Match wrap – Oxford United 0 Rotherham United 0

When Luke Skywalker hits the ventilation shaft in the Death Star creating a chain reaction that ultimately results in its destruction, it’s celebrated as an unparalleled victory for the rebel alliance. They get a special medal for it and there are celebrations across the galaxy.

We later learn that the ventilation shaft had been deliberately designed to create a systemic and catastrophic weakness in the Death Star’s defences. We also know that Luke thinks hitting the target is no big deal, no harder that shooting Womp Rats in his T-16 back home. The destruction of the Death Star is, ultimately, a big old hoo haa about nothing, particularly given what was to come.

The win over Fleetwood on Tuesday, in many ways, was our destruction of the Death Star. Our experience of them historically was of an indestructible battle weapon who we’d taken just two points from over twelve meetings before last season’s home win. Even that was filtered through the lens of iFollow, up to Tuesday, fans had no real-life experience of beating them. 

Add to that the under-resourced ramshackle rebel alliance that was drawn from our covid decimated squad and the win was celebrated as an unparalleled victory. What we hadn’t fully accounted for was that Fleetwood were a brittle side with systemic weaknesses.

The real threat was just beyond the horizon.

As I drove in on Saturday, the chirpy presenter on Radio Oxford trailing the game presented the case – ‘Oxford face top of the table Rotherham, unbeaten in their last fourteen games.’ I laughed. I laughed at the fact we have, perhaps, the worst squad crisis in the history of the club and we’re about to face a team with no obvious ventilation shaft.

What’s more, I’m still haunted by their last visit, a chastening experience, a brutalisation of not just our team, but our whole worldview. They were fast, aggressive and efficient and swept us and our ideals away in the process.

Fittingly, their players and the whole bench were dressed in black, with a splattering of red – presumably the blood of previous victims. And, there were so many of them. At one point, one of their players went down and their bench emptied to protest at the challenge; there must have been eight or nine identikit black-clad backroom staff lined up to shout from the sidelines while we had Karl Robinson and Craig Short doing their best to fill the spaces left by our isolating backroom staff.

What’s more, Rotherham were huge, most of their players must have been touching six foot tall. Their corner strategy was to flood the six yard box and try to get on the end of looping inswinging crosses. To counter, we seemed to use players like Cameron Brannagan to gnaw away at his marker’s knees in order to create space for Luke McNally – our only player even remotely of a similar size – to head away.

It was a brutal onslaught, in hideous conditions. The wind sliced the skin and played havoc with the flight of the ball. We know the Kassam wind can blow in four directions at a time, but has it ever been so cutting? A Vader-style death grip to the throat.

In our previous encounter Rotherham made the chances count being two-up in half-an-hour. It could have been the same here; they hit the post twice and there were long periods where we couldn’t get out of our half. If we had a plan to win the game, it wasn’t obvious. Survival was the objective – planned or forced upon us, it was hard to tell.

There were moments when fans would yelp in frustration as an attempted breakaway broke down or a tackle missed, but this was quickly swallowed back down as we were reminded of what had got us to this point.

The goals didn’t come and their intensity waned, the tumbledown squad began to show its qualities – Jamie Hanson was brutally competitive, Nathan Holland impishly penetrating, Luke McNally an impenetrable shield. Difficult to make work as a whole-system long term, but as the game began to loosen, the individual qualities came to the fore neutering Rotherham’s machinery. Perhaps playing a team who weren’t as well drilled and complete made it harder for them.

We started to make inroads, Seddon and Brannagan had chances, their keeper flapped to create opportunities for Dan Agyei. It wasn’t a meticulously planned assault, but a fettling of their defences. 

As the time clicked over into injury time the ball went dead, we hadn’t reverted to feigning cramps or injuries to slow things down and they walked to collect the ball rather than raced to create a final chance. It was 0-0, but we’d won, they were tired and happy with their point. They’ve scored three goals or more on ten occasions this season and they couldn’t get through us, now they just wanted to go home with their what they’d gained.

A week ago, we didn’t think we’d even have a team to play these two games, let alone come out of them unbeaten with four points. As the isolating players return to the squad in the next few days, Hanson, Trueman and others will likely melt back to where they came. We shouldn’t forget their names, or what they achieved. Who knows, perhaps in the future, Oxfordshire primary school teachers will question the brief spike in kids called Connal.

In some ways an unremarkably satisfying week, but in so many others, an unprecedented triumph. 

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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