Back in October 1995 Wycombe Wanderers arrived at The Manor; it was their second visit as a Football League team having smashed and grabbed a 2-0 win the previous year. Despite that, we retained an arrogance towards them that exists to this day; we were the bigger team and would sweep them aside because of our sheer Oxfordness.
In fact, they did it again, only worse, taking home three points in a 4-1 win. The situation then was not dissimilar to this season; the previous year we looked set for promotion but fell away, the assumption was that having retained the core of a good team, we would finish the job and be promoted.
The defeat to Wycombe was a sobering experience, while the real story of that season would come later with a scintillating run to promotion, it was a key stepping stone as it represented our last home defeat of the year.
That season is regularly used as a reference point for what can be achieved when things get tough, in the same way our 5-5 draw against Portsmouth in 1992 is often the reason a whole generation of Oxford fans don’t leave until the final whistle. Truth is, if you’re 5-3 down with a minute to go or 15th with half-a-season gone, the most likely scenario is that you’ll lose or remain in mid-table. But, you never know.
Strangely, the Swindon defeat in November may have been just the tonic we needed; sobering us up in the same way the Wycombe game did in 1995. There were no more excuses, the hangover from the previous season needed to be dealt with. Suddenly, there was discord which also gave Karl Robinson the opportunity to make key decisions; not least about the goalkeeping situation that has been nagging away since the end of last season. It would have been harder to make that decision had we scraped a win or even a draw; dropping Simon Eastwood might have looked spiteful in the way the apparent freezing out of Mark Sykes does at the moment.
Let’s face it, the fixtures have fallen well for us recently; in the last ten games only three have been against teams above us in the table. Burton yesterday were terrible and us scoring five was fairly moderate when you consider the three or four other clear chances we missed. The game was nothing short of a riot.
But this is what watching Karl Robinson’s Oxford is all about; a rollercoaster of emotions, the best party and the worst comedown. You’re just as likely to be dancing on a table top with people putting fivers in your thong as you are crying about lost love in a dark corner.
Watching the team is like a Soul Train Line; where dancers line up in two rows and take turns to freestyle their way down the middle, showing off their best moves. Last year there were moments when James Henry, Cameron Brannagan or Shandon Baptiste threw the best shapes, at the moment it seems to be Josh Ruffels and Sam Long, along with the quietly emerging Mide Shodipo.
What we were crying out for in the early stages of the season was leadership; I don’t think anyone expected Ruffels and Long to be the ones to show it. Their roles seem to be under almost constant threat, Long, in particular, seems to have been treated like a stopgap solution until something better comes along even though he’s played in every game, starting all but one – it’s already his best haul of league games in a season.
But, perhaps we need a different kind of leadership at the moment. Sheer technical ability is not enough nor a clear head to cut through a febrile atmosphere when the stands are full of fans baying for blood. Perhaps the qualities that Long and Ruffels show are that they need the club to survive because their careers are interwoven with its fortunes. Where others can look at the club as a stepping stone to something else or maybe another contract in a career that’s coming to an end – neither of which is the wrong way to think – you don’t get a sense either are hankering for a move; the club’s success is their success.
Their longer term view is helping to drag us through the quagmire challenges the club face; where for others there’s always another club and another season; that’s not a luxury afforded to Long and Ruffels. Other players play for a team or a squad, Long and Ruffels play for a club. That reminder to keep going until we find a better place has pulled us from the despair of the pandemic, Wembley and Swindon to a much healthier position. It’s their sheer Oxfordness, which is showing the way.
January looks critical; we’ve a few more fixtures against teams below us until we meet Fleetwood at the end of the month, then we’re back to facing all the teams that gave us problems at the start of the season. We need points and players because if we are to challenge for the play-offs the last couple of months look set to be a proper pile-on.
Of course, January is set to be critical in terms of the pandemic too; with cases surging and postponements growing, getting to the end of the season hangs in the balance. I think it’s right that the season should continue for as long as it can; all industries are having to find another way to do business and football is no exception. But, we can’t ignore the reality that every scenario remains likely – that we’ll end the season on time, that there needs to be a break or that it needs to be curtailed.
Now is the time for the EFL to make plans for all those scenarios, we can’t find ourselves in the same situation as last year where it took weeks for a re-start plan to emerge. You can’t help thinking that we’re set to step into the same trap as the one we fell into in March, hopefully with the likes of Ruffels and Long showing the way, the club has the muscle memory to be ready for what comes next.