There’s a clip on YouTube of our game against Portsmouth at Fratton Park in 1984. The pitch is like a potato patch, the ball sticks in the puddles; at one point stopping us from scoring and the players’ shirts are caked in mud, hanging off them all sodden and shapeless.
It’s football as I love it; the kind that people who don’t like football don’t understand. Nowadays, games aren’t like that, pitches are better so there’s less need to hack your way through a sea of mud. But, January still has its moments. One was on Saturday.
The game was dogged rather than beautiful; on the wing in front of the South Stand you could hear the players’ boots slapping on the bare patches of turf. There was nothing lush or green about it.
The game itself illustrated my theory of the season. Portsmouth are top, but they’re not the unerring machines of previous table toppers such as Wigan or Sheffield United. In any given 90 minutes, pretty much anyone can beat anyone.
Despite howls of protests all week about players coming in and out, the squad Karl Robinson put out looked somehow neater, there were options on the bench and experience to bring on, if needed. I heard someone say that most other clubs in the division would love players like Eastwood, Nelson, Whyte, Browne, Brannagan and Henry. They would; and many of the others would be of interest.
The truth is that on the pitch we’re not a bad team. Portsmouth played into our hands by being direct and immobile. It’s quite something when Jamie Mackie is outpacing a full-back on the wing. When they did play from the back, it pushed our midfield into our back four and we looked more vulnerable, but while we kept our shape we were rarely threatened.
There’s little doubting the commitment of the players. There’s the obvious lack of options up front, which has been acknowledged by everyone, but otherwise we can compete. Karl Robinson can be a hugely frustrating character, but I don’t think he always gets the credit he deserves.
The problem is that in a division of margins, it’s the details that the make a disproportionate difference – the training ground is still not quite finished, the HMRC issues keep coming, we’ve got players doing stupid things and recruitment is patchy.
The recruitment mistakes of the summer – Smith, McMahon, Norman and Holmes are being sorted. When I say mistakes, I mean for one reason or another they didn’t work out, I’m not apportioning blame.
Tiger was on Radio Oxford after the game trying to explain the HMRC problem. It followed some good stuff from OxVox over the last couple of weeks. If I understood it right, moving money into the country is not always easy. I read somewhere that the government has made this harder in recent months partly as a sanction against the Russians, but also to reduce the risk of fraud and money laundering.
So, the flow of money is not as plentiful as we’d like. While the HMRC bill is predictable, unexpected expenses on the training ground have made it difficult for the club to come up with the cash when it’s needed. A bit like knowing you’ve got your Council Tax bill in a week and your car breaks down and needs fixing. It’s not the tax that’s the problem per se, it’s the unpredictable nature of our cashflow. The tax is the ‘victim’ of that problem.
I don’t think there’s ‘no money’ as some have hysterically claimed, it’s just not flowing as freely as it needs to at the moment. Tiger insists that it’s all fixed. Once the training ground is finished, many of our expenses should be more predictable, but we’ll see.
What we’ve learned is that to give up on this team is a mistake. This was my kind of football, a great atmosphere, grim weather and a gritty victory against the team at the top of the table. In true Oxford style, in the worst week of the season, the best result.