Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Sheffield Wednesday 2

It’s been a funny week for the club; the first tentative step was taken towards moving to our new home at Stratfield Brake and we were linked with Jermain Defoe, a prolific Premier League striker, even though he’s thirty-nine and played nine minutes of football in the last year. If the aim is to give Matty Taylor a break this season, he won’t even get in a full episode of Homes Under the Hammer at that rate. 

On the other hand, we seem to be being bullied by Blackpool, who are threatening to recall Jordan Thornily, presumably to strong arm us into doing a deal for Cameron Brannagan. It feels like the club is both taking major steps towards becoming a big(ish) club while being treated like a small one. Plus there was whatever all that QAnon, conspiracy jibber jabber from Karl Robinson was after the game. 

Then, all the while on the horizon was Sheffield Wednesday, which crackled all week like a big game should. We even had to produce covid passes to get in. It will help protect the old and vulnerable, which will be reassuring to Defoe. It gave the game an added dimension; special fixtures are no longer defined by being ‘under the lights’ so much as being ‘inside a bio-bubble’. It truly is 2022.

One of the absolute joys of League 1 is that you get to play in big games against big clubs where you might just win. On size alone Wednesday should be in the reckoning for automatic promotion, in fact they shouldn’t be League 1 at all, but they are, and that’s for a reason. Our job is to find out what the reason is.

In recent weeks we’ve bemoaned our relative lack of strength compared to the best teams. We’ll sweep aside the smaller sides with style but breaking into the next level within the division has proved our downfall. You would expect Wednesday to be one of those clubs we struggle with; big, powerful units that strangle us at birth.

It certainly looked that way after six minutes; I’ve been holding back on criticising Simon Eastwood for his shot-stopping from distance because he’s been our only viable option in goal. I mean, the vanity of thinking that Simon Eastwood, might be reading this. Anyway, it seems that the problem runs deeper as Jack Stevens let another one skim through his fingers for 1-0. It must be a bigger problem, which I don’t have the energy to analyse. We’ve still got a long way to go.

The best teams would shut up shop for a bit. The opening phase of a game is always chaotic, it’s about establishing physical and mental territory. The fact Wednesday fashioned a goal out of it was an unexpected bonus. But then they carried on as though it was still 0-0; tackles were robust, passes were long hail-Mary’s, runs aggressive and willing. Down their right, their defender Jack Hunt seemed to be in a running battle with the fourth official which he didn’t need to have. It was like they’d had too much coffee.

Their inability to settle meant we didn’t have to pick through them; against Wycombe and Wigan we’ve had to put all our effort into making small territorial gains only to find ourselves miles from goal. Against Wednesday, it was more like navigating a maze – difficult, chaotic and without logic, but you knew there was a way through.

With no obvious pattern or logic and with half-time approaching, Marcus McGuane launched a long cross to the back post for Matty Taylor to equalise. Taylor is hardly an aerial threat, but it was worth a try in a half where anything was worth a try. 

Half-time should have brought some rest-bite; adrenaline seeps away, muscles stiffen, manager’s bring cool heads and a tactical reset. Robinson tried to bring order to proceedings by packing the midfield, mirroring Wednesday. 

It had the opposite effect of bringing order to things; with half the outfield now occupying a space the size of a matchbox, the game continued much as it had begun. It seemed we were perpetually stuck in the opening fifteen minutes of every lower league game there ever was. God, imagine if that was a side-effect of everyone being vaccinated. This might be worth mentioning to your local conspiracy theorist. 

Matty Taylor went down with a tactical injury and Karl Robinson, who’d spent most of the game coaching using a series of whistles, like he was directing a team of sheepdogs, dragged every player over to the touchline. Spare a thought for Amy Cranston at this point; it must be dispiriting studying for all those years to find that 80% of your matchday caseload is made up of players adjusting their shinpads.

Robinson bellowed his instructions, like a sleep-deprived dad dragging his purple-faced, five-year-old twins from a soft play ball pool to tell them to calm down and have a swig of Fruit Shoot. Of course, everyone ignored the plan, we were well beyond that.

Then, unexpectedly a moment of quality broke out, a slick exchange on the right played in Josh Windass and we were back to square one. It was like his dad in his pomp, just without the ears. Wednesday fans made an impressive noise, they’ve got a great range of songs, the best in the division by a mile – a full album’s worth if they ever chose to go down that route. It felt like they’d taken the spoils and… Oh, it’s 2-2.

In the fourteenth century, the Tartars were struck down with The Plague while fighting the Genoese in Italy. In desperation, they catapulted the Plague-ridden corpses over the battlements and into the city. In that spirit, with half-an-hour to go, both managers weren’t so much making substitutions as loading up their Trebuchets to launch bodies into the heart of the battle. 

Enter Sam Winnall.  Anyone hoping for Matty Taylor’s back-up to be Matty Taylor 2.0 is likely to be sorely disappointed. We’re more likely to get an embattled warhorse who have seen a few things. If Taylor’s likely deputy was a word in Countdown, he’d be a risky seven rather than a solid nine. Which is exactly what Winnall is. But this was a day for the McGuanes, Winnalls, Bodins and Mousinhos, not the players whose heads are turned by low-ranking Championship teams, players whose careers are teetering, who need to take their opportunities.

It was never going to end 2-2; because that would have been fair and reasonable. Where a goal would come from, on an afternoon like this, was anyone’s guess. From somewhere, we snaffle a corner, and of course we never score from corners. So naturally, when Billie Bodin swings the ball in, we score from a corner and its Winnall who bundles the ball home. It’s an ugly and glorious spectacle.

Jordan Thornily goes down, because of course he does, and Robinson hands John Mousinho a rifle to keep them at bay. The remaining four minutes last a couple of breathless hours. After seven minutes of injury time, the referee trolls everyone by calling a free-kick which we think is the final whistle. He’s probably chuckling inside, how have these idiots got themselves into such frothing rapture? And then, eventually, he releases us, allowing the Red Cross to come onto the field of battle to cart the dead off to the tune of Sweet Caroline. 

One hot mess of League 1 football brings the week to a close. We began it wondering whether we could step up to the big boys or forever be one of the also-rans. This did nothing to resolve which it’s to be, but if this is an indicator of where we’re at right now and it’s going to be this entertaining, I’m happy staying put for a little while.  

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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