George Lawrence’s Shorts: That joke isn’t funny anymore

Saturday 19 October 2019

There are two things that are certain in life; Tariqe Fosu scoring the first, and Cameron Brannagain scoring the second. Oxford shrugged off the long flight to the New York stadium to eat pastrami on rye and beat Rotherham 2-1.

Monday 21 October 2019

GLS often spends Monday nights fumbling a sack of balls in an excitable way up until consumed by an overwhelming sense of melancholy. It was the FA Cup 1st Round draw on Monday with Oxford being drawn away to Poole Town, Hayes and Yeading. With so many teams playing, KRob fears the midfield could get crowded.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

There was a right Royal Rumble as Hayes, Yeading and Poole got together to decide who should face the mighty Oxford in the cup. After two floodlight failures, both Hayes and Yeading went through 3-2. The replay to find out whether it’s Hayes or Yeading in the next round has yet to be scheduled.   

Wednesday 23 October 2019

“Apart from Oxford United” said some bastard called Mighty Alan on the Guardian website “Which stadium has three stands?”. Oh right, thanks Mighty Alan, now we’re out of three-stand club are we? Anyway, apparently we’re not the only ones with a gaping rear end. There are stadiums in Australia, Scotland and Thailand with the same issue.

It turns out that the secret behind the All Blacks dominance of rugby is not a systematic doping programme after all. It’s down to Rhodes Scholar come former Oxford United mullet haired centre-back come psychiatrist Ceri Evans. KRob has been on the phone to Arthur Gnohere to see whether he can work similar magic on the squad.

If you don’t want to spend cash on a subscription you can read about him here. Evans, not Gnohere.

Thursday 24 October 2019

Giantkilling fetishists, BT Sport have donned their thigh length boots and put on their gimp masks to select Oxford’s game against Hayes and Yeading for TV. The dirty buggers have moved the fixture to Sunday where they’re either hoping for a humiliation for the league team, who have been very bad boys, or a spanking for naughty non-leaguers. 

There was more stadiumsituation chat during the Six Minute Seven Seconds Fan Forum with Niall, don’t call me Niall McWilliams. When asked about the stadium he said there was no news, about players he said there was no news and about the training ground, he said there was no news. It wasn’t all evasive, when asked about The Priory pub, he said he didn’t know.

Friday 25 October 2019

Babyfaced billionaire, Erick Thohir has been forced by the *squints* Indonesian government to step down from the Oxford United board after he became the sinisterly titled State-owned Enterprises Minister. This is the first appointment to government from the club since Kristaps Grebis was famously recalled to the Latvian government to sort out their fisheries policy.

He’s nice to his mum, tidies his room and makes the housewives of Witney come over all unnecessary; James Henry, has hoovered up a new two year contract.

Match wrap: Rotherham 1 Oxford United 2

I’ve struggled with the idea of teams gaining momentum. Every game starts at the same point with its own unique set of challenges – injuries, suspensions, opponents, tactics. The idea that it’s possible to transfer something from one game into another, and for that to accumulate – thereby having momentum – doesn’t seem to make sense.

I can see that good results change things – slight injuries are more likely to ignored, players are more likely to commit to systems that appear to work, they believe in each others’ abilities; if I was a striker, I’d more likely get into the box knowing Cameron Brannagan was crossing it than, say, Courtney Pitt.

It seems, then, that momentum is fundamentally a product of trust. When you start to trust something, then you’re more likely to commit to it. If you commit to it, it’s more likely to be successful.

It’s taken time to trust the latest incarnation of the club. That’s not surprising; we spent a good proportion of last year near the relegation zone and went through four winding up orders. In addition, it’s easy to forget what Karl Robinson inherited; a few remnants of Michael Appleton’s years – many of whom were on the verge of leaving – and Pep Clotet’s legion of oddbods.

But, trust is coming and perhaps it’s here. The Rotherham result might be the most significant piece in the jigsaw puzzle yet. They are exactly the type of club we aspire to be; apparently well run off the field and a robust capable team on it. Without denigrating the West Ham win, strange results happen in cup competitions, and something like the 6-0 win over Lincoln can be viewed as once in a life time aberration. The game against Rotherham, like the Doncaster game last week, are the workaday league games which determine which end of the table we end up at.

The clocks go back next week, which is when the season really starts; the top eleven teams – with us in fifth – all look like they could threaten the play-offs. Of the others, Portsmouth are the only team you might think capable of joining the scrap.

This is not dissimilar to last year; where we were in a large batch of teams separated by a few points, only that was at the other end of the table. I might be alone in constantly looking down, but when I look at the National League table – which we were in only few years ago – I see teams like Woking, Solihull and Bromley. I can no longer imagine us being amongst them. Even looking at League 2, it no longer feels like a group of clubs like us. My latest breakthrough, and this has only been in the last few weeks, is that we are more naturally aligned to Doncaster and Rotherham than we are teams towards the bottom in League 1.

There’s a point where we have to trust we’re part of that group of genuine play-off and promotion contenders and not there by virtue of a set of short-term freak results. Whether you are ever actually ‘there’ is difficult to say, I suspect many fans of most clubs look down before they look up, we know more than most that past performance is no indicator of future performance.

The last few weeks and our resulting League position have bought Karl Robinson the space he’s needed. His system is working, the players are bought into it, the fans are being absorbed by it. The circle of trust grows – which is also what will grow crowds – and that’s where momentum starts to kick in. If we can settle into this new status; who know where that will take us?

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.