Match wrap – Rotherham United 2 Oxford United 1

One of my favourite books is Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, which tells the complex history of the CIA, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden right up to the day before 9/11 and the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who represented the final line of resistance against The Taliban. At the time, his death seemed like an end in itself in a long struggle, twenty-four hours later it had been forgotten.

The book is full of missed opportunities, well intentioned decisions with unintended consequences and pivotal moments that could have taken the world in a different direction. You wince as tribal Afghans are stuck in the mountains listening to stories of a utopian Muslim nation that never existed, of the US funding of Afghan resistance against the Soviets, of Osama bin Laden’s uncharacteristic heroism that gave him a legendary status he barely deserved as a military general, of his misinterpretation of the Afghan victory as an act of god rather than the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Even the moment Massoud is assassinated by people claiming to be journalists visiting for an interview, you’re screaming ‘don’t let them in’.

What emerges are multiple strands of stories interweaving to create an unstoppable momentum towards oblivion. Wind the clock on and that combines with other factors to generate what we see today – 9/11 legitimised overt islamophobia in mainstream political discourse, which allowed for the creation of Guantanamo Bay, which created Isis and a reactive and acceptable breed of nationalism which created Brexit, Trump and Russia. 

We want stories to be linear, a simple progression from A to B – with B being a better place than A – books and films have to simplify their narrative to be understood and we often seek to see the world through similarly simple arcs.

Imagine if Oxford United’s lottery hadn’t collapsed in the early eighties, which plunged them into debt, which attracted Robert Maxwell, whose demise sent the club into its own death spiral. Imagine if that hadn’t attracted a series of well-intentioned saviours who tried to build a stadium they couldn’t afford and needed Firoz Kassam to bail them out, meaning the club didn’t benefit from the sale of its own land, leaving it with an unloved three-sided stadium and starved of playing resources, which resulted in relegation to the Conference. Imagine if that previous forty years hadn’t happened and we hadn’t had to spend the last twelve slowly returning to some kind of parity. How you judge end-point B, is all about where start point A is.

The defeat to Rotherham has brought the season to a premature end with a not unfamiliar problem of scoring early, before conceding. It’s the tenth time we’ve dropped points having scored the first goal. We’ve again been undone by defensive frailties coupled with an attacking joie de vivre; a familiar pattern we hoped would take us to glory, but feared would leave us just short.

But is that the story? Is it that we’ve failed because we haven’t reached the play-offs for the first time in three seasons? Is it that we’ve won only two in the last six? Or is it that we’re attracting our highest crowds for thirty-four years, our highest points total at this level for twenty-six and our highest goals scored for thirty-eight? Or is it that the Premier League being funded by sovereign states and oligarchs, has distorted competition in club football forcing clubs to over-stretch to keep up, causing them to plummet to a level below where they expect to be, but which makes them super competitive at the level they’re at? 

It’s all those things, of course. Compare us to last season and we’ve materially gone backwards, compared to ten years ago and we’re significantly further forwards. Look at the numbers and we’ve stepped forwards compared to last season in a division which has leapt ahead. If I think about when I started following the club and we were at the same level as we are now, you can’t compare the two divisions in terms of quality of play, entertainment or the experience itself. This is the best team not to have achieved anything – which is like being the world’s tallest dwarf or having the best house in the worst street. Is that a good thing?

I’ve long felt that promotion and even the play-offs are a by-product of playing well and competing, rather than an objective in itself. We would take promotion and the likely struggle the following season, of course, but doing that with boring pragmatic football would be a missed opportunity. We’re not Wigan, Rotherham or several other clubs that are happier to sacrifice style for points. It’s not that their football is wrong or worse, it’s just not as fun. They have the infrastructure and business model we don’t yet have to compete at a higher level so maybe entertaining in League 1 is just wasting time for them.

There will be a time when that will change and the objective, the necessity, for us will be to get promotion because that’s how you fill a new stadium and pay for further growth. For now, this version of Oxford United, which feels like a fresh spring day in comparison to the grey drizzle of ten to fifteen years ago, needs to build on what it has rather than tack into a new direction.

You can’t wish your life away, it’s too easy to always be in year one of a five year plan. For me, we need to be looking to a fixed point when the Kassam Stadium lease is up and our long term plans are more certain. That gets closer with every passing season. If promotion needs to be some point in that timeframe, what does progress mean in the short term? Defensive stability and a more solid and experienced core who can avoid throwing away those early advantages which have lost us points this year. That’s the difference I’d like to see. I’d like to see players coming off the bench to close games down, not light them up.

It’s too easy to be insular and fret about your own failings, perhaps it’s better to judge yourself by the company you keep. If you look at the League 1 table and draw a line under Charlton in 12th, it could easily be a Championship table of the recent past. Only ourselves and Plymouth haven’t played at that level in the last ten years and nine teams have been there in the last six. Twelve years ago we were competing in a division with Rushden, Kettering, Salisbury, Tamworth and Histon. Maybe it doesn’t feel like it now, but we’re doing OK.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

One thought on “Match wrap – Rotherham United 2 Oxford United 1

  1. Thanks for this. It’s helped the transition from a rather rubbish Saturday to a rather upbeat Sunday morning. Easy to forget that times have rarely been this fun, despite the recent pain.


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