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.

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.