Wimbledon and York wraps

AFC Wimbledon 1 Oxford United 2 

If in November you’d told Oxford fans we would head into games without Jake Wright, John Lundstram, Kemar Roofe and George Baldock, The Samaritans would have been launching one of those helplines they set up for teenage girls when boybands split up.

All good teams are built on a strong spine which, if damaged, can create real problems for a club’s aspirations. In 2009/10 we had a strong spine which shot us to the top of the Conference. In January Luke Foster was shipped out, Adam Murray succumbed to injury and James Constable’s goals dried up. Chris Wilder frantically tried to replace that spine with a series of speculative loan signings. The longer it went on, the more frantic the flailing became. Eventually Jake Wright overcame his early shakiness, Adam Chapman overcame his impending prison sentence and James Constable found his shooting boots. By that point the title was lost, but thankfully, we still had the play-offs.

The loss of Wright, Lundstram and Roofe over a couple of games and Michael Appleton could have been forgiven for struggling to replace them. But, in Dunkley, Ruffels and Bowery, we seem to have more than adequate cover. What is quite interesting about this trio is that they’re not like-for-like replacements, they are much more typical of a decent League 2 player; strong and direct.

To some extent this plays to our advantage because, as with the win over Wimbledon, sometimes you just have to dig in and grind out results. Ruffels sticks to what he does well, Dunkley is an immense physical presence and in Bowery we actually have a striker who is prepared to be a direct threat. Of all three, Bowery’s willingness to go for the jugular is a real bonus at this stage in the season.

Who knew that if you rip the spine out of the side, you’d find another spine?

Oxford United 4 York City 0

Someone once told me about ‘Le point’; this is the point where absolute catastrophe and absolute success meet. When you reach ‘Le point’ it feels like the world is about to collapse, and then miraculously, everything seems to right itself. It is rare to have success without, at some point, reaching ‘Le point’.

The game against York felt like we’d reached ‘Le point’. After two home defeats in a row and no win at the Kassam since the Swansea game, some started muttering about home curses and post-Christmas collapses. It could have been enough to derail our promotion push. Another defeat, against a team sitting in 23rd place with one away win all season and on a run of 3 consecutive defeats, and we could have gone into an irreversible slide.

But,York were as poor as their position suggests and despite a turgid first half, you always felt that as the game progressed we would stretch them to the point where the elastic would snap and the goals would start to flow.

More significant is what happened around us; Accrington and Plymouth lost, meaning Stanley’s games in hand are no longer the concern they were. The teams in the promotion and play-off places dropped a total of 12 of the 18 points collectively available to them. It was all gain from our perspective. There is absolutely no need to fear Plymouth on Saturday, but with three wins under our belt, in terms of the blocks of games we play and the points we need to accumulate, this is a free weekend.

York City wrap – York City 1 Oxford United 2

The media clamour for referees to go on TV and explain their decisions misses the fact that the answer to a question like ‘why didn’t you give a penalty?’ is ‘because it wasn’t a foul’. That might sound evasive, but even if people disagree, the referee has absolute power on the pitch and no TV haranguing will change that. Getting a referee to explain a binary decision gets you nowhere.

It’s the same question repeatedly asked of the Oxford United hierarchy about James Roberts; ‘why isn’t he playing’ can be answered very simply; ‘because he’s not the best option’. What people really want to ask is ‘why don’t you just admit you’re wrong and we’re right?’. Perhaps the real question should be ‘what do Pat Hoban and Ryan Taylor bring to the team that James Roberts doesn’t?’.

The debate about Roberts was threatening to drive a rift between fans and management and our form wasn’t helping to douse the flames. We’ve just made friends, but it won’t take much for us to fall out again.

Context is everything, of course, and the month has been scattered with challenges that we didn’t have in August. But, regardless, for those wanting proof that Roberts’ absence was the problem, the results were there in black and white, even if there’s no evidence that he would have turned the tide.

The York City game was becoming a potential flashpoint and the result increasingly important. They were there to be beaten; we needed to 3 points to maintain our promotion hopes and appease the baying hordes. The announcement just before the game that Roberts was heading out on loan to Chester – lower half of the Conference – was an emphatic declaration that the debate was over. It was a brave move; had the result gone the wrong way, the tension could have erupted into open warfare.

So, it was more than encouraging to see us sweep past them like we did. Twice as many shots, four times as many on target, five times as many corners. Dominance like that is rare for Oxford United and despite the defensive clanger, it always felt like we were going to break through eventually.

Roberts’ loan and that victory will hopefully clear the air and prepare everyone for what’s to come. We play 2nd, 4th and 5th in October, so if you thought this month was tough, next month is worse. It’s good to be able to go into it united rather than at each others’ throats.

Coming up: York City

The drop

Winter is coming. September concludes, fittingly, with a trip to The North. There’s a distinct chill in the air, for the first game this season, coats will be standard issue. This is real football; no short sleeves and lush sun-kissed pitches from here on in. 
As a result of Wembley in 2010 and what preceded it (their semi-final win at Luton which resulted in a shameful attack by Luton fans on their players) we seem to have a warm paternal feeling towards York. When they came up we were genuinely pleased for them. Since promotion, they’ve settled into the role of mid-table plodders with the odd flirtation with relegation. This season looks a struggle with two wins – against Yeovil and bottom placed basket-cases Newport. There are points to be had here.

Old game of the day

I’ve done a mid-week away day at York. In 2003 I had to attend a conference in Harrogate which coincided with us playing in York on the Tuesday night. It was the greatest coincidence in history. We had promotion ambitions at the time – it was October and we’d only been beaten twice. Inevitably, we were awful. A undeserved last minute goal from Chris Hackett meant we scraped a draw. The chips, which were bought from little more than the front room of a terraced house, were nice.

But, historically, is there a worse fixture than a game between Oxford United and York City? We just seem to bring out the worst in each other. Mind you, there are couple of notable exceptions; this is one of the more memorable ‘away’ fixtures.

From the blog

We need a vision of who we’re going to become; this is the easy bit, the fun bit, there should be no barrier to imagination when answering the question what makes the perfect club. But we’re afraid of even beginning that process.”

Read on.

Back to The Future

There’s no question of the story of the last fornight; the emergence of James Roberts as a real-life homegrown striker who actually scores real professional goals.

There’s always a frisson on excitement that comes from an emergent talent like Roberts. There’s the vicarious joy of watching someone doing what you always dreamed to do – play and score for your team. We also hope beyond hope that he might be the Chosen One who will propel us forward. A hope to cling to, a sign of a brighter future.

But, tread carefully, for he is not the first, and history tells us that rarely does the flame of hope grow beyond a fleeting flicker.

When I first started supporting Oxford, home grown players that went on to greater things were the norm; my dad predicted an international future for Mark Wright during his league debut against Bristol City. We already had Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas, both in the squad for Wembley in ’86 and both would eventually forge decent top flight careers. Brock, in particular, played at Under-21 level for England. Those two aside, the glory years were characterised by players that were bought in, than by those brought through. However, it there wasn’t the perception that we were buying in success. Because it was more normal to have British players coming through your youth system, it wasn’t quite the political issue it is today.

Joey Beauchamp was a ballboy on the touchline at Wembley. There’s a very youthful picture of him in Roger Howland’s Oxford United Complete History wearing that horrible yellow and white striped shirt that became synonymous with the latter glory years… ones which were less than glorious. Beauchamp was almost the son of the Glory Years; being born out of those successes and sustaining them, despite a brief transgression with Swindon, right through to the Kassam Years (the Inglorious Years).

Beauchamp was a proper hometown hero; he supported the club, found that he couldn’t live without it. When he signed for West Ham, however, it seemed that we would forever be a team that grew and then sold our best talent. That didn’t seem a bad thing to me because we weren’t the kind of club who could or even should hold onto such talented players.

Alongside Beauchamp, and to reinforce the theory that there would forever be a conveyor belt of talent, was Chris Allen. Allen was a particularly raw, hardly the type, you’d think, to evolve into an excellent coach. Allen’s head was turned by Nottingham Forest. By the time he left, he’d fallen out of love with the club and we were happy to cash in. Like Beauchamp at West Ham, Allen didn’t last long in the shiny world of top flight football.

Behind them, however, was the player I thought was the most talented of them all. Paul Powell could take teams on all by himself. There were few more exciting sights than Powell cutting in from the left and chipping home in front of a delirious London Road. I thought he’d play for England, and he was periodically linked with moves away. Injury and attitude did for him before he had a chance, a shadow of his former dynamic self, he continued in the margins deep into the Kassam years before falling by the wayside.

There were others; Simon Weatherstone hit a hat-trick in a reserve game against Arsenal which had the London Road salivating. But Weatherstone, when he did get his chance, was limited in his impact and settled into becoming a effective, but unremarkable holding midfielder in the lower leagues. Simon Marsh showed enough form under Malcolm Shotton to be considered for selection at England Under 21 level. Sold to Birmingham, his career fizzled to nothing. Rob Folland enjoyed international recognition with Wales, but didn’t do much beyond a goal at the Madjeski against Reading. Chris Hackett had pace to burn but little sense of direction, a move to Hearts and then Millwall was little return for someone who apparently, and improbably, once attracted the interest of Manchester United and Nottingham Forest.

Of course, with the great dawning of the Kassam years came the latest in the long lineage of great hopes. Jamie Brooks’ debut was at the first game at the Kassam Stadium, and his was the first goal scored; a delicate lob in a 1-2 defeat. I don’t think I fully appreciated Brooks’ talent, I just seemed so obvious that the new era, which would surely herald a period of unbridled success, would have a locally sourced hero on the pitch and, with Mark Wright as manager, in the dugout.

Brooks lasted a season (Wright even less) and was about to go on trial at Arsenal when he was struck down by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which left him in intensive care. He never truly recovered, although he remained at the club until we were finally relegated from the Conference in 2006.

Brooks’ talents were prodigious, but it was two others who would work their way into the top flight. Dean Whitehead was fully forged by Ian Atkins, who resisted persistent calls to play Whitehead. When he did he matched talent with a prodigious appetite for work which saw him heading for Sunderland, and eventually the Premier League. Sam Ricketts took a more circuitous route. Never a spectacular player, he similarly never let anyone down when he played. Oxford let him go and he dropped out of the league to play for the, then ambitious Telford.

Telford imploded but he managed to get a contract with Swansea, just as they were starting to take off. A couple of smart moves to Hull and then Bolton, saw him playing Premier League football. Of all the supposed greats, it was Wright, Whitehead and Ricketts, arguably the least remarkable, that had the biggest and longest impact at the top of the game.

After Whitehead, Ricketts and Brooks, homegrown players seemed to play for mostly financial reasons. I remember those around me in the Oxford Mail stand talking enthusiastically about Alex Fisher, who scored on his debut, but ultimately needed a few more protein shakes to deal with the physicality of Conference football. Aaron Woodley was so highly rated that the usually cautious Chris Wilder fast tracked him into the first team to ensure that the club could get a fee from any sale to a bigger club. It never came.

During the Conference years, the strategy was never about developing players or anything long term, it was about securing the immediate return to the Football League and then, when that was achieved, out of League 2. Heroes were bought, not bred.

That is until last season, when financial constraints really began to hit once more. The club divested itself of the likes of Peter Leven and Michael Duberry and invested, instead, in a host of ‘Development Squad’ players, many of whom graduated into the first team and gave excellent accounts of themselves. Ian Lenagan’s new vision of a team of homegrown players seemed to be taking shape with Crocombe, Bevans, Marsh all giving good accounts for themselves, and Josh Ruffels and Callum O’Dowda, in particular, making legitimate claims to being first choice.

The pick of the lot, it seems, is Roberts. His goalscoring feats have been bubbling around the margins of the club for the last year or so. When he scored last week he tweeted that ‘it was just the start’; a typically alpha thing to say. Scott Davies crassly followed it up by saying that Roberts would soon be out of the club (and therefore onto greater things). The biggest question is whether he will do, a romantic might try to argue that Roberts is the latest line of great talents produced by the club. More cynical could argue, reasonably, that sustained and proper success have only been enjoyed by Wright, Rickets and Whitehead, of which only Whitehead’s success was forged at Oxford. While we will all pray that Roberts does go on to greater things, perhaps even within Oxford, but as history tells us, when it comes to great white hopes, frequently the start is more often than not, swiftly followed by the finish.

Oxford United 2020 – a time for vision

That revival didn’t last long did it? Were we kidding ourselves? Probably. We’re so obsessed with the here and now and with ourselves we seem to have lost sight of who we are. Or more importantly who we want to be. Do we even know?

I went punting on Thursday. It’s been more than 10 years since I was last on the water. They were different days; pre-children with lots of time to do lots of things with lots of friends. We didn’t punt often but it was part of a vast lexicon of things we did; zig zagging drunkenly from one bank to another.

Fast forward. ‘Have you done this before?’ asked a well spoken 20-something tending to the variety of punts and pedalos. I had, but there would be no harm in a recap. He patiently took me through the basics – push from the hips, keep the pole straight and use it as a rudder. Punting is a bit like bowling for me; I know the theory and the basics, but I don’t do it enough to be consistently good at it. As a result, I veer from comfortable competence to abject disaster in the blink of an eye.

Age helps a bit; when you’re younger there’s a temptation to rush these things, as you grow older you learn that technique is everything. As we meandered down the Cherwell at fractionally slower than walking pace (evidenced by the overtaking elderly couples taking their daily constitutionals along the bank) it struck me that the polite 20 somethings that gave me the same punting advice 10-15 years ago were now probably merchant bankers, IT consultants and MPs. They weren’t the same people as those I’d just talked to.

This is Oxford. The people change, but fundamentally nothing changes. Confident bookish young people weaving in and out of beautiful ancient buildings with precious little to indicate exactly what goes on inside. Gaggles of foreign visitors blankly staring as Oxford happens around them. The stories of great kings and scientific breakthroughs are the same as they always were, the only embellishments on the city’s great stories seem to be the where the scenes from Harry Potter were filmed. It’s the Oxford of postcards; the Oxford the world imagines. It’s surprising just how small an area this takes up. Walk in any direction and you’re quickly into a part of the city that doesn’t resemble the stereotype.

When Headington United decided to change it’s name to Oxford United, the university objected on the grounds that it would taint the Oxford ‘brand’. They didn’t want the perception that Oxford was a functioning city like any other; it was a magical and mythical seat of learning. Supporting Oxford United in the 1980s, I didn’t really associate the club as being any kind of extension to that version of Oxford. I loved both, but football happened in Headington and Oxford happened in Oxford, the two were emotionally distant from each other. As I got a bit older I added Cowley to that roster; a cooler bohemia where music happened.

Success enhanced the perception of Oxford United in the mid-80s, a gloss that was maintained sometime into the mid-90s. It was a period during which the Oxford United story was told in full. From its birth to its, well… then Firoz Kassam took over, moved us out and the rest is history.

There is a sense of listlessness around the club at the moment. A loss of identity and purpose. After the soulless defeat to York there was a question as to whether the performance had been positive or negative; we were neither; we were neutral. We were neither attack minded or defence minded, we huffed around somewhere in the middle; and that is always going to leave you susceptible to a moment like the penalty decision.

Gary Waddock was unconvincing in his post-match evaluation; it’s still uncertain to what extent he is charged with executing a grander plan or whether he is here to stamp his personality on the team. Is he working with a great set of players or a hopeless case that needs major surgery. He couldn’t fault the players effort, he said, but didn’t explain what he was trying to do tactically to win the game. Does he know? Is he still trying to work us out?

The conversation on the radio moved on; Jerome Sale asked where the club goes now. Is it time to think, not so much of the play-offs, but beyond; to think big? Nick Harris said no, he’s been a director of the club and thinking big is the path to bankruptcy and destruction. That in microcosm is the issue; Sale is the younger generation of the broadcasting fraternity. He senses the malaise. Perhaps he’s as bored as all of us wasting his weekends. Nick Harris, on the other hand, is a relic of the past, constantly reminding us of history’s mistakes and glories. What were glorious stories of old are becoming an anchor, or millstone, to progress.

I don’t think when Sale suggested the club think big he meant in terms of size and ambition. He wasn’t suggesting reckless spending to get us into the Premier League like a Bradford, Barnsley or Portsmouth. His thinking was more in terms of a bigger picture. Who are we? And more importantly; who do we want to be? Do we want to be a club constantly comparing ourselves to the past; where even the most moderate of player becomes a legend simply by their existence on Twitter. Or do we want to be a club that exists in the here and now as an exemplar for others to follow?

Ian Lenagan painted a picture of our playing future last year when he talked about a squad of young, local players. People bought it and liked it. And that’s been one highlight of the season; seeing Matt Bevans, Sam Long, Callum O’Dowda and Josh Ruffels playing for the club. But the vision needs to go further; every part of the club needs redefining. The Kassam Stadium is a massive distraction; the open end a constant reminder of our limitations and our incompleteness. What is the vision for a stadium? Not when and whether we buy the Kassam or even how that might be achieved, but bigger than that – what kind of stadium would we want to be in? One that we own, that is clearly our home, which is complete. I don’t want corporately constructed atmosphere; this isn’t an office party, I don’t want designated singing areas, but I want the stand behind the goal to be noisy and raucous, I like flags. Our stadium needs a standing area. I want a match day experience that begins before I get to the ground; a buzz; programme sellers outside the ground, somewhere to go for a pre-match drink, merchandise – interesting merchandise – available on the streets, I like the idea of tailgate parties.

What about communication and social media? I want the club to be funny and irreverent, I want it to have the voice of the supporters  – I don’t want corporate club ‘statements’. I want a degree of fan ownership and decision making, how about fans deciding on our kit design? I quite like the idea of having a theme to our away kit – that each kit should reflect one of the great clubs around the world. A bit like the AC Milan away kit of the mid-90s. That could be our ‘thing’.

I want us to be sustainable, I’m not interested in lurching from success to failure. I don’t want big name signings if it’s going to screw the club up. I want teams in every level of football – mens, womens, youth football; what about a fan-run Sunday League team – with every squad wearing the same kit. Like a real club. It doesn’t all need to be funded centrally, if there’s a fan team, make it one which runs like any other Sunday league team; charge subscriptions. I want a regular programme of club events and activities, a fans v legends game at the end of every season, for example. A local 5-a-side league. I don’t want sponsors messages rammed down my throat – I don’t buy – I want the club to be a centre for local businesses to promote themselves; part of a wider ecosystem.

We need a vision of who we’re going to become; this is the easy bit, the fun bit, there should be no barrier to imagination when answering the question what makes the perfect club. But we’re afraid of even beginning that process. Nick Harris garrulously threatens bankruptcy and other horrors if we want to change. But the alternative is the current nothingness of both team and fans putting in immense effort for no obvious benefit, no joy.

There’s a saying that vision without finance is hallucination; and Harris is right to be concerned that ambition can be the first step to bankruptcy, so we’re talking a vision for Oxford to go out to 2020 and beyond. And it is a vision; an unreasonable almost unachievable utopia. But it gives you a framework to work in; a purpose for progress. Once you’ve got that vision, you can start breaking it down into smaller achievable chunks; each one contributing to the perfect future. It’s got to be better than what we have at the moment.

The day the football died

Going to football with an old school friend is an opportunity to reflect on the past, we traded memories of going to Oxford as kids and the general wonder of following our club to the very top of the sport. Then 90 minutes of the 0-0 draw against York cremated our childhoods.

“I’m nervous” he said when he got in the car.

I’ve known Brinyhoof* for 30 years, a length of time that I can’t quite comprehend. We met at primary school when I moved to the area with my family. He was in my new class, at least I think he was. It probably makes him, by a margin of a few weeks, the person outside my family that I’ve known longest. We were both average footballers who loved the game. He was a Liverpool fan, I was Ipswich. We were both Oxford.

I stayed at his house when my parents went to a funeral in Scotland, bamboozling his mum with my insistence on having peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. He stayed with us when his family were on Family Fortunes; which I genuinely thought  would make them rich beyond all measure. They made it to the last round but failed the double your money bit at the end.

Our dads started taking us to watch Oxford around the same time; a couple of years before the dawning of the glory years. Occasionally we went together; his dad worked for Cadbury or a chocolate distributor or something. Any which way, he always had boxes full of chocolate stored away in his larder. Going to games with his dad meant chomping chocolate by the fistful. For me, this meant he, perhaps, had the best job in the whole world. My dad worked with computers; big white boxes which didn’t dispense any chocolate at all.

Back then, your life evolved clockwise around the Manor pitch. Dad’s and their boys would inevitably start in the Osler Road which was safe, cheap and not too busy. There was a tea bar just behind the Osler Road terrace where I bought Bovril. When you became a teenagers, you’d invariably graduate to the bear pit of the London Road. Then, as you got older, you’d take up position on the Beech Road; posh blokes would be in the seats, well, benches. Everyone else would be on the terrace. If you really made it in life, you’d take up residence in the peculiar little stand in the corner which acted as a sponsors’ lounge.

On the corner of the Osler Road and London Road was a wall. It was a prime spot because you could see everything and touch Kevin Brock or Gary Barnett on the back as they took a corner. You could test your readiness for the London Road, by trying to get yourself a position on the wall. Being soft boys from the villages, we didn’t survive long as the rough city boys would move us along. We weren’t ready for the London Road terrace, not until much later.

We both went, separately, to see us away at Coventry in the cup in 1982, we lost 4-0 and Oxford fans tore seats from the stand and threw it on the pitch. Robert Maxwell had just arrived (I wrote to him, asking him to save the club, his secretary wrote back asking if my dad wanted to be an agent for the club’s lottery). Jim Smith was appointed a few months later, and the club was off.

The last time I remember seeing Brinyhoof at a game was the Milk Cup final, improbably, we bumped into each other, as he and his dad went into the stadium. We wished each other well, and headed off in separate directions.

Gradually, our lives took slightly different directions. He became John Peel in a cul-de-sac; his bedroom darkened as it became engulfed in piles of records and tapes from bands I’d never heard of. He headed off to late 80s Madchester via an ill advised foray into pastel jumpers, white socks and slip-ons.

We seemed to remain friends via other people, which meant we never developed the petty jealousies and frustrations of a more claustrophobic friendship. In the great venn diagram of our lives, the intersection was predominately occupied by Oxford United. So, when we did meet up, we always had a conversation starter.

Via Oxford’s indie music scene, he took an active role in FOUL, being part of a committee responsible for ‘publicity stunts’ such as getting Malcolm Shotton nominated for Sports Personality of the Year, and creating the world’s largest football scarf. He went on 606 and endorsed Firoz Kassam (‘Because there was no plan B, he says quite correctly). I had no idea, I just went to games and figured that something would sort itself out eventually.

He moved away and stopped going to games, I didn’t, and didn’t. Saturday was probably the first game we’d seen together for over a quarter of a century, and therefore, almost certainly the first we’d seen without our dads.

We originally went to games not in expectation of success, but because our dad’s were football fans. The club were a decent lower division team, destined ever to remain so. Shortly after we started going, the club embarked on a rise and fall that nobody has seen in the history of the British game. Had we not had that experience, one or both of us would have drifted away to do something else with our lives, something more interesting than following an unremarkable lower league team. Our presence on Saturday at a meaningless fixture against York was almost certainly as a result of the glory years.

In a sense the charm of York on Saturday was that it revisited the memory of The Manor 1981/82. We were going to football because it was football not because we were demanding success. Back then, just going to the game was as important as winning the game. I remember the sights and smells as much as I do the games and goals. Winning promotions and titles weren’t on the radar. Brinyhoof’s nervousness might have been about the significance of the game, but it was probably more about reconnecting with his past.

By 4.45pm, after 90 minutes of the most meandering lifeless football I’ve seen in my life, I felt like we’d set fire to our childhood.

* Brinyhoof is his Twitter handle; I’ve no idea what it means.