Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Should I let my daughter become an Arsenal fan?

Somewhere in the back of my mind is a memory of a photo. It is of a Wimbledon team celebrating in a changing room. Maybe it was after a promotion was confirmed or perhaps it was an FA Cup win (but, not THAT FA Cup win). The team are in white, as far as I recall. Very vaguely, I remember it being shown on World of Sport or Grandstand, but I can’t be certain as to why. What I associate with this photo is that it was the first time I became aware of a phenomenon called Wimbledon and their then manager Dave Basset.

Wimbledon were in the process of doing something remarkable, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. To be honest, I never wholly bought the romanticism of what they eventually achieved; there was very little panache in their approach and we were living out our own glory days, which was much more important and interesting.

Still, nowadays Oxford v Wimbledon does leave me feeling somewhat nostalgic for a glorious past, even if Saturday's game proved that the reality of the 'now' can be a bucket of cold sick over the sepia world of 'then'.

That photo, and both teams’ remarkable rise through the divisions happened when I was about 12 or 13. I’d been going regularly to the Manor for a few years before that, the magic pretty much happened as soon as I started going, no wonder it hooked me in.

My daughter, M, is 8. That's about the age I started going to the Manor on a regular basis. She loves football and has been to a couple of Oxford games. She says she supports Oxford, but there hasn't been a lot to entrance her in the way it did for me. When I was around her age, my dad and I queued for tickets for games against Manchester United and Arsenal, we eventually saw us at Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Highbury and Wembley. That isn't happening for M, and even if we did find ourselves drawn against a big boy in the cup, we can safely say we'd be annihilated.

M has Oxford shirts, she's shown an interest in Crystal Palace, because a boy in her class is a fan. She has periodically flitted between all the big teams; Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, depending on who is on TV at the time.

In recent months she seems to have has settled on Arsenal, I have a soft spot for Arsenal myself because I used to go to Highbury fairly often as a child. I'm reasonably happy to accept this growing affinity. But now Christmas is coming and I'm toying with the idea that, perhaps, I should cement it and get her a Arsenal shirt.

This would potentially undermine any loyalty she might have towards Oxford, of course. But, in every other area of life you want the best for your children, why insist she be burdened with misery and failure by trying to force them into something as ungiving as a lower-league football club.

Supporting two teams isn't necessarily new; my dad supported both Wolves and Oxford, I followed Ipswich in the early eighties while going to the Manor. The puritan in me wants M to support one team, her local team, in the way you're supposed to. But perhaps we should be a bit more like the French in their attitude to sex and marriage - you have a wife for the practicalities in life, and a mistress for fun. Are we expecting too much for our children to get everything they want from one club?

The alternative might be another shirt from Europe, but Real Madrid or Barcelona both seem so obvious; a bridge too far. I was in Rotterdam recently and looked into getting a Feyenoord shirt, but that seemed was a very expensive way of being counter-culture, and she wouldn't have appreciated the nuance of my decision. National shirts are an option, but I'm not English, at least not wholly. I have a strong sense of my Scottish-ness, probably because when I was growing up, Scotland were the dominant British team or at least on par with the English. Could I bear her in an England shirt, should I spare her the indignity of a Scottish one?

There are a lot of practical benefits of allowing her to become an Arsenal fan; they are on the TV quite a lot and win trophies (occasionally). My gnarled mind, riddled with the evil politics of modern football, cannot abide the thought of having a Chelsea or Manchester City fan in the family, Manchester United and Liverpool are more acceptable because their success is, at least, borne out of their success, Arsenal too. When she realises that Chelsea win everything, she may go back to them, so is it time now to bank what I’ve got and hope that as she grows up, a fondness for Oxford grows and overshadows the flighty glamour of the Premier League?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

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.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Death by a 1000 touches

Three months is not a long time to have had to negotiate two ‘must win’ games, but that’s what Michael Appleton has had to do since the start of the season. The game against Accrington, which we went into without a league win, and the game against Tranmere where we potentially faced defeat at home to the bottom club. These represented potentially pivotal moments in our season and perhaps Appleton’s Oxford career. He negotiated both, but the fact we’re even talking in these terms is a source of lingering concern.

Wycombe wasn’t a must win game, but it was a key barometer as to where we are and how we’re getting on. Whether the game represents a derby or not is still subject to some debate but the animosity between the two clubs does seem to crank up as the years pass. It's not so much a rival sibling, more like a cousin from ‘that’ side of the family. One that you find yourself having to invite to parties even though you think, depending on which side you sit, they are stuck up and living above their station or from the wrong side of the family who brings down house prices when they park in your drive. Whatever the game is, it is a ‘something’, and that in itself gave it importance.

But, more than that, Wycombe last season avoided relegation from the Football League by the skin of their teeth. When we played them at Adams Park they looked hopeless. Despite the late goal and narrow scoreline we completely outplayed them. Now, they’re at the top of the table and yet, there’s been no obvious investment in playing staff and Gareth Ainsworth - who looked out of this depth and lost - is still on the touchline. How have they gone from one end of the table to the other ? And how have we done the opposite?

Here’s my take based on Saturday. Let's employ a deliberately over-simplified measure of quality; for example, the average number of effective touches that a League 2 team might make in a game. Let's give that a figure of, say, 1000 touches. Since we came back into the league in 2010, there have been teams able to spend money on players beyond that base level - Chesterfield, Swindon, Fleetwood and Crawley all spring to mind - perhaps they were able to deliver, on average, say, 1200 touches per game. As a result, whilst it is still possible to beat them in any one-off game, over a season they dominate the division leaving all the others to pick the scraps out of whatever was left over.

Last season was slightly different, although Chesterfield eventually eased home, most of the rest of the division were ‘1000 touch' teams. With everyone pretty much of a muchness, those who used those touches most efficiently succeeded. This was illustrated by our own form and style which was as average as at any point since we returned, but we found ourselves at the top of the table. Our away form, in particular, was spectacular; because when we got the ball we used it well.

This season is much the same; the teams that came down - Tranmere, Hartlepool and Carlisle appear to be in a terminal decline, those who have come up from the Conference are doing OK, but not because they’ve got a sugar daddy sitting in the background. In short, we have much the same kind of profile of division that we had last year - a whole world of average.

So, what’s changed with Wycombe? Perhaps its necessity or desperation, or perhaps Ainsworth is learning his trade, but Wycombe have evolved into a tough and direct unit, in other words, it's not that they have more touches in the team, it's that they're using their 1000 touches well.

They illustrated their robustness early on Saturday with the foul on Andy Whing and subsequent elbow to his head, which was probably deserving of two yellow cards. I don’t fully understand the rules around red cards for penalties or agree with their automatic double-jeopardy nature, but the first penalty could have been another red.

Early on we knocked the ball around; along the back, down the flanks, back along the back, and along the back again. We had one free-kick that everyone went up for and we played it short, and then backwards. We used up our 1000 touches knocking the ball around ineffectually. If you are going to use up your touches so quickly, you've got to hope that you've got a few goals out of it. We had just one.

As much as we matched Wycombe for most of the first half, the second half we were all but spent, all our touches were used up. They were still chugging away with plenty in the locker. The goals, when they came, were the result of robust, direct football at a time when we were done for. The chance of coming back were limited because we didn’t have the spare quality. We wasted so much energy playing it around nicely and getting nowhere, when we needed more, we didn't have it.

The difference between the teams, therefore, is purely tactical. Ainsworth and Appleton both stood on the touchline dressed like young fathers ready to go for a curry with their wives in Chelsea boots and skinny jeans. They’re very similar people with just a few years between them. But Ainsworth appears to have learned that, as a manager, you've got to work with what you have to get results.

The answer to this problem is either to invest heavily in '1200 touch' players or go through the coaching process to get them up to that level. I don't think Appleton has the luxury of either option, so it’s all about working with what he’s got. He can argue that he hasn’t had time to implement players with the ‘right DNA’, but he’s got Clarke, Mullins, Wright, Whing, Barnett and Hylton at his disposal he should be doing better than he is.

One telling shift came in Appleton’s post-match interview. Whilst I’ve been critical of him and the new regime, he has always spoken well and eloquently in interviews. On Saturday he struggled with a coherent analysis of the game; from hearing it you might have thought we’d controlled it and won. His conclusion about the penalty? That’s what happens when you’re at the bottom and they're at the top.

Not true. He’s got the cause and effect the wrong way round. You don’t miss chances because you’re at the bottom; you’re at the bottom because you miss chances, or because you spend all your touches fannying around along the backline rather than creating goalscoring opportunities. Now that Appleton appears to be reverting to claptrap of being 'lucky' and 'unlucky', perhaps he's running out of ideas.   

Monday, October 20, 2014

Practice will make perfect, but have we got the patience?

Matthew Syed is a journalist and former international table tennis player. He tells a story of interviewing German tennis player Michael Stich. For the benefit of the camera, some of the interview is done with Syed and Stich gently rallying across a tennis net.

Syed, feeling confident, asks if Stich will serve a ball at him from the baseline. He's a a former table tennis player, an Olympian indeed, so he feels his naturally fast reactions and his general competence at hitting balls with a round shaped bats means he should be able to return a couple of boomers.

Stich winds up and fires an ace past him. Syed doesn’t move. He fires another one. And another. Five balls are fired down, five aces, Syed doesn’t move. He asks Stich what the trick is to returning a tennis ball from a world class player. Don’t look at the ball, Stich says, watch the server's body movement and shape as he tosses the ball into the air.

With this advice Syed returns to the baseline, Stich fires another one down; another ace. Syed still can’t get close. The point is that despite the many similarities between table tennis and tennis, he simply isn't competent at the latter despite being more than competent at the former.

In reality; one had no bearing on the other because professional tennis players spend years learning the relationship between body shape and movement and the direction of the ball. Only through what Syed calls ‘quality practice’ is this possible, innate talent is a myth.

When Eales, Ashton and Appleton swept into Oxford, they implemented a new tactical philosophy which turned the club on its head. It provided the peculiar spectacle the football being aesthetically more pleasing but the results markedly worse. Appleton has defended the approach with dogmatic promises about there being no alternative and not taking a step back.

But, what he failed to recognise was that the ‘quality practice’ that the players at the club had been engaging with for nearly half a decade was significantly different to that which he wanted to implement. The transition was always going to be a difficult and long one, and it was naive to think otherwise.

Take someone like Jake Wright, an imperious defender when fit, there is no better player when being asked to absorb pressure and actually defend. He looks decidedly uncomfortable in the new system where he's being asked to bring the ball out of defence and turns defence into attack.

On Saturday, he found himself needing to do just that with nobody from midfield dropping back to help him out. It's all very well expecting Wright to do something differently, but assuming he'll just switch it on is daft. Not putting in place the tactical support from midfield is doomed to failure.

There are other concerns about the system; fitness, for example. Tareiq Holmes-Dennis had a magnificent opening 35 minutes on Saturday, but was sucking on energy gels before half-time. Andy Whing was also quick to take on board fuel.

Both may have had mitigating circumstances but is there the fitness or quality in the squad to be able to turn the principles into 90 minutes of winning football? And can it be done every game? Tranmere, a clunking shadow of their former selves, hardly offered a threat, and a better side probably wouldn’t have given us quite such an easy time.

But, the good news is that it would seem that the system is working enough to mean that we shouldn’t need to worry about relegation. Tranmere look desperate, although you’d expect Mickey Adams to improve them. There are others - Hartlepool, Carlisle, Accrington, York, Dagenham who are either blighted by a suicidal free fall or a distinct lack of resources. It doesn’t really matter, to us, who might recover, but as long as at least two don’t; which seems likely, we should be OK.

Of course, avoiding relegation is a very low bar for a club that was threatening promotion or at least the play-offs this time last year. And there’s still a long way to go to reach even parity with those heady heights. Yes, the system is better and yes, we should be reasonably confident that relegation isn’t a concern, but the true tests are whether we can perform away from home and against the best in the division. That's the next milestone in our development.

To do that we either have to compromise the system to make it a more prosaic, pragmatic beast fixed on results more than style, or we have to invest in the squad to replace what already exists with both the quality and quantity of players we need to make it work. Or, patience is the key, and we need to get in plenty of quality practice. Of those three options - the last is most likely part of the plan - there is little evidence of investment and no sign of compromise, but it will also be the slowest one to pay dividends.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Trial by TV

When I played football at primary school, we’d get the last hour of the day off in order to fit the game in before darkness fell. Games were on Wednesdays; you’d have lunch and then freewheel through to 2pm when you were fished out from class in order to prepare for the game. We departed like soldiers off to war; petals were thrown at our feet and teachers bowed down to us.

For away games we might be away even earlier. The journeys would be epic; sometimes as far away as Chinnor; about 10 minutes away. We once even went to Berinsfield, a distance Google tells me is about 14 miles away. Nowadays that sort of distance would require an overnight stay to prevent muscle atrophy or DVT.

This was natural selection; in the privacy of your own school work it wasn't possible to truly work out who was top dog. In sport, it was unequivocal. Eggy Evans and Flid Davidson would be left behind along with Woggy Lawrence. These are actual nicknames we legitimately and openly referred to them by. I don’t know whether the teachers were aware that the only Asian kid in the school was known, always affectionately, as Woggy or Wog, but if they did, they didn’t seem to mind. It was a different time.

Anyway, with greatness bestowed upon us, we would disappear only to reappear the following morning with tales of derring do from distant primary schools of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

I had always imagined that being an England international was very similar; although I’m fairly certain they didn’t have to change into their kit on the plane to an away game. The general principle was the same - on a Saturday night, Brooking, Keegan and the rest would pack their bags and leave the humdrum of their club changing room for the exalted environs of the England 'camp'. I loved the idea of England being camp - a tented village where Ron Greenwood and Don Howe would plot the downfall of Luxembourg or Poland. The camp would be set up half way around the world (Norway, for example) the raid would happen on a Wednesday, news of its success would be broadcast only on the radio, and the players would return heroes the following Saturday.

The point was that the domestic calendar wasn’t disrupted; playing for England was a reward for being the best, an addition to your domestic commitments. At some point it was decided that this was a barrier to international success and, as has been emphatically demonstrated at every tournament since, the domestic calendar was cleared to give the true greats of the English game the space to express themselves and come home dripping with silverware. That’s the equivalent of closing the whole school in order for the school team to play.

In even more recent times, those internationals don’t even seem to happen on the date that’s been cleared for them. Presumably this is some kind of experiment with TV audiences, although a less bloated, more competitive qualifying programme would have a greater impact in maintaining people's interest.

Saturday's are cleared of domestic football; and because the Premier League is now global that fixture clearance runs throughout the top two divisions. And then, England don’t even play. Where once the international games were a bawdy weekend in Amsterdam; the international weekend has become a meandering insipid long weekend in the Cotswolds with your girlfriend which starts on Thursday and drifts sometime into the following week.

What remains is the Eggy Evans' and Flid Davidson’s of football; League's One and Two. Sky pulls one of those games out as if to make an example of the ineptitude. On Saturday, presumably on the spurious reasoning that this was a varsity clash; Saturday was us against Cambridge.

It's as if that fixture is a demonstration of the incompetence of what’s left over when you remove 'world class' Premier League from the calendar; hate the Premier League? OK, try watching this shit on a weekly basis. And when it comes to ineptitude, we have again demonstrated that we’re the Eggiest of all the Eggy Evans'.

The game completed a trilogy of appalling performances live on TV after Port Vale, Southend and now this - three games, three defeats, eleven goals conceded, one scored. Three different managers, three identically awful results.

There's some indication that even some Oxford fans weren’t aware the game was on, so it’s difficult to believe that anyone but the truly demented or housebound were interested from a neutral perspective. But, despite this, TV magnifies the problem and reinforces our growing irrelevance.

Live football needs a narrative and context, and on TV it needs to be unsubtle for the neutral to engage with it. In a division starved of publicity, anything goes - spuriously constructed local derbies, top of the table clashes, even vague notions of nostalgia; for example the attraction of Wimbledon v Oxford in 2011; an opportunity to remember halcyon days of the 1980s. Increasingly, for us, these narratives become less plausible - it’s difficult to look on us as a big team with Wembley glory in our past or a team resurrected from the Conference and going places. We are, well, nothing much.

The implication of that is the growing ambivalence towards the club; the media is less attracted to you and so are the sponsors, and, ultimately the fans become disinterested. Perhaps it will act as a wake up call as to our parlous state. All the talk of Plan B being Plan A, sticking to The Principles and judging the new owners by their actions is just vacuous boohockey. The game against Cambridge would have had less impact had it not been on TV, but maybe now our failings have been the subject of public consumption people will begin to learn the lesson that we are failing fast.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

All hail The Normal

Last week was a strange one; I was sitting waiting to get on a plane to Rotterdam when I checked my blog to see what, if anything, was happening. There was something happening; I had eight comments about my views on Luton Town. Nobody normally comments on my blog unless they’re from another team and they want to abuse me.

The post wasn’t not exactly anodyne, but it was genuine. I have a  visceral, only semi-logical dislike for Luton Town. But, perhaps I should have known better. I turned my phone to flight-safe mode and pondered for an hour what to respond with. I fought a reasonable rear guard action against a growing number of comments accusing me of spitefulness and more. Apparently it was picked up by a local Luton tabloid who considered my comments newsworthy.

The conference I was flying to was a bizarre. The Chinese won (and for that, I mean bought) an award for being Chinese, a man described the ‘competence of endurance’ through a protracted story about how, as a 53-year-old working early shifts on an oil rig climbing up and down a ladder all day really took it out of you. Lots of people told me how important they were, how important their work was and how many other people, who similarly said how important they are, they knew.

Eventually I left the conference centre and sat down outside a coffee shop and yearned for a bit of normal – to get home to family, away from restaurant food, away from the self-served and self-important. I looked at my diary, a couple of normal meetings back in the office, then a normal league game against Newport on Saturday.

On Saturday morning, back home, the rain sleeted down; my daughter trotted over halfway through football training with a big smile on her face but no feelings in her fingers. It was a good moment; in the past she might have crumbled, but this was what it was all about. She was beginning to get football, the joy in its misery.

Autumn was here, grey skys, chill air, rain. I’ve said before how football fans are people of the gloaming; we don’t do t-shirts and shorts well. Tans and shirt sleeves don’t work in English football grounds. Autumn and winter, wrapped up in coats, is when we finally awaken.

On the radio Michael Appleton talked about never losing his rag and never taking a step back. He was referring to The Principles, the vaguely threatening value-set imported into the club by the new regime. It followed the revelation at the Fans' Forum that Plan B was Plan A – or that there was no Plan B, there were just The Principles. We were also told to judge the regime by its actions, apparently oblivious to the fact that its actions to date have been largely ineffective. It's felt less like a football club recently, more like we're part of an ideological experiment.

The lead through Collins was slightly fortuitous, but just about deserved The sending-off of Tyrone Barnett may well have been a blessing. His first booking was deserved, but ultimately a punishment for his incompetence at tackling as much as any malice, the second seemed to have no merit whatsoever. Appleton lost his rag, throwing a water bottle across his technical area at the booking of Carlton Morris shortly after Barnett had departed. He then took a step back, choosing to ditch The Principles and fight for the points; we would stick with one up front and attack on the break, if we could.

It was dogged and gritty, but it was normal. The Principles were still there, we passed neatly out of defence, through midfield and attacked where we could, but they didn’t get in the way of The Normal.

Despite what they might say, fans will always value results and effort over style, and that showed in the way the fans got behind the team rather than sitting back waiting to be entertained. We can match raw effort from the stands, we can’t help pass the ball around. The final whistle came, our first win on a Saturday at home for eight months, and suddenly it felt a bit more normal, and that felt good.

For me, a little bridge was built, particularly towards Michael Appleton. We’re not a showcase for his coaching principles, we’re a football club that wants to win games. He seems like a nice guy, and I worry that he’s took nice, too much of a theoretician in the art of coaching. Is he faced with jeopardy to focus on results? For once, it looked like he wanted the fight, he took on the fourth official, he was animated on the touchline, he valued the three points over The Principles. If he can keep that going, then maybe we’ll get somewhere after all.  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I really really hate Luton

You don’t need to know much about Oxford United to know that Swindon Town is its nearest and deadliest rival. The historical rivalry with Reading seems to have withered due to a lack of use, whereas Wycombe Wanderers snap at our heels trying to provoke us into a reaction which rarely gains any traction.

The Swindon rivalry is well rehearsed; insults are traded, there is periodic, out of context, abusive songs sung for no other reason than to remind us all of the animosity. When games happen they’re highly anticipated, broiling affairs which, let’s face it, we tend to win. As much as I like the rivalry, I like the insults, the anticipation and the games, it’s all very knowing. We know they hate us, they know we hate them and we all act according to a pre-ordained script.

As a result, like many derbies, there is something of the American wrestling about the whole affair. At the top, a layer excitement, fury and action, below a carefully constructed pre-rehearsed narrative. So, in a sense I hate Swindon because I’m supposed to, but in truth I don’t hate them with a visceral loathing. That feeling is reserved for Luton Town.

Luton and Oxford’s histories have followed very similar trajectories. We both experienced a Wembley victory in the mid-eighties and then Conference football in the late 2000s. It is possible, perhaps, to use each other as a benchmark of our true success. Being in the top flight is not either team's natural position in the world and nor is struggling in the Conference. Our natural position, you could argue, is somewhere relatively better or worse than a team like Luton, and likewise them with us.

Along with Wimbledon, Oxford United and Luton Town were Thatcher’s children. During the 80s Thatcher dismantled the traditional British economy pushing many of football’s traditional heartlands into recession. Clubs like Blackpool and Preston fell down the leagues, others, like Manchester United struggled along without the success they once enjoyed. Oxford, Luton and Wimbledon were heartlands of the nouveau riche feeding off the false riches offered by privatisation and other economic reforms.

You would think that we would galvanise into a ‘movement’ but like all middle-class neighbours we were all racked with jealousy and mistrust. We, beside being funded by a fraudster, achieved our success the right way - playing exciting attacking football, marauding over all-comers in front of packed crowds. Wimbledon were fabled route-one specialists, aggressive and physical. Luton simply cheated their way to the top laying a carpet of artificial turf at Kenilworth Road which caused the ball to bounce as if on a trampoline and burn the legs of those who had the temerity to fall over. The only football you could play on it was ‘Luton football’. In short, rather like Thatcher's economic miracle, it skewed the market to enable their success.

Thatcher acolyte David Evans, a Conservative MP and Luton chairman, also took the decision to ban away fans from Kenilworth Road further distorting their home advantage. Superficially, it was an attempt to combat hooliganism - as if there was something about round balls and rectangular goalposts - the functions of the game - which cause otherwise happy people to turn violent. He was also a vocal supporter of Thatcher’s plans to introduce identity cards for football fans; an absurd abuse of human rights. Luton were basically Thatcher’s version football porn and Evans fawned endlessly over her to gain favour.

There were notable scuffles between the clubs on the pitch - they knocked us out of the League Cup in a often forgotten semi-final in 1988 thereby denying us a second Wembley trip in 2 years, there was an astonishing 7-4 defeat at Kenilworth Road and a 3-2 Oxford win on the plastic that all but secured our survival in 1987.

Fast forward to the Kassam years; we’re plummeting back down the league and the latest Kassam saviour, Joe Kinnear, resigns from Oxford on health-grounds. He reappears days later at Luton. He could have given so many reasons for resigning, but he simply, publicly, lied. Plus, he left us with David Kemp. Then, he took Luton on a dance back up through the divisions - beating us on Boxing Day in 2001. While we struggled, they celebrated and we were eventually relegated to the Conference while they sat pretty. This would have been galling enough had it not been based on one of the biggest lies in English football history.

The club were operating way beyond their means and when the money dried up administration was an inevitability. In addition it was revealed that Luton had been paying agents via third parties against the Football League’s regulations. The result was an accumulative 30 point deduction which meant they were relegated into the Conference the following season. In essence, we’d been a victim of their ill-gotten success, or that’s how it felt. Their points punishment was one thing, but it didn't compensate for our suffering.

By now we were both in the Conference, this put Oxford and Luton in the unfamiliar position of being giants of their division. Inevitably, they arrogantly predicted an immediate return to the Football League - being the only team, they said, ever to be relegated from the league for 'non-football reasons' (not true, their cheating artificially inflated their footballing capability; the points deduction was just a readjustment for that). But it was us who set the pace winning 2-0 on a fantastic night at the Kassam with a James Constable goal moments after missing a penalty (spewing a mini-YouTube classic) and a wonder goal from The Great Carrier Of Hope, Jamie Cook. The stadium seethed throughout - the size of the crowd and its intensity taking the police and club by surprise - part of the chaos being that it wasn’t considered important enough to be all-ticket.

Months later and the tide was again beginning to turn; Luton was finding their feet and we were suffering a characteristic mini-collapse. The problem appeared to be stemmed at Kenilworth Road as Matt Green put us into the lead, which we carried deep into injury time. Then, perhaps inevitably, they won a corner from which they equalised; and then heartbreakingly about six hours into injury time, we conceded again and walked away with nothing. Chris Wilder talked paternally about us being alright despite us metaphorically falling off our bike and getting a boo-boo on our knee.

The season, inevitably ended with a play-off. It seemed pre-ordained that we would meet Luton at Wembley (maybe even a full Wembley) for the right to promotion. But, while we completed our side of the deal dismantling Rushden, they inexplicably capitulated at home to York. It probably did us the world of good as their form suggested they’d have gone to Wembley as hot favourites. But, all of this was overshadowed as angry Luton fans chased the York players into the away end hurling abuse and objects at them. A shameful episode for which they were barely punished - even more galling when you consider that a year before we were deducted five points for a minor administrative error involving Eddie Hutchinson.

Saturday's defeat, which seems to have opened the debate around Michael Appleton's commitment to The Right Things, seems to have been self-inflicted. However, this doesn't make me feel any better about them.

I haven’t even touched on what a horrible place Luton is or what a pipsqueak of a stadium they have with their grandstand of greenhouses down one side. It all adds to a great pyre of evidence that makes Luton a team I loath beyond all others.

Oh, but I love their kit.

Addendum: There is a fine line between deliberately nasty and simply discussing a genuine feeling. And this is about the latter, not the former, although I realise that it does look like the former – particularly if you are a Luton fan. If you think about it, I’m describing a relationship over a 30 year period. The only real constant in this relationship is me and the name Luton Town.

It just so happens that Luton and I have never really got on – from plastic pitches and bad results to banned away fans and hooliganism. But that’s not to say that there aren’t good people in Luton and it hasn’t done good stuff. I have vague recollections of being a "Luton fan" during the 1985 League Cup final. It’s just my only interaction with the club has really been through the bad stuff listed above.

At least Luton is a memorable team for me. I suppose, in a sense, I should dislike other clubs even more because they just happen to turn up at Oxford games from time to time and leave no impression at all.

What I do know is that frequently when you dislike something, that it says more about you than the thing you dislike. Perhaps that’s it – Luton Town is a bear trap for me; which says more about me than it does about them.