The wrap – Plymouth Argyle 3 Oxford United 0

How was your Christmas? How does losing three, scoring none, conceding six, dropping into the relegation zone as the your shop gets broken into and the chairman of your supporters’ trust resigns due to disagreements with his committee sound? Might one call it a Navitatis Horribilis?

Should Karl Robinson go? His team selection in the defeat to Plymouth wasn’t as ‘ridiculous’ as some claim. John Mousinho steadies our ship defensively, but it’s asking a lot to expect him to keep plugging away week after week without a break. We don’t have another Mousinho to bring in so giving him a break is always going to require a destabilising shuffle. Other than Mousinho, the starting eleven was the same as the one that has just put a decent run together.

There was apoplexy at the news Ivo Pekalski had taken Christmas off, but how many of us have pined for the Swede when we’ve been on a bad run? He’s just a signing that hasn’t worked out. Curtis Nelson’s post-match evasiveness about his future drew the ire of many, but you would have to be pretty blinkered to think that he’s not been on his way out for several months now. That said, if you can’t trust him with the captain’s armband, should you trust him to be the team’s media spokesperson?

Robinson doesn’t help himself though. Honesty and openness are both virtues, but it seems to get him into endless trouble. When he’s under pressure he gets verbal diarrhoea. Did Pekalski take Christmas off? Ask to take Christmas off? Was that even a criticism when Robinson thinks he’s a ‘good guy’. Or, should he have avoided the whole topic in the first place?

He talked about Cameron Brannagan, Gavin Whyte and Marcus Browne never being in this position before. All true, but was there a need to expose the players, squad and club when it solves nothing and creates panic?

Ultimately, I think Robinson is the product of a bigger problem, not the cause of it. If he was working in a well run machine, he’d have players available or coming in, and advisors that would help him avoid putting his foot in it. What I think we’re seeing is a man drowning in the chaos that surrounds him.

We could get in a good crisis manager who can get performances despite the flaws in the organisation he operates in. Alternatively, we could go straight to source and sort the organisation out – the cashflow, the scouting, the communications.

If you change the manager and replace him with a pragmatist everyone will feel better for a while. But, even the best crisis managers don’t last long before the job engulfs them. Plus, it’s rarely nice to watch; think Ian Atkins working with Firoz Kassam.

For the long term benefit of the club, sooner or later the organisation needs to get organised, so rather than mucking about changing managers, you might as well go straight to the source of the problem – the sooner you start fixing the root cause, the sooner it’s fixed.

The wrap – Forest Green, Bradford, Rochdale, Plymouth

I haven’t written anything on this blog for a while. It’s not as if things aren’t going well on the pitch. Since the last post we’ve won three and lost one and we’re in the third round of the FA Cup after an excellent win over Plymouth.

Not only was that win important in terms of progressing, it was our first one away from home against a team at our level (Checkatrade aside, which it always is). We’re scoring goals and we’ve stopped conceding. The performance against Rochdale was, at times, as good, if not better than performances under Michael Appleton in League 1.

But, something is missing. The opening months of the season have been brutal, and the recovery from the start of the season has been slow. I admire Karl Robinson for getting us out of the hole we were in. I can see why people struggle to warm to him; he’s like your mate in the pub who is full of energy and a great laugh. Except when you get home and all you want to do is go to bed, he’s the one still going, plotting something, badgering you to go back out to some club or other.

He needs that energy, it’s a thankless task being a football manager, harder still turning a team around in the face of an endless stream of criticism. Even harder in the modern game when you can’t bring players in outside transfer windows. When everyone was down, he had to be up, he had to keep coming into work and putting the hours in to solidify the defence and create an attacking style that wins games. He’s done all of that.

The Nile Ranger affair, as much as it was anything, didn’t help with the mood. You can’t blame Robinson for looking where he can for players given the constraints they’re under. It’s not that Ranger doesn’t deserve a chance while he’s free to take them. If we simply punish people endlessly for things they’ve done, what is the point of trying to turn yourself around? You might as well keep trucking on with your errant ways. But still, the last thing we need is to become a club that attracts negative press or appears to put its morals aside in the pursuit of league points.

We’re also being wound up, apparently. HMRC are taking us to court in an attempt to make us pay our bills. I don’t really know how serious these things are, they sound serious. I don’t know how easy these things are to resolve. My guess is that, practically, all HMRC want is a cheque and the whole problem will go away.

Yellows Forum is not exactly a good barometer for how serious this is, but OxVox are sufficiently concerned to have written an open letter to the club about it. My guess is that it’s not the lack of money that’s the problem, more the poor administration of that money to pay bills. It doesn’t bode well for January.

But, and I think this is where my head is at the moment. What I felt sitting in the stands against Rochdale is that the club doesn’t currently have a narrative. At least not one I can easily relate to. Results on the pitch are good, and that’s an important start, but the spirit of the club isn’t there. There isn’t a buzz on social media for each game, crowds are hardly booming, the relationship with players still seems quite distant, fan culture seems a bit flat, the club doesn’t feel part of the city or fans or something.

This season has been one about the mechanics of surviving a terrible start. Perhaps the FA Cup will give us something to believe in, a spark, perhaps January will bring us some inspiring signings and we will take our form into the New Year and, like in 1996, we’ll go on a run which will bring a tilt at promotion and everyone together. But, the club have got to resolve its issues, off the field has got to feel better than it currently does, otherwise the results will be a side issue and those with a casual interest in us – who turn 6,000 crowds into 8,000 crowds – will continue to stay at home.

The wrap – Oxford United 2 Plymouth Argyle 0

When we did our house up a few years ago, the plumber who came to sort something out opened a door in the loft and was confronted by a myriad of pipes the like of which he’d never seen before. It was like a pit of vipers that had been turned to copper.

It turned out that the previous owner had been a builder, and had built the heating system himself using bits and pieces of pipes and valves from various jobs he’d done all across Europe. It worked, but as soon something went wrong, only he was be able to figure out where the problem was.

It felt a bit like that on Saturday. Despite the furore over Gavin Whyte during the week, the starting eleven was perhaps the best available in terms of both personnel and formation. John Mousinho sitting in midfield like the world’s first free-ranging centre-back was able to protect the back four from it’s own disorganisation. It also protected him from his predilection for getting caught in possession whilst being the last man.

Up front, Jamie Mackie defied age, injury and his ability to play exactly how you’d want him to play –  work hard, batter everyone, complain constantly. Get to the edge of exhaustion or a red card, whichever comes sooner, before getting substituted for someone more mobile. He was brilliant throughout, even in his interview afterwards. If you listened quietly, you could almost hear the words ‘Danny Hylton’ wafting over the airwaves. For a moment, it felt like he was back.

Marcus Browne simplified everything by running in straight lines at ferocious speed, frightening their back-four. He’s a curious specimen; his pace is extraordinary and fabulously damaging, but after each burst he’d have his hands on his knees or be visibly trying to catch his breath. Like a Golden Eagle, hugely powerful and dominant, but every exertion seems to weaken him.

Still, with Browne’s ability to make everyone run in straight lines; Ricky Holmes’ talent to disrupt becomes an asset rather than a confusion to his own players.

It worked, and worked well; it was three points we desperately needed. But it still doesn’t feel like the sustainable solution that is going to give us the 18 more wins we’d need to trouble the play-offs. Like the plumbing system; when everything works its fine, but what happens when it doesn’t? There isn’t another John Mousinho, Marcus Browne or Jamie Mackie in the squad. Each new mix of players produces a different system; some that work fine, some terribly. It is, at best, another holding solution.

Karl Robinson was more subdued, which appeared to be deliberate. For him, it was a no-win situation – a loss would have been catastrophic, a win, against Plymouth, at home was no more than a minimum requirement. For many, it was never going to be more impressive than turning up on time for kick-off. The result, whatever it turned out to be, was never likely to turn public opinion in his favour.

Part of Robinson’s problem was illustrated by the Gavin Whyte affair. He showed all the frustration of a fan in seeing Whyte miss a crucial game to sit on the bench for Northern Ireland, but his bargaining position was limited. As Michael O’Neill said, it’s not his fault League 1 games don’t get postponed during an international break, and the rules are clear about who decides who plays. Plus O’Neill probably had 10 times the media opportunities to get his view across than Robinson.

But, Robinson’s lack of strategic thinking meant his outburst about the disrespect being shown to the club and the disgrace made him look petulant and childish; particularly when it got amplified via various national media outlets to fill time between international games. From a PR perspective, he walked right onto a sucker punch.

With fans already against him, he was always going to look stupid picking a fight he couldn’t win. Fans were always going to spin it to prove their point about his inappropriateness for the role. Had he said, calmly, that he had made attempts to contact O’Neill to see what Whyte’s situation was and whether he could play, omitting all the stuff about it being disrespectful and a disgrace, it wouldn’t have made the national headlines and local fans may have seen Robinson as the hard working, always thinking manager he appears to be. With Sean Derry on interviewing duties, and Robinson spending long periods on the bench, the aim seemed to be to calm the whole situation down and avoid saying something stupid.

Derry said that Southend and then Plymouth were building blocks. Nothing is solved yet. There is no magic – black or otherwise – as Robinson frequently tries to claim, deciding our fate. It is what it is, a win, and that’s all that’s important right now.

The wrap – Oxford United 0 Plymouth Argyle 1

One of the things Donald Trump picked up on in Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians involved in meddling in the US elections was the line that they couldn’t prove that the activities led to a different result. Trump suggested that it proved he would have won anyway. It didn’t, it just highlighted that they simply can’t know for sure whether the meddling worked or not. This plays to the old advertising adage that only half of all advertising works, we just don’t know which half.

Similarly, bad things are causing our form to dip, we just don’t know what those things are. It may be the prospect of a takeover, it may be the management, it may be the lack of management, or something else, or all of those things, or none.

But it’s reasonable to say that the Russian campaign didn’t do the Trump any harm, in the same way that, while not being able to identify the specific problem, our off-the-field paralysis doesn’t do much good for our on-field form.

In the short term, apart from being depressing to watch, I don’t think our lack of form matters hugely. It has been fairly apparent from early on this season that we’re not equipped to threaten the promotion places and I don’t see the unlikely combination of events – the ongoing collapse of our form along with the resurgence of teams below us sucking us into relegation. It could happen, of course, but probably won’t. As everyone acknowledged on Saturday, the performance was a significant improvement on Bristol Rovers with the only difference being Simon Eastwood’s uncharacteristic, but ill-judged, flapping.

The bigger issue is longer term. Of the eleven that started on Saturday, four will go back to their parent clubs, three are likely to be sold, the remaining – Dickie, Mousinho and Obika don’t look like the backbone of a promotion winning team. There is an opportunity now to start planning for next year, but we don’t have a manager to oversee that. Although we have Hall, Nelson and Brannagan to come back, the longer the uncertainty goes on, the less prepared we’re likely to be to sustain our position, let alone improve on it.

If this feels familiar, it is; when Chris Wilder left in 2014 we were left without a manager for a couple of months as the club were stuck between the immediate need to appoint the manager and the longer term issue of the club’s ownership. The result was a gentle decay which was only arrested by the appointment of Michael Appleton, and then it took him a year to turn the club around.

Fans are demanding answers, which are, in the main, unreasonable. However, the uncertainty appears to be grating on everyone, including Derek Fazackerley who struggled to maintain his poker face post-match. It is very likely that any announcement will be necessarily vacuous – takeovers take time, managerial appointments are a process. But, there is a credibility issue here.

Theoretically, Darryl Eales being overseas (perhaps on holiday, it was half-term) shouldn’t prevent the club from making some sort of comment. We have a chief executive back at base who should be equipped to make some reassuring noises that the club are actively working on the issues. Not providing a running commentary of the appointment process is perfectly reasonable, but saying nothing at all creates a vacuum which is filled with debilitating gossip.

The wrap – Plymouth Argyle and Blackburn Rovers

Plymouth Argyle 0 Oxford United 4
People, who are paid to do such things, once observed that if you add pot plants to an office, productivity increased. They postulated that it was something to do with oxygenation of the environment or a calming influence of nature. An idea that is still believed in some quarters today. After a while, productivity in these places dropped back to normal levels so they took away the plants. At that point productivity went up again. The only reasonable conclusion is not the relative qualities of the pot plants, but the restorative powers of change.

Saturday’s win was both a surprise, and not a surprise at all. After six games without a win, nobody could reasonably have expected such an emphatic victory over Plymouth. And all after a week which saw us lose two match winning players to long term injury.

Some were predicting the end of our season, and possibly every season after that, but that’s football for you. The injuries, in particular, instead forced a change of mindset and the removal of expectation. Had we traveled to Plymouth with a full-strength team and a winning run, then there was always the possibility of complacency setting in. Instead, there was almost a resigned belief that we couldn’t win, which gave those who did play the opportunity just to get their heads down and see where it took them. In this case, the changes, although negative, had a positive effect.

There have been countless occasions when runs have been broken by goals from usual sources and wins where you least expect them. Consider the derby against Swindon in 2012; a game which had Andy Whing playing centre-back in place of captain Jake Wright. Oli Johnson and Mark Wilson in midfield and Peter Leven nursing an injury on the sidelines. To make matters worse, barely 20 minutes in talismanic striker James Constable was sent off. From weeks of anticipation, all expectation was re-set to zero and any pressure was released. It allowed us to set to the task at hand and secure a famous victory.

So, while losing two key players is a problem in the long term, the mental re-set is created served us well.

Oxford United 2 Blackburn Rovers 4
I get the politics of leaving early. 0-3 down after 20 minutes is enough to tip the balance between watching a game and going home. By leaving early you miss the traffic, it’s generally more convenient and why should you sit and watch the misery when the outcome is inevitable?

At half time on Tuesday, a whole row in front of me went home at half-time, the only woman left on the row said, incredulously, ‘But, what about Jack’s goal?’ referring to Jack Payne’s strike moments before half time which offered a glimmer of hope.

That hope was never likely to see us claw back in the game, but I could wholly empathise. This is the other side of leaving early. If you want guaranteed success, then you go to the cinema or theatre where the outcome is scripted and fully controlled. Sport, of course, has no such guarantees and is all the richer for it.

The other day, a BBC commentator said that Manchester City were playing the best football in Premier League history and long may it continue because of the entertainment it provides. That’s great if you’re a Manchester City fan, or a neutral who watches the game simply as a display of skill and dexterity. But it somehow misses the point.

As a football fan, I would happy sacrifice Manchester City’s slick passing for a five way title scrap which went to the last kick of the season. Recently the documentary 89 was released about Arsenal’s amazing last minute title win over Liverpool. The uncertainty of the destination is what made history, not the quality of football on display. And that’s what makes great sport.

I can only remember us coming back from 0-3 down once. It was 1985 at the Manor and we were being trounced by Ipswich. I remember a John Aldridge hat-trick and cascading down the terracing of the London Road as the winner went in. YouTube offers no clues as to the details of the goals, but that’s kind of what makes it special; the feeling is imprinted on me so deeply that even like on Tuesday, being 0-3 down at half-time leaves me glued to my seat. Perhaps, one day, that feeling might return, even if I have to wait over 30 years to feel it.

It is not the guarantee of success that drives a fan to football, it’s the hope, but it’s the hope that kills us all.

Plymouth wrap – Plymouth Argyle 2 Oxford United 2

We seem to have negotiated the various existential crises that come with Oxford United and a successful season; it’s March, so its surely too late for a post-Christmas slump, the transfer window shut with minimal damage, we seem to have strength in depth when we thought we looked a bit flimsy and we’ve exited from a sequence of Saturday/Tuesday games comfortably in second place.

The club continues to set new standards in the ways it markets itself and the idea of Plymouth being a fans’ weekender want another top notch intiative. It wasn’t without its risks of course, Plymouth might be a nice seaside location and an obvious candidate for a weekend away but had the result gone against us then the panic of a collapse might have set in.

As it turns out, the 2-2 draw could be the signal that – whisper this – we might have actually done enough to seal promotion.

As if to illustrate that the internet’s almost endless capacity for trivia the Experimental 361 blog did some analysis on teams’ remaining fixtures. I confess, it was something I thought about doing myself; I had a hunch that things would look pretty good from the analysis and it turns out I was right.

Wycombe have 5 fixtures against teams in the top six, Orient have four, Plymouth three, anyone expecting a Chris Wilder implosion will be disappointed to hear that Northampton have just two… but we have none.

Which then got me thinking; what would happen if you applied some kind of points system to these fixtures to come up with a difficulty score? So, I tried it with 5 points for a top six fixture down to 1 for a bottom six. It turns out that not only do we not have to play anyone in the top six, we have the easiest run-in amongst the top teams. Which got me thinking some more; what about the rest of the division? What is the highest place team with an easier run than us? By the time I got to Dagenham and Redbridge I found out; nobody. On paper at least we have the easiest run-in in the whole division.

Eight points clear and the easiest run-in in the division? You would have to say even by our standards, screwing it up now would be impressive. The Plymouth game appears to have been the final test before we head for home. Of course, maintaining our focus and applying the high standards that have got us here in the first place is easier said than done but with no sign that we will let up only Wembley, perhaps, could be distraction enough to knock us off course now.

Plymouth Argyle wrap – Oxford United 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

There are three versions of the truth; my version, your version and the truth. There are more than three ways to win a game of football. Plymouth have adopted a model for promotion that is tried and tested for this division. In the opening minutes on Tuesday night, they advanced as a unit into our territory and turned on The Crusher.

The Crusher (my term) uses the whole team as a single unit, it suffocates the opposition; overpowers them physically and tactically, and deprives them of the ball. The Crusher just keeps pounding away applying more and more pressure until something breaks.

For the opening 5 minutes they stretched from one side of the pitch to the other and from just inside their half to our penalty box. We couldn’t go round them, we couldn’t go through them, for a while we couldn’t get the ball off them. It looked like we were in for a long night where, possibly, we’d finally discover our level. Most teams will capitulate under such sufferance this year. The question was; would we?

All machines have a weak spot; even the Death Star had an exposed exhaust vent, a tiny chink in its armour which led to its destruction. Speed and agility were key; locate the weak spots and then jimmy away at them.

Roofe, the obvious threat, sat quietly on the flank. Danny Hylton frequently drifted down the other side. MacDonald, Hoban and Taylor; players who have been criticised this season, filled the gaps; each hitting the woodwork. It was a constant change of shape and position which Plymouth’s machine couldn’t calibrate fast enough to counter. Eventually that left space into which Liam Sercombe confidently lolloped for the goal.

This was art versus science, flare versus intensity, Ali versus Fraser, Barcelona v Real. It’s no criticism of Plymouth’s approach; their football is good and if I had the choice it’s exactly how I would go about winning a League 2 promotion.

As with all art, there were times it didn’t work, we were fussy in front of goal, choosing to cut in rather than shoot. Sometimes, despite our pressure and chances, The Crusher would eventually overcome us; we burn a lot of energy and sometimes looked to be hanging on. At one point we were forced to defend on our goal line; that’s how close we were to buckling.

I said a few weeks ago that it felt like a selection had been made with five teams at the top all with the ability to go up. A few weeks on, and with the opening third of the season complete, it feels like an elite is establishing; Plymouth, Portsmouth and us.

Can we keep it up? In the last seven games we’ve played five teams in and around the promotion and play-off spots, plus Swindon. The next month or so is far less intense on paper. It won’t be a test of ability, more a test of concentration. Can we play with the same intensity when the stakes feel less high?

I think we can, it looks like a joy to play in this team and hopefully that will carry us through games where the crowds a quieter and more sparse and the result less anticipated, more expected.

Pound for pound, this is the best football we’ve seen at Oxford in 30 years; since the double promotions of 1984 and 1985. Wilder’s promotion team applied The Crusher, Denis Smith’s ’96 vintage were direct and pragmatic. We’ve not seen the art form exploited like this since Jim Smith was in charge and look where that took us.