Thursday, October 08, 2015

Maths of the Day - September


A tricky month in which the Appletonometer - the rolling accumulation of 46 games - took an alarming dip. It didn't help that in September last year we did start to pick up a small number of points - losing one game (but only winning one as well). The bookend victories against Bristol Rovers and York City saw two peaks. Despite the dip, Appleton ends the month higher than he did at the end of August.

Five game form

Unsurprisingly the rolling five game form took a dramatic dip, but in the context of Appleton's entire tenure, it's hardly time to hit the panic button. Those who screamed that we were showing relegation form were wrong. Very wrong.

Run rate

Although the run rate - the accumulation of points in a season compared to a straight line title, promotion and play-off trajectory - looked like it was heading off the play-off radar, the win against York saw it spike back upwards. Form remains comfortably in the play-off zone and heading towards automatic promotion. Those with short memories might like to have a look at the run rate from this time last year (in grey). After 10 games we had just limped to the 7 point mark and any hope of promotion was already dead. You don't know you're born you don't.

The Wilder comparison

Last month someone asked me what things would look like if you extrapolated back a few more years. In a sense, that's of limited value because it would span a number of managers, a couple of owners, and countless players, of course. You can judge long term performance from your league position. Maths of the Day is looking at shorter-term trends and performance against a promotion objective.

However, there may be some value in looking at Chris Wilder's performance against similar criteria as a benchmark. It's still comparing apples with pairs, not least because Wilder was in charge for over three years in the Football League (there's no point in looking at the Conference). The results, I think, are quite interesting.

Most notable is the 46-game Wilderometer, which spans 110+ games as opposed to Appleton's 10. At no point in that period did we trouble the automatic promotion places. So even though there were times when we topped the table, it was no more than a short term thing rather than the culmination of long term development. Interestingly, Wilder's performances generally improved towards the end of his tenure after quite a long period where we were quite a way off the pace.

Wilder was a short-term form man. Anyone who watched us over that period would recognise that. The range is remarkable; we had a five game stretch where we took no points and one where we took maximum points. On nearly 20 occasions we were in short term title form, but on at least as many occasions we were in dire relegation form. We just seemed incapable of stringing together any long-term form. This probably why Wilder became such a Marmite manager; there were those to suckled off the thrill of big results, and those who couldn't handle the massive come-downs that typically came afterwards.

Does that characterise Wilder's time at the club? Yes, I think so. Does it show what Appleton has to conjour up to move us forward? Indeed. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Swindon Town wrap - Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0

The news that James Roberts’ brother Ben had been killed in a road accident last weekend inevitably drew the comment that this was something that really puts football into perspective. It’s as if it’s not possible to calibrate the devastation and heartbreak of a something like that against an arbitrary benchmark like football without it actually happening.

The club have chosen to hold a minute’s silence for the game against Wimbledon on Saturday rather before Tuesday’s derby. Maybe they couldn’t be sure that Swindon fans, with their emotional distance from the tragedy, would be able to put it into perspective after all?

It was difficult to contextualise the game in a number of ways. It was Swindon, our arch rivals, and we wanted to win, but it’s the JPT, nowhere near as important as the League. Winning would be great, but was defeat that bad? How far do you take the ‘hatred’ on this occasion? Enough for the game to be meaningful, but not enough for it to become a burden. It’s only the JPT and we had work, college and school in the morning.

Missing the point

Not everyone could rationalise it, of course. When someone smashes up a pub, hurting and scaring people in the name of their football club, is there a point afterwards when they quietly realise how utterly ridiculous they are?

Four arrests were made before the game; three were men over 40. There would be children and partners in their lives. Do they look at those people and think about what they’ve done? Do they think ‘why am I such a cretin?’ or is it ‘I’m such a hero for defending the honour of my football club’? How distorted do you have to be to think that? Presumably there is an motivation behind this, but when has anyone ever been impressed by a wheezing middle aged man breaking beer glasses and swearing indiscriminately? Do they ever think of the futility of it all?

Then there’s the daft charade of social media trolling where each side accuses the other of taking it too seriously. A game of one-downsmanship, if you like. The whole thing is a pantomime, but at the same time it has to mean something in order to be worth anything. Where’s the balance?

The big fans’ showdown came as the teams came out; a truly spectacular display in the East Stand which genuinely stunned in terms of scale and ambition. Our Swindon counterparts, who tried to drum up support for their display via social media and threatened to engulf the city in, um, stickers, unfurled some red and white ribbons which seemed to get tangled in the empty seats. They disappeared before the two teams had completed their handshakes while Oxford held firm.

Chasing shadows
A derby is won in the head; play to form and the result goes to form. But, if the occasion gets the better of you then you’re on a hiding to nothing. Perhaps the display helped secure the victory; confident, dominant, calm; both off and on the field.

We already knew they had problems, but I don’t think anyone anticipated just how big those problems were. They started OK, like a decent League 2 side; like Portsmouth, or us. Passing was crisp, movement was good, but we matched them and they didn’t look a threat. Then Turnbull was sent off and they fell apart alarmingly.

There was bickering all over the pitch – a casual disinterest in the fact their defences were being breached time and time again. Vigouroux’s performance in goal was the most bizarre. The bloke is clearly slightly nuts, but his display seemed to reflect externally what was going on inside his team-mates’ heads.

Of course, a sending off is a blow, but plenty of other teams have adapted to playing us with ten men and done well; as we did with them when James Constable was sent off in 2012. Maybe it was a combination of that, and their current form, and the display, and their injuries and their record against us specifically. They were in chaos, an absolute shambles; at no point did they regain any composure.

Think of Di Canio’s Swindon, or McMahon’s; that was like defeating a caged animal. But last night they whimpered and we passed it around them. Perhaps we were just brilliant and we’re not used being just brilliant, but the lack of fight, plan or purpose after the sending off was startling. It’s not bravado to say that this was one of the worst teams, of any flavour, we’ve ever seen at the Kassam.

We, on the other hand, swept them aside. Passing was expansive, defensively we were robust. We looked a threat down both flanks. Jordan Graham looks a winger in the Beauchamp or Allen mould. Everything was slick and positive; I can’t remember us outclassing a team like that before and for it to be League 1 club, and Them, makes it more special.

Making sense

I don’t like Swindon, it would be odd to have a rival that you did. Ultimately, it’s the rivalry I like; it’s probably the best derby in the lower leagues. I love the feeling of tension and the relief of victory, that it feels meaningful even when, ultimately, it probably isn’t.

We spend our lives putting things into context. Pretty much every job involves a process of rationalising and contextualising; making chaos and irrationality logical and systematic. Everything is a process of distilling things which are complex and difficult into a series of processes and procedures.

To be able to indulge in something as absurd as a football rivalry, and the joy and despair that comes with that is a luxury. It makes no sense outside the bubble of the rivalry and nor should it. Football doesn’t exist to put the death of a young man into context; no thinking person needs football to remind them of that. Football exists because senseless, pointless and frankly depressing things happen and it gives us a glimmer of purpose and hope to prevent us all from going completely mad.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Coming up: Swindon Town

The drop

Most games need context, some can exist in a vacuum; Oxford v Swindon in the JPT is very much the latter. This is not about progression in the tournament, it's not even about settling any scores, it's just an opportunity to dook it out with an old friend. A bar brawl rather than an officially sanctioned prize-fight. That's figuratively, not literally, if you're a hoolie moron.

There are those who talk about this being a distraction. If it is, then you would have to question our mental capacity to get promoted in the first place. What's more, it's here, it's happening, we've got to deal with it.

I've been watching Oxford for over 30 years, I've seen one Milk Cup and four promotions; that's a paltry return. Nine derby victories improves that return on investment considerably. We don't play each other very often; we might as well enjoy it.

Any other business

Let's be honest, we're not getting much work done over the next couple of days are we? Whatever it is that you do, and let's face it, most of us do nothing of any particular value to mankind, can wait until tomorrow. Or, if we win, it can wait until the day after that. So, why not use up the spare time you've got to read the Oxblogger series: 30 years of the Swindon Derby.

Old game of the day

So many to choose from; Wilder's trilogy of wins? the 3-0 Beauchamp-inspired triumph of 1996? Too easy. How about this one? The good old days were rapidly coming to an end in 1999, we'd bought Dean Windass with money we didn't have, the Manor was falling apart and a saviour by the name of Firoz Kassam was on the horizon.

But, this was a whole heap of fun.

From the blog

This got 3,500 views and was picked up by the Guardian:
"It’s not a rivalry based on class or religion or economics, but on football, two teams that have grown to dislike each other on the football field and in the stands. Important only to those involved. Outsiders are not welcome. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the fixture, and the ambivalence of everyone else, that makes it so intense. When you’re stuck in a vacuum nobody hears you scream, so you might as well scream at each other."
Read on

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Accrington wrap - Accrington Stanley 1 Oxford United 3

We all know Danny Hylton, he’s one of those crazy guys who just loves the game. His brains are in his boots. Booting the ball away late on in the win over Accrington when all was done and dusted was just an act of impetuous enthusiasm. But, oh no! He’s going to miss the game against Swindon and will only just be back in time for the league game against Wimbledon next weekend. If only he’d thought about the impact of drawing a pointless booking beforehand!

The Swindon game is proving to be something of a godsend. OK, it is important and we do want to win it. But it’s also an opportunity for Danny Hylton to sit out a game without it having any impact on our promotion campaign (I mean, we all know this right? We are now in a promotion campaign).

Having banked six points from two away games, including an unreasonably in-form Accrington, it would be easy to think of next week’s home game against Wimbledon (in 13th) as another banker. We are hopelessly optimistic like this. But for a club like Oxford, complacency has always been a curse.

Some have talked about the distraction of the Swindon game, but I think it could prove to be just the right kind of distraction. In addition to Hylton’s Suspension of Convenience, it’s a big pile of cash that the club wouldn’t have budgeted for.

And, it breaks up the sequence of league games between the two wins in the north and next week’s Wimbledon game. If it weren’t there, we’d probably spend all week convincing ourselves of how easy it was going to be. And, if history tells us anything, we’d probably fluff it.

A promotion will prove a major step forward for the club, whereas a win against Swindon will be a fun night but not much more. So, if you want to think of it as our cup final, the phrase of derision their fans level at us, then why the hell not? It’s a one-off game we’d love to win just for the glory. If we lose, it’ll be bitter, but not fatal and will help us recognise our own mortality and the hard work and focus needed to get three points against Wimbledon. I suppose we could be thanking Swindon for helping us keep our promotion charge on track.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Coming up: Accrington Stanley

The drop

Our trip to The North was supposed to give us a bit of rest bite before tougher fixtures later in the month, which includes the amuse bouche against Swindon on Tuesday. Our midweek win against York was more stressful than it had any need to be and next is promotion chasing Accrington Stanley.

Stanley are defying gravity at the moment. By rights they shouldn't exist at all; surrounded, as they are, by a stack of larger, more established clubs. If the fact they exist is a bit of a miracle, their current position of fourth in the table even more so.

My guess is we won't see them in this position in May; injuries and general fatigue will begin to kick-in and that's when resources really start to count. Those around them look more equipped to cope as we head into the deep winter. In reality, rather than chasing promotion, they're really banking points to ensure safety.

While things are going well, there's a sense of invincibility and confidence, the trick is to break their spirit at the moment they think they can't be beaten. Saturday could be that day.


Old game of the day

Who are they? Now, here are two clubs who share a peculiar history. Both teams' most high profile moments are synonymous with the marketing of milk. When we came into the league we replaced them, when they came into the league, they replaced us. Yet, our first ever fixture was just five years ago. A fixture wholly archived by YouTube.

This one is probably the best of the lot; a rip-snorting cup game from 2012. Days after the death of Mitchell Cole, we seemed to be carried on a wave of emotion. Michael Raynes is one of my favourite players of recent years, so his last minute goal is particularly sweet.

From the blog

"I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon. A win is definitely better than a defeat; I am not one of those people who claims to want to see their team lose to affect a change of manager. For one, that’s a buffoon’s logic and two; from what I hear of him, I quite like Michael Appleton. I’m not convinced by him as a manager for obvious, tangible, reasons, but he speaks well and appears willing to take responsibility for his team. I don’t particularly like myself for not being convinced by him as a professional."

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

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.

Monday, September 28, 2015

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.