The wrap – Shrewsbury, Oldham and Fleetwood

We are not doomed… yet.

The Shrewsbury game had been largely dismissed as a defeat long before we kicked off. Oldham was supposedly the opportunity to scramble to safety, we’ll never get anything from Wigan and Blackburn because they’re too good, or Fleetwood and Southend, because they’re bogey teams.

We’re doomed.

There are lots of reasons that this is nonsense. I didn’t get to the Fleetwood game, so I didn’t get that visceral sense of despair resulting from their winner. However, objectively, we appeared to dominate, which suggests we’re not quite as useless as some would imply.

Karl Robinson has suggested that we need a bit of luck. Which is sort of true, what we need is a bit of maths – keep doing the right things and eventually, by the law of averages, we’ll get the right result. Against Fleetwood it seems we did a lot of the right things, keep going in that direction and the results we need will come. 

Second, we are still five points clear of the relegation zone. In one sense, very close, but it’s still very much in our hands. In the 35 games played by the seven teams below us, just seven have been wins and eight have been draws – that’s roughly 4 points per team over the last five games. There are about five games to play, so we’re still looking at quite a few having to find a run of form, while we gain nothing, to drag us down. It’s not comfortable, but all is not lost.

Third, and this is might sound perverse, we are one of only five teams in the division currently without a win in our last five games. Logic says that this will change eventually. Look back to our game against Bury, they had gone 8 games without a win, but beat us. Not because they are materially better than us (they are 14 points off safety, 19 behind us), but because, eventually, things run your way. We are, inevitably, getting closer to that point, or specifically, those three points. 

The point being that while nobody is too good to go down, we’re good enough to stay up and there are plenty around us struggling for form. Talk of bogey teams and bad luck is baloney, if we focus on process, we should secure the necessary points to stay up. Or, at least, not enough teams will accumulate the necessary points to catch us.

And, staying up is all that it’s about, one place above the relegation zone, one point away, it doesn’t really matter at this stage. There are reasons we’re not higher up, which we can pick apart to our hearts content during the summer. But until that point, the focus is on getting little more than one win in the next five. And that is wholly doable.

Oldham wrap – Oldham Athletic 0 Oxford United 2

The start of the football season isn’t quite like it used to be. In the past the first game felt like the mobilisation of a movement, every fan, player and manager from the bottom of the game to the top setting off on an adventure together. Now, the Premier League hangs back a week, like the lead singer in a dysfunctional rock band stealing the limelight and applause. In August there are still holidays and weddings to negotiate. There are appointments set without consultation because those who don’t know think early August is the middle of summer and not, as we know, start of the winter. As such, first day of the Football League is more like the opening overs of a test match, it happens while people are still turning taking their seats and getting their bearings.

But these are important games for Pep Clotet, for all the talk of him being a promising coach and the carefully chosen words about joining a family of a club with great fans, he still has big shoes to fill. Following the win over Oldham on Saturday, people were pointing out that he was the first manager since Darren Patterson to win his first game in charge. But he’s also the first manager since Darren Patterson to be taking over a team with a forward momentum. In short, he should be winning his first game in charge.

The win was reassuringly solid, not freaky like the opening day apparition against Portsmouth in 2013. It was a continuation of the progress we have been making under Michael Appleton, a tangible sign that we remain in good hands.

It all helps bed in new players, keep old ones engaged and gives both fans and owner reassurance. It feels like a long time ago now, but Michael Appleton opened his account with four consecutive league defeats sending understandable panic through the Oxford fans. Then, Darryl Eales was able to point to a long-game and there were plenty of credible excuses for the dire run given he’d only taken over the club weeks before. There is not so much of that luxury nowadays; this is a club that needs to sustain its momentum. We’ve built a reputation for recruiting cleverly, then developing and selling talented players, we want to keep attracting scouts to our games, it’s so integral to sustaining us as a club it’s a reputation we can’t afford to lose.

It may be that Clotet will actually benefit for the loss of the bigger personalities in the squad; Lundstram, Maguire, Sercombe, Dunkley and Skarz were all Appleton people, losing them from the squad cleanses the pallets of the fans, and allows Clotet’s own players to settle without constant reminders of what has been achieved in the past.

If this is the opening overs of a test match, then the win over Oldham was a satisfying cover drive to help build muscle memory, loosen limbs and hide insecurities; a few more and we can start setting some longer-term goals.

Weekly wrap – Peterborough 1 Oxford United 2; Oldham Athletic 2 Oxford United 1

“Ultimately I got the impression – and I hope I’m wrong – that it looked like a side who had one big game left this season.”

And with that the bell rings for the end of school and everyone rushes for the exits. It’s probably reasonable to assume Michael Appleton’s ‘one big game’ is Wembley after which it seems we’re going to be knocking off for the summer.

Only nutcases would begrudge the club a bit of a break; we are, to a great extent running far too fast. The glimpse of the foothills of the play-offs have shown that; we’re just not ready for the Championship.

The win over Peterborough and defeat to Oldham gives some indication of our limitations; good enough for most of League 1, but not twice in a week. March is killing us, but that might just be the best thing for us.

Is the announcement that Greig Box Turnbull is standing down a sign that the club is looking to next season? Maybe. Football can be a pretty grim place to work; stability and steady development is hardly an ingrained culture. Also, as an administrator you’re either working with someone else’s money or you have none at all. Box Turnbull may simply be getting out before he burns out.

Or, Darryl Eales is readying himself for the next phase of the club’s development. It was always going to be quite a challenge to match last year’s successes, but this year has been flatter than last. The club didn’t help itself with its stance on the Checkatrade Trophy and there have been issues with flags, stewards and an endless stream of statements.

Good things continue to happen on the pitch, the club has recovered from the gutting of its promotion squad and registered derby wins, cup giantkillings and another trip to Wembley. We are still being spoilt.

But presumably Eales won’t want to hang around in League 1 for too long; it’s a division that can become an elephant’s graveyard. Where fallen giants wallow in self-pity; too big to fall further, not good enough to go up. Their presence sits on ambitious smaller teams who are unable to beat all the elephants and gain promotion.

There’s also the financial risk of League 1 – average salaries in League 1 grow 42% from League 2, but revenues only grow 34% making it more expensive to survive in the higher division. Every season the club stays in League 1 it gets poorer.

The Championship changes much of that; average revenue jumps nearly 400%, so the attraction for Eales is obvious. Plus he must be aware of the need to match Michael Appleton’s ambitions as the manager becomes a more attractive proposition to bigger teams. Throw in greater control over the stadium and you can see why he might be looking for someone more dynamic and aggressive to take  the club onto the next stage.

So, perhaps Wembley is the final hurrah for the season before the club prepares itself for next season and a tilt at promotion.

Weekly wrap – Oxford United 1 Oldham Athletic 1, Oxford United 3 Macclesfield Town 0, Bury 2 Oxford United 3

It’s been a good week on the whole; two wins and a draw soured, to some degree, by flag-related acrimony off the pitch.

I’ve always felt that it would be difficult to truly judge the team this season until Christmas; so the Bury win gives us the opportunity to take stock of where we’re at and where we’re heading.

This week’s events did seem to confirm what emerged over the last few weeks – this is a year of transition but we’ll be OK. We’re only 5 points from the play-offs, but our goal difference is probably more telling; for most of the season its sat at zero with the odd variant either way. That says we’re competitive without being truly outstanding.

It’s not that much of a surprise; it’s wrong to say that last year was fortunate, but it was unusual to have the amount of talent we had playing in a League 2 side. Roofe and O’Dowda alone were worth £4.5 million. In addition, there was the curious case of Danny Hylton, signed by Gary Waddock, Jake Wright; a stalwart of the Chris Wilder years and the likes of George Baldock, who played in the Championship, and John-Joe Kenny who was on the bench in the Merseyside Derby on Monday.

It was almost a perfect combination, it still needed focussing and organising, but we had the assets to exceed our objectives. We went into this season playing in a higher division with most of that golden squad gone. The key question was; could the club’s core infrastructure re-build and sustain the level of success?

Thankfully, the answer appears to be yes. We’re not as breathtaking as we were last year, but the opposition is generally better and people are quick to forget that players like Jon Lundstram, Joe Skarz, Alex MacDonald and Liam Sercombe have all played a huge number of games in the last 12-18 months. We tend to think players are completely re-set at the beginning of each season but it’s the same (slightly rested) bodies and minds that finished last season. Maintaining the physical and mental intensity is always difficult so it’s probably not a surprise that their form has dipped slightly at times and they’ve been more prone to injuries.

As I say, last season’s squad was worth at least £4.5 million from Roofe and O’Dowda alone. Look at the whole squad and that figure could have been pushed certainly over £5 million, perhaps six. It’s been years since the club had playing assets of that nature in the squad. In essence we had a £6 million-plus squad assembled for virtually nothing.

While there was clearly investment in the squad, it’s not like we needed to buy big last season so the club could focus on building value elsewhere. Essentially this meant building relations with the fans – organising club holidays, embracing the enthusiasm of the Oxford Ultras, improving merchandise, strengthening branding, actively working on social media, improving the match day experience and innovating with tactical marketing campaigns to get more people through the gates.

Most, if not all of it worked; crowds grew and I suspect merchandise sales did too. But it all comes at a financial cost there needs to be an increase in revenue to match it. The Roofe and O’Dowda money should still be there to some extent, some has been invested in the squad, more will be servicing debt, so it’s not infinite. Assuming that Darryl Eales doesn’t have barrow loads of cash, if the club is to progress onto the Championship – the level at which it is most likely to have sustainable future – it needs to find new ways of making or saving money.

This is the constant balancing act for all football clubs, a few weeks ago I was at the Etihad, they have banners which say ‘The only club in Manchester’ – implying their parochial roots of being the club of the people of the city. On the other side is a banner which say ‘Thank you Sheik Mansour’ acknowledging that it is not the people, but oil from the Arabian peninsula which has paid for their success.

All clubs have the same problem – they need to retain their core values because that’s what fans buy into, but they also need to find new ways of funding success.

The podcast The Fence End Pod recently tweeted some Pathe News footage of our 1964 FA Cup tie against Blackburn as part of a Christmas advent thing. Footage showed no advertising boards around the Manor, no sponsors on the shirt, not even a kit manufacturer’s logo. This is football at its very purest, played, run and funded by The People with no part compromised in the name of money. Most fans would hanker for such a thing now.

But it won’t work now; attitudes have changed and the stakes are higher and more expensive. Clubs have to sell off bits of the equity they have in order to fund themselves, in more emotive footballing terms, they need to sell bits of their soul.

We generally accept that a bit of the sacred club shirt can be sold to a sponsor or manufacturer, or that your home ground can be festooned with adverts of companies trying to make money from your success. But it is a challenge to know when you’ve crossed the line.

Take, for example, the flag issue. Flags and displays have become a key part of Oxford United fan culture over the last few years. It has filled a void resulting from the move to the more sterile Kassam where people have to sit more passively in rows to watch a game.

But flags get in peoples’ way, they obscure the view; it’s why the club have agreed certain rules about when the larger ones can and can’t be waved. In essence, you apply those rules in order to try and give more people a comfortable and consistent viewing experience in the hope that they will keep spending money to keep coming to games. So, we compromise some of the fan culture of the club – sell it off – for extra ticket sales.

There is nothing wrong with this in essence; it’s generally accepted that if you go to the cinema or theatre you will be expected to behave in a certain way so that everyone enjoys the same experience. But in football, when does a comfortable fan experience turn into one which is sterile and meaningless?

It’s a judgement call, but I think the club have got this one wrong in trying to apply restrictions to the use of flags during games. Each area of a football stadium needs to develop its own culture. When I started going, I would go onto the safe, and not too expensive, Osler Road with my dad. As I got older, I wanted to be in the more fevered atmosphere of the London Road – that was where all the noise and action came from. When we moved to the Kassam, I went into the Oxford Mail Stand but started to realise that those around me were getting younger as I got older. I became distracted by horny teenagers trying to impress girls, or the games of giving each other wet willies or simply the banal abuse of players and games. I found that I wasn’t really enjoying being part of that experience so about 7 years ago I moved to the South Stand Upper because the overall experience suited what I wanted from a game.

The East Stand needs to be as fevered as it’s possible to get; flags and singing are part of that, they are the engine room of the atmosphere. So long as people aren’t getting hurt (and they’re not, despite what Health and Safety zealots tell you), the more fevered it gets the better. If you don’t like what comes with that – flags getting in the way or people falling over the top of you after a goal celebration, then there’s the North Stand. If you get to an age where even that’s too much, then the South Stand is a much calmer experience.

While the response from the Ultras seemed a bit over the top, it revealed a level of hurt that people haven’t really talked about. The argument is not about whether a flag should be waved, it’s whether the effort those fans put into the club is valued more or less than the commercial aspects of providing a consistent fan experience. If you think that there seems to be a core of 4,000 supporters who will follow the club whatever state it’s in, there are currently another 4,000 per game on average who are more casual. The atmosphere in the ground and performance on the pitch are the two key influencing factors as to whether those 4,000 attend or not. That’s £80,000 per game minimum, or £1.8m a year. I would rather we protected that than the odd fan who finds themselves in the wrong area of the ground and is distracted by a flag in their face. I say; let the flags fly.