Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Charlton Athletic 0

Perhaps the unique thing about Micky Lewis’ passing yesterday was that it would have had an effect on almost every Oxford fan. When ex-players and managers die, it can often only impact the proportion of supporters who saw the person live. With Lewis, you might remember him from his playing days barrelling around the midfield disrupting the flow of his opponents, but for others he was the bow legged bowling ball standing aside Chris Wilder on the touchline.

Even Jim Smith’s death in 2019, to some, was the passing of an abstract legend rather than a person, plus it wasn’t unexpected, he was 79 after all. We all know someone who is around Micky’s age, or we might be that person.       

So, it’s no real surprise that the news engulfed the game against Charlton Athletic. I remember when Martin Aldridge died in 2000, who was just 25 at the time, the first Saturday home game was ironically against Blackpool, the team he was contracted to at the time. It offered an opportunity for the community to come together, the game was a focal point for all the confusing thoughts that go through your head when something like that happens.

These are difficult emotions – yes, there’s sadness about the person’s passing and sympathy for those it affects directly, but there’s also a calibration of your own mortality, a sadness about the passing of time and the guilt that you’re making it about you. None of these emotions are wrong; they just clamber over each other while you’re trying to process them.

Had we been able to go to the ground, there would have been an opportunity to remind ourselves that life does continue, that what you’re feeling is the same as what other people are feeling and that this is all OK. Football has always been about community and mental health; the traditional 3pm Saturday kick-off evolved from the fact that factories would close at lunchtime and the workers would go to games as a way of letting off steam and recovering from the working week. They didn’t recognise it at the time, but it was a form of communal therapy in the same way a trip down the pub is.

Except of course we can’t go to grounds, we have to hide away and the process of reconciliation that we all need remains incomplete. For all the good football does, not going to football is better, for now. But, we’re all tired of it and it feels like the squad are beginning to tire both mentally and physically after a massively challenging year. 

At the start of the season you could see how easy it would be to disengage if things weren’t working out well. In normal times, even in defeat, a game gives you something, something about routine and communion. Without that and without the results, it’s difficult to make the case for engaging with games beyond a deep muscle memory that you’re a supporter so you need to support.

It must be the same for players, for some they may be seeking a move or sensing the end of their contract. A defeat in an empty stadium is not likely to make much difference to anything. Motivation has to come from elsewhere.

As we enter Spring and the period of reckoning for the season, it looks like we don’t quite have enough to make it to the play-offs and it feels like we’re just a couple of bad results from cruising into the summer when we can recharge and hopefully complete the process back to normality.

Both Charlton and Peterborough were entertaining games and there was plenty to admire, it’s a massive credit to the manager and players that in what must be an eerie atmosphere that they are able to muster the motivation to keep going and play at the level they do. It would certainly be easier not to, for the season to ebb away.

Fitting, perhaps, that the game ended with a spectacular penalty save from Jack Stevens. I feel very sad for Simon Eastwood and the way his Oxford career appears to be winding down, but Stevens has been brilliant. His save illustrates the rewards of the work and dedication he’s put in. Penalty saves are easily dismissed, they’re often ‘at a good height’ and the keeper ‘guessed the right way’ but without the years of dedication, Stevens wouldn’t have had the agility to reach the kick even if the taker did give him the opportunity to make the save. Being a back up goalkeeper must be the hardest of all, there must have been times when over-taking Eastwood seemed impossible. But, he’s kept going and there’s no doubt he’s worthy of the number one slot and the plaudits he got from the save. 

I remember being on the London Road during Micky Lewis’ time in the early nineties, we weren’t enthralled by the commitment of that team, ‘Horton-out’ would regularly tumble from the stands. We would moan and vent our anger at every conceded goal. Our financial problems were no excuse. But perhaps, we need to remember that even if the results don’t go our way and we don’t achieve our lofty ambition, there is still lots to appreciate from the hard work and dedication that keep the club going through trying times.

A tribute to Micky Lewis

I once saw Micky Lewis coming out of the garage outside The Manor in Headington. He was unshaven, holding a tabloid newspaper and drinking a can of Coke. He’d probably just finished training, but he looked like he’d just finished a night on the town.

I hadn’t seen many footballers outside their natural habitat before, my prevailing image was either of them on the pitch or posing in outlandish designer clothes that screamed money! Fame! Girls! Micky looked normal, I’d have missed him if he hadn’t been outside the ground wearing an Oxford training top.

His signing in 1988 signalled a sea change at the club, he arrived from Derby County as part of the deal which took the Milk Cup Final man-of-the-match Trevor Hebberd to the Baseball Ground. It represented something of a changing of the guard from the glory years to something quite different. None-the-less having been relegated from Division 1 the season before, he was part of Mark Lawrenson’s plan for an immediate turn to the top flight.

That dream crumbled as Lawrenson resigned and owner Robert Maxwell’s financial problems started to bite. Maxwell died in 1991 with debts of up to £1 billion, it compounded Oxford’s emotional crisis with a financial one. 

Suddenly, the club were forced into survival mode with Brian Horton building a team of hard working professionals designed to keep their head above water in Division 2. It was the perfect challenge for Lewis, as the club threatened to fall apart, he tightened the bolts and held things together from midfield. We might be outplayed, but we’d never be outfought. 

Never flamboyant – he averaged a goal every fifty games – he understood that whatever he lacked in ability he made up for with hard work and commitment. Players are brought up to dream about scoring goals and dazzling crowds, but hard work is always a value managers appreciate. Micky knew that, by sacrificing himself for the greater good, he would, in turn, become indispensable.  

There is no great story arc with Lewis, no heroic career-defining moment. He just never had a bad game, weaving himself into the culture of the club along the way. He marshalled the midfield as the club miraculously escaped relegation in 1992 at Tranmere, beat Leeds in the FA Cup in 1994, he came on to replace Martin Gray when we were promoted against Peterborough in 1996 and in 1999, supposedly retired, was drafted in as the club suffered an injury crisis, bolstering the midfield when we put Everton out of the League Cup at Goodison Park. 

But, mostly he just played; week in, week out over a period of nearly twelve years. With money leaking from every pore of the club, each point he helped to secure, each fan who appreciated his efforts enough to return to watch us the following week, he gave us another thread of survival.

Did the club shape Micky’s attitude or vice versa? Perhaps he sensed the jeopardy the club were in. Its failure could similarly have meant the end for him. Yes, managers valued what he offered, but they weren’t clamoring for his signature with a blank cheque. The relationship he had with Oxford was symbiotic.  

Fans called him Mad Dog, but he was never dirty. He never pulled out of a tackle and would be a ferocious competitor, but there was never any malice. He did simple things well, giving a platform for the likes of Jim Magilton, Paul Simpson and Joey Beauchamp to shine. Each one, of course, secured big money moves as a result. 

He took that commitment and generosity into coaching, that sense of sacrifice for the greater good. His bouts as caretaker manager returned unspectacular results, but countless managers saw what he offered on the training ground. 

When Chris Wilder took over in 2008, Micky may have been sent packing. He’d returned to become assistant to Darren Patterson and it would have been within Wider’s right to have a clean break. But, Wilder needed to strike a balance; he needed to use the club’s relative size in the Conference as an asset, but not become too arrogant. Size and reputation alone wouldn’t deliver promotion, it had to be underpinned with commitment and a solid work ethic. Within Micky Lewis he had a man who embodied the spirit of the club, who never lost sight of the reasons why that was. 

Wilder and Lewis forged a culture of all-in commitment to a cause which culminated in play-off success at Wembley against York City. From the financial failures two decades earlier, the club found a firm footing to begin the climb back to where they’d once been. Perhaps it was his greatest gift to the club.

Most players aren’t sitting on piles of cash once they’re spat out into the real world at the end of their career. Their bodies are battered, their education compromised, they go from adulation to anonymity. Reputations don’t pay the bills but the years of grafting, Micky Lewis’ investment in the people around him served him well. Micky did what he knew, he kept going, working hard giving his all.

Micky was ranked our 14th favourite player of the 90s; they won’t name a stand after him or build a statue. He was the kind of player you miss mostly when they’re gone. But, when they do go, the shock is felt more deeply, they don’t just entertain us as fans, they encompass the values we believe in. In a sense, they are a part of what you are. To lose that is a cruel blow.

Of course, for his family, their loss is deeper and more profound than anything felt by the club or fans. But, perhaps they might take a crumb of comfort in seeing the impact Micky Lewis had on so many people.  

Legacies are judged by what you leave behind; the values that underpinned his career saved the club as it plunged into crisis, dived, survived and resurrected itself. They were the same values that were invested in the hundreds of players he coached. There is a little bit of Micky in each of those players. Perhaps they will pass it on to the next generation of Oxford players. That spirit, an Oxford United spirit, will no doubt live on long after he’s gone.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Posh nosh

Saturday 27 February 2021

It was a late night opening in the KRob derby at out-of-town shopping experience MK Dons on Saturday. Playing in front of the comforting setting of an empty stadium allowed the hosts to settle first and take the lead. Oxford rallied deep into injury time, after the home side became distracted by movement in the stands, allowing Elliot Lee to pop up for the equaliser.

Sunday 28 February 2021

MK Dons’ Ethan Laird is disappointed by the late equaliser. “We have to sometimes survive those [attacks] first half because teams feel like they can get at us for the first 10 or 15 minutes. But once that happens, no-one can touch us.” he said after apparently missing the ‘touch’ by Elliot Lee’s to notch our 97th minute sickener.

Monday 1 March 2021

Oxford are preparing for the arrival for top of the table Peterborough tomorrow. For Posh, this season is one of REVENGE! for the injustice of people not listening to the warped ramblings of Barry Fry. Alex’s son, boss Darren Ferguson said “It’s taken a lot of hard work and some unusual preparation to get us to where we are now.” We don’t know what’s unusual about the preparation, but it probably involves joining owner Darragh McAnthony’s weekly ‘clap for lawsuits’ tribute after he threatened pandemic related legal action against various people in March, May, December

Tuesday 2 March 2021

Nothing says REVENGE! like a 0-0 draw. Peterborough left the Kassam with a point in a tight game which both teams had chances to win. Barry Fry is understood to have used his patented Frygorythm to calculate that if they had played for another 45 minutes, Posh would have won 14-0. Darragh McAnthony is threatening to take everyone to court to prove the point.

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Oh god, you again? Imagine the moaning in the Ferguson household if someone gets more roast potatoes than everyone else at Sunday lunch. Peterborough are moaning, again, about the injustices being dealt against them, again. Alex’s son is demanding an apology from the referee after denying them what he thought was a ‘blatant penalty’. Alex’s son couldn’t believe the ref didn’t see it; Live I wasn’t sure.” said Alex’s son, confirming he also didn’t see it. There’s more: “You can often tell by reactions and their dugout went very quiet.” It’s true, the rules very clearly state that penalties must be given in the event of an Amy Cranston eye-roll.

Thursday 4 March 2021

Mystical Oxford United shaman Gary Bloom has a new book about the mental challenges of high level professional sport. The book follows a series of fictitious case studies with sportspeople dealing with a variety of emotional challenges including shame, anger, fear, jealousy, envy, love and being Jamie Mackie. 

Friday 5 March 2021

Part of GLS’ gift to the world is to keep up to date with the Oxford United alumnus, both real and made up. Gordon Ramsay, the overpriced burger flipper and professional mental health crisis stimulant, has been reminiscing about his football career on some cockamamie game show he hosts. With a face like he’s had a fight with a jet washer and a swimming pool of botox, one question about Glasgow Rangers caused him to reminisce about his football career, which involved making up stories of playing for the Glasgow giants. According to Ramsay he joined the club after playing youth team football for Oxford, of which no records exist. Can you pass the ketchup? This story smells a bit funny.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Peterborough United 0

There’s a point in a bike race known as ‘the selection’; it’s usually towards the end at a short, sharp incline. It’s a notional point where the route ‘selects’ those that are in the reckoning for the win and those who have run out of energy. A good bike rider will time a burst of energy at the point of selection to break the link between the contenders and everyone else.

Something similar happens around this point of the football season. Last season, when there were discussions about the accuracy of a points-per-game calculation, I calculated that by this stage it was very likely that the selection had been made and those at the top would stay there

There’s usually a game in the season where our fallibility is conclusively tested. Last season we were strongarmed by Rotherham United, which showed to me that we weren’t ready for automatic promotion. In the past we’ve faced Sheffield United, Northampton Town, Bolton Wanderers and found that, as good as we were, we weren’t good enough. We were deselected.

I was expecting the same from last night’s game against Peterborough United. But, where in previous selective games, I’ve gone in hoping for the win, last night I was fully expecting a defeat. It’s an interesting psychological shift; when I go to games, no matter who the opponents are, my working emotional precept is that we’ll win, it’s what gets me off the settee and into my car. Now we’re stuck at home, the assessment is more rational, perhaps more realistic, but much less fun.

The game itself reminded me of our League Cup successes last year. Caution doesn’t come naturally to Karl Robinson or his teams, but playing better sides forces us to be more conservative. It suits us well; we were less in a rush to get on the front foot, more comfortable moving the ball around the back-line probing for an opportunity. 

Whereas we struggled to calculate the moments when we could pounce, it was a much improved all-round performance. Against MK Dons, the decision to attack was much simpler; we did it at every opportunity, against Peterborough we needed to pick our moments, but that relies on having thinkers on the pitch. Unfortunately, the likes of James Henry and Liam Kelly aren’t in the starting line-up.

That said, where in past selective games there’s been a sense that we’ve been brave but ultimately humbled, last night I felt the gap was much narrower and we competed more as equals. Rob Atkinson has looked very comfortable all season, but was tested in a way that he hasn’t been before. He came through with flying colours. I can’t remember us ever having a young and exciting back five before. We still need more depth in defence, but we’ve probably still got another season before Atkinson, Moore and Stevens will properly enter anyone’s radar, it’s good to know there should be more to come from them all.

The challenge, it seems, is not so much other teams as ourselves. We have the ability to compete with anyone in the league but we have to cope with the style of play that Karl Robinson promotes, which burns through players with injury and fatigue. 

The injuries to Sam Long, Marcus McGuane, Sam Winnall and Elliot Lee leave us struggling for numbers. On top of this, a quick calculation shows that Dan Agyei, Sam Long, Elliott Moore and Matty Taylor are all playing more frequently than they did last season. Taylor is averaging one day less between each game this year; that doesn’t sound a lot until you think that’s over a month less recovery time over a season which is already compressed. 

The inconsistency in results isn’t limited to us though; Lincoln, Portsmouth and Doncaster are all suffering wobbles having topped the table recently. We may be seeing a selection in terms of the automatic positions; Peterborough remind me of an old boss I once had who I couldn’t stand, but tended to make the right decisions. Everything about The Posh is odious, but they are worthy promotion candidates and have been building to this for a while. Their success is no fluke, which you have to admire, albeit grudgingly. Hull City also should have enough to get them over the line, if they can keep their heads. It remains to be seen whether Michael Appleton can kickstart Lincoln again, but I can see them fading. 

As for the rest of the table, outside the top two, five of the next eight, six including us have won once in the last five. Although the distance between us and the play-offs is creeping up again, there may still be another selection before the final places are decided. In all honesty, I think we have no more than an outside chance of making the cut, but last night offered both short and long-term hope.

Match wrap: MK Dons 1 Oxford United 1

It was the Scots who invented modern football. Their ‘combination game’ introduced passing between players as a guiding philosophy. Technically, it was far superior to the English code where dribbling was considered the highest skill, and where brute strength, handling the ball and hacking were all admired qualities.

The English considered the style effeminate, a dereliction of personal responsibility. It caused some to break away and create rugby, but even today there’s still admiration for players who are physical and aggressive despite England’s comparative failures as a national team. At club level, English teams started importing players from Queen’s Park; the great innovators of the combination game and so the philosophy travelled south. In 1882, the Scots beat England 5-1 at Hampden Park; part of a sequence of seven wins in eight and the combination game firmly took root. Passing was the underlying feature of the Hungarian team which destroyed England in 1953, the Brazilian World Cup winners of 1970 and the Spanish dominance of the 2010s. The English were left behind kissing their badges, getting stuck in and knocking it long.

It’s hard to imagine a tactical innovation with a greater impact; I’d argue that pretty much all tactical evolution since has been underpinned by improvements in fitness and sports science. Take, for example, the tactic of taking a goal kick to a defender stood inside your own penalty box. In the past, goal kicks were all about territory; the ‘keeper launching the ball to the halfway line.

This is an innovation of Pep Guardiola’s at Manchester City, presumably to counteract the ‘gengenpressing’ of Jurgen Klopp and the German school. If you can draw your opponents deep into your own territory, it’s possible to play in a counter-attacking style even though you have the ball. But, this is only possible if your players have the fitness to play with high levels of technical ability from one end of the pitch to the other. It’s hard to imagine Gary Briggs and Malcolm Shotton passing the ball to each other inside the six yard box with strikers baring down on them.

MK Dons have an almost kamikaze version of this approach. It’s like a public information film warning teams against it. The goalkeeper passes to the defender and then acts as an auxiliary full-back to receive the return ball. At one point yesterday their keeper was more advanced than their centre-back at a goal kick. More often than not, they find themselves in trouble, with strikers closing down as they dither. They were doing it in the first game earlier this season and seem not to have learnt a single lesson since.

In the iFollow commentary Eddie Odhiambo made the point that with 4-4-2 largely extinct, players now have one and a half jobs to do. Again, the improvements in fitness mean we expect players to do more than they did in the past. 

Karl Robinson’s obsessed with pace and energy; a reflection of his personality. Everything is breakneck, fitness levels need to be high, injuries are more likely. Against Portsmouth, that was used against us; creating such a noise that we couldn’t settle to anything. Against MK Dons, we came up against some shrewd heads and a decent amount of defensive discipline meaning that though we were dynamic throughout, they were able to cushion any blows we tried to land.

Take Brandon Barker, in full flight he’s an exciting player, but yesterday he found himself running into the traffic of a packed MK defence. With a bobbly pitch, he couldn’t quite carve out an opportunity. But, all over the pitch it was the same, Mide Shodipo and Elliot Lee struggled. We’d advance at a fierce pace but ran into trouble and the attack would break down.

There’s a lot about this that works; Dan Agyei’s impact was stunning; watch the highlights on YouTube almost everything we do involves him, even though he was only on the pitch for 19 minutes.

Against many teams, we’d get a couple of goals and be cruising by this method, but when we concede or struggle to make the breakthrough, the insistence of playing at the same breakneck speed works against us. Earlier in the season we’d tire, as we did against Swindon, but more recently we keep pounding away for the 90 minutes. But, it’s like in rugby when the ball is passed to the number eight with the intention of simply gaining a few yards before being bundled to the floor. We advance, but there’s little hope of making the breakthrough. We need someone to change the dynamic.

What was lacking yesterday was what we lack generally; leadership, someone to calm things down a little. We don’t lack experience, but it’s hard to see who is dictating the tempo or changing the angles when things aren’t working, or if we simply need a breather. John Mousinho was an organiser, John Lundstram could do it with his passing, we have James Henry, but presumably he’s not fit at the moment so is unable to act as the brains of the operation. 

It’s not on the YouTube highlights, but in the build up to the goal the ball is worked down the right flank. In a split second James Henry realises he may be offside, and leaves the ball to Anthony Forde. Henry stands still, allowing the play to move past him, bringing him onside and into play. It’s a smart move; it would have been easy for Henry to get caught up in the urgency of the situation and take a touch, potentially conceding a free-kick for offside. Forde and Henry exchange passes giving Forde the space to cross for Agyei to head across goal and Lee to bundle home.

Lee takes the glory and Agyei not only the assist, but hopefully the congratulations of his manager, but it was Henry and Forde’s clarity of thought which allowed the attack to develop. I was always struck by something Gary Neville once said about the Manchester United side under Alex Ferguson. In the last minute, the objective is not to bombard your opponent, but to create one quality chance. That’s what happened here.

In our 1996 promotion season, one pivotal, but underplayed aspect of our success was the prominence of Stuart Massey in the latter stages of the season. We had started with Chris Allen, who was fast and exciting, but working at that speed meant he was more prone to mistakes. When Allen fell out of favour, Massey came in. He had a bit more experience, and was a little more one dimensional, but he demanded the ball in a certain way; he didn’t have the pace to run half the length of the pitch, so he wanted the ball at his feet within the final third. Once he had it, his crossing was pin sharp. This alone unlocked the goal scoring ability of Paul Moody, whose job was to get on the end of the crosses.  The modern game doesn’t really allow for a water carrier – a Martin Gray, Dave Smith or Simon Clist – as Odhiambo said, players are expected to be fit enough to do the job of more than one person. But if we are going to take the step from play-off hopefuls to play-off contenders, we might need a little more brain and a little less brawn.     

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Rumpy Pompey

Saturday 20 February 2021

There was a dull stalemate on Saturday when Oxford’s trip to Ipswich Town resulted in a 0-0 draw. The game was decidedly underwhelming, particularly given that both clubs had been on fire the previous week. We mean, literally on fire

Meanwhile, Luton Town boss Nathan Jones has backed former Oxford striker Danny Hylton, saying he’d have scored more that ten goals this season despite a goal drought stretching back nearly two years. He just needs games, says Jones, and to stop living in a badger hole wearing shoes made of straw.

Sunday 21 February 2021

Former Oxford striker Andy Scott has been talking to Wales Online about his role as Head of Recruitment at Swansea City. Scott felt right at home when he walked through the door at The Liberty Stadium. “I inherited a recruitment department that was non-existent” he said “We were left with no analysts, no scouts, no reporting system.” In other words, it was totally David Kemped.

Monday 22 February 2021

March 26 is a date to mark in your diary and for MApp to tattoo on his forearm in Comic Sans. The big showdown between his Lincoln City table toppers and KRob’s Oxford has been moved for TV. The change to a Friday night gives fans the opportunity to get off their laptops for once and see football as it’s really meant to be; on an overpriced disinterested subscription TV channel.  

Tuesday 23 February 2021

Tuesday saw us slide to a narrow 1-0 defeat to Portsmouth. Oxford fans are aghast at our dramatic collapse in form following our best run of wins in 128 years. Is it too much to ask that we break that record twice in the same season? 

In brighter news, The Independent have done a profile of former Oxford United director and alleged child sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, who is currently in jail in New York. In it, they reveal that one of Ghislaine’s successes was to establish an Oxford United supporters’ club. Wait, not seen in months? Has their own supporters’ club? Good with the kids? Olly the Ox, is that you?  

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Brandon Barker’s loan is in crisis according to Rangers News. They’ve expressed their concern that Barker is not getting game time at Oxford when he could be not getting game time back up north. Barker has only featured in six of the last six games and none of them against part-timers Tunnock Teacake Academicals. How is that going to prepare him for the structural unfairness of the Scottish Premier League next season? 

Thursday 25 February 2021

It was the Eight Minute Forty-Five Second Fans’ Forum on Radio Oxford on Thursday with Josh ‘don’t call me ruffles’ Ruffels. Ruffles, er, Ruffels discussed his favourite game, not searching his name on social media – it’s Ruffels, not ruffles – and the car PClot bought the squad which looked OK until you tried to go anywhere and then it fell apart. PARP! PARP! PARP! – ANALOGY KLAXON. 

Elsewhere, MApp will be kept in dumbbells and high protein milkshakes for the next few years as he’s signed a new contract with Lincoln City until 2025

Friday 26 February 2021

It’s the KRob derby on Saturday at MK Dons. The Oxford manager is considered a god in Milton Keynes after guiding them to The Championship in 2015. Current manager, Russell Martin was asked whether the return of The Roundabout Bill Shankly added a bit of spice to the game “Not for me,” he said staring up at a bronze statue of KRob stripped to the waist astride a mighty stag outside the stadium “Coming back here probably adds a little bit for him – but it’s the same for me.” It really doesn’t bother him does it? And it’s absolutely fine that his wife calls out ‘Karl’ when they’re making love. Absolutely. Fine.

Meanwhile, junior glovesman Jack Stevens has signed a new contract keeping him at the club until 2024. Stevens has become well established in the first team since taking over the family business from, dad, Sensible Simon Eastwood.