The wrap – Oxford United 3 Shrewsbury 0

The father of the bride at a wedding I once went to was heard to say ‘if a wedding made a marriage, I’d have spent more money on it’. Hopefully the bride didn’t hear him rationalise her day into a meaningless frivolity, though she knew what he was like.

It was the same thinking which threatened to derail our 125th anniversary celebrations. The symbolic changing of kit to the colours of Headington United was rationalised as the club ripping off the fans with an over-priced t-shirt. The national press put the boot in – attacking a cynical money making scheme that was nothing of the sort. It got to the point that the club felt the need to issue what almost amounted to an apology. Even the special pricing of £12.50 and £1.25 was questioned by some season ticket holders because they didn’t get a financial benefit from the game.

You can distill football down to its basic transactions – we pay money, we deserve value for that money. If we’re loyal we should get a reward like we’re buying something from Amazon. By extension, perhaps if we lose we should get a refund. If that’s the point of football – to get entertainment in return for money – then it has no point at all.

A special programme, a book from the Oxford Mail, a walk from The Brit to the Kassam, a huge display on the terraces, a parade of previous players; all can be rendered meaningless if you put your mind to it. But then, if you keep going with that thought, the whole thing is pointless. Like if a wedding doesn’t make a marriage; if football is just about getting value for money, then you’d be better going to the cinema.

In 1893 Dr Robert Hitchins and Reverend John Scott-Tucker walked to the Brittania Arms in Headington with an idea about how to occupy young men during the winter. Let’s break that down – they finished their day’s work, probably had something to eat and walked to a local pub to present an idea. You could do that today; walk to your local pub with an idea. Most likely it won’t last a week, let alone 125 years.

Before that idea, there wasn’t a football club, there was precisely nothing. We assume football clubs come into existence fully formed, part of the package that makes a major town or city. It’s just there, forever. But, perhaps millions of ideas for clubs fade and die before they’re born. Thousands last less than a few years, fewer still become institutions that last more than a century.

The idea evolved and grew, it engaged and consumed local people from a city to a county, it battled through two World Wars, countless financial difficulties, one attempted merger, it moved location, it played at the most prestigious stadiums, won national competitions and played and beat some of the best teams in the world. Above all, it was a common thread through generations of people.

The amber shirt, the programme, the walk, the banner, the former players and let’s not forget the win reminded me of how incalculably lucky we are to be part of that idea, to have benefitted from it and to contribute to its lasting legacy. When we die, if we treat it right, the idea will be passed onto to others. A tiny fragment of us, and what we created and curated while we were involved, will live on in the club. Saturday reminded me of that, and that’s why all the effort was important. A wedding doesn’t make a marriage, it reminds you of what you’ve achieved and what you need to protect into the future.

This isn’t a brand invented by venture capitalists and taken to market with a multi-million pound marketing campaigns, it’s an institution created, run and sustained by the people based on a simple idea. We are lucky that the idea endured; that there are people who pushed it through difficult times, who keep it alive, either by putting money into it, or through their endless energy, or just turning up for pointless games, or by playing. A mere interest in the club motivates the efforts of others. Thousands of people, keeping an idea alive, evolving it, changing it, growing it into something else and passing it on; all the while maintaining its core values.

Something for young men to do during the winter months is now something for young and old, men and women to do all year round. If you can’t play, you watch, if you can’t watch you listen, if you can’t listen, you validate just by being interested. Through all the frustrations and difficulties, hopefully it teaches people something about camaraderie, working to achieve things and dedication. Perhaps it changes people’s lives, or gives them moments of light in darkness. Perhaps it just acts as a distraction from a tough life. Maybe it’s just fun and a bit of a laugh with friends. Perhaps those friends help you from time to time. Somehow that simple idea, does amazing things. It’s pretty cool.

So, the 125th anniversary is our anniversary and should be embraced for what it is. Attacking it, cynically crushing or dismissing it damages us and what we stand for. If the club goes, it can’t be replaced, the history, the people, the club. We have a responsibility to treat it right, to pass on the idea we’ve inherited in the best possible way.

The wrap – Shrewsbury, Oldham and Fleetwood

We are not doomed… yet.

The Shrewsbury game had been largely dismissed as a defeat long before we kicked off. Oldham was supposedly the opportunity to scramble to safety, we’ll never get anything from Wigan and Blackburn because they’re too good, or Fleetwood and Southend, because they’re bogey teams.

We’re doomed.

There are lots of reasons that this is nonsense. I didn’t get to the Fleetwood game, so I didn’t get that visceral sense of despair resulting from their winner. However, objectively, we appeared to dominate, which suggests we’re not quite as useless as some would imply.

Karl Robinson has suggested that we need a bit of luck. Which is sort of true, what we need is a bit of maths – keep doing the right things and eventually, by the law of averages, we’ll get the right result. Against Fleetwood it seems we did a lot of the right things, keep going in that direction and the results we need will come. 

Second, we are still five points clear of the relegation zone. In one sense, very close, but it’s still very much in our hands. In the 35 games played by the seven teams below us, just seven have been wins and eight have been draws – that’s roughly 4 points per team over the last five games. There are about five games to play, so we’re still looking at quite a few having to find a run of form, while we gain nothing, to drag us down. It’s not comfortable, but all is not lost.

Third, and this is might sound perverse, we are one of only five teams in the division currently without a win in our last five games. Logic says that this will change eventually. Look back to our game against Bury, they had gone 8 games without a win, but beat us. Not because they are materially better than us (they are 14 points off safety, 19 behind us), but because, eventually, things run your way. We are, inevitably, getting closer to that point, or specifically, those three points. 

The point being that while nobody is too good to go down, we’re good enough to stay up and there are plenty around us struggling for form. Talk of bogey teams and bad luck is baloney, if we focus on process, we should secure the necessary points to stay up. Or, at least, not enough teams will accumulate the necessary points to catch us.

And, staying up is all that it’s about, one place above the relegation zone, one point away, it doesn’t really matter at this stage. There are reasons we’re not higher up, which we can pick apart to our hearts content during the summer. But until that point, the focus is on getting little more than one win in the next five. And that is wholly doable.

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. 

Shrewsbury wrap – Oxford United 2 Shrewsbury Town 0

To give some sense anticipation to Sunday’s dead rubber against Shrewsbury the club revealed next season’s home kit. It reminded me of FA Cup Finals in the past when teams would play in a new kit; something that would bring a sense of novelty which added to the occasion.

Nowadays, new kit reveals are part of the annual cycle so it’s as predictable as Christmas. Usually, the club wait until August, probably more out of being disorganised than clever marketing, but seeing the new livery at a time when football-starved fans will devour anything like a polar bear after a hard winter brings a sense of impending excitement.

There’s a view that new projects start with all hope and no certainty and end with no hope and all certainty. Revealing the kit at the end of a season is a time when there is no hope and total certainty; when anticipation is at its lowest. While parading the new shirt on the last day of the season makes good commercial sense, offering the club a late cash boost, it loses a little something when it’s being worn by players who clearly won’t be here playing in a game which doesn’t mean anything.

There’s seems little doubt that Chris Maguire won’t be with us next season. Not only was the manner of his substitution a clear indication of his intentions, his increasingly ludicrous attempts to bow out with a goal seemed to signal that he’s on his way to pastures new.

You suspect that Oxford, the location, rather than the club, is what doesn’t work for Chris Maguire. He’s a raw and emotional player and that seems to bleed into his personal life. If he was a single-minded professional, sacrificing everything, including family and friends, for his career then you suspect he wouldn’t be playing for us anyway, but he also wouldn’t be Chris Maguire. Instead, it seems Maguire is set to follow his heart back to Scotland. Judging by Michael Appleton’s greeting of him as he came off, it seems the management know there’s nothing they can do about it.

Marvin Johnson’s future is likely to be decided by more straight forward commercial means. If there were scouts watching, then he’ll have done himself no harm, effortlessly driving at and through the Shrewsbury defence. You suspect the only thing now is whether there’s a club prepared to put the money up. At 26, he’s probably not one for the future, but the club will struggle to resist a figure similar to Kemar Roofe’s, chicken feed to lower ranking Premier League and high ranking Championship clubs. Kemar Roofe, with his goals, was more impactful, but Johnson has the physicality and versatility that is an asset to any squad.

Of others, the fact that Phil Edwards wasn’t brought on despite losing both full-backs would suggest he won’t be here and the preference of Raglan over Dunkley appears to bring his time at the club to a close; although maybe not Raglan’s.

But what Sunday did show is that even if we do lose Maguire and Johnson, the nucleus of the squad remains a strong one. Finding the next Roofe or Johnson may be good for business, but it’s not necessary to see us progress. What we’re lacking is not ability but capacity; it’s the numbers rather than the quality that has seen us just fall short this year. Address that, and we could be looking at Championship football this time next year.

Shrewsbury wrap – Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 0

Immediately before we beat Swansea last year in the Cup, we were swimming in media coverage. It provided an opportunity to gain an insight into Michael Appleton’s revolution at the club. One thing that stuck out was that he said he had a small group of players who took responsibility for getting the players organised and solving the team’s problems. Appleton didn’t tell the players what to do, he provided a framework for them to figure it out for themselves.

Who were those players? Jake Wright seems an obvious choice, Johnny Mullins? George Baldock? For me those three strike me as leaders in that squad. Where are they now? Sheffield United, Luton Town and MK Dons.

The Guardian had an interview with Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp about their revitalisation under Chris Wilder. Sharp cited Wright as a key influence in The Blades change of attitude; one that was described as ‘old school’ and ‘back to basics’.

Chris Wilder’s football may have lacked sophistication, but he could pick a leader. One of my abiding memories of our 2010 promotion from the Conference was of the dual dome heads of James Constable and Adam Murray haranguing a referee over something very minor. Key to Wilder’s success that year was his ability to turn our relative size into a virtue; with Mark Creighton, Wright, Constable, Murray and Dannie Bulman we became an almost unstoppable force.

Fast forward to 2016 and we sit a point above the relegation zone. No need to panic just yet, I don’t think anyone is expecting us to get promoted this season, a good solid mid-table finish will do if it provides a platform to work from next season. But, it’s not really a secret that we struggle against team who are more direct and physical.

In short, we’re being bullied out of points, another three on Saturday against Shrewsbury. If we get to play football, we’re fine, but a bit of muscle and we’re floundering. What is lacking is a hard centre and Michael Appleton’s got to find ours pretty quickly.

All is not lost; Chey Dunkley has it, Curtis Nelson has it, even Chris Maguire has it. But do they know they have it and are they ready to fill the gap left by Jake Wright et al. In that interview with Appleton last year he said how long it took to encourage players to take ownership of their affairs. I don’t think we’re there yet, we still need a one or two more with ‘it’ to shore things up.

Unlocking the code

Among Michael Appleton’s increasing scrapheap of soundbites the one about finding the right DNA for the club endures above almost all others. To be fair to Appleton, I’m not sure he actually said it, that could have been Mark Ashton, but it is a philosophy he stands by.

Actually, DNA isn’t a bad analogy to use if you apply it properly. DNA is frequently presented as a mystery of the universe, a light-force, a product of some unknown power. This isn’t surprising because what DNA does is remarkable.

However, DNA is a molecule containing a code, a sequence of instructions that, astonishingly, give us life. Now, given that logic is the product of us humans and humans define what science and logic is, then DNA isn’t a mystical thing, it is the origin of logic and rationality. Finding the right DNA is not channelling some mythical power source, its applying logic, solving a code which will result in success.

To illustrate where Michael Appleton has got it wrong is to look at how codes work, how DNA works. Matthew Syed in his book Bounce talks about this in the context of learning. Here’s a code which is a sequence of eleven letters:

A J O M X K I N H P A

If I asked you to remember that code, you would probably be able to remember perhaps 4 or 5 of the letters. Moreover, if I asked you to tell me what it meant, you would have no idea.

Here’s another eleven letter code:

A B B R E V I A T E D

If I asked you to remember that code, then chances are you would be able to rattle them off without a second thought. Not only that, you would probably be able to tell me what the code meant.
That’s because we have developed a sophisticated set of tools to interpret that code, we understand them as letters, group letters together to make sounds, we group sounds to make words, and then we have a reference library of meanings to attach to those words.

Football management is infinitely more difficult than this, of course, the number of variables run into billions when you combine players’ attributes with injury and age with opponents and available resources and so on. Nobody should pretend this is easy.

However, the point still stands, because there is one utterly critical and controllable fact that has made establishing our DNA, our code to success, virtually impossible.

I chose eleven letter sequences in the above because there are eleven players in a football team. Say each letter represents a player, the order in which the players play should be recognisable if we’re to decode a team’s DNA. We know the first syllable is ABB, we know, because of the letters around it the ‘e’ is pronounced ‘ee’ and the second ‘a’ as ‘ay’. Each letter has meaning, but each letter also gives meaning to the other letters. A word is a surprisingly sophisticated code when you think about it, but we can solve it in a flash through endless hours of learning.

But, what Michael Appleton is doing is changing the code constantly by signing more and more players, replacing one with another. The changes are bewildering; it’s like asking the team to solve a code where a letter changes constantly. Keeping up with the letters in the code is hard enough, giving it meaning is impossible.

While we can provide endless arguments about resources and the pitch, the swapping of players is utterly controllable. Even if you take the difficult code above, with enough time you would begin to remember it, I could even give it meaning – like having a code to unlock a padlock. So, even a sub-optimal code is better than one which is changing all the time.

Of course in the perfect world you stumble across a DNA that works straight away, but we seem to have changed almost everything about the team on a continual basis. Quite how that is expected to deliver success, I have no idea.

T’is the season to be jolly?

There are basically two theories about mince pies; either we hate them and tolerate them only at Christmas or we love them and abstain from having them at any other time in the year. The same goes for turkey, Christmas pudding and almost everything else we associate with Christmas. We could quite easily break Christmas – a curry on the 25th December, a mince pie after a barbecue in August, we could buy each other presents on, say, 13th February, just because that would be a nice thing to do. But, it wouldn’t feel right; it wouldn’t be right. We want to believe that Christmas exists, so we defer to its traditions.

It’s much the same with the Eales/Ashton/Appleton revolution; most want it to exist; better football, new stadium, a whole bright future; but for the first time on Boxing Day, it did appear that even the most devout converts were beginning to doubt its existence.

The display itself was gutless. A true demonstration of just how far behind the standard we’ve fallen in the division. Shrewsbury were stronger, faster and more efficient with the ball and far better in every department imaginable. We trudged around trying to pass it on a boggy pitch increasingly tiny triangles; if Shrewsbury weren’t out-muscling us, they were simply waiting for a mistake to happen. When they got the ball, they moved it quickly and looked a continual threat. When they chose to shut us down, they did. It was much the same against Wycombe. It was much the same against Burton.

Post-match, Appleton tied himself up in knots. He was, he said, ‘man enough’ to admit we were beaten by a better team, as if this was a positive. It certainly paints him as an intelligent, reflective, objective individual; all of which are good qualities to have. But it ignores the fact that it’s ultimately his job to ensure we aren’t swept aside by better teams in the manner that we were. No matter that a team is better resourced, we should expect to compete with every team that comes to the Kassam rather than passively wait to see what turns up. He reinforced his normal stance that he wouldn’t be stepping back or ranting and raving at the players; a point he regularly makes. He appeared to take a swipe at the club; pointing out that we’ve not been higher than League 2 for over a decade and that it’s not as if they’re playing in front of big crowds. It’s something that both David Kemp and Chris Wilder did in the past when they were under pressure. He failed, as he increasingly does, to explain what he was trying to do; If they were simply a better team, what was the plan to neutralise that?

Then Ryan Clarke came on to try and explain things from the players’ perspective. Players rarely say anything of genuine interest; it’s not really in their professional interest to do so. To criticise your employer in the media is career limiting, so we shouldn’t expect a player to come out and blame tactics or lack of investment or whatever. However, Clarke seemed to struggle to contain his frustration. He followed the party line; he praised being treated like an adult by the management and the commitment to playing ‘proper’ football. He also claimed he had nothing to do beyond the two goals, although this ignored at least one shot coming off the crossbar and one cleared off the line. He just seemed to want the interview to end before he said something he shouldn’t.

If he was frustrated, then it would stand to reason. Clarke has played in successful Oxford sides and now finds himself defending a team that barely resembles that of the past in terms of quality, character or results. He may be telling the truth about being treated like an adult; but does that mean that everyone is acting like an adult? Jamie Cook describes Chris Wilder ‘a good coach but a terrible man’, but maybe that’s what is needed sometimes – somebody has to take a bunch of fit, healthy alpha males and tell them what to do and how to work together. Is Appleton almost giving the players too much leeway to express themselves, because when they do, they become disjointed and ineffectual.

How much longer will the players believe the philosophy, whatever that turns out to be, when it’s not producing results? At one point against Shrewsbury, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis broke free down the left flank. He was fouled and lay prone on the floor in the mud. But what was significant was that he would have looked up around him to see five Shrewsbury players, surrounding him ready to put a challenge in or at least shepherd him into a neutral position. Being dominated like that must become demoralising, not getting results even more so.

The Plymouth result was welcomed, of course, but papered over the cracks. It will be some time yet before we find out whether the result resembles a turning point or whether it was simply a chink in the prevailing direction of travel that was evident against Shrewsbury. We benefited from an early sending off and another James Roberts special. There’s something melancholic about Roberts’ emergence as, possibly, the biggest talent to come out of the club since Jamie Brooks. On one hand, it’s great to see him thriving but you also suspect that if he continues to do so then he’s unlikely to score more than 20 goals for us before being picked up by a bigger club. We should enjoy him while he lasts.

As 2014 concludes we’ve conceded about 10 places in the league for this new philosophy, we’ve taken a point less at home compared to the same point last year, we’ve scored the same number of goals and conceded 2 more. We’ve won the same and lost one more. Our away form, of course, doesn’t compare. The statistics suggest we’re going backwards, Christmas has proved a microcosm of the season, patchy and unconvincing punctuated by flickers of a new future. Outwardly Ashton and Eales remain committed to Appleton, but they can’t completely ignore our league position. If he was under threat, then Plymouth will have bought him some more time. January’s form – with a number of games against teams around us – will be more telling.