Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Gillingham 1

I have a relative who is, let’s say, not that keen on the EU even though she’s lived an abundantly comfortable life in its apparent shackles. She’s never explained what she hoped to gain from being released from its constraints, and seemed entirely blind to the comforts it has given her. Now her fuel bills are spiralling, she can’t put petrol in her car and some of the food she used to take for granted isn’t there. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge the relative luxury she lives in, taking for granted the continuous flow of essential goods and services as if they arrived by magic. She remains blissfully unaware of how comfortable she is.

I noticed the other day that I’ve barely tweeted this month, there hasn’t been much to say about the club beyond the games themselves. Even walking to the stadium on Saturday it was so quiet, there was a moment when I wondered if the game had been postponed. Around the stadium, people milled around rather than buzzed. 

Once inside, it struck me how good the stadium is starting to look with the new perimeter fencing and the immaculate pitch. On the pitch was a hive of activity as players warmed up watched by a phalanx of coaches. Not only did it feel very professional, it also gave a sense of occasion even though there were relatively few people there to see it. After the game, there were gushing plaudits on the radio about the performance, which, let us not forget, was a 1-1 home draw against 19th placed Gillingham. 

In many ways it was a very good performance, we made plenty of chances and looked solid enough at the back. We’re very entertaining to watch and it’s difficult to identify a single player who you’d want to criticise or take issue with.

But, it was a 1-1 home draw against 19th placed Gillingham. The issue might be the relative comfort with where we’re at as a club. Matty Taylor’s early goal seemed to be greeted with the kind of response you’d hear given to a batsman reaching his half-century at county cricket. Granted it was early, but it was still more polite applause than frenzied excitement. The opening period threatened to bring a flood of goals, but we got a bit sleepy and Alex MacDonald fired in the equaliser after being given about three minutes to set himself for his shot. Nobody seemed to criticise the lack of closing down or vent their frustration, many were too busy gently applauding MacDonald’s strike. It was a good strike from a nice man, perhaps we needed him to knee slide while kissing his badge in front of the East Stand.

Afterwards, many people talked about how we needed to be more clinical. This means taking responsibility and doing something beyond what you’ve been asked to do. Yes, there will be goals that come direct from a training ground routine, but more often than not, goals result from players doing something nobody unexpected, breaking the rules. Moments after Mark Sykes came on, he nearly converted a chance by not being in the place he was supposed to be, but there was precious little of that. 

We lack an edge, all good teams have them, they often manifest in people that go against the culture of the team, perhaps even of the notions of professional football. In 2016 we had Danny Hylton, a player who was the polar opposite of Michael Appleton’s clinicalism, Wycombe have Akinfenwa, Gillingham have Steve Evans. Jamie Mackie used to play that role, a slightly absurd character for whom the plan is torn up the moment the game starts. Everything we did on Saturday we did well, but it followed a template. 

Ironically, in previous seasons both Gavin Whyte and Ryan Williams have had that wild card role, an ability to play their own game and find runs and angles that don’t exist on a tactics board. It throws the opposition off; obviously if you play enough balls into Matty Taylor he will score simply because he’s very good at that, but think about last season’s game against Gillingham and Sam Long’s last minute winner, nobody had that on their plan. James Henry has his moments, but he’s less influential when pushed out wide. Currently everyone is sticking to the plan and it’s the plan rather than the result which is of precedent. Herbie Kane showed glimpses that he may offer something in that vein, with confidence and fitness he could be the one who can offer something different. 

It flows into the stands; we haven’t won a league title for 36 years, nobody talks about wanting to do that anymore. Automatic promotion is rarely mentioned, our goals focus on reaching the play-offs. But there are clubs around us who are more anxious, more edgy, less patient to see success. While we wait for the jigsaw puzzle pieces to fall into place, others are picking up the gnarly, ugly points that make a difference at the end of the season.

Off the pitch too, there’s a sense of working to a template. Long gone are the days of the club’s Twitter alter-ego ‘Clive’ or the authenticity of Sarah Gooding, when she was at the helm. The club’s communication has become more anodyne; competent, informative but a little bit dull, too polished. I’m not pretending that Twitter defines the club, but, I suppose, it does maintain the dialogue in between games. Its like that the club’s Twitter character used to be one of the fans now it’s firmly within the club’s corporate structure.  

This has all made us very comfortable and maybe rather too accepting of a 1-1 draw with 19th place Gillingham. This is Karl Robinson’s club now, there’s so much to admire; the style we play, the progress we’re making off the pitch, the likeable squad and Robinson’s genuine appreciation of the fans. All is well in the House of Robinson, but that might be part of the problem.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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