MApp took his Lincoln City side to Cambridge United last week, the scene of a catastrophic 5-1 defeat in his first season at Oxford. What happened off the pitch really shook Mr Big Guns. “We lost heavily. I asked a question [of the players] after the game that I probably shouldn’t have asked” he said “When I got the answer, it scared the life out of me.” We cannot confirm that the question MApp asked was ‘Who’s the guy wearing one flipflop and a rubber glove on his head?’ to be told chillingly “That’s Danny Hylton, boss”.
Back in 1986, Oxford United were on top of the world; buckling under the weight of the silverware we’d accumulated over the previous three years. But, could we do it in a renovated railway station on a wet Wednesday night in Manchester? We’re about to find out; the country’s finest indoor small-sided footballers gathered to compete for the Guinness Soccer Six. Improbably, it became the most dramatic of nights which pivoted around a man names Swannack. Watch along with us and we dissect the glory years, question the wisdom of John Trewick’s moustache and try to avoid inappropriate jokes about Graham Rix.
If you’re more aurally inclined, you can also listen to the podcast of the vlogcast (or something) on Amazon, Apple, Google and Spotify.
I was in a three-hour meeting this week; half the people were in a room together, others, including me, were logged in via Microsoft Teams. As often happens, the people in the room forgot those at the other end of the fibre. Someone shared their screen to show a spreadsheet, then clicked it shut so my face was in full view. I was watching their screen on my screen with my face on their screen on my screen. I had to spend an hour watching myself trying desperately to look engaged while quietly critiquing every tiny movement I made, which was all the more disconcerting because it happened a split second after I did it.
Last season, following via iFollow, football was the disrupter from the monotony of the lockdown. For the first time this season, I went into Saturday’s game, looking forward to it ironing me out from a working week which had crumpled me like a piece of paper.
My son started secondary school too, in a blazer and tie for the first time, friends and family, who haven’t seen him much over the last 18 months commented on how much he’d grown. He thinks so too; now he gets to go on the bus and eat paninis from the canteen. The last time we saw Wycombe in the flesh they were grubby over-achievers, back at the Kassam, they too seemed to have grown.
I’ve a grudging admiration for Wycombe, they’ve achieved stability and reasonable success over the last 25 years, but they’ve always reminded me of us at The Manor; small and over-achieving, a bit retro. Now returning from the Championship; they look like they’ve finally reached puberty.
“2-1 on your big day out” sang their fans, referring to a game held when a big day out was legally determined as an hour’s recreation within walking distance of your home. It’s good to see that if they have grown, they’ve reached a point where they’ve been able to embrace the breathtakingly stupid factions that infect all bigger clubs. Mind you, us mocking them for their season in the Championship, which had been achieved at our painful expense, was hardly the sickest burn. Score draw in the stands.
In the intervening months, Gareth Ainsworth’s Cuban heels seem to be higher, his hair longer and his clothes tighter. He’s become such a caricature of himself, he’s about eighteen months away from becoming just a pair of cowboy boots with hair. The periodic national media coverage he receives, which usually centres on the fact he’s in a band, is having an effect. We have people working for us who introduce themselves as musicians or actors, even though their only paid work is in the call centre. Does Ainsworth think secretly he’s a rockstar who’s temping as a football manager?
And then, of course, there’s Ade Akinfenwa, whose arrival late in the game put everything into perspective; that is; everything looks smaller when he’s lolloping around the place. After being treated for a blood injury, he received a replacement shirt with his number and name on the back. Clearly the club need to keep a few general spares for such occasions – Wycombe seem to need small, medium, large and Akinfenwa sizes. I get that some people like that big-muscle aesthetic, but you have to question how it helps his professional career; it’s like having a vicar with a face tattoo.
But, in truth, as a team, I like them, big and robust with a couple of pantomime villains who know their role. They’re not as crafted as Blackpool last year or Rotherham two seasons ago, but similar. They’ve got that refined power that usually brings success in League 1 and what we’ve often struggled to match in the past.
We would do well to drop the patronising dismissal of them and embrace these modern realities. I get the frustrations around their gamesmanship, but stylistically, it’s not the anti-football (whatever that is) that many claim. They protected what they had late on, but when the game was fresh, they attacked with power and made things very difficult. They’ve spent a year defending in the Championship; they’re likely to be quite adept at this. It’s the formula that most likely brings success at this level, we either have to match it or find a way to outfox it, dismissing it as somehow unfair will allow another season to slip by while we wait for teams to turn up and play in a more gentlemanly fashion.
We were competitive in that context though, we’re not pushovers, you can see the hardening of our resolve to compete. The players have embraced it in a way the fans haven’t. We shouldn’t expect to have the freedoms we’ll get from other teams, just because we didn’t create a bucketload of chances doesn’t mean we didn’t play well.
I enjoyed the grinding competitiveness, we were out of our comfort zone but competed aggressively, even if it’s not quite who we are. Karl Robinson was incomprehensible in his post-match interview – like he’s answering questions using William S Burroughs’ writing technique of cutting up words to find new meanings – he simply didn’t make any sense, like he doesn’t have the vocabulary for this kind of game. He did say we showed another side, which I think is right, it’s not a better side to the one that swept past Lincoln, but we’ve got another mode if we need it.
It was a proper match day, the atmosphere moved on from the dewy-eyed ‘we’re all back together’ vibe into the more familiar sense of agony, frustration, anger and relief. The Wycombe fixture is not the Swindon derby – nobody is asking us to make that claim – but it’s a modern rivalry with a local team with enough history and antagonism for us to embrace it a bit more. It’s exactly what I needed after a week of being crumpled.
Wycombe Wanderers are the visitors to the Kassam on Saturday. Just a regular Joe fixtures against a team of no consequence. Or is it? For a club that has as much relevance to us as, say, Rochdale or Morecambe, we have a surprisingly interwoven history with the team that is just 28 miles down the road, some six miles nearer than our old rivals Swindon.
So, perhaps it doesn’t have the storied past of the Swindon derby, but games against Wycombe Wanderers have rarely lacked significance. Here are ten games to whet the appetite.
April 1995 – Wycombe Wanderers 1 Oxford United 0
There are times when football clubs go through periods of cognitive dissonance; holding two conflicting views at the same time. In 1995 Oxford were in the third tier, but less less than 10 years on from our glorious heights of the Milk Cup Final – in our heads, we were both a small team and a big club. Similarly, Wycombe Wanderers were in their second season as a Football League club – a non-league team in the league. The coming together of the two clubs was both a mismatch and an alignment at the same time.
The first encounter at The Manor ended in a smash and grab 1-0 win for Wycombe but in many ways it felt like a cup giant killing than a league fixture. The following April, we headed to Adams Park for the first time expecting to exact brutal and comprehensive revenge. In the end, a calamitous mistake by Matt Elliott resulted in his sending off and the inevitable goal that followed left us staring at our new reality; Wycombe were one of us.
October 1995 – Oxford United 1 Wycombe Wanderers 4
The perception of Wycombe as a non-league team remains to this day, so it’s no surprise that similar misconceptions hung over the following season’s home fixture six months later. The outcome couldn’t be any worse than the previous season’s results and a re-correction was long overdue. Except it could and the re-correction didn’t happen. Well drilled and motivated; Wycombe picked Oxford apart with two identical set-piece goals leading 3-0 at half-time before eventually cruising to a 4-1 win. The humiliation did, however, act as a wake up call about our intentions for the season. The result sent a chilling reminder to the team that we couldn’t cruise to promotion; we’d have to fight for it. The chastening defeat would be the last one at The Manor that season providing a crucial building block to promotion.
April 1996 – Wycombe Wanderers 0 Oxford United 3
By April 1996 we were a different team; a stunning run of results from Christmas had catapulted us into play-off contention. A storming win over Blackpool the Saturday before was suddenly making promotion a distinct possibility. But, our new nemesis stood in our way, to maintain the run we’d need to finally put the Wycombe hoodoo away. On the following Easter Monday, we cruised on a wave of unstoppable momentum to a 3-0 win making memories and setting course for automatic promotion.
September 2000 – Wycombe Wanderers 3 Oxford United 1
Four years later the story was somewhat different. Against the backdrop of Firoz Kassam’s battle to move the club to its new stadium, Oxford’s on-the-field exploits were a meaningless, hopeless sideshow. Everything came to a head in the 2000/01 season with a slew of poor signings, failing talent and comical mismanagement. Oxford travelled to Adams Park for a Friday night game on Sky; the humiliation was absolute, not only were we humbled in a 3-1 defeat, at half-time injured goalkeeper Richard Knight was replaced by Hubert Busby Junior, a player many fans didn’t know we had. The Canadian delayed the re-start due to the fact the club didn’t have a spare goalkeeper’s jersey forcing him to play the second half in a training top. If anyone had delusions of our dominance in the relationship, they were surely put to bed here. Where’s the video? Nobody knows.
November 2006 – Wycombe Wanderers 2 Oxford United 1
By 2006 we’d hit rock bottom after being relegated to Wycombe’s spiritual home; the Conference. Now Wycombe were a club we could only aspire to be like. By November 2006 they were top of League 2, a height we could only dream of achieving. We assumed, having hit the bottom, that the bounce back was to begin as the club was no longer in the hands of Firoz Kassam and Jim Smith was back on the bench. Glory awaits.
Unbeaten all season, we were drawn together in the 1st Round of the FA Cup, providing the perfect opportunity to prove that our lowly position was some kind of administrative error. Having put up a good performance, we were eventually put in our place as Wycombe opened the scoring. A Gavin Johnson free-kick saw us grab an equaliser and an opportunity to head back to the Kassam to finish the job. A minute later Wycombe scored again, a sobering reminder of the predicament we were in.
April 2015 – Wycombe Wanderers 2 Oxford United 3
A return to the Football League in 2010 saw us reacquaint with Wycombe, but the expected rebirth and domination never quite came. In 2014 the club was taken over by Darryl Eales and Michael Appleton was installed as head coach. The first season was torture, big promises, false hopes and fitful form left us struggling. An endless supply of short-term signings and loanees meant that nothing stuck, nothing settled.
We headed to Wycombe towards the end of the season with lingering concerns about relegation hanging over us. In our ranks was an unassuming striker Kemar Roofe on loan from West Brom, one of many who’d pushed their way through the revolving door that season. Suddenly we found our mojo, Roofe scored two goals and set up the third in a dominant display kindling a return to optimism and hope.
May 2016 – Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0
Just over a year later and everything had changed. The season had been blessed with derby wins, giant killings and Wembley, but all paled into insignificance. Going into the final game of the season, we still needed three points to secure promotion to League 1 for the first time in 15 years. It was strangely fitting that the final game was against Wycombe, our constant companion for over 20 years. The team, who hadn’t let us down all season, didn’t let us down again and we marauded to a 3-0 win and promotion. Finally, the readjustment had come, hadn’t it?
March 2019 – Oxford United 2 Wycombe Wanderers 1
Three years on from promotion, Michael Appleton had moved on and an experiment with Pep Clotet hadn’t worked. Not for the first time, the gear change from one division to another hadn’t been as smooth as we’d have liked. Karl Robinson arrived alongside new Thai owners to evolve the latest iteration of the club. Robinson faced a similar challenge to Michael Appleton, deconstructing and reconstructing the club’s culture.
A steady improvement after a difficult start, had eased some of the pressure, but there remained scepticism about the new regime. As the season eased to its inglorious end, the home fixture against Wycombe acted as an important marker of our progress. Having gone a goal down and survived a missed second-half penalty, the game ticked into its final minute and a draw seemed an inevitable conclusion. The ball was worked out to Josh Ruffels for what everyone expected to be a cross into the box for one last desperate chance. Ruffels had something different on his mind, steering a world class finish into the net from 25 yards out for a last minute win.
December 2019 – Oxford United 1 Wycombe Wanderers 0
Six months on and things had changed; Karl Robinson had found his groove; memorable wins akin to the glories of 2015 and 2016 had started to come. Wycombe, however, had found a deeper groove – one that had taken them from relegation favourites to the top of League 1. It was robust, pragmatic and effective; anathema to the expansive ethos Robinson had instilled.
The result was a meeting of cultures and an atmosphere that looked like a derby, even if it wasn’t one. James Henry grabbed a first half goal, but the game pivoted on a first-half incident when the players came together after a bad challenge from Alex Gorrin. John Mousinho sprung into action, easing his way into the melee appearing to play the peace maker while confronting the already booked Wycombe talisman Ade Akinfenwa. Playing the dark arts against its masters, Mousinho collapsed to the floor the second Akinfenwa raised his hands to shove the Oxford captain away giving the referee no choice but to send him off. The tight ship that had put Wycombe on top of the table listed badly and Oxford cruised to a memorable win.
July 2020 – Wycombe Wanderers 2 Oxford United 1
The dynamic between Oxford and Wycombe can pivot in a matter of months, but nobody could have predicted that the world would tilt on its axis following the previous December’s victory. A pandemic had struck, locking the world down. Football shut its doors hoping for the storm to pass. Its gradual re-opening resulted in a contrived resolution to the League season. Wycombe, who were falling apart following the battle at The Kassam, benefitted from a points-per-game calculation that saw them jump from 8th into the play-offs. The inevitable clash in the final came at a hauntingly empty Wembley deep into July. Oxford played all the football and had all the possession, Wycombe stuck to the template that had brought them success taking their chances securing a 2-1 win and a somewhat Pyrrhic promotion to the Championship.
When is a derby a derby? Perhaps the stories of a rivalry need to be retold and embellished to the point where they’re no longer true. They need to span generations until we no longer know what we’re all fighting about. If Oxford v Wycombe isn’t a derby, then it’s something else, whatever it is, our histories have become intertwined and we’re all the richer for it.
This isn’t an unusual September media story; devoid of much else to talk about, they’ll find a club, manager or player who has appeared to rise like a phoenix over the course of the opening games of the season. Accrington top of the table? Yes please.
If you track those stories over the longer-term, their subjects invariably sink back to obscurity as the natural order takes over. These stories fill gaps in the schedules while the real narratives figure themselves itself out.
Everyone is trying to find a signal in the noise; to find the thread, it’s like trying to work out whether a 600 page novel is worth the investment from the opening paragraphs. This season has been our best start under Karl Robinson, our second best at this level for 27 years and yet we’ve one point from nine on the road despite leading in each of the three games.
It’s very easy to draw a grand conclusion from the capitulation against Wimbledon; to question the substitutions which seemed to turn the game on its head, but whether this is the story of the season or of the moment is still to be understood.
There are lessons to learn and adjustments to make. The most obvious is addressing our ability to give away leads. We’ve lost two and drawn one from winning positions; add the late equaliser by Burton in the League Cup and even the late pre-season defeat to Bristol Rovers and you’ve got yourself a trend.
Our four centre-backs have an average age of twenty-six, which sounds OK until you consider that without John Mousinho – who’s unlikely to play much – the average drops to twenty-three. Jordan Thornily is the most experienced centre-back Karl Robinson has ever signed and he’s only 24 with less than 100 games experience. Robinson’s strategy (gamble?) seems to rely on finding stability over experience at the back, something he got with Rob Atkinson and Elliott Moore last season and John Mousinho and Rob Dickie the year before. In 2018/19, when we struggled, we switched around Dickie, Mousinho and Curtis Nelson, who all three played over 30 games. Ever-present Thornily has partnered Moore and Luke McNally for three games each so far. Add into the mix our new full-back combinations and we’ve got a new and unstable back-four.
Is this a new story? The risk has been there for a couple of seasons. What isn’t clear is whether this is a blind spot or deliberate strategy, a club of our size can’t cover all its risks; some things you just go with, but we’ve flooded the squad in midfield and have experience in Gorrin and Henry to steady the ship if we need it, upfront we have Matty Taylor and Sam Winnall, who are both over-30. We’ve never really sought to add experience at the back, relying on the ageing Mousinho.
Earlier this year, when covid restrictions were lifted and we were registering 65,000 cases a day, there were predictions that they would sky rocket past 100,000 within weeks. Then cases actually went down to about 30,000, one epidemiologist suggested that the 65,000 could contain two waves; a short-term one based on unusual behaviours during the Euros and a longer-term wave reflecting more ‘typical’ behaviour and therefore transmissibility. Only close analysis will tell which is the equivalent of the short-term ‘September media story’ and which is the longer-term narrative.
Likewise, for all we know, even though its the best start under Karl Robinson, this might be the slow start we’ve seen in previous years while the team get to know each other. Perhaps these wrinkles will iron themselves out and we’ll see momentum build, but it looks like, this time, we’ll be doing it from a higher base. This the shape we’ve seen in previous seasons; start slow and build. It might be that this is just a short-term ‘September story’; it’s worked in the past and has, broadly, worked so far this season, tactical errors but a strategic success? Perhaps.
Having frantically tried to address the leftbacksituation, KRob suddenly remembered he had more cover than he’d ever need with injured right-back Sam Long, injured midfielder Jamie Hanson, Derek Fazackerley and club historian Martin Brodetsky all able to cover if necessary. So, that’s OK then.