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.

The wrap – Oxford United 2 Peterborough 1

Even during the darkest days of a relegation season I can’t remember a game being anticipated as negatively as Saturday’s. Even with the weight of the concrete boots that anchor you to the bottom of the table, there’s an ember of belief that somehow good fortune will descend on you and turn things around. Not on Saturday, the mood started bleakly and got darker as kick-off approached.

Nothing seemed to dispel the dark clouds that hung over the club, the Tiger takeover had been largely absent of substance, the disquiet amplified by the brief rumour of the club being served a winding up order. And then, the lack of a manager, an achingly slow process which is apparently resolved, but still not complete.

Perhaps appropriately, there was the strange otherworldliness of the weather; sub-zero temperatures and hours of fine, wispy snow, but not a hint of a postponement.

Into this void steps the universally loathed Steve Evans and his perfectly competent Peterborough side. Evans will mercilessly kick at every Achilles heel until it snaps, and then carry on kicking. Evans doesn’t respect others, he doesn’t care what they think, he won’t just kick a man when he’s down, he’ll use him as a foot stool to reach for the bucket of deep-fried pies that sit on the top shelf asking to be inhaled as a light snack in between meals.

Our talented, put-upon, listless team of juniors – many of whom will not be here for much more than six weeks once the manager is in place – would surely capitulate in the misery and the gloom of relegation would descend further. Their fatherly temporary manager would do little more than protect them from the worst of the criticism, covering their ears, in a vain attempt at blocking out the baying hoards.

Instead, Derek Fazackerley out-thought his rotund counterpart, causing him to panic about formation and personnel barely before the clock had ticked past 20 minutes. Weighed down by more than just the obesity timebomb only he appears not to notice, Evans bounced around his technical area, and beyond, complaining and barking instructions maniacally trying to regain control of what was already lost.

On the pitch we looked more like the Oxford we had hoped we’d become. Brannigan was the key, sitting in front of the back four, given Mousinho more time for messages to transfer from his brain to his feet while Ledson snapped away at second balls and James Henry exploited the holes their tenacity created. Obika and Thomas looked bright and mobile, albeit inevitably for only a short period.

The wind swirled and buffeted, the snow danced lightly without settling. “Farcical”, complained Evans, a man you suspect boasts about how effective his 4×4 is when others aren’t prepared to venture beyond their front door when the neighbourhood’s roads are impassable. It was far from that; it was not so much a question of who would deal best with the conditions, but at what point the game would seize up in the cold.

The answer was pretty much immediately after the break, perhaps it was ‘game management’ but neither side showed much urgency to take free-kicks or throw-ins as muscles seized up and ambition was packed away for another, warmer day. The referee became increasingly befuddled in the blizzard and the game gently descended into a glacially slow, desperately cold, pantomime. The man next to me shivered so much as players niggled each other over something trivial that I genuinely became concerned he might slump across my lap and expire.

Between Henry’s wonder goal and their immediate retaliatory strike, the two teams seemed to bicker and gossip almost as if they were trying to negotiate a way of finishing the game early. All the while Evans bellowed to nobody in particular the frustrations of a man processing unresolved childhood emotional issues. Todd Kane seemed to revel in his bluster, which madden him more, we were totally in control.

Appropriately enough, the assistant referee’s electronic board packed up leaving it to Nathan Cooper to announce seven minutes of injury time. Defending our first win in six, in semi-arctic conditions, it seemed wholly inappropriate to introduce a flamboyant Brazilian into the mix, but Ricardinho showed he’s more than a cliche and helped us see the game out.

The distant threat of relegation has become slightly more distant, thankfully it looks like there will be a reasonable platform for the new manager to work from over the summer. I’m concerned about Tiger’s desire to ‘wow’ us with his appointment. There are three types of wow managers; past-wow managers whose star has faded far more quickly than their media profile, now-wow managers who have jobs and future-wow managers who are untested but will eventually come good. I doubt any of them will be greeted with universal approval from the fans, so I hope that Tiger finds a manager with the right attributes to lead the club forward than try to impress us with a name that still commands a substantial fee on the after-dinner circuit.

The wrap – Peterborough 1 Oxford United 4

People will say differently, but Peterborough was never a critical game. Even with good form we’d have been happy with a point. With poor form it was really just one to get out the way before focusing on recovering with more winnable games in the upcoming weeks.

In the end it was one of ‘those’ games, last year, after two home defeats without scoring, we went to Gillingham and won with a Chey Dunkley goal. Chris Wilder had a habit of beating promotion chasers and league leaders away from home, usually in the middle of a bad run – in 2012/13, with one win in seven we beat Gillingham away (again) 1-0 and in 2010/11 off the back of five straight defeats, we beat the then leaders Chesterfield 2-1 away.

Breaking runs often comes from unusual places, perhaps its the lack of expectation. In this case, nobody could have predicted such a comprehensive win away against a team looking for promotion.

A lot of people will rightly look to Jack Payne’s contribution to all four goals, but for me, it’s the fact that the recovery was triggered by a Josh Ruffels goal that is worthy of note.

Ruffels’ career is curious; he’s not quite homegrown; a local, but not a club lifer, he was signed during a period of austerity by Chris Wilder; a fairly anonymous member of batch of local players that Ian Lenagan said would take us to the Championship.

It was a romantic, if fanciful idea, probably born from necessity. But while the young players at the club were being earmarked as a golden generation, it was always likely they’d be ditched for more experienced players at the sniff of trouble.

Ruffels is a contemporary of Matt Bevans and Tyrone Marsh, players that, often through rose tinted glasses, fans saw as the future of the club. Bevans is now at Oxford City, Marsh at Macclesfield. Ruffels was less lauded, but he survived the last days of Chris Wilder and into the Michael Appleton era.

Appleton’s first season churned countless players through the squad, so it was something of a surprise that when it did finally coalesce into something coherent, Ruffels was still there. Not because he was a poor player, but because he was never spectacular and Appleton seemed to have little time for dependables.

Into the promotion season, Ruffels was a late sub against Swindon in the JPT, but in the next 30 games he started once in a addition to a single substitute appearance. He re-appeared against Wimbledon at the end of February and only missed three games, two of which we lost. He played against Barnsley at Wembley, Carlisle away and in the promotion clincher against Wycombe. All season he featured in just two losing sides – against Barnsley in the JPT and Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup.

Then came the second Appleton revolution which even the likes of Jake Wright and Danny Hylton didn’t survive. It looked like he would be squeezed out by Sercombe, Ledson, Lundstram and Rothwell but he became one of just four players in Oxford’s history to play at Wembley twice.

Into this season and another revolution; a fourth manager, more midfielders – Payne, Pekalski, Xemi and Mowatt in addition to Rothwell and Ledson, but Ruffels is still there – the longest serving player at the club despite playing only 40% of the games he’s been available for.

Football is a mercenary business and clubs need players who carry something of the spirit of the fans onto the pitch. It’s rarely the de facto best player – previous incarnations have been people like Michael Raynes and Chey Dunkley. People whose effort stands out, who reflect what the fans want to see of their team. It provides some kind of reassurance that the fans’ faith in the team is in safe hands.

The role is difficult to define, but the fact Ruffels provides a steadying hand when things appear to be going wrong is critical. He may not be able to turn games on his own and its unlikely he’ll ever be subject to a six-figure bid from a bigger club, but he lets nobody down. After five goals in seven starts and missing only one of our last six wins people might need to start thinking of him being beyond simply a utility player.

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.

Peterborough wrap – Oxford United 2 Peterborough United 1

When we played Arsenal in 2003 at Highbury, apart from the barracking of Francis Jeffers, there is one moment I distinctly remember.

David Seaman had the ball in front of the mass ranks of Oxford fans. He rolled it out to Robert Pires standing in the right back position who passed it on. Arsenal efficiently worked the ball in two or three passes past our strikers, through our midfield and out to the left hand edge of our box where the ball was picked up by none other than Robert Pires. In a few seconds, he’d gone from one corner of the pitch to the diagonal opposite while our team stood rigidly in position.

It struck me that the great players are not just technically gifted, they work supremely hard for their right to play.

On Saturday, we seemed competent enough at League 1 but we lacked a certain bite that Peterborough showed. Overall, things were pretty even, but there were times where we were overrun by their movement up front and we were obviously frustrated by their willingness to fall to the floor at the slightest contact. In simple terms, they were willing to take risks and responsibility.

By contrast it was as if we were waiting for permission to get into the game, but permission never came and it probably never will. Like Pires taking responsibility to find space, we needed to take responsibility to win the game.

We came out in the second half with more aggression and snap, for which we were instantly rewarded. The change of attitude was typified by John Lundstram, who can be a bit of a slow starter at the best of times. He looked a yard behind the game in the first half, but in the second half he battled for the ball and earned the right to get his passing game going, when he did that he had real impact.

You can see parts of the team are starting to settle to League 1 and a plan and strategy is starting to emerge. Edwards looks comfortable at this level as well as Thomas, Hemmings needs to be a bit braver, and some of last year’s squad need to recognise that they do belong. The youngsters on the bench are there to stretch the game late on with pace and trickery. It won’t come together instantly, but something is there.

Chris Maguire looks most comfortable. He isn’t fazed by the level he’s playing at. Everything about his winner typified what it takes to succeed at this level. He was brave enough to attack the space behind Ryan Taylor to get onto his flick on, he had the awareness to put himself in front of the defender to draw the foul, he showed the calm and technique to put the penalty away, and he showed the arrogance to goad the goalkeeper who tried to put him off.

The celebration was two parts cynical gamesmanship, three parts improvised genius, it’s probably the formula to greater success this year.

Comment: Pre-season

For the second year running, I’m going to miss the home first game of the season because of a holiday. As a result it feels too early in the summer to get that growing sense of anticipation for the new season.

A surreal pre-season doesn’t help. Traditionally we’ve toured around the non-league scene like a feudal lord exercising power through fear by sacrificing locals. This year, we’ve been more like Ghandi; confronting great swaithes of force, getting struck down for our impudence, before climbing back to our feet to be struck down again.

We would expect to get the run around against Peterborough, but without the variation of opposition, it is impossible to judge where we we’ve got to.

It has to be a worry that we haven’t had the opportunity to hone a match winning formula. I don’t want to be a doomy naysayer; but with two tricky away games to follow, it puts unnecessary pressure on the York game. I don’t want to get to my opening game, against Chester on the 18th, with the storm clouds gathering over the club again.