Match wrap: Accrington Stanley 1 Oxford United 4

Perhaps it was always going to take the activation of a coach’s safety system with an anti-bacterial spray to break a sequence of defeats. It’s the 2020 version of a striker breaking a goalless streak with the ball going in off his backside. Which never happens, but probably will before the year’s out.

It was good to see the reconnection of the supply line between James Henry and Matty Taylor after a few games where it’s been faulty. It’s such a vital artery of our attack, so much so that for me it’s the only explanation for James Henry’s infamous decision not to shoot at Wembley, Taylor was lurking at the back post it was such a reliable option, he looked for it.

Players, like Marcus Browne and form, like Cameron Brannagan’s, come and go meaning the Henry/Taylor supply line is the Panama Canal of the Oxford attack. Has there been a better combination than Johnny Byrne and Paul Moody? And before that, Billy Hamilton and John Aldridge? We’ve had many excellent forwards, but reliable combinations are exceedingly rare. It’s reasonable to say that while that combination remains intact, so do our promotion chances.

Having said I wasn’t planning on watching the game, inevitably, perhaps, I found another £10 and two hours to weld myself to the settee. It’s a dirty affliction. Again, to create the fig leaf of an away experience I kept the local commentary rather than choosing Radio Oxford. Their summary was that while we were worthy winners, there were some curious decisions that influenced the outcome.

Not least the penalty decision. They felt it was nailed on, I’m conflicted by it. It’s hard to imagine that Simon Eastwood’s intention was to punch the player in the face, seven feet in the air, eighteen yards from goal, in the full view of the referee in order to prevent an obvious goalscoring opportunity. An accident, for sure, but a foul? The only logical explanation is that Eastwood was punished for not giving due regard to another player’s safety, but it’s hard to imagine what he should have done instead. The punishment seemed disproportionate to what seemed quite obviously an accident.

The commentary team at BBC Lancashire were sure that things would have been different had there been a crowd. They talked about ‘1500 Stanley fans roaring them on’. Fifteen-hundred? Roaring? Whatever, you do wander how the referee would have acted if he’d had the benefit of the home fans’ advice. Eastwood didn’t even get a booking and then minutes later Dion Charles was sent off for a push. Would that have happened with fans? They doubted it, me too.

Of course, this had been earmarked as a test event. I’m perplexed by the suspending of the programme to return fans to games. As I see it, there are four levels of controlling coronavirus; a vaccine solves the problem, effective treatments reduces it, modifying behaviours and an effective testing manages it and a lockdown hides from it.

A full lockdown is only viable when the virus is out of control because of the trade off with the economy and the length of time people will comply. It buys some time to get testing in place and to learn more about effective modifications. You can debate whether the government has used that time wisely. Despite an apparent resurgence in cases, the announcements this week amounted to a minor tweaking of the modification rules. It’s questionable as to whether we ever locked down in the first place when comparing our restraints to others both in speed and severity, and that seems to be reflected in the resulting fatalities, which were among the highest in Europe. 

I get that another full lockdown has severe consequences, and so we’re pretty much where we’ve been for the best part of four months – behaviour modification. Except in football.

This is not a Tim Martin babble about how nobody ever caught coronavirus in a Weatherspoons. There’s no way we should simply pretend the virus doesn’t exist. By general medical consensus, the passing of the virus between people is reduced significantly outdoors, so a football ground is theoretically far safer than plenty of other businesses which are currently open, not least pubs and cinemas.

They are also super-controlled environments – far more than any shop. One of the by-products of hooliganism in the 1980s and disasters like the Bradford fire, Hysel and Hillsborough is that stadiums are designed and managed to control people. All-seater areas ensure people are fixed in position, tickets are issued, databases maintained, entrances are well stewarded.

Developing a vaccine involves starting small and measuring the impact, if that’s successful then you move on to a larger and more varied sample, until such time that you can confidently predict what would happen if you made it available to all. 

Football matches seem a perfect environment to do the same thing. You limit admission to people with tickets, maybe even only to those who are in a low-risk category and who are prepared to stick to some clear rules – such as arriving at a certain time, not moving from their allocated seat and be contacted afterwards. If that’s successful, try it again with more people, until we find the highest safe number of people that can watch a game without it significantly impacting the spread of the virus. The beauty of football is that there are plenty of games and lots of people willing to take part.

One argument for the pubs being kept open is the political benefit. it’s a bit like fishing rights in Brexit talks – from an economic perspective it’s irrelevant, but for some reason pro-Brexit campaigners obsess with the nationality of the fish they eat. But, wouldn’t crowds at football have a similar impact? Just a few fans dotted around the stands would provide a degree of political capital, promoting the idea that we were winning the battle against the virus. Every empty stadium is a reminder of where we are, and of our failings, on TV every day.

Or, perhaps, it’s easy to be lulled into the idea that this is part of a masterplan, maybe it’s just the case that they’re making it up as they go along. The first I heard of the suspending of the programme was when Michael Gove was on Breakfast TV and was asked about it. It hadn’t been part of the initial announcement. Was it even on his radar? Did he simply make a snap decision there and then? Once that hole is dug, on the spur of a moment, is it possible to get out of it? 

Lockdown football is doing funny things to teams and games; Sunderland and Ipswich who have to live with the pressure of their under-performances, have started well without fans, Accrington, who benefit from being a small and contained unit – us against the world, greater than the sum of their parts – have struggled to find their feet now they’ve been reduced to simply being small. The longer the lockdown goes on, the more unpredictable this season will get, but you have to question whether it’s really necessary for it to last? 

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Captain Contagious

Saturday 19 September 2020

Oxford succumbed to their second defeat of the season on Saturday, this time to doe-eyed cash puppy Stewart Donald’s Premier League giants Sunderland. The mood was lifted by the presence of a transit van full of coronavirus spores peeking over the fence end of the stadium. Oxford gifted the Mackems two goals and three points, while they gifted us six weeks on a ventilator and a couple of dead grandparents.

Sunday 20 September 2020

It seems like Ryan Ledson is coming of age after he ditched choir practice and Scouts to focus on his football career. Preston fans have been reacting to his man of the match performance against Norwich on Saturday. Surprisingly reactions didn’t include ‘Ooh, that’s a bit late.’, ‘He’ll be lucky to get away with a yellow for that.’ and ‘There’s no need to lunge in there’. 

Monday 21 September 2020

We all know how careful and considered KRob is with his public comments. He’s adamant that he’s going to hold back from publicly criticising the players after Saturday’s defeat to Sunderland. “Some of the stuff in [the second half] was atrocious – that’s as bad a performance in the second half as I’ve seen.” he said, publicly, about the players, two days ago.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Failing to track and trace? Avoiding close contact with others? Getting paid for doing no work? Coronavirus is just a few under-hit back-passes away from being a parallel of Dwight Tiendelli’s Oxford United career. The crisis continues to cast a shadow over the game after a surge in cases in recent days. Thankfully, the country is ready to act and not do anything stupid like drive hundreds of miles to stand on a transit van. As a result, Boris Johnson has announced that he’s paused the programme to allow fans back into stadiums in October. It’s OK, Johnson is a big football fan, and a season ticket holder at Premier League London Park Rovers or something. He truly lives the wholesome values that has seen English football become the envy of the world; cheating their way to domination, cynically loading the cards in their favour and exploiting access to illicit foreign money from Russian oligarchs. 

Wednesday 23 September 2020

After a brief career as a viral social media meme, Luke Garbutt is back in football. The man that Carlo Ancelotti calls ‘who?’ is heading for the country’s chlamydia capital, Blackpool. The threat of catching a virus in Blackpool is much like any other town in the country these days, except in other towns it doesn’t involve a bucket of flaming sambuca and a candy floss seller called Doreen. 

Thursday 24 September 2020

It’s back! The Seven Minute Fans’ Forum was on the radio with Tiger. Speaking from his home in Thailand, Tiger assured fans that he’s able to fund the club as it hemorrhages money throughout the current crisis. Naturally, one fan thinks he’s got his priorities wrong and that attention should be focussed on the stadiumsituation and in particular building a fourth stand for nobody to sit in.

Friday 25 September 2020

Oxford revealed their new fancy third kit following the launch of their yellow home kit and the away kit whose official colour is known as Cynically Close to Yellow, Orange. The white shirt sees the return of the sublimated flux design that featured on last year’s home shirt. This was after there was a huge demand from fans wanting to know what a sublimated flux is. The new kit will debut on Saturday at Accrington due to the home side’s not in any way a clash with yellow, red home shirt.

Midweek fixture: 6 steps to surviving a pandemic as an Oxford fan

The government has paused its programme to return fans to stadiums pretty much wiping out the prospect of going to a game in October, and let’s face it, for some time beyond that. There are all sorts of implications for this, not least financial. But, in addition, it’s clearly a blow to the mental and social wellbeing of the club and those within it. Fans, players, owners and managers alike have been skittled by the news. While I can’t claim to have all this figured out, here are some ideas for dealing with the next few months as an Oxford fan.

Accept where you are 

When Chris Wilder criticised Oxford fans for romanticising the Milk Cup win in 1986 some thirty years earlier, he was slated by all who heard him. He was also right. We were a Conference team, our standards had slipped and the sooner we understood that, the sooner we’d sort the problem out. Epidemics are not unusual, nor pandemics; they’ve been less widespread – as with MERS, or more deadly as with Spanish flu, but they’re really quite common and most generations will have to deal with one. The faster you accept it and take action, the quicker it’s over. You can fight the reality by looking for data to prove what you want – that this is some kind of trivial seasonal flu or a government conspiracy. You can find research that proves masks are useless or damaging. But, this where we are, at nature’s behest until science comes to our rescue. A story as old as time. As an Oxford fan it means the prospect of empty stadiums and streaming services for months to come, it’s not like it was, it’s not like it will be, but it is like it is today. A friend of mine once taught me a trick about cycling up a steep hill – there is a point where you drop to your lowest gear and the bike can’t help anymore, for a while it’s going to be painful, but not forever. Accept it, then get pedalling.

Don’t beat yourself up about missing football

Football is often trivialised because of its omnipresence; the money, commercialism, the endless analysis and discussion. We are frequently reminded of times when football is ‘put into perspective’ as though it has got above its station. There are people dying and you’re sad about missing football? That’s gauche and distateful. But, football clubs are social institutions affecting thousands of people which are centuries old. Oxford United as an institution that has lived through Spanish Flu, two World Wars and countless local, national and global crises. It gives people purpose and structure, its resilience gives them hope. These are institutions that suffer glory and tragedy, riches and poverty, they ebb and flow and pulsate and they still survive. You’re part of that success, like generations of people before you. It’s fine to be proud of it and to miss it and to want to protect it. The reason it keeps going is because it means something; it is possible to simultaneously be concerned about people dying and the absence of football and to be no less a person because of it.  

Acknowledge what you have

The world is full of self-help books, a majority of them encourage you to ditch your past and create an often unattainable future. You change everything, transform your eating, ditch your bad habits and get increasingly miserable, so you take a break and all the things you were trying to rid yourself of come creeping back. You’re missing football, you’re missing the game, the routine, the little joys. You’re casting back to those memories, you cast forward to a time when it’s all over. And you want it to happen soon. But how are you now? Alive? Safe? Warm? Build from there. The club and social network that springs from it still exists. You still have the experiences that the club has given you – Nathan Holland’s last minute equaliser against Newcastle, Ryan Ledson slamming home at Charlton – indulge in that. If your mind wanders and your regrets and hopes and anxieties eat away, then stop and check. Are you OK now?

Find the next step

If there’s one overriding criticism I have of Boris Johnson it’s his endless hyperbole. Every financial pledge is ONE HUNDRED MILLION POUNDS, every initiative will be world beating, everything will be fixed by Christmas, if not next Tuesday. Not only does that simply serve to constantly disappoint, it fails to deal with the next step which is, in fact, the most important. You might want to be in the East Stand screaming yourself horse with your friends, or travelling 165 miles for a drab goalless draw on a Tuesday night, but that’s not the next step. The next step might be to indulge an hour or six in Oxford United’s kit history, listen to a podcast, watch the goals from the 95/96 season on YouTube, you might even re-read old posts from this blog. If it brings you joy, that’s your next step. If you can afford it, buy a match pass for a game, or a new shirt, or an old shirt, or some other old tat, or just listen to the commentary on Saturday on the radio. Keep taking the next step, then, one day someone will announce a test event, and you might get to go to that, then an increase in capacity and then, step by step towards something we call normality. And, my goodness, imagine what that’ll feel like. But, for now, just focus on taking the next step.

Act collectively

You see it all the time, the old blaming the young, the young blaming the old, the left blaming the right, the right blaming the left, even the healthy dismissing the sick as cannon fodder. Blame is often placed on a faceless, nameless, probably non-existent ‘other’ – they’re not using their common sense, they’re not waking up to the tyranny. So, rather than blaming other people or acting on your personal instincts, stick with the yellow army. Social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, limiting contact with others. Like you would turn up to a game for kick-off, sing in unison, contribute personally to a collective success. Do it for other fans and for the benefit of the club; because the club is made up of the young and old, the right and left, the sick and healthy. Do it for the people who retell stories of Joey Beauchamp, Jim Smith and Ron Atkinson, do it for the people who fill the stands with flags and banners to make the best atmosphere in the country. Do it for the joke on the train going to an away game which makes you laugh even though you know it shouldn’t. Do it for the old couple who find themselves at the bottom of a bundle from a last minute goal at Portsmouth. If you can’t bring yourself to do it for the people you blame; do it for the club.

Know it will get better

If there’s one thing that being an Oxford fan tells you it’s that you have to always believe that things will improve. I’ve sat in the Kassam car park staring through my windscreen at the those trudging through the turnstiles wondering why I bother. I’ve seen hundreds of games of football and, frequently, I’ve walked out of the ground having seen them lost. I know that I’ll be back the following week, looking forward to a win. Then imperceptibly, it does start to get better, a win becomes two, two become five, form becomes promotion. Then before you know it you find yourself in a full stadium watching Chris Maguire breaking from a corner sliding the ball to Kemar Roofe to chip home for a famous cup win, or Sam Deering and Alfie Potter exchanging passes on the way to redemptive glory at Wembley, or you catch yourself, eyes bulging, ashen faced, unburdened of your money, work and family stresses, gulping for air as a primordial guttural scream, the likes of which you could never muster voluntarily, cascades from your gaping mouth as down below Toni Martinez knee slides towards you and thousands of others who are hundreds of miles from home, pursued by his team mates in a moment of unified ecstasy. That’s the memory, that’s the moment. From Stafford and Merthyr to Swansea and Middlesborough. Remember, it will always get better.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Sunderland 2

Adam Yates is a professional cyclist. In a golden age of professional cycling, he’s not a household name like Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish, none-the-less, he’s currently the country’s best road racer and will roll into Paris today in ninth place in the Tour de France.

It’s been a curious Tour for Yates; like most riders, his preparations were scuppered by the lockdown. As a result, he didn’t feel he had the form or fitness to challenge for the overall title and planned to spend the race looking for individual stage wins. Then, on stage five, 17km from the end, the then race leader, Julian Alaphilipe, broke an idiosyncratic rule about when riders are allowed to take food and water from the roadside. He was given a 20 second penalty which handed the lead to Yates.

It was the fulfilment of a dream, but even when he lost the yellow jersey four stages later, he’d become a marked man. His opponents couldn’t be certain that he wasn’t bluffing when he said he couldn’t win the overall race. So, even though he was never close to the title, as he’d said, his attempts at winning a stage were persistently neutralised, just in case.

We could be suffering a similar fate, for the last eighteen months we’ve been quietly picking up momentum, then a freakish quirk – making the play-offs via a points per game calculation –  propelled us into the spotlight. Suddenly our threat, or maybe just our perceived threat, is in plain sight of everyone.

It’s not just the qualities of Matty Taylor, James Henry and Cameron Brannagan. Even emerging talents can’t be given an inch; what if Joel Cooper is another Gavin Whyte? What if Rob Atkinson is another Rob Dickie? We are now a team to be studied and neutralised.

Sunderland, on the other hand, have had a significant chunk of their expectation, and the inertia that comes with it, removed in the shape of their over-expectant fanbase. Jerome Sale and Nick Harris frequently referenced the 1800 Sunderland fans who would have roared, and perhaps barracked, their team in normal times. With just a handful peaking over the fence end, the players could get on with their work largely uninterrupted. By the time fans are allowed back in, they might have so much positive momentum from that, they’ll be difficult to stop.

We’ve hit a reality buffer that has stifled our momentum. We’re perceived as a threat; Lincoln stifled us, Sunderland respected us and didn’t let complacency slip in. Now we need to find a new wave, one that propels us forward – great seasons often have them; Mark Creighton’s winner against York 2009 or our 4-0 win over Brentford in 2015. 

This is a massive challenge as there’s another cold reality brooding in the background. Karl Robinson admitted he’s bored of playing in empty stadiums, Jerome Sale said he was sick of it. These are canaries in the mine; an early indicator of the wider mood. 

The Zoom parties and cardboard cutouts are gone, we’re left with queuing and masks and government incompetence and dumb conspiracy theories. The novelty of seeing every game on iFollow is becoming part of that chore with every passing game, something made no easier by defeats. 

In normal times, even in defeat, there are always little joys in simply going to a game. It’s not dedication or commitment to go to football, it’s fun, even when it’s terrible. Sometimes it’s the self-flagellation of terribleness which makes it fun, as anyone who has had the pleasure of going to the toilet at Portsmouth will testify.

Normally I’d buy our new home shirt before the first home game of the season; a moment of child-like joy. I now realise that it’s a guilt-free treat, it’s just what I do; I don’t worry about whether I can afford it or deserve it. It’s the process of looking forward to going into the shop, picking it off the rack, taking it to the counter, even having it handed to me in a branded carrier bag. I did it with my dad in the club shop at the Manor, now I do it on my own with my own money, but the thread to the past is still there. Buying online maybe necessary, but it seems so clinical. 

Then amongst all these little moments, sometimes there’s a spark – Jamie Mackie’s last minute piledriver against Bradford or a barking mad 3-3 draw against Coventry and everything gets propelled to another level. But where is this momentum coming from now when the rewards for just keeping things ticking are diminishing?

The club have said that they expect to allow a thousand fans into the Crewe game as a test event. But, with cases rising, you can’t help think that the numbers will be controlled for some time yet. Even if stadiums can be kept open, a return to normal won’t start until cases fall again, and with nobody wanting a third wave, it’s hard to see anything along those lines until the spring.

Maybe just having some fans will help with the re-boot that this season needs, a rekindling of some kind of hope. Unless you’re winning regularly and genuinely pushing for promotion, it could be a long season slogging away in mid-table or below, and I think it’ll be much easier and quicker to become mired in that this year.

Results, it seems, is the only way of maintaining the interest and stimulating momentum. It’s still very early, but football doesn’t have the grip it usually has and live streaming will rapidly lose its novelty when results are below par. At the moment, I don’t think I’ll watch the Accrington game, or at least, I won’t put aside other things to do so. When things do return to normal, you suspect that the grip will be vice-like and people will flood back, but for now all we have is results.

The answer, of course is frustratingly simple, and the same answer to every difficult sequence. It is tempting to look back at what’s going wrong, or forward to where we want to get to, but promotion is always a byproduct of teams that continually focus on winning the next game, and that, I guess, is the answer.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Rob’s Red Redemption

Saturday 12 September 2020

GLS was quite the sports star at school. The bean bag toss was the blue riband of any Sports Day, and when we say sports day, we mean the Wednesday lunchtime before sports day. Tragedy struck one year having packed his running spikes and singlet, he found his shorts had been swapped with the frilly panties his mum wore for her trombone lesson with Mr Spencer down the road. ‘It helps when I’m blowing’, she said. 

And so it was with the glorious march to the League 1 title on Saturday as the season’s opener against Lincoln ended in a 2-0 defeat. The game saw Rob Atkinson make his debut, so the ref got him a red card to mark the occasion and let him go home early, which was nice of him. 

As with that year’s bean bag toss, maybe the title can wait until next year. 

Sunday 13 September 2020

We should have known better, anyone watching Armand Gnadulliet trying to bring a routine through ball under control at Oxford will know about how MApp is with nasty little traps. This is what he put Lincoln’s win over Oxford down to

Monday 14 September 2020

There are quite a few rare things – hen’s teeth, Steve Anthrobus goals, getting a coronavirus test in the same timezone as your house, but there are few things more rare than a rescinded red card. Rob Atkinson, The Little Tank, has had his overturned. It’s 2020, so go figure.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Oxford faced a stern test in the Type 2 Diabetes Cup on Tuesday when they faced a Watford side  full of Premier League quality and Jerome Sinclair. Oxford took the lead when grown man Rob Hall mash up dem proper top bins in the first half. A last minute equaliser took the game to penalties, which was like an episode of Mrs Brown’s boys; a tragedy wrapped in a comedy. Hall bang dem goalie wid me brudder Marcus M n mi man Anthony Forde, resulting in a 0-3 defeat.

In other news, spellcheck’s Fiarce Kelleher has signed for Wrexham.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Doh-eyed cash puppy Stewart Donald brings his Premier League giants Sunderland to the Kassam on Saturday. Oxford have an injury crisis according to the Sunderland Echo missing six key players. Along with Josh Ruffels, John Mousinho, Matty Taylor, Alex Gorrin and Sam Winnall is Jamie Hanson. Hanson’s key attribute being that he’s the one who makes the cheese toasties on away trips.

Thursday 17 September 2020

There was a forty-eight minute long forty-five minute special Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday. In the hot seats was Niall, don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams and KRob. McWilliams furtively confirmed, that Chris Allen was still with the club, while his wife jammed some suspect bin bags into the boot of her car. He also confirmed that Creepy Uncle Firoz appears to have built the world’s first Covid secure football stadium. Then KRob answered a question about the salary cap spewing random numbers like Rachel Riley having a bad reaction to her Priti Patel vaccine.

Friday 18 September 2020

KRob is a big Oasis fan; he won’t look back in anger for anyone. Despite an injury to Josh Ruffels and John Mousinho and inexperience with Elliot Moore and The Little Tank Rob Atkinson, he’s still thinks he has a defensive Wonderwall and so isn’t bringing more cover in. Instead looking lovingly at Derby’s champagne supernova Josh Shonibare for a loan move.

The top man’s top man Jakey right right Wright has found himself a new club. The former Oxford captain has signed for Hereford. Jakey’s had a difficult couple of years after a loan move to Bolton from Sheffield United went all wrong wrong wrong last season. Jakey will go right right right into the Hereford starting line-up on Saturday.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Watford 1 (0-3 on penalties)

Steve Kinniburgh talks with the attack and authority, he’s not quite the pantomime villain of a Graham Souness or Roy Keane, but he carries the air of a man who has earned his right to an opinion. 

I much prefer Kinniburgh to Peter Rhodes-Brown whose radio analysis rarely gravitates beyond ‘the lads knocking the ball around well’ and ‘wanting to grab an early goal’. But, if you’d challenged me to describe Kinniburgh’s Oxford career I would have said it amounted to a handful of games on loan from Rangers alongside another player (who, it turns out, was Ross Perry). The reality is that he started as many games as Alfie Potter did in our 2009/10 promotion season, as well as another ten in our first season back in the Football League.

I have much clearer memories of the details of our 2015/16 season, but was still surprised to see that Jordan Bowery scored seven goals in nine starts, ahead of his more storied colleagues Chris Maguire, Alex MacDonald and John Lundstram. Going back a bit further, not many people talk about Mark Jones’ 28 game contribution to the glory years of 1983-86.

If successful sides are built on a solid defence then fringe players are the grout that holds them together. England’s World Cup winners are chiselled into the national consciousness and there are stories of people with tattoos of famous cup winning teams, but the dream of a fixed, first-choice eleven that carries you through a whole season is a myth.  History might condense promotion squads into a ‘classic starting XI’ but it’s a trick of the light that your best seasons had the same players trotting out every week. 

For example, if, like me, your classic promotion team from 2010 is Clarke, Tonkin, Wright, Creighton, Batt, Bulman, Clist, Chapman, Midson, Constable, Green, then you might be surprised to hear that the only time that group ever played together was against York at Wembley. This was due, in no small measure, to Rhys Day’s 15 games and Kevin Sandwith who contributed 16, only three fewer than Anthony Tonkin. 

If this season is to be a success, then it’s these fringe player contributions will be critical. The Watford game saw eight changes from the defeat to Lincoln so provided an opportunity to test the capability of our extended squad. 

It’s too early to tell which of those players are easing their way into a more regular spot and who is settling into a season at the margins, but the signs were encouraging. I’m not sure if Derick Osei Yaw is a raw impact player or a genius, both he and Dan Agyei looked exciting and mobile up front. Rob Hall, you suspect, is settling into his role as a dependable back-up. In goal, Jack Stevens’ performance should ensure that the sharp intake of breath resulting from Simon Eastwood taking a knock is a little less sharp in the future.

I normally enjoy this stage of the League Cup – the weather is nice, the pressure is off, the crowd is good natured and there are a few nuggets of interest that comes from playing teams from a different division. But, at the same time it’s nearly impossible to evaluate your opponents – we could have been playing ex-Premier League Watford, or run-of-the-mill Championship Watford or a Watford side on the precipice of falling through the divisions, or the backup Watford of all these incarnations. In terms of quality, any one of their players could be playing anywhere from the Premier League to the Conference in a year’s time. So, we still don’t really know whether taking them to penalties represents a real triumph or a disappointing under-performance. On balance, I think it was a good solid test of the extended squad which is precisely what we were looking for.

They allowed us the space to attack them in a way that Lincoln didn’t – as a result we were able to show there’s strength and ability throughout the squad. The biggest concern remains in defence, John Mousinho’s injury adding to Josh Ruffels’ highlighting that in that department we are vulnerable.

In a sense Mousinho’s injury could have a dose of fortune; for all the goodwill and good signings, it appears to have forced Karl Robinson to think about his defensive cover for the season. Now he has to decide if he thinks Mousinho can play 30 games this season, or the same for Rob Atkinson. As harsh as Atkinson’s red card may have been, the fact it was rescinded was such a rarity, we should look on the fact we currently have two functioning centre-backs for Sunderland, Accrington and Crewe as a matter of freakish good fortune.

The result in the end was by-the-by, even if we had managed to score any of our penalties, after Hall, McGuane and Forde, it was genuinely difficult to think where the fourth and fifth spot kicks would come from. From the moment the final whistle went, it was clear our chances were ebbing away.

All in all a positive evening, although there is an uncomfortable truth that we haven’t won in normal time for six games, a sequence we could really do with breaking before it begins to lodge in peoples’ heads. The enigma that is Sunderland are next, and it’s hard to say if they’ll present a big problem or a potential three points. Given the recent results between the clubs, it would seem their strengths and weaknesses complement ours and a draw would seem the most likely outcome. After that, Accrington and Crewe look like a good opportunity to finally break the sequence. 

Despite the sequence, while there’s no real prospect of the season becoming a struggle, the margins in a promotion charge are narrow. Even at this ludicrously early stage, we don’t want to fall too far behind because getting back on terms will take time and effort. Sticking to the process will be key, maintaining the culture that seems to exist throughout the squad. Karl Robinson has plenty in the bank and his players believe in the system, so you would think it’s going to come good sooner rather than later.