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.

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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