Games of Note: FA Cup Third Round

2017 – 3-2 Rotherham

Rotherham were on their knees in the Championship, we were buoyant in League 1, but there was still a giant killing to be had. Despite the scoreline, we swept them aside with panache.

2016 – 3-2 Swansea City

Michael Appleton’s finest moment? A true coming-of-age win over Premier League Swansea City.

2003 – 0-2 Arsenal

It wasn’t really about the result, it was about having a great day out at one of England’s great stadiums. That and what came before – a 1-0 win over Swindon and Jefferson Louis’ naked backside live on TV.

1997 – 0-2 Watford

It was the worst of times. The beginning of the end of a great team. The original tie was postponed because of a frozen pitch minutes before kick-off. The team had already been announced, notably omitting Matt Elliot from the starting eleven. He’d never play for us again, moving to Leicester City. In the re-arranged tie – delayed by a floodlight failure – we went out with a whimper.

1996 – 3-3 Millwall

The most fun you can have in East London is drawing with Millwall in the FA Cup with a last minute goal direct from a corner.

The wrap – Bristol Rovers and Rotherham

Oxford United 1 Bristol Rovers 2
There is a very tangible gloom descending over the club at the moment. The highs of Charlton were more than mirrored by the lows of Bristol Rovers.

I don’t think the performance was as bad as most suggested. There seemed to be more energy and movement, and a willingness to move the ball around, but having scored so early, we slowly lost our way.

This seemed to be down to experience and leadership. To score so early is a shock, the prospect of defending for 90 minutes probably seemed daunting, as is the idea of taking a risk to go for another goal. We were lost in between two mindsets, and where we often think of a football team as being a single unit, you’re actually faced with eleven people trying agree, in real-time, what to do with a situation they were not prepared for. In most games, the opening stages are about establishing a hierarchy, a pattern or platform from which you can build, very rarely do you expect goals.

Once you’re through the opening 20 minutes or so, the game tends to set down to a pattern, players stop thinking and start responding. In the last 20 minutes, the tactical options narrow further – you’re chasing the game, or defending a lead, sometimes the game is all but over. With more experience the team should have decided that the early goal was a bonus but carried on as if it hadn’t happened. One of the signs of a good team is their relentlessness, a complete disregard for the score.

Bristol Rovers are a difficult team for us to face at home. We often regress to the idea of voodoos or magic to explain difficult opponents, but I think it’s a combination of factors.

A short blast down the M4, Rovers will always bring large numbers to the Kassam, they are grouped together and the banking makes them look larger than they are. In addition, there’s the away mindset, there is, effectively little to lose. This is just one big day out, winning is just the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. And so, any encouragement is amplified ten-fold, players are less likely to fear failure, they take more chances, they get more rewards.

All of this is bundled up in the leadership issue, we don’t lack for talent in the team. But you do need enough players to know what to do when a plan is knocked off course, in this case, ironically, by scoring a goal. Instead, as soon as we drifted into unknown territory, we looked increasingly lost.

Rotherham 3 Oxford United 1
Even without the gloom, it would have been hard to envisage us winning at Rotherham. The only lingering hope was some sort of reverse pyschology that we would probably go and beat them because that’s just the sort of thing we’d do.

The idea that Derek Fazackerley will somehow fix the issues he inherited, implies that Pep Clotet was the sole problem, which he wasn’t. He didn’t help himself in some cases, but he faced similar problems to the ones Michael Appleton did after we got promoted.  

 
What I think we’re seeing, is a reflection of the club’s current strategic challenge. Take Rotherham, they have the infrastructure to invest in players that will see them push towards the top of League 1, perhaps above. They are surrounded by teams in a similar situation; Wigan, Blackburn, Charlton, Portsmouth. We are currently performing fairly close to the highest level our infrastructure will allow. Darryl Eales’ is sometimes criticsed for losing interest in the club, but I think it’s more that he can only fund the club for so long before he needs help. If we are going to progress, the funding needs to grow, often exponentially. I have a massive amount of sympathy for him, he’s invested heavily, and his only reward is to invest even more.

As a result, we can compete sometimes in this division, but not all the time, and you can see that in our results. What’s worse, is that this year League 1 has so many teams in the mould of Rotherham. There is a relentless procession of decent teams with the ability to push towards the top of the division. It’s not so much that we’re going backwards, its more that too many others are going forwards at a faster rate. Week after week, while we’re trying to fix issues like the manager, limited striking options, a ponderous defence, another team comes along.

People question why John Mousinho still holds down a place in the team and why Charlie Raglan was sent out to Port Vale on loan. I think it’s about needing experience to steady the ship. If we’d gone with Raglan and Dickie, chosen by fans because, mostly, they’re not Mousinho and Martin, we’d have had a centre-back pairing with one player with little experience and another with little fitness. I believe the hope is that Mousinho is the best hope to steady things.

Relegation seems very unlikely; our poor form alone will not cause that, we would need several other teams to go on winning runs they show no sign of having. If you think we’re bad, those below are, by definition, worse. We can’t switch off, of course, but we can look at the remaining games as pre-season games for next year. It seemed to work for Shrewsbury last year.

The wrap – Rotherham and Fleetwood

Oxford United 3 Rotherham 3
“I wasn’t at the game today Jerome”; this is a phrase that will strike fear into the hearts of most Oxford fans. The opening gambit of a Radio Oxford post-match phone-in caller typically precedes a tactical dissection of the game they didn’t see, a dewy eyed gushing praise of BBC Oxford’s coverage, including detailed description of the reason why they can’t make games (‘my wife had a vaginal prolapse three years ago, but we listen every week.’) or an opportunity to ask the real question: ”ave you heard what’s going on with the stadium Jerome?”.

For many years I couldn’t comprehend what people who didn’t go to football did at weekends. This is not purple-faced vein-bulging faux-passion only us proper football fans feel. It’s simply that I was brought up with weekends defined by football – on Saturday morning, my Roy of the Rovers would be delivered, Saturday lunchtime was Football Focus or Saint and Greavsie (often both), then the date would taper towards 3pm and the game itself. Sunday would be spent scouring the paper for a couple of paragraphs about our game.

I still struggle with the idea of having a Saturday which isn’t defined by a match although I can see that full and complete commitment to the club, home and away, week after week, is a path to madness. I’ve twice been to games which I would consider beyond the norm – Carlisle away in 2002 and York away on a Tuesday night the following year. On both occasions there were happy coincidences which meant I could make the game – friends who lived in Carlisle and a work commitment in York. A few occasions I’ve traveled home from a holiday and gone straight to a game. But to do this every week is surely commitment too far. There’s a bloke who I see at every game wherever I go, I wonder what impact it has on his family on friends.

I was on holiday for Saturday’s humdinger against Rotherham on an annual trip to Devon. It was all Michael Appleton’s fault, in his dire first season I told myself that I wouldn’t be bound by the fixture list in the way I had been before. I previously only missed games for weddings and work, and while that was, in my head, the honorable thing to do, it also meant that I ended up going to games when there were better things I could be doing. In that first year we booked late which meant missing a 1-2 defeat to Carlisle, the year after I followed the 2-3 capitulation against Barnet while touring the Eden Project. Last year it was the 2-2 collapse against Port Vale.

This year we were travelling for most of the game, I saw we’d gone 3-1 up then next picked up the final score. In between, apparently, Ryan Ledson missed a penalty and someone turned up with a drum; though I didn’t find out about either until Sunday. While I’m generally happier with the balance I’ve struck between football and real life, the lack of  detail does leave a disconcerting sensory deprivation.

Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0
It’s been the Baseball World Series this week. Baseball is a game that’s hard to love, superficially it looks like a series of tedious repetitive activities punctuated, very occasionally, with moments of excitement.

You have to put in a bit of graft to understand baseball – teams play 162 games a season – practically a game every day. A pitcher will only throw 100 pitches before being rested for a week, about two-thirds of a match.

A game every week wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t differentiate the good teams from the bad ones. It requires this level of intensity over a prolonged period for the better teams to emerge. As a fan, therefore, you have to stick with it to enjoy the drama.

Football is generally more forgiving; moments of excitement are more frequent, wins mean more as an end in itself. But being a football fan, like being a baseball fan, is really about living the narrative in its totality. The defeat to Fleetwood was a disappointing result, but it comes off the back of a five game unbeaten streak, in a year of the best football in a generation in a decade of steady progress.

In baseball, it is perfectly normal to lose an individual game, it’s the reason that the World Series is held over seven games, it is possible to win or lose via a freak game. Football is not that different; yes, we lost to Fleetwood, but it was the result of a goal in the closing minutes (plus a second in the chaos that ensues when you’re chasing a game). While maybe not a freak in the baseball sense, it hardly constitutes a definitive message about our ability.

Chris Wilder, who seems to have become a bit of a golden boy in recent weeks, used to eulogise about keeping on a level in both wins or losses, whatever you might think of him (and it’s only flat-earthers and climate change deniers that would consider him a ‘bad manager’) it’s a sage piece of advice. 

Rotherham wrap – Rotherham 2 Oxford United 3

Stuart Massey, Simon Clist, Scott Rendell; great moments have unsung heroes.

In 1996, with Chris Allen going all starry eyed at Nottingham Forest, Stuart Massey – his less thrilling more battle worn replacement – started demanding the ball on the ground so he could put quality crosses in. Suddenly we stopped lumping balls forward. It was decisive in us winning promotion even though history has largely forgotten him.

In 2010, Simon Clist did simple things well giving Adam Murphy and Adam Chapman licence to create things for James Constable, Jack Midson and Matt Green. It took us all the way to Wembley and all that.

Scott Rendell’s performance against Swindon in 2012 will also be forgotten by many, but his immense shift after James Constable had been sent off at the Kassam was key to a famous win.

In a squad that has many songs sung about it, Ryan Taylor is, quite literally, unsung. Since returning to the side as sub against Walsall, he has been integral to back-to-back away wins. A goal and much more against Rotherham on Saturday demonstrated what a key asset he can be.

Taylor is frequently overlooked when it comes to our successes. He isn’t irreplaceable or even a guaranteed starter, but he offers something others don’t; quality on the ball and a presence up front.

I’ve always felt that Michael Appleton’s preferred system is one which uses a big forward with a good touch to bring attacking midfielders into the game rather than one that necessarily scores 25 goals a year himself. Taylor, if he stays fit, could be that man.

Being an unsung hero requires a special kind of dedication. It’s a necessary job, but one that, by definition, is seldom recognised. There is a certain satisfaction in completing something successfully but Taylor plays a role that requires you to be battered around continuously and made to look like an oaf, he can be hauled off after an hour exhausted and not having had a shot on goal, but that’s not to say he hasn’t done his job. Watch what Kane Hemmings did for the last goal on Saturday – Taylor laid the groundwork for that.

Watch also, for example, Kemar Roofe’s first goal against Swansea last year. It’s Taylor who brings the ball down and lays it off to Roofe, but having laid it off he heads into the box pulling defenders with him giving Roofe the space to get his shot away. Look also at Taylor’s immediate reaction; while Roofe heads of in celebration, Taylor jogs on head down as if he knows he’s done a good job, but that he also knows nobody will remember his contribution.

Few fans really appreciate the work of people like Taylor when they’re at the club, it’s only when they leave and you truly see what’s missing do you start to pine. I guess it’s just the way of the unsung hero.

When would be the right time to let Wilder go?

Six defeats, not many managers survive such a streak. One of the arguments against the sacking of Chris Wilder is the lack of an alternative. I don’t fully agree with that point of view; there aren’t many football clubs flapping around unable to appoint a manager due to a lack of available candidates. However, many clubs have rushed to replace their manager under the delusion that they are in a buyers’ market. This is true, to a point, there is no shortage of managers out there. But, if you discount all the managers you don’t want and focus on those that you do, you realise that the roles of beggar and chooser reverses. Those managers you can rely on are either in post, in demand or don’t need a job; at least not one in League 2.

The problem with managers is that it’s not so much a skills shortage, but a skills gap. There are plenty out there who will do no more than an adequate job at best.

Ian Lenegan’s decision as to whether he lets Chris Wilder go or not, is therefore more difficult than many perhaps perceive. In Online-Forum-World life is simple; fire Wilder and get someone brilliant in to revitalise the club. A quick replacement for the short term is OK, but, if you’re looking to the long-term, how many managers are you happy to be in position in, say, 5-10 years time?

If Wilder were removed, then surely Lewis and Melville would quickly follow. It seems unlikely that the purpose of ridding the club of Wilder’s service is to give the coaches a chance. Unless, of course, the purpose of sacking Wilder is to save money, which it isn’t. The key is to improve performances. Much as he is a stalwart and a lovely bloke, anyone who witnessed Lewis’ brief managerial career at Oxford will remember that he’s good at committing his team to a ‘proper’ passing game without ever threatening to score.

From a coaching perspective the club is pretty lean, we don’t have a wealth of coaches with managerial experience ready to step in on a temporary basis. So who do you hand the reigns over to? Even in the short term? Michael Duberry? Or do you go Kassam-like into the beggers market hoping to strike gold.

And then, you’ve got to consider what you’ve got to offer a manager. A team, starved through injuries, demoralised by a long stretch of defeats, having recently lost a manager that, according to reliable sources, the players are behind. Is there going to be money available? Apparently not, according to Ian Lenegan, the club has max’ed out in terms of the wage bill. Are the injured players on their way back? Who knows? The club’s policy of not commenting on injuries is frustrating, but perhaps you can surmise, during a period of crisis, you’d expect the club to use any returns from injury as a good news story to buoy things up. There is no indication that the returns are imminent.

Wilder’s stock will be permanently damaged as a result of this run. People will have adjusted their gearing; a win will be considered a small step forward, a defeat 10 steps back. So, even if we did go 5-6 games unbeaten from Tuesday, all likelihood is that another defeat will see people calling for his head at the next defeat. Aside from promotion, it is difficult to imagine a situation where he will win over the crowd wholly. However, for the interests of the club in the long term, while expectations remain so low and Wilder continues to take a beating from some sections of the crowd, it may actually be better for Lenegan to hold things at this low ebb for a little while the situation improves and a suitable replacement is found.

The curious case of Asa Hall

When Chris Wilder signs two players from the same club – Adam Chapman and Shane Killock, wee Stevie Kinninburgh and wee Ross Perry – the first things you think is; ‘who does he want and who’s carrying the bags?’.

When Wilder signed Simon Heslop and Asa Hall in 2010 there was a similar feeling. Nearly two years later, it’s still difficult to know which is which.

Signed almost immediately after promotion, it’s conceivable that the duo would have joined whichever division we were in. Their signing was entirely consistent with Wilder’s acquisition strategy in the Conference – mopping up the best available from failing Conference sides (Jack Midson, Ryan Clarke, Mark Creighton, Damian Batt, Simon Clist et al).

Heslop made an early impression in a ‘Gerrard’ role; bombing forward and pitching in with some spectacular goals. Hall’s contribution was less obvious. With Dannie Bulman leaving and Simon Clist sidelined through injury, things weren’t quite firing on all cylinders. Wilder continued to mix his midfield pot throughout the season and the duo drifted into the margins. However, where others found themselves ejected on loan and beyond, Heslop and Hall periodically returned throughout the campaign.

Without making midfielders sound like one dimensional Spice Girls, Wilder’s preferred three man midfield works best when you’ve got The Tackling One (Bulman), The Creative One (Murray) and The One Who Does the Housework (Clist). A two-man midfield is more like a bachelor pad – one gets the beers in (Whing, perhaps), one pulls the chicks (Leven) – nobody clears up the pizza boxes and cans of lager.

Hall does none of these, he’s not particularly ferocious in the tackle and seems too gangly and untidy to be a creative drive or housemaid. However, Chris Wilder has persevered and he’s hit a rich vein of form with fine goals against both Swindon and, again, on Saturday against Rotherham.

Wilder said after the Swindon game that there was a lot more to come from Hall, but he’s not known for his patience with players. What is it that Wilder sees in Asa Hall?

Gothic synth monsters Depeche Mode were never going to have a standard vocals, guitar, bass and drums line-up. At their mid-90s peak their ‘team’ dynamic consisted of Dave Gahan (vocals), Martin Gore (songwriter), Alan Wilder (musician) and Andy Fletcher. Fletch was in all the videos, band pictures, and appeared on stage. When their rock-myth was most rampant he was attributed with playing ‘bass synth’, as if such a thing existed. As the fan base matured and their own lives mellowed, the veil was allowed to fall; it became clear that Fletch was, effectively, the band’s accountant. In short, his role wasn’t to add any rock-god musical magic, but to provide a stable base that secured the band long term.

Asa Hall is apparently good friends with James Constable. Constable comes across as an intelligent guy who benefits from having a stable background of family and friends he can rely on. If Constable is drawn to people like himself, then Hall’s success can be explained simply by the fact he’s a good guy to have about the place.

Very late in Saturday’s game, as Rotherham prepared one last assault to try and grab an undeserved point, Michael Duberry and Adam Chapman engaged in an agitated argument about who was picking up their extra players. Neither would back down – Chapman, an ebullient character despite his age, was adamant that players needed picking up, Duberry, similarly dominant, waved him away aggressively. Neither would back down. If you add people like Peter Leven, Andy Whing and James Constable it is clear that as the squad improves, the characters become stronger. With this comes greater risk of it destabilising through its own forceful personality. Hall’s role becomes more essential because he is there to be do whatever is needed and improve his team and surroundings. With Leven and Chapman at his side, Hall’s apparent anonymity and quiet improvement becomes their key to success.

That, or it’s just his new haircut, of course.

Rotherham United 1 Oxford United 0

Exit summer. I’ve learnt to manage the opening of the season better as the years have passed. It is not the orgasmic starburst that the media would have you believe. Perhaps it once was, when everyone kicked off at the same time, new kits were a rare treat and big signings were less frequent and more recognisable (unless I am the only person who had never heard of David de Gea before he arrived at Manchester United).

The new season now dribbles into life, the Football League does it’s best to make its presence felt, but has cold water poured on it when, on the same weekend, through the Community Shield, the Premier League proves it is still really on its holidays having a kick-about.

Yet, we are hungry for the opening games to ‘mean’ something. Following the barmy unbeaten pre-season, our defeat to Rotherham had some, suddenly, worried about our ability to finish and defend, and the new signings and, and, and.

But, August is just a bit of a leg stretcher at the best of times. The Swindon derby makes a difference, but only for isolated parochial reasons. Otherwise we’ll have our annual League Cup thrash around, we’ll have a few more looseners to get the drop of our new signings and then the season will really begin to kick in around September.

A long opening unbeaten run builds expectations (look at Port Vale last season), so registering a first loss is almost as important as registering a first win. At least you get it out of the way.