Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 2

It started weeks ago; do the players know how important the Swindon derby is? Let’s hope the local lads tell the newer players of its history and significance. It was like an anxious parent talking to their teenager before a party – “You know how important it is to stay safe, you’re not going to take drugs and get raped are you?”. 

Of course, all they needed to do was achieve what they set out to do every week – win the game. The 19 year run is the accumulation of seven individual wins. The biggest challenge of that streak is that with every passing game it was more likely end. Like stacking another Jenga block onto an increasingly rickety tower, the higher it got, the more likely it was to fall and more spectacular the collapse. If you’re not careful, you anticipate the fall before it happens, your hand begins to shake and the tower tumbles.

With no emotional outlet at the game itself, fans wanted to project the anxieties that result from near 20 years of bravado onto those who could influence it. A few years ago I treated myself to a Lego Millennium Falcon and spent the holidays building it. It was an absolute joy, when it was finished I looked at it admiringly and set it aside. The following day my then three year old niece filled it with Duplo characters who treated Chewbacca as their puppy. We’d built the Millennium Falcon over the seven game streak and were anxious we were going to hand it over to a toddler to ruin.  

The aim shouldn’t have been to inflate that expectation, but to deaden it. Of all the previous derby games over the last 20 years, this was the most straight forward; there weren’t the variables of fans and atmosphere. We just needed to go out and keep our heads, the rest should have looked after itself. 

But we’re a team built on emotion, in the image of its manager. It flows through us; sometimes it’s a torrent, sometimes a trickle, sometimes we surf on the crest of its wave, sometimes we’re dragged under by its force. We are desperate to please and are ready to sacrifice discipline and focus to achieve that.

It’s why Karl Robinson admires players like Liam Kelly and Marcus Browne, they please us, they make us excited, even if they sometimes struggle to do it for 90 minutes. 

Think back to the home derby in 2012, perhaps the most astonishing game in the seven game sequence. We only had half our first team and lost our star striker after 20 minutes. They were on a 10 game unbeaten streak. They were a team built on the raw energy and emotion of Paolo DiCanio and that should have destroyed us. But Chris Wilder was a pragmatist, his career has been about getting more out of constrained resources. We frustrated them and battled to hold the torrent, Scott Rendell put in a shift like I’ve never seen before, playing up front he didn’t get a glimpse of the goal, but he never stopped working. When we got our chances, we took them and with it a famous win.

The tables turned yesterday; John Sheridan, Swindon’s manager, played the game down, where we hyped it up. Their expectations were low, we were cockahoop. I was definitely of a similar mind, not because I think we have a permanent hex over Swindon, but because I thought we were in a false position in the league and that anyone below us were fair game. With none of the normal bells and whistles of a derby game to disrupt the flow we should have eased to a win.

Injected with the adrenalin of ‘the occasion’, we came out like a steam train, an emotional wave that threatened to swamp them. It nearly worked, Matty Taylor could have had three when he only had one. 

‘It feels like a derby’ said Jerome Sale, but it shouldn’t have done, it should have felt like a game as cold and clinical as the rest of the season has been. Like all great teams – Manchester United in the 90s, Chicago Bulls, Australian cricket, The All Blacks – winning becomes boring, clinical and procedural. 

So what happened? We blew up, ran out of steam, we burnt off our reserves in a blistering 45 minutes. Rob Atkinson had been majestic, but then started getting caught in midfield, Liam Kelly ran the game, but was in pieces after the break. As bodies and minds tired, we became overwhelmed by the expectation. 

Where was the leadership? The cool heads instilling the discipline we needed to slow the game down. Nathan Cooper remarked that Karl Robinson’s voice became more panicky. Who was offering the cool calculation? We’re so fragile, as the game progressed and the enormity of what we were about to achieve grew, we started to withdraw and panic, the shaky hand at the Jenga tower. We weren’t about to win a game, we were about to achieve #eightinarow. But we overshot it.

In Matty Taylor, James Henry, Alex Gorrin and Simon Eastwood we should have a leadership spine that will help us see these games out. But that commanding voice, the John Mousinho, Jamie Mackie, Jake Wright, Michael Duberry, Andy Whing, Andy Crosby, where are they? 

This isn’t new, it’s not a shock; a 22 year old with a season under their belt isn’t going to demand calm and focus. After the game a lot of people were picking it apart, but the issue is systemic, it’s been brewing for a while. We simply don’t sign experience, we don’t sign the players who will look objectively at the last ten minutes of a derby and think; it’s just another game, let’s see it out.

Mark Sykes was singled out, I don’t think Karl Robinson meant quite what came out when he said ‘everyone tells me he’s a good player’ as if he doesn’t. I’m sure he sees what he can bring, but it’s true that you can’t rely on him for a goal or to create chances. On the other hand, he’s 23, we’re asking a lot for him to influence a whole game.

It’s not like we were outplayed, the failure was spectacular and self-inflicted. I’ve watched their second goal several times and can’t quite understand what Simon Eastwood did. I don’t have an answer for the Eastwood dilemma; I don’t think we need to drop him as a punishment. He knows he made a mistake. Do you replace him with another inexperienced player as we face some of the better teams in the division? That doesn’t feel right either. 

So, the streak is over, the expectation is gone, I guess the good thing is that we weren’t in the stadium to see it. Like these things, the fear of defeat is worse than the real thing, life goes on, unless you choose for it not to, unless you dwell and ruminate, self-flagellate in an attempt to gain a pardon. Are you feeling the pain? But are you really feeling the pain? My worry is that Karl Robinson will do that, will disappear into his own well of self-pity. He feels it, I’ve no doubt, he doesn’t need to prove it to us. 

What big games can do is put into relief things which are already evident. What we saw yesterday was the hopes and fears of the fans being amplified through Robinson and into a squad of developing players. It worked for a while, but went spectacularly wrong. Somewhere there needs to be a regulation; either from Robinson or within the squad. If we don’t get that right soon we’ll start to drown. 

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Ronan’s Boy zone

Saturday 21 November 2020

It’s sad to see a club hopelessly limping from one near-catastrophe to another, lost in a wilderness of bewilderment, wondering where the next point will come from. But, enough about Oxford, let’s talk about Wigan. Oxford felt right at home when they travelled north on Saturday. Taking heart that there’s always someone worse off than you, Matty Taylor and James Henry goals ensured a 2-1 win over the hapless Latics.

Sunday 22 November 2020

Leader, Legend, Adulterer; John Terry has shared a picture of the Chelsea 1996-97 youth team. We assume that Terry wasn’t actually part of the team, he just jumped into the picture in full kit anyway. The photo illustrated the perils of professional football; not all of those featured reached the giddy heights of becoming Britain’s most maligned racist as it included former Oxford legend Courtney ‘shit shit shit’ Pitt and Jamie Brooks’ favourite player; Rob Wooleaston.

Elsewhere, 1, 2, 3, 4… Toni Martinez, TONI MARTINEZ, TONI MARTINEZZZZ, has scored a spectacular overhead kick on his debut for Porto.

Monday 23 November 2020

It’s Portsmouth on Tuesday night in a re-match of last season’s play-off semi-final. Pompey assistant manager Kevin Gallen doesn’t see it as a revenge match. ‘You just have to look at what’s next” he said “The past has gone.” he said “it’s looking forward” he said “we expect a really tough game.” he said “we have to look forward.” he said (again) ‘we are in good form,” he said, looking back.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Matty Taylor could be in trouble after grabbing rat-faced Portsmouth midfielder Ronan Curtis by the testicles after Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw. The game ended with players squaring up to each other for reasons nobody can quite establish. It looked bad, but Taylor was just rummaging to complete the draw for the quarter-finals of the Oxfordshire Senior Cup – ball number one – North Leigh will play ball number two – Woodstock Town.

Afterwards Curtis’ mum tweeted an appreciation of *checks notes* the size of her son’s penis. Which is an entirely normal thing to do.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Chisel jawed duo, Sam Ricketts and Dean Whitehead have been left stony faced after they were sacked by Shrewsbury Town just days before they faced The Ghosts of Oxford Past, Oxford City. Ricketts and Whitehead wanted to instill everything they learnt from their time at Oxford in the 2000s in the Shrews. Having successfully plummeted them to the foot of the division, they were relieved of their duties.

PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor is standing down at the end of the season. The PFA under Taylor has become a lean and agile force in the football landscape not shackled by arcane bureaucracy. To prove this, Jose’s son, John Mousinho will be part of a three person panel to recruit a four person panel to recruit a replacement.

Thursday 26 November 2020

It was the Six Minute Thirty-Seven Second Fans’ Forum on Radio Oxford with Niall, don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. With Boris Johnson announcing the return of fans to football there were lots of questions about what comes next. Can we go to Hull? (YEAH!), And the Papa John’s Pizza Trophy thing? (NO!), And the under-18s? (NONCE!), And Swindon’s changing rooms? (ARE YOU RONAN CURTIS’ MUM OR SOMETHING?).

Friday 27 November 2020

It’s the Oxford Swindon derby on Saturday with Oxford looking to extend a seven-game winning streak spread over 17 years, apart from the one that doesn’t count, obviously. The official Bovril Twitter account got stuck into the build up on Friday, which surprised some Oxford fans. With Christmas just around the corner, there’s nothing a Swindon fan likes more than cracking open a bottle of salted beef paste to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus.

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

The Absolute State of Oxford United Survey in the summer was conducted at the height of our post-season optimism. When asked where people thought we’d finish this season, most went for second. But, when asked who would win the title, we only ranked eighth, outside the play-offs.

This showed that while we have a lot of faith in our squad, our biggest challenge is the competitiveness within the division. We’re good, but so are Hull, Ipswich, Charlton, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Peterborough, Doncaster, and well, the list goes on. 

This seems to have been more a shock to the players than the fans. It’s like we’ve been relegated from the Championship and expected an easier ride in a lower division. After four seasons in League One, it shouldn’t be a surprise that even the likes of Crewe and Lincoln have ability way beyond their brand might suggest.

That’s perhaps a little unfair, we’ve also had to cope with the unique combination of a short pre-season, the disappointment of a Wembley play-off defeat and the everyday mental challenges of the lockdown and pandemic. 

Either way, we’ve seemed bewildered and under-prepared, like we’ve been catapulted into this wasteland of a season not ready for the emotional and physical emptiness. As a result, we’ve seemed lost and listless, feeling a bit sorry for ourselves.

Before the game on Tuesday against Portsmouth, there was a shot of the players arriving stadium, the first player to walk through the gate was carrying a Sainsbury’s bag. It reminded me of the peculiarly casual nature of games nowadays with players getting changed in makeshift changing rooms and appearing on the pitch via a side gate rather like a park team might. 

The splendour of professional football, even at our level, has been stripped away. The intensity of gladiatorial combat, the ceremony, the baying crowds all gone. Motivation has to come from within. 

But then, last night that all seemed to change. Maybe the win over Wigan helped spark a little mental revival, a renewed love of the competition even without its trappings. Portsmouth may have been the best follow-up; they’re a club we’ve played more than any other in the Football League and, judging by my recent poll of the club’s biggest rivals, hold a unique place in our psyche – not a traditional derby, but not an inconsequential fixture. It’s almost a sibling rivalry, both friendly and edgy.

In some ways, it’s like Portsmouth are the club we want to be, something that was reflected in our performance. Although there were no crowds to please, there was something else driving us to a renewed intensity; an inner resolve to avoid defeat. The line-up helped, it reminded me of our League Cup games last season; the apparent weakness on paper helped to us to focus and be sharp from the get-go. 

With that sense of resolution, the game felt like a genuine away game; we needed to be aggressively competitive to avoid being swamped. The back-four were patient with the ball, something we haven’t seen enough of this season, the midfield were aggressive in the tackle and Dan Agyei up front knew his role was as much about stretching the play and occupying their defence as it was about scoring goals. Suddenly we looked both more solid and, at the same time, more threatening.

It was even satisfying to see the players squaring up to each other at the end of the game. In such a soulless environment; it is hard for passions to run riot like they might have done if there’d been a full stadium. The chest bumping and snarling, whatever caused it, helped conjure up an atmosphere and camaraderie, it was good to see Marcus McGuane squaring up to support Sam Long, the new and established combining as one. We’re not treading water until things get better, we’re working together.

The result helps to create the intensity that we’ll need if we’re to get out of the difficult position we’re in and perhaps even drive us to where we want to be. If we’re starting to acclimatise and enjoy this new world, then a derby on Saturday may be just what we need to come next.

Match wrap: Wigan Athletic 1 Oxford United 2

I used to work with someone who could fix things in an instant. A dispute in her team? They’d had a chat and it was sorted. A performance problem? They’d had a meeting and everything was back on track. As I got to know her, I found out her home life was much the same; an argument with her husband? A problem with her children? There’d been a problem, but everything was fine now.

She was very convincing and had a reputation as a bit of a fixer; if there was a problem, she could fix it permanently in an instant. But, the longer it went on, the more I became aware that the problems never went away for long. There was always another issue, argument or crisis that she moved to extinguish in the blink of an eye. But, as much as she assured everyone otherwise, the issues got gradually worse, she dealt with the effect, but not the cause. Eventually, she was firefighting on so many fronts people started to realise she was the constant when something went wrong.

She was convincing because it was how that’s how she assured herself that she was in control of her life when, in fact, it was gradually unravelling. She had practiced tirelessly to convince herself and others that she could fix the problems and achieve some kind of permanent stability. But, team issues became bullying accusations, arguments with her husband became divorce threats and one day, it was announced that she was leaving. 

As important as the result was, the idea that the win over Wigan fixes everything is a fantasy. With Portsmouth, Ipswich, Swindon and Hull coming up, it’s like successfully unlocking the door to a burning building. There are way bigger tests to come, even though it was welcome, and enjoyable, and necessary and expected. But, nothing is fixed.

And it never is. We all want things to be fixed in an instant, like the pandemic, we want to switch it off or to prove it’s not as bad as we’re being told. But that’s not how these things work, they’re a constant remoulding process, fixing something here, addressing something there, hopefully improving the overall direction of travel. James Acaster does a routine about the daily grind of ‘jobs and jobs and jobs and jobs’; an endless procession of trivial stuff that fills your time between periods of sleep.

I have a fundamental rule about managers; I’ve learnt that whether I agree with them or not is not a good measure of whether I can support them. Instead, I focus on whether I can accept their logic, the root of their decisions. I struggled to enjoy Ian Atkins, but understood what he was trying to do. Aesthetically, I could get on board Graham Rix’s football philosophy, but the logic of trying to turn Matt Bound and Andy Crosby into Iniesta and Xavi was beyond me.

Karl Robinson’s Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday helped to provide some assurances. One fan asked when the ‘right-back experiment’ would end. It was a veiled, even dehumanising criticism of Sean Clare. He’s not a player trying to find his form and settle into his new surroundings, he’s ‘an experiment’. If you take that metaphor to its logical conclusion, if the experiment doesn’t work, you throw it away. Given that other full-backs Josh Ruffels was a central midfielder and Sam Long was a central defender, when do their ‘experiments’ as full-backs end? 

Robinson went onto the front foot, Clare wasn’t an experiment and this kind of criticism was not going to help the player. Clare is a real person with his own strengths and weaknesses coming into a new system and a new team. He showed on Saturday (and has shown previously) he is a genuine threat as an attacking wing-back. Re-watching James Henry’s goal on Saturday you can see how much ground he makes up to pick up the ball that he crosses for the goal. A lack of effort is not a problem. It’s clear he’s not a Scott McNiven-type whose job is to defend the corner of his own penalty box nor is a Damian Batt player who seems to play in both boxes simultaneously.

Robinson also defended his use of the salary cap and keeping some in reserve and dealing with unknowns such as Cameron Brannagan’s eye issue. He’s right, football management is a constant work in progress, a process of moulding and reshaping. Working with what you have, managing the consequences of your decisions. It’s not a question of fixing a problem never for it to return. Given that Robinson is the root of the club’s culture, that’s encouraging to hear.

We’ve taken 72 points in the last 46 games, at one point last season we’d picked up 81 points in a 46 game sequence. Under Karl Robinson in any given 46 game sequence we’ve picked up on average 69 points. What we may be experiencing is not so much an evident failing, but more a readjustment from an over-performance from last season. Let’s not forget, had Josh Ruffels not scored in the last minute against Shrewsbury in March we wouldn’t have made the play-offs and all that came with it. The season will have been remembered as a much more moderate improvement.

On Saturday it was reassuring to see Henry and Taylor looking more threatening and I’m sure it will help with their confidence too. But, we were also reminded of our defensive frailties. We are neither wholly fixed nor wholly broken. Either way, the fact that Robinson remains on top of that brief suggests we’re still OK.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Déjà Crewe

Saturday 14 November 2020

Might Oxford loanee Marcus McGuane be heading back to his parent club? Obviously, no, but it’s one of those weeks so let’s pretend he might and we care. Chris Hughton is currently the manager of Nottingham Forest, and, while it’s not certain that he’ll be manager of Nottingham Forest by the time you reach the end of this sentence, he’s currently assessing his options, including his loanees, in preparation for making some tweaks to his squad in January. 

Sunday 15 November 2020

Oxford head to crisis club Wigan Athletic on Saturday. It’s been a grim time for Wigan who are bottom of the table and are in such despair that manager John Sheridan recently decided that Swindon Town was a better place to work. Despite rumours of a takeover, first team coach Leam Richardson and academy manager Gregor Rioch will reside over their 2-0 win against us on Saturday. And if you’re thinking, this isn’t news, remember; it’s only Sunday.

Monday 16 November 2020

The Guardian have taken it upon themselves to list Britain’s 10 most unsuccessful stadium moves. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before; we’ve only got three sides and the wind blows in four different directions at the same time. Did you know you can see a cinema from inside the ground? We can take the banter, although we have to admit, it was a bit of a kick in the balls to find we’re featured alongside two stadiums that aren’t even being used as football grounds anymore and a third that doesn’t exist.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

‘We owe you Crewe, we’ll show ‘em, grrr’ KRob shook his fist theatrically to the sky. A sense of injustice really got the boys fired up on Tuesday as Crewe eventually turned up to the Kassam for their much postponed league fixture. And we really stuck it to them, really showed them who’s boss, yes, we lost 2-0, but we delayed their second goal until the final minute. Ha! Who’s laughing now? 

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Crewe’s manager Dave Artell has been reflecting on his success on Tuesday ‘We haven’t got any idiots’ said the man who drove his Covid-ridden team into the Kassam to tell KRob that he had a Covid-ridden team on the bus. We agree, none of the players are idiots. 

GLS was part of a legendary primary school team that once proudly limited their local rivals, St Hilda’s Preparatory School for Misanthropic Tories, to just fourteen goals without reply. It was on the back of this great achievement, that GLS stood at the end of the school year with the ‘Spirit and Effort Award’ – which was conceived by a kindly needlework teacher for kids who might eat dirt, but at least turn up to stuff. It’s similar to the shameful pride that Oxford felt when they found out they’re in the play-offs when it comes to fair-play league, currently sitting fifth

Thursday 19 November 2020

It was the Nine Minute Thirty-Eight Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford with KRob on Thursday. KRob came out in defence of his beleaguered squad, and we meant that metaphorically, not that he had a pass into midfield intercepted and found himself woefully out of position. Team issues would be kept internal, he said, before resolutely not revealing to everyone that Nico Jones was ‘miles away’ from the first team, Jose’s son, John Mousinho has a potentially season ending knee issue, Cameron Brannagain has a potentially sight ending eye issue and Jedward third wheel Joel Cooper is currently dealing with a crisis in Northern Ireland, though we feel he’s woefully under-qualified to address the threats to The Good Friday Agreement resulting from Brexit.

Friday 20 November 2020

Oxford travel to Wigan tomorrow with KRob reassessing the reasons for his team’s poor start to the season. On Tuesday it was a lack of pride. Now it’s too much. One issue is a lack of sleep with Alex Gorrin ‘rewinding the game’ throughout the night to analyse what went wrong, presumably on his Betamax video player (ask your dead grandad, kids).

In other news, Oxford have been drawn against sandal wearing, Guardian reading, woke vegans Forest Green Rovers in whatever the next round of the Papa Johns Trophy is. It’ll be a good game though, but like this week’s GLS, we doubt it’ll be a meat feast.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Crewe Alexandra 2

A couple of years ago some people at work started a weekly 5-a-side football night. Thinking this was hilarious, a couple of women from work got wind of it and decided to join us for the first game. It unleashed my deep-set anxieties from school of being routinely humbled by some wispy midget from Berinsfield or Icknield in front of a gaggle of the popular girls who had no interest in me. 

After about 20 minutes of what I thought was fierce, high paced competition, the ball dropped to me about 20 yards out from goal. Now, I’ve never had any pace, but my technique is OK. I am, what someone once told me, ‘a bit too continental for the British game’.  As soon as I received the ball, I knew I had a chance. I controlled it on my chest and then hit it on the half volley. The ball arrowed into the top corner; the goalkeeper even did that ‘didn’t see even it’ statue that always makes a goal look better.

It may have been best goal I ever scored. I’ve never scored many, there was a period where I played one game a year, a cobweb blasting Boxing Day run around, this streak included a six-year goal drought. 

There were audible gasps at the cleanness of the strike and my wondrous technique. I was the most senior member of staff in the game, so it helped to reinforce whatever limited authority I possessed in the office. It was quite a moment. 

As it happened one of the women had been filming the game in the hope of getting some gold dust footage she could share around the office. She captured my goal, upon reviewing the footage, it looked like we were in an advert for walking football. Nobody was running, nobody was near me, my feet didn’t even leave the floor when I hit it. I’m not even sure it was a half-volley; it may have bounced twice. In my mind it had been a goal which would have graced the Bernabau, the reality was very different.

Seeing myself in action was like an out of body experience, I wasn’t a graceful maestro with the ball with a quicksilver footballing brain. I was a three-legged hippo who got lucky. 

Most of us are fairly new to the experience of watching games via iFollow, so watching games is similarly alien to watching myself score. iFollow isn’t the lush multi angle entertainment spectacle of normal TV coverage nor the sensorial overload of being there. We want it to be one or the other because that’s what’s familiar, but it’s ultimately neither. As a result, understanding the game is difficult. When you’re at the match, you live the effort and struggle of the competition, but on TV everything looks fluid and effortless. iFollow is neither of these things.

Watching on a laptop doesn’t give you the peripheral vision of the game; the movement off the ball or the effort that is being put in. That said, last night’s defeat to Crewe seemed to show a distinct lack of basic organisation. Nobody was setting the pace of the game, passes were rushed or overhit, attacks were the result of raw effort rather than the product of a planned strategy.

The problem no longer seems to be limited to our defensive issues, we seem to lack both metaphorically and literally, a spine. 

There was no point when the back-four simply moved the ball between themselves to control the tempo of the game. In midfield, we were chasing shadows or trying to break up play, more destructive than creative. The strikers were left feeding off scraps or trying to achieve the impossible by dribbling through the massed ranks off the Crewe defence. There was just no apparent plan.

For the last two years we’ve enjoyed the unerring presence of John Mousinho and Jamie Mackie, while not always regulars on the pitch, their influence in the squad is currently being missed. The senior players are now people like Simon Eastwood, James Henry and Matty Taylor who seem to be quieter characters; great club men, but are they ready to lead? We seem to be missing the players who demand the character, focus and organisation we need to turn things around.

Karl Robinson is very in tune with the emotional side of the game whether that be promoting the value and purpose of being a real football club or managing its individual and collective mental health. However, the empathy he shows seems to result from experience, meaning he’s prone to his own fluctuations in emotion. It may be why he prefers exciting wingers to dogged defenders, emotion over pragmatism. The challenge is that if his emotions aren’t kept in check, they can become a distraction from the fundamental organisation of the team. 

The feeling of belief is slipping away, the loss of momentum can only be stemmed by stepping back, re-establishing the basics and building from there. We have such reliance on our emotional momentum, though, it may be reasonable to question whether we have the players to dig ourselves out of this hole.