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? 

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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