The wrap: Oxford United 2 Scunthorpe United 1

There’s a point every week where I think ‘well, this is a microcosm of our entire season’ then something comes along and changes that. If you look at the table, you can see why it is so difficult to figure out exactly what our season has become – we’ve only had one less defeat and scored five more goals than Coventry in eighth, we’ve only conceded one more goal than Wycombe in 14th, and yet we’re 19th, at half-time yesterday, we were in the relegation zone. It doesn’t seem to matter how they come, winning is what makes the difference.

It is not only difficult to remember a first-half as pedestrian and impotent as yesterdays, it’s hard to imagine how any game of football could be worse. There were moments in which I reflected on our days in the Conference, was it ever as bad? Is this what we’ve become?

The highlight, if that’s the right phrase, was Jordan Graham, our most dynamic player, dribbling just inside our half, unchallenged with space to move into and players available, turning and putting the ball out for a corner. 30 yards out and under no pressure. The corner, then drifted over everyone and bounced out harmlessly for a goal kick. The sequence had ‘gif of how terrible football is’ written all over it.

Inevitably, there were questions about team selection. Luke Garbutt on the wing, Sinclair rather than Mackie, Browne and Whyte on the bench. Mark Sykes split fans down the middle – some thought he looked bright and dynamic, others thought he was a liability and naive. He was a bit of both, his interview afterwards probably explained it best – his instinct is to get forward and seek opportunities as he had done when he was in Ireland. In League 1 you have to be disciplined and he’s still learning that, principally from John Mousinho. There was one point where he broke through, even before his heavy touch wasted the chance, you got the feeling he didn’t have the composure to finish it. It reminds you that professional football is far harder than it looks.

It was hard to believe that the second half could be as bad as a spectacle, although it was easy to see us falling to a similar sucker punch to the one we got against Peterborough.

It did pick up; Whyte came on with his typical spirit. Sykes supplied for Sinclair for the first, John Mousinho’s breathtaking cross had pinpoint accuracy for Sinclair’s second. You know this.

Then, of course, as the unfamiliar feeling of having a comfortable lead was sinking in, Scunthorpe fans were drifting out of the ground and Sinclair was brought off in order to receive his applause, we concede, the referee adds five minutes to the game despite there being almost no action of note and panic sets in. Is that our season in microcosm? Frustration punctuated by moments of joy underlined by periods of farce?

The question has to be what comes next – more joy, more frustration or more farce? It’s hard to tell. What is interesting about yesterday is that despite reservations about the starting line-up, and the significant role Mousinho and Gavin Whyte played turning things around, most of our January transfer window signings played their part. Sykes supplied the first goal, Sinclair scored twice and was cleverer in his general play than most give him credit for, Jordan Graham has been high impact from the moment he got here.

Jerome Sale started comparing Sinclair’s situation to that of Kemar Roofe – a loanee without much of a track record who emerged to be a star. That might be overstating things a little, Roofe is a once-in-a-decade signing, but in the same way that the January transfer window in 2015 played a key role in our survival and then promotion the following year, maybe there are fragments of that here. In the most confusing of seasons, perhaps there is a pattern emerging.

The wrap – Scunthorpe 3 Oxford United 3

But, I can’t even…

As frustrating as it was, a draw having led 3-0 is still a freak result. I can’t remember the last time it happened to us before Saturday, less still when we did it to someone else. What is tricky about this Oxford side is knowing what was freak about it. Is it that we scored three times? That we conceded three times? That we led so comprehensively away from home? That we capitulated so badly?

Which of those is us, and what’s the freak? It’s so difficult to tell.

The good news is that we would probably have been happy with a draw before we started, and it extended our unbeaten run to 6 games. So, it would appear that the result is not so much a failure as a missed opportunity. Should that be the end of it?

Last week it was announced that Nile Ranger was training with us, apparently unattached players train with clubs all the time, but Ranger is tabloid box office due to his extensive rap sheet of misdemeanours and so the news made the Daily Mail.

This is not the first time we’ve been faced with the dilemma of considering a player surrounded by negative connotations. Adam Chapman killed a man in a car accident and was sent to prison while Luke McCormick was signed to cover a goalkeeping crisis despite having spent time in prison for killing two children while drink driving.

Ranger’s problems are more extensive than both these players, but he’s never killed anyone. He’s been involved in largely petty crime for most of his adult life and has got into disciplinary problems at pretty much every club he’s been to. Understandably, there was little support from the fans for signing him.

But, there was support for re-signing Adam Chapman after his release, and McCormick was, to some degree, accepted when he turned in some half-decent performances. It’s quite difficult to apply different rules to different people facing the same problems. It’s OK to have opinions, but difficult to arbitrarily decide what is acceptable and not depending on personal prejudice. We’re not Tommy Robinson, after all.

Tommy Robinson is quite a good reference here. His failure is to recognise the rule of law. You make a law and then you apply it. You don’t see something you don’t like and make up a law to cover it. So with Ranger, whatever you think of him should really be consistent with whatever you thought of Chapman and McCormick.

To my mind, as a free man he should be treated no differently to any other professional footballer. As difficult as that might feel to us individually, and it does to me, he has to be treated fairly. Karl Robinson is aware of Ranger’s past and said his previous actions aren’t in keeping with the values of the club or a professional footballer. But, if he shows he’s sorted himself out and he can be an asset to the club, then he could get a contract.

I agree with Robinson’s assessment on this, so I don’t object to Ranger being considered. But, the fact we are having this debate is symptomatic of the difficulties we face. In short, we shouldn’t be here in the first place. It’s normal to have players with long-term injuries, but good squads and decent set-ups can absorb those problems and carry on regardless. They don’t find themselves scratching around looking at players who most clubs wouldn’t consider. In simple terms, we’ve been on the back foot  since August.

And so it seems with the Scunthorpe result; freaks happen, they happened under Michael Appleton and Chris Wilder, they happened under Pep Clotet. But, the club needs to be robust enough to minimise the impact of freak happenings. It may be that we threw two points away, but we shouldn’t need those points Saturday as much as we do in the same way we shouldn’t have to scratch around for a striker in the way we are.

The wrap – Oxford United 1 Scunthorpe 1

On Wednesday I hit a pothole so hard it caused my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat, to spontaneous yelp ‘fuck’. I looked at her as if to say that was unacceptable and understandable in equal measure… just don’t tell your grandparents.

On Friday, before setting off for the game I saw two worrying bulges in my tyre, clearly caused by the impact of hitting the hole. After wrestling with the dilemma of choosing between the game and my life – a struggle more real than it ever should be – I eventually I decided I needed to get the tyre sorted. It turns out you can get quicker than a Kwik Fit fitter and I missed the game.

I got home about 10 minutes into the game. I can’t remember watching a home game live on TV before; it gives you a curious sense of detachment. Presumably Sky don’t thow as much kit at League 1 game as they might a Premier League game, so crowd noises are largely absent. But, you’re released from the groupthink that creates anxiety (or occasional ecstasy), you’re also subject to the bias of the commentary – well, not bias as such, more a question of a pundit (Lee Hendrie) choosing a narrative, and then refusing the migrate away from it regardless of what was happening on the pitch.

The benefit of this is the opportunity to analyse; what was pretty evident was the recruitment mess we’ve managed to get ourselves into. In the first half we were overwhelmed as we have been on more than one occasion this year. Thankfully, unlike against Wigan or Blackburn, we didn’t concede a bucketful.

Our problem is that we have a team full of the same kind of players – for Mowatt came Rothwell to play alongside Ledson, Brannagan and Napa, with Ruffels coming on later in the game. With Kane and Smith-Brown we’ve got a team packed with small, talented ball-players. The consequence is that we’re one dimensional, we have a bunch of ‘cultural misfits’ – to quote Darryl Eales – sitting on the sidelines and what results is a great big hole in the squad.

John Mousinho, James Henry and Jonathan Obika all have experience, and showed how important they are likely to be in the run in. None have enjoyed their best form (or fitness in Obika’s case), but when they are playing well, they can fill gaps left by Lundstram, Johnson and Hemmings in the summer.

The problem is that neither Mousinho, Obika nor Thomas have been able to sustain any form and they don’t have age on their side to suggest that this might improve next season. If we are to progress, the big hole in the squad is a major priority.

Portsmouth, Scunthorpe and Shrewsbury wraps

In principle, I agree with Darryl Eales in that it seems ridiculous to have a transfer window that drifts into the first month of the season just as teams are settling themselves for the campaign ahead. Closing the window on the last day of July would make a lot of sense, but it would also shorten the close-season, particularly if you factor in international tournaments and friendlies, and would probably push negotiations into the back end of the previous season, which potentially disrupts your run-in. So it’s not a panacea.

There seems to be a certain inevitability about Marvin Johnson’s departure from the club, it seems just a question of where and for how much. The charade demonstrated best before the defeat to Scunthorpe with the club making claims that he was all set to play before withdrawing him with a ‘tight hamstring’. Afterwards Pep Clotet played it straight by sticking to the facts and saying that Johnson remained an Oxford player. It sounded defiant and forthright, but in reality, that offered nothing new.

There’s been a growing frustration around the club’s transfer policy. We are led to believe that being a ‘selling club’ is a bad thing. For some, this simply reinforces the narrative that Darryl Eales has no ambition. Now, you may not like the fact that we’re in the habit of losing players to bigger clubs but it is how we work, and it is working. From Kemar Roofe’s money we’ve bought Marvin Johnson and from Marvin Johnson and John Lundstram’s money we’re in a position to buy Gino van Kessel or others, should we want to.

There are three ways in which football clubs function, they can enjoy the benefits of a rich benefactor who treats the club like a hobby, you can live a precarious life, selling on your debt from one owner to another, or you can put in place the infrastructure that buys assets – players – develops them and sells them on at a profit. It’s pretty much as sustainable as a football club gets until TV money kicks in. If you want to see what it feels like to get this wrong, just look at Portsmouth’s recent history. I would rather sell Johnson than go through what they are going through.

Part of the disquiet is not so much about losing a talented player, but what it supposedly says about us as a club. It’s basic economics; when you buy something, part of the value comes in utility or use you get from it. Part of the price is buying something which says something about you. A Ferrari and a Ford Focus will both get you from A to B, but a Ferrari says you’re successful in the way a Focus never will.

The same goes with selling, we’re losing a player which subtracts a certain amount from the abilities of the team, but the fact that we need to sell is as much about us admitting that we’re not in the same bracket as those who buy from us, it makes us feel weaker. The truth, if we can put aside bruised pride, it does seem that we’ll gain more than we’ll lose when Johnson goes.

Fans’ frustration at the lack of resolution around Johnson are probably not being wholly fair on anyone involved. For the clubs involved there are terms to agree, not just agreeing a fee, but the terms by which that fee might be paid. There’s a contract to agree with Johnson and maybe even administration around ending Johnson’s own contract with Oxford. Maybe, maybe, Johnson has got to think carefully about the move. Of course, money is a motivating factor, but there’s his personal situation; does he want to live wherever he’s planning to go and also maybe he looks at the current careers of Lundstram, O’Dowda and (up until very recently) Roofe and does have to think about whether a move into the Championship is for him. I suspect, ultimately, the answer is yes, but that’s not always an easy decision to make when you’re the one to make it.

In the meantime, the game against Shrewsbury did feel like we’re still in transition and the uncertainty around Johnson is a contributory factor. Shrewsbury looked like a team with a simple, but well drilled strategy. Stay organised, break quickly and with numbers. It’s all very direct and, so the theory goes, a more sophisticated passing game will always be better. But we’re not yet clicking, and we still feel like a team which has the talent but isn’t yet locked together with a coherent strategy.

This will come in time, while we are figuring it all out and eeking out points where we can, Darryl Eales is surely going to give Pep Clotet time to bed in his strategy. How long that might take, however, will determine how successful this season is likely to be. But, it might take the resolution of Johnson’s situation before we can even start that process in earnest. 

Weekly wrap – Oxford United 2 Scunthorpe 1, Oxford United 2 Bolton Wanderers 4

Sometimes football feels like it’s a rock in life’s raging river. As the river flows around it, it remains steadfast, always there just where it’s always been. Then, sometimes, the river rises and the current speeds up and the rock becomes submerged, lost from sight.

That’s been me this week; the river has engulfed the rock, football’s become a bit of an aside. On Saturday morning work pulled me to a meeting in Canary Wharf, which turns out not to be the most direct route to the Kassam. I ended up on a journey which involved car, train and boat, at one point I calculated I might actually make the game with four minutes to spare but time got eaten up and it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it.

It was a bit of a relief because I don’t get any sense that even with the Scunthorpe win anyone realistically harbours expectations of us making the play-offs. Even a last minute goal didn’t seem to ignite that feeling that the gods were with us.

Instead it feels like we’ve seen the fixtures and recognised that even if we did make the play-offs, we probably wouldn’t go up and even if we went up, we probably wouldn’t stay up.

I had a similar feeling for the game against Bolton; they had that sense of urgency that you get when the prospect of promotion looms. That desperate need to make sure it happens and not pass up the opportunity; like us last season. We, on the other hand, seemed to want to compete only on our terms, put the effort in when we were ready.

The difference was in the margins; it wasn’t like we were lazy, we played well, but having conceded two early goals there was a feeling that if we got back into the game then great, if not, then whatever. Truth is, had Marvin Johnson’s astonishing strike gone in, then we are likely to have taken a point. So we’re not that far away from being good enough for the play-offs or better. But, we just don’t seem to have the energy to really make it happen. It’s not a surprise, it’s been an exhausting couple of years.

We are simply playing too frequently, just like last year, but unlike last year, the prospect of us going up is just not big enough to blow a gasket to achieve. Instead, it’s like we’re taking a brief intake of breath before we go on another promotion drive next season. The question, I suppose, is whether we can keep the core of the squad, and the manager, together over the summer, and that depends on the depth of funding available.

Weekly wrap – Oxford United 4 Coventry City 1, Oxford United 1 Gillingham 0, Scunthorpe 1 Oxford United 1

If there was anything that characterised our start to the season it was as nice as our football could be, we kept getting beaten up by the big boys. If there was anything that characterised our last week it was how suddenly we’d toughened up.
The defeat to Shrewsbury took us to just outside the relegation zone. Darryl Eales gallantly suggested that he looked at the points total rather than our position, but it was little comfort. What was more concerning was the general impotence of our display – in particular, our start – it was not just like we’d been found out, it was like we were resigned to taking a beating whenever we came up against a bit of muscle. Then, something changed and against Coventry we were out of the blocks like lightening.
I moved seats to sit with Brinyhoof so we were in line with the six yard box at the home end. We seemed to spend the whole of the first half watching Chris Maguire take corners. It was a surreal level of dominance; at one point I looked over at the scoreboard to see how long it was until half-time and saw that we’d only been playing 20 minutes, such was the dynamism of our display, we packed a game’s worth of attacking into a few minutes.
A Coventry newspaper described their display as one of the worst in their history; which brings the obvious question; were we good or were they bad? It made me think that the Gillingham game could be a bit of a let down. In the end it was a different kind of display, but no less pleasing.
The whole display was characterised by graft, punctuated by a moment of genuine class from Marvin Johnson. It’s interesting that Johnson and Hemmings seem to be slowly settling into their roles. Johnson is having a growing influence on our play while Hemmings is slowly finding his goal touch. The bloke behind me thinks Hemmings is ‘useless’ despite him now scoring more goals than Danny Hylton had this time last year. It’s easy to forget sometimes that these are young men coming into a new environment, possibly living in a new area; it’s going to take a while for them to settle and perform. This seems to be one of the things that Michael Appleton excels at; I cannot think of a player he’s signed in the last year or so who hasn’t eventually performed.
Surely then, with our erratic form, after two good displays a trip to league leaders Scunthorpe would see us finally blow it and return home with nothing. If nothing else, two such committed displays did seem to have taken their toll with Wes Thomas, Joe Skarz and Chey Dunkley all coming off with injuries in the previous two games.
Well, no; once again with this new found resilience we came away with a point and maybe deserved three. Seven points in seven days is impressive, but what is more important is the new found steel we seem to have acquired across the team.