Midweek fixture: Sam Long – local hero

The first time I remember seeing Sam Long he was 18-years-old and stood in a school assembly hall handing out end of season awards to a local junior football club having signed his first professional contract a few days earlier. 

Long was unremarkable; his hair was short and he was wearing jeans, trainers and a hoodie, looking indistinguishable from the teenagers he was rewarding. The year before, the club had attracted England international Eniola Aluko. By contrast, dressed in her England tracksuit, she looked comfortable in her ambassadorial role. 

One of the coaches congratulated Long on his new contract; though most didn’t know who he was. My thoughts were less magnanimous, it had been nearly a decade since Dean Whitehead and Sam Ricketts had cultivated successful careers in the game and two decades since Joey Beauchamp and Chris Allen had done the same. Long didn’t seem the type that was likely to follow in their footsteps.

There are always players that fans see as being the great new hope for the club; there were frenzied calls for James Roberts and Tyrone Marsh to solve our goalscoring problems despite being inexperienced teenagers, like many others, they quickly faded from the scene.

Long’s debut was as a substitute for James Constable in 2013 away to Accrington Stanley. The team, managed by Chris Wilder, mixed veterans from our Conference promotion season – Constable, Damian Batt and Alfie Potter – with experienced pros like Michael Duberry who had been brought in to fire us towards promotion. Duberry had already picked Long out for his work ethic and lack of ego, praising the influence of Chris Allen, his youth team coach, for instilling a culture of listening and learning which, he said, would serve him well.

It would be another year before Long would make his first start. With Wilder moving on to Northampton, caretaker manager Mickey Lewis gave him his debut in a draw at Morecambe. It was an illustration of Lewis’ generous character to give young players a chance, even if it was sometimes at the expense of results. Lewis was quick to praise Long’s performance, in what was otherwise a disappointing display.

The arrival of Michael Appleton and new ownership in 2014 saw a revolution at the club. Long wasn’t an established player and with Appleton impatient to find a winning formula, his chances were limited to eight games, although he did score his first goal against Southend. 

Appleton churned through over 40 players in his first season, weeding out many of Chris Wilder’s signings who he saw as having a loser’s mentality. Long could easily have been swept away in the tidal wave, but he survived the cull, going on a six-week loan to Kidderminster in November 2014 as part of a deal that brought Chey Dunkley to the club.

With the painful screwdriver work complete; everything seemed to be falling into place for Long as the 2015/16 season approached. Jake Wright called him the best player in pre-season; in a crowded field, it was quite an accolade. 

It went further; Michael Appleton started implementing a philosophy inspired by the book Legacy – which details the winning formula of the All-Blacks. He established a leadership group to build cohesiveness and deal with squad issues; Long was made part of it to stand alongside more experienced first team regulars.

Then, just as things started to click, Long was stretchered off in a League Cup tie at Hillsborough with an ankle ligament injury that plagued him all season. He returned to the bench for the 2016 EFL Trophy defeat to Barnsley, but while the club were advancing, Long was stuck in the physio’s room.

Long would make the bench a year later for another EFL Trophy final against Coventry, but injuries slowed his progress. When Pep Clotet replaced Appleton in 2017, the new manager turned to experienced players, a rainbow alliance of old mates. When he was fit, Long was loaned out to Hampton and Richmond Borough.

To outsiders, it seemed that the club were running Long’s contract down; he’d started four league games in three years and faced the prospect of getting to the end of his deal with little or no experience and no reputation to take him elsewhere. 

It would be romantic to suggest that Karl Robinson spotted Long’s potential and nurtured him into the player he is today, but that wouldn’t be wholly true. Robinson wanted a modern full-back, an auxiliary midfielder expected to defend and attack for 90 minutes. He strained his resources to land someone with the modern characteristics of pace, energy, resilience and those crucial defensive and attacking qualities. Chris Cadden arrived from Motherwell, but the budget couldn’t stretch to a permanent deal so the club signed up to a curious arrangement where he moved to Columbus Crew before being immediately loaned bak to the Oxford for half a season while the MLS season was in recess. When Cadden’s deal ran out, Robinson turned to Long to fill the vacant slot. 

Finally getting regular starts, the season was curtailed as the coronavirus pandemic hit, a late run of form saw Oxford qualify for the play-off final against Wycombe. It was Long’s third trip to Wembley, his first time on the pitch and his third disappointment. 

Although Long signed a new two-year deal just before the play-offs, 2020/21 felt like déjà vu; Sean Clare was signed from Hearts and given the right-back’s number two shirt, implying that he was the preferred starting option. The season started underwhelmingly and Clare’s performances we’re fitful. Long clawed his way back into the starting line-up once again.

His return coincided with a return to form and a scintillating winning streak. He was also picking up assists and goals that had been absent from his CV. Against Plymouth, he sprinted half the length of the pitch, exchanging passes with Clare along the way, to score the winner in a crucial 3-2 win. With the play-off race tightening, he popped up to score a memorable last-minute brace to put Gillingham to the sword. Long edged past the milestone of 100 starts and was leading from the front. 

Perhaps it was that time spent with the leaders of the club under Michael Appleton, or the guidance as a youth team player under Chris Allen that encouraged Long to take a greater responsibility in terms of being a leader in the team. His willingness to take responsibility grew as the season progressed. The regular season closed with a play-off spot, and two player of the season awards. Next season, he’ll wear the number 2 shirt.

What is a full back? They don’t score the goals like a striker; they don’t show the great artistic impudence like a midfielder nor the alpha-brutish strength of central defender. When you get a good one they dictate mood and tone. Long has emerged as an attacking threat and an active contributor to our success as a club, he represents his community and embodies the philosophy that Karl Robinson has tried to instil into the club. Perhaps he needed that journey to establish himself in that role and build the mental fortitude to fulfil it; now he’s here, long may he reign.

Match wrap: Oxford United 4 Burton Albion 0

And so it came to this; we needed an improbable set of results to sneak into the play-offs. But, Portsmouth; thirteen points ahead of us at Christmas, just needed a win at home to Accrington and ours would be a lost cause. 

They’ll do it, though, won’t they? For all the farago surrounding the last game of the season, good teams tend to deliver. For all the sharp cuts on Sky’s screaming trailers, the reality is not that dramatic; good teams find a way to secure the points they need and move on, the fake news drama is long forgotten as they head to the play-offs and us to the beach.

For us, the rambunctious interlopers, second bottom at the end of October, we would finally find our level; not amongst the contenders but with the bystanders. We would commend ourselves on our bravery while quietly filing the season away in a bin marked ‘forgotten’. That’s how it works, doesn’t it?

Last year, our journey to the play-offs felt like threading a needle through an increasingly narrow eye. The pre-pandemic run, Josh Ruffels’ decisive last minute winner at Shrewsbury, the debate about the future of the season, the intricacies of points-per-game calculations, play-offs ties that felt like having your teeth filed, a cavernous soulless Wembley and a dispiriting defeat to bring it all to an end. An ever narrowing, treacherous and doomed path to nowhere.

But this felt different, a crazy run had got us to this point; goals flying in, comeback wins, returning from the dead with a last minute double from our homegrown full-back and spirit animal. Insanity and never not fun.

This time we were here to crash the party; to stumble through the door, get off with your mum and commandeer the stereo. But, it would end, eventually, surely someone would kick us back out onto the street.

A few weeks ago, Karl Robinson talked of taking the handbrake off; living in the moment, just seeing what happens, what did we have to lose? We’d survived a coach being disabled by disinfectant, opponents turning up with an outbreak of covid in their ranks, postponements, a stadium fire, countless makeshift changing rooms fashioned out of burger bars and hospitality suites, we’d revived ourselves after a grim derby defeat. We weren’t ‘in it’, but we also weren’t ‘out of it’.

By contrast, at Portsmouth there was expectation, pressure and minimum requirements to make the play-offs. They’d been buckling, for sure, but they still had enough in the tank, didn’t they?

There’s hope and there’s logic, and that wasn’t in our favour. We stepped onto the pitch free of pressure, free from logic; just play the next game. We were magnificent, swashbuckling, brave, playing with light in our heart; nobody expects us to make it, so why not just enjoy it? 

If we were nervous, it didn’t show; the early goal scythed through Burton’s defence for Mide Shodipo to nod home. Burton looked club footed by comparison; they’ve hauled themselves to safety which is a triumph in itself, but there wasn’t much left to give apart from the heavy artillery of their long throws into the box, which were easily mopped up.

News filtered through of an Accrington goal; how were Pompey feeling now? A black cloud darkening their mood? Consumed by their own failings? Helplessly watching the sands of fate drain between their fingers? Every Accrington win at this level is a triumph against the odds, they’re not going to let an opportunity pass when it’s presented to them.

Tired, calamitous Burton defending allowed Matty Taylor to head home the second; the scoreboard marked up another goal, but the real impact was on the south coast. We looked so light on our feet while they looked dead on theirs. We were breaking their spirit and resolve, how after all this time, and all that’s happened, were we so full of energy? 

When Elliot Lee’s ridiculous daisy cutting free-kick squirmed under the wall and through the goalkeepers hands it was confirmed; we were home and hosed and destiny would pass over to Fratton Park to decide our future. They toiled, broken by their own expectation, blinded by our light, bamboozled that we’re enjoying this. This is the sharp end of the season, the pressure is supposed to be too much to bear.

For us, though, there is no expectation; we just have more to gain. The handbrake is off, the consequences of failure minimal. We’ve survived a pandemic, we’re still in with a chance of the play-offs despite everything, whatever happens now is a bonus. We’re better like this; playing on adrenaline, luck and emotion. The tortuous intricacies of last year have been shed, we’re playing with a freedom that those around us have long since lost, swimming in a deep well of their own doubt.

As injury time came, a long ball from Jack Stevens dropped to Sam Winnall 25 yards out, why not have a lash? The manual says keep the ball, but that’s not fun and that’s not us. What’s the worst that can happen? The strike was sweet and true, playful and mischievous, now that is us.

Radio Oxford passed through to Radio Solent for the final moments of the game at Fratton Park, the mood was bleak, the commentators knew it was long since over. Not good enough, overwhelmed by their own shortcomings, their squandered chances, and a history that hangs around their neck like a noose.  

We haven’t threaded our way into the play-offs, we’ve crashed into them; we’re not expecting to play Championship football next season, but it would be fun to try it. We come without the baggage of expectation, without a legacy of opportunities squandered, without that sense that even if we did succeed, we’d still be below our natural level. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The fans will return, the air will be fresh, we are fortified by what we’ve achieved, we enter the next stage as rascals and outsiders, playing with a smile, not dwelling on what we’ve lost but revelling in what we’ve achieved, you never know, that could be enough.

George Lawrence’s Shorts – Countdown conundrums

Saturday 24 April 2021

It’s like Countdown around here, after the 3-1 win Plymouth on Saturday. The win propelled Oxford into the fifth. Teams around us have games in hand, but with plenty of opportunities to drop points, two wins from the last two games could still see Oxford make the top six. A consonant, please Rachel.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Following yesterday’s defeat, after conceding 16 goals in 6 games and losing 9 in their last 13 games Plymouth manager Ryan Lowe has become a great all-seeing sage by revealing a controversial theory about what’s going wrong at the Devon club. “We’re not good enough.” he said, sitting in the lotus position banging his chakra.

Monday 26 April 2021

KRob’s a fugitive on the run from the law, the Feds at the FA have got him banged to rights and charged him with ‘improper and/or violent conduct’ relating to the ill-tempered game against Premier League One side Sunderland earlier this month. KRob ended up doing porridge in the slammer during that game after referee Trevor Kettle sent him to the stands. Now he’s back in front of the beak, but he ain’t no grass. 

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Ole! The bookie monster Alex Gorrin has signed a contract extension until 2022 alongside Jedward Orphan Mark Sykes. Gorrin received lots of cards from friends to celebrate the news, mostly yellow ones for shin high lunging tackles.  

Wednesday 28 April 2021

From the GLS vaults labelled ‘are you absolutely shitting me?’ comes news that Burton Albion are planning to use our last game of the season for a virtual ‘staying up’ party. Burton were rock bottom of the table, but with Flimmy Joyd Basselhank at the helm they’ve climbed their way to safety, it’s now party time. 

Thursday 29 April 2021

The League One Team of the season has been revealed and Rob Atkinson has secured one of the centre-back spots. It’s been an impressive season for Atkinson who last year was playing non-league football at Eastleigh. Before that he was West Brom and Manchester United manager with a nifty line in sheepskin coats and chunky gold jewelry.

Friday 30 April 2021

As the season draws to the end, again, the rumour mill starts to turn, again, this time, it’s news that a Championship team are in the hunt, again, for Cameron Brannagain, again. This time it’s Preston North End who are interested in the midfielder. Brannagain would join Ryan Ledson at Deepdale; so expect a surge in sales of double-strength shin pads to the Championship next season. 

Saturday 1 May 2021

Oxford’s 3-2 comeback win over Shrewsbury Town on Saturday guaranteed that the season will go to the last day. A win over Burton could see the yellows sneak into the play-offs. There is some debate about how you pronounce Shrewsbury; does it rhyme with ‘lose’ as in ‘Shrewsbury lose to Oxford’ or does it rhyme with ‘throws’ as in ‘Shrewsbury throws away their lead again’?

Sunday 2 May 2021

The comb-over Sam Long, Dave Langan has been reflecting on mixing it with the hoi polloi during his time at Oxford United in the 1980s. As well as negotiating contracts with Robert Maxwell, he also spent time with Oxford director and alleged child sex trafficker, Maxwell’s daughter, Ghislane. “She seemed really down to earth. She was just like a normal person.” he said, unlike any of the sex trafficking, friend of a billionaire paedophiles he’d met before.

Monday 3 May 2021

KRob loves a good ding dong, and there’s a proper ding dang do coming up next Sunday. “Roll on next Sunday and the balls start rolling again.” he said eating a bacon roll, having a stroll, stroking a foal. 

Tuesday 4 May 2021

Sheffield United’s transformation into the t’Oxford is nearly complete as they seek a big gun to replace Chris Wilder. After Wilder, Jake Wright, John Lundstram and George Baldock; rumours are that Mr Big Guns himself, MApp, is the next Oxford alumni to join the club as manager. PClot’s Malmo 2010 WhatsApp group was buzzing at the prospect of getting the gang back together at Bramall Lane in a couple of years. Ago Mehmeti said he’ll make a big chilli for the reunion.

Wednesday 5 May 2021

KRob was in the dock on Wednesday as he faced a charge of improper and/or violent conduct after the shenanigans at Sunderland. Due to the pandemic, the case was held over Zoom, where the Oxford boss stated his case with passion and panache. “YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY HERE”, he screamed “READ THE STANDING ORDERS, READ THEM AND UNDERSTAND THEM”.

Thursday 6 May 2021

McGuane in Spain was quickly on the plane, but he’s delighted to be taking the step up from playing for Barcelona, Arsenal and Nottingham Forest after signing a three year contract at Oxford.

Jose’s son John Mousinho is a real box-to-box-file player. He’s been elected as chair of the new PFA players’ board. This is not to be confused with the Playaz Board, which organises custom sports cars, expensive jewelry and spit roasting sessions for aspiring Premier League teenagers.  

Friday 7 May 2021

Life is like a box of chocolates for Josh Ruffels, he’s got his pick of the teams to sign for next season when his contract expires. Now rumours are surfacing that he could become a Nottingham Forest chump

Midweek fixture: ‘This poxy league’: The doomed 2008/9 play-off dash

It’d been a difficult start; just before Christmas 2008, former Halifax boss, Bury’s assistant manager, Chris Wilder had been the underwhelming choice to replace Darren Patterson as Oxford United manager. A week later, in Wilder’s first game, diminutive winger Sam Deering broke his leg in a 2-1 defeat at Salisbury. Two weeks after that it was announced the club had been deducted five points for fielding an ineligible player putting them five points above the relegation zone.

Eddie Hutchinson had been at the club for three years but hadn’t been in Patterson’s initial plans for the season. As the season progressed in its fitful way, he eased back into contention. The rules stated it was the club’s responsibility to register the player as well as ensure the registration arrived; like being responsible for sending an email and its read receipt. We’d fallen foul of a flawed and arcane system. The Conference hated us.

It could have been worse, the original penalty had been the 11 points gained while Hutchinson had been on the pitch that season – clearly the authorities had never seen him play. The club were angry, Chris Wilder was angry, the fans were angry; immediately following the Salisbury defeat, the team scorched through a run of eight wins in nine games only to be halted by top of the table Torquay. 

Just two of those games were away from home, so the revival was evident in front of the fans. James Constable, on loan from Shrewsbury Town, was on course to become the first player in 22 years to score more than 25 goals in a season. A spirit galvanised the club and fans in a way that had been woefully absent for years, BBC Oxford radio DJ Malcolm Boyden capitalised on the newfound spirit – ‘Believe’ he said.

The run propelled us to within six points of the play-offs with four games left. The odds were still stacked against us, but we were the form team of the division.

Easter weekend would start to determine the fate of the season and we went into it with one defeat in 17 while others were wobbling. 

Momentum, a distant dream becoming a reality, came with pressure. Wrexham, the next visitors to the Kassam, had been relegated the season before and were still a big club in the division. The game was tight and tense, the minutes ticked by; with the dream slipping back into the ether, deep into injury time the ball was worked out to the left wing to an early Wilder signing Craig Nelthorp. At the other end, desperate Oxford fans screamed to keep hope alive and make something happen, Billy Turley theatrically threw himself to the floor, unable to look. There would be no counter-attack to defend, no second ball, no next time; it was now or never. 

Nelthorpe slung in a hopeful cross, James Constable strained every sinu to make the connection, guiding the ball goalwards, off the underside of the bar. For a moment, nobody could be sure it had crossed the line. Constable wheeled away in celebration and the Wrexham keeper threw the ball at Adam Murray like a frustrated child. The crowd paused in disbelief at what they’d witnessed, they’d believed in a miracle and it materialised in front of them, the belief soaked in. We’d done it.

Revitalised, three days later we headed for Woking finally looking like a club that was too big for the Conference. We’d been bloated and overblown and mistaken that as a sign of strength, now we were rippling, bursting at the seams. Oxford fans travelled in huge numbers, overwhelming the stadium, creating a carnival of yellow and blue. Kick-off was delayed an hour due to overcrowding in the away stand, Chris Wilder appeared from the dressing room to settle the fans; a cool head in an overheating situation. In the past, these disruptions may have dislodged us, knocking our focus, but we cruised to a 2-0 win with Oxford fans celebrating from all around the ground. It had been an occupation, but what we were conquering were our demons.

The deficit to the play-offs reduced to three points, Kidderminster, Histon and Stevenage had games in hand. Histon used theirs against Ebbsfleet three days later to reinstate a four point gap.

Next was the visit to champions-elect Burton Albion. The Conference is full of teams either falling apart or indulging a local millionaire in a brief, doomed football fantasy. Burton’s success was based on slow and steady improvement. Manager Nigel Clough had spent eleven years carefully building the club towards promotion, but he’d left for Derby County and while they were becoming rudderless, they still had plenty in the bank and their title was all but assured. They were now within a point of fulfilling their dream of making the Football League. The game was live on television, the stadium was full and expectant, we were just bit part guests at their promotion party.

The story was so focussed on Burton, we were the forgotten force. The game was nervy with neither side really finding any rhythm. Being awkward felt good, like we’d turned up, spiking the punch with liquor and commandeering the stereo. Deep into the second-half Oxford won a free-kick twenty-five yards out on the right. It was an awkward position; too near to cross, too far to shoot. Only a delivery of the highest quality would yield anything. Adam Chapman, who Chris Wilder had brought in on loan from Sheffield United, fizzed with panache and ability, but surely this was beyond his talents. His free-kick curled beyond the wall and into the net sending the travelling fans into rapture. Burton’s dream was crushed, for a few days at least, while our mission was still alive. “We’ve been the best team in the league over the last four months.” a breathless Billy Turley told the TV reporter afterwards.

The following day, things got even better; with Kidderminster playing Histon and Stevenage playing Torquay, the four teams being chased down by the now rampant Oxford were always going to take points off each other. Both games ended in a draw, perfect, the gap closed to two points.

All four still had a game in hand, but Kidderminster’s was against Stevenage and they couldn’t both win, if either Torquay or Histon dropped points, the whole thing would go to the final day and that’s all we could ask. Stevenage took the three points against the Harriers, while Torquay, making a debilitating 600 mile midweek round trip, could only pick up a point at Barrow. It was on.

Into the final day, we simply needed a win to stand a chance of making the play-offs; everything else was out of our hands. Torquay, three points ahead, but without a win in four, hosted champions Burton while Kidderminster had Kettering. Chances were slim, but not impossible.

If the game against Woking showed that our new found confidence was too big for the Conference, the game against relegated Northwich Victoria showed that even we struggled with the seething beast of hope and expectation. 

Over 10,000 fans packed the Kassam, nearly 4000 more than the next biggest crowd of the season. Northwich, though doomed, were on a late season surge, having won their previous five games, but focus was all on us. 

We looked disjointed, finding the nervous energy hard to control. An early goal would have settled us. After eight minutes a goal came, but it was at Burton; the news was good, the champions were a goal up. A goal for us now would put us equal on points and a goal from the play-offs. 

Five minutes later the advantage slipped away; Torquay had equalised, we were back to square one. Northwich, with Ryan Clarke in goal, cushioned our threat and it was no surprise to see them take the lead on the stroke of half-time. With results going against us, things began to unravel; the season was dwindling and thousands of fans, there for the spectacle alone, began to lose their poise.

A minute after half-time things got worse, Torquay had taken the lead, we needed a miracle, but Malcolm Boyden’s belief was running short.  

Six minutes from time, James Constable’s equaliser set up the possibility of a pyrrhic victory. The goal sparked was an invasion, someone ran on the pitch in his pants, others followed, goalie Billy Turley wrestled one fan to the floor. Somewhere in the melee a fan attacked a visiting player with a corner flag and Northwich walked off. It took an age to sort out, and as results came through confirming another season in the Conference, concentration evaporated and we conceded again. In the Oxford Mail stand a fight broke out between two women. It was a wild and chaotic end to the season.

In the end we were just four points short; it wasn’t the result hadn’t did for us, the five deducted points for an administrative error had confined us to another season of purgatory. Chris Wilder seethed; “We need to take it out of people’s hands by producing a winning team and get out of this poxy league.” he said. His comments resonated through the club and through the summer as he built a team aggressive in its ambition to return to the Football League. Twelve months later, at Wembley in the pouring rain, as Alfie Potter swept home the decisive goal against York City, he made good on that promise.

Match wrap: Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 3

After the win over Plymouth, fans engaged in the kind of complex maths that would make Rachel Riley giddy. We’d set the cat among the pigeons with our run, but teams had games in hand, but those in the strongest position had the hardest run-in. But, but, but…

As the week progressed, things became clearer although nothing had changed for us; we needed to beat Shrewsbury. 

I joined the social media boycott to protest about online abuse, although it was a late decision, I hadn’t realised how absolute it was going to be until after it started. I don’t suppose anyone will change their behaviour because of me; but to break the line seemed like it would undermine the point being made. 

I doubt that most online abusers are fully paid-up eugenicists. To most who do it; it’s a way of venting anger or gaining social capital through the likes and retweets that tend to reward extremes. It’s the equivalent of a teenager attracting a girl’s attention by kicking a ball in her face. The precise nature of the abuse is not relevant just so long as it has impact. It’s not so much that these people are racists, it’s more they don’t care about the impact of racism. With social media, there’s no consequence of stepping over that line, if a line existed in the form of bans or prosecution, the abuse would reduce significantly and quickly. These aren’t victimless crimes; social media companies have a responsibility to change the rules of the game. If not them, then the government needs to step in.

I logged on to the eerie silence of Twitter twenty minutes before kick-off, casually opened iFollow and got a jaunty ‘500 error’ with two Adidas Telstar footballs where the zeros should be. It made me more angry that they trivialised their error with the use of a 45 year old football design, albeit a classic. Others were struggling too. I have an FM radio somewhere in my shed and another in my car, but otherwise no access to Radio Oxford’s commentary; in a fully connected world, I was drifting in a vacuum.

The feeling reminded me of those end-of-season away games where the hosts under-estimate our support; Woking in 2009 or Crewe in 1996. Post-Hillsborough, these are rare and special things. The authorities are rightly sensitive and quick to make big games all-ticket. The home club has to be winding their season down, while the away team need to be on a stealthy mission that nobody beyond the club itself has noticed. 

Metaphorically, the iFollow lockout meant we were queued up outside the away end, growing increasingly concerned that we weren’t getting in for this crucial game. It’s every man for themselves, some continue to queue, there are rumours about other turnstiles opening, others chance their arm, trying different routes in. On Twitter, someone logged on via Shrewsbury’s iFollow – it was like getting in the home end. The equation on the pitch may have been simple, but the chaos was growing.

There’s a thrill in those games, a lawlessness; fate and ingenuity take over; senses heighten; the game kicks off and you’re split between your mission to get in and the need to follow the game. Somehow, the combination of a broken iFollow and the social media blackout – plus my lack of available outdated technology – meant I had to sense the game rather than follow it, keep persevering, but not take my eye off the action.

We scored early; I was still trying to find a digital turnstile to let me in. The few Twitter comments about the goal were like the slightly muted roar coming from one direction of the ground synonymous with an away goal. They equalised, then led; I was once stuck outside St Andrew’s during a promotion decider against Birmingham City in 1994. From the sounds coming from the Oxford end, we were doing well, but they scored and the 20,000+ Birmingham fans engulfed the noise we were making. Shrewsbury’s goals gave me that feeling; the bubble bursting.

Finally, half-an-hour in, a cyber steward opened a side gate and I was in. I was still trying to orientate myself as half-time came – the equivalent of wanting to find my seat but having to stand on a step and not catch the eye of a steward. 

Steve Kinniburgh ripped into the team, I don’t know whether it was justified from a performance perspective, but the reality is that successful teams cut through chaos, blank it out, compartmentalise their ability and let it flow. If they play, he said, we win. The big question was whether they could find clarity through the fog of war. If you can’t do that, your destiny, individually and collectively, is to play in the lower leagues. It’s that stark.

As if they’d heard that, the equaliser was a goal of precision and incision that cut through the chaos and context. It was beautiful in its simplicity; short, simple passes, each move showing patience and progress. The kind goal that makes you wonder why they don’t just do it all the time. Football is mentally challenging, physicality and technique is fundamental, mental agility and discipline is where games are won and lost. 

The winner from Dan Agyei was another example of a player taking responsibility for his destiny. In the past, Agyei’s been an instinctive player; games happened to him. If a ball was available, he’d play, but he was passive and could become marginalised if it didn’t run for him. In recent months he’s changed, when Sam Winnall’s knock down didn’t quite fall for him, Agyei went looking for the ball, taking responsibility for his performance and that of his team. He wanted it and, even with his back to goal, wasn’t going to be denied.

Even at the death, Jack Stevens was all-in committed to taking the three points with two wonderful saves. Clarity, focus, commitment, victory. Hope burns eternal.

The mysteries of the season continue to reveal themselves. I still marvel at the genius of a system where everything is still to be decided in the last of forty-six games. Although the infinite chaos of fans is absent, there are questions about what we’ll do next week, what others will do, whether we can make the play-offs, whether we can win them, whether we can cope in a higher division. Those who prevail will be the ones who navigate through the chaos. What others do now is immaterial, the maths hasn’t changed for weeks; we simply have to win our next game.

Midweek fixture: The 17 best games of Oxford United’s 2016 promotion season

A long time ago, I asked for your favourite games of the 2015/16 season, then the pandemic hit and everything went belly up. That season had everything – derby wins, giant killings, a Wembley visit and, of course, promotion. There was a lot to choose from, but vote you did. Here are the seventeen best games from that unforgettable year.

17. Morecambe 2 Oxford United 4

A hard won away win in a lovely kit, apart from that, it’s not obvious why this was such a significant game. But, if you’re in the pub, a job interview or hostage situation and someone asks what was the 17th most memorable game of the 2015/16 season; this is it.

Read the match wrap.

16. Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

Had it really come to this? After the derby, Wembley, giant killings and all the winning, we were faced with the prospect of three games and three wins for promotion. This was the first, Joe Skarz returned from what was thought to be a season ending injury to help drag us to three points against a stubborn Hartlepool side. One down, two to go.

Read the match wrap.

15. Oxford United 3 Exeter City 0

An absolute Boxing Day banger, in front of a near capacity crowd, we put on a breathtaking second half attacking display to sweep away Exeter City.

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14. Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 1

All good teams need a magician to make them great; ours came in the form of Kemar Roofe. His early season wonder-strike at Bristol Rovers was just a sign of things to come. The Roofe was on fire.

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13. Stevenage 1 Oxford United 5

Sometimes, everything just clicks. When the club designated the game at Teddy Sheringham’s Stevenage a family away-day special, they couldn’t have hoped for a better game than this 5-1 annihilation. It was the first time in nine years we’d scored five away from home and was, at the time, a record equalling away victory. One for the record books, but more importantly, one for the kids.

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12. Oxford United 0 Millwall 1

Sometimes games are less about the performance and more about the result. The atmosphere was ugly, the game was tense for this JPT Semi-Final Second Leg against Millwall. All we needed to do was protect our 2-0 first leg advantage. A 1-0 defeat made things uncomfortable, but still meant we were heading for Wembley.

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11. Barnet 0 Oxford United 3

The season turned into a farewell tour of the clubs we’d considered equals for a decade or more. This dominant display at Barnet with two goals from Callum O’Dowda had a strong ‘we’ll never play you again’ vibe about it.

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10. Portsmouth 0 Oxford United 1

Roofe, Dunkley, Hylton, MacDonald, Wright, Baldock, Lundstram, Maguire – the list of great names from that season live long in the memory – Skarz. See? Was Jordan Bowery the great forgotten player from that season? Maybe. With JPT, FA Cup and league interests, things were getting hectic. A trip to Portsmouth looked daunting, but Bowery’s second half winner secured a memorable and crucial three points.

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9. Oxford United 2 Barnsley 3

Wembley; the JPT Final was a true game of two halves. In the first 45 minutes we were, by far, the better team and went in 1-0 up with a goal from Callum O’Dowda and a Cruyff turn from Chey Dunkley. In the second half we came out heavy legged and conceded three. A Danny Hylton goal pulled it back to 3-2, which wasn’t quite enough. But, what a day out.

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8. Crawley Town 1 Oxford United 5

We needed this; after two frustrating league draws and a defeat at Wembley, we just needed to give someone a good pummelling. It’d taken nine years for us to score five away from home and five months to do it again. Crawley, it was nothing personal.

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7. Millwall 0 Oxford United 2

Days after knocking Swansea City out of the FA Cup, we headed to The New Den for our JPT Semi-Final First Leg against Millwall. After the Lord Mayor’s Show? Not a chance. Two giant killings in four days? Yes please.

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6. Brentford 0 Oxford United 4

There may have been a good feeling around the place, but the obliteration of Championship Brentford in the League Cup ignited the season. The opening was rampant with Oxford three up inside 15 minutes, including a wonder strike from Kemar Roofe, Johnny Mullins’ second half goal saw us stroll to a 4-0 win.

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5. Notts County 2 Oxford United 4

New Year, New You. The first game of 2016 was at a grim Meadow Lane. What resulted was a titanic tussle with two breathtaking last minute goals.

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4. Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0

The Kassam Stadium can feel like a soulless concrete brick, but when Oxford’s Ultras unveiled a giant flag of an ox impaling a robin which stretched from the top of the stand to the bottom, it felt like the Curva Sud. We were absolutely dominant for this JPT derby; two Kemar Roofe goals swept Swindon aside in a true changing of the guard in the rivalry.

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3. Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2

Did someone order a Family Bucket of limbs? The penultimate game of the season saw us 270 miles to Carlisle and owner Daryl Eales dishing out free hot dogs. Chris Maguire’s early penalty was a settler, but it was Liam Sercombe’s trademark surge into the box which cemented this as the third best game of the season. Now, where have my shoes gone?

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2. Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

When you’ve got Premier League opponents; keep it tight, see if you can nick a goal. Right? Wrong. Despite conceding early, we put on a scintillating display of attacking joie de vivre to sweep away Swansea City in the FA Cup. If we didn’t know something special was happening before, we did now.

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1. Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0

The pinnacle, the denouement, the culmination of a wonderful season, the sun shone, the crowds came, promotion was won. Chey Dunkley physically, emotionally and psychologically broke the deadlock, Chris Maguire made it certain, then it was over to the local boy Callum O’Dowda to weave his way to an injury-time third. For O’Dowda, Jake Wright, Danny Hylton and Kemar Roofe, it was their last appearance in an Oxford shirt. A magical spell had been broken.

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