I didn’t really follow last night’s defeat to Bristol Rovers closely as I was watching Alex Horne in Wycombe. He was on stage, I wasn’t stalking him through the Sainsbury’s. The early kick-off meant that I could check-in just before he came on stage to see the game was goalless. As the first half closed of the show, I could see it was 1-1 and heading for extra-time. As the lights dimmed for the second-half, the two quick goals from Bodin and Seddon gave me with the assurance I needed that we would ease through while I enjoyed the rest of the performance.
The show closed and I opened my phone to confirm our progress into the second round. I located the result and couldn’t initially compute what I was seeing. As we shuffled out of the theatre, my brain kept trying to transpose the four and three because that’s what it expected to see. It didn’t seem possible that we could throw a 3-1 lead away in extra time.
For some reason, Twitter has started to helpfully deprioritise my Oxford United tweets, perhaps it’s making space for GBNews memes or something. Piecing together exactly what happened was tricky but, inevitably, there was plenty of catastrophising and claims that this was ‘typical Oxford’.
The benefit of distance does allow for some perspective; extra-time isn’t normal; strange things can happen, though rarely stranger than what happened on Tuesday. We drew the match over 90 minutes, then lost the tie. It’s still not great, but had it been a league game, we’d have gone home with a point.
It also came three days after a dogged point away at Ipswich. There’s been a surprising reaction from Ipswich fans to our performance on Saturday. We are cheats, timewasters and – the ultimate diss at this level – ‘anti-football’. Alternatively, we battled for a point and chose wisely to protect it, rather than recklessly go for all three.
I recently came across the term ‘emotional architecture’, the idea of knowing how something works in reality rather than on paper. An ability to navigate the emotional structures of something; its relationships, strengths and weaknesses. People who have worked somewhere for a long time are particularly adept at it.
Ipswich Town fans are not totally unfamiliar with the third tier but it’s not their natural home. This summer was one of positive change for them and heavy investment in their squad suggested that promotion and the title was within their grasp. But, based on Saturday, they still haven’t come to terms with the emotional architecture of the lower leagues and are struggling because things aren’t how they want them to be. A big part of this is the recognition that every team at this level is, to some extent, flawed and limited.
We are no exception. On Saturday we showed guile and awareness of those limitations which helped manage that situation. Teams who succeed tend to be very good at dealing with what is in front of them. Those that fail are indignant the opponents don’t present themselves as they want to them to be. We have weaknesses which we need to manage if we’re going to accumulate the points we need for the play-offs and beyond. Ipswich didn’t like that and thought we should expose those weaknesses in the name of ‘proper foootball’.
In some sense, what we saw last night was an illustration of those weaknesses. We don’t have endless flexibility to change our system or the depth to provide cover in all areas. We could have managed the situation better – not least by not making three substitutions in the first game which totally destabilised us when leading – but the fact we have limitations should’t come as a surprise. Although most people try to ignore it, our failure to progress in the Papa John’s Trophy was an indication of the unavoidable weaknesses within the squad.
Is it something to complain about or part of the emotional architecture of this level of football? A reality we have to deal with best we can? I think it’s one of those things; you build your strength up best you can, accept your vulnerabilities and hope they don’t get found out too often. In a sense, that’s what the lower leagues are all about.
In a sense, the defeat might be a godsend. Back in 2016 we made progress in all competitions and by January were playing a blancmange of JPT, FA Cup and league games. By March, we were falling apart and hanging on with injuries to Joe Skarz, Ryan Taylor and Kemar Roofe, amongst others. We still had enough quality and hauled ourselves over the line for the ultimate goal of promotion, but I’m not convinced we could achieve that in League 1 if we also had to manage a good cup run. As difficult as last night proved to be, I’ll take it if it gives us a better chance of the play-offs or promotion.