Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Football League Is Upside Down

Six games into the 2014/15 season and the League Two table isn't exactly the most beautiful thing to look at, in fact it resembles a bit of a mess, well that's being kind, it resembles a big mess.

No wins from our first six games and already FOURTEEN points behind first place and NINE points adrift from the play-offs, yes it's early days but those gaps are still rather worrying.

I normally don't pay much attention to the table until 10-15 games have been played but this year has been different. Admittedly, I haven't got to any of the games played thus far so many may consider my views irrelevant and lacking in evidence, however, the fact is, we've played six games and scored five goals - four from the same source and three of them were penalties (the anti Rob Duffy crowd will tell you they don't count). That doesn't fit with the attacking, exciting football that Michael Appleton promised us on his arrival at the club.

I don't think you can blame Appleton, he was handed a pretty rubbish hand, appointed a week after pre-season had started with players devoid of confidence after a miserable end to the previous season. He pretty much had to start from scratch and to be fair to him, his signings on paper have been impressive. Michael Collins is a midfielder I have always rated and from reading the views of the OUFC masses on twitter and other sources, it would appear he is well liked by the fanbase. On the flipside, goalkeeper George Long came to the club with great reviews from Sheffield United fans and many other League One supporters. For whatever reason, (as I say, I haven't witnessed any games so far), he has become a bit of a scapegoat for the unnerving start to the season. For what it is worth, I am a goalkeeper and I couldn't find any fault with his positioning for Abu Ogogo's wonder goal from distance for Dagenham (and neither can the dusty coaching manuals I brought off the shelf). I was told Joe Riley is a good player and he seems to have been pretty steady so far, of the two younger loanees, Alex Jakubiak seems to have impressed more than Carlton Morris. Morris could find his matchday place under threat if a striker comes in during the loan window. Will Hoskins has lived up to his reputation, a threat but injury hit. His exit from the pitch on Saturday on a stretcher looked nasty and I can't imagine we will see him anytime soon.

So then we come to Danny Hylton, the star performer so far you could say, ironically brought in by a Mr G. Waddock (remember him?). Six goals in nine appearances so far including goals at higher division opposition in Bristol City and West Bromwich Albion is a great return. Hopefully he can keep it up for the rest of the season as no-one else appears as if they are going to chip in at the moment. The collapse of the deal for Tyrone Barnett could prove costly unless a strong recruit can me made during the loan window.

And then there's the issue of the loans, in principle, Long, Riley, Morris and Jakubiak could all go back in January and we end up four players down. Ryan Clarke will be back so that is Long's absence taken care of but the other three have all played a large part so far. I hope Appleton has a plan in place.

I'm not negative, but I really would like a win from somewhere and soon. I'm fed up of hearing how well we played without winning. I'd take a 1-0 with the winner being an OG off the opposition's defenders elbow every time over a 1-1 draw where we battled well and played good football.
Chris Wilder was criticised for often negative football but it certainly got results.

It's not quite time to panic but by the end of September it could well be.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Liam and Shane Ensure Tigers Survival Is Not a Long Way Away

There were a vital 3 points for Hull City this afternoon with a 2-0 victory over West Brom. Goals from Liam Rosenior and Shane Long ensured The Tigers bounced back from last week’s defeat to Manchester City in exactly the right way.

It was West Brom who had started the brightest with Stephane Sessegnon seeing a lot of the ball early on and it was the former Sunderland man who had the first shot of the game but his hit from distance didn’t trouble Alan McGregor. For The Tigers, a change in shape had seen Sone Aluko replace Maynor Figueroa in the starting line-up and it was Aluko alongside Jake Livermore who led the early charges from the City midfield.  Good work from Livermore won a corner for the home side and after a couple of mishit clearances, Curtis Davies saw his goalbound shot blocked and cleared by Youssoff Mulumbu.

The news from earlier in the week that the FA had been advised to reject Assem Allam’s name change application had been met with joy by many supporters and chants of “We’re Keeping Our Name” rang around the ground throughout the early part of the game.

Graham Dorrans was the first to force a save in the game, with McGregor palming away a stinging shot from distance. But the best chance of the game fell to David Meyler on 27 minutes; Gareth McAuley gave away a cheap corner and from Tom Huddlestone’s delivery, the Irish international ghosted in at the far post but could only head past the post with the goal beckoning. The miss was met with cheers from the West Brom fans who had brought a large number of Spanish flags with them in support for manager Pepe Mel, but unfortunately for the Baggies, there was to be no ‘boing boinging’ when after half an hour, referee Chris Foy awarded The Tigers a penalty.  Former Baggie Shane Long looked to be felled by Craig Dawson but quickly got to his feet, play continued for a few seconds before Foy blew his whistle and pointed to the spot much to the anger of the Albion players and fans alike.

Nikica Jelavic stepped up to take the penalty, but saw his low shot fantastically saved by England international Ben Foster, however, Liam Rosenior came steaming onto the rebound to head the ball home to open the scoring. It was Rosenior’s first goal for the Tigers in over 130 appearances so perhaps West Brom thought it wasn’t to be their day. If they weren’t thinking it then, they definitely were just six minutes later when the Tigers doubled the advantage. Livermore picked up on a half cleared corner and crossed back into the box, Davies flicked on and Long was there to slot home from six yards. The striker signed from West Brom in January for £6.5million didn’t celebrate in front of his former supporters but the home fans were delighted.

The second half started slowly with Hull happy to try and keep possession whilst the visitors tried frantically to find a way into the game. Jelavic sent a volley into the side netting before Thievy Bifouma saw a header deflected wider for West Brom. Anichebe tested McGregor for a second time and Sessegnon had another shot from distance blocked.

It was to be Long who went closest to adding to the scoreline, after picking up the ball around 25 yards out, the Republic of Ireland international cut inside and hit a thunderous curling shot that moved away from Ben Foster and thumped against the far post with the keeper beaten all ends up.
There were precious little chances in the remainder of the game as West Brom looked devoid of ideas and Steve Bruce’s side were happy to see the game out. Substitute Yannick Sagbo had appeals for a penalty waved away at one end whilst West Brom’s  James Morrison also had appeals of his own ignored by Chris Foy. A flurry of substitutions had earlier taken the life out of the game as Pepe Mel tried to add a new dimension to his attack with the introductions of Scott Sinclair, Saido Berahino and Matej Vydra whilst Stephen Quinn, Robert Koren and Sagbo came on for The Tigers.

Chris Foy’s whistle brought the game to a close and ensured that Hull moved to 8 points clear of the relegation zone with just 8 games remaining. Steve Bruce remarked after the game “I always said ten wins would be enough and now other teams have to win 3 or 4 games to catch us up”.  After a brief interruption to watch the replay of Wayne Rooney’s goal for Manchester United that was being shown on the television in the media suite, Bruce went onto say “We didn't play well today but there was a resilience and attitude for everyone to see” whilst also saying that the club didn’t think an injury Shane Long picked up was too serious.

The Tigers Premier League survival is within touching distance and with the partnership of Long and Jelavic beginning to really gel and cause defences problems, survival should be confirmed sooner rather than later.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Wilder Walks

Chris Wilder has left Oxford United to join Northampton Town in a move that brings to an end a five year period in charge at the Kassam Stadium.  What legacy will his reign leave and what is next for 'The U's'?

Let's be honest, the managerial job at Oxford United is never going to attract any major names in world football or even English football for that matter.  But as Oxford fans, we have always hoped to attract a reasonably big name for the level we are at. It was the back end of 2008 and the club was sat 13th in the Conference Premier looking up to footballing giants such as Histon, Weymouth and Ebbsfleet United, when the announcement came that a Christopher John Wilder had been appointed as the new manager at the Kassam Stadium. I have no recollection of where I was at that moment but I do remember a quick google informing me that Wilder had been acting as assistant manager at Bury. His CV read of past ventures at Alfreton Town and Halifax Town, nothing immediately inspiring. However, reading deeper, he spent six years in charge at Halifax and took them to the brink of promotion from the Conference before the debt hit in and the club eventually folded. Perhaps, this good knowledge of non-league's top tier could be a vital component in the tool box he would utilise as manager of Oxford United.

The Beginning.
Date: 26th December 2008.
Venue: Raymond McEnhill Stadium, Salisbury.
Result: Salisbury City 2-1 Oxford United
Position: 14th in Blue Square Premier.

Losing to a team even lower in the league than us wasn't the best way to introduce himself to the Oxford fans but to give Wilder credit, just two days later we thumped Ebbsfleet 5-1 at home. Scorers including Lewis 'Orange' Haldane and Phil 'The Power' Trainer - shudder. Just three league defeats in Wilder's first twenty-two games saw us go on a surge towards the playoffs but the deduction of four points from an admin cock-up error ultimately cost us. Nevertheless, it sparked a sense of optimism from the majority of fans for the upcoming 2009/10 season. The signings of Jack Midson, Dannie Bulman and Ryan Clarke within days of the season finishing heightened this optimism. The further additions of Mark Creighton, Alfie Potter and James Constable on a permanent deal made the new look Oxford team a force to be reckoned with. (I will skim over the signings of Marcus Kelly and Alex Rhodes).

Oxford United: Class of 2009/10 - PlayOff Winners

A 2-1 victory over York City (more on them shortly) on the opening day with goals in the 88th and 90th minutes perhaps should have warned us all of the drama to come during the season. But having waltzed into 2010 with a five point lead at the top of the table - all seemed very well. Anthony Tonkin, Jake Wright and Chris Hargreaves were added to the squad during the January window as Wilder looked to boost the ranks for the promotion run-in. The loan signings of Lewis Chalmers and John Grant can be filed alongside the aforementioned Kelly and Rhodes.

But then the wheels appeared to fall off (a regular second half season phenomena during CW's time in charge), by mid-march, we had dropped to third and were four points behind Stevenage. A mini recovery in April with just one defeat in six saw a play-off spot confirmed and a two legged tie against Rushden & Diamonds. After drawing 1-1 at Nene Park, goals from Constable and Matt Green in the return leg fired us to Wembley to face York City (them again) who had kindly dispatched of Luton Town on their own route to the final. I still maintain to this day, if we had played Luton, we wouldn't have won. As it was, we faced the Minstermen, a team who we had claimed four points from with the opening day victory and a 1-1 draw in October despite having 3 shots on target in total over both games.

With two goals in the opening 20 minutes of the final, we should have killed the contest but Ryan Clarke decided to make it more interesting by fumbling a Ben Purkiss cross into his own net to give York a lifeline. After comfortably (kind of) holding out during the second half, the moment was set for this...

I used to think I was quite a subdued supporter, but when Alfie Potter tucked that third goal away in the 90th minute, I found myself hugging a man with a yellow face and dancing about in sheer delight. Almost four years later, I have yet to have experienced another moment that has given me such a feeling of relief and enjoyment. The second best memory from that day? The chants of  'Are You Watching Luton Town' whilst walking down the many many steps from the top tier and down onto Wembley Way. The journey home (back to York in my case) was a blur, we were a football league club once again and Chris Wilder had masterminded this return all be it via a rather up and down route..

7th August 2010
The Pirelli Stadium, Burton-on-Trent and the "Oxford are back, Oxford are back" chants were ringing around as over 1500 fans packed the away sections to welcome their team to League Two football. It was an anti-climax with a 0-0 draw but seeing the team back on the coupon (Credit to Jerome Sale for that one) was the main draw of the day. It soon became clear that Mr Wilder would not keep players just because they were involved in the promotion effort. Messers Bulman, Creighton, Deering, Green, Midson were all binned before the end of the first season joining the likes of Adam Murray and Billy Turley who had left after the Wembley final. The first season back ended with one win from the last seven games after a substantial time spent flirting with the play-offs and a final position of 12th.

The 11/12 season followed a similar pattern but with more strange signings. The likes of Mehdi Kerrouche, Mark Wilson and Jonathan Franks donning the famous yellow shirt. It did contain two more of the finest moments under Chris Wilder - home and away victories over arch rivals Swindon Town.

We win again Mr Di Canio

After another chase of the play-offs and this time one win from the final eight games, United finished four points off seventh place on 68 points. For those who like that kind of thing - five points better off than the previous season. For some fans, this is where Mr Wilder should have departed the club whilst for others, they believed in another chance to chase promotion.

The 2012/13 season started well with a league cup win over Bournemouth, three straight wins in the league and another win over Swindon - this time in the JPT. The summer additions of Sean Rigg and Jake Forster-Caskey were performing well whilst Tom Craddock and Deane Smalley had both hit the goal trail early. Six straight defeats followed the perfect start and dropped us into 17th place by the end of September. The second half of the season followed the standard Wilder consistent at being inconsistent pattern and with more strange signings such as Josh Parker and Justin Richards, Wilder's failure to learn from past mistakes was becoming more apparent. Three straight wins from the final three games was not enough to sneak a play-off spot and the club finished marooned in 9th on 65 points.

The close season saw the usual speculation from all corners on Wilder's future - should he go or should he stay? We didn't have to wait very long, chairman Ian Lenagan announced that Wilder had signed a new one year contract and would no longer be on a rolling deal. This agreement came with a remit that an extension would be discussed once it was clear whether United were well in the promotion race - a suggested date in the media had been the back end of January. To aid his promotion quest, Wilder was handed the funds to sign Jon Meades, Danny Rose, David Hunt and Tom Newey. In addition, Wilder completed the major signings of Johnny Mullins and Dave Kitson whilst brining in Asa Hall and Ryan Williams on loan deals. A number of players were also signed to the clubs new development squad in a bid to re-ignite the chairman's ambition to bring through young players.

2013/14: It all started so well
A fantastic 4-1 victory at Fratton Park over title favourites Portsmouth brought fresh hope that United would finally be looking up to League One. An unbeaten league started lasted until 21st September where the visit of Chesterfield was the first of five home defeats experience so far this season. Away from the Kassam, the U's remain unbeaten going into tomorrow's game at Exeter City. A feat which perhaps highlights some of the flaws in the tactics and/or side that Wilder often uses at home.

The failure to reach at least a play-off position in each of the clubs three seasons back in the football league alongside criticisms of negative tactics had left some fans on Wilder's back and two home defeats in a row against Plymouth and Scunthorpe prompted more fans to join the ever growing anti-Wilder group. For Wilder himself, his decision to attend an interview at Portsmouth perhaps indicated his attentions were not 100% on Oxford United and their promotion push so when news broke of Northampton Town's interest, it was expected that he would leave. After a bizarre sequence of events that included a 1-0 HOME victory, an announced resignation and a denial of any resignation, this morning, Northampton Town announced Chris Wilder as their new manager after agreeing compensation with Oxford United chairman Ian Lenagan. It brought about a sad way to end a five year spell in charge at the Kassam but also left a fresh atmosphere at the club with many in the media and in the stands suggesting that things had gone stale with Wilder at the helm.

The End.
Date: 25th January 2014.
Venue: Kassam Stadium, Oxford.
Result: Oxford United 1-0 Torquay United
Position: 6th in SkyBet League Two.

Chris Wilder leaves Oxford United just two points off the automatic promotion spots to join a Northampton side six points adrift at the bottom. But with a record of 269 games, 121 wins, 70 draws and 78 losses - a win ratio of 44.98%

For me, I'm not as upset as the departure of Wilder as I had expected to be. Perhaps the saga of how it was handled and the apparent lack of any learnings from previous seasons have finally worn away my relatively patient nature. But as a club and a fanbase we now move on, the aim for this season still has to be promotion and as a group of fans we are more important now than at any stage during the last 3 and a half seasons.
My choice for the new manager? Paul Tisdale. Has earned promotion out of this league and has been able to produce good attacking sides on very limited budgets.