Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Lincoln City 1

I’ve often wondered why Sky choose to broadcast lower league games. If last night’s game hadn’t involved us, I wouldn’t have known it was happening. It’s hard to imagine a neutral really wanting the get the latest on the lower echelons of the League 1 play-off race.

Granted, it’s probably part of their contract to cover a certain number of games and the international break, when it doesn’t get in the way of other fixtures, is a good time to show them. But still, when you consider the cost against the benefits, you’d think it would be more cost effective just to give the EFL and the clubs money not to show them.

Gambling probably plays a role, people will gamble on anything nowadays, so even if the TV audience and advertising money isn’t there, there was probably some poor soul betting his weekly rent on the number of throw-ins Jamie Hanson took in the opening twenty minutes.  

Whatever the rationale, the reality is that games like this are going to be broadcast on a tight budget. Sky can’t even be bothered to run an ambient crowd noise probably because it would mean paying someone to press the ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ button when there’s a chance.

Those involved are not going to be as thorough in their research of the teams involved, so what tends to emerge is a narrative; an accepted story that gives the game purpose and context. It’s not bias as such, just a short cut that’s easier than finding out the true stories behind the game. A form of groupthink emerges and the presenters tend to follow the narrative regardless of what’s happening on the pitch.

The narrative of last night’s game was the story of Lincoln City and their plucky pursuit of promotion to the Championship. Except, since the game was announced, they’ve fallen away quite badly, picking up just one win in eight.

Michael Appleton has been skittled by injuries and a Covid outbreak leaving him lacking in bodies. The strategy he’s followed at Lincoln is similar to the one that got us promoted in 2016, his squad is focussed on quality not quantity with ex-Premier League academy players who have become stuck and are looking for a new way into the Championship or beyond. We also know that this strategy puts a massive strain on a squad; back in 2016 despite everything that was achieved, we still needed three wins on the trot and Joe Skarz playing on one leg to gain promotion by a point. It’s was a narrow tightrope to what now seems like pre-destined glory.

We got caught up in a similar narrative with last year’s interlopers Wycombe Wanderers. Having topped the table, they too were falling away with eight of the nine losses coming after Christmas. The intervention of the pandemic saved them and by the time they got to Wembley, the narrative was all about their remarkable achievements. 

Despite attempts by the commentators to stick to the script that Lincoln, with its team of young talented players, were on the brink of a run to take them back to the top and fulfil the prophecy of their remarkable promotion, it was pretty evident that we were, by some distance, the better team.

It’s clear they’re tired; they opened well, taking the lead, and then blew up. With Michael Appleton lacking options from the bench, they simply faded away. In the second half the commentators kept talking about how they uncharacteristically gave the ball away. There was nothing uncharacteristic about it, it’s a classic characteristic of tiredness. In truth, it was out of character compared to the story they really wanted to tell.

We too are being challenged with tiredness and injury, the win artificially takes us to the brink of the play-offs, but it would take a remarkable set of results for us to be there by the end of the weekend, and that’s before Blackpool, Doncaster, Portsmouth and Ipswich play their games in hand. 

But, it’s reassuring to see we’re still fighting; the return of James Henry, along with the brains of Anthony Forde and Matty Taylor were the bedrock of the win and if we can keep them on the pitch there’s still a possibility that we’ll be an awkward presence in the dust-up.

But, brains and experience are boring, we overlook it too often ourselves preferring speed, dynamism and raw unfettered talent for our kicks. Jamie Mackie, in the studio, made the point at the start of the game alluding to his own departure and John Mousinho’s injury as destabilising factors in our post-play-off form which has made this season more difficult. We haven’t replaced that experience, and in areas where we have it, for example James Henry and Sam Long, we’ve struggled to keep them on the pitch.

Despite Sky’s attempt to drag the story back to the exciting talents in the Lincoln team and their pursuit of glory, it was a victory of brains over brawn, not something you can often say about the way we play. It’s something that’s been missing in patches throughout the season; now that everyone is tiring, it’ll be those able to retain clear heads and draw on their deep muscle memory will most likely prevail.    

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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