George Lawrence’s Shorts: Up Pompey!… Ooh you are awful

Saturday 2 November 2019

Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Portsmouth was preceded by a Remembrance ceremony so shambolic, it made the First World War look like an episode of Great British Bake-Off. After a minute’s silence, which lasted for well over three, the teams appeared for yet another minute’s silence. Then, in the 90th minute, Matty Taylor popped up to nod home Oxford’s equaliser. Portsmouth fans then meticulously observed several more minutes of silence as they trudged home.  

Sunday 3 November 2019

It’s been debated for years and divided families, but finally it seems to be happening. Yes, Lincolnshire sexiest people have been ranked. Our own Mr Big Guns, and new Lincoln manager, Michael Appleton muscled in at number 11. 

Who is he sexier than? it’s…… Rebekah Vardy (45th), Nicholas Parsons (31st) and Rob Lowe – an America who once played a policeman from Lincolnshire.

Michael isn’t as sexy as Sergeant Mike ‘Tempo’ Templeman from Channel 5’s Police Interceptors or number 1 – Bhasha Mukherjee who is A beauty queen! A woman! and a Doctor! A combination we all know is not actually possible.

Monday 4 November 2019

We were thrust into the vice-like jaws of Big Football on Monday as it was announced that our Type 1 Diabetes Cup Quarter-Final against cash bores Manchester City will be Live! On! Sky! On! Wednesday! 16! December! This will allow the club to suckle on the teat of Sky’s cash cow to the tune of £125000. The game they’re calling ‘Man City Covets Thy Neighbours Ox’ or something, accommodates City’s big game against Arsenal on Sunday, which Sky are billing as ‘The Big Man’s Arse’ – which we all thought was Scott McNiven. 

Tickets are on sale to season ticket holders and members, and will be available to half-and-half scarf wearers in a couple of weeks. 

Tuesday 5 November 2019

We’re not suggesting that Lancashire has slow internet, but The Lancashire Post were reporting a game from 49 years ago on Wednesday. The game between Oxford and Preston resulted in an outfield player in goal and a goalie on the wing in a sling. 

Former Oxford captain John Lundstram is rapidly becoming hipster’s choice in the world of Fantasy Football. Once celebrated as a master of the passing craft, he’s now revered for being cheap and mistakenly labelled as a ‘defender’ in the fantasy parallel world, thereby clocking up plenty of unexpected points. What a life.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Ipswich are on the run from the rampant Yellows after they (Ip)switched the game between the two sides on the 16th November due to international call-ups. The international break would have seen the Ipswich Galacticos stripped of their Cypriot international, a Tunisian Under 23 and Albanian Under 19.  

Thursday 7 November 2019

It was the Six Minute Ten Seconds Fans Forum on Thursday with Jamie Mackie. ‘Who winds you up in training?’ was the first question which caused Mackie to collapse on the floor holding his head, theatrically check his forehead for blood and moan for the rest of the interview about how he’s not getting any protection from the rough-housing.

Friday 8 November 2019

You have to feel for Sunderland, it’s like they live in a parallel universe. One website has suggested that the benevolent failure-magnets could be good enough to take Cameron Brannagan off our hands in January. This is due to us ‘punching above our weight’ (aka punching above Sunderland). The Mackem’s would walk League 1 if less entitled clubs would get out of the way and let them do it.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Going to football is cold and miserable; we should just stay at home with a spreadsheet. That’s what data driven Five Thirty Eight have done; they’ve plugged all their numbers into Excel and predicted that we’ll finish third behind Ipswich and Sunderland. A lot of factors are considered; expected goals, defensive qualities, number of seats in your stadium, Charlie Methven’s loafers, that sort of thing.

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

This season Portsmouth are best described by what happened before the game. Fratton Park is one of the larger traditional grounds in the division and I was looking forward to the crumbling steps and rusting corrugated iron that holds the place together. It’s the sort of football environment I was brought up in.

Beforehand, they ran two interviews over the PA; one with Kenny Jackett and the other with a player, both talked about their lowly league position how their form was good and bad at the same time. A bit like us last season; never completely terrible, but somehow unable to climb the table.

Then came a bloated Armistice ceremony; there’d be a reading, the last post and a minute’s silence. There were drummers, flag bearers and some children on the pitch, but no players. The crowd fell silent for three or four awkward minutes, nobody could ask if something had gone wrong because speaking is disrespectful.

Then kids in Portsmouth kits came on to make a guard of honour and the players started to appear. The endless silence broke. The players were applauded on, the captains laid wreaths and then they lined up a second time for the reading, last post and minute’s silence.

And that’s Portsmouth; trying to do the right thing and simply getting it wrong. A proper muddle.

The conditions, injuries and fatigue were always going to even things up. It was never going to be straight forward, you could see early on that the patches of sodden turf and the wind meant passes and clearances were easily miscued, overrun or under hit. It suited grafters like Alex Gorrin and John Mousinho much more than ballplayers like Tariqe Fosu.

After their penalty we looked spent and I was thinking that we’d take the narrow defeat; which was much better than our last two visits. Fratton Park had came to life, we were stuck between chasing the game and conceding more. The introduction of Anthony Forde gave us renewed energy and some quality in our delivery. James Henry suddenly started getting more of the ball; our experienced players took control, pushing Portsmouth further back.

It was this experience and confidence that jimmied away at their insecurities. It wasn’t just desire, it was the application of professional experience, knowing we could get something from the game, even when things were going against us. After a few close calls it came, James Henry to the back post; Matty Taylor heading back across the keeper; a training ground drill. It was no accident, no desperate lunge for survival, this is what experience gives you, the deep muscle memory to keep applying what you know until you’re rewarded.

It was such a treat to see us applying the screw, so often we’ve been the victims of teams which played on our weaknesses – teams like Portsmouth. Dare I say it, it’s the character you see in promotion teams.

But, there’s no getting around the fact injuries are building up and we looked tired. Next week we have a bit of a free hit in the FA Cup – we should have enough quality in the squad to get a result, even if it is a bit of a patched up team. Then, there’s a likely postponement the following week because of internationals. It gives us a bit of time to recover before we visit Southend on the 23rd – it couldn’t have come at a better time, it’s been quite a few weeks.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Potato ROFLs

Saturday 5 October 2019

At the Wham Stadium on Saturday Tariqe Fosu proved He’s Our Man opening the goalscoring against victorian non-leaguers Accrington Stanley. Young Gun, Cameron Brannagain saw an opportunity to Go For It from 25 yards to make it 2-1 before we were pegged back to 2-2 with a low strike to the left of the goal; or was it a Different Corner? Jamie Mackie was booked for Careless Whispers with the ref.

Monday 7 October 2019

Liverpool wunderkind Ben Woodburn had a little bump playing with the big boys on Saturday. He was a very brave and didn’t cry, after a cold compress, a cuddle, a Paw Patrol plaster and twelve weeks on the sidelines and he’ll be out to play again. 

Tuesday 8 October 2019

In the Trophy, Oxford won through after losing in the draw against Portsmouth. The game of futility wrapped in a cloak of pointlessness, balanced on a plinth on inconsequentiality ended 2-2, with goals from Matty Taylor and Rob Dickie which left Pompey with the humiliation of having to win the penalty shoot-out and pretend it meant something.

In alopecia news; dome bonced Conference crushing pass-master Adam Murray has taken over as Barnsley manager after Daniel Stendel was sacked.  

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Weekly Scottish full-back news (that isn’t about Chris Cadden bowel movements or ice cream preferences): former loanee Todd Kane could be set to join the Scotland squad

Thursday 10 October 2019

After legitimate ice hockey fan and player Petr Chech joined Guilford Phoenix as a way of keeping fit during his retirement, Oxford City Stars announced the absolute mega-lolz and cry-face emoji news that the greatest Oxford goalscorer with a head shaped like a potato, James Constable, had signed for them. It was double ROFLs from hairdo’s worst nightmare Greig Box Turnbull who cracked the joke to acceptable apathy on Twitter a few hours before doubling down on it in a press release which was also royally ignored. As GLS knows more than most, there’s nothing funnier than a re-fried joke.

It was the Five Minute Thirty-Eight Second fans forum on Radio Oxford on Thursday with KRob. One fan asked whether we talk too much about formations before KRob talked too much about formations – inadvertently giving out his credit card PIN in the process. There was also extended chat about his sweat patches. And people think he talks too much.

Friday 11 October 2019

It’s Doncaster tomorrow and the air will be filled with a chorus of “We’re by far the 427th greatest team, the world has ever seen”. Website FiveThirtyEight – a team of crack statistical virgins – has ranked 628 teams from around the world. We were the third highest League 1 team, comfortably nestled in between Argentinians, Godoy Cruz and Sochaux of Switzerland, and 152 places ahead of Swindon, obviously. GLS doesn’t know how the rankings were done; so we looked at the methodology and realise that we don’t care.

Midweek fixture: Eight moments that remind us why we support Oxford United

Most of the time supporting Oxford United is a miserable experience. Then, every now and then, there’s a moment which reminds you why you do it. Here are eight moments which make it all worthwhile.

2009 Jamie Cook versus Luton

The aim for the season is promotion back to the Football League. The division’s other fallen giant, Luton Town, are in town. Over 10,000 turn up for this clash of the titans, we take the lead, then Jamie Cook sells the stadium a dummy and goes for goal.

2012 Peter Leven versus Port Vale

A so-so game against a so-so team in a so-so season. Mercurial playmaker Peter Leven breaks down a Port Vale attack in his own half, nudges the ball forward, then looks up. He hasn’t, has he? Yes, I think he has.

2013 Alfie Potter versus Portsmouth

Relegated but rejuvenated, Portsmouth sell out the opening game of the season; billed as a celebration of their club’s re-awakening. We’re the stooges for the occasion, there to be sacrificed for the entertainment of the locals. The script says they take the lead which they do, then Alfie Potter tears the script up and throws it in a bin fire.

2014 Nicky Rowe versus Wycombe Wanderers

Despite dominating our game against Wycombe at Adams Park, we can’t make the breakthrough. Then, with two minutes to go, Nicky Rowe picks the ball up just outside the box and lets fly with the sweetest strike you’ll ever see.

2016 Liam Sercombe versus Carlisle

Despite a season of highlights, with three games to go we need three wins to secure promotion. Hundreds make the journey north for the last game of the season against Carlisle. We take the lead early, but the signature moment of the game, of the season, of the decade, is Liam Sercombe’s marauding second. Absolute limbs.

2017 Toni Martinez versus Middlesborough

Limbs (part 2). An enjoyable run in the FA Cup is all set to end as Middlesborough take a two goal lead. It’s all over. Or is it?

2018 Ryan Ledson versus Charlton

Nothing seems to be going right; we’ve lost our manager and seem unable to get a new one. We head to Charlton, managed by Karl Robinson, who are threatening the play-offs and lose our only recognised striker to injury. With two minutes to go, we’re 1-2 down. Seconds later, we’re all square and heading for a decent, and important point. That’s never enough for Ryan Ledson.

2019 Jamie Mackie versus Bradford

We’re in the 94th minute of a relegation six pointer and Bradford are just about to score the winner to tear our hearts out and potentially send us down. They miss, we take the goal-kick, and seven seconds later, the ball drops for Jamie Mackie for a goal for the ages. Then things get really weird.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Portsmouth 1

There’s a clip on YouTube of our game against Portsmouth at Fratton Park in 1984. The pitch is like a potato patch, the ball sticks in the puddles; at one point stopping us from scoring and the players’ shirts are caked in mud, hanging off them all sodden and shapeless.

It’s football as I love it; the kind that people who don’t like football don’t understand. Nowadays, games aren’t like that, pitches are better so there’s less need to hack your way through a sea of mud. But, January still has its moments. One was on Saturday.

The game was dogged rather than beautiful; on the wing in front of the South Stand you could hear the players’ boots slapping on the bare patches of turf. There was nothing lush or green about it.

The game itself illustrated my theory of the season. Portsmouth are top, but they’re not the unerring machines of previous table toppers such as Wigan or Sheffield United. In any given 90 minutes, pretty much anyone can beat anyone.

Despite howls of protests all week about players coming in and out, the squad Karl Robinson put out looked somehow neater, there were options on the bench and experience to bring on, if needed. I heard someone say that most other clubs in the division would love players like Eastwood, Nelson, Whyte, Browne, Brannagan and Henry. They would; and many of the others would be of interest.

The truth is that on the pitch we’re not a bad team. Portsmouth played into our hands by being direct and immobile. It’s quite something when Jamie Mackie is outpacing a full-back on the wing. When they did play from the back, it pushed our midfield into our back four and we looked more vulnerable, but while we kept our shape we were rarely threatened.

There’s little doubting the commitment of the players. There’s the obvious lack of options up front, which has been acknowledged by everyone, but otherwise we can compete. Karl Robinson can be a hugely frustrating character, but I don’t think he always gets the credit he deserves.

The problem is that in a division of margins, it’s the details that the make a disproportionate difference – the training ground is still not quite finished, the HMRC issues keep coming, we’ve got players doing stupid things and recruitment is patchy.

The recruitment mistakes of the summer – Smith, McMahon, Norman and Holmes are being sorted. When I say mistakes, I mean for one reason or another they didn’t work out, I’m not apportioning blame.

Tiger was on Radio Oxford after the game trying to explain the HMRC problem. It followed some good stuff from OxVox over the last couple of weeks. If I understood it right, moving money into the country is not always easy. I read somewhere that the government has made this harder in recent months partly as a sanction against the Russians, but also to reduce the risk of fraud and money laundering.

So, the flow of money is not as plentiful as we’d like. While the HMRC bill is predictable, unexpected expenses on the training ground have made it difficult for the club to come up with the cash when it’s needed. A bit like knowing you’ve got your Council Tax bill in a week and your car breaks down and needs fixing. It’s not the tax that’s the problem per se, it’s the unpredictable nature of our cashflow. The tax is the ‘victim’ of that problem.

I don’t think there’s ‘no money’ as some have hysterically claimed, it’s just not flowing as freely as it needs to at the moment. Tiger insists that it’s all fixed. Once the training ground is finished, many of our expenses should be more predictable, but we’ll see.

What we’ve learned is that to give up on this team is a mistake. This was my kind of football, a great atmosphere, grim weather and a gritty victory against the team at the top of the table. In true Oxford style, in the worst week of the season, the best result.

Games of Note: Portsmouth

12th August 2017 – Home 3-0

Pep Clotet’s first home league game, fresh off the back of an opening day win over Oldham. Clotet introduced Gino van Kessel to the show to score a wonder goal. A result to propel us to the Championship? No, not really.

23rd January 2016 – Away 1-0

2016 and things were getting real. We were pushing for promotion, heading to Wembley in the JPT, we’d just beaten Swansea in the FA Cup. Could we keep our league form going through such hectic times against one of the biggest teams in the division? Jordan Bowery has the answer.

3rd August 2013 – Away 4-1

Perhaps the greatest opening day in our history. Portsmouth had been re-born as a fan run club after years of turbulence. They filled Fratton Park with optimism. We came for the sun and the larks. Nobody had banked on Alfie Potter.

14th August 1993 – Home 3-2

A good game, if not a great game, but one in which you’ll be reminded just how good a player Chris Allen was, particularly when the pitches were good and the sun was shining.

3rd November 1992 – Home 5-5

There are people who weren’t born in 1992 who still claim to have been at this all time classic. There are people who were there who still stay to this very day stay the final whistle just in case it happens again. 3-5 with a minute to go? Do you beat the traffic, or wait for a miracle?

The wrap – Portsmouth 4 Oxford United 1

Inevitably, after Saturday’s defeat to Portsmouth, someone on the phone-in reached for that standard explanation for any failure – NO PASSION. 

Passion, like ‘springboards’ and ‘momentum’ are mainstays of any fans’ explanation of form. Granted, it may be an alternative word to ‘application’ – the need to actually put effort into something – but ultimately, passion won’t win games. There are about 7,000 people who passionately follow Oxford United every other Saturday – they are invariably useless at football.
So, what’s going wrong?
Inevitably, after the Portsmouth result, Michael Appleton’s name was being wafted around – after all, the guy is unemployed, can’t we just go and get him and return to 2016? 2016 represents modern-Oxford’s high watermark, its benchmark, it’s our safe, happy place.
Indeed, 2016 is helpful in providing a reference point to analyse most things related to the club, but to simply want to go back there is unrealistic and therefore unhelpful.
So, where did it go so right?
Firstly, let’s not forget, the Eales, Ashton, Appleton revolution took a year to materialise. 2014/15 was as bad as 2015/16 was good. While they were getting things right, there was a lot that went wrong  including losing our first four league games (sounds familiar). At most other clubs, Appleton wouldn’t have been given the time he was to get things right. 
Second, there was funding – Darryl Eales had money, which he could access and was prepared to spend. He was close enough to the club’s operations to ensure that the money, when needed, was available. Players, infrastructure, marketing – it wasn’t so much about the amount of money that was spent – though that was inevitably a factor – it was more about the speed at which it could be accessed. 
Third, Mark Ashton was an aggressively proactive chief executive. I confess, I didn’t particularly like his schtick – especially in the early weeks. However, I briefly worked with someone who worked at a senior level with London Welsh who described Ashton as a ‘nightmare’ because if he wanted something, there was nothing to stop him getting it. He may have been a nightmare, but he was our nightmare.
And finally, we had a manager who understood the mechanics of modern football. Good scouting, sports science, short-term process goals, marginal gains. Whatever you want to call it, Appleton understood it, not only that, he studied it. He was given an unusually long time to get it right – but without that no manager would have achieved what he did with us. Even media-gobshite Robbie Savage admitted that new Arsenal manager Unai Emery will need at least three transfer windows to get things right, that’s 18 months. Time most managers aren’t given.
So this is, broadly, the formula we aspire to. Simply saying let’s go back there seems an unlikely option – Darryl Eales had the funding to get us out of League 2, but a sustained challenge at League 1 seems unlikely. Mark Ashton and Michael Appleton’s reputations place them squarely in the Championship – like many of the players they signed. We are simply too small for them at the moment.
Karl Robinson inherited quite a mess when he joined the club. There was the wreckage of the Pep Clotet experiment, coupled with a 10 week delay in getting his appointment over the line, in addition to Tiger’s takeover. By this time we were in a relegation fight. You could argue that Robinson has had five months to get things right, but he was firefighting for a lot of that time. You could argue that the clock really only started when he secured safety last season, not when he joined.
There appears to be funding; Tiger has invested and in a lot of the right areas – training ground, youth set-up and the first team squad. Marketing has improved, including the strategy of building stronger links with the city; you may feel that town and gown shouldn’t mix – but in terms of attracting investment, it seems ludicrous that we don’t try to trade off the city’s global reputation.
The problem seems to be the speed at which things happen. The training ground isn’t finished and the club is living a nomadic life as a result, alongside this, signings have come in late. This is where I think there’s a real weakness. For Mark Ashton’s aggressive ambition, we now have Niall McWilliams – a largely silent, passive managing director. Is he demanding progress and funding, is he ‘the nightmare’ we need to get things done? It won’t be wholly his fault; only Tiger has access to Tiger’s chequebook, but the link between managing director and owner seems far too loose at the moment.
Which brings us to Karl Robinson. You sense Robinson’s frustration that things are zipping along as he’d expect. Is it an excuse? Maybe, but I do get the sense he knows how to manage a football team. But, like Appleton before him, he needs the environment to be right to thrive. At the moment, it’s not broken, it’s just not functioning properly. He said as much on Saturday – they just have to get through this phase and things will improve. The risk is that players stop buying into the way of working and we find ourselves in another relegation fight.
The good news is that it can’t get much worse. We won’t lose every game and concede a bucketload for the whole year. The infrastructure, management and players are more than good enough to climb the table. What we don’t know is what normal is from this squad. For everyone’s sanity, the sooner we find out the better.