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.

Yellows 2 Rotherham 1

On Saturday a friend updated his Facebook profile with the key moments of his day at the rugby. He went to the Cabbage Patch pub, the game itself and then The Garyowen.

He clearly enjoyed his day out. The experience; big crowd, that nice fuzzy feeling of drinking in the daytime, the special padded seats and the audio link to the referee and of course, the game. I bet he ended up slumped on the train home reading the programme, nodding off only to wake, bursting for a pee, just as the train pulled into his station… or out of it.

I like the idea of the Six Nations, but I simply can’t get to grips with rugby. I still contend that most people who go to the game don’t really care about the result. Going to the game is a nice self-contained treat. The whole experience is encapsulated, done and dusted, in the day.

By contrast, one game in an Oxford season is a chapter in a yearlong story, which in itself is a book in a lifelong anthology of a story with no real focus. The win over Rotherham was eminently satisfying, but you leave thinking, ‘That’s great, but what does it mean?’

The objective of this season is ambiguous. General consensus seems to be that we might sneak into the play-offs, but it’s hardly an expectation. So, is the win a satisfying day out? Another step on the way to a joyous promotion? Or even a tiny building block towards winning the Champions League?

In a sense, I envy those who go to sporting events and enjoy them like a special day out. For you, and me the reward is hard won and supposedly more rewarding. When we get to our destination, wherever that is, whenever that is, destinations that may include, ‘nowhere’ and ‘oblivion’, the reward should be better and more intense. Or perhaps its just an obligation or an addiction.

The ‘Bring the Noise’ day was a pretty quiet one, all told. Nobody dares talk of play-offs or promotion. But we brushed aside Rotherham as though they were mid-table canon fodder. Now we have 1 month, bookended by games against Stevenage, in which we have 1 home game in 6. If we come out of that period in roughly the position we’re in now, promotion will be a definite maybe.

Rotherham 2 Yellows 1

You know Roberto Carlos and his free kicks, right? How he could bend a ball round the floodlights and rocket it into the top right hand corner. You’ll remember, of course, Le Tournoi. You’ll probably not, however, remember him ever doing it before or indeed, after.

That’s because most of the time, rather than defying the laws of physics he limply succumbed to its compelling charms by ballooning the ball into orbit. Like a playground bully, whenever Real Madrid were awarded a free-kick within 40 yards of goal, Carlos would grab the ball. David Beckham, a far more prolific dead ball exponent looked on probably thinking about how much he could have added to his paltry Real palmarès if Carlos hadn’t been so determined to prove that Le Tournoi goal wasn’t a fluke.

Players often have their careers re-edited around a single moment, John Barnes’ international career will forever be defined around his weaving dribble against a moderate Brazil side in the Maracana. A goal, incidentally, that was missed by ITV because they were showing Surprise Surprise instead of the first half. In fact, half-time Cilla Black interviewed (probably) Gary Newbon via satellite link about the goal.

Matt Murphy is another whose career has been re-edited. He is either a hapless buffoon and perennial scapegoat, or the best goalscoring midfielder we’ve had in a generation… perhaps two generations.

Members of the promotion winning team will forever be defined by the victory at Wembley. And rightly so. Their legend was stamped into our history and collective memories on May 16th and their contribution will be defined fully by that day alone, re-edited around the magic 90 minutes. But, harsh though it is, we also need to remember a) Murray and Constable (and then latterly Chapman) were the difference between a promotion winning team and one that struggled to maintain even play-off form, and b) everyone recognises the need for change in the current run.

Now I don’t personally understand what Bulman, Creighton and Midson have done wrong, and there’s a reasonable argument to say that things are changing too quickly (this is not a team that can remind themselves of their abilities by recalling the epic Wembley win because most of them weren’t there). But this run, and our latest gutsy defeat to Rotherham, reveals the reality is that changes are needed somewhere. For once we’re in the uncomfortable position of losing players we admire. I’m a football romantic, but it’s just not practical to continually accumulate players until we find the right mix. What’s more, we have to face facts that, when you need to offload some players, the likes of Creighton, Midson and Bulman are much more bankable than the under-used Baker or Cole.

So the offloading of players who we will forever be remembered as legends of the Conference era is not a reflection of their achievements, but a practicality of the current state we’re in. Perhaps it is to their credit that teams want to take them on. There are plenty of players who have had their careers destroyed after a spell at Oxford.