The Squad in review – 2012-2013

 In less than 24 hours, the great cull of our squad will have begun. So, just before two-thirds of the squad become ex-players, let’s look back on a wretched 9 months and see how the squad has fared.

It’s time to pack our metaphorical bucket and spade and head for the metaphorical beach, the season is over.

It’s customary at this time of year to pick through the bones of the squad. That seems a bit of waste of time this year as half the squad look set to leave and the other half seemed unable to string together more than half-a-dozen games before heading for the treatment room with a grazed knee.

Jake Wright was majestic throughout the season, and therefore becomes the first player to win Oxblogger Player of the Year along with Player’s Player of the Year and Supporters’ Player of the Year. I’m sure he’d be delighted if he ever found out about that. One day, I’ll buy a trophy or something to mark the honour.

Thankfully, I think we’ll see Wright playing at the Kassam next year. He’s intimated a desire to ‘play at a higher level’ (i.e. leave) with the normal safety caveats of loving the club and all that jazz. He’s still under contract so would command a fee. Even though he’s only 27, I still think he’s too old for a Championship club to take him on, even if they were looking to a League 2 team with a negative goal difference to solve their defensive issues. Few in League 1 or 2 are likely to spend the required amount to bring him in.

To my mind, there were really only two other contenders for the title of player of the year. Sean Rigg got the games in and was solid and reliable throughout; although his end product was lacking. It’s somewhat ironic that his last contributions to our season were the lung busting run down the flank for Alfie Potter’s goal against Rochdale followed by his tap in against Accrington, that is, plenty of end product. Darn that man.

Potter probably had his best season in a yellow shirt, but his form and confidence faded in the bog of our pitch mid-season. Both Potter and Rigg suffer from that thing with wingers; that their job – providing goals – means that they’re always likely to fail more than they succeed. So, on a game by game basis they can be frustrating, it’s only when considered over a period of time, when you’ve had the chance to edit out the frustrating times, that you realise the contribution they make. For this read: Joey Beauchamp.

Of the rest, Andy Whing seemed to be the difference between the team being in and out of form; he just didn’t play enough, James Constable had a solid but unspectacular season; the prospects of him racking up 20+ goals in a season seem increasingly remote, but his presence for the fans is important. Damian Batt was similarly solid, Ryan Clarke, when fit, seemed to lack something of the sparkle of previous seasons; perhaps a sign that he was carrying his shoulder injury for some time before he jacked it in for the year.

Age seemed to catch up with Michael Duberry though he let nobody down when he did play. Peter Leven didn’t seem fit at any point and only really contributed from deadballs and set pieces. I have a soft spot for Michael Raynes who never lacked in endeavour.

Others’ performances were fleeting in the main, Liam Davis and John Paul Pitman played reasonably in between bouts of injury and Scott Davies’ brief flurry of appearances demonstrated a robustness which was a virtue others weren’t able to offer. Tom Craddock had sublime moments accetuated with periods of almost other-worldly distinerest and Simon Heslop looked like he wanted to be anywhere but a football pitch.

Jake Wright aside, the squad was ridden with injuries and patchy form. Both Chris Wilder and Ian Lenagan have talked about a squad of youth and robustness, it’s fair to say there wasn’t much of either on show over the last nine months.

2012 squad review – goalkeepers and defence

With the post-season hysterics starting to subside, clubs up and down the country are going through the cathartic process of shedding themselves of deadweights. This process of renewal – soon to be followed by a slew of new signings – encourages everyone to return in August with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.

Reading some views of our squad, it’s a wonder that we have any players left at all. Some would have preferred a  frenzied mass slaughter with no player spared the pyre. One of the few exceptions was Ryan Clarke, who gets the Oxblogger Player of the Year Award for the second year running. It is to our massive advantage that other clubs seem too dopey to look at Clarke. His presence, or not, has defined our season. With him in goal we were dependable and effective. Then, when injured he palmed the ball into his own net against Torquay which was a pivot in our and his season.

In came Wayne Brown, who I’d envisaged had spent most his time doing odd jobs around the stadium. He proved himself to be more than a worthy replacement. Just as we thought we’d got away with it he too got injured. Connor Ripley came in and looked shakey beyond belief. We completed the season with four keepers in five games. It was hardly the bedrock upon which to sustain an effective promotion chase. If people want to blame Chris Wilder for any failure; they might want to consider how good Ryan Clarke was up to the point he got injured and how much we missed him at the moment we needed him most.

The hand-ringing that surrounded our failure to reach the play-offs masks the fact that defensively this season has been a vast improvement on last. Last season we looked porous and niave. The introduction of Michael Duberry has transformed the back-four. His influence, assurance and experience made a critical difference. For a period he was neck and neck with Clarke in terms of player of the year, but he seemed to fade marginally as the season progressed.  Phil Gilchrist was similarly dominant when he returned to the club in our first Conference year, but his performances fell away as a career of wear and tear took their toll. The only concern about Duberry, given his age, is that he could blow up spectacularly at any point next season.

Jake Wright is a great leader and clearly respected by his team mates, but he still gives me the heebie jeebies. He has been caught out many times over the last couple of years trying to be too clever; glancing back headers or playmaking from the back-four. I do wonder whether Harry Worley, whose brief appearances this season have shown him to be a more than able deputy, might feature more regularly next season.

With the introduction of Liam Davis our full-backs have looked more balanced. Davis is pacey and strong, although his crossing could be improved and he always seems to want to beat one too many players. On the other side, Damien Batt, fresh from being voted the best right-back in the division at the end of 2010/11, seemed a more subdued. Perhaps he was fulfilling his pledge to work on his defensive work, perhaps age is beginning to catch up on him a little. It’s a tricky balance because Batt is a potent force going forward; but it does leave us with a gap at the back when he does.

Wembley romantisists will be saddened by the inevitable departure of Anthony Tonkin. Oddly, Tonkin has looked more aggressive than in previous years, with his performance against Swindon being his standout display for Oxford. The emergence of Davis and the largely absent Capaldi did leave Tonkin with little future at the club.

The season in review: the defence

A Chris Wilder squad is like Crash Mountain on Total Wipeout. It continually spins forebodingly. Some make it to the relative calm and stability of the centre, but most end up being thrown in the water.

In such a dynamic environment, it is somewhat ironic then that in a season in which we struggled to keep clean sheets and ended with a negative goal difference that the back five were the most stable component of the first team.

In a sense it’s telling, worrying really, that Ryan Clarke is my player of the season. When goalkeepers are noticeably the best player in team there’s usually something wrong that’s leading to all his champagne moments. But credit where it’s due, the odd flap aside, Clarke’s shot stopping has been of a quality of a much higher level.

Damien Batt’s inclusion in the team is a question of tactical philosophy. He may not be the best defender in the world, but to replace him would sacrifice something going forward. Nobody has his dynamism and impetus. For many years we’ve seen wingers toiling as they try to carve out a cross without any support. Batt’s willingness to get forward is something to be celebrated.

On the other side Anthony Tonkin has perhaps struggled a touch. Neither rock hard defender nor rampant wing back; he’s often caught between those two stools. It’s telling that a lot of goals have been conceded from crosses, and a lot from the left hand side. Tonkin doesn’t impose his game on opponents like Batt does. His place is perhaps most under threat.

For me, Harry Worley ran Clarke close for player of the season. He’s a modern defender in the sense that he mixes both athleticism and ability with the classic willingness to put his head where others won’t. If he’s missing something it’s the ability to organise, which will come with experience. Jake Wright clearly has the respect of his team, but of the two was probably more prone to individual mistakes during the season. If you’re going to tighten up the defence you’d expect to see some focus being put on the centre. Wright’s had a decent season, but may not be as prominent during 2011/12 has he has been.

Wee Stevie Kinniburgh looked a bit out of depth. He may be lacking match sharpness, but Chris Wilder isn’t the kind of man to give that kind of excuse any sympathy. It was not a surprise when it was announced he was free to go. Ben Purkiss is a bit more of a surprise as he is both versatile and dependable. He’s not likely to see an extended run in the team over, say, Batt, but when he was needed he did his job well.

Many other defenders wallowed in the water of Chris Wilder’s Crash Mountain pool – Lee Franks, Ben Futcher and Mark Creighton – joining them will be Eastwood, Hanson and Sangare, who enjoyed an odd but fleeting cult status, but none will be missed come next season.

Season’s end: how the squad is looking

Contract shenanigans aside, the squad, including Green and Wright, is one that you’d be pretty happy starting with next season with only sheer numbers being a disadvantage.

The spine of the squad makes the spine of the team. It’s a travesty that Ryan Clarke’s main contribution to the Wembley win was him dropping the ball into his own net. There’s no better testament to his worth than the fact he took over from Turley and won supporters’ player of the season.

Creighton had a barely perceptible drop in form mid season, although the death of his Nan coincided with his demotion. Otherwise, he’s been absolutely dominant in the centre of defence. Not accounting for the fact they all played at different levels, Crieghton sits with Shotton, Briggs and Elliot amongst the clubs’ most impressive centre-backs.

The first time I saw Danny Bulman, against Chester, I thought his performance was up there amongst the best ‘debuts’ by an Oxford player. His immense work rate was impressive enough, but his ability to maintain it all season took him up to another level. Rightly recognised as the Players’ Player of the Year, he’s also the Oxblogger Player of the Year.

The platform provided by Clarke, Creighton and Bulman was made of granite, but it was Murray and Constable that turned us into such a dominant force. During The Sticky Patch – the eight game period between Cambridge draw and the Hayes and Yeading away defeat – Constable played five games, Murray none. We won 1 game, lost 3 and had a goal difference of just -2. We weren’t being turned over, we just didn’t have the spark offered by the baldy twins.

Most were surprised to see the back-line being remodelled after Christmas. Day had looked like a worthy deputy to Foster and Creighton, who had been impervious. There seemed no strong argument for signing Jake Wright until Foster’s demons started to reveal themselves. With Wee Stevie Kinniburgh heading back to Rangers, Tonkin’s arrival at left-back was less of a shock. After initially wobbling, the new look backline settled into a formidable unit. Landing Kinniburgh on a permanent deal looks less like necessary strengthening, more that he’s a good player who was available and willing to come.

By contrast to the backline; the midfield was metronomic in its predictability. Bulman and Murray provided grit and guile; Simon Clist gave the midfield balance with a combination of both. But, in his endless search for perfection, Clist may be the one Wilder will look to replace before the end of next season.

No matter how much Wilder mixed the front line; Constable, Midson and Green, proved the best combination. Midson and Green offered speed and height, Constable was the complete striker. Potter’s contribution changed the dynamic of the attack and usually brought goals. Injury and illness limited him a little; so it’s difficult to know whether he will ever make it as a regular starter. It seems unlikely that we’ll be able to flood opponents like we were able to in the Conference. Some strength and height may be a useful addition; particularly away from home.

And now we come to those in the grey area. Chapman’s future remains unsure for obvious reasons. Nobody knows the details, of course, the court have allowed him to walk free until now; so it maybe its not as black and white as it might be. Plus, of course, Chapman’s form; which was the turning point of the season, might suggest that he’s become less worried about incarceration. Either that or he’s a hapless fatalistic goon – which seems just as likely. On the other hand, he’s admitted his guilt, and it seems unfathomable that he’ll get away with his crime completely.

As Oxblogger’s official favourite player, Damien Batt is technically above reproach. But as much as he’s tireless, fearless and offers options going forward, he’s technically weaker than other members of the squad. The signing of Ben Purkiss could be the sign that Mr Wilder sees this.

Aaron Woodley seems little more than a fine wine that the club are maturing in preparation for a big sale.

Perhaps the most perplexing player in the squad is lil’ old Sam Deering. It’s difficult to fault his endeavour; people love him for it. Before Wilder arrived he was the breath of fresh air, now the whole squad is a breath of fresh air. In a strong squad, there is a point where even good players come under threat. So in a phalanx of strikers where does Deering fit? Not the height of Midson, the finishing of Constable, the speed of Green, or the creativity of Potter. Deering’s principle quality, of buzzing around and being an irritant to tired defenders could well become surplus to requirements in the environs of the Football League.

So, we need a big lump of a striker and another goalkeeper to complete the core squad. After which some difficult decisions might be needed. But then, this is the price of success, I suppose.

Comment: Player of the Year

So, the club have announced a 5% drop in season ticket prices. I find the official site headline “Loyalty brings its reward” faintly patronising. Aside from a good run-in and Darren Patterson’s manager of the month award, it has been a dismal season. The very idea that the club deign to reward us is pretty galling. What it should have said was “We’ve served up a pile of absolute shite for 10 years, we simply can’t get away with charging you this much anymore”.

There were times this season when it was difficult to see how anyone could be rewarded a plaudit like ‘Player of the Season’ after the dross that was served up.

Pound for pound, it’s difficult to argue against Luke Foster, who has been, by far the best player of the season. However, I like my players of the season playing for a whole season and so prefer to look elsewhere.

The problem with this season is that only Turley, Quinn and Trainer can be described as first team regulars. Some (Twigg et al) made it to Christmas, others (Green and the like) only appeared later in the season. Some, (Day, Yemi) flitted in and out.

Trainer’s continued presence is a surprise; he looked heavy legged earlier in the season and a prime candidate for the chop come the revolution. In some ways he’s the perfect player of the season, as he’s a bit of a barometer – when we’ve struggled so has he, when we improved, so did he. I like him, he’s no player of the season in the traditional sense, but he’s the kind of player you can relate to. On that basis, I’m making him the first Oxblogger Official Favourite Player. An honorary position he shall carry until he leaves the club.

Back to the task at hand. The short list, then, is Turley or Quinn. Quinn has been Mr Consistent. 12 months ago I was advocating that he be released; but in cases of turmoil, his continued presence has been essential. Turley has been more erratic, his performances have been spectacular and frustrating in equal measure. His eccentricities are starting to get the better of him and its good to hear that Darren Patterson is planning to bring in some competition. But in a season where we contrived to score 1 goal in 13.5 hours, entertainment has been at a premium. Turley’s distribution may be a bit ropey, but his shot stopping has been superb. On this basis, Turley gets my vote for brightening up some pretty grey months.