Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Gillingham 2

A great hulk of a man with a reputation that echoes across the lower leagues. It’s a reputation that masks his limitations, but it keeps him at the forefront of our minds and, more importantly for him, it maintains a demand for his services. 

In December 2019, Ade Akinfenwa approached John Mousinho in a melee – we were 25 minutes into a tense almost-promotion decider, almost-derby – Alex Gorrin had floored a Wycombe striker and it all kicked off. With Akinfenwa already on a booking, Mousinho knew that any contact with the self-styled Beast would put pressure on the referee to produce a second card and eject the Wycombe striker from the game. Mousinho stood firm, he didn’t retaliate, he didn’t step back, Akinfenwa was now committed, if his brand was to be upheld, he would have to see it through. He pushed Mousinho in the chest, the lightest shove, and the experienced defender crumpled on the floor. The referee had no option and Akinfenwa, and Wycombe’s chances of victory, were gone. 

It was a rare moment of Oxford showing a mastery of the darker arts of football. Something we have missed this season at times. If you were to distill a good League 1 team into its component parts, somehow put it in a centrifuge to separate out it’s individual elements, you’d probably produce one lump of pure Oxford United and a lump of pure Gillingham. 

There’s nothing sophisticated about a Steve Evans team, no working the ball from the back because that’s how it’s done nowadays. Goal kicks go long, throw-ins; longer, attack in numbers, defend in numbers. Like Wycombe last year, it has its limitations, but it’s effective enough. If you can get your noses ahead and shut up shop, then you can frustrate your opponents into paralysis. 

You can see why clubs employ Steve Evans; he’ll never make you worse or cost you a lot of money; where other managers could force an owner into investing in a sophisticated system which has no material benefit, Evans will get a committed set of players together and work them into the ground.

We seemed surprised by it when we shouldn’t be; it’s probably the only club whose billing has the manager’s name preceding it; ‘we’ve got Steve Evans’ Gillingham on Saturday’. 

In truth, I thought we coped better with the onslaught than we have previously. In the opening minutes it was a bombardment, but when we did get on the ball, we slowed things down, moved it around and tried to take the sting out of it. We needed to kill the game stone dead, keep possession, tire them out, but while the beast stirred, we were always vulnerable.

We were dragged into Steve Evans’ world of harassing and harrying, some call it anti-football; but it’s still part of the game and one we’re rarely keen to touch. An engineered drinks break immediately preceded their opening goal; go figure. 

Their second was a sucker punch, Josh Ruffels limping in the box from a heavy challenge; a wounded gazelle showing a moment of vulnerability, the ball was worked out down his flank, allowing Jordan Graham to cross and Robbie Cundy slot home. We were being haunted by our 2016 promotion squad.

It was this season in microcosm; beaten by the darker arts, a lack of guile, experience and leadership. We didn’t do enough to slow the game down, to nullify their threat, even to take them on at their own game as Mousinho did with Akinfenwa last season. You can argue that it’s not right, but they’re the ones with the lead. Gillingham may lack grace and style, but does it really matter when the calculations are this simple; the winner stays on, the loser’s season is over.

A moment of class from Sam Winnall two minutes later reignited the game, but it still looked like a point was the best we might hope for, and that wasn’t really enough. But, it put Gillingham in a difficult position; continue to shut up shop and risk conceding again or follow the old game plan and go at our throats, potentially leaving them vulnerable – particularly with Dan Agyei offering a pace outlet. It was a lose/lose situation.

The game and season was concentrated into fifteen minutes; for us, it was simple, we needed another goal at least, it didn’t really matter if we lost 2-1 or 3-1 or 10-1. We needed something to get us back on terms.

But of course, it’s not just expensively constructed talent and cynical gamesmanship that makes a team great. A hail-Mary cross from Anthony Forde drops from the early evening sun to the back post and there’s Sam Long; the embedded spirit of the whole club powering through three Gillingham defenders to head in the equaliser. In the context of the game, it’s enough; a point, and a squint at the table, and we live to fight another day.

It’s not just that Sam Long is a local player whose been with the club since he was eight-years-old, he’s overcome near-career ending injuries at crucial stages of his life. As the club moved forward, he battled just to stand still, had the club decided the young injury prone defender was surplus to requirements, nobody would have batted an eyelid and there wouldn’t have been many clubs lining up to take him on. Even when he was back to fitness, there have been plenty of attempts to replace him; Ricardinho, Chris Cadden and Sean Clare have all been brought in; but he’s seen them all off. Sam Long knows that you can’t give up when there’s still a chance.   

So, maybe those experiences have galvanised something in him, a need to persevere, right to the end. Never say die. In the context of the game, a point would have been enough, a poor performance that we battled back from. But in the context of the season, in the context of Sam Long’s club and career, it wouldn’t have been enough. It would have been a wasted opportunity. There’s still a glimmer of hope; and while hope remains…

And so, there we were, 94 minutes on the clock, the strange bright early evening sun bathing the eerily empty stadium. It’s a hue I’ve started to associate with the pandemic; the same, strange glow that bathed our play-off game against Portsmouth last year. Cameron Brannagan is given space to set himself. Gillingham, for all their gamesmanship are broken, from 2-0 up, even a draw is a defeat – they’ve got to sit in front of a purple-faced Steve Evans in a few minutes – a draw isn’t enough for their efforts, their manager or their season. 

Brannagan’s long deep cross drops beyond its intended targets, perhaps the strange kick-off time made the flight of the ball harder to judge. But where others were waiting for it to drop in the middle of the box, at the back post one man is attacking it. Sam Long, the embodiment of that other crucial ingredient in a successful team, an undying spirit. It’s no easy chance, a deft, light, guided finish is needed to put it beyond the keeper. That’s 3-2 and that’s the game.

A position in the play-offs may still be a quirk of how the fixtures have fallen; but it’s a reminder that beyond tactics, style and gamesmanship, beyond the dark arts and the beautiful game, there’s always hope and while that’s alive, we keep fighting.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Crewe, Shrews, here is the news, Brandon, dribble, shot

Saturday 10 April 2021

OOOOOOHHHHHHH, OUR SIX WERE ON FIRE! Six different players scored as Oxford steamed through Crewe like a freight train on Saturday. The shock and awe included five goals in 13 minutes on their way to a record-equalling 6-0 win.

Sunday 11 April 2021

Former Oxford United CEO oil-slick Mark Ashton is set to take over the swirly leather big-boy’s chair at Ipswich Town. Ashton has spent the last four years at Bristol City, where his natural charm has seen fans really take him to their hearts. Tearful City fans have responded with comments like ‘Does he need a lift there?’ and ‘The best thing to happen this season’. 

Monday 12 April 2021

Arlesey Town have appointed Dave Kitson as their chairman. A surprising move that resulted from a recruitment company executive misreading the brief and finding someone who was ‘proper arsey’.

Meanwhile, Headington United’s Sam Long has signed a three-year contract extension. Long is having his best season at Oxford with fans Brazilifying his name to Longildinho. This is due to his widespread support of deforestation, the thong bikini he wears on the beach and the close shave he has in the pubic region.

Tuesday 13 April 2021

GLS is pretty big news in the bedroom department, but even he knows that hot rampant six should come after some sensual four-play. But it was the other way around on Tuesday as Oxford edged closer to the play-offs with a 4-1 win over Shrewsbury Town. Four different players scored meaning that Jedward orphan Mark Sykes is the only outfield player not to score in the last two games. He’s been asking himself what he’s got to do to get on the scoresheet; the answer being SHOOT GODAMMIT.

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Shrewsbury Town midfielder David Davis, so good, they nearly named him twice, has been reflecting on last night’s game. “Personally I don’t think it was a four-one scoreline’ he said of the four-one scoreline. The key, he said, was the advantage we gained by, checks notes, losing Brandon Barker to injury in the first half; “Their injury took the sting out of the game then we conceded two and made it hard for ourselves.” He’s smart that KRob, getting the upper hand by injuring one of his best players. 

Thursday 15 April 2021

It’ll be a family affair on Saturday when Oxford face fatberg Steve Evans’ Gillingham on Saturday. Ellie and Olly will pack their trunks and say goodbye to the circus as the brothers will each take a side in the big play-off shoot-out. Olly is quite the tactical whizz, knowing that Gills attending the game will give them a better chance of winning; “When we turn up, that is when we are at our best.” he said.

Friday 16 April 2021

It’s crunch time with everyone vying to promotion and play-off spots. Bettingexpert.com have taking a break from drawing young people into a life of misery and crippling debt by running their ‘super computer’, which has just been upgraded to Windows Vista, to predict how League 1 will turn out. According to their sophisticated algorithm, an Excel spreadsheet with specially coloured cells in team colours, we’re set to miss out of the play-offs and finish eighth.  

Match wrap: Oxford United 4 Shrewsbury Town 1

I’m getting my first vaccine jab on Friday. As my sister says; I’m going to go from being the oldest of the young, to the youngest of the old.

Apparently the Oxford vaccine was in development before the pandemic hit.

WAKE UP SHEEPLE, EXPLAIN THAT!

Actually, no, it wasn’t the result of a pre-planned government oppression strategy, in very simple terms – which are the only terms I can understand it – a majority of what the vaccine needed to do was already known because of previous epidemics and pandemics, all that was needed was the remaining unknown – the specific characteristics of the virus causing the pandemic. Genius.

When we played Manchester City in 2018 it wasn’t the LED advertising boards or branded team bus that made me realise we were on a different planet, it was the phalanx of recording equipment they had set up at the back of the South Stand. There were laptops, cameras and analysts everywhere, it was hardly an auspicious historic moment they capturing for prosperity; it was a data harvesting exercise. 

There’s no real difference between harvesting data from the past to invest in a future of certainty whether it’s football or vaccine development. Google’s whole business is based on calculating your future needs based on your past behaviour. Finding certainty and order is a natural human obsession.

For Manchester City, this is paying dividends in the short and the long term. In a year of turmoil, they’ve been gliding to the top of the Premier League and are strolling to the title. Every tiny calculation has helped them to predict and plan and work with almost complete certainty. Like the vaccine development team; if they can predict 90% of what’s going to happen, there’s only 10% to manage. As a result, the quadruple is a distinct possibility with every threat and eventuality calculated, strategised and neutralised. Success is so boring.

I don’t blame the players or manager, their job is to win, the onus is on the powers that be to create a competitive environment. Sadly, in football, the aim of the authorities is to kowtow to rich and influential people by making their success as predictable as possible.

There’s little doubt that League 1 is awash with unpredictability. For all our own fluctuations in form, the same goes for those around us. We’re all little boats being tossed in a sea of unpredictability. In the last week we’ve found some calm water and a brisk following wind which has resulted in ten goals, two games and ten different goalscorers; has that ever happened before? Karl Robinson doesn’t have a trophy cabinet, but he has an increasingly long list of quirky facts about his reign on a spreadsheet. While we’ve thrived; those immediately above us – Blackpool and Portsmouth – haven’t failed to muster a win between them this week. And suddenly, with wonderful unpredictability, we’re back in it.

Why? How? Why? James Henry’s return to fitness has been huge, his ball to Matty Taylor for the third goal last night was sublime, of the ten goals we’ve scored, he’s been involved in six and wasn’t on the pitch for two of the remaining four. That’s some return. My low-def internet feed prevents me from fully understanding what Sam Long does to the team, but we always look better with him on the side. Elliott Moore is quietly becoming a dominant and influential force at the back and a threat up front. The pieces have fallen into place.

We don’t have Manchester City’s sophisticated sat nav making billions of calculations to war game all eventualities, allowing us to plot a path to success. We could suddenly hit a big wave or a strong headwind, we just don’t know. Which is a long way to say, I don’t know how we’ve got to this point and don’t know where we’re heading. This season I’ve predicted that we’re a spent force, I’ve predicted that we’re hot footing our way to the Championship, I’ve now concluded that I simply don’t know. I can say with absolute certainty that I have no clue where we’ll end up now.

Which, in a season as stale as this one threatened to be, and often was, is about as good as it gets, is it really better being 10 points clear with six games to when you’re the main character in a page turner; twist following turn following twist?

In three weeks and five games we’ll know; we may make it to the shores of the Championship, we may drown with all souls lost. In some ways, the destination isn’t the point, as they say; ‘adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you’. 

Match wrap: Crewe Alexandra 0 Oxford United 6

My parents had an emergency yesterday; they couldn’t get the dishwasher cap for the salt off. Dutifully, I raced over without a second thought to my own personal safety. My dad could try to get down on the floor to get a proper grip, but it’s unlikely he’d get back up without the help of an ambulance.  

My dad is a three-club-man – Oxford was his local club, Wolves his proper club and Hearts were from where he was born. He started watching Oxford as Headington United when Wolves were one of the biggest sides in Europe, they operated in parallel universes with little danger of the two mixing. Wolves satisfied the visceral thrill of the game, Oxford enriched his soul.

He’s quite excited by Wolves’ revival and is completely at ease with his club being owned by Chinese billionaires. Of course, it throws up divisive inequalities, but even if he’s with us for a couple more decades, life is definitely shorter for him than it used to be. 

Wolves won on Friday despite a controversial VAR decision, he told me. ‘Traore scored, but apparently he’s leaving’ he said. I feigned interest, but didn’t even know a game was on, let alone who Traore is. I cannot overstate how disinterested I am in Premier League football.

Last week after the Accrington defeat, I toyed with the idea that we might need a change of DNA if we’re to achieve promotion and move closer to that world. Wolves are no longer the club of Steve Bull or Derek Dougan; their DNA has been fundamentally altered in the name of success, perhaps we need something similar. 

But change for who? When rumours of our own takeover surfaced, my first reaction wasn’t about all the expensive players we could bring in, but a hope that they wouldn’t alter the club too much, detach it from its moorings as a club for the people of Oxford. Honestly, if they fixed the stadium, that’d be enough for me.

Yesterday’s destruction of Crewe was our season in microcosm – an average start, blistering mid-section, and an average end. It was a microcosm of Karl Robinson’s time at the club; average first season, blistering second, average third. Who knows what the fourth wave brings, but this is fundamentally our DNA, almost like we need a breather between intense efforts.

When it’s great, it’s truly great. This season we may come away with a below-par league finish, but we’ve also bagged two club records – longest winning streak and equal biggest away win. The mid-section of the Crewe win – five goals in thirteen minutes – was a riot. It’s absolutely the reason we invest so much time, money and effort in the club. It’s taking a lot to get me off my sofa this season, but Brandon Barker’s run and shot for the fourth had me jumping up and shouting ‘woh, woh, WOH’ with every player he passed. I’m attracted by the idea of relentless success, but fear a world where this is sort of thing is expected. I want to be shocked by what we achieve, to gaze in wonder when it all clicks. I want see players enjoying their success and hard work. To see Cameron Brannagan score months after nearly losing his sight; that’s the kind of story I want. 

Simon Eastwood’s signing earlier in the week was met on the social barometer of Twitter with a degree of both surprise and disappointment by those who seem to now define his contribution solely by the mistake he made against Swindon. I think it’s a great signing; all squads need two first team goalkeepers. We could keep a junior on the bench and hope they’re rarely needed, or we could get a veteran who is happy to have a contract; having two keepers who want to work together to push each other to be better is the ideal situation. We don’t need to go scrambling in the loan market if there’s an injury and we’re insulated if a bid does come in for Stevens, as is rumoured.

Eastwood is just the kind of player we need, he’s circumspect about the fact there are more goalkeepers than goalkeeping spots. Not getting a starting berth is not a failure, it’s just how his job works. Players are not always like that, they sulk and find new clubs, I like that Eastwood thinks. Like the extended contracts of James Henry and Cameron Brannagan in recent years, he’s showing that playing for Oxford doesn’t need to be just another contract defined by its salary or profile. We used to be a stepping stone, but now we’re becoming an end in ourselves, a good place to work, somewhere to stay and contribute to the development of the whole club. Eastwood doesn’t come across as a careerist, he needs more than that, something that works for him on a personal level as well as a professional one. He’s in a transitional phase; by the end of his contract he’ll be a veteran, but hopefully his example will have passed onto others with more players seeing Oxford as a place worth staying at. Everyone wins.

Despite flirting with the idea that our DNA should be more ruthless, less patient, more aggressive; I just don’t think that’s us. Naturally, I want us to win and to entertain, but I want to feel the players want to be at the club more, that there’s substance to who we are. Of course we need funding, but I want feel our successes are won more than they’re bought. Karl Robinson dedicated the win to the fans; it’s a rare commodity in the impatient world of football that people are more important than results, we should be wary of throwing it away. 

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Flat Stanley

Saturday 3 April 2021

It wasn’t such a good Friday on Good Friday, you could call it a… ‘Bad Friday’… hmm? You see, we’ve transposed the ‘Good’ with the word ‘Bad’ despite the etymological origins of Good in Good Friday being God and not good. The following day, after an alleged headbutting, sending-off and controversial winner the Sunderland Echo took time out to report on a briefly posted, then deleted, tweet from Cameron Brannagain.   

Sunday 4 April 2021

In news that sends shockwaves around the world, people are reeling to discover that KRob may have overreacted when he said the police would be called to investigate the alleged headbutt on Jack Stevens against Sunderland. ‘We won’t be proceeding with the complaint’, said the club’s official eye-roll emoji.  

Monday 5 April 2021

Accrington Stanley-knifed our play-off chances with a 2-1 win over the stuttering yellows on Monday. After a poor start and conceding an early goal, Oxford equalised through Eliot Lee before Stanley scored a 70th minute winner in a moment as bleak any time someone says ‘who are they?’ whenever the Lancashire club is mentioned.

Tuesday 6 April 2021

Jedward orphan Mark Sykes has put the record straight in the argument over whether he shouldn’t be picked for Republic of Ireland or shouldn’t be picked for Northern Ireland. ‘I’m an Irish person, I want to play for the Republic of Ireland. It’s that simple’, said the Belfast-born former Northern Ireland Under 21. Couldn’t be simpler.

Meanwhile, Oxford fans are grieving that Jack Stevens could be leaving because of what he’s achieving and Nottingham Forest fans are in pain that Marcus McGuane may begin an Oxford reign, ‘that’s insane’ was their refrain.

Wednesday 7 April 2021

Like a toddler taking himself off to the naughty step for filling his nappy, KRob’s decided that he’ll voluntarily take himself to stands next time Trevor Kettle refs a game. “Industrial language is used not just by me but by him” said KRob “Yet I’m the one who gets punished.” Which is a bit like the pot calling the Kettle ‘c**t’.

Thursday 8 April 2021

KRob was the selectah on the Radio Oxford 10 Minute 26 Second Fans Forum which, frankly, isn’t even trying anymore. He said he was more than happy to commit the time in the name of transparency. Questions were all about players. ‘Will Josh Ruffels sign a new contract?’ Maybe, said KRob transparently. ‘Are Joel Cooper and Sean Clare in his plan?’ Perhaps, he said translucently. ‘Can we sign Marcus McGuane and Brandon Barker?’ Clearly he can’t say. ‘Will Brannagain sign again? Or Jack Stevens be at the club next season?’ We’ll see, he concluded transpicuously.

Meanwhile, sensible Simon Eastwood has been reviewing his medium-risk diversified ethical ISA and decided to commit another three years to the club. Sensible Simon said it was a great deal for his family before checking his oil, rotating his tyres and driving off in his Kia Sportage.

Friday 9 April 2021

Jonjoe Kenny, who is currently on loan at Celtic, wants to end his nomadic career. The former Oxford loanee has played ten games for Celtic, losing one; or relegation form as over-indulged Bhoys fans call it. Still, after four loan spells Kenny is keen to settle. ‘Every stop I make, I make a new friend, can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again.’ said the Littlest Hobo. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Accrington Stanley 2

It’s the 25th anniversary of our 1996 promotion; presumably the club would’ve done something to mark the occasion in another year, but it seems to have passed quietly. I realise now that the nineties was similar to how my parents experienced the sixties. It was a cultural explosion and a time of happy abandon. 1996 was pretty much its peak – as well as our promotion in May, Euro 96 was in June and Oasis’ era-defining concert at Knebworth in August. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was a pretty special time.

Understandably, the ‘96 promotion is held up as a halcyon campaign, a benchmark of what can be achieved. It pivoted on a remarkable end of season run which took us from mid-table to second in a period of a few months. 

The defining moment was an Easter double-header against Blackpool on the Saturday and Wycombe on the following Monday. The contrast between the two games couldn’t have been more stark. The Blackpool game was tense and tight, cold and grey, at Wycombe, it was springlike, joyous and carefree. The two wins, with Joey Beauchamp’s 35 yard smasher and Stuart Massey hanging off the crossbar transformed the run from one of hope to one of expectation. 

After a 1-1 draw with Notts County we seemed to smash through every barrier put in front of us; 2-0 against Bristol City, 6-0 against Shrewsbury, 2-1 against Crewe and a promotion securing 4-0 win against Peterborough. Blackpool picked up two points in the same period – a story which is often forgotten – they contrived to lose the last three games of the season meaning we were promoted by a point.

You’ll often hear reference to this campaign when we’re hovering outside the play-offs with indifferent form. It’s like the 5-5 draw with Portsmouth in 1992 – there are fans who stay to the bitter end of games just because of that game. It doesn’t matter what mess you’re in, there’s always a chance. 

This season has felt like one of those that needs to be constantly referenced back to 1996; we just need a run like that one to give us the momentum to propel us in the play-offs. Then, you never know.

The only similarity with ‘96 is that this weekend’s Easter fixtures seem to have been pivotal in setting a final descent to where we’ll end up this year. Unlike in 96, it’s some way off where we want to be.

Yesterday’s defeat to Accrington, following Friday’s defeat to Sunderland, confirmed what’s been coming for a long time. We weren’t completely awful, we just weren’t quite firing. But, we’ve lived in hope of a 1996-style revival and dramatic run to success. For weeks we’ve been ‘only three points’ off the play-offs ignoring the fact that, at the top of the table, you need to win two to three games for every point you need to claw back.

The 1996 mindset, coupled with the 2010 play-off, another promotion secured at the last gasp, seems to have created a mindset that this is the way we, Oxford United, get promoted. Resulting from an extraordinary run, a pivotal moment, by the skin of our teeth. That seems to be the Oxford way.

But promotion don’t need to be like that, it doesn’t need to be against the odds, the best teams don’t sneak their way to success, they become an unrelenting winning machines. That focus, gives you the headroom in case something fails. At the moment, one mistake or a couple of injuries, and we’re out of it.

What does that mean in practice? We need to develop a nasty streak. We are incredibly easy to like; we play good football, we’re entertaining to watch, we treat our fans well. Our young players get their chance to develop, local players are regulars, there are few, if any, players that we don’t like.

Karl Robinson will often refer back to the all-conquering Liverpool team of the mid-eighties. In some ways he sees Oxford being the centre of a community in the way Liverpool were then. But, they were also a nasty team; physical, bullying, unrelentingly demanding. John Aldridge, no wall flower and very much a successful Liverpool player in that era found the atmosphere around the club intimidating. As a player, if you didn’t meet the squads exacting standards, you were rejected from the pack.

It’s a choice, ultimately, do we evolve slowly, sticking to our values, taking our chances when they come, or do we demand success and become intolerant to failure? If we choose that path, it’s going to be difficult and disruptive, players we like become assets that need to perform or leave. It makes me uncomfortable to be like that, there are few players I’d want to show the door because they’re not good enough, but the reality is that they’re demonstrably not good enough.

We don’t need to follow that path, of course, we can continue in our current vein and I’m torn. History tells us that there will be opportunities and successes down this path. While they’re great when they come, patience is everything. When you consider we haven’t won a league title for 36 years you have to think; how long do we tolerate the Oxford Way?