reputation but only managed four games before being released at the end of the season. Played for Exeter City, Hemel Hempstead and is now at Northcote City.
Signed on a short term contract after leaving Birmingham City, expected to be the player who would run the team. Only made seven appearances before disappearing off to Eastleigh. Last heard of at Whitehawk.
One of many youth team products who rotated through the first team. Made one first team substitution before having his contract cancelled so he could move to Norway. Returned to Hayes and Yeading, then Banbury.
When Michael Appleton talks about doing major surgery on the squad David Hunt frequently springs to mind (also see: Tom Newey). A tediously dependable full-back in a slowly decaying squad, he was eventually shipped out to Barnet and slipped into non-league with Margate and Wealdstone.
A strange bearded wizard, signed by Gary Waddock and adopted by Michael Appleton. Appleton described him as not very bright, but he carried him through the early months with an prodigious work ethic. Joined the glory train in 2016, winning promotion before joining Luton to everyone’s dismay that summer. I love Danny Hylton.
Goalkeeper who signed on loan from Sheffield United to cover Ryan Clarke’s injury. Played 10 games before returning to Yorkshire. Played a season at AFC Wimbledon on loan before being signed by Hull City.
A true survivor, despite crippling injuries and changes of management, Long is still with the club in 2019 despite only ever making very occasional appearances.
Adopted by Michael Appleton having been signed in 2013 by Chris Wilder. Crippled with injuries meant he was limited to just seven appearances before being released. Played nearly 100 games for Wimbledon, winning promotion to League 1 in 2016, but retired in 2018 following a persistent injury.
The first of many big strong target men Michael Appleton tried. Signed on loan from Norwich, the job of leading the line in a formative team was too much for the teenager. Scored in an early League Cup success over Bristol City, he returned to Norwich after seven games. Still at Norwich now and has had a range of loans, most significantly at Shrewsbury in 2017/18 when he nearly got promoted to the Championship.
A dependable leader and a rare beacon of consistency. Mullins partnered Jake Wright for a majority the season and a good chunk of the promotion season in 2015/16 before being slowly overhauled by Chey Dunkley. Ended the year on the bench, was released in 2016 where he signed for Luton Town. Won promotion in 2016/17 before slowly falling out of favour. Signed for Cheltenham in 2018.
An icon of Chris Wilder’s latter years at Oxford, a soul-destroyingly dependable full-back. Followed Wilder to Northampton Town making no more than a dozen appearances over two years. Retired due to injury and turned to coaching. Currently back with his first club Leeds as Under 16 coach.
One of many juniors rising through the club’s ranks at the time. Looked lightweight in 2014/15, but bulked up considerably the following season. A marginal rather than key player of the promotion squad, he was signed by Bristol City in 2016 and capped by the Republic of Ireland.
Lovable, jinky winger, Alfie Potter is the boy who never grew up. Signed by Chris Wilder, he seemed to have a knack of scoring memorable goals including the winner at Wembley in 2010, one in the opening game of the season against Portsmouth and a JPT winner over Swindon. Lost his way under Michael Appleton. Moved to Wimbledon, then Northampton Town back with Wilder. Now at Billericay Town. If you want to feel old; he’s thirty.
Signed from MK Dons, played one game and leaves a legacy of being one of those players fans reference when trying to make an ironic point. Chugged along with MK Dons until 2018 when he joined Bracknell Town.
Perpetual bridesmaid centre-back, but one who put his heart and soul into everything he did. A graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University and brother of England Cerebral Palsy Goalkeeper Jordan, Raynes left for Mansfield, had a good couple of years at Carlisle before moving to Crewe. Currently on loan at Hartlepool.
A full-back signed on loan from Bolton, played over 30 games before joining Bury just as we thought we’d found a decent player. Signed for Shrewsbury in 2016, one of a number of players who became important to their unlikely promotion push in 2018. Left for Plymouth in the summer of 2018.
Perpetually the answer to all club’s goalscoring problems for three years, Roberts scored a couple of top class goals in about 30 games. His brother was tragically killed in a car accident in 2017, Roberts’ career slowed and stalled following a series of loans. Left in 2018 for Hereford.
Arrived from West Browm almost undercover in a blizzard of loan signings, initially Roofe looked like he was just another lightweight destined to disappear. Then scored two in a win over Wycombe and couldn’t stop scoring. Signed permanently in 2015/16 scoring over 25 goals as we were promoted to League 1, scored against Swindon and Swansea in the FA Cup. Bought by Leeds United for over £4m in 2016. After a bit of a slow start, grew to become an integral part of Leeds’ push for promotion to the Premier League.
Originally joined as a teenager in our first season in the Conference from Manchester United. Enjoyed promotion to the Football League with Newport and Aldershot before returning to Oxford in 2013. Chalked up over 80 games, but never really enjoyed a consistent run in the team. Briefly followed Chris Wilder to Northampton before moving to Portsmouth. Played a marginal role in their promotion to League 1. Went to Swindon on loan in January 2019. Urgh.
Signed from Coventry City as part of a policy of solving the club’s financing problems by nurturing youth. Ruffels became one of the squads most dependable players, winning promotion with the squad in 2016 and playing at Wembley twice. Still with the club where he’s enjoying an extended period in the team at a full-back.
The best defender in the land was signed in 2015 from Rotherham. Became an integral part of the promotion winning back-four, heroically playing through injury to get us over the line in 2016. Slowly fell out of favour and left to join Bury, his previous club, in 2017. Dogged by injury, he’s yet to play a dozen games in the in the two years he’s been at the club.
Played a mostly forgettable six games towards the end of the season, his only goal being a critical winner against Carlisle which was a great stride towards safety. Enjoyed a productive two years at Blackpool where he won promotion from League 2, joined Rotherham in 2018.
A grizzled old pro signed by Chris Wilder, all we wanted was a team of Andy Whings. Injuries and age slowly crept up on him, and he announced his retirement to take up a coaching role with the club in 2015. Left the club in 2017 to coach Kidderminster Harriers. Last year joined Coventry City as an academy coach.
Surly, mercurial centre-back Jake Wright joined in 2010, won promotion to the Football League. Led the team through Chris Wilder’s reign and the chaos that followed. Was Michael Appleton’s captain during the 2015/16 promotion season, voted best player of the first 10 years of Oxblogger that year. Left for Sheffield United in what looked like a reshuffle that had gone wrong. Enjoyed promotion to the Championship before injury limited his game time with the Blades.
If there’s one thing that characterised Michael Appleton’s time at Oxford United, it was that it was never, in any way, normal. His arrival in the summer of 2014 felt like he was the henchman in a hostile takeover. Talk of new owners had dominated that summer in the same way that it has this, and there was little surprise when it was announced that the club was in new hands. What was a surprise was the aggressive change that Darry Eales, Mark Ashton and the newly appointed coach Michael Appleton wanted to make. Particularly when there was a rival bid from the more palatable Stewart Donald on the table.
The signs weren’t good; Ashton had built a terrible reputation while CEO at Watford and Appleton was synonymous with chaos. Eales was generally quiet, but he was an outsider and a money man, and that often brings suspicions. Appleton’s management CV read: Portsmouth, Blackburn, Blackpool, three clubs that had been suicidally mismanaged. To find himself in that situation once was unfortunate, but three times was suspicious. Was he simply the stooge who specialised in being the footballing face of an organised crime syndicate?
With his sleeve tattoos, arms like tree trunks and piercing icy glare, he didn’t look like a football manager. He was neither a gnarly weather beaten obsessive like Sam Allardyce or Chris Wilder, nor the metrosexual cosmopolitan like Pep Guardiola or Paul Tidsdale. In short, it was difficult to see how Appleton planned to run a football club while perfecting his chiselled physique. Unless he was planning to take his pay packet, pump iron and let the club crumble to dust.
There was depth, however, Appleton was studying for a Masters degree and had learned his trade under Roy Hodgson at West Brom. He had been labelled one of the most promising coaches in the country, but we’ve had promising coaches before.
At first it looked like a heist, Gary Waddock mercilessly thrown out the window, Mark Ashton playing benevolent dictator with his vacuous PR and the stony faced Appleton glaring at anyone who might question him. There was no doubt Appleton was single-minded, he’d previously won £1m compensation for a career-ending injury, but his steadfast demeanor bordered on arrogant, particularly as he struggled to back up his claims that he was doing things the right way with evidence.
If the takeover was chaotic, the following season was more so. There was very little to suggest that Appleton was implementing anything competent, let alone special. Dave Kitson, whose paths had crossed at Portsmouth, retired almost instantly. The first four games of the season resulted in four defeats and Appleton went on to play 44 players. Nearly half played less than 10 games, some barely lasted 90 minutes before being moved on.
There were belligerent claims that they were trying to implement a new DNA and that there was no Plan B. But Plan A wasn’t working; whatever it was he was trying to do, it couldn’t be done on a potato patch pitch with a constant merry-go-round of players. The only thing that wasn’t churning was the management. At one point Oxford were the lowest placed club in the Football League not to have changed manager that season and fans struggled to know why the trapdoor wasn’t opening. Was the pits the 3-2 home defeat to 10 man Southend after leading twice or the 0-2 defeat to the apparently doomed Hartlepool? Maybe the 1-5 TV defeat to Cambridge? The performances of Danny Hylton, ironically Gary Waddock’s only signing, was the one thing that kept the lynch mobs at bay.
Few would have given Appleton the time to sort through the mess, but slowly came moments of stability; Alex MacDonald and Joe Skarz signed, then a young midlander from his old club West Brom; Kemar Roofe. Appleton had hit paydirt, he’d steadied the ship and managed to secure a Championship level game-changer for League 2 strugglers. After a quiet start, we headed to promotion-seeking Wycombe where Roofe grabbed a brace in a searing performance that set us on our way to an unbeaten end of season run. Winning the final three games, against all odds, we finished only a handful of points behind our previous season’s total.
The club careered into summer full of optimism, the new owners found their groove, new credit card style season tickets were introduced, season ticket incentives, social media was a whirl, a deferential celebratory new kit marking 30 years since the Milk Cup (with the away kit celebrating 20 years of our last league promotion) was launched. On the field, Liam Sercombe was signed, George Baldock, John Lundstram, and, against all odds, Kemar Roofe was brought in permanently. Then the club announced a pre-season trip to Austria.
Oxford fans’ suppressed anxiety about their club was released amidst the positivity, Appleton was given a new lease of life; his team, his way. But, at the same time, a large chunk of the club was being given back to the fans. The stands became a theatre of colour and noise and the players responded. The Austrian adventure, with a forgettable 0-0 draw with Weiner Neustadt, galvanised fans and club in a way that had been absent for decades.
The new season got off to a moderate start with a draw against Crawley. A 4-0 win over Championship Brentford and recovering from 0-2 against Luton to draw in injury time fired up the engines. Appleton had found his DNA. He was never a strong tactician and would often get undone by more wiley managers such as his nemesis Chris Wilder or Phil Brown. But if he couldn’t out-think other teams, Appleton would simply outplay them. It meant that every game was a game to be won, there was no squad rotation or prioritisation. No smart tactical nuance to his selections. There was the demolition of Swindon in the JPT, the destruction of Stevenage away, a gritty takedown of Notts County on New Year’s Day. We scored three or more away from home on seven occasions and were the highest goalscorers in the country.
With progress on all fronts we were rewarded with a third round FA Cup tie with Swansea. On a bright, fresh wintery Sunday, Appleton had the opportunity to test his philosophy against one of the biggest clubs in the country. Containment wasn’t an option, trying to stop them play didn’t compute; so we simply attacked. The result was spectacular and Appleton was plastered all over the national press wanting to know how he’d transformed this bumbling club into one that played like (and beat) the Premier League elite. His reputation was restored.
The season ploughed on, four days after Swansea, we beat Millwall away in the 1st leg of the JPT semi-final all but guaranteeing a trip to Wembley. It was a good week. Despite the intensity and distractions, we were picking up points in the league too. Wembley was a giddy joy, we took the lead and looked good for the win, but Barnsley stormed back. Defeat was, well, no great loss. This was already one of the greatest seasons in Oxford’s history.
Despite holding a top three place all season, promotion was still on a knife-edge; a win at Carlisle – another landmark victory in a season of landmark victories – set up a must-win final game against Wycombe. After a nervy start, Chey Dunkley – an archetypal Appleton product – headed a goal to relieve the pressure and we stormed into League 1. Oxford had been re-born in a style many envied.
Appleton’s great strength was his ability to find players limited by their surroundings and release them to do what they did best. He constructed a compact but high quality squad mined from Premier League youth teams and the Scottish Premier League. Nearly everyone he came into contact with thrived, Chris Maguire and Danny Hylton, both perennial misfits elsewhere suddenly became integral to the squad, Premier League prospects got games, in front of crowds, and their stock grew exponentially in the process.
Kemar Roofe was sold to Leeds for £4m, Callum O’Dowda to Bristol City for £1.5m. Appleton could show people like Joe Rothwell and Ryan Ledson, Marvin Johnson and Curtis Nelson that Oxford was a hotbed, somewhere they could develop and fulfill their potential.
Acclimatising to League 1 with a reconstructed squad took time. There was another memorable win over Swindon and a giant-killing in the League Cup against Birmingham. By Christmas things were ticking over nicely. An FA Cup win over Newcastle proved that Swansea was no fluke, a second win over Swindon at the County Ground cemented our position as the dominant force in that particularly abusive relationship.
The season was one of consolidation, but it didn’t stop us putting the frighteners up Middlesborough at the Riverside, playing 63 games or progressing again in the unloved EFL Trophy. Suddenly there was another Wembley appearance to attend to.
If cracks did start to appear, and if they did, they were hairline, then it was in the defeat to Coventry. It’s a game we should have won, but it was a joyless, flat performance, ignited only by Liam Sercombe, who showed enough fire to bring us back into the game. Days later Sercombe was effectively suspended for ‘disciplinary’ reasons, the first time the squad appeared to have fractured.
Appleton’s end came in the same way as it began, in a suspiciously quiet close season punctuated by rumours of takeovers. Darryl Eales faces the dilemma of ploughing more money into his project to get to the Championship, or selling up and letting someone else take it on. Appleton’s reputation and ambition further challenged Eales’ capacity to do this alone. You suspect that Eales enjoys the challenge, but Appleton can’t afford to hang around.
Leicester, though, is a curious choice. It might be that Appleton is more comfortable being part of a corporate structure – he spoke at the end of the season about how jaded he was. But, he won’t be implementing ‘his way’ in the way he was allowed to at Oxford and it’s unlikely he’ll have the luxury of time. The money being offered makes it a reasonable and compelling case, but nobody knows what Leicester is anymore – pushing for Europe? Avoiding relegation? Craig Shakespeare may have got them out of a mess last season, but can he meet the needs of recent Premier League Champions in the longer term? It’s possible that Shakepeare’s success was that he just that he wasn’t the pernickety Claudio Ranieri. Now he’s got to develop a squad of players who have already achieved more than they’d ever expected to achieve and take them on. But where to? Some of the older players are heading for the dumper already, the younger players may be looking for new, bigger, clubs. A few dodgy results next season and Shakespeare will be under pressure, and so will Michael Appleton.
The challenge for us, now, is to sustain the club’s DNA. Darryl Eales is a football ‘fan’ rather than a football ‘man’. Can he unearth a coach who will take over Appleton’s legacy and drive the club on? You have to trust that he can, but it’ll be different, that’s for sure.
How will Appleton be viewed by history? In my lifetime, four managers have won promotion for the club; Jim Smith, Denis Smith, Chris Wilder and Michael Appleton. Only Appleton took us to Wembley twice and perhaps only Jim Smith matched the treasure trove of memories from the cups. In totality, the 2015/16 season was, perhaps, the best I have seen in 40 years watching the club.
Appleton’s legacy will not only be those memories, but the thousands of young fans that he’s inspired to follow the club, and the others who have returned after years away. On that basis, the echo of his impact can last generations. It’s difficult to put him above Jim Smith, and older fans will point to the transformative contribution of Arthur Turner, but in the history of the club, Michael Appleton is right up there among the greatest managers we have ever seen.
Picture the scene, a left-leaning tabloid speculates that Leicester City manager Craig Shakespeare is about to take Oxford United manager Michael Appleton as his beloved number 2.
This then gets repeated hundreds of times via social media, each one adding to the noise, building from speculation to rumour to fact. Another sports journalist claims Appleton has told the players (who are currently dispersed around the more sordid resorts of southern Europe and therefore almost impossible to tell as a group) that he’s going. More proof.
Except, of course, there is no proof. It may indeed be true. But there is no proof.
The BBC are silent on the subject as is the Oxford Mail (beyond reporting the rumour) and the club. The silence is deafening. Except silences aren’t deafening, they’re, well, silent.
First, let’s work through the heathens that are keeping The Truth from us. The BBC have a public remit to inform, they won’t say anything until it’s been backed up by verifiable fact. The Oxford Mail’s value is based on the trust they have with key institutions; the local football club being one. It is not in their interest to break the trust they have with the club. Lose that because of tittle tattle and they lose their weekly privileged briefings from the club, access to its personnel and games, and so on. The reason they are silent, is because there is nothing of substance to say. Yet. And what about the club? Well, 90% of football rumours are untrue, trust me, I’ve counted. If they were to comment on speculation, 90% of it would be talking about things which aren’t happening. The club won’t talk until there is something to talk about.
The Mirror and the dozens of Twitter accounts who claim to be in the know on these things thrive on the referrals they can get from speculating. Validation isn’t that important, people love a gossip and that’s what sells papers and gets retweets.
Journalists stating that ‘they’ve been told’ things are happening rarely tell you by whom. Perhaps they have been told by someone with genuine knowledge, perhaps they’ve been told by the same Twitter account that you’re reading. You will never know. It’s in the interest of a journalist to appear to have their finger on the pulse, their reputations are built on having access, or at least appearing to have access. Plus of course, it is natural for people to want to promote that they are in-the-know because it promotes a sense of power.
The truth is that the truth isn’t the truth until it’s, well, the truth. And the truth isn’t driven by silence, it’s driven by evidence.
So why do we react like we do? Well, most of our brain has evolved to ensure we survive, as a result we have a highly evolved sense of fight or flight. If we’re confronted with something that unnerves us, then our brain initially processes the information as to whether it will hurt us or not. If that assessment results in a belief that we might get hurt then we start fighting to protect ourselves or running away, or, in a combination of the two, panicking. This can be triggered by anything, even the vague idea that the manager of your football club could be leaving.
If the assessment is that you are not in danger, then the information is handed over to a much smaller part of your brain which assesses the situation more logically and rationally. In the modern world, the reality is that very little will genuinely hurt you so the trick is to pass the information from one part of your brain to the other so you can assess the situation properly, not quickly.
So, many fans have been startled by the news that Michael Appleton might move to Leicester and have ‘catastrophised’ wildly about what this means. Pass it over to the more considered part of your brain and think that most of the trusted sources of this information remain silent on the subject. This probably means there’s nothing to say.
Amongst some idle speculation about players coming into the club, news emerged this week that Michael Appleton had been installed as favourite for the England Under-21 job. This picked up momentum in the echo-chamber of social media to the point of people dissecting his every word to try and figure out the truth. However, if you step out of the Oxford United hashtag, there is very little coverage of the story.
Being a bookies’ favourite is often seen as a sign of increased certainty, but in fact it’s a reflection of the betting market. If a few people start putting money on a particular option, the odds narrow to reduce the betting company’s risk of having to pay out big money. If an option is being ignored, the odds widen to encourage people to take a punt in the event of a big pay-out. It’s just maths with a tangential relationship to reality. In a small market, which this is, it doesn’t take much to tip the odds.
The reality is that in many ways a progressive young coach like Appleton being England Under-21 manager seems to make sense. You can see how it fits. On paper it’s a role that develops the best talent in England, but only a few times a year and only for a few days at a time.
In an interview with Appleton he said that, in principle, he would be interested in a senior role with England, but that no approach had been made. That was re-edited by paranoid Oxford fans into a message that he would go, all the FA had to do was call.
You’re 40 years old and have (theoretically) the opportunity to take a significant coaching role with the national team. Regardless of the likelihood of it happening, why would you risk putting them off by saying you weren’t interested? What Appleton said was hardly him flashing his pretty ankles to catch the eye of his potential suitors, it was him answering a broadly hypothetical question. If he’d said no comment he’d have set more hares running, if he said he wanted it, he would have been seen as being presumptive and arrogant. Saying ‘maybe’ was his only option.
All of this combined to legitimise the story, although it was triggered by Bet Victor, the only company actually taking money on this. You would think that if there was money to be made, others would be on it, but no.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the story, would Michael Appleton want the job? Well, if you look at people like Gareth Southgate, Stuart Pearce and Roy Hodgson, a job with the FA offers significant job security. If you don’t do a Sam Allardyce and you keep your nose clean, you can expect a lucrative job which, on average, lasts about 3 years (Pearce stayed for 6 years without any obvious glory). A club manager’s life expectancy is just 1.2 years. Also, the money is good, Gareth Southgate was on £500,000 a year, significantly more than Appleton will be earning at Oxford. I imagine, given the governance surrounding the FA, the terms of the contract are likely to be pretty favourable in comparison to more punitive club arrangements with pay-outs and the like.
But there is a consequence; Southgate may have fallen on his feet getting the England job, although this is more by default than anything and I don’t think anyone is expecting him to drive the country to World Cup glory. But, otherwise, England Under 21 manager is a dead-end job. Stuart Pearce, Peter Taylor and David Platt followed up their stints in the lukewarm seat, with bumbling careers in the Football League before disappearing into some backroom or other. Most former managers end up taking up short-term roles in football backwaters in India or Thailand, probably on reputation alone.
The problem is there’s no glory in the role. There is only one cup to win, the Under-21 European Championship, and we haven’t won that in over 30 years. If you do win it, then it’s celebrated in the context of what a future full squad might achieve (e.g. nothing). The Young Crop of Talented English Players are the product of the Premier League glory train not the England coaching set up. You get to work with young players, but only those not quite good enough for the full squad. And, of course, you’re not really working with them at all, you have them for a few days here and there before they disappear off to parade around Premier League substitute benches to impress girls. Nobody leaves the Under-21 job with their reputation enhanced, apart from amongst FA suits, who are broadly impressed by your ability to not cause too much bother. Naysayers will point to Gareth Southgate; who’s key redeeming feature is his politeness. His management career beyond England is to get Middlesborough relegated.
Also, the general stock of international football falls by each passing year; it’s hardly on its knees, but the World Cup’s reputation is gently falling apart and we’ve got five more years of the stench of FIFA corruption to pass before it might begin to redeem itself. Who knows how much people will really care, particularly in England, by the time the 2026 World Cup comes around?
We can’t offer Appleton the money that he might get with England, and although he’s at a club which offers much greater job security than average, it’s not likely to be as safe as a job nobody really cares about.
Appleton’s stock has risen significantly in the last year at Oxford – the glories of promotion, Wembley, derby wins and cup upsets have seen to that. He may get us into the Championship, or perhaps attract a club from a higher division to take a punt on him in which case his salary is likely to jump towards what he might earn with the Under 21s. There’s little doubt, however that the England job though safe, would be a cul-de-sac for someone with a bit of ambition.