The wrap: Walsall 1 Oxford United 3

The Bescot Stadium was a new one for me. I’d often seen the sign off the M6, and the main stand poking above the flyover and thought it an obvious one to tick off the list. The problem was that though we are, in many ways, similar clubs, we haven’t met that frequently. Yes, three times in the last three years, but before that there had been a sixteen year gap.

I was looking forward to it; the stadium is complete and compact in a classic lower league style. The relatively short journey, plus our good form, was sure to draw a decent following. Plus, there was a little less tension now we were sitting loftily in 12th.

In fact, the ground a curiosity, apparently designed by an architect who missed his lecture on cantilever structures. Rather than clean sight lines, socking great girders prop up the roof, obstructing the view. I’ve been to old grounds and sat in areas with poor views, but that’s more because seats had been installed where they were never intended to be, the problem at the Bescot seems to be obviously avoidable.

I’d known about this beforehand, but underestimated how bad it was. To top it off, their main stand, more modern and offering unobstructed views and corporate hospitality – their equivalent of our South Stand – is behind the goal rather than down the side, the whole stadium does its best to stop people from watching the game.

This season, that’s probably not a bad thing if you’re a Walsall fan, they’re a poor team and are surely set to go down. It was only our gift of Curtis Nelson’s dithering, then Marcus Browne’s lunging tackle, resulting in his red card, that made it competitive.

Browne’s sending off could mean we don’t get to see him again. He’ll have a three match ban, which will bring us perilously close to the end of the season, and I wonder whether Karl Robinson will be bothered about giving him game time before he heads back to West Ham.

In reality, Browne’s sending off probably made the game harder for them. Fitness no longer seems to be a major factor when you lose a player, and it probably forced us to be more tactical. They didn’t have the ability to breakdown a team whose first instinct was to defend what they had.

There weren’t many chances, it wasn’t a great game, but we were prepared to attack when we could. Sam Long drove into the box to cross for Luke Garbutt who set himself to bury it. It reminded me of Trevor Hebberd’s goal in the Milk Cup, it seemed to take an age to get his feet right and shoot. I didn’t see it hit the back of the net – those obstructed views again – but there was little doubt from the sea of bodies and the cacophony of noise around me.

Garbutt, the release from a torrid season evident, headed directly to where we were, fists clenched, eyes bulging. Around us were a large number of latecomers from the pub who hadn’t been able to barge their way to the back of the stand. There seemed to be a moment when Garbutt realised what he was heading into – a seething mass of Adidas trainers, Stone Island jumpers and coats with goggles in their hoods. There was fear in his eyes, but he was fully committed and piled in anyway, disappearing into the morass. The unlikeliest player to bond the team with the fans.

Jerome Sinclair’s celebration for his clincher was more controlled; perhaps he’d learned from Garbutt. Cameron Brannagan didn’t hold back though, he’d been fiercely competitive throughout, and ended in the melee, arguing with stewards. In any other world, I’d have been appalled by it all – and there is a post somewhere about the toxicity of patriarchy at football – I’ll save that for a defeat – but in the moment, this was glorious.

Rob Dickie seemed to do some sterling work calming things down. He’s coming of age on and off the pitch. His goal was fairly routine, but his overall game is hopefully showing that we may not miss Curtis Nelson, when he inevitably leaves, as much as we thought we might. The benches cleared, leading to Ahmed Kashi also being sent off, which I found out 3 hours later. He’ll serve a one-match ban, but I hoe we see him again next season; nobody else is as efficient with the ball.

We’re pretty much safe and with no chance of the play-offs we can start to reflect. We may not yet be fixed – particularly as we continue to be dogged off the field – but this run is rebuilding some faith and, more importantly, a bond between the team and those who follow it.

The wrap – Oxford United 1 Walsall 2

It’s easy to be drawn into the idea that the blame for a problem is everyone else’s fault, or worse, that a problem is so normal you no longer recognise it as a problem, it’s just how it is. If you have no concept of what good looks like, you accept that what you have and that’s where you stay.

Saturday’s fan forum confirmed something to me that I didn’t realise I had an opinion about. It’s time to leave the Kassam Stadium. 
A vision isn’t about wild unspecific ambition; it’s about painting a picture of a future state which takes you out of your existing state and sets you on a path to something else. The club said they’re ‘actively considering’ a move; which doesn’t go far enough for me. To actively consider something, says that we’re thinking that we might think about it. A vision should disambiguate that statement – something like; we don’t see the club being at the Kassam in ten years time.
We are in an abusive relationship with Firoz Kassam. While constantly dangling the carrot of a better future – the sale of the ground to the right people – he punishes us with punitive rents and court battles. He paints a picture that we should be grateful to him for first saving the club and then giving us a new home and, to some extent, we have grown to believe all this. It is true, he did save us and give us a new ground, but for nearly 20 years, he’s been mean and spiteful. Our mindset is that he looks after us, so if we look after him, he’ll be happy. Even if, in reality, we’re not happy and even though there is nothing we can do to make him happy.
After such a long time, we have to accept there’s little prospect of anything changing. So it’s time to take control; and the first step is to say that the Kassam Stadium is no longer in our future vision.
This is not to say that any move is imminent, or that a sale cannot be achieved, but it breaks us out of the idea that after 20 years of this behaviour, Firoz Kassam is going to turn up one day in a collaborative mood ready to make a deal. There has been no evidence of that happening in the past, therefore, why should we plan on the basis that it might happen in the future?
Kassam might simply shrug his shoulders, he can always build houses on the land and make a lot of money from the site. It takes a special lack of empathy to be a slum landlord. He’s right, of course, it is his life, his money and his land. But we don’t need to exist to serve him. 
The club has existed in this state for too long, even some diehards on the phone-in talked about ‘good times’ at the Kassam, but in seventeen years, there are precious few and those typically result from the exhaustible generosity of owners – Ian Lenagan when we got promoted from the Conference, and Darryl Eales when we got promoted from League 2. Those successes weren’t brought about by the stadium, in the way The Manor played its part in our successes of the 80s and in 1996. They happened in spite of where we were playing. Even when the ground is full of colour and noise, you can see if the ball has hit your car in the car park like we’re a non-league team. If Kassam had any empathy – or any long term vision of us as a successful club which he could benefit from – he’d have finished the stadium and developed it in line with modern football. He doesn’t, as long as we give him money, he won’t take us to court. It’s no way for us to live.
There is likely to be an explosion of investment as the Cambridge to Oxford expressway is developed; football has always been popular, but it’s now mainstream, middle class and acceptable. It seems absurd that Oxford’s football club is such an outlier in the city’s entertainment landscape. If you live around the city, the local club is hardly a place to take the family for a fun day out. 
Incidentally, I liked Jerome Sale’s suggestion that the club’s nickname should change to The Manors; the U’s is a terrible nickname anyway, and it would reflect a time when we were part of something bigger. Bringing the club and city together, as Tiger has alluded to, has to be part of the vision.
It’s difficult to think that Karl Robinson is part of the grand vision for the club, no manager or player is, or should be. Most don’t last more than a couple of years, so they’re a chapter in the story rather than the story itself. 
He didn’t have a good day, of course; he was the first manager to admit that the ground was poor. The negative tone seemed to seep into the afternoon, which was cold and miserable. The performance was familiar – plenty of chances, lots of corners, very little that lifts you out of your seat. We were beaten by a team that was simply more efficient and organised. 
We played like Robinson’s sideline persona – all energy and no discipline. For the first goal – and the incorrect suspicion that it was offside – he looked up to the gantry in the South Stand wanting to get confirmation either way from those filming the game. He even tried to get the fourth official to refer the decision as if it were some kind of VAR system. It was ridiculous, but Robinson was caught up in the moment and didn’t seem to be thinking straight.
Afterwards he seemed particularly downbeat, he’d encouraged the team not to push it, but they hadn’t responded. Perhaps they’re more influenced by his arm waving than by his words. I think he’s a better manager than he’s currently showing, but he seems to be overwhelmed with his emotions at the moment. Ludicrously high on the field, childlike and sulky off it. 
He’s right, we don’t have the players to naturally simplify our style – Marcus Browne being the most obvious – but Robinson’s own actions can’t be helping. Players are trying hard to make things happen, but it’s their lack of organisation, discipline and clear headedness – the on-pitch equivalent of referring to non-existent VAR – which is causing the problems. The excuses he’s finding, from the stadiums to the injuries to the decisions, will seep into the minds of his players. It’s not down to them, it’s down to bad luck; something intangible that they can’t control. Like the stadium situation, it’s time to own the problem.

The wrap – Walsall 2 Oxford United 1

It’s been a funny week in the cult-like campus that is the Oxblogger empire. At the club it looks like we’ve returned to the policy that has served us so well over the last few years of signing up young talented players looking for a first-team outlet. This suggests that the summer of signings from around the world was as much born out of necessity as a pre-planned change of direction.

This is counterbalanced by the news that Simon Eastwood, Ryan Ledson and Josh Ruffels are all subject to transfer speculation. We should probably expect one to go (probably Ledson), and for those who protest, this is what keeps the club going. And, Jack Payne has gone – maybe we’ll discuss the unfairness of the loan system one day.

Of course we managed to beat Charlton in the Checkatrade, and lose to Walsall in the league. Not an awful week, but most Oxford fans were probably hoping for the results to be the opposite to what they were.

Back to the signings; first up was Cameron Brannagan from Liverpool. As is typical of these signings, Twitter’s hive mind welcomed Brannagan as a hidden superstar. I’d never heard of him. This is no real surprise to me, a year or so ago I watched an England game featuring Eric Dier. I was vaguely familiar with the name, so was surprised to hear that someone I’d assumed to be Norwegian was playing for England. It also dawned on me that I had no idea which club he played for. For the first time in my life, that there were people playing for England I had absolutely no clue about. Being aware of those playing in youth teams, even at Premier League level, is truly beyond my capacity.

There’s a lot to be encouraged about with Brannagan, obviously I hope he turns into another Ledson, Lundstram or Rothwell.

As I’m wont to do on Twitter, on the announcement of his signing, it got me thinking about his first training session, about meeting players, about the alien surroundings of a League 1 club coming from one of the biggest in the world. And about the identikit interviews that you get with players. It then got me thinking about the truly bizarre trend of new Oxford signings managing to acquire long-term injuries practically the moment they walk in the door. The list – Christian Ribiero, Charlie Raglan and Ivo Pekalski, Rob Hall – is so comically long, you’d think it was, in some way, deliberate. Which, for the avoidance of doubt, given what I’m about to say, it isn’t.

So I mocked up a quote supposedly from Brannagan which mixed those bland statements new signings always make with an acknowledgement of the inevitable long-term injury that has to be picked up before a debut can be made.

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It got a goodly number of ‘likes’ from people picking up the obscure target reference in the joke. I once tried to explain one of my more successful Twitter jokes to a non-Oxford supporting friend of mine. It took about 10 minutes to set the joke up bringing in a whole range of obscure characters and incidences from Oxford’s past in order to frame the punchline. My friend looked on blankly and received the punchline with a look of bewilderment as he searched through the detritus of what I had just told him for anything that might resemble ‘funny’. Clearly, this stuff will never translate to Live at the Apollo.  

It wasn’t all positive. A couple of people thought I had ‘jinxed’ Brannagan’s signing and that should he have a long-layoff it would somehow be my fault. As far as I’m aware, scientists have struggled to find an empirical the link between Twitter and sporting injuries, but as Brexit has told us; we’re all fed up with what experts think.

One person chastised me for bringing down the good reputation of my Twitter account and blog.  This suggests that I have some kind of code I adhere to, which really overstates the amount I think about these things. I give very little thought to what my blog should be about, as the lack of Walsallness in this ‘Walsall wrap’ is testimony. It’s very difficult to fail to reach a standard that doesn’t  exist.

Perhaps even more bizarrely, I spotted someone on my timeline exchanging tweets with another user whose responses I couldn’t see. Clicking on the name I found out I’d been blocked. I can’t remember being ‘blocked’ before. A bit more searching revealed that it was Brannagan’s dad, who had enthusiastically been ingratiating himself with the Oxford Twitter community, apart from me.

I hadn’t followed him, he hadn’t followed me, I stumbled across this fact by accident. I assume it’s a (silent) protest against my post about his son (or more specifically, about a particular quirk specific to Oxford United signings over the last couple of years). Had our other signing – Isaac Buckley-Ricketts – signed first, the joke would have been about him.

This assumes he thinks I deliberately want Brannagan to get injured, which you have to say would be an odd thing for any fan to think of in any new signing. I get that Brannagan snr probably hasn’t tracked Charlie Raglan’s injury record, but it is curious to be quite so reactionary. God help us when he hears the response when Brannagan shanks a cross into the East Stand or heaven forefend, passes backwards.

The truth is, the reception of the tweet was much more positive than negative and the people who are likely to get this stuff, got it. Plus, I will enthusiastically embrace Brannagan like anyone if he comes good for us. Generally speaking I try to ignore the (very occasional) negative comment I get – I once got a angry tweet from someone when I suggested Michael Appleton should be sacked for fielding an under-strength side in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup – but it does make you think that, as we get bigger, and more people get interested in us, just how different being an Oxford fans will really be.

The wrap – Oxford United and Bury


Oxford United 1 Walsall 2
Saturday was a bit of a mess from start to finish. So, where did it all go wrong?

Let’s start with the obvious, much discussed, strategic issue. Walsall wanted to overload the midfield in order to control the game, or at least subdue Ledson, Rothwell and Payne. With the pace of Roberts and Oztumer always offering an outlet against our paceless back-four, presumably the plan was to keep going for as long as possible in that vein and see where they were after, say, an hour.

I’m guessing they didn’t expect to be 2-0 up, and that’s because the issues ran deeper than that.

Starting from the back – John Mousinho is no full-back, but I doubt very much that’s why he’s been brought in. It’s difficult to be critical because his role is probably in the middle; in an ideal world, we’d perm any two from him, Williamson and Nelson. On the other side, Ricardinho is very much a modern full-back, but if things aren’t going his way he has a habit of reverting to petty fouls and histrionics. It’s too easy to blame it on his Latin temperament; I suspect it’s because he plays with such flare, he’s more likely to find himself out of position when under pressure. Lunging and fouling becomes necessary because his positional discipline is lacking.

The lack of full-backs has an impact on Rob Hall, he does his best, and usually very well, but he’s isolated and so his impact is more limited. Ledson and Rothwell were OK on Saturday, but they were overwhelmed and couldn’t get a grip on the game while Payne had no space to operate.

Which leaves us with the nub of the issue; the decision to play van Kessel and Obika together. It confused the shape of the team – do you play into Obika or over the top to van Kessel? Is it a question of Obika playing in van Kessel? That worked well against MK Dons, but we had the game more under control in the latter stages. The opening phase of any game is chaotic and the key is to try and bring it to heel before looking for the win. Obika is the better starter in my view; van Kessel better for latter stages. Playing them together also limits options coming off the bench. van Kessel’s pace might have hurt Walsall late in the game, if he wasn’t already tiring himself.

From the sweet spot of Bradford to two frustrating defeats. Curtis Nelson is right to say that we shouldn’t panic, but with a division full of teams with ambition, we can’t let the gap grow too much further.

Bury 3 Oxford United 0
It’s very easy in hindsight to criticism a wrong decision, so there was logic in bringing in Mowatt, Ruffels and Henry to face Bury. The aim, it seemed, was to maintain more control of the game than we had against Walsall.

For an hour it worked, albeit with a liberal use of the long ball to van Kessel. Had we held out for another 10-15 minutes we would have had options to either shut the game down and go for a steadying draw, or become more adventurous by introducing Rothwell and Payne.

We didn’t, of course, the eight minute aberration which resulted in the defeat all came down Ricardinho’s wing, plus some pretty clumsy defending once the ball reached the box. The penalty looked soft and the second goal clearable.

Is Ricardinho a fun liability? Less capable than we’d like to believe? Is he suffering from the imbalance across the back-four meaning he’s being forced to do things that aren’t his strength?

Consider, perhaps the question of Mike Williamson, but then Pep Clotet’s hands are tied to some extent because of Riberio’s injury and his belief that Carrol’s game-time needs careful management. Still, I think that’s the lesser of the evils, and would prefer to see John Mousinho moving inside to partner Nelson.

The underlying theme to all this is the constant juggling that’s needed to cover injured players – we have two long term injuries, while Obika, Thomas and Ribiero look set to be in and out constantly through the season, the disruption plays havoc with team shape and strategy.

Doubts are creeping in, but comparing Clotet and Appleton’s starts is unfair. Undoubtedly Clotet is in a more stable environment than Appleton was and pound for pound he has better players, but the disruption to the squad has been as significant as the one Appleton faced in 2014 and we can’t under-estimate just how difficult it might be to bed the team down. For all the woes of the last three games, we also shouldn’t forget strong performances against Gillingham, Bradford and Portsmouth.

Peterborough on Saturday means we’ll have faced five of the top six, and while we would want to be competing with those teams and higher up the table, there is plenty of opportunity to come to steady the ship and start moving forward again.
   

Weekly wrap – Oxford United 1 Fleetwood Town 3, Walsall 1 Oxford United 1

In many ways, the last couple of games have been a story of two players.

Michael Appleton made the point recently that players coming through the youth ranks at the club have to develop faster than the first team progresses if they want to earn a place in the starting eleven. So, we’re not currently looking for the next Callum O’Dowda because he was a youth team player who played for us in League 2. We’re now looking for a youth teamer with League 1 or Championship ability; the next Joey Beauchamp or Chris Allen. Every step forward the club takes, makes it harder for youth team players to get game time.

Canice Carroll’s debut in the defeat to Fleetwood, therefore, was a significant achievement in a team which has progressed towards the edges of the League 1 play-offs. In the past, debutantes would attract warm applause simply for touching the ball or running vaguely in the right direction, now we expect them to be fully baked and ready to go. Twice in the opening minutes he was caught out of position, the second time leading to the penalty for Fleetwood’s opener. The people behind me were chastising his lack of experience and tactical awareness and questioning where Phil Edwards was when we’d barely played for 15 minutes.

We don’t really know what Carroll’s ‘thing’ is; is he a Joe Skarz safe pair of hands or a Marvin Johnson marauding winger? That’s part of the problem, until we know his thing, it’s difficult to know whether he’s playing well or not. He seemed to grow into the role as the game progressed and overall had a solid game.

At the other extreme, we have Chris Maguire. Maguire very much has a carefully crafted ‘thing’ in that he plays on the edge. He’s like the person at work who light-heartedly flirts with women in the office. Everything is generally fine until one day he says the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person and he gets into trouble.

What makes Chris Maguire special and different, is also what kills him. The second goal against Fleetwood is the best illustration of this. There’s a gif going round of Maguire against Swansea last season doing keepy ups in the corner. It was a very Chris Maguire thing to do; a moment of panache in a high pressure situation. Against Fleetwood, in almost exactly the same place, he got caught out trying to be too clever and it lead to the goal. Had he dribbled his way out of the corner as he intended, he’d have been heralded a genius.

Fleetwood proved that this division is basically made up of Bolton and Sheffield United at the top, a few waifs and strays at the bottom and then a whole bunch of teams like us in the middle. We have are doing what in cycling is known as en chasse patate – literally, potato hunting. We’re stuck in a no man’s land between the leaders and the back markers. We are neither good enough to go up nor bad enough to go down, so we dangle frustratingly somewhere in the middle. 

The Fleetwood and Walsall results have turned our thoughts to next season and what we do to turn this promise into a promotion push. The first question is around squad size, it only takes a couple of injuries and we’re in trouble. Michael Appleton’s options – or more specifically Darryl Eales’ options – are to increase the squad size or reduce the burden by forgetting the peripheral cup games. If we did play weakened teams in the EFL Trophy, then Appleton would be abandoning a core part of his philosophy – that success comes from the repetition of good practice. You don’t pick and choose when to perform.

The other question surrounds the composition of the squad; both Sheffield United and Bolton have shown the value of maintaining solid, dependable squads, less thrilling than us, but ultimately more consistent and therefore successful. The question, then, is whether we should be looking at a few less Canice Carrolls and Chris Maguires and a few more solid and dependable experienced pros. We might lose a bit of sparkle in the process, but we might pick up the extra points we need for promotion.

Walsall wrap – Oxford United 0 Walsall 0

Years ago having a minute’s silence at football was the reserve of rare and profound events; even Remembrance Day wasn’t routinely recognised like it is today. Gradually the number increased; not because of a significant increase in deaths but more that the overall attitude towards these things changed. Suddenly everything was worthy of a tribute from the death of life long fans to the recognition of unrelated world events.

I don’t know what other clubs do, but we seem to have taken the idea of a minute’s silence to new, mawkish levels. Before the Walsall game the club organised a minute’s silence to remember everyone associated with the club who had died in 2016. I think I’ve read that there will be another one at the start of the season to mop up everyone who had died over the summer.

Lots of people die, it happens all the time. It has a profound impact on those close to that person, but in the main, for most of us, life continues regardless. Death is part of everyday life. It’s like we’re being forced to feel something that we almost have no right to feel – the deep sense of loss of a turnstile operator or season ticket holder from Wantage who followed us home and away for 30 years.

Of course, it’s not asking a lot to stand in silence for a minute, but that’s the whole problem; to do it as a job-lot is generic and impersonal. To do it at every possible event renders it completely pointless, belittles the moments of genuine grief that sometimes engulf clubs whether it’s the death of Martin Aldridge or the Bradford fire.

The death of Lewis Mangan aside, who was just 20 when he was killed in a car crash in September, it’s not like the club have had a particularly tragic year. That’s not to belittle the passing of anyone else related to the club over the last year. The club rightly organised a tribute to Mangan and there’s a permanent tribute to him on the halfway line in front of the North Stand. Beyond this, as uncomfortable as this might sound, it’s been a fairly routine year.

I don’t think I’m in the majority when I say that the approach is peculiar but we have developed a sense of groupthink about such things. When the actions become subconscious and routine, they also become thoughtless and meaningless, which is a shame because when there is meaning behind the act the effect is truly moving.
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