The wrap: Rochdale 0 Oxford United 0

That Brexit’s a funny thing; the most likely way of leaving the European Union by the 29 March in a way that minimises damage to the economy has been killed by the people who wanted that to happen.

It’s almost as if those who want Brexit are using it as a political tool to damage members of their own party. Or perhaps they know they’ve got it wrong and are working to grind it into the floor without losing face. Or perhaps they are just fantasists and don’t really know what they want. In short, it looks like those who said they wanted Brexit, don’t actually want Brexit.

Two hundred and twenty miles north of this debacle another was unfolding. Well, not quite; I was quite relieved with the 0-0 draw against Rochdale given what happened at Gillingham on Saturday. The difference between scoring and not scoring, though, was pretty significant. We’re still in the relegation zone, a goal would have put us 18th.

I’ve been pretty calm about the prospect of us going down; we had a tough January and negotiated it reasonably well. Some solid form between then and the end of the season would see us safe. It’s not where we want to be, but I thought we could get to May and restock.

Then I look at the table and see Rochdale are below us, Gillingham were just above us, on Saturday we’ve got Bradford who are also in the relegation zone. Then look further down our fixtures list we’ve got Luton, Doncaster and Charlton. Suddenly we’re running out of the free hits we assumed would get us out of trouble. When are we planning to run into the form which would see us safe? Like a Brexiteer not wanting Brexit, are we’re in a relegation fight but we’re not fighting.

The table gives us a sense of security; everyone else is missing the same opportunities we are. But it’s like a game of reverse chicken. Who is going to take the opportunity to blink and put in the shift needed to get out of trouble?

And this is where I’m beginning to pivot. Our players may not be as good as we’d like to believe, but they’re good enough to sit in a pack of teams with the chance to staying up. Many of our toughest fixtures are behind us and yet, we still seem incapable of creating a run to get us out of trouble. Like Han Solo trying to get to lightspeed and finding the Millennium Falcon failing him at the key moment, why can’t Karl Robinson find the edge that turns draws into wins?

I can’t answer that, but nor can he. I agree he’s been given a raw deal with the off-the-field problems, but he does seem to have been given just about the right tools and time to at least finish higher than 21st.

Robinson simply staring at his team and telling us that it was all supposed to work, there’s a point where you’ve got to get under the bonnet and find out why it isn’t. He may have the ability to deliver results in the right environment; I’m doubting it’s this is the right environment for him.

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 Rochdale 1

So, we’re safe and Ryan Ledson is player of the season, bring on the summer. I like Ledson a lot, who doesn’t? But, in seasons like this, how do you go about choosing a favourite? I remember goalkeeper Richard Knight getting player of the season when he shipped 100 league goals in 2001, which just seemed to be a vote for his stoicism as much as anything.

Did Ledson take the gong because he clearly loves what he does? Was he the most consistent? Least inconsistent? Because he was the man who gave us the season’s only highlight? Or is he just the bloke we’d most like to go to the pub with? Ledson’s effervescence is certainly infectious and I can see why he picked up the award, even though there weren’t that many genuine contenders.

Personally I would have given it to James Henry, because every time he had an impact it was significant in the mission we were ultimately burdened with: avoiding relegation. But, I can see why he didn’t get it because he didn’t play enough games and when he did, it was often out of position. A Twitter account which tracks these things claims Henry’s goals contributed 7 points, when you’re 8 points clear of relegation, that’s a decent contribution.

I pondered all this as we eased to the win, and safety, over Rochdale. Rather than immediately honing in on the best player, it was more a question of discarding them one-by-one until you got to a shortlist of the least-worst. It struck me that it was a squad of what-ifs – what if James Henry had been played in position, or Curtis Nelson, Rob Hall and Joe Rothwell had been fit? What if John Mousinho had played more like he has done under Karl Robinson? What if Jon Obika and Wes Thomas’ soft tissues weren’t quite so soft? What if aged journeymen players with injury records were, in fact, immortal?

There were less what ifs about Ryan Ledson, he was rarely injured, played consistently well and never looked like he’d given up the fight, all those things were a big advantage for him.

What-ifs dominated the season; what if Ryan Ledson hadn’t blasted in the winner at Charlton? What if James Henry hadn’t ghosted across his marker to get the winner at Doncaster? And what if Josh Ruffels hadn’t scored his daisycutter in the 96th minute in the home game? The margins are so fine, we may have gone down.

What if we’d appointed a manager earlier? What if the takeover had gone through before Christmas? We may have gone up.

It feels like it’s been both a long and short season. Losing Michael Appleton, John Lundstram, Marvin Johnson and Chris Maguire feels like a long time ago, as does the 3-4 debacle against Cheltenham in August. Also, the air of optimism as we won our opening three games, beating Portsmouth along the way, and then holding Bradford in the best tactical performance for years.

Then there was the slow realisation that it was unsustainable as we lost Christian Riberio, Rob Hall and Curtis Nelson, and aged players like Mike Williamson, Dwight Tiendelli showed their age. Karl Robinson said on Saturday that it’s easy to under-estimate the league both in terms of how many games are played (the most in Europe) and the quality that’s required to compete. Sol Campbell’s belief that it can’t be difficult to figure out the lower leagues forgets that it’s still Europe’s ninth biggest league by attendance and in the top 20 by revenue. We had the players to deal with some of that, but not all.

Perhaps the season feels like a short one because of the final phase; after the farce of Wigan and Bury, and going out to Port Vale in the Cup, and then the extended hiatus of being managerless; a long dark night which only recently made way for this final period in which things have gradually improved in a race to accumulate enough points to avoid relegation.

Three or four seasons in one season, then. Thankfully, the disruption doesn’t seem to have had the negative impact it could have done; we’re still in League 1, Tiger’s talking a good game, Karl Robinson wins over more fans with each passing interview, form is improving, players are leaving, and soon some will be arriving. There could have been an air of disappointment and failure, but instead there’s a sense that we’ve got away with it and can use the summer to re-group and start afresh in August.  

The wrap – Rochdale 0 Oxford United 0

Sometimes in football literally nothing happens. Saturday was like that; a game of no goals, excitement and, judging by Twitter; no interest. People appeared to be going to or preparing for some pre-Christmas related tomfoolery, the game passed by without incident, even if the players had to grind their way through an arctic freeze to achieve nothing.

I like nothingness, it’s highly under-rated. There’s a strange joy to be had from a tension building gap in a song or play. The latest Star Wars film uses silence and nothingness brilliantly.

There’s a perverse pleasure in a 0-0 draw because it ejects lightweights and part-timers; when I get home from a 0-0, particularly on a miserable wet, cold day, those who don’t understand football don’t understand me. For a short while I don’t feel like part of a mob-like mass, but a fan of some unlistenable advant-garde jazz quartet that you can only truly ‘get’ by ‘getting it’.

But, it does kind of leave you in a quandary when trying to think of something to write about.

So, how are we all doing?

Well, us as a club are going just fine, December, it seems will define whether this season is going to be ‘a thing’ or a transition. I’m sure that a transitional season wasn’t the plan in the summer, but with Michael Appleton’s departure, there was always going to be a bit of a reshuffle, a checking of progress.

2016 seems a long time ago now, that’s when we felt like a progressive club, a step ahead of those around us. It’s less like that now, but that’s not to say that we’re going backwards or heading into a long period of nothingness. Change happens; managers, players, owners, and with it comes a tweak of direction and a re-consideration of who we are. We all live in fear that the change of direction will be down, but there’s still little to suggest that this is likely.

Like many teams who have been through a surge often then experience something of a minor crisis of confidence. Think of someone like Stoke City, who didn’t look like a Premier League team a few years ago. You achieve a certain level of success and then you wonder whether it was worth all the effort because what you achieve is a degree of stability. This stability, or nothingness, is something we have to get used to.

Weekly wrap – AFC Wimbledon 2 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 4 Rochdale 0

January was always looking to be a tricky month. It’s always a bit of a challenge juggling the transfer window and a schedule disrupted by cup games. Last year, the stakes were higher with promotion on the cards, this year we were on the road for almost the whole month, apart from THAT game in THAT trophy and THAT doesn’t really count at all (or does it?).

We also went into the New Year on the back of a goal drought and apparently poor form, although this was a little overstated. If January’s road trip HAD gone wrong, then things could have looked rather bleak. Instead, we’ve seen three wins in four, four in five if you count THAT game, and we’ve scored 13 goals.

The blip was against Wimbledon which proved, if this needed proving, that we are not particularly good against more direct, robust teams. But otherwise, where has it all going right?

I’ve consumed most of the games via brief YouTube clips; each one seems to start with Marvin Johnson collecting the ball and running at the opposition’s defence. Johnson’s ever ascending stock has been key to the upturn in form. He’s like a high performance sports car, he’s so effortlessly powerful, he doesn’t look like he’s going quickly, but everything around him goes backwards.

Ryan Taylor is on his best run in the team, featuring in the last 14 games. This will have helped him settle into the system as well as build his fitness. As well as three goals himself, he’s helped 10 different players score in those 14 games, showing, I think, the value of a centre forward who can hold the ball, occupy defenders and bring others into the game.

Last year, January was like a big night out; epic fun with a crucifying hangover. Last year we won four of the first five games of the year, but only won one of the next six. It’s something we have to guard against.

The Newcastle FA Cup game is a free-hit; a bit like Swansea last year, they’ll play a second string and we’ll be up for it. If we don’t win, nobody will blink, if we do, then we’re getting to the interesting end of the competition.

Talking of interesting ends of competitions; the other curiosity is the EFL Trophy. With the Under-23 makeweights all gone the competition is gaining a different complexion. Yes, I understand the principles of the protests and the point has been well made. But ultimately, I’ve seen Oxford play at Wembley three times in 40 years. That’s a lot of time not seeing us play at Wembley. And life is very short. There is also the added incentive of finals against Luton, Wycombe or Coventry which would all make another grand day out. When does sticking to your principles just simply become pigheadedness?

Rochdale wrap – Oxford United 1 Rochdale 0

All living things are basically commonly found elements organised in an unfathomably complicated way. If you were to try to create something living in a laboratory from its core elements the closest you might get to creating something that actually lives is a smelly sludge. Scientists know much more than you, but compared to the totality of knowledge, they don’t know very much.
Following a successful transfer window in which the promotion squad from last year was radically re-modelled, it feels like we have the core elements we need to be a pretty decent League 1 side, but it doesn’t yet feel like it has wholly combined to create the living, breathing side Michael Appleton envisages.
Kemar Roofe’s return as guest of honour at half-time against Rochdale was a telling reminder of what might be missing. The first 45 minutes seemed typical of all our home games this season; we matched our opponents but they looked more threatening.
The difference was pace, our lack of it concentrated the midfield meaning that balls went astray because there was no time to pick a pass and when there was, it had to be absolutely perfect to weave its way through crowds of players. What Rochdale did, and we didn’t do, was break with speed at a moment’s notice. This ability to shift gears is the most significant difference between League 2 and 1 so far.
Marvin Johnson might just be the key component, the DNA, we need to bring the everything together and fire us into life. He has pace, which is essential, although he really only showed it in the last minutes, but his presence was, in some ways, more important.
The by-product is that opposing defenders sit just slightly deeper to try and cope with his threat. That gives a fraction more space in midfield which should help Lundstram’s passing, allow Sercombe to run from deep and give the likes of Rothwell, as well as Roberts and Crowley, the space to move the ball. Rothwell was keen to make an impact, but he had to attack from deep in the first half and just ended up in traffic, second half he had space to dribble into putting Rochdale more not the back foot.
The new rules around loans mean that there is much more pressure on teams to get themselves together in the summer transfer window – there’s no more tweaking now until January. So all the components are now in place, time to bring them to life. We can ease into that over the next few weeks. Who’s next?


The gargatuan massiveness of large

There was a general consensus that Saturday’s game was massive, bigger than last week’s massive game and bigger than the massive game we played the week before. Perhaps even more massive than any game we’ve ever played.

I blame Professor Brian Cox. In the past, size has been a relative and generally comprehensible concept. At school I was genuinely proud to be one of the tallest in my class. I wasn’t as tall as Mark Drayton, a freakish beanpole with tight ginger curls and pre-hipster NHS glasses who would be used by our useless house rugby team as a battering ram to flatten our more skilful opponents, but I wasn’t one of those teeny weeny whippet types whose parents pestered their local GP to put them onto some kind of growth hormone programme. I was relatively tall, which I liked.

I can comprehend things that are smaller than and larger than a bus, for example. I don’t mean that as a boast, I just can. When I saw the Alpine monster The Eiger when on holiday with my parents once, I generally got the principle that there were few things bigger than a mountain, although we then saw Mount Blanc and I came to realise that there were bigger mountains.

Then Professor Brian Cox came on the scene like one of those school teachers with an acoustic guitar and a working knowledge of Oasis b-sides. The type that everyone thinks is dead cool until the rumours about their biological practices with sixth form girls become intolerable. Cox introduced a whole new scale of massiveness with his slightly creepy endless wonderment at the universe and its many mysteries and dimensions. Before him, of course, was Stephen Hawkins, but he didn’t have the haircut or post-Britpop button-up military style coat. It’s Cox that really shoulders the blame here.

Cox, if you didn’t know, used to play keyboard for D:Ream, the unloved disappointment from the Acid House family. He adopts a peculiar sense of childlike wonder about the world, which you’d hope, as a highly educated man, he’d have started to get to grips with. He’s wanton to saying, in his dreamy Mancunian schtick, ‘Imagine something absolutely huge; well the universe is even big than that, but then, imagine, if there was something even more massive.’ before staring out into the middle distance of the Nevada desert as the sun sets a massive number of miles away.

The massiveness of our games have been getting progressively large for over a decade. Not a week goes by without someone reminding us just how massive each upcoming game is. I remember sitting in the car park before a game against Darlington in the pre-Conference days with Nick Harris growling about how massive the next 90 minutes would be. We were in a pit of apathy, I looked out of my windscreen at the Oxford Mail stand 10 minutes before kick-off, I’d just arrived and driven straight in. If it was a massive game, then it seemed that the fans had become overridden by the angst of it all and simply not been able to step over the threshold of their front door.

The size of Saturday’s game could not be comprehended by merely comparing it to something big. I tried compose an ironic tweet about the comparative scale of the game, but couldn’t actually imagine something large enough to compare it to. I felt the overwhelming urge to compare it to a theoretical algebraic equation. The game had acquired a size of multidimensional proportions.

The internet doesn’t help, of course, between us we manage to crowd source the consequences of such a game to the point where, like the human genome project or the recipe for Coca Cola, it can no longer be owned by one person alone. The analysis starts in a reasonably neutral way with someone noticing that a team has a particularly high number of away games coming up or a lot of games against teams at the bottom. Before long someone will suggest that Southend’s form is reliant on their left back whose loan move is coming to an end, while someone else will make comment on Newport’s poor pitch and the likely impact that might have on form and points. Then someone will talk about a planning application that’s been put in by Plymouth for an extension to their club shop that has prevented them from signing someone.

Suddenly we’re confronted by our own mortality; that we are mere dots on humanity, controlling nothing, at the mercy of everything. Mass panic ensues, and each game acquires dimensions and depth of a scale whose power we can only sit and gape at in awe. No longer are we merely confronting an opponent; eleven men with a vague connection to a market town in Greater Manchester, we are confronting our own vulnerabilities.

The helplessness of being lone vessels tossed in an angry stormy sea; the anxiety is almost too much to bear.

Except, when you think about it, there is only one must-win game a season; the game that makes it mathematically possible or impossible to achieve whatever it is you’re ultimately trying to do. Most of those you can discount as mere confirmations of a trend that has been evident for months. Occasionally there are games which genuinely define the fine line between success or failure – Leyton Orient in 2006, Exeter in 2007, Rushden in 2010 and then York at Wembley. In the last decade those have been the only genuine must-win games we’ve had.

Saturday’s result didn’t kill the season; it didn’t even dent it very much. We remain, as we did at 2.59pm on Saturday, in with an outside shout of automatic promotion and a very good chance of the play-offs. The game appears to have put paid to Mickey Lewis’ prospects of landing the management job permanently. Ian Lenagan claimed after the game to be over 50% through the recruitment process, which presumably means that Lewis isn’t on the short-list, unless he’s offering him the job in a particularly long winded and opaque way using a series of cryptic clues dotted around the Kassam Stadium. Lewis is a good bloke and a decent coach, but he doesn’t have the pig headedness or tactical thinking to be a manager.

When will we confront our destiny? Not yet, but soon. As the games in hand held by others begin to unwind in the next few weeks we’ll get a better picture of whether we’re going for an automatic position or the play-offs. I suspect that we’ll see ourselves comfortably within the play-offs, in which case destiny will come in the post-season. However, given the erratic nature of everyone’s form in this division, we may still hold aspirations of an automatic slot come May; and then destiny could well lie in the last game of the season at Chris Wilder’s Northampton.