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.

Will we ever look beyond the result in a results game?

Many Oxford fans are now judging Chris Wilder on his results. It’s understandable because that’s how football usually works. But if the Olympics and Sports Personality of the Year teaches us anything that it’s not the result that makes you successful, it’s the process by which you achieve the result.

Football is a results game, as any messageboard phone-in know-all will tell you. Although if you read anything about professional sport beyond poorly written ghosted celebrity football memoirs, you’ll realise that professional sport is actually a process game. The process followed creates success – maximising the possibility of success and minimising the risk of failure. Results are subject to a series of uncontrollable factors – especially the opposition – so anyone who is successful focuses on what they can control.

Each of the shortlisted candidates for Sports Personality of the Year talked of being in a bubble during their success; working hard in training, being dedicated to their sport. One at a time, they paid tribute to the dedication of the team of people beind them. They focussed on what they’ve trained to do – that minimised the risk of failure, maximised the chances of success. It is only afterwards that the impact of their success on other people hit home. That contrast, between single minded focus, and having the world looking at you, is what creates the wide-eyed shock when the victory does come.

Football, of course, was a big loser at Sports Personality of the Year; Chelsea and Manchester City turned up like a DJ at a wedding wanting to play cutting edge epic trance for people who just wanted a bit of Abba. They were quickly dealt with so that we could move onto things more interesting.

That thing was the wider impact the Olympics had on people. Bradley Wiggins acknowledged that his success is only important because of what was going on around him. It was said that of the shortlisted canddiates only Jessica Ennis’ performance would have been considered a failure if she hadn’t hit gold. There was a something about the spirit of participation, of effort which seemed, somehow, more important than the result itself. The result comes from honest endeavour and effort, the result doesn’t come from concentrating on the result.

Football is so huge it attracts a broad range of interest. Some will always unthinkinly say football is just a results business. As such, someone like knockabout multi-millionaire honest barrow boy ‘arry Redknapp, with his FA Cup win, will always be more important that cerebral Johnny Foreigner types like multi-league winning manager Arsene Wenger, for example.

Chris Wilder’s results in recent months have left him vulnerable to attack from the baying hoardes. Like Wenger, it feels like there’s only one way this is all going to end up, it’s just a question of how. Like Wenger, there should be nothing to celebrate if and when Wilder does go. If it is to be done, and the idea of firing the man who took us up, gave us Wembley and three wins over Swindon is so unpleasant then one hopes it will be done with dignity.

If you look at the table we sit 18th, but we are equally distant from the play-offs and relegation zone – mid table. There’s a concentration of competition at the top of the table. We’re unbeaten in six games and remain in two cup competitions. We’ve yet to play a game with Clarke, Duberry, Whing, Wright Leven and Constable; the core of our team last year, playing in the team. Injuries remain an issue, when one comes back, another falls by the wayside.

Some fans are now so entrenched that defeat is almost celebrated; it is proof of the hypothesis that Wilder has failed. So, when Harry Worley equalised against Morecambe on Saturday, there was a degree of disappointment. Except, if football if a results business, then picking up points is success and therefore Wilder is a success and the naysayers should back down. But they don’t.

Suddenly there is a detatchment between Wilder and his performance and the result. Some actually don’t care whether Wilder wins, draws or loses, he should leave. Which makes is a personal issue. A vast majority of people know Chris Wilder via the TV and radio, how are they judging him as a person?

Will it ever be possible for a football club to buck the trend of knee-jerk reactions and try to think more deeply about how they are run and progress. Sadly, I doubt it, it’s too big, there are too many influences and too many opportunities vent frustrations. In rare occasions, Manchester United being the exemplar, a process of building a club over a long period and not making decisions on the basis of a few months of performance, can be achieved. Swansea seem to have achieved it to a degree, Liverpool are trying to kick-start a revival by doing it. Manchester City have so much money that external influence is irrelevant. Smaller clubs, without the insulation of vast sums of money, are likely to be more susceptible to external pressures and are always more likely to lurch from success to crisis rather than focussing on long term sustained success. I guess that’s why they’re small clubs.

The harsh realities of Chris Wilder

Well, that happened quicker than I’d expected. A defeat to Morecambe and we’ve been plunged into crisis. What’s more, it’s all Chris Wilder’s fault.

When Wilder was first appointed, he seemed to be the choice of impoverished and unambitious owners. A fortune was spent trying to blast our way out of the Conference, and when the wheels fell off the Merry and Jim happy bus, the club sought the services of the nice chap from within. However, Darren Patterson lacked the objectiveness to take on the deep challenges that lay at the heart of the Oxford problem.

Chris Wilder was different; an outsider, not just from Oxford, but almost from the entire management firmament. At Halifax he’d steered them to the edge of promotion with a team built of string and Blu Tac, he then avoided relegation despite a 10 point deduction as the club crumbled to dust around him. He then assisted Alan Knill in turning Bury around. Success is not a simple thing to define; but wherever he’d been, Wilder had made a positive impact.

“He understands budgets” was Ian Lenagan’s telling praise of his manager after the win against Swindon. At Oxford he had some money, unlike at Halifax, but he brought with him the understanding that he knew he had to use it well.

We approached Wilder with caution; he was a spiky northerner from small time football, an interloper amongst fancy dans of the southern sophisticates at Oxford. But he was lean and demanding, while we were bloated and expectant. We’d been to Wembley and played in the top flight, if others would just get out of our way, we’d be right back up there, that was the attitude. Those that were left were the best fans in the world, that’s what we told ourselves.

Wilder gave himself some space by calling Sam Deering his best player – highlighting that he had been disadvantaged by losing him to a broken leg in his first game in charge. We were docked five points, setting us back further. Admist this, he built some decent results and in James Constable, he had a template for ‘his type of player’. Everything else about the club, pretty much, was thrown on the fire and replaced. But, with results going our way and us being a bit shy we didn’t want to bother him about what he was doing.

We started 2009/10 like a rocket; and the good times kept rolling. Team, management and fans were as one because there was no real need to consider our differences. We played Eastbourne and cruised to a 4-2 win, but Wilder blew his top at our second half performance. This burst the bubble, the honeymoon was over.

What Wilder knew all along, and what we were too complicit in to realise, was that we were a club wallowing in self-importance and complacency. The late 2009 surge which just missed promotion was with a team that had ‘been thrown together’. However, we thought the success had been brought about by our spirit; we were told to ‘Believe’ and good things would happen. Wilder knew that magical powers weren’t going to sustain us and when, against Eastbourne, our standards dropped, he was quick to jump on it.

During another uncomfortable period he accused fans of living in the past; practically blaspheming when he dismissed the Milk Cup Final as something of ancient history. He was right, we weren’t prepared to accept that we were a failed club, slumming it with Conference pond life buoyed only by successes of men long gone. We might have seen Wilder as coming from ‘small time’ Bury, but the harsh reality is that he’d taken a step down to come to Oxford.

Although it is easy to back a manager who brings success; you’ll rarely find a fan totally happy with that man’s methods. That’s because he’s not there to be a fan, who collectively gain cohesion through a shared past of great games, cups, promotions, away days and players; a whimsical world of magical fairy stories that have boundaries. The manager’s job is to mould and organise a group of players into an effective unit within constraints of a finite budget. In comparison to the football dream, real football is instantly sobering.

Wilder’s criticism of the team on Saturday again opened up a small window into the real workings of a football club and its manager. He is not shirking responsibility; criticism of the players and the way they play is criticism of the man who chose them. And, on Saturday, who got it wrong.

Part of us wants him to join us in falling to the floor in dispair; making gradiose statements of how the whole season has fallen into disrepair. That’s the fans’ job, the role we play is to create a hystrionic sideshow which proves football to be more than a game. But, managers have to get up and go again, because if they’re hiding under the duvet fearful of leaving the house, nobody else is going to sort the problem out.

So, we want manager’s to behave like fans; but if they did that we’d barely be able to function. The history of football management is strewn with managers who have failed because they’ve believed in the magical powers of fan-like passion – Keegan and Shearer at Newcastle, Dalglish at Liverpool, Ardiles at Spurs. Amongst these are the real managers – Wenger, Ferguson, Westley and Steve Evans, who have brought success through a pigheaded dedication to practical management. I don’t like Evans or Westley, but it’s difficult to deny their effectiveness.

Wilder’s not here to preserve our past. He’s here to carve out our future. This will mean getting rid of things which we have become comfortable with, including players and a sense of entitlement. Success is more important to him than it is to us because we’ll be here through success and failure and he won’t. Therefore, you don’t have to like his methods, but you have to respect his right to be a manager.

Morecambe 0 Oxford United 0, Oxford United 2 Northampton Town 0

Perhaps it was just fatigue brought on by Friday’s office Christmas party, a night which inverts the world’s fundamental structures by giving power to the brainless – dividing the world between those who like to sway self-conciously to Abba and those, with the power of rational thought and opposable thumbs, who don’t. Perhaps it was just that and a month of organising and then moving house. But whatever it was, as I walked up to the Kassam on Saturday, I could hear the familiar strains of Use Somebody by Kings of Leon playing out and it felt kinda’ old.

When it was first introduced at the Kassam in 2009, it was symbolic of our resurgence under Chris Wilder. Now rather than anthemic and uplifting, it sounds a little tired. Last season it seemed fitting that it was part of our pre-match canon; recounting the enduring spirit of, and reward for, an epic promotion season.

Last year’s Bad Run (BRI) was confirmation of how difficult life in the Football League can be. There was some concern that Chris Wilder wasn’t up to it, alongside the likes of Constable and Wright, but there was a general acceptance that league football is and should be hard – a kind of self flagellation. When the run was emphatically smashed at Chesterfield it was proof that the Oxford spirit, so perfectly captured in the soaring chorus of Use Somebody, will always win out.

Something is different post- Bad Run 2 (BRII), the breaking of the run was no new dawn, just a bloody grind against Morecambe. The ‘return to form’ win against Northampton had a more pragmatic feel about it. This is because playing Northampton is no longer treated like we’re meeting an old friend, they’re a team we’re expecting to beat if we’ve got any ambition of promotion. Which we have, no longer a momentous soaring ambition – a magical story of redemption and resurrection – more a serious, let’s get down to work ambition.

Last year we were hopeful of promotion, but more than anything, we were glad to be back and playing good football. Relegation back into the Conference was always a lingering fear, even when things were going well. This year, thoughts of relegation are non-existent, mid-table safety is not acceptable, promotion is expected, not just hoped for.

As a result, Use Somebody feels like it’s from a by-gone age of wide-eyed naivety. In this more pragmatic time, its swooping refrain is representative of a dumb less wizened time. Perhaps we’re beginning to see that League 2 doesn’t represent the promised land as was enthusiastically proclaimed post-Wembley. League 2 is a mere stepping stone to something bigger, where we belong is not in the football league, it’s at the top end of the football league.

I’m not sure this is altogether a healthy state. Ambition is important, it keeps complacency at bay. But, I enjoyed last season, there was a freshness to it. Everything good that happened was greeted with rapture, failure was greeted with a comforting arm around the club. Now it’s getting a bit dour; we walk away from a win against Northampton with a firm handshake of a professional job well done. Fitting, perhaps, that the club have chosen Kasabian’s Club Foot as the music to come out to. It’s a ballsy, driving, serious about being good and since it was adopted by Sky; corporate as hell.

Successful teams drive out risk. They buy when they’re to the top, they manipulate games and competitions to minimise the risk of failure, they don’t seem to enjoy themselves a whole heap. Sometimes it seems more exciting to avoid failure than to succeed. But, we do want to succeed on the pitch, and sadly, I guess we’ve got to be professional about it. We shouldn’t, however, forget that a win against Northampton is actually something to be celebrated, not just acknowledged or expected.

Stevenage 0 Yellows 0, Morecambe 0 Yellows 3

From Stevenage…

Out of every team in the country, I really hate Luton Town. I’m kind of programmed to dislike Swindon, but our paths haven’t crossed enough in recent years to really develop any extreme emotional reaction to them. What about Reading? Well, meh.

But Luton really make me wretch. We seem to have had a parallel existence for nearly a quarter of a century. Their most recent ‘glory years’ coincided with ours in the mid-80’s. We won the Milk Cup in 1986, they won it a year later. More recently, as our Football League life was sucked dry by criminal negligence, theirs seemed to thrive for the same reason. Eventually they got their comeuppance and we crossed swords in the Conference theatre of war in what were brilliantly fractious affairs.

Whilst being in the Conference we seem to have picked up a number of other rivalries that I can’t get my head around. Crawley is one. OK, Steve Evans is a pretty odious character, but all the time we were in the Conference, he and they barely had any impact on our fortunes.

Stevenage is another I find completely baffling. OK, you might argue that they took ‘our’ title, but I always had them down as favourites last season because they’re a stable, well run club. Perhaps it’s just because they’re relatively local and we take a lot of fans there. Perhaps Westley said something mean about us that I missed.

In truth, Stevenage are a neatly run professional football club who are doing well considering who they are. We’ve shared a brief period of our history with them. I suspect over time we will ease away from them eventually.

I really think it’s possible to hate too many things. All in all, Tuesday night’s anodyne 0-0 draw is more significant for our play-off ambitions than it is to stoke an ill-conceived rivalry.

… to Morecambe

The atmosphere at Old Trafford during the fifth round cup-tie between Manchester United and Crawley was akin to those Soccer Aid games in which fat old pros and thingy-from-Holby-City celebrities wheeze around in the name of poor kids from Africa and thing.

The crowd, who couldn’t tell Crawley’s Bulman from Crawley bullshit, were there out of curiosity or obligation, but certainly not because they saw it as a thrilling sporting match up. In short, for all their money and brouhaha, Crawley and their 9 fans didn’t belong at Old Trafford.

Following Stevenage on Tuesday, Saturday saw the impressive demolition of Morecambe. But it was like we’d never left the Conference. With over 25% of the crowd at Morecambe being made up of Oxford fans, I’m starting to wonder whether we even belong in League 2.

Our time in the Conference saw League 2 change dramatically. Stevenage, Morecambe, Burton, Aldershot, Accrington and Hereford have all established themselves since we slipped out of the division. As a result League 2 feels like an upper class Conference. A bit like when you’re a teenager seeking a bit of sophistication by graduating from McDonalds to a Harvester. Yes, there may be some of the trappings of a resteraunt (waiters, salad), but fundamentally, it’s still a fast food joint. Likewise, League 2 doesn’t really feel like the promised land.

Not that I feel like the Premier League is our rightful place. My palette is not yet sophisticated enough for that. But a place in League 1 amongst those on the rise like us, plus a few fallen giants feels like a good place to be. After the performance against Morecambe, the likelihood that we’ll achieve that grows by the week.

Yellows 4 Morecambe 0

Did Kelvin Thomas get Chris Wilder to close his eyes before he presented Tom Craddock to him? The striker’s signing, it was claimed before yesterday’s annihilation of Morecambe, was more significant than simple squad reinforcement. This was the man that Chris Wilder wanted, like, forever. Like the toy you always wanted for Christmas. Only better.

Wilder agreed, it was a sign that the club wants to develop as fast as he does. It’s true, 8 games on from Wembley and we started yesterday with six new faces.

The team and how it plays is changing in front of our eyes. Last season was all about the dominance of our personality over frankly inferior opposition. Two immovable objects at the back (Foster and Creighton), rabid terriors in midfield, and endless energy up front. We overwhelmed the opposition.

The 2010/11 vintage is more athletic, it’s about pace and movement. Is Worley better than Creighton? Not necessarily, but he fits with the strategy better. With Craddock in, Matt Green’s pace gives him preference over Midson and Josh Payne’s more efficient use of the ball works better in the system than Dannie Bulman’s all action tenacity.

This is not to write off Creighton, Midson, Bulman, or, for that matter, Clist. We may yet see them coming to the fore, particularly when pitches get stodgier or we need to grind out some points away from home.

The fact we have a manager with the foresight to develop an already successful squad, that we have a thrilling expansive A game and a reliable B game, and that it’s all being achieved against a backdrop of apparent financial stability and club/fan cohesion seems almost anti-Oxford.