Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Sunderland 2

According to the dashboard of my car, I need to fill up with something called Adblue. I’ve no idea what Adblue is, but it’s sufficiently important for the car to tell me that it’ll ‘stop’ in about 1400 miles if I don’t act. Given everything else that’s going on in the world, I think that’s a bit selfish. Would it kill it to just keep going for a bit longer? There’s a bloody war on.

Dashboard warnings are designed to make you anxious, so this added to a low-level anxiety about a seemingly localised fuel shortage, which I’d not been aware of until Friday night. I had plenty of fuel to get to the game, but my brain evidently likes me to have extra in the tank in case I need to take a spontaneous 200-mile round trip somewhere. What would happen if I suddenly needed to buy a loaf of bread or a pair of slippers in Warwick? I simply wouldn’t make it.

On top of all this, of course, was parking anxiety, something I’ve basically come to realise is just a manifestation of big match nerves. TV would have you believe big games are preceded by excitable fans, punching the air and hugging with anticipatory fervour. For me it’s wondering if I’ll need to reverse park into a tight space on a corner going up a hill.

I’ve been to hundreds of games of football all over the country and never failed to park at any of them. I haven’t had to drive to a game, then return home sobbing with exhaustion, having not stopped. None-the-less, the prospect of not parking looms larger as a big game approaches. Someone tweeted me to say the Abingdon Road was looking bad. I’ve never driven down the Abingdon Road, let alone parked on it, but I still brought my leaving time forward by 15 minutes.

I eventually arrived at a time which felt like some time just after dawn, and found my usual place had ample space. The Grenoble Road was full and the club had tweeted that the car parks were no longer accessible, but my normal spot was reassuringly accommodating. 

We meandered around the ground for a bit, went to the shop to see if there was a bargain to have, before realising that nobody needs to see me in an 8XL third choice goalkeeping shirt while reading a copy of Brian Horton’s autobiography. Inside the ground, as kick-off approached, there seemed little urgency to proceedings. Both sets of fans were quiet, a tifo of Karl Robinson with arms aloft was held up making the East Stand seem like a particularly odd episode of Sesame Street.

At kick-off, there were still a notable number of spaces all around the stadium, perhaps there were a few season ticket holders on holiday or maybe it’s an illustration of just how rampant covid is at the moment, but hundreds seemed unable to attend. Superficially, it was a sell out against a big team, but it felt more like Burton at home on a couple of cans of Red Bull.

The game seemed to succumb to the subdued atmosphere. It’s hard to judge where Sunderland are in their journey. Have they realised yet that they are a lower league club, despite the big stadium and Netflix series? Have they recalibrated to understand that size and history alone will not gain them promotion? They didn’t feel like a team totally lost, but neither did they look like they had momentum. There will be a point where they’ll hoover up the best League 1 players rather than the worst Championship players and storm the league, how close they are to that is hard to tell.

For us, did we know in our heart of hearts that the season is beyond us? The return of Elliott Moore and Cameron Brannagan certainly made us look more robust and we weren’t darting around like busy fools, but nor were we particularly explosive out of the blocks, ready to right the wrongs of the last week.

Or, was the game so high in quality that both teams played themselves into some kind of neutrality? It can happen whatever the level, the more obvious excitement of goals and chances gives way to an ever-increasing tension as both teams try to figure out a way to break the deadlock without breaking themselves.

After a decent start for us, their breakthrough came from a characteristic bit of dopey defending. There seemed to be an age after the ball dropped to the feet of Corry Evans, almost like the whole Oxford team were engaged in some kind of telepathic post-mortem.

‘This is a dangerous place for them to have the ball.’ ‘Yes, we should be more alert to these situations.’ ‘There are lots of us, who do you think should close him down?’… goal.

With inevitability staring us in the face and momentum apparently with them, there was a chance to euthanise the game. You suspect it wouldn’t have taken much to batter us into a fug of our own frustration. Despite the lead, Sunderland fans were eerily quiet, far more subdued than the other big dogs who have come to the Kassam this season. For a full stadium with two teams in a last chance dog fight for the play-offs, it was a polite affair.

A lot of the rest of the game centred around Billy Bodin’s left foot. When he got the ball on it – particularly the set piece that led to the equaliser and another which clipped the bar – it produced magic, when the ball dropped to his right foot, you could almost hear the left screaming with despair at its ineptitude. Every set piece brought a chance, but hope seemed to remain a distant relative on a gap year with little access to a decent 4G connection.

With injury-time approaching, like a Scooby Doo villain, the season finally reveal its identity. It’s baffled me that despite the results we’ve had and the general consistency, we’re talking about missing out on the play-offs with games to spare. So, why are we in the situation we’re in?

They broke forward, Mark Sykes – a ball of energy throughout – seemed to finally run out of steam. Rather than tracking back or harry the attacker into a safer position, he tried a half-hearted ankle tap. He had nothing left to give, apart from the fact he hadn’t been booked and could live with a yellow card.

It didn’t work, the attacker advanced into a gaping hole left by Herbie Kane sitting so deep and Brannagan so advanced. By the time he’d reached the box, we were in trouble. Sam Long was drawn inside leaving space for Embleton at the back post. We’ve seen these moments before, sometimes they skew wide, other times the ball hits the net with gut wrenching inevitability. This time it was the latter.

The mask was pulled off and the mystery was solved. The season isn’t about performances, some see missing out on the play-offs as going backwards, but currently we have a higher points per game than last year and are five points from last season’s total. It’s about attrition and who can survive to the end. A caller to Radio Oxford talked about the ‘pace’ of League 1; a relentlessness designed to break teams. We weren’t outplayed and haven’t been all season, we’ve just finally been broken under the pressure.

It might be fun to be a disruptor in the division for a bit, it might even get us closer to the play-offs than we’re anticipating, but League 1 isn’t going to change much next season and that’s where we’re likely to be playing. There’s work to do on the squad over the summer, but if we do want to continue to progress, an ability to last to the bitter end has to be a priority.

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Oxblogger

Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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