Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Plymouth Argyle 3

One of the lasting memories of the 1996 promotion season was the bounty of goals we achieved from corners. Joey Beauchamp would swing a ball into the near post; Matt Elliott would flick on and Paul Moody would mop up from the resulting chaos by heading home. Occasionally the players would change, but the system never did.

We all get excited by the award of a corner; in terms of crowd response, it’s the next best thing to a goal. And yet, just 8% of corners result in a goal; a figure I suspect is dropping as teams get better at defending set pieces. But still, when a corner is awarded, an anticipatory frisson spontaneously surges through the fans.

We were reflecting on the terrace bon mot ‘you’re shit ahhhh’ during yesterday’s game against Plymouth. Like the fans’ response to a corner, it’s an integral part of every goal kick. Its origins were a genuine attempt to put the goalkeeper off by making as much noise as possible. I suppose in those days goalkeepers often looked like some of the fans on the terrace and it was reasonable to assume they would respond as a fan might to any unexpected noise by shanking a kick into touch.

It’s increasingly obvious that it has no effect on the keeper’s concentration or the quality of the resulting kick. Sometime during the 1990s the ‘you’re shit, ahhh’ appendage was added. It was almost a recognition that the chant was absurd and pointless; the terrace equivalent of Baddiel and Newman’s History Today sketch which ended with two ageing academics trading playground insults; ‘that’s your mum, that is’. 

Now it’s just part of the ambient noise of a game and happens out of some deep cultural obligation, a ceremony to keep the memory of our fallen brothers alive. 

“OOOOHHHH AAAAHHHHH YOU’RE SHIT AAAAAHHHHH”

“Why do you do that dad?” 

“Because it’s what your grandad and great grandad did on this very spot right up to the day they died. I will not let their memory fade to dust.” 

Perhaps, if the genuine aim is to put the goalkeeper off, the crowd should remain completely silent and murmur in inaudible sarcastic tones as the ball sails through the air. The psychological damage that could do to an insecure ‘keeper could prove fruitful, after all, nobody likes people talking behind their backs.  

Football is a visceral experience, we live every near miss with spontaneous abandon. We thoughtlessly respond to what’s in front of us; the bloke in front of me yesterday responded to each chance with variations on ‘bloody useless’ or ‘just stick it in the net’ as if James Henry was consciously preferring to see if he could hit the Chaokoh ethically sourced coconuts advert and had absent mindedly overlooked the fact he could do with popping a couple of shots in the goal before the clock runs out.

Professional sports people often talk about controlling the controllables; focus on the process and the outcomes will take care of themselves. Those who can do that are the ones who succeed, the outcome – a near miss or an exasperated noise from the fans – needs to be set aside because the process is where success lies.

The irredeemable divide is that fans tend to focus on outcomes. The result alone determines the effectiveness of the tactics, selection or any given move. We ramp up the pressure and force our way into the consciousness of the players because there’s no such thing as a good move with a bad outcome.

Oddly, what we seemed to be watching on Saturday was two entirely separate games; one was all about the inputs. We created a host of chances, particularly in the second half, carved them open time and again, we just didn’t convert them. There was one move where the ball skimmed across the goal, the intended target, Matty Taylor, was a long way behind the play having helped carve out the chance. It was greeted with frustration, but really it just illustrated how difficult football is to play.

Then there was the other game; the one which was all about the outputs – they exploited our weaknesses and efficiently took the opportunities for a comfortable win. Unlike teams who’ve out muscled us in the past, I thought they looked like a parallel of us – they were us on a good day, we were them on a bad day. It’s rare to see a game so stark; strangely enough, their biggest challenge may be to be aware enough to realise that this kind of result flattered them a little and that the tables could turn very quickly.

For us, there was some debate about whether you lock up our defence with Alex Gorrin or galvanise our attack with James Henry. One person on the phone-in wanted to drop Henry for Gorrin, but only after Steve Kinniburgh reminded him that he could only have eleven players on the field.

For me, despite the result, the combination of Brannagan, Henry and Herbie Kane seems an obvious first choice. Gavin Whyte looked a bit lost playing in a central role, but became more threatening when he switched with Henry; which came just as he ran out of steam.

Whyte’s just recovered from Covid, and I wonder whether that’s another factor that we overlook too easily. Sam Long also looked just off the pace and has also recently recovered from the virus. We ask a lot of players physically, perhaps the effects of the illness linger longer than we realise. Still, few fans will factor these things into their analysis. 

Not so much a game of two halves, but a game of two layers of football; when simply looking at the result and even the nature of their goals, our visceral response may be to criticise and howl with derision. But, when moving from the subconscious to the conscious, from the visceral to the analytical, we’re not far away at all.

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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