Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Fleetwood Town 1

With ten players out, no goalkeepers and half the club isolating you can’t help but think that, on one level, Karl Robinson is absolutely loving this. This could be his Battle of Stalingrad, his Rorke’s Drift. The armouries and smelting factories would drain at the end of the day to fill the stands and defend the citadel, condemming ourselves to an inevitable, but glorious, death for a cause that’s bigger than any one of us. 

If Fleetwood were cutthroat Zulus, then they were Guardian-reading savages with an appreciation of nuance and an understanding of the art of compromise. For all the expectation that we’d have our backs against the wall and that they would jimmy away cruelly at our obvious weaknesses, they seemed particularly sympathetic of our situation, allowing us time to find our feet and rhythm. In fact, they were so desperately impotent, the game has cost manager Simon Grayson his job.

The headline of having only fourteen senior players available doesn’t account for those carrying other niggles and worries; the drink, money, gambling or family problems that can fuzzy anyone’s brain, if you were legally able to leave your house, then pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and play on. Our shoulders relaxed and we settled to a tempo which, even if it was determined by our resources, was at least one the players were comfortable with. 

From wondering how we’d cover the gaps in the squad, the players were able to express their own personalities. It was like the epic victory over Swindon in 2012 when an injury crisis was so deep it required a complete remodelling of the very character of our starting eleven. As a result, we were less predictable and harder to play against. Gavin Whyte up front didn’t need to be Matty Taylor, Jamie Hanson could be the rugged utility player he’s always been rather than try to emulate the more cultured Anthony Forde.

The early goals settled the game meaning we needed to be professional and disciplined rather than full of blood and guts. Fleetwood, so often a frustratingly competent side, were simply not very good, which was a relief. 

Midway through the first half, Luke McNally went to ground forcing into stark relief the precariousness of our situation. Darting from the bench was not the distinctive shock of blonde hair that is Amy Cranston but a couple of more anonymous physios extracted from central casting. 

Cranston is a distinctive presence on the bench with her being, you know, a woman. Her absence reinforced the extent of the challenge; there was also no Wayne Brown, no John Mousinho; we talked about the players, but the crisis ran deeper than that. The anonymity on the bench alongside Karl Robinson was like going to watch Oasis, only to later realise it’s actually Beady Eye.

McNally’s injury highlighted how little scope there was for change. Lose him and there was nobody remotely suitable to take his place. It seemed to heighten the sensitivity to the problem – from eminent comfort, there was a sense this could get bad, really bad. Moments later, Hansen crumpled under a challenge and while everyone catastrophised about whether he was literally dead or not, Fleetwood waltzed through to squeeze the ball past Trueman for 2-1.

We’ve had goalkeeping crises before, but not one that involved our most senior fit keeper being unavailable the game clashed with Cubs. Managers are like pigs snuffling truffles when it comes to unearthing goalkeepers, whether that’s Luke McCormick or Jordan Archer, they always seem capable of digging one out from the bowels of Football League. We were grateful to have his experience, even if it was less than fifty games in the last seven years. He had no way of understanding the nuances of back four in front of him, he had to busk it; take everything on face value and play along best he could.

The third goal from Nathan Holland was a reminder that despite everything, there’s still quality at the heart of the squad. Karl Robinson praised the owners for their investment, he’s right, Holland’s fine finish was most likely cast in the board room and the decision to invest in the squad’s resilience. Nobody could have predicted just how valuable that would be back in the summer.

The emphasis of the game then changed. This is a two-part drama and Robinson needed to be mindful of Rotherham on Saturday. If someone like Dan Agyei has an hour of full-gas performance in him, how do you best spread that across the two games knowing he’ll need to feature in both?

We needed to avoid unnecessary pressure; another goal may not have changed the ultimate result, but it could have encouraged Fleetwood to take a few more risks which is always going to increase the chance of a kick, pull or injury. We needed to keep them passive and compliant, the ease with which we did is testament to what has been built at the club.

It wasn’t backs against the wall, it wasn’t gritty and determined, it was professional and clinical. It wasn’t Rorke’s Drift, although that maybe yet to come before this drama is fully played out.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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