In the years immediately after our promotion back to the Football League, when I chanced upon a Conference game on TV, I’d look for an Oxford connection. There was always a Carl Pettefer, Kevin Sandwidth, Craig McCallister or Phil Trainer plying their trade in some non-league toilet. These players were part of a rotating pool which might, at some point, gel in such a way to bring success. For players, a Conference football career was like a hall of mirrors where every turn is another dead-end. Success wasn’t so much about the individuals, but about the stability that could be offered by the clubs.
We now fish in a different pond; in the lead up to Cameron Brannagan’s opening goal against Sheffield Wednesday, Herbie Kane robbed Marvin Johnson, who gave the ball to Brannagan who beat Chey Dunkley to score. In ten years time, I’ll be writing that sentence to describe a goal in Sam Long’s testimonial game.
The loss of Johnson and Dunkley along with John Lundstram in 2017 skittled Pep Clotet’s prospects before he’d started. Along with Chris Maguire and Curtis Nelson, who was injured early in that season, they represented the core of Michael Appleton’s League 1 squad. The world turned, everything changed, and we didn’t have the resilience to cope. These were players we relied on and had acquired through ingenuity rather than something systematic.
One of the criticisms I’ve had this year is just how content we seem to be, lacking an edge to sneak a point from a defeat or a win from a draw. I can’t fault the club, they posted a video of Karl Robinson playing with our Down’s Syndrome team this week and he talked about reimagining what a football club should be. This lightened my mood after a turbulent week personally with the lack of fuel and food culminating in a positive test for Covid. But, in the ugly world of the first team, is it enough to be nice?
The season has been set against the backdrop of a mild September and the return of fans to games. It’s been very pleasant, but yesterday was different; football as we remember it; made edgier by the weather, the setting and the opponents. Would we cope?
Sheffield Wednesday are a classic of their genre; a huge club with momentum going in the wrong direction. At their core, they’re rotten and it will take time to weed that out, they need calm, stability and time to do it. In the immediate aftermath of the result, their fans were calling for Darren Moore’s head; he’s too nice, apparently. That sort of pressure builds until the owners wilt and another poor sucker is brought in to try and revolutionise the club in a six month window. They’ll get there eventually, it’s a question of how many false dawns they’ll need to see before it happens.
With Dunkley, Johnson and Shodipo – three players who we know can change games – you would think that promotion would be assured, but if they’re not in a stable environment, they risk losing the edge that made them different. For me, this was the key test of the opening phase of the season. A double-header away from home against Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland could have put us on the back foot with ground to make up, we’ve done it before, but it still creates pressure. With three points and Sunderland postponed, October – with only one more away game – suddenly looks like the month to drive forward. November gets harder, but then it always does.
That opportunity comes from deep within the club; One thing that is evident from Karl Robinson’s approach is that players love it; Cameron Brannagan could play at a bigger club, even if it wasn’t a higher level, James Henry would grace any side as his sublime and timely finish showed. It’s the stability that gives you the edge to push into the 93rd minute and snatch a winner. Watch Henry’s run for the goal (it’s better on the videos shared by fans on Twitter), it’s an extraordinary illustration of his determination to have an impact. First, he swings out wide to the left before drifting into the middle and then to the front post to execute a world class finish. Any discontent, any moment of frustration borne out of a training ground argument or a casual disregard of his wellbeing could have been enough for him to give up and accept a point. Yet, he found the edge, he did the extra, he wanted to win. Cue biblical scenes in the stands, that loss of sense that gives you hope in a cruel world, righteous justification for the effort and risk of travelling to the other end of the country in a fuel crisis. Logically, there is no logic, but at that moment, it all makes sense. This was a win which found an edge from within a contented club; it gives you hope on many fronts.