Midweek fixtures: Away days

A few weeks ago, out of curiosity, I started looking at some stuff about our away games. I got a bit carried away and disappeared down a ridiculously deep wormhole. I mean, I only looked at the last 20 years and only in the league, I’m not insane. This is what I found.

If you were mad enough to go to every Oxford United away game in the last 20 years then you’ve travelled 57,700 miles to league games (one way, double all of this for the return journey) with another 7,300 miles in the cups (OK, I looked at the cups a bit). On average that’s 2,700 miles a year in the league with 350 miles in the cup.

In the league we’ve played 102 different opponents, AFC Wimbledon being the most frequent – 16 times.

The worst year for travel was in 2002/3 when we ate up no less than 3,400 miles, compared to 2000/01 when we just travelled just 2,221 miles, anyone around during that season will agree that it was probably the best thing about it.

Most travelled

Devon is a lovely place to go on holiday, we’ve chomped up more miles travelling to Torquay United than any other club; 2006.

  1. Torquay United 2006
  2. Rochdale 1958
  3. York City 1840
  4. Plymouth Argyle 1634
  5. Bury 1577
  6. Accrington Stanley 1528
  7. Scunthorpe United 1523
  8. Morecambe 1463
  9. Southend United 1359
  10. Carlisle United 1340

Least travelled

Our single trip to Hayes and Yeading in the league puts them at the top of the least number of accumulated league miles we’ve travelled (or bottom of the most number of miles, depending how you look at it).

  1. Hayes and Yeading 44
  2. Reading 50
  3. St Albans 55
  4. Swindon Town 92
  5. Brentford 107
  6. Lewes 111
  7. Cardiff City 118
  8. Kettering 124
  9. Ipswich Town 139 
  10. Sheffield United 143

Lowest miles per point

It has long been debated (and largely rejected) that Wycombe Wanderers is a derby, but it is the shortest distance (sorry, Swindon is 30 miles away from the Kassam, seven more than Wycombe). By some distance, Wycombe is the most efficient place to travel in terms of miles per point; we only have to travel 1.5 miles for every point gained.

  1. 1.5 Wycombe Wanderers
  2. 3.7 Cheltenham Town
  3. 4.3 AFC Wimbledon
  4. 4.7 Bristol Rovers
  5. 5.1 Swindon Town
  6. 5.6 Northampton Town
  7. 5.7 Dagenham & Redbridge
  8. 6.3 Forest Green Rovers
  9. 6.4 Burton Albion
  10. 6.8 Kidderminster Harriers

Lowest miles per point (+100 miles)

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and fancy a game more than 100 miles away, you’d do worse than head for our bogey team Southend United. Despite some terrible results, we only need to travel 8 miles for every point we’ve won.  

  1. 8 miles per point Southend United
  2. 10.3 Notts County
  3. 11 Bury
  4. 11.7 Mansfield Town
  5. 12 Plymouth Argyle
  6. 12.3 York City
  7. 13.2 Lincoln City
  8. 14 Gillingham
  9. 14 Torquay United
  10. 14.3 Ebbsfleet United

Highest miles per point

You’d do well to avoid a trip to Barrow; just two trips north, taking one point means that it’ll cost you 251.6 miles for every point gained. Of course, lots of this is skewed by a lack of frequency. Among teams we’ve played five or more times, Fleetwood Town is the bogey team, costing a mammoth 101.9 miles for every point. 

  1. 251.6 miles per point Barrow
  2. 125.8 Sunderland
  3. 191.4 Hull City
  4. 165.4 Huddersfield Town
  5. 117.7 Cardiff City
  6. 100.8 Lewes
  7. 110.8 Yeovil Town
  8. 101.9 Fleetwood Town
  9. 94 Bournemouth
  10. 89.3 Carlisle United

All of which is very interesting, but not as interesting as hitting the road in hope and expectation, screaming yourself horse and praying for for three points.

Who is James Constable?

We left Torquay at 9.15am on Saturday arriving home just in time to listen to us winning back in, er, Torquay. It was a bit back to front, I suppose, but we couldn’t work the logistics of managing the family’s collective sanity, plus a car with a week’s worth of holiday paraphernalia and over £8 of plastic crabbing gear. As we headed north up the M5, we coo’ed at a Motts coach going in the opposite direction; flashes of yellow beyond the tinted, or perhaps dirty, windows, suggested inside were Oxford fans going in the ‘right’ direction.

The result, of course, was another win, our 9th goal of the season, our six different goalscorer and, most notably, a first from James Constable. Constable’s goal was a wonder, but it was greeted in the same way that local neighbours do on DIY SOS when seeing a renovated house for a family beset with illness and other misfortune. The reaction didn’t suggest that this wasn’t really Constable doing what he does; the goal, like the renovation, was ‘so deserved’ given what he’s been through.

It’s never been a barrier to those who phone Radio Oxford, but I’m not qualified to make meaningful comment on professional football, I haven’t played organised football since I was at school. I can’t qualify my views by saying things like ‘I’ve played the game at a high level of the North Witney Veterans Monday Night 5-a-side league’.

I don’t know if there’s the concept of first and second teams anymore. At school, excluding goths, there were about 20 boys willing to play football. The first team consisted of capable sporting boys; there wasn’t a long tail from which a second team could be created; in the vernacular of Saved By The Bell the second team were dweebs and nerds. I remember one asking to play striker because that’s what was written on the Gola boots his mum had bought.

It’s difficult to know whether there’s a first and second team at Oxford. We have a development squad; which may be the reserves, or the youth team, or neither of these. Perhaps managers don’t think of first teams; Chris Wilder is known to relegate players from a winning line-up right out of the following match day squad. Sometimes there seems no relationship between selection and performance. Perhaps players are selected to tactical requirements.

Against Bury Chris Wilder reinstated four players he’d left out against Charlton; one might reasonably assume that they had been rested. One of the four who made way was James Constable.

Constable is or was the quintessential star striker for Oxford; he captained the team, scored the goals, took the penalties and generally set an example to the players around him. Through Twitter, he also proved himself a nice balanced guy and, through his rejection of Swindon’s overtures, loyal too. If modern Oxford United could be described as one person, it would be James Constable. And we needed him, the club spent more than a decade enduring players we felt no more than a duty to support, but who frustrated and underwhelmed.

What role does Constable play in Wilder 2.0? Or is it Lenagan 1.0? It might be my imagination, but Wilder seems to have been taken out of the firing line and the club is moving towards being less reliant on one man. The new era, is emerging is a new spine on the pitch; Clarke, Mullins, Wright, Whing, Kitson and Smalley. But not Constable.

Spiritually, everything that Constable was, he still is, but he’s not a goal machine. Despite his strike against Torquay, you can’t rely on him to grab a goal in a tight game. You’d rely on him to work hard from box to box, he’s a exemplary representative of the club. But can the club sustain a well paid ambassador who spends much of his time on the bench? And does Constable want to play that role?

He’s entering an interesting period in his career; at 28 he won’t necessarily be able to rely on his natural physical attributes – pace and strength will slowly begin to desert him – he may need to think about new ways of sustaining himself physically. In addition; in a few weeks will be a father for the first time. If he needs to remodel his game; in the way Alan Shearer did when his injuries began to take their toll, he’ll be doing it during the emotional and physical chaos of a new baby.

Economics aside, I’ve no doubt that Chris Wilder would keep Constable. He still represents many of the core values of the squad and provides a link to where we’ve been (and never want to go back) and where we are, and between the senior squad and the development squad – many of whom will have watched and admired Constable as children, presumably. But it’s hard to imagine him returning to that player who would not only score lots of goals, but at the right time too. Wilder has managed to unpick himself from that Constable dilemma where he would almost obliged to pick Constable, because if he didn’t and we lost, it’s because our ‘star striker’ is on the bench. That’s not really Constable’s role anymore.

So, is Constable a back-up striker? One of a group of strikers who will be used according to form throughout the season? Some kind of spiritual force within the squad? Or a spare wheel and relic from our recent past. While his history assures him legend status in the future, his current position remains uncertain.

Calling out for an unsung hero

The Radio Oxford phone-in is like crack, you know it’s not good for you, but there’s something that can’t stop you from taking part. On Saturday after the draw against Torquay, Dougie, a regular I think, came on to put his point across. Lenegan was a liar, Dougie said, he lied when he said he couldn’t spend any more on players because of the salary cap. Because Dougie knows better; he could spend more, if he put more money into the club. Which reminded me of the Paul Merton joke about the Olympics; they had to double the budget in order to come in under budget.

Jerome Sale, who is always good in these situations pointed out that the salary cap was in place to prevent clubs from chasing an unrealisable dream. Endless spending puts you in a falsely elevated position; like Portsmouth or Luton. Swindon did it, said Dougie. To which Sale pointed out that the chairman had been removed and they had been placed under a transfer embargo as a result.

Now, the natural law about Oxford United is that the longer any debate goes on, the more heated it gets, the more likely that someone will mention Firoz Kassam. Dougie was on the defensive and blurted out that Lenegan is just another Kassam. All he wanted was the stadium and surrounding land. To which the slightly exasperated Sale responded that Lenegan didn’t own the stadium and the surrounding land. Which makes Lenagan at least one stadium and surrounding land less than Kassam. What he didn’t mention, but could have, is that he’s also largely given up on acquiring it in the short term. If Lenagan’s only interest is the facilities, he’s going a pretty terrible way about it.

Just before Dougie, was an American interloper who has been working in the area and following our fortunes in recent weeks. Despite occasionally sounding like a Floridian life-coach he offered perhaps the most intelligent assessment of us I’ve heard in years. Fans are inconsistent, said The American, fans do the easy bit in celebrating success, but are hysterical when things don’t go our way. It is very difficult to find consistency when one key component is so bloody inconsistent.

Amongst the many things I’ve been thinking about doing with this blog but never get round to is a series on unsung heroes – in which I will make a case for Joe Burnell. It strikes me that we don’t currently have an unsung hero. Inconsistency has blighted us this season on and off the pitch; one of the things unsung heroes offer is a steadying hand. During our last two promotions key to our success has come from an unsung hero. In 2010, Simon Clist regulated the surges of energy that came from Dannie Bulman and Adam Murray and back in 1996 Stuart Massey got the ball down and passed when the temptation was pump the ball up to Paul Moody. There was more thrilling talent elsewhere in the team, but Massey and Clist offered an understated, but essential, contribution to our successes.

On Tuesday, when we flip flopped to defeat against Dagenham a lot of the focus was on our inability to defend corners; and specifically (and probably rightly) the decision to play Raynes over Mullins. But while we dithered, nobody took control and took us back to basics. On Saturday we barely registered a performance in the first half and pounded them in the second. But we needed someone to regulate Peter Leven’s indulgences; which, at the moment, seem to involve waiting for the game to slow down enough for his prodigious talents to flourish.

Similarly, we need someone to regulate Adam Chapman’s complacency. Chapman’s problem is that he doesn’t care. This is a virtue sometimes; during big games he just plays without fear of the consequences, for example; Wembley, Swindon at home and the penalty he scored against Rushden in the Conference when we were going through a particularly scratchy time. Late last season he described his productive relationship with Asa Hall as having a laugh trying stuff out. This is just what we need when the pressure is on. But then, like on Tuesday, sometimes Chapman needs to play percentages to give us some rhythm.

Cox, I think, is supposed to be the one to play this role, but it needs some serious personality to exert influence in the squad that’s needed. He hash’t yet grabbed the midfield as firmly as he needs to.

The obvious candidate for this role is Andy Whing, not exactly unsung, but someone who has improved us, even from his Siberian posting out of the right. If we can get Damian Batt healthy then perhaps Whing can move into the middle to give the creatives something to work off. Of course, continually having to stir the pot is a central theme of our season. In the meantime weeks drift by and we’re still floating around at the foot of the table.

The good news is that every other team seems to be in a similar position regarding inconsistency. Automatic promotion seems beyond us, but it still looks like there’s going to be an almighty shit fight for the play-offs. If we can find our unsung hero, we might just replicate the successes of ’96.

Don’t let perfection become the enemy of the good

The palpable sense of entitlement; something I thought we’d cleansed ourselves of during three years in the Conference, is returning.

We’re four scrappy, intense, ugly games from the play-offs. Another two from Wembley. And another one from League 1.

And yet, after two defeats and the last minute draw against Torquay on Monday, people are hurumphing that, even if we do make the play-offs, it is, as one person put it on Radio Oxford, just papering over the cracks.

Or, put another way, even with promotion still achievable, even if we do go up, it won’t have been done in the right way.

Apparently, it’s not the Oxford way to scrap our way to success. It’s just not very becoming to be dragging our bodies over the line, despite having a squad picked apart by injuries and suspensions.

Yes, there are credible arguments to have about discipline and levels of fitness, or the wisdom of signing 36 year old defenders or relying so much on James Constable’s goals. But none of these discussions are for now.

The solutions offered on Monday included Ian Lenagan ‘putting his hand in his pocket’ and Chris Wilder not relying so much on loanees. Both arguments are as unjust as they are pointless. Of the top seven, only Torquay have less loanees and in between transfer windows Chris Wilder has limited options when it comes to improving his team. And Ian Lenagan has put his hand in his pocket, investing another £200,000 in the squad this year. But, quite rightly, he is not going to bet the farm on getting promotion.

The desire to create the perfect club, whilst still in the midst of a very good season, is a pointless distraction.

Adam Chapman, whose confidence and influence is surging to the fore as the games get more tense and macabre, summed up the mood in his interview post-Torquay. Rather than being incarcerated amongst the wretches of society, wracked with the guilt of killing a man, he’s playing football with a chance of getting to Wembley and having a laugh trying out new things with Asa Hall. The joie de vivre with which those two approach games is been evident in their fantastic performances of late.

I doubt that Michael Duberry, 19 years a professional and probably no more than 13 months from never playing professionally again, is thinking that he’ll forgo this season’s push for a more aesthetically pleasing run some time in the future.

And I doubt that Scott Rendell, having experienced unimaginable tragedy, is thinking that we should give up a opportunity for brief, fleeting, visceral joy to serve some self-important serious football idyll.

No, we shouldn’t ignore the underlying weaknesses in the club, but, for now, failure is not missing the play-offs; failure is not relishing the battle.

Just over six years ago we played Darlington; I drove into the car park and found a space in the row nearest the Oxford Mail stand. It was 20 minutes before kick-off and there were plenty of other spaces I could have chosen. It was cold, beyond my ticket, I had long given up spending money in the stadium out of apathy rather than protest. I sat and listened to the radio before walking into the Oxford Mail stand with five minutes to spare. We played with four centre-backs, and no style, Neville Roach and Mark E’Beyer were substitutes. We lost 2-0 on our way, of course, to relegation.

Sometimes, before the bigger games, I quietly and jokingly lament the ease with which you could park during the latter Kassam years. Even though our parking remains Conference level as best, everything else about our situation has improved. At least we’re not doing a Darlington.

We’re not as slick a machine as we want to be, we’re not turning teams over with the effortlessness of The Glory Years. We’re a band of ragged desperadoes battling against the odds. It may not be The Oxford Way, but it is this season’s way. Those without the appetite for the fight might find more satisfaction in following a club seeking some unachievable perfection whilst drifting from one meaningless mid-table season to another.

Torquay 3 Yellows 4

When Sean Clohessy miscued his cross 40 yards over Ryan Clarke’s head, Southend’s fans were tumbling down the terraces with giddy joy. Clohessy himself did a silly dance with his hand over his mouth in mock embarrassment. We sat, ashen faced, in frustrated bewilderment.

I thought; why do we never have fun? Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had good times, but our fun is more like the relief of emptying your underpants of biscuit crumbs than naive childish enjoyment. I don’t remember us ever having scored an audacious fluke of a goal like that, or being at the right end of a 4-3 away ding-dong goal-fest.

Fun is just not the Oxford way of doing things.

And then this… Chris Wilder wields the axe by making eight changes, he brings in Jack Midson days after suggesting his time was up as an Oxford player. We win by the odd goal in seven with Midson grabbing his hat-trick in the last minute.

I know you know all that. I just needed to replay it all in my head. It’s just not. The Oxford. Way.

There will be some claiming that Midson has proved Chris Wilder wrong or that he got lucky with his team selection. But as they say; the better you are the luckier you get. He makes decisions; sometimes they’re wrong, sometimes they’re wild and illogical. But mostly they’re right. And we get to see a man standing on the ball doing a Kanchelskis. IN AN AWAY GAME. Oxford? Fun? Feels odd, don’t it?