Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Portsmouth 1

I went to Las Vegas years ago, I didn’t gamble much, I found the experience too intimidating with people slumped over the fruit machines unable to move and pneumatically enhanced women serving free drinks to keep the punters lubricated and spending. 

There was one experience that stood above everything else. Wandering through one of the casinos, I found myself watching a game of blackjack at a table. Everyone looked very serious with chips stacked high next to every player. I gradually found myself at the front of the crowd of onlookers with nothing between me and a vacant chair. The croupier caught my eye, gesturing for me to sit. My blood ran cold, couldn’t be sure how to play, didn’t have much money and everyone looked tense and intimidating. I wasn’t ready to take my seat at the table. Thankfully, someone was ushered into the spot before I found the right words.

It was years later I realised what was going on. The players were hardened gamblers, Nevada gambling laws mean that private games are illegal and I’d found myself standing next to a high roller table which required a mere $10,000 to join a game. 

Last season, I felt we were ill-prepared for The Championship, a high roller table with a minimum stake beyond our means. Promotion would have been bitter sweet, as Wycombe are finding this season. Our notional fourth place finish last season was largely due to the points-per-game calculation and the quirk of our five winning game run that preceded the curtailing of the season. We still had Coventry, Wycombe, Fleetwood and Portsmouth to play, and in all likelihood we’d have dropped back by the end of the season.

That early ending gave us a false picture of our status in the division, which created a surge of optimism and expectation. Something that was eventually readdressed when the new season started.

While last night’s defeat seemed to confirm that we’re still not a sure-fire high stakes play-off contender, there’s no reason to be concerned. Only two teams in the top 10 – Peterborough and Sunderland – have won more games than us in their last five, Lincoln and Hull have both stumbled in recent weeks. Teams around us seem to be feeling the fatigue of an intense and disrupted season as much as we are.

Last night was typical of defeats we saw earlier this season; Portsmouth hurried and harried, forcing us to play at a pace that made constructing anything meaningful very difficult. We play at pace anyway, but it leaves little time to think. If we don’t slow the game down, then we need the opposition to tire to give us space. Perhaps that’s a reason for our slower starts to the season; when opponents are fresh, regardless of their ability, they can sustain the disrupting tempo that makes it harder for us to control the game. As the season wears on those at the bottom of the table lose that ability and we benefit.

It was close, we could easily have come away with a point; which would have been our sixth consecutive draw against Pompey. We’re not yet out-performing the best in the division, but we’re staying with them.

Beating the better sides is definitely a goal to aim at before the end of the season, it’s a slight obsession that we’ve not had a win against a top six side, although that’s another way of saying that we beat the teams we’re better than and don’t win against those who we aren’t. Which is pretty obvious really, I’d be more frustrated if it were the other way around.

Still, beating top six sides will help enforce the belief that we should be competing at that level. The idea that we can sit at the same blackjack table is becoming an increasingly comfortable reality, it’s a mindset that needs to soak in.

It’s possible that we’re ready for the play-offs and promotion, but not yet equipped to play in The Championship. Culturally, I think we’re very close, but structurally we’re a long way off, we need to build that infrastructure, which takes time and Covid has been a massive distraction. The alternative springboard to the next level is a super-rich benefactor, but I’m not ready to sell my soul yet.

We should still be hopeful for this season, for all the concern, the result was our second league defeat in sixteen off the back of a record breaking run of wins. It took 128 years to achieve that feat, fans expecting a return to that kind of form in a matter of weeks are kidding themselves, we were always going to fall back a bit. 

It is quite normal for teams at our level, competing for play-off and promotion spots, to go on strange runs of good and bad form. We saw it last season with Wycombe whose form was abject when the season ended, but benefitted from a quirk of maths. We also saw it with us and the run which got us into play-offs in the first place.

I think we have another run left in us this season; we don’t have an excess of injuries and our two defeats to Doncaster and Portsmouth were very close against good sides. Whether it’s enough to sneak us into the play-offs may be determined by the timing of that run. Getting into the play-offs may not mean we’re good enough for the high roller table that is the division above, but that’s a concern for another time.  

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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