Morecambe wrap – Morecambe 2 Oxford United 4

Danny Hylton said after Tuesday’s disappointment that we had to dust ourselves down and carry on as we have been doing. Against Morecambe we did just that. The Shrimpers have now taken one point from their last 18, so you might have reasonably expected three points, but as every week, you’ve still got to go out and win them.

The win puts us six points clear and a game in hand on fourth placed Wycombe. Technically, Accrington are our biggest threat being seven points behind and two games in hand. The gap is important, not just because of the buffer but also because of the mindset of those below us. While there are six points between us and fourth, there are just five points between fourth and eleventh. That tells us two things; nobody below the top three can sustain a challenge, but more importantly, the teams involved are in such a dog fight that they will be starting to looking down and around them rather than up.

Think if we were in a similar position to Bristol Rovers or Wycombe, you might still hope for promotion, but in reality the prime objective is to stay in the play-off places. Plus, as the season progresses, they will have less influence over the top three and more over the eight that they’re tussling with for the play-offs.

Looking at our fixtures towards the end of the season, there are many more Morecambes than there are Northamptons, so everything is falling into place. Cool heads is what is needed now. That includes concerns around our first choice goalkeeper. Slocombe had a nightmare against Mansfield, although he also pulled off a world-class save which has been almost forgotten. I’m not convinced that Buchel would have faired much better, he’s not exactly a dominant presence when balls are launched into the box, but the move from Appleton is also a message to the team that a drop in standards won’t be tolerated. With Wembley places to win, that’s a reasonable incentive to keep focussed. Above all, however, we shouldn’t fret about what we haven’t got, we are perfectly well equipped for promotion, let’s focus on that.

Tuesday is an interesting test; we don’t need to win, but obviously if we do it will put us in an even stronger position. It’s Chris Wilder, which still has a bit of edge to it. I think we could be facing them at a perfect time, their run of wins has to be closer to ending than it is beginning (unless you believe they might go 14 straight wins in a row and are therefore the best League 2 team of the last decade). Small fissures of complacency and over-confidence will begin to creep in at some point, bad luck will hit in all the wrong places. It has parallels with with the Swindon game in ’96, let’s hope it has the same result.

Coming up: Morecambe

The drop

Nothing to worry about, not yet at least. If you look at the table, you’d say we were comfortably in third, four points clear with games in hand. What’s more, there’s not a great deal of form amongst the teams directly below us. Mansfield, who seem to have surged up the table recently, have only won 5 in 10. Wycombe have lost four in six.
All the form in the division is being absorbed by Northampton who have taken 36 points 42. Which is where the pressure comes from. The Cobblers are our guests on Tuesday, and we could really do without going into that with the perception of being off-form. 

Old game of the day

Morecambe wrap – Oxford United 0 Morecambe 0

Former Oxford United sports boffin Alistair Lane thinks most English footballers perform at about 60% of their true capability. That’s partly because managers and coaches are under-supported, under-funded and have low job security. As a result, rather than taking risks and finding ways of transforming performance to succeed, it’s easier to focus on not failing. You see the same thing in the public sector, for the same reasons.

Look at the transformation of Gareth Bale when he joined Real Madrid and a year later; the product of coaching and sports science. Or maybe drugs? It might be drugs. Obviously there’s no problem with drugs in football, I’ve no idea why I even mentioned it.

Anyway, the self-limiting effect of this under-investment in coaching was evident on Saturday. The mindset, not the quality. Their long-term ambition could be more grand, but generally speaking Morecambe will be satisfied remaining a stable lower-league club. A point was always going to be acceptable against us. They were there to take what they pragmatically needed. It’s not as if they had any fans to entertain.

This is being organised and professional, not negative or cheating, it’s just the reality of life. We’re going to face a lot of these teams and if we want to get promoted, then we’re going to have to find ways of working around the conservatism.

The Roberts thing continues to rattle around as the proposed solution. The argument goes that Hoban and Taylor haven’t worked, so you might as well throw him in to see if he can win the game. But, the fans should ask if they’re happy with going for the win even if it means increasing the risk of losing. That’s more likely to be in Appleton’s thinking.

The Radio Oxford phone-in was hysterical with the draw, imagine if we’d lost. You can read our form any way you like – 1 defeat in 17, 3 wins in 9. It’s far from a crisis, but what is undeniable is that following the light-hearted context setting of the opening games, we’re now into the grim reality of the season proper. The draw with Morecambe puts pressure on the York and Accrington games. If we are to challenge for promotion, we need a formula to win more of these games or that pressure will become unsustainable.

Plan B?

When we opened the season with four consecutive league defeats and without a win in nine, there were those who applauded the style, if not the results, that Michael Appleton was trying to produce. The more sceptical pointed out that not only were the results not coming, that come the long winter months, the weather would ensure that things could only get worse.

The quality of pitches this season seems to have become more of an obsession than in the past. Perhaps it is because of the ubiquity of the lush, green carpets of the Premier League that we have come to believe is the norm. Maybe it is the product of extreme weather resulting from global warming. Maybe it’s the London Welsh obsession, although the obsession doesn’t seem limited to the state of our pitch. Maybe it’s a hidden product of the economic downturn where clubs are cutting corners to save costs.

Certainly the expectation that pitches should be green and lush throughout the season is a modern phenomenon. In the 70s and 80s, rutted, muddy pitches in January and February were the norm, it became a great leveller that ensured FA Cup giant killings were more likely. Football, perhaps, wasn’t viewed through the filter of the aesthetic, as it is today, but instead through one of dour pragmatism. It was less important that a game was good and played the right way, more important that it simply happened.

Some seem to be under the odd illusion that lower league players cannot play football on grassless pitches. And that this is at the heart of our problems; because the quality of pitches is awful, we cannot play our way. On the contrary, this is surely much more of a norm for most of them.

Michael Appleton applauded his team’s ‘combativeness’, ‘organisation’ and ‘professionalism’ in the draw against Portsmouth. All terms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Chris Wilder post-match interview. Incidentally, for those who don’t track this kind of thing, Mr Wilder, with his dull, defensive football, is currently at the helm of the division’s leading goalscorers, the boring sod.

Like last year’s memorable 4-1 reverse, the occasion of the Pompey game probably overstated the result on Saturday. Away draws at Morecambe or Wimbledon – teams directly above and below Pompey – would have been considered solid results rather than some something akin to a win. The 12th Man of Fratton Park is probably the complete opposite at the moment as the visitors thrive on the novelty while the hosts whither with fear. Something we know about only too well.

Organisation and combativeness are both qualities that take you far in League 2, particularly on pitches which won’t allow the ball to run true. It has become more evident in our game in recent weeks and it seems little coincidence that Jake Wright and Ryan Clarke, amongst other warrior types, have finally found some form. It seems that they are relying on their instincts and strengths – honed on the awful pitches of League 2 and the Conference – rather than obsessing over playing the game the right way.

Is this the emergence of a Plan B? A conscious move away from the FA’s training text book towards the cold realities of the lower leagues? Appleton is not clear on the matter. My instinct would say that it’s a happy accident, although the signing of the lanky target man Armand Gnanguillet might suggest otherwise. The key is whether Appleton will learn from this year’s experience or stick pig-headedly to the philosophy. Will he be fooled by the return of beautiful lush turf come August?

Morecambe update
I have some sympathy for Michael Appleton after the draw against Morecambe. This ‘trench warfare’ football never looks good when you’re losing. We were far from outplayed, as we were against Shrewsbury, Wycombe and Southend, and in the end the same performance could easily have produced a defeat, a win as well as the draw we got.

The problem he has is what got us here in the first place; too many signings, too much rhetoric, too many false dawns and corners turned. People were quick to jump on his pre-match comment that this was the group of players he wanted all along. That was a daft comment – similar the ‘no plan B’ statement at the start of the year – which was always going to come back to haunt him.

Because he is so backed into a corner with his previous statements about not being one for compromise, it’s difficult to know whether he is genuinely learning from this season’s experience – as it appears on the pitch – or whether, as his interviews seem to imply – he’s blind to the realities of what he’s dealing with.

Stepping back for a moment

Saturday’s draw against Morecambe felt like a defeat, but a moment of reflection might be worthwhile right now.

I was at a wedding on Saturday when the registrar mistook me for the father of the bride. Being only about 4 years older than the bride it was my argument that the back of my head is particularly old looking even though in my mind, I haven’t changed since I was 16.

Even though that was a particularly harsh assessment of my age; time creeps up on us all. I’ve been reading When Saturday Comes for the best part of 20 years and have always considered it a fresh and contemptrary left-field, right minded kind of magazine. I see a lot of it in me but in the last few issues I’ve noticed that it has become increasingly cantankerous. While there are articles from people (children) who talk about Italia 90 as an early memory some of its ranting seems to have the same relevance as someone who believes that all of life can be explained through the lyrics of the Ramones.

Cantankerousness will ultimately eat itself, because when people get fed up with your moaning, all that is left is other cantankerous people to be cantankerous with. Then you all end up hating each other.

This month’s cantankerous moan, which I cantankerously disagree with is the idea of teams having a year of transition. The article uses David Moyes’ transitional year Manchester United. Apparently he shouldn’t be afforded such luxury – although I doubt he feels like luxuriating right now. This view seems to be at odds with When Saturday Comes’ long held view that football clubs need to become less rash and most considered. So, rather than bet the farm continuing the successes of Sir Alex Ferguson, United have taken a brief step back to rebuild.

When Morecambe’s equaliser squirted in during the dying minutes of injury time on Saturday, the immediate reaction seemed to be that the house of cards of our season was about to collapse. There has been a similar sense of doom all year; most of which was attributed to the tactics of Chris Wilder. If we do gain promotion, which is still very much on, it may prove to be the most miserable end of season party imaginable.

What is being forgotten, however, is the vision Ian Lenagan presented at the end of last season. The announcement, headlined by the renewal of Wilder’s contract, went much deeper than it immediately appeared.

Firstly, by putting Wilder on a shorter contract, Lenagan put himself in control of the club. The traditional model for English football is one where the manager is the focal point of the club; the genesis of all genius and the single point of failure. Lenagan’s vision spelt out his plans to invest in sports science and in youth as a priority. Within this wider infrastructure the manager’s role was to run the first team.

These investments in infrastructure are taken from the model he’s developed at Wigan Warriors and one that is increasingly common across Europe and in US sport. It replaces the Kelvin Thomas’ approach of investing hard and fast in fully developed players (Midson, Creighton, Bulman, Leven, Duberry) that will deliver quick success and be disposed of.

There’s nothing wrong with Thomas’ approach; it worked for a while, it was necessary to get out of the Conference, but it does rely on year-on-year success to fund it. Take Thomas’ most successful year – the promotion season. The club only broke even as a result of the play-off final. Ironically, had we won the title – delivered the most success it was possible to have that year – the club would have run at a loss.

This procession of success can’t be guaranteed, you never know when you’ll come up against a Crawley or Fleetwood, heavily funded clubs who skew the competition. You can’t guarantee a Swindon Town payday or a cup run.

Lenagan’s vision works towards sustainable, moderate, ongoing success. A key to why he’s looking for the quality manager demonstrating the quality of ‘reasonableness’ in his next appointment.

As a result, this season was always likely to be one of transition, and justifiably so. Solid investment was made to consolidate our position, Kitson was probably the surprise signing because it seems so against the general flow. But, I wonder to what extent that was happenstance, rather than part of the grand plan.

However, life is never simple and we have over-performed, we find ourselves fighting for automatic promotion whereas at the beginning of the season we’d have been happy with a play-off place. This is partly down to our remarkable away form, but also because Portsmouth – who were supposed to take the division by storm – have failed so miserably and, Chesterfield aside, no other team has stormed the division. Our moderate reliability has taken us further than we’d probably anticipated.

To capitalise, we’ve made investments in David Connolly and Nicky Wroe; again, a moderate, reasonable investment to capitalise on the platform we’re on.

Taking a step back then; this is supposed to be a season of transition while the development squad develops. The investments in Hunt, Newey et al were designed to get us somewhere around the play-offs. As a result, we’re 2 points off the automatic places, and 13 from 8th – further forward than we’d anticipated. Late goals and dropped points are frustrating, but pitched against where we should be in terms of the long term strategy; we’re miles ahead of where we might reasonably expect to be.

Good Friday agreements

The last minute draw against Morecambe brought the most vocal complaints yet from the East Stand. However, the more concerning thing has to be the fact that come the end of the season, we’ll have something like 18 players free to leave. 

The temptation, after Friday’s draw with Morecambe, is to launch into another debate about the future of Chris Wilder. But his fate is surely sealed one way or the other; whichever side Ian Lenagan falls on, he’s not likely to need anymore evidence to aid his decision. Friday’s performance was not bad, it was average and massively frustrating, like our season.

I do take some exception to two key criticisms of Wilder, however. The first is the complaint that his interviews on the radio are full of excuses, when in fact they are merely explanations. His explanation of the mistakes that were made in the lead up to the equaliser were descriptions of fact not excuses.

I also doubt that Wilder is not aware of the link between the players’ performances and his responsibility as manager. So while he talked about his players actions – not taking the ball into the corner, Constable getting caught offside – he’s not simply absolving himself of his ultimate accountability to deliver performances.

The question that Lenagan needs to answer is whether Wilder can establish forward momentum and more crucially, what impact his presence might have on the club in the short term, not least in terms of season ticket sales.

So, that’s me not debating Chris Wilder. The more concerning thing is the number of players who are about to go out of contract. By my reckoning 19 players can walk away come May.

The club have options on Crocombe, Marsh, Potter and Davis, and it seems fairly logical that they will be taken up. Crocombe and Marsh are a sign that there have been improvements, at least, in youth development. Davis can be a bit heavy footed, but he has pace and strength and gives options down the left. Potter’s form is fitful, but he offers creativity and, though its often difficult to see it, something approaching a goal threat.

You’d expect Damian Batt and Andy Whing to be offered new deals. However, I think Whing may go; he’s not stupid and will know that he has value in the market at League 1 or 2 level. The club’s potential is not what it was when he originally signed, there’ll be no Leven or Duberry type signings this summer, will he want to stick around to see whether things improve when there’s a risk he’ll spend another two years treading water? He’ll be 32/33 at the end of another contract, so you’d think this was his last chance at commanding a reasonable salary before he retires. Batt seems settled at Oxford, he’s got other interests, the manager likes him, and it’s difficult to see why he wouldn’t sign.

Last season, alongside Whing, there was a glut of comparatively big time signings. Tony Capaldi barely featured in his first year due to injury, and has done little to suggest he’ll be the first in the queue for a new contract. Deane Smalley has had a torrid time, although there’s something about his general application  that makes me think that he’s worth another year. Jon-Paul Pittman whose injuries suggest he hasn’t got the robustness we need; I can’t see him staying.

The big two from 2011 were Peter Leven and Michael Duberry. If Leven is offered a new contract, then it’s surely going to be on terms that reflect his general lack of availability. I doubt he’ll take that sort of offer and, while he still maintains some kind of reputation, will move on. Duberry, I think, may be interested in another season, especially as this season as been so wretched for him. I think there’s a chance the club may oblige in the vein hope that he’ll recreate the commanding form of his first season. I think that’s a mistake. When fit, he’s the best defender in the club and can be one of the best in the league, but age plays against him. Duberry was part of a strategy to have accelerated success, this doesn’t seem to have worked, it’s time to move to something else.

We’re also seeing the expiration of the post-promotion contracts with Tom Craddock, Simon Heslop and Harry Worley all up for renewal. I still think Craddock is a class act, but his style (less aggressive than Constable and Smalley) and his injury record play against him. His future, I think, is based on whether alternatives can be found, but I also think that his goalscoring record will see him getting other offers. I’d be surprised if he was at the club next year.

Simon Heslop has continuously flattered to deceive. Scorer of howitzer goals in his first season in particular, he now looks like someone who doesn’t even want to play football anymore. Worley also just doesn’t seem to have the extra gear in his development. He was part of a error prone defence in the first year back, it seemed Duberry could come in and steady the ship while Worley found his feet. While I think that he may have a future as an impact striker, there’s no way the club will take the time to test that theory. Neither will be at the club next year.

Which leaves more recent signings; I like Scott Davies and think it worthy of a new contract, and O’Brien offers reliability we’re looking for. Parker is willing, but replaceable. And I can’t see the club using up unnecessary wages on McCormick if Ryan Clarke is coming back with Crocombe and Brown as cover.

All of which could leave us with a gaping hole next season. All of which suggests summer risks becoming a massive scramble just for bodies let alone the class we need or that Wilder will be going and the decisions are being delayed to give his replacement more options.