2012 squad review – midfield and attack

On stable defensive foundations can a successful squad be built. In midfield and up front, however, despite having a decent pool for fish from, Chris Wilder struggled to find the right formula, at least not one that he could keep on the field for any length of time. The crucible of the argument about Wilder’s worth centres on whether the seasons failings were one of incompetence or bad luck.

Peter Leven showed moments of genius; not least his 40 yarder against Port Vale and the flick to play in Liam Davis at Barnet. Injury didn’t help him, but he lacked the consistency you get from the more industrious types like, say, Dannie Bulman.

Or Andy Whing; Whing’s Supporters’ Player of the Season award is wholly understandable. There are stories of people with anaemia who chew on metal in a vain attempt to get iron into their system. The Whing vote reflected a call for dogged consistency. He let nobody down and you suspect he never will.

While Leven, when fit, and Whing, when not deputising in the back four, probably makes up two of our first choice midfield three, the final member of the team is somewhat less clear. Paul McLaren, who was the steadying hand during 2010/11 faded from view. Not unexpectedly, his age suggested that he was only ever a stop gap while the club found itself a firmer footing in the league. Perhaps that was the role expected of Mark Wilson when he arrived, though he failed to make any impact.

Simon Heslop started in fine form, but was one of the early victims of this year’s curse of the folk hero – Leven ‘doing what he wants’, Ryan Clarke’s penalty saves, Asa Hall’s goals – as soon as their feats were verbalised, they stopped doing them. Heslop was struck by only moderate form and then injury; the two of which may have been related.

Perhaps the most interesting combination was that of Chapman and Hall. They were, in many senses, less explosive, but more consistent. Chapman’s return was remarkable he had a composure and awareness that others just don’t seem to have. His only problem is whether he can hold it together mentally; which is often the difference between good and great players. Hall had less crafted, but benefited hugely from the base that Chapman offered. Hall’s form also benefitted from having a bit lump, like Scott Rendell up front to follow up on knock-downs.The fact Hall has decided not to sign is disapointing; he and Chapman seemed to have a partnership that could be built on.

James Constable needs a break; not in terms of a goal off his backside, but a break from being James Constable; Oxford Icon. Last season he was the focal point of most of the drama involving Swindon; three transfer bids, two goals, one sending off. He seems mentally fatigued by it all, the sparky aggression that gained him so many bookings, but also so many goals in the Conference has been replaced by a subdued and isolated figure. There’s a point in every player’s career when they need re-engineer their game. Constable needs to be less of a focal point. A glimpse of what might be was seen on the arrival of Scott Rendell. Momentarily, Constable was freed from all his responsibilities, he was able to feed off the balls from the ever willing Rendell. That was blown apart with Constable’s sending off against Swindon. It may give us some clues as to how to play next season.

Controversially, amongst fans at least, Chris Wilder’s preference is to play 4-3-3. Which either means you end up with a proven goalscorer playing out of position (Midson during the Conference years) or you have players that frustrate and delight with equal measure. John-Paul Pittman had a curious season with his loan to Crawley, momentary spike of form, then – again due to injury – anonymity. Although I have a huge amount of affection for Alfie Potter as a member of the promotion squad, he seems to be rated more highly by others than me. He has his moments, but he puts lots of pressure on the likes of Constable. When Potter was injured, and Craddock struggle to return, Wilder turned to Dean Morgan – who wasn’t as bad as people say, but is clearly a bit of an oddball and Christian Montano – who was raw and inconsistent. Oli Johnson, however, was the most surprising omission from Wilder’s retained list. He of all the flanking strikers combined a decent supply of creativity with a reasonable number of goals.

For different reasons, we missed Tom Craddock and Dean Smalley. Craddock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I saw him as being an essential component to the season’s success. His sustained absence could easily have cost us 10-15 goals, which would have made all the difference. Similarly, Smalley should have contributed double digits in terms of goals. He didn’t seem to do much wrong, but similarly he didn’t do much right. If he lasts the summer, let’s hope we’ll seem him rejuvenated come August.

Kassam All Star XI – Midfield part 2

The Conference era opened with the signing of Eddie Hutchinson a player that always seemed to need another chance. He looked big and strong, he looked able, but when you expected him to be big, strong and able, he didn’t quite pull it off. So you gave him another chance to see whether he could do it. And he invariably didn’t.

Hutchinson’s ultimate claim to fame was to be the player who, despite being with the club for 3 years, in his final season was unregistered while playing for us. That cost us 5 points, and conceivably a place in back in the League a year before we actually did it.

Another member of the new crew was Carl Pettefer, a tenacious gerbil signed from Southend. With Chris Hargreaves dictating tempo and Andy Burgess offering creativity, for a moment it looked like, for the first time, we had a balanced and productive midfield.

Like all good things, this came to an end. Like all good Oxford things, it came to an end nanoseconds after it started. Burgess was fleetingly brilliant while the pitches and weather were fine, thereafter he plodded on in the hope that he would regain his early season form. Hutchinson ran around slightly behind the play. Pettefer had an excellent first season, but faded with injury.

It’s difficult to know what went wrong with Chris Hargreaves, perhaps it was the shambles around him. As the season progressed his challenges became more lunging and late. The last we saw of him was kicking over a water bottle as Exeter won the play-off penalty shoot out. It was the cleanest strike he’d had in months. He left at the end of the 2006/7 season, where he did a Ricketts and got promoted with Torquay.

As the money ran out, players like the ‘budget busting’ Michael Standing and Phil Trainer came in. Trainer had his moments, but had the unenviable habit of getting slower as he got fitter. Joe Burnell arrived with the promise of much needed bite and leadership. But despite creating the acorn that sprouted an oak, he offered little.

Darren Patterson’s reign was also notable because of the raft of loanees he brought. This including the peculiarly coloured Lewis Haldane, a strong, orange, winger who frustrated and dazzled (in more ways than one) in the way lower league wingers always do.

Chris Wilder adopting a midfield consisting of Haldane, Trainer and Adam Murray; who could pass a ball with some style, but like Hargreaves before him, was often left chasing shadows as a result of the ineptitude around him.

By the end of the season, we had a new look; Simon Clist and Adam Chapman came in alongside The Fighting Dwarf – Craig Nelthorpe. Nelthorpe was released at the end of 2008/9 to be replaced by Dannie Bulman. Clist offered unspectacular reassurance which you don’t see when it’s there, but miss when it’s not. Bulman was the magic piece of the puzzle and the Kassam years were blessed with its first and only seminal midfield.

Bulman, Clist and Murray were the perfect mix of aggression, control and creativity. When Murray was sidelined with injury, and following a crisis of confidence, Chapman joined the battle and re-pointed the trajectory of our season to promotion. Promising, following his arrival from Sheffield United, Chapman had been surprisingly subdued throughout the season but found form at just the right moment. Days before Wembley it was announced had been charged with death by reckless driving; which explained everything. With a year’s chokey hanging over his head, he put in a match winning performance at Wembley which took us up.

The Clist/Bulman/Murray/Chapman midfield lasted less than a year. Murray left for Luton, Chapman was doing his time, Clist suffered a series of niggly injuries. To the surprise of everyone, Dannie Bulman was shipped out to Crawley. He got too involved in games, said Chris Wilder, although there were times when we could have done with a bit of that during the League campaign.

From the settled trio of the promotion campaign to the tossing and turning of the first League season. Asa Hall and Simon Heslop came in from Luton, but neither could hit the consistency needed to sustain a whole season in the middle. Josh Payne suffered similarly. Paul McLaren was eventually brought in to offer experience and proved a valuable asset to the squad by anchoring a midfield full of youthful nervous energy. Although the 2010/11 midfield model saw lots of good quality attacking football, there was still a missing ingredient to take us into the play-offs and beyond.

Only Dean Whitehead made the Kassam Years All-Star XI from our first period of League football at the stadium, it seems fitting that the other two members of the squad are drawn from the seminal promotion midfield. Dannie Bulman and Simon Clist, welcome both.

Do we really want to know more about players?

Sir Alex Ferguson is almost certainly correct in saying that footballers could do with choosing improving literature over Twitter, but he will almost certainly be ignored. Footballers live for the vaguely homoerotic surrounds of the dressing room and the inter-player ‘banter’ within.

Twitter has turned this fun filled roister-doister into a professional sport, although, anyone who has witnessed the exchanges between Robbie Savage and Rio Ferdinand will see that this apparently rich vein of self-affirmation consist of them arguing over which looks more like a horse.

This insight into the cosseted world of football proves that a player’s life isn’t really worth knowing about and that the most interesting thing they’ll ever do is on the pitch. It makes you wonder why we’re expected to care about the Ryan Giggs affair. The media paint Giggs as a manipulating superstar protecting his sponsorship deals, keeping it from his wife and the baying public. But the revelation is unlikely to make a significant material difference to his wealth, and it’s beyond all credibility to think that his wife only found out after the details were released on Monday. She looked someway short of distraught when walking the pitch after Manchester United’s final game against Blackpool on Sunday. One may reasonably assume that the Giggs’ are resolving any issues the affair has caused – which they’re entitled to do.

Giggs is probably just a bit embarrassed about it all, as you might be if, say, your neighbour caught you scratching your bum in the garden. He’s just been a bit of an idiot, particularly considering Imogen Thomas is one of the country’s more careless girlfriends having previously been subject of a leaked sex tape. But in the end, Giggs is what Giggs was; the finest footballer of his generation what he does in his spare time – whether that’s playing away or going to Tesco – is his business.

The separation of the footballer from the person is a tricky one. Twitter is a hugely positive force amongst Oxford fans with Paul McLaren, Harry Worley, James Constable, Tom Craddock, Ben Purkiss, Jack Midson and new signing Andy Whing all registered and engaging with fans. This builds trust and can only be good for the club, tweets between the players on the bus going to Shrewsbury gave a really nice added dimension to the match day experience.
But I’m not particularly keen on taking it much further than that. My only real experience of a professional footballer outside the stadium was spending some time with Mickey Lewis at a wedding. Whilst he was a lot of fun – at one point rear ending a chair in a deserted hotel bar telling some Wycombe fans of the ‘spanking’ he’d been part of in 1996, there was a point where I just fancied going to bed. I like Mickey, but I’m just not that hardcore and now I prefer the version which bowls around picking up cones before a game.
Adam Chapman is another who has challenged our moral fortitude. But as I said last year, we should maintain a dignified separation between Chapman the footballer and Chapman the dangerous driver. Football is not so important that it should be used as part of the justice system – rewarded to those who do well, or deprived from those who are bad. Prisons are a perfectly sufficient punishment, Chapman’s justice should be serving its course any time soon and, if we do see him in a yellow shirt again, he should be welcomed back as we would any player.
And then there’s Paulo Di Canio, who is a fascist off the pitch and taking over at Swindon Town on it. Should we really care? Certainly the GMB think so, and, well, it’s just a bit too easy to ignore. But footballers don’t engage in improving literature as Ferguson suggests they do; they engage in illicit sex, banal banter, dangerous driving and fascism.
Di Canio is perfectly entitled to his opinion, as misguided as it is. And Swindon are perfectly entitled to appoint him as manager, as misguided as that is. Perhaps it’s just in the nature of football culture and its environment that creates a higher proportion of morons. This may be specific to their type – studies have shown that American football college players are more likely commit rape because they are trained to be unthinking pack animals. Perhaps we only hear about the morons and that football mirrors the rest of the world in having a broad spectrum of views and types. Generally speaking it is probably advisable to keep the player and the person separate, as they say; you should never meet your heroes.

The season in review: the midfield

If you want to really get into the DNA of a football team, look at its midfield. Compare, say, the flair and creativity of Xavi and Iniesta at Barcelona to the methodical coldness of De Jong, Viera and Toure at Manchester City. Defenders are organised and dependable, strikers are unpredictable firecrackers, the midfield are the character.

Look at our Conference midfield – Bulman, Clist, Murray (and latterly Chapman). That was a trio all about its strength of personality. Using our principle asset – our relative size in the non-league – we used these three to impose ourselves on our opponents. It wasn’t so much creative as intense.

Switch to this season and those three were quickly replaced. Perhaps the more composed players of League 2 weren’t going to be fooled by the pressure trick. However, there is a thing about promoted teams having momentum. Certainly Heslop and Hall are momentum players. Heslop had the better season of the two, albeit fitfully. Hall sometimes played like a bloke who’d turned up late for a kick about in the park and couldn’t quite work out which side he was on or who was on his team. Both had periods of form, but neither could sustain it for more than a few weeks at a time. I’m not entirely sure that either are The Solution.

As Heslop and Hall blasted away going forward, someone was needed to mind the shop. After the false start of Paul Wotton, Paul McLaren was drafted in to provide the cover and as a result was a late candidate for player of the year. There were times when he must have wondered what was going on with three strikers being joined by two from midfield and Batt and Tonkin joining the fun from the flanks. A worthy signing for next year, someone is needed to look after the kids.

The neo-McLaren was supposed to be Josh Payne, but whilst he had his moments, there were also times he looked a little short in terms being able to control the game. Clearly talented with occasional hot-headedness, the jury remains out as to whether he’ll here for the long haul.

His chances will be all the more limited if the club can find a way to sign Ryan Burge. Burge has much of what McLaren has, but with the added benefit of youth. A long term solution, but surely beyond our means to sign him.

All of which takes us back to the start and the last remaining member of the Conference trio. When Simon Clist was fit we looked a better team. He’s unremarkable in the way he plays, but such discipline is to be admired. I can see a point next season when he’s long gone, where we’ll be pining for someone like Clist to drop in and do simple things well.