Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Ipswich Town 1

When I looked up on Saturday, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. According to the Met Office, there wasn’t a cloud anywhere in country at one point. Spring had arrived and along with it, the dawning of the final act of the season.

It’s not always been easy to read this season, it hasn’t been a relentless pursuit for promotion, no great redemption for last season’s near miss. It’s been an organic, entertaining romp which hasn’t quite answered the central question; to what end?

When a season starts, it’s a ball of confusion and chaos – people try, but nobody can predict what it’ll take to be successful. Eventually, the knots are picked apart, the lines of sight become clearer; the winners, losers and also-rans become more obvious, the battles become localised – two or three teams scraping for a final promotion or play-off spot. Like the end of a game of musical chairs.

The reason this season has been hard to read now seems to be clear. Most of it has happened out of clear sight, there are at least seven teams in this relationship. For all the success we’ve seen, other teams have been through something similar. The division is polarised – there are teams as far down as Bolton in 11th still thinking of the play-offs, then there’s an eight-point gap to 12th, and everyone else.

Inevitably, all the teams towards the top have still got to play each other. Yesterday’s visit of Ipswich under a cloudless sky was the beginning of the final act, but there’s still much more to come. 

Looking down on the Kassam with over 11,000 fans in it, it struck me what a great experience going to football has become. Home games used to be a reassuring routine, but now it feels like an event, like something will happen. This is the third tier of English football, the lower leagues, someone behind me criticised a misplaced pass saying that it wouldn’t happen in the Premier League, I just wanted to say, look at it for what it is, it’s magnificent.

The game quickly served as a reminder that the preceding seven months have been part softener, part origin story. It’s stretched, tested and battered the squad while creating the narratives that now need to be resolved. 

One of the narratives is the brooding animosity between us and Ipswich. They see us as anti-football, who cheat and connive our way to success. We see them as an average team with a big-club ego – which is not unusual at this level. Their view is shaped by the fact that there’s been one goal in seven and a half hours of football between the two sides, nobody has scored two goal in this fixture for over twenty years.

The first half probably demonstrated the reality; together we create almost absolute neutrality. We’re so perfect together that it’s near impossible for either team to gain a meaningful advantage. Our mobility sacrifices strength, their strength sacrifices mobility. We complete each other.

For most of the first half, we were in near total stasis, Gavin Whyte broke through twice, but showed his lack of confidence in front of goal. Wes Burns waltzed through our defence, cloaked in inevitability, bending the ball goalward only for Mark Sykes to read his mind and deflect it for a corner. Sykes’ prescience is probably because both sides are feeding off the same mainframe. 

On 55 minutes, Ipswich made their move, I don’t know if Macauley Bonne and Sam Morsy are particularly big, but they’re definitely bulkier than Gavin Whyte and Mark Sykes. Ipswich compressed the game into a third of the field and the subs filled whatever space remained. Sykes and Cameron Brannagan were pushed out to the margins just to find somewhere to breathe. 

With no space, every pass was contested, each half-deflection disrupting the flow, the ball pinged around frustratingly. There were vignettes of passing which were skilful and intricate, but only served to move the ball momentarily out of danger, to move us sideways into another dense thicket of players and more hand-to-hand combat.

We introduced Marcus McGuane to try and establish some control in midfield, but he was still feeling his way into the game when the ball broke to Burns to race free and square it to Celina for their goal. 

What followed was a familiar pattern against decent sides, an inability to regain composure. They remained compact, meaning we couldn’t stretch the play. Herbie Kane battled heroically, but he couldn’t do it all himself. 

It looked like the game was up; we weren’t peppering them with shots, we’d turned the last page of the book and still nothing worked. Defeats happen, even if each one now gains greater importance, we’ve got to live with that. Thoughts turned to how we might respond in future matches.

As the board went up, people took it as a sign to make for home. It was an unusual sight, it’s not been the Oxford way this season, there’s always been life left in the game even in its dying embers. This was different, it’d been so tight, we’d been suffocated, all life had been squeezed out of us.

From nowhere the ball went for one last corner releasing an instinctive roar, more out of habit than expectation. It’s a peculiarly English thing, apparently, only 8% of corners result in a goal, fans in other countries treat them like a throw-in; territorial advantage but not an imminent chance.

As I’m reminded of this, out of the corner of my eye is Simon Eastwood, trotting up the field; the plans have been torn up for the day, the complexities of our playbook are irrelevant. An analogy for the whole season; the end reveals a simple equation – we either score or we don’t. The ‘how’ isn’t important.

We like to believe that when a keeper goes up for a corner he’ll blast through a crowd of players to head it in. In fact, they usually flay around unable to judge the flight of the ball. They’re used to facing away from goal, not towards it, it’s not natural. They’re not a target, they’re just a random factor. It seems incongruous that the most sensible, understated member of the squad, is now being used as disruptor-in-chief.

As it happens Eastwood finds himself in the flightpath of Luke McNally and his marker. As Herbie Kane’s ball comes in, McNally gets the elevation he needs. A nudge from a defender will probably be enough to put hm off. With Eastwood jamming up the middle of the box, McNally gets a clean run and everyone ends up in a heap on the floor, he connects cleanly, the net bulges, we’ve literally scored.

The resulting scene is a chaotic mess, they fall to the floor; a second before they looked strong and in control, now they look weak and defeated. A cacophonous noise swarms through the stadium; players square up to each other, the tension cracking open to reveal wanton frustration. For us, it’s a sweet release and a renewed hope. It resolves nothing, but reassures everything. We’re still fighting.

The goal isn’t part of a sophisticated plan, it’s the result of an investment in the team, its spirit and each other. The belief that despite everything, one last effort is worth a point even when three are beyond us. There’ll be a more games like this before the end of the season, you suspect, but you know when the plans need to be torched, the belief will still be there.

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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