The wrap – Newport County 0 Oxford United 3

I have stumbled across a quantum fact; it’s a fact which exists in two apparently conflicting states simultaneously. It is both useless and useful at the same time.

Here we go – by the end of the season we will have played a team in every position in the table apart from our own. Therefore, the average position of an opponent in our division is 12.5 – right in the middle of 12th and 13th place.

So, by looking at the average league position of every team we’ve played so far we can ascertain whether we’ve had a difficult start or an easy start. The lower the number, the more we’ve played teams at the higher end of the table, the harder the start.

Including Saturday’s game against Sunderland, the average position of our opponents to date is 7.5. Exclude Burton, in 21st, from that it’s 4.8. The lowest possible average after six games is 3.5 (e.g. playing each of the top six). So we have had a excessively hard start. The next six fixtures is an average of 12.1 – much more civilised. The twelve games together 9.8 against a possible of 6.5, so still pretty tricky.

So we have had a very hard start, in fact it almost couldn’t be harder. This will be much more, if not easy, then easier, in the coming weeks.

This is a useless stat because there are so many variables influencing it – the number of teams we’ve played, their relative short-term form, the mix of fixtures each team has played (opponents, home or away) etc. For example, the current top six may be the bottom six by the end of the season, meaning our ‘difficult’ start was, in fact, dead easy. It’s also like the Higgs Boson, it is aloof; it sort of only exists as a useful fact around this time of the season when there have been enough games to do a reasonable calculation, but not too many to make all the variables too complicated. It is also useful when looking at run-ins.

It illustrates a broad point. Fans don’t think about things in this way. We are, as they say, the greatest team the world has ever seen. Every team, particularly in the early part of the season, is there to be beaten. It doesn’t help that at the start of the season that we have no benchmarks to judge fixtures against. It’s different in the Premier League, but in League 1 club fortunes are volatile – at the start of the season it is impossible to predict if Portsmouth or Fleetwood, or Plymouth or Shrewsbury are going up or down this season.

So, crudely, we had a bad start against really difficult opponents. The opening four losses weren’t without their casualties; several players were battered by fans for the poor performances. Rob Dickie, Luke Garbutt and Jonathan Obika all started against Barnsley, but have lost their place in more recent weeks.

Dickie and Garbutt are both relatively young – and I wouldn’t assume Obika is immune to the criticism. Being compared to a wheelie bin on Twitter, as Garbutt was, is both damaging to the club and to the individual. People forget that he is starting a new job, in a different part of the country, with different people, with different pressures. In normal working life, it can take months to get a new employee functioning, in football, 90 minutes can be enough for people to start drawing conclusions.

So, while Shandon Baptiste has rightly been the centre of attention after his wonder-goal in the 3-0 win over Newport on Tuesday, the League Cup is serving an important role in re-building confidence amongst players who took a battering in the opening weeks of the season, in part due to the vagaries of the fixture schedule. Garbutt, in particular, seemed to be involved in everything, showing that he shouldn’t be written off as a poor signing in the opening weeks of the season. 

Newport and Hartlepool wraps

Newport County 1 Oxford United 1

On the eve of the anniversary of our best day, the Newport game felt like this year’s worst day. With question marks over the goalkeeper and illness and injury throughout the the team, it felt like all the hard work of the season was suddenly in jeopardy. It feels like we’re a middle distance runner going out hard in the hope we can hang on in the final stretch. It wasn’t so much our position or even the result against Newport, it was the overall direction of travel that was of concern.

And with good reason, we’ve not had form like this since we suffered back-to-back defeats to Hartlepool and Shrewsbury last season. At the final whistle we’d taken just six points from five games meaning we were left with four contenders fighting for two places with just a point between them all.

The following day the club gallantly knife and forked the Milk Cup celebrations; everyone smiled bravely while calculating the what-ifs for the rest of the season. It was like the gentry were celebrating the Queen’s birthday while a desperate war raged around them.

Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

The need for a Dunkirk spirit is one which can make or break you.

The week started with MacDonald on a drip in hospital, O’Dowda on his sick bed, Skarz out for the season, Lundstram breaking down in training and Roofe nursing an injury.

But the spirit can galvanize you also and all ultimately played their part. Joe Skarz typified the spirit; where he could easily have written off his season, instead he got his head down and worked to drag himself back into the team. Just when we need experience and he comes to our rescue.

Earlier in the season, when we were flying, we benefitted from at least one player driving things forward, Roofe, Hylton, Lundstram and Sercombe all had periods of running the team. Skarz was always there, but he was never the star of the show. We’ve been lacking a star recently, maybe he’s going to be the unlikely hero of the final push.

In truth, ignoring the context, we were excellent and pretty comfortable throughout the game against Hartlepool. We benefitted from Ruffels and Maguire’s more compact game, we benefited from the tension and the need not to take risks. We were happy with the need to win rather than entertain. It drove a discipline with no silly lapses like against Luton. And at the same time we entertained in an uncomfortable, gnawing kind of way.

At the end our two enfant terribles; Maguire, who sometimes struggles to switch on and Hylton who struggles ever to switch off, held the ball at the corner flag balancing pragmatism and professionalism with impishness and creativity. It was a microcosm of the performance.

By god it’s tense, but the truth is that we’re not throwing away promotion, we’re thriving heroically in the face of growing adversity.

Dagenham wrap | Coming up: Newport County

Dagenham and Redbridge 0 Oxford United 1

Kemar Roofe had a busy week, first he was subject to some speculative transfer rumours related to interest from Newcastle, then he steps up to score a top class free kick to take the points at Dagenham. But, those rumours, how credible are they? Let’s think about why Newcastle would want Roofe, and why they wouldn’t.
Roofe is clearly an outstanding player, perhaps the outstanding player in League 2. He has solid coaching and conditioning from his time at West Brom and in Michael Appleton, he’s got, probably, the best lower league manager to maintain that development trajectory. If there is a Premier League player in League 2, then Kemar Roofe is probably that person.
Maybe Newcastle aren’t even thinking about their Premier League plans for next year; they could be preparing a Plan B of playing in the Championship. Roofe could be a cost-effective option for next year’s Championship squad. Should they might survive, with a new TV contract kicking in, Roofe wouldn’t be too much of a burden whether he succeeds or fails. 
It could be that the Premier League teams are waking up to the idea of talent in the lower leagues; certainly the Jamie Vardy market must be buoyant. Who knows? Roofe could be the next Vardy, and that has to be worth a punt, even if, statistically speaking, it’s unlikely.
From Roofe’s perspective, almost any Premier League contract will be attractive, he won’t want to be in League 2 for long and become labelled as a lower league player. At the moment he’s still, potentially, the one that slipped through the net. Even if Roofe doesn’t make it, one Premier League contract should allow him to furrow a solid Championship level career. 
On the other hand, while Roofe is quick, so is everyone else in the Premier League. He’s skilful, like every other player in the top flight. In a Premier League context, is he that special? And is Newcastle’s problem really Kemar Roofe shaped? 
Their problems seem deeper than taking a chance on a League 2 player who didn’t make it at West Brom. 
If they are going to go into the transfer market in January, and it is to help ensure Premier League survival, I suspect they’ll go deep and low risk. They need players who will turn them round and Roofe is not that kind of player; at least not on his own and not at that level. Expect to see ageing former internationals, solid Premier League pros and the odd European MLS player fancying some time back in the spotlight. In addition, if the current security concerns continue, there could be a surplus of players trying to get away from France and Belgium.
So, on balance, I’m not convinced by the Newcastle rumour, I suspect they’re running to rule over hundreds of players all over Europe. However, I do think that Roofe will be subject to quite a few rumours between now the close of the transfer window. But, ultimately, it’s a question of fit. The time to worry is when an ambitious Championship club – think anyone in the current top 7 or 8 – or a solid Premier League team with a few holes – Bournemouth, Watford, even West Brom, coming knocking. 

Newport drop

As a lapsed Ipswich Town fan I love Terry Butcher. As a lapsed England fan, I look at THAT photo of him against Sweden with blood pouring down his face with nostalgic pride. He was, however, a terrible football manager. 
About a month ago Newport looked like the most hapless goons in the division. I was looking forward to a orgy of goals from our fixture on Tuesday. However, Butcher was booted out at the beginning of October and his replacement, John Sheridan, has come in and started to turn things around. They’re five unbeaten and in the second round of the Cup. They do score a few, but with three 2-2 draws in their last seven, they concede a few.
None-the-less, we should be confident of taking the points here. Our form is great, but a glance at the bottom of the table reads like our recent fixture list. Banking points now is important preparation for tougher times ahead.

Old game of the day

The John Aldridge derby. Newport County seem to be one of the less heralded ‘phoenix clubs’; they’ve been as successful as Wimbledon and yet people nobody makes much of a big deal about them. I guess if it hadn’t been for the fact that we signed John Aldridge from them, I might have forgotten that they were a league club myself. As a result there’s very little YouTube coverage of the two teams. None-the-less, this was a lot of fun.

Time to back Appleton (if we have the choice)

I was standing in my local Costa on Friday picking up a coffee and who should be standing in front of me? Only Michael Appleton. It was suggested that I should have said hello, which is not really something I’ve ever done to a stranger in the Costa queue before. Plus, I’ve met a handful of professional footballers in the past and have decided I like them like I like my women – distant and in caricature.

The way I see it, we only have a certain capacity to know and understand people. A handful become friends because we know enough about them to enhance their strengths and suppress their weaknesses. Everyone else is distilled into a relatively narrow profile out of convenience – there are bad people, good people, clever people and idiots. And in almost every case, they are far more complex and interesting, and probably well intentioned, we just don’t have time to get our heads around their nuances.

So my general position with regards to Michael Appleton is that he has made his position as Oxford manager almost untenable, and at times completely untenable, this season. But, that’s not to say I don’t warm to him when I hear him on the radio, or that he’s not a good coach (which is different to being a good manager), or that he could turn it around. And, being in the presence of a man ordering a tea, croissant and bottle of water on a Friday morning, like a normal human being, does make me feel a bit guilty about having doubts and dark thoughts about him as a football manager.

So, perhaps its time to be more reflective. The season is over, and we can finally take stock. Improbably, we ended up just one point behind our total from last year, although we’ve dropped five places in the process. Relegation, which sat like a shadow for large chunks of the season, ended up a gaping 20 points away. It’s not been great, but it’s not apocalyptic either. How odd.

Our late season surge helped, of course, we’re 5th in the form table over the last six games, with only the top 3 and Stevenage (who finished 6th) playing better. This has lightened the mood amongst Oxford fans, and it’s easy to assume that we’ve turned the corner. We are eternal optimists when it comes to turning corners. We have to be. I understand the feeling because, as I stood in the queue in Costa, I didn’t want Appleton to choke on his pastry; that’s a change of mood for me.

But, if we’ve turned the corner, then it’s only to the point of where we ended last season; the path to real success is remains uncertain. Is our recent form due to a quirk of having stumbled across enough players with enough form to dig us out of the hole we were in? Roofe was the catalyst to our revival, and there’s little guarantee he, or someone like him, will be back. Danny Rose has been a central character demonstrating a form that he’s barely shown in his previous stints at the club.

It’s not unreasonable to look at our form and suggest we’re in the ascendency, but then look back to 2007 when, after some mediocre results, Darren Patterson suddenly hit a patch of 5 wins on the trot to close the season with fans expecting promotion 12 months later. We thought that was a turned corner, but, we returned for the new season and to the moderate form of before. It is still the most likely scenario now; that our form next season will be no better than this season. There’s nothing apart from blind optimism that contradicts that. Blind optimism has it’s place; it sells season tickets, for example.

Bluntly, it has taken Michael Appleton 43 players to find 16 or 17 that can perform anywhere near the level we need, and for a period of 10-15 games. That’s a very low hit rate for a comparatively short period of time. He will argue mitigating circumstances, and he may be right, but we need that player conversion rate to be much better and for the form to be sustained for much longer. No manager is successful with every signing, but he needs to be somewhere around, perhaps, 30-35 players to sustain a successful squad of 25. Whether he can do that or not, we simply don’t know, we just hope.

Which is the reason why, if we were going to get rid of Appleton, it should have been done a long time ago. There have been countless opportunities. My personal low was our capitulation against Southend. Others cite the men versus boys encounters with Shrewsbury, and most recently the abject defeat to Hartlepool when things looked really bleak. Even our penultimate home game against Northampton was a terrible display. I would have had no hesitation in supporting his removal at any of those points and probably more. At least that would have given a new man the opportunity to assess what he had at his disposal and plan for the future.

However, if they were to do it now, then we are in no better position than we were last season with a new manager coming in to a squad he has little knowledge of and even less opportunity to assess. It would mean that, once again, we’d be sorting the squad out while the season was already underway, and probably losing ground in the process.

But, as much as our recent form has pacified many of the masses, there is no doubt the risk of failure next season remains high. But, it is no higher than bringing in a new man and starting again, again.

So, we might as well back Appleton to turn it round.If that sounds grudging, it is; it’s been a poor season. But I don’t dislike him to the point of wanting to get rid of him as a punishment. That’s not the point of changing manager.

He needs a good summer, and it sounds like the club intend to give him that, and he needs a good start next season. Any excuses of building for the future or operating in a difficult environment won’t hold water if we find ourselves sitting in mid-table or lower come September.

All hail The Normal

Last week was a strange one; I was sitting waiting to get on a plane to Rotterdam when I checked my blog to see what, if anything, was happening. There was something happening; I had eight comments about my views on Luton Town. Nobody normally comments on my blog unless they’re from another team and they want to abuse me.

The post wasn’t not exactly anodyne, but it was genuine. I have a  visceral, only semi-logical dislike for Luton Town. But, perhaps I should have known better. I turned my phone to flight-safe mode and pondered for an hour what to respond with. I fought a reasonable rear guard action against a growing number of comments accusing me of spitefulness and more. Apparently it was picked up by a local Luton tabloid who considered my comments newsworthy.

The conference I was flying to was a bizarre. The Chinese won (and for that, I mean bought) an award for being Chinese, a man described the ‘competence of endurance’ through a protracted story about how, as a 53-year-old working early shifts on an oil rig climbing up and down a ladder all day really took it out of you. Lots of people told me how important they were, how important their work was and how many other people, who similarly said how important they are, they knew.

Eventually I left the conference centre and sat down outside a coffee shop and yearned for a bit of normal – to get home to family, away from restaurant food, away from the self-served and self-important. I looked at my diary, a couple of normal meetings back in the office, then a normal league game against Newport on Saturday.

On Saturday morning, back home, the rain sleeted down; my daughter trotted over halfway through football training with a big smile on her face but no feelings in her fingers. It was a good moment; in the past she might have crumbled, but this was what it was all about. She was beginning to get football, the joy in its misery.

Autumn was here, grey skys, chill air, rain. I’ve said before how football fans are people of the gloaming; we don’t do t-shirts and shorts well. Tans and shirt sleeves don’t work in English football grounds. Autumn and winter, wrapped up in coats, is when we finally awaken.

On the radio Michael Appleton talked about never losing his rag and never taking a step back. He was referring to The Principles, the vaguely threatening value-set imported into the club by the new regime. It followed the revelation at the Fans’ Forum that Plan B was Plan A – or that there was no Plan B, there were just The Principles. We were also told to judge the regime by its actions, apparently oblivious to the fact that its actions to date have been largely ineffective. It’s felt less like a football club recently, more like we’re part of an ideological experiment.

The lead through Collins was slightly fortuitous, but just about deserved The sending-off of Tyrone Barnett may well have been a blessing. His first booking was deserved, but ultimately a punishment for his incompetence at tackling as much as any malice, the second seemed to have no merit whatsoever. Appleton lost his rag, throwing a water bottle across his technical area at the booking of Carlton Morris shortly after Barnett had departed. He then took a step back, choosing to ditch The Principles and fight for the points; we would stick with one up front and attack on the break, if we could.

It was dogged and gritty, but it was normal. The Principles were still there, we passed neatly out of defence, through midfield and attacked where we could, but they didn’t get in the way of The Normal.

Despite what they might say, fans will always value results and effort over style, and that showed in the way the fans got behind the team rather than sitting back waiting to be entertained. We can match raw effort from the stands, we can’t help pass the ball around. The final whistle came, our first win on a Saturday at home for eight months, and suddenly it felt a bit more normal, and that felt good.

For me, a little bridge was built, particularly towards Michael Appleton. We’re not a showcase for his coaching principles, we’re a football club that wants to win games. He seems like a nice guy, and I worry that he’s took nice, too much of a theoretician in the art of coaching. Is he faced with jeopardy to focus on results? For once, it looked like he wanted the fight, he took on the fourth official, he was animated on the touchline, he valued the three points over The Principles. If he can keep that going, then maybe we’ll get somewhere after all.