Tuesday, 5 June 2012

I really like James Constable.

It would seem, however, that there are a number of criteria that need to be fulfilled for that statement to be true. To really like James Constable, one must not speak of his weaknesses, offer suggestions as to how his limitations could be reduced or consider alternatives. With that in mind, entertaining the thought of selling Constable is likely to render me a heretic.

That is the thought going through my head though. I am changing my mind constantly, but on the condition that any transfer fee in reinvested in the right player(s), I can see an argument for accepting the right bid.

I am an Oxford United supporter. I don't have an allegiance to Chris Wilder or James Constable exclusively. I support both. They both want the best for my football club, whatever you may be told. We are embroiled in a strange situation whereby you are either 'Team Wilder' or 'Team Beano', as if Oxford United's support is divided by some teenager inspired Twilight based allegiance system. The only thing I understand about the various cliques is that it is unforgivable to criticise Constable's contribution, but perfectly acceptable to suggest that a desire to sell a footballer links directly to a manager's ego and jealousy. That alone is ludicrous, but it seems likely to be the summer trend.

There are three areas to approach when contemplating Constable's future. Firstly, what are his strengths and how likely are we to see them next season? What are his weaknesses and why are they increasingly apparent? Finally, what will happen if he goes? There is little chance of fans agreeing on all three factors, but the last one appears the crucial element.

One of the greatest strengths to James Constable is who he is and what he has achieved. Beano was a phenomenal non-league striker. His goalscoring record was exceptional, defences couldn't handle him and alongside Wilder, he was the driving force behind our resurgence. As such, the man is talismanic. When you think of Oxford United, James Constable doesn't follow far behind. Fiercely competitive on the field, Constable the man is humble, intelligent and a fine representative of the club. To have Constable playing for Oxford United has been a privilege and the idea of the club without him is difficult to comprehend.

As a player, he has plenty of qualities. He works hard in pressing defences, is capable of bullying defenders (although he has been out-battled by several over the years) and although far from perfect, there is more faith in Constable burying a chance than many of his team-mates. More than anything though, I can't remember a striker with such ability to spin a defender. He sticks his backside into the centre-back, he turns sharply and more often than not, gets a shot away or wins a free-kick. Whether he plays to this strength enough is an issue that I will cover later, but it is certainly an asset that I will associated with Beano, wherever his career may take him.

If you take the best aspects of Constable's game, he is an excellent striker. If he could produce his best every week, he would not be a League Two footballer. The frustration will always be that we know what he can do. Thumping headers against Swindon and Wrexham, an acrobatic effort against Bristol Rovers, opportunistic goals like those against Barnet and Histon and the emphatic finish at Wembley provide the show-reel of a striker who can score all sorts of goals.

We all know what Beano is capable of, but more telling is perhaps a study of his limitations. Every player has a price, but Oxford United are willing to accept an offer around the £200,000 mark for a striker who has scored 79 goals for the club. In a market where lower level strikers are moving for vastly greater sums, there has to be a reason why bids of this level are considered. On the other hand, there is clearly something about Constable worth having as managers of clubs above Oxford United are showing an interest. What is it about Constable that Wilder doesn't like? Why did Scott Rendell come into the squad and keep him out of the team?

My main criticism of Constable is his failure to negotiate the offside trap. I am aware that few people agree with this, but I think that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of his game. For a manager who lines up with a 4-3-3 formation, this must be immensely frustrating. The role of the nine in a 4-3-3 is to provide the focal point for attacks. The ball has to stick with the front man, allowing the wide players in the front three to become involved in the game further up the pitch. Aside from possessing the ability to hold the ball up (which Constable can), the key to the number nine is always being available. Beano's recovery runs make this very difficult. Oxford fans are quick to count the number of seconds a goalkeeper holds onto the ball, but it may be worth employing the same tactic to see how long it takes Beano to become available for a pass after working beyond the defensive line.

The simple fact is that while Beano is the wrong side of the defender, he is unavailable for a pass. When one of your greatest assets is backing into a defender, I fail to understand the logic behind consistently placing yourself in a position in which your strengths are impossible to utilise. As the man who is supposed to provide the platform for all attacks, this is a criminal offence. There are few more effective means of killing an attack than a player who is unavailable for a pass. It isn't even as if Beano is in the Pippo Inzaghi class whereby he is rubbish at timing runs, he simply doesn't return to a legal position quickly enough. He's hardly attempting to achieve Michael Owen's trademark run, lurking behind a defender before curving level and sprinting clear. Constable's pressurising of defences is exemplary, but he would be a better player within the team if he worked harder in terms of his positioning when out of possession. Wilder often spoke about the movement of his front men as being disappointing in the second half of the season. Constable was no exception to this. It appears that I am not alone in demanding more from my team's striker.

The fixture against Torquay should have shown you all you needed to see about how effective a number nine who does the right things can be. An ineffective Constable was removed at half-time for Scott Rendell. The Wycombe loanee doesn't possess half the attributes Constable has, but simply by making himself available he transformed us into a vastly superior team in the second half. Constable is the best forward that we have at the club and the best that we have had in a long time. However, something isn't working.

A common defence of Constable is that 4-3-3 does not suit him and that he would score goals in the correct system. This totally overlooks the fact that he has scored the vast majority of his goals for the club whilst playing in this formation and seeks to exonerate Beano of all blame. The system is not going to change, so for Beano to demand a place in the team, he would have to prove that he is the best man to play centrally in this formation. On last season's form, there is little evidence of this.

Constable scored in just 8 of his 43 appearances. Even with a total of 11 goals, a goal every 3.9 games is not good enough for a central striker in a team that have a lot of the ball in home fixtures. There are other factors in the low goal tally, but any perceived lack of creativity cannot disguise the fact that Beano didn't score a goal between February and the season's end. Speculation linking him to Swindon may have been unsettling (and he deserves the greatest credit for rejecting their advances), the form of the team as a whole was miserable and he struggled to get a regular place in the team, but I am certain that if it had been Dean Morgan who was frequently offside, failing the control the ball and misplacing passes, the atmosphere wouldn't have been so forgiving.

This is part of the logic that confuses me. Chris Wilder turned the entire squad around and won promotion, but we are rapidly reminded that this was in the past. He must be judged now. However, Beano should be judged by the goals from his past, rather than the disappointing season he has just had. I would like Beano to score 20 goals as much as the next fan, but I'm also going to use my head rather than my heart to judge his performances. They haven't been good enough since December, at the very latest. Scott Rendell scored twice the number of goals per game as Beano in the season run-in. That tells you everything you need to know about the dip Constable is in.

There is one thing that concerns me more about a possible departure than anything else. With 11 goals, Beano was Oxford's top scorer last season. He has been our top scorer every year that he has been at the club. We have tried to add to him in the past and possibly even replace him in the second half of this season. We have never managed to permanently sign an attacker who scores more goals than Beano, whoever we have tried. If Constable agrees terms elsewhere, who will we bring in? However poorly Beano has been playing, there has always been the knowledge that he can do it. Whichever striker comes in and fails, Beano was always there to steady the ship. If he goes, there will no longer be a trusted insurance policy.

This is the ultimate case of head VS heart. My heart wants Beano to stay and become our all-time record goalscorer. I want him to score the brilliant goals that he is capable of and I want him to spearhead the attack that fires us to promotion. Even with that in mind, my head says that the time might be right to part. The various transfer sagas appears to have affected the player and the use of Constable's situation to attack the manager is increasingly divisive. No player is bigger than the club and to his immense credit, James Constable has never tried to be. However, the situation is threatening to stretch beyond all realms of logic. I will always admire Beano and be thankful for his contribution to our club (whatever may happen this summer), but I am uncomfortable with a situation in which football decisions are criticised irrespective of a player's performance due to his identity.

If you could guarantee that Wilder would sign a striker of greater suitability than Beano, I would have absolutely no hesitation in wishing him well for the future and moving on. I can't overlook the feeling that we need a fresh impetus up front. Cheltenham were successful with a 4-3-3 formation in which Ben Burgess played the central role. You will never convince me that Burgess is a better player than James Constable, but he works better as part of a team. I would take a less spectacular, but more effective version of Beano any day of the week. The club comes first and if Wilder can fit the pieces together, we could become a better team.

That is the big word, however. If. I think that any move for Jon Shaw (who may well stay in the north anyway) would be in addition to Constable, rather than a direct replacement. The man who would replace Beano would be more likely to come from the calibre of replacements outlined when Swindon submitted their offer in January. However, when you have a man who has averaged 20 goals a season over four years, it is a lot harder to bring a replacement in than it is to stick with what you have and know. It takes a brave manager to sell a top goalscorer when there is no guarantee that a replacement will click.

My greatest concern is that the fans who are so fond of Constable would not afford any replacement time to impress. Beano himself took time to settle at Oxford, but didn't have the expectations placed upon a player who is replacing a club hero. Would our fans accept a replacement or hold something against them because they are not Beano? I'm not sure.

I don't think James Constable is as good a footballer as his bond with Oxford fans would suggest and I don't think he has been playing the role asked of him as well as he could be doing. However, he is a player that I have the greatest respect for. He is as close as we have to a club icon and every one of his individual successes feels slightly more significant than other players. If he goes, Oxford United will feel very different. Constable's value is attributed as much to us as a fan base as it is to his ability on the field.

I am also fully aware that no words I write on the internet will make a jot of difference to the outcome (others could learn from this). What will be, will be. We will all have to deal with the consequences and no amount of fan posturing will change this. There are both financial and, in my opinion, footballing benefits to accepting an offer. If the manager and chairman thinks that the timing is right, we have to accept it. The loss of our four time top goalscorer would clearly place more pressure on the manager. What Wilder would do in replacing Beano (who we must not forget is still an Oxford player) would be a crucial moment in his tenure. Despite the Deane Smalley's of this world, I still trust him to get it right. The attitude of some would suggest that Chris Wilder doesn't want the best for the football club. If Beano goes, it won't be with a desire to harm our chances.

Aldo left. Joey left. Even Jack Midson left. I want a successful Oxford United with James Constable at the forefront, but I can understand why we may opt to cash in and move on. No player, however close to our hearts, will ever be more important than the club.

No comments: