Thursday, 4 November 2010

Das Bot

Our lovely new yellow submarine seems to have sprung a leak.
Many leaks.

The warning signs have been there for weeks: Aldershot, Macclesfield, even the home win against Northampton, but the flood gates really opened against Bradford and Torquay did nothing to dispel my fears that the rot has started to set in.

Unlike many of the crowd at the Northampton game I thought we were lucky to get away with three points. A commanding Jake Wright second-half performance, a great Payne freekick and a soft penalty papered over the cracks that Worley, Purkiss, Tonkin and Hall left in our defense throughout the game. We keep hearing that they are 'young lads', inexperienced at this level and the odd error is to be expected. But week after week now we are seeing the same players making the same poor decisions, failing to communicate with or support each other, failing to closedown, failing to distribute properly and failing to focus and concentrate the whole 90 minutes.

It would actually be nice if some of these players managed to focus and concentrate for even 45 minutes a game - it would at least be an improvement on what we are getting right now.

Without Jake Wright we are lightweight at the back. During the Northampton game he was having to talk to the rest of the back four incessantly and clearly wasn't happy with their positioning or work rate. That second half we were a one man team and the 3-1 result could easily have finished the other way if Wright hadn't have shaken off his lack of match fitness and upped his game. Creighton's introduction was also a blessing.

I feared for us at Bradford and although Creighton's first yellow was a little harsh, the second - and his sending off - was justified. Quite why Wright then reacted as he did to the elbow flung at him to secure his own straight red, I do not know. The game effectively already lost at that stage at that moment became a disaster, as with Wright out for three games we are sitting ducks.

During a pre-match drink before Tuesday night's Torquay game I expressed my feeling that Worley and Franks are not up to the task. My first impression of Worley on his debut was a positive one. But as the games have gone on his decision-making has become increasingly questionable and without Wright alongside him to continuously mentor and guide, he looks a liability right now. Franks has been sporadically good, but like many of his team mates he seems inconsistent. Tonkin - who should be a vessel of experience - is likewise all over the place since coming back into the side. Whether it is a lack of confidence or a niggle, with Tonkin unforced-errors directly behind at least two of our recently conceded goals, why hasn't Wilder turned to the very capable Kinniburgh?

And so I was unfortunately proved right... An early own goal from Batt - who did his best to try and get a head to a poorly-marked freekick - set the scene for another comedy of errors at the back. Even with 10 men for 75 minutes, Torquay showed more discipline, a higher work rate and unbelievably, more efficiency and effectiveness upfront.

What are Hall and Craddock currently doing on the park?!

Hall fails to contribute anything positive as far as I can see: nothing going forward and certainly nothing on the back foot. He doesn't track back. He doesn't win challenges. Despite his height he fails to win any aerial balls. Poor Heslop looked knackered second half - and with no support from Hall who can blame him?! Why is Bulman out on loan at Crawley when his presence on the pitch instead of Hall would immediately strengthen our core and protect our back four? Has Wilder forgotten the old saying that 'you build from the back'?

And Craddock... what an anonymous figure he is. Apart from a couple of late goals and a soft penalty kick what has he contributed since his arrival? His support of Constable is poor. His link play is poor. He seems half a yard off the pace at times. Nobody but Wilder seems to know why he is continuously getting the nod ahead of Midson.

Midson might not be the best player on the planet but at least he puts in a graft and his performances were improving game after game until he got benched in favour of the new boy. Perhaps Wilder has also forgotten that classic saying 'you defend from the front'? I'd rather have Midson's strength, height, ability to hold the ball up and willingness to get involved alongside Constable at present, particularly as so much of our Plan A football seems to be route one hoofing.

The callers to Radio Oxford post-Torquay bemoaned the lack of finishing as our problem. Wilder said the same. It may be true that Constable's miss should and could have changed the course of the match for us. But it is also true that with 4 or 5 wonder saves from our MOTM keeper Clarke we could easily have been looking down the barrel of another 5-0 defeat. At home. Against ten men!

And that should tell you everything: You don't lose games 5-0, or 2-0 at home versus 10 men, due to poor finishing. You lose these games due to atrocious defending.

Forget shooting practice boys, start again at the back. Mister Meville has his money to earn and if Wilder was serious about looking outside the club for answers, can I recommend another quality centreback and a tenacious midfielder?

You know the kind of tenacious midfielder I mean...
Someone like Bulman.

I'm getting a horrible sinking feeling. And I'm not the only one - that was the biggest mass exodus from the Kassam before the final whistle since the Orient relegation match. Could we please direct the submarine back up before it's too late? I do not want us plunging the depths again. Thanks!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Odds update

OUFC have slipped to 20/1 out-right winners, but remain 4/1 for promotion.
Torquay, with their 100% record after 4 matches, are now the bookies favourites at 6/1.

Johnstone's Paint Trophy

Aldershot 2 - 0 Oxford United

So that was the JPT...

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A Thoroughly Soul-less Goal-less

Oxford United 0-0 Accrington Stanley

It was billed as a historic day: Oxford and Accrington's first ever meeting. A pair of yo-yo clubs, who had passed each other like lost souls in the football league revolving door, finally got to celebrate their joint football league status and firmly embrace on the pitch. Kindred spirits who had tasted the despair and joy of regulation and promotion from and to the football league - twice at the expense of each other. The two sides of the coin. The Light Side and the Dark Side. Blah, blah, blah...

Here are the highlights if you want to waste another few minutes of your time - it wasn't a very good game. In fact, it was dreadful. Absolutely NOTHING happened.

To summarise:

Matt Green and Constable both looked tired - physically and mentally. Green in particular was woeful first half. It was no surprise that Potter replaced him in the second half, and yet again Alfie showed the ability to keep ball - a trait that many of the other Oxford players sadly lacked. Midson was yet again the most effective of the starting front three, competing for the ball, holding it up well and demonstrating a high work rate. Why Mister Wilder decided to take him off and leave the struggling Constable on raised eyebrows in our section of the ground - Midson is looking more and more like a quality all round front man and leader of the line... unlike Cole who is yet to impress.

Accrington were tenacious in midfield, closing down quickly and restricting space. Once they had the ball they kept it well and this is something we have to learn quickly - we cannot give the ball away cheaply like we did at times in the BSBP and expect to get it back without a fight or punishment. Hall's work rate wasn't good enough and as a result Bulman and Heslop were overrun. We were begging out for Clist at the end...

At the back we are undoubtedly going to miss Batt - although Purkiss did a decent job defensively, he does not give us that relentless drive forward from the back and the progressive attacking outlet that Batt does. Another right back option - perhaps a short-term loan signing - before the transfer deadline would have been welcome. On the positive side, Clarke, Tonkin and Worley did well again, but it was the performance of Jake Wright that was the stand-out of the day. Wright continues to look Rolls Royce at this level and once again he was the right man in the right place at the right time, saving Oxford time after time when Accrington threatened to spoil the third clean sheet of the season. Watch the highlights again and keep an eye on Wright - three times in the 1st 53 seconds he is the key man covering back. If he stays fit and develops Worley next to him, I think we could see Oxford delivering one of the meanest goal against ratios of the league.

We just need a few goals - so I'm pleased to see Tom Craddock join us this evening.

It was a historic game for another reason too: my 4 year old son's first ever match. He was utterly bored after 40 minutes. Thank goodness for crisps, sweets, Mars bars, iPhones and Shrek Kart racing. A drab nil-nil. A fitting start to his life-long obsession with the club.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Another disappointed costumier

The trouble with having a photo of Ollie the Ox as your Twitter and blog profile picture is that some casual observers get the impression that you are the man who dons the foam suit on match days. Being the creator of the Facebook fan page Ollie the Ox Rocks further confuses people.

Before the second leg of the Rushden play-off semi last season, a few of the regular Oxford United twitterers got together for a tweet-up pint. My travelling companion Oxblogger related afterwards how disappointed a couple of the guys looked when it dawned on them that I was not in fact Ollie the Ox. One of them actually asked the question 'Aren't you Ollie the Ox?! Shouldn't you be getting ready for the game rather than standing here in the hotel bar drinking piss poor lager?'.

This week the level of confusion has been cranked up a notch, with the wonderful and very professional West Ham blog the ball is round asking to interview me for a piece on mascots - the unsung heroes of football. Although I'm very tempted to masquerade as the Ox Who Now Appears On The Box and deliver a creative interview with Shakespearean flourishes, it's time to nip things in the bud and reiterate that I am not Ollie the Ox.

The real Ollie the Ox is an extremely nice man by the name of Nick Penfold - who recently had a two week holiday in Cuba - and might be available for interview if you contact the club directly. You may be stunned to hear that Nick didn't take the El Torro suit with him to Cuba. And he certainly wouldn't be downing pints before a match - the man's a professional for goodness sake!

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Just like watching England

Oxford United v Bristol Rovers, Carling Cup, Round 1, Tue 10th Aug 2010

After winning the mascot race at Windsor racecourse on Saturday, Olly the Ox collected both a bottle of champagne and a round of applause from PRB on the pitch at half time last night. During his victory jig and lap of honour Olly showed more pace and heart than the entire back four of the visiting Bristol Rovers side.

Although the bookies had Oxford as 11/8 favourites going into last nights Carling Cup 1st Round match, most people associated with the club were expecting a reasonable test, despite Rovers 3-0 loss away at Peterborough at the weekend. What the Kassam wasn't expecting was a landslide*. League 1 Bristol Rovers brought along a defensive unit - including a debutant goalkeeper - who seemed completely terrified of, and unable to cope with, pace. Whether Oxford players were running directly at them or chasing the long ball over the top, every one of the Bristol defenders looked like frightened rabbits caught in headlights.

Very slow and immobile rabbits.

The 6-1 final score did not flatter: it could have been much worse for the Pirates had Simon Clist been wearing long studs and Matt Green a little more ruthless. It was one of those nights where every first half chance was taken and the opposition totally and utterly destroyed by a team riding a crest of a football tsunami - growing in confidence and adventure by the minute.

A die hard Bristol colleague told me this morning that "in 50 years of watching Rovers, last night ranks as one of, if not the worst, displays I have ever seen from a Rovers team". Make no mistake, this was no reserve Rovers team - this was their 1st XI. Without a doubt the Oxford players and fans were clearly more up for the game than their Bristol counterparts, but it still takes a great team performance to grasp the nettle and force victory. That Oxford were able to do this so emphatically, which such dynamism in midfield, strength at the back and murderous prowess upfront, speaks volumes for the squads potential this season.

It was a night to enjoy, savour and remember. It was a night to justify the Carling Cup competition - OUR Cup competition. It was a night to warm the cockles. It was, in all probably, just a freak result.

Who played well? You could make a case for any of the 10 outfield starters as being man of the match - Midson probably had his best game for the club, Batt was progressive down the flank and Wright and Worley were both strong at the back - but it was Heslop who stood out, putting in the best home debut seen at the club in a long time. Heslop's first goal was a turf-cutter screamer, his work-rate and commitment in the tackle was second to none, and his delivery immaculate. His last-gasp second goal was thoroughly deserved - he was frankly unlikely not to score a hattrick having seen an audicious and beautifully judged long-range chip brilliantly clawed away by the Rovers keeper.

And Worley at the back? His partnership with Wright can only get better, but based on his performance over 90 minutes last night, Wilder has signed another potential golden ticket. A massive physical presence, young, athletic, fleet-of-foot (he showed real pace at times), and importantly, good with the ball at his feet, he looks like the sort of player who could quickly develop into a new Matt Elliot.

What a fine way to spend a Tuesday evening!

* There was one punter, South Stand Lower Martin, who WAS expecting a landslide victory: he had Oxford to win 5-1 at 100/1. I don't believe that he was cheering Heslop's 92nd minute goal that loudly...

Shirt tales

Got my first in-the-flesh look at the new shirts at last nights Rovers game.

The home shirt isn't quite as bad as I'd expected, although it's hardly flattering on the average rotund fan. Quite a few times on the pitch I thought passes had been misdirected at the referee - the very dark blue means that from the side-rear, with long sleeves obscuring the numbers, the shirts almost look like a plain black referee shirt. I can't help but fear that at times this season - in the rain or gloom of a dark January afternoon - that these shirts won't help the players pick each other out on the park.

The away shirt - as modelled by a minority of fans milling round the ground - is much more attractive, but I still have an issue with the colour: I know it's not the first time we have had sky blue away shirts, but for some reason it just doesn't feel right. I love the all white away option: at least white shorts and white socks would have given the dressing room a bit more flexibility on brightening-up the all dark blue home kit with some mix & match style changes.

I felt a little cheap watching in my all yellow 09/10 Nike shirt, but as last seasons number was by far the best shirt we've had in a long time -- and it's a promotion-winning shirt too -- I'm loathed to give it up. I'm going to give it a few weeks and then probably look again at the new away shirt.

Monday, 9 August 2010

No, I wasn't at the opening game

So the big kick-off has come and gone with an almost inevitable goal-less draw at Burton Albion.

I wasn't there.

As the 2000 travelling fans were nestled in the creaking East stand under grey clouds, I was taking photos of my kids riding donkeys* on the beach at Weston-Super-Mare. While the faithful fans in yellow were tucking into Cornish pasties on the terraces, I was tucking into a Cornish pasty and 99 Flake Mr Whippy ice cream on the sand. Luckily I had my trusty iPhone with me to relay commentary to me via Tunein Radio, score and statistics updates via Sky Sports Football SC and the live insights of the guys at the game via Twitter.

Unfortunately I couldn't get a reception.

Thus I was transported back in time, to a place where the only possible way to discover how my team were doing was to listen to Radio 5 Live in the car. And they didn't even mention the score until the final score sports report. Frustrating yes, exciting hardly.

So tomorrow night's Carling Cup game is really the big kick-off for me - as it will be for many at the Kassam who didn't travel up to Burton.

I cannot tell you how the lads played or if the result was a fair one. All I can do is rate the Cornish pasty I had as 'excellent' and assess the £2 cost of each donkey ride as being 'good value-for-money'.

See you Tuesday night.

* Cuddles and Mini-Me - the names of the donkeys, not my kids.

Friday, 30 July 2010

A chance as good as any

This time of the year is characterised by football forums and message boards filling up with fans telling their opponents how brilliant their clubs pre-season signings are, how their team will run riot over all others in the division, and inevitably, that their club will finish the league as champions.

Two weeks into the competitive matches and half of those forum posters will already have egg on their faces.

Bookmakers of course are rather more neutral and objective. Although bookmaker odds have to reflect the level of wagers already placed on teams by punters, odds are also determined in order to attract or dissuade prospective punts by offering value-for-money (or not) on a particular club.

League 2 is of great interest this season, in that the offered odds on the league favourites (Gillingham and Bradford at a generous 9/1) are frankly no different to those of over half the teams in the division. The rank outsider, Barnet, is offered at a tight 80/1.

Compare these odds with those on offer on the Premiership (Chelsea 6/4, Manchester Utd 5/2 and Blackpool 10,000/1), Championship (Middlesborough 6/1, Nottingham Forest 15/2, Scunthorpe 100/1), League 1 (Southampton 12/5, Sheffield Wed 9/2, Dagenham 100/1) and the BSP (Luton 7/4, Crawley 5/1, Eastbourne 150/1) and you have to conclude that the professionals have no idea who might win League 2 this season and that claiming promotion, or indeed sufering relegation, is a very real possibility for almost any of the clubs competing this year. Of all the leagues, League 2 is on paper the most competitive.

At 14/1, Oxford United are well placed by the bookies, who clearly believe that Chris Wilders men have both the talents, momentum and experience of the dog-fight to emulate ex-BSP teams Carlisle, Exeter and Dagenham in achieving a quick promotion up to League 1... but are one of many sides who could do it.

The players, management, non-playing staff and fanbase at OUFC know that we have a chance as good as any. We know from our time in the BSP that a good start is imperative, and for United it will mean transitioning our rich 'road to Wembley' form, of positive passing and pressing football, onto the pitches of Burton, Wycombe and Hereford.

4/1 for OUFC to get promoted up to League 1 looks an attractive proposition right now.

My face is clean. The eggs are waiting in the fridge.