Match wrap – Burton Albion 1 Oxford United 3

When the teams are announced an hour before kick-off there are only two positions I look for – who is in goal and who is up front. Others analyse the details of the rest of the team trying to unpick the mysteries of formation and strategy. For me, apart from the keeper and striker, the rest is just a blancmange of players, there could be eight changes and I’d struggle to know who they are.

When the team was announced for the Burton game, seeing the name Simon Eastwood at the top of the list came with a bit of a jolt. 

I like Eastwood a lot; I like his loyalty, I like that he’s self-effacing, I love that he prefers to watch Downton Abbey rather than football. A couple of years ago, he won the Oxford United World Cup of Goalkeepers on Twitter. That result was a travesty, he’s not the greatest, but he’s one of the best. 

Then there was THAT mistake in THAT game. As mistakes go it doesn’t get bigger – breaking a near twenty year unbeaten run in the last minute with a howling air-shot – that’s a good one. It’s up there with Rob Duffy rolling the ball into the Exeter City’s ‘keeper’s hands in the 2007 play-off semi-final and Ryan Clarke’s clanger against York at Wembley. 

Most footballers are like wild animals – they’ll never let on that they’re wounded for fear of being attacked by a predator. We’ll probably never know the real impact that moment had on Eastwood emotionally, but it must have lurked in every dark corner for some time, particularly as it resulted in him being dropped to the bench. I wonder if it was worse that it happened in the deathly silence of an empty stadium, the only place for the primal maelstrom of despair to manifest is inside your head. At least with a full stadium the experience can be shared around a bit. 

For fans, that moment is likely to haunt their thoughts, not just their nervousness about Eastwood’s decision making in one-on-ones, there’ll be doubts about every aspect of his game resulting from that one moment. He himself said that it could come to define him, much more than the countless times he’s saved us. 

His new three-year contract last year came as a complete surprise, Jack Stevens is young, fresh and playing well, a new breed of goalkeeper who looks like he could easily play outfield. Above all, he seemed unfazed by his new elevation; there was talk of a move to Aston Villa, but beyond a big money move elsewhere, it’s hard to see how Stevens would give way to Eastwood; goalkeepers rarely get injured, they just slowly wear themselves out and Stevens is too young for that.

It was always going to take something unusual to re-instate Eastwood. The news that Stevens has glandular fever is just that. It can be a debilitating and lingering condition, the fortnight of rest that Craig Short said he needed seems optimistic. Suddenly, the decision to retain Eastwood is looking like a master stroke. 

We could have released him, saved some money and gone with a junior back-up knowing it would be necessary to dip into the loan market if we lost Stevens. We could have brought in a keeper like Scott Shearer, super-senior and dependable, and broadly happy to simply have a contract. To retain a player who would get into a lot of lower league sides seemed like a folly.

In 2016, the Welsh national team made it to the semi-final of the Euros, the unlikely run was based on a simple formula. They had the superstars in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but they also had a squad of ‘good blokes’. People like Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams who both play in the lower leagues. Lots of players in tournaments don’t get much game time, it’s easy to get bored and frustrated. You need players who enjoy being part of the squad, who are positive and set an example. Gareth Southgate has successfully employed a similar principle with England, people like Jordan Henderson and Conor Coady know they might not play much, but they have a bigger role to play.

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that footballers, who are often maligned, tend have higher standards than many of the fans, politicians and media who criticise them. They’re certainly physically healthier, but they also work harder, are more supportive of their fellow professionals and, in recent years, have become more socially aware. 

Simon Eastwood is a very good goalkeeper, of course, but he’s also a thoroughly decent human being, prepared to keep working, be ready and not be disruptive. Confidence, if it has taken a hit, will build and we can be assured that Stevens’ absence, if it does stretch on, is not as destabilising as it could have been.

Eastwood slotted in comfortably to a team which is in a very healthy groove. The performance against Burton showed that we’re found a rhythm; the early season jitters of the past are gone, we are well set for the mid-season chaos that comes with the FA Cup and Christmas.

This is because the foundations of the squad are deep and stable. On the pitch, the highs are not as high, but more importantly, the lows are not as low. Results depend on players like Taylor and Henry performing, but their job is made much easier by the good people like Simon Eastwood that form the bedrock of the squad.

Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Shrewsbury Town 0

At one point during a break in the second half against Plymouth on Saturday, Karl Robinson animatedly delivered some coaching points to whoever was standing closest to him.

I say coaching point, it may have been a demonstration of the latest move he’d learnt at his online Tai Chi class. He then brought another player into the discussion, then another. By the time he called over Steve Seddon, who was idly supping on his water bottle waiting for the re-start, five players were involved. 

Was he trying to make a simple point applicable to half the team, an elaborate tactical adjustment involving five players? Or, was it simply an overspill of nervous energy cascading out of him as the game progressed?

Robinson’s hard to judge; his understanding of football is clearly no fluke, he articulates what a football club is like no other manager I’ve seen, in interviews he can ramble incoherently and barely contain his emotions. It’s hard to know just which of his theatrics are pre-meditated; are the elaborate shrugs and pedantic arguments about his toe being on or over the white line of his technical area a deliberate ploy? 

There is a view that the manager’s job is done once the players take to the field, but maybe there’s more to it than that, extending to cajoling players, strategising against opponents and destabilising the officials as the game progresses. Or maybe it’s just shouting your frustration into the night’s sky until someone does something you intended for them to do.

After it was revealed that he was waiting for the results of a PCR test, he was conspicuous by his absence against Shrewsbury Town. Evening league games are often sedate affairs anyway, so generating an atmosphere or sense of urgency can be difficult, harder still without the manager chiding his team like the owner of a racing tortoise that’s going off course.  

I was hoping to see him patrolling the touchline via an iPad strapped to a broom handle taped to a remote controlled car. Instead we got Craig Short and John Mousinho studiously observing the proceedings like junior chess champions. It was like the rhythm section of a band without a front man; there was a pleasant groove but we really needed someone in gold lurex hot pants doing the splits.

The performance matched the politeness on the touchline. Shrewsbury didn’t seem in any rush to take the points and neither were we. There have been complaints about the atmosphere at the stadium this season and this was unlikely to stir anyone’s loins.

Apparently Robinson had his say at half time via FaceTime, presumably throwing tea cups around his kitchen as his wife dived to protect their best monographed crockery. However he did it, it seemed to work, we came out with a renewed sense of urgency and a desire to take a few risks.

Where we’ve turned to people like James Henry or Marcus Browne to change games in the past, it was surprising to see Mark Sykes breaking lines and making the difference. There was a great tweet on Saturday describing him as a great footballer who can’t play football; a little harsh but I get the sentiment, he can flatter to deceive. This season he seems to be maturing, whether it’s talking to frustrated fans at Wimbledon or as he did last night, helping to fill the void of enthusiasm left by Robinson.

Sykes’ goal was the classic example of the value of having a punt, his strange skiddy daisy cutter was like a Bake Off contestant adding turmeric to a cheese flan – it could have been a disaster, but actually made all the difference. In what was an insipid atmosphere, we needed someone to give us a spark. Cameron Brannagan, a ball of energy that can be hard to channel, added a second to seal what was ultimately a poorer display than Saturday, but with a better outcome. Go figure.

There are many people who get frustrated by Robinson’s clowning, but as he’s likely to be absent from the training ground and touchline for the next 10 days at least, we may need to dig a little deeper to find the reserves of creative energy that will keep the momentum going over the next couple of weeks.

Oxblogger TV – Episode 5 – Oxford United v Swindon Town 2002 – One in a row

In this episode, we’re heading back to 2002 and a second round of the FA Cup against Swindon Town. Ian Atkins was at the control and the club were in the grip of his footballing revolution. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s probably a ball launched long by Matt Bound for Steve Basham and Jefferson Louis to chase.

Also available in podcast via Spotify, Google, Amazon and Apple.

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Plymouth Argyle 3

One of the lasting memories of the 1996 promotion season was the bounty of goals we achieved from corners. Joey Beauchamp would swing a ball into the near post; Matt Elliott would flick on and Paul Moody would mop up from the resulting chaos by heading home. Occasionally the players would change, but the system never did.

We all get excited by the award of a corner; in terms of crowd response, it’s the next best thing to a goal. And yet, just 8% of corners result in a goal; a figure I suspect is dropping as teams get better at defending set pieces. But still, when a corner is awarded, an anticipatory frisson spontaneously surges through the fans.

We were reflecting on the terrace bon mot ‘you’re shit ahhhh’ during yesterday’s game against Plymouth. Like the fans’ response to a corner, it’s an integral part of every goal kick. Its origins were a genuine attempt to put the goalkeeper off by making as much noise as possible. I suppose in those days goalkeepers often looked like some of the fans on the terrace and it was reasonable to assume they would respond as a fan might to any unexpected noise by shanking a kick into touch.

It’s increasingly obvious that it has no effect on the keeper’s concentration or the quality of the resulting kick. Sometime during the 1990s the ‘you’re shit, ahhh’ appendage was added. It was almost a recognition that the chant was absurd and pointless; the terrace equivalent of Baddiel and Newman’s History Today sketch which ended with two ageing academics trading playground insults; ‘that’s your mum, that is’. 

Now it’s just part of the ambient noise of a game and happens out of some deep cultural obligation, a ceremony to keep the memory of our fallen brothers alive. 

“OOOOHHHH AAAAHHHHH YOU’RE SHIT AAAAAHHHHH”

“Why do you do that dad?” 

“Because it’s what your grandad and great grandad did on this very spot right up to the day they died. I will not let their memory fade to dust.” 

Perhaps, if the genuine aim is to put the goalkeeper off, the crowd should remain completely silent and murmur in inaudible sarcastic tones as the ball sails through the air. The psychological damage that could do to an insecure ‘keeper could prove fruitful, after all, nobody likes people talking behind their backs.  

Football is a visceral experience, we live every near miss with spontaneous abandon. We thoughtlessly respond to what’s in front of us; the bloke in front of me yesterday responded to each chance with variations on ‘bloody useless’ or ‘just stick it in the net’ as if James Henry was consciously preferring to see if he could hit the Chaokoh ethically sourced coconuts advert and had absent mindedly overlooked the fact he could do with popping a couple of shots in the goal before the clock runs out.

Professional sports people often talk about controlling the controllables; focus on the process and the outcomes will take care of themselves. Those who can do that are the ones who succeed, the outcome – a near miss or an exasperated noise from the fans – needs to be set aside because the process is where success lies.

The irredeemable divide is that fans tend to focus on outcomes. The result alone determines the effectiveness of the tactics, selection or any given move. We ramp up the pressure and force our way into the consciousness of the players because there’s no such thing as a good move with a bad outcome.

Oddly, what we seemed to be watching on Saturday was two entirely separate games; one was all about the inputs. We created a host of chances, particularly in the second half, carved them open time and again, we just didn’t convert them. There was one move where the ball skimmed across the goal, the intended target, Matty Taylor, was a long way behind the play having helped carve out the chance. It was greeted with frustration, but really it just illustrated how difficult football is to play.

Then there was the other game; the one which was all about the outputs – they exploited our weaknesses and efficiently took the opportunities for a comfortable win. Unlike teams who’ve out muscled us in the past, I thought they looked like a parallel of us – they were us on a good day, we were them on a bad day. It’s rare to see a game so stark; strangely enough, their biggest challenge may be to be aware enough to realise that this kind of result flattered them a little and that the tables could turn very quickly.

For us, there was some debate about whether you lock up our defence with Alex Gorrin or galvanise our attack with James Henry. One person on the phone-in wanted to drop Henry for Gorrin, but only after Steve Kinniburgh reminded him that he could only have eleven players on the field.

For me, despite the result, the combination of Brannagan, Henry and Herbie Kane seems an obvious first choice. Gavin Whyte looked a bit lost playing in a central role, but became more threatening when he switched with Henry; which came just as he ran out of steam.

Whyte’s just recovered from Covid, and I wonder whether that’s another factor that we overlook too easily. Sam Long also looked just off the pace and has also recently recovered from the virus. We ask a lot of players physically, perhaps the effects of the illness linger longer than we realise. Still, few fans will factor these things into their analysis. 

Not so much a game of two halves, but a game of two layers of football; when simply looking at the result and even the nature of their goals, our visceral response may be to criticise and howl with derision. But, when moving from the subconscious to the conscious, from the visceral to the analytical, we’re not far away at all.

Oxblogger TV – Episode 4 – Oxford v Chelsea 1999 FA Cup – Bambi on Ice

With the club broke and on its knees, and with food parcels being delivered to the club, Oxford were handed a lifeline when they were drawn against Chelsea in the FA Cup 4th Round. It turned into a night of intense drama, the highest highs and the lowest lows. The last great night at the ramshackle Manor ground.

For those who can’t bare to watch, you can listen to this on Apple, Google, Spotify and Amazon or via your favourite podcast feed.

Match wrap – Sheffield Wednesday 1 Oxford United 2

In the years immediately after our promotion back to the Football League, when I chanced upon a Conference game on TV, I’d look for an Oxford connection. There was always a Carl Pettefer, Kevin Sandwidth, Craig McCallister or Phil Trainer plying their trade in some non-league toilet. These players were part of a rotating pool which might, at some point, gel in such a way to bring success. For players, a Conference football career was like a hall of mirrors where every turn is another dead-end. Success wasn’t so much about the individuals, but about the stability that could be offered by the clubs.

We now fish in a different pond; in the lead up to Cameron Brannagan’s opening goal against Sheffield Wednesday, Herbie Kane robbed Marvin Johnson, who gave the ball to Brannagan who beat Chey Dunkley to score. In ten years time, I’ll be writing that sentence to describe a goal in Sam Long’s testimonial game. 

The loss of Johnson and Dunkley along with John Lundstram in 2017 skittled Pep Clotet’s prospects before he’d started. Along with Chris Maguire and Curtis Nelson, who was injured early in that season, they represented the core of Michael Appleton’s League 1 squad. The world turned, everything changed, and we didn’t have the resilience to cope. These were players we relied on and had acquired through ingenuity rather than something systematic. 

One of the criticisms I’ve had this year is just how content we seem to be, lacking an edge to sneak a point from a defeat or a win from a draw. I can’t fault the club, they posted a video of Karl Robinson playing with our Down’s Syndrome team this week and he talked about reimagining what a football club should be. This lightened my mood after a turbulent week personally with the lack of fuel and food culminating in a positive test for Covid. But, in the ugly world of the first team, is it enough to be nice?

The season has been set against the backdrop of a mild September and the return of fans to games. It’s been very pleasant, but yesterday was different; football as we remember it; made edgier by the weather, the setting and the opponents. Would we cope?

Sheffield Wednesday are a classic of their genre; a huge club with momentum going in the wrong direction. At their core, they’re rotten and it will take time to weed that out, they need calm, stability and time to do it. In the immediate aftermath of the result, their fans were calling for Darren Moore’s head; he’s too nice, apparently. That sort of pressure builds until the owners wilt and another poor sucker is brought in to try and revolutionise the club in a six month window. They’ll get there eventually, it’s a question of how many false dawns they’ll need to see before it happens.

With Dunkley, Johnson and Shodipo – three players who we know can change games – you would think that promotion would be assured, but if they’re not in a stable environment, they risk losing the edge that made them different. For me, this was the key test of the opening phase of the season. A double-header away from home against Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland could have put us on the back foot with ground to make up, we’ve done it before, but it still creates pressure. With three points and Sunderland postponed, October – with only one more away game – suddenly looks like the month to drive forward. November gets harder, but then it always does.

That opportunity comes from deep within the club; One thing that is evident from Karl Robinson’s approach is that players love it; Cameron Brannagan could play at a bigger club, even if it wasn’t a higher level, James Henry would grace any side as his sublime and timely finish showed. It’s the stability that gives you the edge to push into the 93rd minute and snatch a winner. Watch Henry’s run for the goal (it’s better on the videos shared by fans on Twitter), it’s an extraordinary illustration of his determination to have an impact. First, he swings out wide to the left before drifting into the middle and then to the front post to execute a world class finish. Any discontent, any moment of frustration borne out of a training ground argument or a casual disregard of his wellbeing could have been enough for him to give up and accept a point. Yet, he found the edge, he did the extra, he wanted to win. Cue biblical scenes in the stands, that loss of sense that gives you hope in a cruel world, righteous justification for the effort and risk of travelling to the other end of the country in a fuel crisis. Logically, there is no logic, but at that moment, it all makes sense. This was a win which found an edge from within a contented club; it gives you hope on many fronts.