Fan’s View 2022/23 – No.1 – The Build Up

Article by Paul Beasley Monday, July 25th, 2022  

FAN’S VIEW 22/23 – NO.1


I rarely produce a FV in one sitting and certainly not when it’s a pre-season preview. I have no deadlines unlike in real journalism. This approach though brings a big challenge. New signings change things. That balance between pessimism and optimism as to what lies ahead keeps shifting.

At the final whistle of a season I try and switch off best I can from most things Oxford United. I thrive on the stress and tension of a 46 game slog but am well happy to be rid of it for three months.

Those months whiz by and we are about to embark on another campaign. It’s ever thus, as is Karl saying he wants our transfer business done early. Wanting is one thing; delivering another entirely. I ignore this fully knowing what matters is the squad we have when the ball is first kicked in anger and when the transfer window closes.

Players having time to gel is clearly a factor and when I started writing this on July 18 we were way off what was needed to be able to go up a level and improve on last season let alone the previous two when we made the play off semi-final and final. Being brutally honest based on league finishes we’ve gone slightly backwards over that period.

A week on the squad has obviously been strengthened but I am not yet rubbing my hands with glee thinking this will be the year.

At times last season we played football that had one drooling at the mouth. Banging in seven at Gillingham, four at Charlton etc. Scoring goals for fun. Some will continue to be happy with that but to be successful more is required. It’s about defending too. Grinding out results against teams that are bloody good at that themselves and are able to stop us delivering our free-flowing passing game. When it comes to defending I wonder if Karl has a bit of a blind spot. I’m a fan but going into every game thinking we can trade goals and outscore the opposition doesn’t work for me.

Pre-season friendlies like the ones we’ve had this year don’t float my boat. I’ve not been to any.  It has however not escaped my attention that we’ve only kept a clean sheet in one of these games, Wimbledon away. The opposition we’ve conceded against: Oxford City (National League South), Eastleigh (National League), Hungerford Town (National League South), Banbury United (National league North), and North Leigh (Southern League Premier Division South). It would be best to write non-competitive games off as experimental, teams being a mix of seasoned pros and the youngsters and greatly tinkered with over 90 minutes. But I just can’t help thinking this lack of keeping clean sheets says something about a deep lying mentality in the club. (“Oxford United’s Under 18s came out on top in a thrilling 4-3 win over QPR.” “U19s beat Villa 6-3”).

West Brom going one up. At least this was against a Championship side. Photo – Simon Jaggs 

Harsh perhaps. The real thing hasn’t started yet but previous league seasons back this up. Compare the number of times we stop the opposition scoring and the total we concede with the records of the teams that get promoted. It hurts.

Once more I’ll say I never set out to be critical of individual players or the team/squad as a whole but I only ever call it as I see it.

Right, let’s start with the goal-keepers. Jack Stevens seems to be Karl’s number one with Simon Eastwood as back up. My strength of feeling that we need an upgrade has long been growing. I hope Ed McGinty provides the answer.

Over the years I’ve argued Easty’s case but may have gone a bit OTT never having rated the two keepers who preceded him, Benji Buchel and Sam Slocombe. Particularly the latter. That said we did get promotion to L1 with them. I’d almost forgotten that Eastwood had 2010/11 with us but never started as Ryan Clarke couldn’t be dislodged. He’s now 33 which for a goal-keeper should be a fine age and has 182 OUFC league games under his belt but I don’t thinks he’s as good as he was.

I still look on JS as a youngster but he’ll be 25 in a couple of weeks and it can’t be argued he’s inexperienced with 64 league games to his name.

Neither commands the penalty area. They rarely come for crosses even when the ball appears to my untrained eye to be there for the catching. They’re beaten from distance too often and also from shots across their bodies. When I compare them with the number ones we face at the other end more often than not think we’re lacking. I can’t recall thinking “wow what a save” many times, if at all, from either last season.

Every position in a team needs to be just right to get that ultimate success we all crave but the goal-keeper is an absolutely vital slot to fill correctly.

So not a good start when looking at the team from back to front.

goals conceded is not just about the man between the sticks; it’s about the defence in front of him and that includes in addition to the back line the closing down and off the ball work of every single player wearing the shirt. The fewer the efforts on goal we allow our opponents the better. Obviously.

But bloody hell what full-backs? I think we’re really lacking here too and that is partly down to Karl’s fixation with first and foremost thinking of them as attackers as much as defenders if not more so. Your George Baldocks and Chris Caddens don’t come along that regularly. When they do they’re clearly too good for tier 3 which explains why both were only here on loan.

Sean Clare came in two years ago as a full-back. Clearly a decent mid-fielder but not a defender. Lesson learned, don’t think so. Last summer we signed Steve Seddon.

Do we have any full-backs by trade? Sam Long is the closest but he started out as a centre-half and at times has filled in there and may well be required to do so again. Clearly a defender first and foremost he’s added an attacking element to his game otherwise he wouldn’t be in the managers thinking. In his absence at right-back Anthony Forde can fill in but “fill in” says a lot.

Now for something very positive: Ciaron Brown. Many Cardiff fans didn’t think he was much cop but this view may have been based on one very poor game. You know what football fans are like. I became very impressed after he’d had a match or so on loan with us and was delighted when he signed permanently. I thought the left back puzzle had been solved with our NI International being happy to play there or as a left-sided centre half.

We’ve been excellent at recruiting, developing and selling on centre-halves for good money. Rob Dickie, Rob Atkinson and now Luke McNally. With the latter gone Stuart Findlay was welcome addition.  If only we could do the same with other specialist positions.

Moving up through the team from back to front I get more optimistic with regards to what we have, but that’s very much tempered by the “as long as they stay injury free” caveat and knowing full well that there’s no guarantee our impressive rate of goal scoring in 21/22 will be repeated.

It’s a massive bonus that Cameron Brannagan has stayed. He’s one of those players I call a “winner” even when we have lost if you get my drift. The sort that really really wants to win. The type that clenches their fist and bangs their chest and truly means it. I’m in no way saying the others are losers, far from it, but some have this in them more than others. Have we got enough of those characters? Do we have that grit and determination never to be second best when games turn into a physical battle? At times our team has looked small compared to our opponents.

The way we lost to Swindon in Nov 2020, the way we let Blackpool steamroller us at the Kassam in the play-off semi-final and the nature our collapse at Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup last season still haunt me.  Losing games of football is one thing but the manner of those defeats is very informative.

Being without Alex Gorrin because of a nasty injury was considered a big loss by many, me included. We didn’t have anyone else quite like him breaking play up and sitting just in front of the back line. Last season in the league games he started (15) we averaged 1.8 points per game. In those he didn’t start the average was 1.58.

I’ll add though that it is important not to fall into the trap where players who are out for lengthy periods become world beaters and you’re convinced that with them on the pitch we’d be winning every game. A reality check is that Gorrin played in that failure against Swindon.

Our only other genuinely central midfielder is Marcus McGuane with Herbie Kane having returned to Barnsley. No question Kane is a very talented footballer but ultimately I ended up a tad disappointed in him. Good at keeping the ball, finding space and passing plus getting back and getting stuck in at times when needed, but didn’t score any goals. That in itself isn’t necessarily a criticism if he was creating but I can’t recall any assists from him either. I don’t think he was quite the same player after he got injured. Nevertheless I would have been quite happy if we’d kept him for another season but I’m certainly not crying now he’s back at Oakwell.

By his own admission Robbo’s planning had not included Kane but when he became available considered it too good an opportunity to turn down. HK coming in obviously reduced the game time of some of the other squad members. I wonder if McGuane might have developed more than he has in different circumstances. I know quite a few people think he should have done better than he has to date but I am of the view that he yet become a very good player for us. He’s made 25 league starts for Oxford and come on as sub 20 times but, like Kane, has not scored in those games.

An out-going central midfielder is Jamie Hanson. A forgotten man who was actually with us for four years. He was known as being injury prone but we still gave him a lengthy contract and paid one of those “undisclosed fees” for him.  Total league starts 35.

We’ve got history in wasting money on players who never seem to be fit. Sometimes it is worth a gamble but I suspect we’re worse at our risk assessments than many other clubs. George Thorne?

Many other midfielders who represented us last year are no longer here. James Henry and Billy Bodin are. Both are assets but given age considerations I’d now expect to see slightly more of the latter than the former.

Despite signing a two year deal with us just a year ago, Ryan Williams was too tempted by an offer to return to his home town in Australia. Can’t blame the bloke but this is a shame. He’s a very fit guy, doesn’t get injured often and can play right wing back.

Without Mark Sykes, Gavin Whyte and Nathan Holland we’d lost just about all of our width. Sykes made it clear that he didn’t want to stay and being out of contract and therefore no fee for a new club to pay his agent was able to negotiate higher wages. Championship clubs pay significantly more anyway so you can’t really blame him. On his day he looked inspired and was well worth a starting place but there were many other days when he looked quite ordinary. Just wish we could have got a few bob for him.

Whyte was another who on his day got you on the edge of your seat but was inconsistent and his finishing wasn’t L1 standard let alone Championship so it is quite likely that Cardiff will loan him out again.

Overall from what I saw of Nathan Holland I don’t think Robbo would have been trying to persuade him to sign for us instead of MKD.

So far we have only brought in Yanic Wildschut, a winger on a two year contract. On the face of it a fine signing but it has been pointed out that in 28 appearances for CSKA Sofia last season he failed to score. More worryingly he went off injured after just 17 minutes against Wimbledon. Hamstring? Are we cursed?

It is still to be decided who else is bring on board and the three trialists at the club will be wanting their immediate futures sorted pdq.

Jerome Sinclair has been on loan with us previously but I can’t say he did much that lives in my memory. He also has CSKA appearances to his name. He played 18 league games for them in 2020/21 scoring once. He was without a club last season which sends alarm bells ringing for me.

I’ve thought for some time now that we need a big tall strong physical centre-forward to be used when our passing game has been snuffed out and Matty Taylor is being dominated by huge centre-halves. The type of player that isn’t Karl’s sort at all. Don’t think Sinclair has the build for that role even though it was hinted at in the Wimbledon match commentary.

Jodi Jones has had not one but three cruciate knee ligament ruptures. In May the BBC reported that he was “released by Coventry after six injury disrupted years”.

Josh Murphy hardly played any football last season. Cardiff loaned him to Preston where he didn’t start a league game. He came on 18 times, once at half time but the earliest in the remaining games was the 67th minute.

In theory goals should not be a problem but we didn’t score against any of the three league sides we played in pre-season. With the right type of service we know Matty Taylor will score. It is not the done thing these days to play two up front but for the brief period when we had Sam Baldock along-side Matty we looked like we’d gone up a level. Baldock is a class above and one could see why he’d played a lot in the Championship and also very briefly in the Premier League. We won the four games he played, scoring 13 goals. But for his injury I’m convinced we would have made the play-offs at least. When we lost him there were eight games left. We won just two of those. The others resulted in two draws and four losses. Goals scored 11.

I was overjoyed when I heard he’d signed a two year contract but that optimism rapidly dissolved when I found out he’s injured and will miss the start of the season.

I’m praying he doesn’t turn out to be a Sam Winnall treatment wise. What a crazy decision that was giving a two year contract when it didn’t take long for us all to see that they guy who played so well against us for Barnsley at Wembley no longer existed.

Still we have Marcus Browne as another goal threat. He’ll stay fit won’t he?

Right I’ve banged on and on – anyone still awake? The question that’s always asked at this time – where do you think we’ll finish. My answer – top half but not quite making it into the play-offs. So let’s say 8th.  Four Four Two have got us at 8th, When Saturday Comes have us at 8th and the bookies have us joint 8th with Barnsley. So why bother, 8th it is.

See lots of you at Pride Park. Can’t wait.

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