Good Friday agreements

The last minute draw against Morecambe brought the most vocal complaints yet from the East Stand. However, the more concerning thing has to be the fact that come the end of the season, we’ll have something like 18 players free to leave. 

The temptation, after Friday’s draw with Morecambe, is to launch into another debate about the future of Chris Wilder. But his fate is surely sealed one way or the other; whichever side Ian Lenagan falls on, he’s not likely to need anymore evidence to aid his decision. Friday’s performance was not bad, it was average and massively frustrating, like our season.

I do take some exception to two key criticisms of Wilder, however. The first is the complaint that his interviews on the radio are full of excuses, when in fact they are merely explanations. His explanation of the mistakes that were made in the lead up to the equaliser were descriptions of fact not excuses.

I also doubt that Wilder is not aware of the link between the players’ performances and his responsibility as manager. So while he talked about his players actions – not taking the ball into the corner, Constable getting caught offside – he’s not simply absolving himself of his ultimate accountability to deliver performances.

The question that Lenagan needs to answer is whether Wilder can establish forward momentum and more crucially, what impact his presence might have on the club in the short term, not least in terms of season ticket sales.

So, that’s me not debating Chris Wilder. The more concerning thing is the number of players who are about to go out of contract. By my reckoning 19 players can walk away come May.

The club have options on Crocombe, Marsh, Potter and Davis, and it seems fairly logical that they will be taken up. Crocombe and Marsh are a sign that there have been improvements, at least, in youth development. Davis can be a bit heavy footed, but he has pace and strength and gives options down the left. Potter’s form is fitful, but he offers creativity and, though its often difficult to see it, something approaching a goal threat.

You’d expect Damian Batt and Andy Whing to be offered new deals. However, I think Whing may go; he’s not stupid and will know that he has value in the market at League 1 or 2 level. The club’s potential is not what it was when he originally signed, there’ll be no Leven or Duberry type signings this summer, will he want to stick around to see whether things improve when there’s a risk he’ll spend another two years treading water? He’ll be 32/33 at the end of another contract, so you’d think this was his last chance at commanding a reasonable salary before he retires. Batt seems settled at Oxford, he’s got other interests, the manager likes him, and it’s difficult to see why he wouldn’t sign.

Last season, alongside Whing, there was a glut of comparatively big time signings. Tony Capaldi barely featured in his first year due to injury, and has done little to suggest he’ll be the first in the queue for a new contract. Deane Smalley has had a torrid time, although there’s something about his general application  that makes me think that he’s worth another year. Jon-Paul Pittman whose injuries suggest he hasn’t got the robustness we need; I can’t see him staying.

The big two from 2011 were Peter Leven and Michael Duberry. If Leven is offered a new contract, then it’s surely going to be on terms that reflect his general lack of availability. I doubt he’ll take that sort of offer and, while he still maintains some kind of reputation, will move on. Duberry, I think, may be interested in another season, especially as this season as been so wretched for him. I think there’s a chance the club may oblige in the vein hope that he’ll recreate the commanding form of his first season. I think that’s a mistake. When fit, he’s the best defender in the club and can be one of the best in the league, but age plays against him. Duberry was part of a strategy to have accelerated success, this doesn’t seem to have worked, it’s time to move to something else.

We’re also seeing the expiration of the post-promotion contracts with Tom Craddock, Simon Heslop and Harry Worley all up for renewal. I still think Craddock is a class act, but his style (less aggressive than Constable and Smalley) and his injury record play against him. His future, I think, is based on whether alternatives can be found, but I also think that his goalscoring record will see him getting other offers. I’d be surprised if he was at the club next year.

Simon Heslop has continuously flattered to deceive. Scorer of howitzer goals in his first season in particular, he now looks like someone who doesn’t even want to play football anymore. Worley also just doesn’t seem to have the extra gear in his development. He was part of a error prone defence in the first year back, it seemed Duberry could come in and steady the ship while Worley found his feet. While I think that he may have a future as an impact striker, there’s no way the club will take the time to test that theory. Neither will be at the club next year.

Which leaves more recent signings; I like Scott Davies and think it worthy of a new contract, and O’Brien offers reliability we’re looking for. Parker is willing, but replaceable. And I can’t see the club using up unnecessary wages on McCormick if Ryan Clarke is coming back with Crocombe and Brown as cover.

All of which could leave us with a gaping hole next season. All of which suggests summer risks becoming a massive scramble just for bodies let alone the class we need or that Wilder will be going and the decisions are being delayed to give his replacement more options.

2012 squad review – midfield and attack

On stable defensive foundations can a successful squad be built. In midfield and up front, however, despite having a decent pool for fish from, Chris Wilder struggled to find the right formula, at least not one that he could keep on the field for any length of time. The crucible of the argument about Wilder’s worth centres on whether the seasons failings were one of incompetence or bad luck.

Peter Leven showed moments of genius; not least his 40 yarder against Port Vale and the flick to play in Liam Davis at Barnet. Injury didn’t help him, but he lacked the consistency you get from the more industrious types like, say, Dannie Bulman.

Or Andy Whing; Whing’s Supporters’ Player of the Season award is wholly understandable. There are stories of people with anaemia who chew on metal in a vain attempt to get iron into their system. The Whing vote reflected a call for dogged consistency. He let nobody down and you suspect he never will.

While Leven, when fit, and Whing, when not deputising in the back four, probably makes up two of our first choice midfield three, the final member of the team is somewhat less clear. Paul McLaren, who was the steadying hand during 2010/11 faded from view. Not unexpectedly, his age suggested that he was only ever a stop gap while the club found itself a firmer footing in the league. Perhaps that was the role expected of Mark Wilson when he arrived, though he failed to make any impact.

Simon Heslop started in fine form, but was one of the early victims of this year’s curse of the folk hero – Leven ‘doing what he wants’, Ryan Clarke’s penalty saves, Asa Hall’s goals – as soon as their feats were verbalised, they stopped doing them. Heslop was struck by only moderate form and then injury; the two of which may have been related.

Perhaps the most interesting combination was that of Chapman and Hall. They were, in many senses, less explosive, but more consistent. Chapman’s return was remarkable he had a composure and awareness that others just don’t seem to have. His only problem is whether he can hold it together mentally; which is often the difference between good and great players. Hall had less crafted, but benefited hugely from the base that Chapman offered. Hall’s form also benefitted from having a bit lump, like Scott Rendell up front to follow up on knock-downs.The fact Hall has decided not to sign is disapointing; he and Chapman seemed to have a partnership that could be built on.

James Constable needs a break; not in terms of a goal off his backside, but a break from being James Constable; Oxford Icon. Last season he was the focal point of most of the drama involving Swindon; three transfer bids, two goals, one sending off. He seems mentally fatigued by it all, the sparky aggression that gained him so many bookings, but also so many goals in the Conference has been replaced by a subdued and isolated figure. There’s a point in every player’s career when they need re-engineer their game. Constable needs to be less of a focal point. A glimpse of what might be was seen on the arrival of Scott Rendell. Momentarily, Constable was freed from all his responsibilities, he was able to feed off the balls from the ever willing Rendell. That was blown apart with Constable’s sending off against Swindon. It may give us some clues as to how to play next season.

Controversially, amongst fans at least, Chris Wilder’s preference is to play 4-3-3. Which either means you end up with a proven goalscorer playing out of position (Midson during the Conference years) or you have players that frustrate and delight with equal measure. John-Paul Pittman had a curious season with his loan to Crawley, momentary spike of form, then – again due to injury – anonymity. Although I have a huge amount of affection for Alfie Potter as a member of the promotion squad, he seems to be rated more highly by others than me. He has his moments, but he puts lots of pressure on the likes of Constable. When Potter was injured, and Craddock struggle to return, Wilder turned to Dean Morgan – who wasn’t as bad as people say, but is clearly a bit of an oddball and Christian Montano – who was raw and inconsistent. Oli Johnson, however, was the most surprising omission from Wilder’s retained list. He of all the flanking strikers combined a decent supply of creativity with a reasonable number of goals.

For different reasons, we missed Tom Craddock and Dean Smalley. Craddock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I saw him as being an essential component to the season’s success. His sustained absence could easily have cost us 10-15 goals, which would have made all the difference. Similarly, Smalley should have contributed double digits in terms of goals. He didn’t seem to do much wrong, but similarly he didn’t do much right. If he lasts the summer, let’s hope we’ll seem him rejuvenated come August.

Kassam All Star XI – Strikers part 3

Yemi Odubade and Steve Basham took us into the Conference era and were joined by the enigma that was Rob Duffy. Duffy’s extraordinary achievement was to score 20 goals in a season and still fail to impress an Oxford public starved of success.

Duffy’s goal tally was inflated by a large number of penalties. When these eventually dried up, he quickly fell from favour. His coup de gras was rolling the ball gently into the arms of the Exeter keeper when clean through and facing promotion and immortality in the face during the play-off semi-final in 2007.

Duffy’s impotence meant a number of replacements were tried to save our season. Marvin Robinson was a massive battering ram who eventually wrecked himself in a car crash. Chris Zebroski was the real deal and very nearly made the difference.

These paled into insignificance in comparison to Kristaps Grebis. Grebis was a Latvian with Champions League experience. He arrived midway through the 2006/7 season and looked utterly lost. Which pretty much describes our decision making at the time. He made just four appearances, but goes down in Oxford history as one of the all-time worst signings.

2007/8’s big summer signing was Gary Twigg. That fact alone proving how destitute we were . The myth of our largesse within the Conference remained, we signed Paul Shaw, but as soon as he realised what a mess we were in he moved to Hungary. Hungary, I tell you.

With Darren Patterson’s appointment came a flurry of loan deals including one Matt Green from Cardiff. Despite a troublesome knee, he just kept scoring. That summer it looked like he would make his move permanent. As people queued for their season tickets, and Nick Merry preened himself preparing to parade his new star, Green headed south and signed for Torquay. It was one of the greatest swindles in nothing-league football. He’d be back, though, being part of the strike force that got us to Wembley and back to the league.

Darren Patterson really knew how to sign a striker. At the start of 2008/9 he signed two loanees; Jamie Guy was one, the other James Constable.

Guy was an instant hit, storming the pre-season but was injured just before the opening game. He wasn’t the same when he returned, chugging his way to Christmas before being dispatched back to his parent club with just five goals to his name.

Constable was a slower burn, the catalyst for him coming to the fore was Chris Wilder. Sometimes Wilder’s decisions are moments of genius. An early decision was to invest his spirit and philosophy into Constable. Constable was Wilder on the pitch, someone he could trust and we could follow. He is so much more than a striker; he’s the only true icon of the Kassam Stadium era so far.

Around Constable Wilder built a powerful strike force. Perhaps it was a way of buying himself some time by announcing that Sam Deering was our best player days after we lost him to a broken leg. Fans wanted so desperately for Deering to succeed, but he, um, came up a little short.

Deering has his little part in our history; exchanging passes with Alfie Potter at Wembley before Potter slammed home the third decisive goal. Potter too is somewhat of an untouchable amongst fans and seemingly the manager.

Jamie Cook, The True Carrier Of Hope, had his moment of fame. But the classic trio was Constable, Green and Jack Midson, who will always be fondly remembered for his titanic performance at Wembley, but also The Miracle of Plainmoor.

The trio didn’t last long. More guile was needed for the league and Chris Wilder brought in his favourite ever toy; Tom Craddock from Luton and the mercurial Steve MacLean.

But throughout all of this was Constable, no Kassam Stadium XI will be complete without him. When we come to review the 20th anniversary of the Kassam Stadium; his name will be first on the teamsheet.

Do we really want to know more about players?

Sir Alex Ferguson is almost certainly correct in saying that footballers could do with choosing improving literature over Twitter, but he will almost certainly be ignored. Footballers live for the vaguely homoerotic surrounds of the dressing room and the inter-player ‘banter’ within.

Twitter has turned this fun filled roister-doister into a professional sport, although, anyone who has witnessed the exchanges between Robbie Savage and Rio Ferdinand will see that this apparently rich vein of self-affirmation consist of them arguing over which looks more like a horse.

This insight into the cosseted world of football proves that a player’s life isn’t really worth knowing about and that the most interesting thing they’ll ever do is on the pitch. It makes you wonder why we’re expected to care about the Ryan Giggs affair. The media paint Giggs as a manipulating superstar protecting his sponsorship deals, keeping it from his wife and the baying public. But the revelation is unlikely to make a significant material difference to his wealth, and it’s beyond all credibility to think that his wife only found out after the details were released on Monday. She looked someway short of distraught when walking the pitch after Manchester United’s final game against Blackpool on Sunday. One may reasonably assume that the Giggs’ are resolving any issues the affair has caused – which they’re entitled to do.

Giggs is probably just a bit embarrassed about it all, as you might be if, say, your neighbour caught you scratching your bum in the garden. He’s just been a bit of an idiot, particularly considering Imogen Thomas is one of the country’s more careless girlfriends having previously been subject of a leaked sex tape. But in the end, Giggs is what Giggs was; the finest footballer of his generation what he does in his spare time – whether that’s playing away or going to Tesco – is his business.

The separation of the footballer from the person is a tricky one. Twitter is a hugely positive force amongst Oxford fans with Paul McLaren, Harry Worley, James Constable, Tom Craddock, Ben Purkiss, Jack Midson and new signing Andy Whing all registered and engaging with fans. This builds trust and can only be good for the club, tweets between the players on the bus going to Shrewsbury gave a really nice added dimension to the match day experience.
But I’m not particularly keen on taking it much further than that. My only real experience of a professional footballer outside the stadium was spending some time with Mickey Lewis at a wedding. Whilst he was a lot of fun – at one point rear ending a chair in a deserted hotel bar telling some Wycombe fans of the ‘spanking’ he’d been part of in 1996, there was a point where I just fancied going to bed. I like Mickey, but I’m just not that hardcore and now I prefer the version which bowls around picking up cones before a game.
Adam Chapman is another who has challenged our moral fortitude. But as I said last year, we should maintain a dignified separation between Chapman the footballer and Chapman the dangerous driver. Football is not so important that it should be used as part of the justice system – rewarded to those who do well, or deprived from those who are bad. Prisons are a perfectly sufficient punishment, Chapman’s justice should be serving its course any time soon and, if we do see him in a yellow shirt again, he should be welcomed back as we would any player.
And then there’s Paulo Di Canio, who is a fascist off the pitch and taking over at Swindon Town on it. Should we really care? Certainly the GMB think so, and, well, it’s just a bit too easy to ignore. But footballers don’t engage in improving literature as Ferguson suggests they do; they engage in illicit sex, banal banter, dangerous driving and fascism.
Di Canio is perfectly entitled to his opinion, as misguided as it is. And Swindon are perfectly entitled to appoint him as manager, as misguided as that is. Perhaps it’s just in the nature of football culture and its environment that creates a higher proportion of morons. This may be specific to their type – studies have shown that American football college players are more likely commit rape because they are trained to be unthinking pack animals. Perhaps we only hear about the morons and that football mirrors the rest of the world in having a broad spectrum of views and types. Generally speaking it is probably advisable to keep the player and the person separate, as they say; you should never meet your heroes.

The season in review: the attack

The revolving door in the striking department has ensured that we go into the close season with just four strikers vying for three slots.

Of those discarded, Simon Hackney was the HD Sam Deering. Like Deering he looked like the best player you ever played against at school, but some way from truly being a first team regular. Ryan Doble disappeared faster than he arrived, so you can hardly say he was given a chance.

Jack Midson is held in some reverence amongst Oxford fans. Part of the Conference Play-off team, he’ll always been fondly remembered. Due to the Miracle of Plainmoor, and the fact he’s a thoroughly decent and articulate bloke, some consider him hard done by.

Rationally, during Midson’s Indian summer post-The Miracle, his endeavour wasn’t enough to make him look like a player capable of challenging James Constable over the next 2 years. Likewise Matt Green, whose later aimless performances cast a shadow over his otherwise essential contribution to our renaissance.

Constable himself was questioned by some as to his ability to ‘step up a level’. Mostly this just seemed like self-fulfilling prophecies. Every game he drew a blank was considered proof. In reality we were always better when he played, although his role was as much a foil for McLean and Craddock as it was as a target man. It was bit of a surprise to see him getting player of the season given the scrutiny he was put under.

Despite Tom Craddock’s 15 goals, he still doesn’t seem yet to have been fully accepted by the Oxford fans. Perhaps it’s the Luton connection; maybe it was the way he was so coveted by Chris Wilder to the expense of the likes of Midson and Matt Green. He offers something no other player can offer; movement, awareness and finishing are all some way above others in the squad. I think he’ll flourish next season.

For a period Steve McLean was the quality mark that all others were supposed to be aspiring to. Latterly, however, he portrayed sniffy diffidence. He’s never going to be a player who pops a lung chasing back, but he’s a smart and gives us another dimension. Should we sign him? Yes. Should we bet the farm to do so? No.

Last year, I put Sam Deering on death row, saying that despite his popularity, he didn’t quite fit in. I’m not going to be popular when I say that Alfie Potter is this year’s Sam Deering. Potter is what Potter does. I like what it, but there is a point where he’s got to decide what’s he’s contributing. He’s certainly no goalscorer, and his assisting in patchy. Mostly he can seen dancing through the opposition’s midfield in a neutral zone about 20 yards outside their penalty box. It’s all very pretty but ultimately unproductive. There’s time to change, but he’s got work to do to become indispensable, I think we’ll see him out on loan sometime before next May.