Intensity breeds instinct

Now we’re in February, someone you know will, at some point over the coming months, say ‘I can’t believe it’s [enter month] already, it only seems like Christmas was yesterday’. As we get older, the weeks, months and years blur into one long slog. Seasons come and go, Christmases come and go, life passes by in a flash.

There’s a fairly simple explanation for this. As you get older, pretty much every experience is a repeat of a previous experience. If you were to do something genuinely remarkable, then it would last longer as a vivid memory providing the illusion of a extending the year. For most of us, through necessity, life cannot function if all you are doing is having unique experiences; life is more likely to become one long groundhog day.

To break the mundanity, it helps to have something to focus on or look forward to, particularly if you follow Oxford United. Otherwise the season’s blur into one; the kits change, slightly, the players change, slightly, but otherwise, it’s much the same from one year to the next. If you can’t rely on having a decent cup run or, heaven forfend, a successful league season, then it’s the moments, the single fixtures, that make the effort worthwhile.

Saturday’s game against Luton was probably the one banker of the season; a mutual dislike, two teams, not that far apart geographically, with similar histories. The only fixture to have been played in all five of the top divisions in English football. Not a derby, but with some of the characteristics of one. A quarrel neither of is prepared to resolve or back down from; no matter where one of us is, the other one will hunt them down and start the argument again.

It lived up to its billing. A nice big bank of away fans and a vociferous response from the home fans. Niggle, rabbit punches and bickering on the pitch. Good stuff. Intensity was the watchword; the way we played, the atmosphere; it was a fixture unlike any we’ve seen this season.

We benefited from it because we had to play football rather than dwell on The Philosophy. Jake Wright made tackles rather than misdirect cross-field passes. Luton’s fans brought the intensity, their players took it onto the pitch by getting into our players’  faces and opening petty feuds. But, it did them no favours, where others have absorbed us and then gently picked us off while we drowned in our own self-importance, they badgered us to play on instinct.

Even on the touchline there was more animation; Derek Fazackerley kicked over a water bottle in frustration, Michael Appleton remonstrated with a linesman after a petty foul late into injury time. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it.

But, that’s pretty much it for the season in terms of an external stimulus triggering us into action, how will we re-create the intensity we need to perform? Mansfield are next at the Kassam, nobody is going to be fired up to teach Junior Brown a lesson. It’s unlikely to come from the touchline; many managers are borderline sociopaths who frighten players into playing at the right intensity regardless of the occasion, Appleton prides himself on his detachment. This has it’s place, of course, but it can leave us needing something else to get us going. It is too much to ask the fans despite what some say (more of that in a minute). A lot of expectation is being placed on this creative midfielder to drive the team forward, it might work, but it’s a big job.

In cyclist Michael Hutchinson’s book Faster, he describes what happened when he tried to use the psychological technique of visualisation to improve his time trialling. Because he spent so much time thinking through what he did rather than rely on his physical conditioning, his anxiety and stress levels increased and he actually got slower.

With us, without the intensity, there is the tendency to overthink everything rather than simply execute deeply imbedded subconscious ability. The net impact is that performance is more likely to drop than go up; particularly if it repeatedly appears to fail.

And another thing…
The first person on the phone-in was berating Oxford fans for not backing their team despite ‘the chairman’s investment’. The first point is that investment is spending money to get a return; by my reckoning Appleton has brought in 17 players since he started, of which six are still at the club (and none of those have played more than five games). The return has been average so it’s not investment, it’s just spending. The second thing is that regardless of the cost of bringing in these 17 players; it hasn’t yet materialised into results – despite Saturday’s encouraging display, we haven’t won at home since 13th December (with a last minute goal) and before that it was Tranmere in October. So, in fact what the caller was telling Oxford fans to do is attend in less-than-once a month possibility of seeing a win. Results draw crowds not investment, I’m sure the club are aware of that even if the said fan isn’t. Oh, and he claimed we all supported Kassam when he was chairman; I think I must have missed that game.

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