Is this the best we can muster?

From the Rage Online newsdesk Tuesday, April 29th, 2003  

by Godalming Yellow
Oxford United effectively surrendered without a whimper at Scunthorpe.

How is it that a team like Oxford United with traditions of playing proper football, with a history of success that is the envy of many similarly sized clubs, with one of the biggest fan bases in division 3, and with the likes of Ford, Savage, Crosby, Waterman, Steele and Basham, fail to achieve at least a play off place? We have competed against the likes of Scunthorpe for a season and come up second best. Our club has perhaps the most stable finances in division 3 and still we can’t do it.

So who is to blame for this persistent mediocrity?

Well it isn’t possible to lay 100% of the blame at the door of any one man or woman. So let’s look at each of the main players.

Firoz Kassam. He saved our club from catastrophe. He has set up financial structures within the club. He has in effect put our house in order. But the line appears to have been crossed and the budgetary controls have become penny pinching. So much so that players now pay for their own meals, after the team bus has been kitted out with expensive culinary equipment. Players and the Manager have allegedly had to pay for their own overnight accommodation. Players with long service have allegedly had to pay for match balls. Players with long service have been thrown on the scrapheap. Staff with long and loyal service to the club have been leaving in their droves and scouts have not been paid.

None of this leads to the impression of a highly professional club looking to achieve greater things. These elements are taking the budgetary issues too far. If the club’s finances are that tight, and after several lucrative cup runs that cannot be right, then restrict players’ wages sufficiently. However, having said all this, Firoz Kassam does not pick the side. He does not choose which players to sign or how to motivate the team or what tactics to choose. Essentially he provides the money and the organisational backup. And on that issue it is difficult to argue that he hasn’t delivered.

We have players on ?3,000 per week and others on ?2,000 per week, which for division 3 is ludicrous. Brentford in division 2 are about to impose a wage limit of ?500 per week per player. No, the club has a fair sized squad with a number of players that other division 3 sides would give their eye-teeth for. Firoz Kassam pulls the purse strings hard, but when it comes to financing the players wages, he has done all that could be asked of him.

The players. Clearly some of the players are really not up to the job. We have hoofers in defence on huge wages, low scoring strikers on huge wages, and midfielders who seem unable to even spell the word “effort”. We also have more than our share of talented players who are not performing. Players who have succeeded recently at division 1 level and who are not over the hill. Talent that the fans were screaming for at the start of the season, but seemingly no longer producing that talent week in, week out.

So the players have to accept some responsibility for not performing. But (most) players don’t under-perform deliberately. It is in their interests to perform well. So we have to ask why is it that they are under-achieving? The answer to that question lies very much in the team selections and style of play forced on the team. There is little point employing midfielders with sublime passing skills if the tactics are to hoof the ball forward all the time, effectively missing out the midfielders. There is little point playing small strikers and hoofing the ball up towards the oppositions’ 6 foot 3 inch defenders. There is no benefit in playing wing backs without utilising the wing element.

So whilst the players must accept that it is up to them to motivate themselves to an extent, and put in maximum effort even if they are not playing well, they cannot be expected to play like Real Madrid when they are instructed to play like a Sunday pub side.

The coaches. It could be argued that the club have not employed well-qualified coaches to train the players to a higher standard. To teach them skills and moves that will improve the team performance. But that only ever has limited impact. The coaches are essentially there to maintain and improve fitness and work on issues like set plays and passing. Yes we haven’t scored enough from set plays, but there isn’t much point training on passing moves if we then play like cloggers in the match.

The coaches may not have improved the team as much as fully qualified ones would have, but would it really have made sufficient difference if the players are encouraged to play long balls all the time?

Ian Atkins. Well where do we start? In his favour, he has got rid of a lot of deadwood at the club. Mostly players that the fans would have agreed were not good enough. Then having said that, any one of you reading this could have done that. And was it really necessary to get rid of players like Bolland and Guyett who conceded very few goals as a partnership? Were they really worse than the hoofers we were left with? And have they gone on to produce another well organised defensive partnership? Yes to the last question, the most frugal defence in the Conference.

So perhaps Atkins went too far. Atkins was given a budget and he used it. He chose the players he wanted, so if they did not perform this season, whose fault is it that they are playing for our club? Atkins is responsible for motivating the players, so if they are not motivated, whose fault is it?

Atkins made the team selections each week, and each week it has been the same players, the same ones Atkins employed at Northampton and Carlisle. None of the home-grown talent has had a look in. How will we know if Powell might have regained his former glory if he hasn’t been played? Why has the talent of Whitehead been so frequently ignored? Why has an excellent prospect like Simon King been left to fester in the reserves? Every team needs a blend of experience and youth. The experience brings stability and the youth brings hunger. Instead we once again find ourselves with too many division 3 journeymen.

So onto tactics. Who is it that chooses the formation? Why do we play 5-3-2 when the wing backs never get forwards. Isn’t that a flat back five? And who chooses how the team play, the style employed? The Atkins diet works away from home because home teams have the onus to get forwards and take the game, leaving us to soak up pressure and counter attack. That’s why our away record has been so good. So whose fault is it that our home form is appalling? Atkins would have us believe it is our fault for complaining when the quality of play is poor.

I would suggest that Atkins needs to re-consider the methods used at home. At home we sit back, just like away games, and so we encourage the opposition on to us. To all intents and purposes, we play every game like an away game. There is no sense of urgency or purpose to our home games. No width, no passing, no running off the ball, no creativity. It is up to Atkins to instruct the players how to play. Either he is instructing the players to play long ball, or they are not following his instructions, in which case they should have been dropped, but they weren’t.

It is clear to me that whilst a small amount of blame for this season’s lack of success is down to everyone who has involvement with the first team, the vast majority of the blame is down to the manager. He’s had virtually everything he could have reasonably expected to have received, and he’s failed. Ian Atkins’ summation that “everyone thought that 9th or 10th place would be a bonus” is vastly wrong. For most fans, a play-off place was the minimum requirement. Ian Atkins never accepts that anything is his fault. Time for a change.


Godalming Yellow

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