Lockdown wrap: The lunatics running the asylum

There’s a steam engine at the Science Museum where you can see the cogs and pistons working in mesmerising synchronicity. This week we’ve been exposed to the inner machinery of the Football League, it’s like someone has opened up the Flying Scotsman to find it powered by elastic bands, Sellotape and custard.

The centrepiece of the whole affair is, of course, what to do with the rest of the season since its suspension in March, and specifically, what to do with League 1. Agent provocateurs in the saga are Peterborough United who will lose most if the season is brought to a premature end. 

Peterborough are a two headed beast made up of owner Darragh MacAnthony and director of football Barry Fry. Fry, if you need reminding, once brought himself to near bankruptcy buying Peterborough before finding that he hadn’t bought them at all. In 2018 he was fined £35,000 and banned from football for betting irregularities. MacAnthony re-employed Fry, who would surely be unemployable in any other business, when the ban ended. MacAnthony himself was in court in 2012 accused of ‘theft by swindle and misappropriation of funds’ and was once forced by a court to pay an ex-employee nearly £160,000 in unpaid commission. 

The main thrust of Posh’s argument seems to be that because they’re going to win their remaining games, the season should be played out. Fry claims that teams are only ahead of them because of their results, which is obviously unfair. On Oxford specifically he argued that we were only third because ‘If Oxford hadn’t won [at Shrewsbury] they would be eighth and outside the play-offs’. The Peterborough press think this is a credible argument because we ‘only’ won after coming back from two goals down against ten men. Pfft, so not a proper win, then. Fry has more confidence in something that might happen in the future than something that objectively did happen in the past.

MacAnthony announced via Twitter that he was speaking on behalf of a number of teams, including Oxford, in saying they wanted to play. Oxford confirmed that this is their preference though they’ve yet to confirm whether they support some of MacAnthony’s other plans such as forcing teams to forfeit games or suing anyone who doesn’t agree with him. Let’s not forget that Oxford are largely unaffected by almost all scenarios being suggested, so a neutral position is probably more favourable than promoting one so obviously biased.

For example, Southend’s owner Ron Martin has called for the season to be voided for the purposes of ‘sporting integrity’. By extraordinary coincidence, voiding the season would save Southend from relegation. Southend are sixteen points from safety and may even be caught by Bolton who started with no players and minus-12 points. But, Martin argues, by not playing the remaining games we would never know if Southend could suddenly find title winning form, and that wouldn’t be fair, would it? 

OK, so let’s play, you might argue. On no, this isn’t possible either because we should only play ‘when it is safe to do so’, a phrase nobody understands. For Ron, there is no scenario by which we can complete the season safely, therefore VOID, VOID, VOID. 

Some players agree, a number are aghast that people are sick-minded enough to even talk about football when people are dying. This is one of those football humblebrags – acknowledging that people are dying while always using football as a central reference point. People are talking about lots of things happening while people are dying, in fact people die all the time while things are happening. The world is trying to find a way of functioning while minimising the risk. Football, it seems, cannot function without concrete certainty, including getting access to endless testing that’s not routinely available to most regular folks.

If only there were a central governing body in England to sort this mess out on behalf of the Football League, some kind of English Football League. The EFL have chosen to devolve responsibility for resolving their problem to the individual divisions. This is like the government devolving responsibility for managing the infection rate to each individual within the country. Yes, you can go to the beach, but use your common sense. Common sense, if it exists at all, is common to everyone, so if one person uses their common sense to go to the beach safely, so will thousands of others, it’s, well common sense. By devolving responsibility to resolving the issue to the clubs, the clubs are likely to use their common sense and back positions most favourable to them, that means there’ll be winners and losers which creates a schism.

Only in the last few days have the EFL finally provided a framework for resolution. But, if the Oxford Vaccine Group can start developing a vaccine for Disease X – an unknown virus which will cause a pandemic before it happens, you might think that the EFL could have come up with a democratic method for resolving ‘Critical Issue X’ – a massive unknown problem which would affect the entire league. It seems not, there appears no established decision-making protocol for proposing or choosing possible resolutions, it’s taken weeks to come up with one inviting the shysters and vagabonds into the vacuum.

Still, at least League 2 is all resolved and congratulations to Swindon Town for winning the title. Or have they? Court papers this week revealed that Swindon’s owner Steve Power has been less than honest with, well, everyone. Swindon are, in effect, owned by a company called Swinton Reds. Back in 2013 Power entered into an agreement with an anonymous investor to take a 50% stake Swinton Reds (and therefore Swindon Town). Michael Standing, who Oxford fans will remember for his seven-game stint in a yellow shirt including a 1-0 defeat at Histon claims he was the mysterious financial muscleman. Power, however, claims that he sold the interest to Standing’s friend and Premier League diesel Gareth Barry. Weirdly, this all happened in the same meeting and nobody took the time to clarify just who Power was talking to. In fact, seven years later, nobody has taken a moment to check who provided the money.

What’s more, Standing is Barry’s agent, and both are prohibited from having a financial interest in another football club. So, whoever is backing Swindon’s title appears to be doing so illegally. A fitting way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Swindon’s last demotion for financial irregularities, perhaps they’re planning to livestream a recording of the FA disciplinary panel meeting from 1990.

There are many challenges that have come out of this crisis, but also many opportunities. One can only hope that ridding the game of even a small percentage of these chancers would be a decent start.  

Match wrap: Peterborough United 4 Oxford United 0

If you know anything about the NASA Apollo Space Program, it’s probably about Apollo 13. An explosion in an oxygen tank resulted from a thermostat working at 28 volts when the rest of the system was working at 65. The system effectively pumped too much power through a narrow space, it’s failure meant the craft’s oxygen tanks were allowed to heat up to 1000 degrees when they were supposed to regulate at 80. Back at Mission Control, nobody noticed because their gauge only went up to 85.

There was always a chance that we’d take a pasting at Peterborough. They have the most potent attacking force in the division, we’ve just come off the back of a 120 minute marathon against a Premier League team with a raft of players just coming back from injury.

Like the oxygen tanks on Apollo 13, we’ve been overheating for some time now. You can analyse on-field stats to look at why, but also look at crowd sizes; ten 10,000+ crowds this season with at least two more to come. If that’s an indication of the mental challenge of constantly performing, it’s likely to have taken its toll.

The criticism of the team for the Peterborough performance and the outcry at Baptiste and Fosu’s sale is the equivalent of staring at the gauge which only goes up to 85 without realising the temperature has reached 1000 degrees.

There was a question on the Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday asking how you persuade a child to follow Oxford rather than Liverpool when we keep selling our best players.

The over-rationalisation of football; first with money, now with technology like VAR, aims to iron out the imperfections in the game. It teaches you that you can get perfection where the fairest and most desirable result is the best team winning every time.

But football has never been like that; it’s always been about the balance of risk and reward. Of heating up enough to perform without destroying everything. If you’re a Liverpool fan, then with enough money and technology you can win every time. But these become Pyrrhic victories because they barely represent anything resembling a normal struggle to succeed.

Life is also not like that, most people cannot spend their way to a perfect life. If you want to live in a fantasy bubble where you can operate at 1000 degrees without consequences, then support Liverpool. If you want to enjoy a genuine struggle against the elements, then clubs like Oxford offer that experience. Being inside that experience, with everything that goes with it, will always be better than watching perfection from outside the bubble.

As a club we’re not far from operating at the outer reaches of what we can naturally achieve. We’re a 28 volt club amongst teams operating at 56 volts. Sure, we could have bought more reinforcements, or tried to hang on to Baptiste and Fosu, but would it have been worth the financial risk? Would it have been worth unbalancing the evident spirit within the club? That’s the eternal question; when cyclist Chris Boardman was asked how you gauge effort in a time trial his answer was ‘If you don’t think you can sustain the effort, slow down, if you think you can do more, speed up. The perfect answer to the question ‘can I keep going at this speed?’ is ‘I don’t know’.

And that’s the point; are our results due to a lack of effort? No. Are we going too fast? Maybe. Can we make it to the end? I don’t know.

In 2015/16 between the middle of January and the middle of February we won two, drew one and lost five games. We’d come off the back of an FA Cup and JPT run as well as a busy Christmas period and we were overheating. We recovered to gain promotion in what history remembers as a glorious year of unstoppable success. It wasn’t, but the thrill of achieving what we did was all the better for the difficulties we faced.

There were twelve Apollo Space missions, you might know two of them. Apollo 11 was an unbridled success that put a man on the moon. Apollo 13 was an unmitigated disaster saved by endeavour, ingenuity and human spirit. That’s the one they made the film about.

Stick with it, it’s what it’s all about.

George Lawrences Shorts: Karl Mechanics

Saturday 1 February 2020

Blackpool is a famous place for breaking your duck in a gritty and uncomfortable way. Fittingly, Oxford popped it’s 2020 league victory cherry on Saturday with a tough 2-1 win against the Seasiders. Afterwards KRob confirmed that he wasn’t planning to bring in any free-agents unless there were any legends in the Oxford area who fancied a game. Martin Keown is adjusting his shin pads as we speak.

Sunday 2 February 2020

Half-man, half KFC Family Bucket, Gillingham boss, Steve Evans, says he fended off an unnamed Championship team to land former Oxford loanee Jordan Graham who has joined them until the end of the season. The reason Evans hasn’t named the club is due to professional integrity, ethics and the fact he’s lying.

Monday 3 February 2020

Mystery injury magnet and former Oxford winger, Marvin Johnson has definitely not been talking about getting a new contract at Middlesborough. ‘Of course I want to stay’ he said, not talking about it, ‘it’s not in my mind’ he added firmly putting it out of his mind, ‘It’s not important to me right now’ he said, shutting down the very thought of it.

Meanwhile, GLS feared the worst when Joey Beauchamp’s name appeared in a news story with 15 school children from Cardiff. It turns out he was listed as a ‘famous’ member of MENSA alongside TV critic Gary Bushell and former Miss Rochdale Laura Shields.

Tuesday 4 February 2020

It was an avalanche of Lonsdale tracksuits and Donnay golf shoes on Tuesday as Sports Direct’s Newcastle returned to the Kassam for the FA Cup replay. It was an emotional rollercoaster as we battled back from 2-0 to force extra-time before going down 3-2.

Extra-time created a cultural earthquake as Holby City and Silent Witness were both cancelled. Nobody embedded themselves into the national psyche like the Newcastle fan who ingratiated himself with the locals by doing the patented Gavin Whyte Wave while celebrating The Toon’s winner.

The Telegraph has been talking to Gary Bloom who has been working with the club as a psychotherapist. Psychotherapy is about getting inside a someone’s head, a shuddering thought when it comes to Jamie Mackie.

The step-over kid Tariqe Fosu has been talking about his move from Oxford to Brentford, like a 56 year old lottery winner dumping his family for a pneumatic 22 year old pole dancer, he says he was gutted to leave Oxford before shrugging ‘but that’s football’.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

KRob was omnipresent on Wednesday. During the day he met the flippin’ Duke of flippin’ Cambridge to discuss mental health issues. The two shared stories of their mental health challenges. The Duke talked about his uncle befriending a convicted sex trafficker and his brother being hounded out of the country by the racist right-wing press, KRob spoke movingly about the mental challenges of dealing with a foul throw that was wrongly given against Rochdale last season.

This was a mere aperitif as KRob then headed for Oxford’s Senior Cup defeat at Banbury in the evening. There was more cup heartache as a young side went out after penalties. On the upside, KRob drew the half-time raffle with the winner receiving nearly nine pounds in prize money.

Elsewhere, your daughters are safe as Jedward orphan, Mark Sykes may have to pass up his lost week in Magaluf this year to head off to Euro 2020 with Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Tariqe Fosu could be lollypopping his way to a place in the Ghanian national team.

Thursday 6 February 2020

It was the Seven Minute Fifty-Seven Second Fans Forum on Thursday with, who else? KRob. With the club playing as well as it has for decades, one ray of sunshine asked how he can convince his daughter to support Oxford rather than Liverpool when the club sells its best players. You don’t need to sell it to her, mate, just put her up for adoption.

Friday 7 February 2020

It’s Peterborough tomorrow who are managed by Darren Ferguson, the son of legend Sir Alex Ferguson. Dazza is a chip off the old managerial block being a garralous Scotsman. But don’t let that fool you, he’s his own man as well, one thing that really sets him apart from his dad is his lack of managerial success.

Oxford United’s attempt at taking over the world took one-step closer when it was announced that former yellow Craig Harrington has become the new head coach at the Utah Royals. This answers the questions ‘whatever happened to Craig Harrington?’ and ‘who the hell is Craig Harrington?’.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 0

It should go without saying that you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from games in August. But, without the fatigue and injuries that will come later in the season, and a lack of context and pressure, it is possible to get a feel for the general health of the squad.

Tuesday’s League Cup win over Peterborough was my first game of the season, having missed Saturday’s game. Last year, my first game was our 2-3 defeat to Accrington where it was obvious we were trying to play a high energy game, which was exciting but ultimately chaotic. The season before was our 3-4 defeat to Cheltenham in the League Cup where it felt like the players were doing a physics A-Level exam having only been taught half the syllabus.

Tuesday’s game was similar to last year in that we’re clearly trying to play at a very high tempo. There were moments in the first half that were bewildering in their pace and accuracy. Peterborough’s physicality was driven less out of malice and more out of the fact they couldn’t lay a glove on us. The lunging tackles, which injured Malachi Napa and should have resulted in a red card for Frankie Kent for his challenge on Mark Sykes, were the result of not being able to keep up.

But, unlike last year, everyone seems in tune with the philosophy. Cameron Brannagan and Rob Dickie are maturing into leaders on the pitch, Jamie Hanson’s work-rate was excellent and his temperament more measured. Ben Woodburn and Elliot Moore need a bit more time, but they didn’t look out of place. Given how tough our opening fixtures have been on paper, this could have been a must-win game. In fact, our start has been good, so we could relax a little and make changes. That didn’t seem to effect the cohesiveness of the team as a unit, which suggests everyone is buying into the style Karl Robinson wants to play. Although Peterborough had better quality chances, as a unit we looked strong, given that the changes could have been disruptive, it suggests good strength in depth.

What’s still missing is the end product; people mocked Peterborough striker Ivan Toney, but we’d kill for his strength and mobility. Perhaps Dan Ageyi will be that missing piece of the puzzle, but it sounds like we’re still looking for another striker (the still vacant number nine shirt suggests that’s the case). Despite that, with three games without conceding a goal in open play, frankly we couldn’t have wished for a better start to the season.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 0

The club posted a short video on Twitter immediately after the Sunderland game of the players walking towards the away end applauding the Oxford fans. In front of them were banks of red seats vacated by the home support.

It struck me how well they’d coped in such surroundings. Or had they? Chris Cadden and Alex Gorrin regularly played at Ibrox and Celtic Park, Tariqe Fosu played at The Valley; a Premier League quality stadium. I’m sure there’s an accumulative pressure from playing your home games in large stadiums; but as a one-off, with perfect conditions and no expectations, is it really that difficult to perform?

Which is not to say that the result wasn’t a good one, it was. But my mind turned to our own home and Peterborough. How will our new signings cope with the curiosity of the Kassam Stadium? Its weird open end and ability to zap atmosphere is one thing, but the fact we’re limited as to what time we can get into our own stadium and that the wind can blow in four different directions at the same time is something unique to us.

Saturday’s game, then, was a good test in more ways than one. Howling wind, torrential rain, pretty much all the nonsense the Kassam can conjure up was thrown at them. And, of course, they coped admirably.

Tiger stated that his ambition this season is promotion; more a vision than an expectation, I suspect. His philosophy seems to be to aim ambitiously high as a way of achieving more modest goals. That’s fair enough, although when the vision isn’t realised, he’s open to criticism.

Four points from two tough opening fixtures is really encouraging when simply taking a point from the two games would probably have been acceptable. There’s also a greater sense of calm around the place; the owners are more open, the signings have finally been made and appear to be performing. But, it’s easy to think things are fixed and that promotion is achievable after all.

Every season, with little else to write about, the national press will pick up on a team in the lower leagues with good early form and try to make a story out of it. They never follow up if (and often when) it goes wrong and the club returns to its natural level. I hope that we don’t see an interview with Karl Robinson about how the club has transformed and is driving for promotion, because we need to remember that promotion would be a surprise.

To keep everyone’s feet on the ground; we shouldn’t look at the four points we’ve accumulated, where we might have expected only a couple, as part of a promotion push. We need to takes things steadily; enough points to avoid relegation, then to improve on last year, then, well, maybe we can look further ahead.

Games of Note: Peterborough

4 May 1996 – 4-0 Home

The last game of the 1995/96 season, the week before we’d snuck into the automatic promotion places after a scintillating late season run. One more game, three more points, and then Denis Smith can wear a ginger wig and claim to be a future England manager.

25 March 2006 – 1-0 Home

After years of being trapped in a loveless relationship with Firoz Kassam, suddenly we were free. Our saviours? Nick Merry and Jim Smith. Their first game, a 1-0 win over Peterborough came with a goal from T’Cham N’Toya. It started beautifully, it just didn’t end so well.

20 August 2016 – 2-1 Home

Back in League 1 but no wins, we could really do with three points and a dose of last minute shithousery. Ah, Mr Maguire, so nice to see you.

30 September 2017 – 4-1 Away

Three defeats on the trot conceding eight goals in the process, what we really need to do is to go to promotion threatening Peterborough. A goal down at half-time, where do we go from here?

20 April 1993 – 2-1 Home

The eighth anniversary of our Milk Cup win, when shorts were short and Chris Allen had no control over his legs. Proper football.

The wrap – Peterborough United 2 Oxford United 2

James Henry’s signing was a bit of theatre; the squad were in Spain, he was flown out to meet them, a fan bumped into him at the airport and took a picture which was posted it on Twitter with his face blocked out. Fans (well, me) started to compared the tattoos on his arms with pictures of him on the internet to try and confirm who it was.

And, that’s pretty much where the theatre ended. It was an interesting signing, our squad was made up of young, ex-Premier League academy players, Henry was in his prime. Was he part of the recruitment programme that Michael Appleton left behind? Or the first of a new wave under Pep Clotet? Nobody let on, of course, though I suspect it was more the former than the latter. In that sense, he was a bit like Danny Hylton; signed by a previous era, adopted by the next.
And that’s pretty much where the comparisons to Danny Hylton ended. If you could compare James Henry to anyone, it would be someone like Steve Basham. Basham quietly got on with his job of scoring goals. You probably won’t remember any of them, you won’t remember any of his post-match interviews, and you won’t hear any of rumoured off-the-pitch antics. Nobody sings songs about Steve Basham, and nobody ever did, but he scored 43 goals – only eight other players have scored more in the club’s league history. It was only years later when he scored a sublime hat-trick for Hayes and Yeading against us that I came to realise just how good he was.
Henry is similar in that through the chaos of Clotet, the painfully extended search for his replacement, and the turbulent opening months of the Tiger/Robinson revolution, he’s just got on his with job chipping in with critical goals and generally offering a cool head.

I remember back in 2016, Alex MacDonald mentoring Jonjoe Kenny when he came from Everton to fill the not insubstantial hole left by George Baldock. That sense of ownership, without the benefit of a captain’s armband, is essential in all teams. A number of times, you can see Henry geeing up his team mates or calming them down, he’s not the most flamboyant character, but he gets on with the job and people respect him for it.

His brace on Saturday against Peterborough, like his crucial goal against Doncaster last season which effectively kept us up, shows just how pivotal he has become. He has become the difference between defeats and draws, draws and wins. With Marcus Browne and Gavin Whyte marauding on either side of him and Jamie Mackie causing a mess up front, Henry enjoys the freedom they give him. Suddenly it feels like we’re a threat up front.

People talk about having a 20-goal a season striker, and there’s little doubt that it helps to have one. But having a 10-15 goal midfielder like we did with someone like Liam Sercombe, ghosting in to pick up scraps created by people like Danny Hylton is nearly as important. Henry’s role has become increasingly crucial in everything we do.