Midweek Fixture: Why the Manchester City fixture isn’t ‘the one’

Last week, I wrote about our 1983/4 League Cup run, inspired by this season’s run to the quarter finals. On one level, it’s very similar but in many more ways it’s very different. Admittedly, I was considerably younger, but back then I was very accepting of our wins over Newcastle and Leeds, as though they were both normal. When we drew Manchester United in the fourth round took us to another level of excitement and anticipation.

By comparison, the draw for the quarter-final of this year’s competition has seen us paired against Manchester City. The reaction was, shall we say, more muted.

If you’d ranked the remaining teams in the competition in terms of preference, City would have come far down the list. But, this is a giant of European football, the dominant team in the domestic game, some of the best players in the world. Are we being reasonable treating it with such disdain?

Possibly, having played City last year, it’s difficult to get excited by a re-run particularly as it’s likely to end in a similar result. But, there are few teams in League 1 that have entertained such illustrious hosts and fewer still that have done so this deep into the competition. So, it’s a big team in a big game and let’s face it, we’ve sold out in double quick time, so despite the sniffiness from some quarters, it’s not lacking in interest.

But, even then, it’s not comparable to the thrill of Manchester United in 1983, or Arsenal the following year.

The problem is not so much about the draw or the opponents, but more a reflection of the modern game as it evolves.

The first thing is that the growth of the Premier League and Champions League has resulted in the League Cup becoming so devalued that it struggles for high value sponsors and media interest. Sponsors and TV companies want as much bang for their buck as possible, and with the tournament on the wane, the Football League are not in a strong bargaining position.

The quarter-final draw almost certainly guarantees a semi-final, and final with big teams in it, which in turn ensures big TV audiences. This year’s competition has seen an abnormally high number of tasty match ups – the fourth round had Chelsea v Manchester United, Arsenal v Liverpool and Wolves v Villa. Prior to that there was Nottingham Forest v Derby, Southampton v Portsmouth, Salford v Leeds and MK Dons v Wimbledon. Is the draw fixed? I think there’s every chance that it’s ‘organised’ to ensure that it retains sufficient interest with sponsors and TV.

So, where in the past we’ve been excited by the fate of the draw – which is why we watch two middle aged ex-footballers pulling balls out of a bag on prime time TV – this year it feels a more contrived; as if we’ve been paired with a big team in order to swat us out of the way.

But also, whereas back in 1983 there was a sense that we might win the tie against Manchester United I don’t think anyone realistically thinks this is possible against City. They’re almost unbeatable, and certainly by the likes of us. The chasm is so big that it is no longer a sporting spectacle, but an entertainment product. Like watching WWE wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters; the result is effectively decided, as consumers, we’re just expected to sit back and enjoy the ride.

I want to be wrong; and if we do find ourselves still in it with twenty minutes to go, I fully expect to be heavily invested in the game. But, as I’m sat here today, would I be disappointed with a defeat? No. Am I looking forward to the game? Not as much as I’m looking forward to a tasty, competitive, top of the table clash with Wycombe Wanderers three days later.

In the past, even the biggest teams could be beaten by lower league teams. Against Premier League teams outside the top six that’s still true as we proved against Swansea and West Ham, but Manchester City, and similarly Liverpool, are now transcending that, we’re all just bit part players in their play. 

For sponsors and TV this is all fine; having big unbeatable teams guarantees slick and beautifully produced ‘product’. It satisfies whatever motivation the owners have for their club as well. But it’s not a sporting competition. Teams like us get in the way, we might produce an upset that stirs the loins, but the chances are we won’t and TV can no longer afford to have a product with that kind of uncertainty.

So what we are now facing is our own infallibility; against West Ham, Millwall and even Sunderland we had a chance, we enjoyed the challenge and celebrated the success. Had we drawn, say, Aston Villa, then we would have been overjoyed because of the prospect of it being a sporting contest. In reality, we’re probably facing a routine elimination, and possibly by a large margin, which is no way to end a story.   

I don’t think any of this is deliberately corrupt; the arranging of the draw or the dominance of Manchester City, but it is corrosive. It’s like casual sexism or using single use plastics – people aren’t doing it to be deliberately damaging – it’s just how things have evolved and it’s not helpful.

There will be those who argue I should just sit back and enjoy it, even if the result is fairly predictable. But, the new Star Wars film opens the following day, and predictable enjoyment is what I expect from that. Perhaps it’s an outdated concept, one lost to the 80s, but with football, I want a sense of raw competition.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Hally’s Crawley bally

Sunday 10 November 2019

The bragging rights were all ours on Sunday, as well as breezing to a comfortable 2-0 win over Hayes and Yeading in the FA Cup, it was the first time in nearly 20 years that Oxford United have played a first class game against a team with less stands in their stadium. Many Oxford fans sang ‘You’ve only got one side’ while secretly admiring the stadium’s fencework.

Goals came from Headington United’s Sam Long and the Aylesbury Ashley Young; Rob Hall.

Monday 11 November 2019

GLS was a student last time he spent a Monday night watching a part-time landlord caressing his velvet ball-bag expectantly. A quick dash to the cash machine to pay three months of rent arrears and the problem was solved. This time it was Dion Dublin who drew our name out of the bag for the FA Cup 2nd Round away to Walsall or Darlington

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Like wondering what it will take for people to realise that Nigel Farage is a self-serving narcissist, it is difficult to know what would dissuade some people from attending a dead rubber MySpace.com Trophy game against Crawley Town on a freezing Tuesday night.

But attend they did, 412 (FOUR HUNDRED AND LITERALLY TWELVE) of them, KRob fielded a team of such marginal players, Ross Weatherstone and Rob Folland were hoping for a game. The Aylesbury Ashley Young Rob Hall bagged a hat-trick in a 4-1 win.

Wednesday 11 November 2019

The press continue to look at hipster’s favourites John Lundstram and George Baldock with all the puzzled curiosity of a Massai tribesman returning a burgundy corduroy skirt at a moderately sized branch of FatFace. The Yorkshire Post can’t quite figure out how players who have played at lower levels are able to cut it in the Premier League – hard work and talent, perhaps?

Thursday 12 November 2019

Confidence is the habitual voyeur of what is known as Sports Park Life! The club have announced that they will be ensuring there’s no heavy petting or bombing, after they took over the lease of the Oxford Sports Park. As well as being the permanent training ground for the club, it’ll also host community activities. Grandma GLS has already signed up to Jamie Mackie’s over-60s badminton league.

There was a grrreat the Six Minute Thirty Seven Second Fans Forum with Tiger on Thursday. Brenda from Eynsham phoned up to ask whether pilates was on tonight before asking about the stadiumsituation (has never been asked about it before? We can’t remember).

Friday 13 November 2019

No game for Oxford this weekend, but that doesn’t mean the Oxford’s alumni have got a rest. Pocket racist Sam Deering is on the comeback trail, having signed for Dagenham & Redbridge following a period navigating the wastelands of the lower-leagues. Elsewhere, goal machine Sam Smith is enjoying his time at Oxford’s local rivals Cambridge having scored seven goals this season. 

Midweek fixture: The 1983/4 Milk Cup run

While Jim Smith and Robert Maxwell were trying to affect a revolution at Oxford United, by 1983 progress towards a new dawn was still fairly slow. The previous season had seen the club finish a creditable 5th in the 3rd Division and, while hopes were growing, Jim Smith’s only addition to the squad had been Paul Hinshelwood, an elegant full-back from Crystal Palace. What nobody anticipated was the epic Milk Cup run that would help define the season and propel the club to a level never previously imagined.

Round 1 – Oxford United 1 Bristol City 1, Bristol City 0 Oxford United 1 (Agg: 2-1)

The Milk Cup was a more bloated affair in the 1980s with the early rounds played over two legs. Oxford opened their account in August with a 1-1 draw over 4th Division Bristol City at The Manor, Kevin Brock getting the goal. The second leg was nearly two weeks later, a 1-0 win with Andy Thomas scoring at Ashton Gate. Both had played in Jim Smith’s first game in March 1982, three years later, both would be in the squad at Wembley for the Milk Cup Final.

Round 2 – Newcastle United 1 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 2 Newcastle United 1 (Agg: 3-2)

Though we were top of Division 3, Round 2 was a major step up. We drew Second Division promotion seekers Newcastle United. There’s was a star-studded team, captained by England skipper Kevin Keegan and featuring Terry McDermott, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley in their ranks. 

Steve Biggins helped himself to a goal in a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park in the first leg. Back at The Manor, a ferocious attacking display saw a 2-1 win with goals from Neil Whatmore and Andy Thomas while Gary Briggs was sent off late on for a challenge on Keegan.

Round 3 – Leeds United 1 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 4 Leeds United 1

Second tier Leeds United at Elland Road was another huge draw featuring internationals Peter Barnes, Kenny Burns and Frank Gray. Buoyed by the Newcastle result, a Mick Vinter goal earned the draw which brought the Yorkshire team back to a freezing Manor ground where goals from Brock, Thomas, Vinter and Bobby MacDonald destroyed them 4-1. Jim Smith described the display as one of the best he’d ever seen.

Round 4 – Oxford United 1 Manchester United 1, Manchester United 1 Oxford United 1 (aet), Oxford United 2 Manchester United 1 (aet)

Round 4 was epic; Manchester United were FA Cup holders and second in Division 1. To add spice, they were managed by former Oxford United legend Ron Atkinson, an old friend of Jim Smith’s and the one who had helped get him the Oxford job in the first place.

An hour before kick-off, The Manor was already full. Mark Hughes scored his first professional goal for Manchester United in his first ever start, but Bobby MacDonald stabbed home for a 1-1 draw and a trip back to Old Trafford. Listen to The Manor roar.

Over 3,000 Oxford fans travelled north for the replay. Assuming the tie was a foregone conclusion; there was only minimal TV news coverage present to see Kevin Brock put us ahead at Old Trafford with 20 minutes to go. An equaliser by Frank Stapleton a minute later saw the game heading for extra-time and then a second replay.

Manchester United offered to host the tie, citing the financial benefits, but Robert Maxwell refused. There was talk about it being held at the neutral Villa Park. In the end, the venue was decided by the toss of a coin, Maxwell called it right and everyone headed back to The Manor. 

Six days before Christmas, Arthur Graham gave Manchester United the lead after 38 minutes but George Lawrence stabbed home to drag us back into it. The tie, again, went into extra-time, when Steve Biggins’ looped a header over the head of ‘keeper Jeff Wealands for the winner and one of the most famous wins in the club’s history.

Quarter-Final – Oxford United 1 Everton 1, Everton 4 Oxford United 1

Having slayed the biggest of giants over an epic three games, the draw against Everton seemed entirely winnable. With Aston Villa waiting in the semi-final – the team we’d face at that stage in 1986 – Wembley was actually in sight.

The Manor heaved with anticipation, exploding into life when Bobby MacDonald put us a goal up. Oxford threatened to extend their lead and looked comfortable as the game ticked into its final stages. Then Kevin Brock picked the ball up in midfield, under hit his back pass to Steve Hardwick allowing Adrian Heath to nip in and secure an equaliser. Steve Biggins missed an open goal in the last minute, meaning a replay at Goodison Park.

Jim Smith admitted that he got over-confident for the replay, underestimating his opponents. Brock’s backless seemed to pop our bubble, and in the replay, played in a blizzard, we succumbed 4-1 with Paul Hinshelwood getting the goal.

The result saved Everton manager Howard Kendell’s job and sparked them into a life which led to an FA Cup win, Cup Winners’ Cup and League title win. We went onto win the 3rd Division title at the end of the season, but as an adventure – eleven games, five months and three huge giant killings – few runs were bettered.

Match wrap: Hayes and Yeading 0 Oxford United 2

TV companies probably need to stop looking quite so hard for the ‘magic of the Cup’. There are investments to repay and advertisers to satisfy, but constantly chasing the magic doesn’t really work.

I hadn’t realised before the Hayes and Yeading game that the tie represented the biggest gap between two sides in the draw. It’s almost as if it were selected on the basis that it was where the most magic was likely to be. Had there been an upset, it might have been but it was also the tie most likely to return a predictable result; which is ultimately what it did.

In reality, with five divisions between us, we would have had to drop our performance quite considerably, while they played at their very best to make it remotely competitive. The application of anything approaching a par performance on either side and the result was a foregone conclusion.

There was a degree of snottiness that we put out a strong team. There was concern about potential injuries and fatigue; as if fielding a strong team against weak opposition is belittling of your status.

Although Karl Robinson talked about respecting the competition; his selection was made easier with next week’s international break. With no game next Saturday; and a meaningless EFL Trophy game against Crawley in midweek, we could play a strong team in the cup with fringe players getting a leg stretcher on Tuesday. That still leaves time for players to rest and recover before things get meaningful again in a couple of weeks. It doesn’t happen often, but the fixtures are falling our way at the moment.

The first 45 minutes couldn’t have been more straight forward though we were a bit sloppy with the chances we had. The main culprits were those we have probably enjoyed most this season; with Henry, Fosu and Taylor all missing chances they should have put away.

The second-half was more competitive; we were a bit slow out of the blocks and they seemed to realise that they’d nothing to lose by taking some risks. But, despite Simon Eastwood doing some decent Simon Eastwood things, the biggest concern was just about the relative embarrassment of conceding, rather than the result going the wrong way.

In the end it was perhaps fitting that the goals came from Sam Long and Rob Hall. Both have had to keep things professional and play percentages in recent years; Rob Hall has to manage his effort carefully because of his injury record while Sam Long has learned his core value is his consistent reliability. In simple terms, it keeps him in a job.

It’s the Halls and Longs of the world that get you through these games. The ones who will always deliver a near par performance. In this great search for the magic of the cup; sometimes simple professionalism will do.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Up Pompey!… Ooh you are awful

Saturday 2 November 2019

Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Portsmouth was preceded by a Remembrance ceremony so shambolic, it made the First World War look like an episode of Great British Bake-Off. After a minute’s silence, which lasted for well over three, the teams appeared for yet another minute’s silence. Then, in the 90th minute, Matty Taylor popped up to nod home Oxford’s equaliser. Portsmouth fans then meticulously observed several more minutes of silence as they trudged home.  

Sunday 3 November 2019

It’s been debated for years and divided families, but finally it seems to be happening. Yes, Lincolnshire sexiest people have been ranked. Our own Mr Big Guns, and new Lincoln manager, Michael Appleton muscled in at number 11. 

Who is he sexier than? it’s…… Rebekah Vardy (45th), Nicholas Parsons (31st) and Rob Lowe – an America who once played a policeman from Lincolnshire.

Michael isn’t as sexy as Sergeant Mike ‘Tempo’ Templeman from Channel 5’s Police Interceptors or number 1 – Bhasha Mukherjee who is A beauty queen! A woman! and a Doctor! A combination we all know is not actually possible.

Monday 4 November 2019

We were thrust into the vice-like jaws of Big Football on Monday as it was announced that our Type 1 Diabetes Cup Quarter-Final against cash bores Manchester City will be Live! On! Sky! On! Wednesday! 16! December! This will allow the club to suckle on the teat of Sky’s cash cow to the tune of £125000. The game they’re calling ‘Man City Covets Thy Neighbours Ox’ or something, accommodates City’s big game against Arsenal on Sunday, which Sky are billing as ‘The Big Man’s Arse’ – which we all thought was Scott McNiven. 

Tickets are on sale to season ticket holders and members, and will be available to half-and-half scarf wearers in a couple of weeks. 

Tuesday 5 November 2019

We’re not suggesting that Lancashire has slow internet, but The Lancashire Post were reporting a game from 49 years ago on Wednesday. The game between Oxford and Preston resulted in an outfield player in goal and a goalie on the wing in a sling. 

Former Oxford captain John Lundstram is rapidly becoming hipster’s choice in the world of Fantasy Football. Once celebrated as a master of the passing craft, he’s now revered for being cheap and mistakenly labelled as a ‘defender’ in the fantasy parallel world, thereby clocking up plenty of unexpected points. What a life.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Ipswich are on the run from the rampant Yellows after they (Ip)switched the game between the two sides on the 16th November due to international call-ups. The international break would have seen the Ipswich Galacticos stripped of their Cypriot international, a Tunisian Under 23 and Albanian Under 19.  

Thursday 7 November 2019

It was the Six Minute Ten Seconds Fans Forum on Thursday with Jamie Mackie. ‘Who winds you up in training?’ was the first question which caused Mackie to collapse on the floor holding his head, theatrically check his forehead for blood and moan for the rest of the interview about how he’s not getting any protection from the rough-housing.

Friday 8 November 2019

You have to feel for Sunderland, it’s like they live in a parallel universe. One website has suggested that the benevolent failure-magnets could be good enough to take Cameron Brannagan off our hands in January. This is due to us ‘punching above our weight’ (aka punching above Sunderland). The Mackem’s would walk League 1 if less entitled clubs would get out of the way and let them do it.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Going to football is cold and miserable; we should just stay at home with a spreadsheet. That’s what data driven Five Thirty Eight have done; they’ve plugged all their numbers into Excel and predicted that we’ll finish third behind Ipswich and Sunderland. A lot of factors are considered; expected goals, defensive qualities, number of seats in your stadium, Charlie Methven’s loafers, that sort of thing.

Midweek fixture: FA Cup 1st Round memories

On Sunday we head off on another FA Cup adventure with the trip to Hayes and Yeading. Previous 1st Round ties have conjured up a range of emotions from record highs to record lows. Here are seven of the best, and worst, from the last 24 years.

2016 – Merstham 5-0

Six months after promotion, we were the epitome of a team in a good place. A draw away to unknown commuter town Merstham was a great opportunity to try out our new status. TV cameras were there baying for an upset, but even with key players rested, we strolled to a classy win.

2013 – Gateshead 1-0

By 2013, our post-promotion glow had worn off and further progress up the divisions seemed just out of reach. The malaise tested the loyalty of the biggest fans. Following a desperate 2-2 draw with Gateshead at the Kassam, we travelled very very north for the replay. A postponement minutes before kick-off left fans stranded hundreds of miles from home. Still, two weeks later a Dean Smalley penalty sealed a workaday win.

2009 – Yeovil Town 1-0

An often forgotten and somewhat insignificant game in the context of the rest of that season, but important for other reasons. We were on a roll in the League, regaining confidence lost over a 10 year period. We were raucous off the pitch and aggressive on it. It was only the 1st Round, and it was only Yeovil, but it was also our first win over any league team for four years. We were on the way back.

2006 – Wycombe Wanderers 1-2

The significance of this game was the fact it happened at all. Relegated from the Football League we’d started the season well. For the first time in a generation we were required to qualify to the FA Cup. We did, with a win over Dagenham and Redbridge, drawing Wycombe Wanderers in the first round. A solid display and narrow defeat wasn’t as satisfying as the knowledge we registered our existence in the competition for another year. 

2005 – Eastbourne Borough 3-0

Labouring to a 1-0 lead at little Eastbourne Borough in the FA Cup, they introduced, to the obvious excitement of the locals, a whippet quick van driver from Nigeria. Yemi Odubade ran our lumbering centre-backs ragged, winning them a last minute penalty and earning a replay. In the replay, Odubade ran amok, but somehow a Steve Basham hat-trick saw us triumph. The result was a travesty. Days later Brian Talbot brought Yemi to the club, where he became a rare bright spot in a bleak time.

1995 – Dorchester Town 9-1

God we needed this; having failed to gain promotion the previous season, the 95/96 campaign was faltering. When Dorchester Town arrived in November some were doubting our credentials. The avalanche of goals was cathartic, keeping the baying hordes at bay, a major stepping stone towards finding our feet and heading for promotion.

1994 – Marlow Town 0-2

Perhaps the grimmest day in the club’s history. We were top of League 1 and looked to be heading for promotion. We drew the architects and IT consultants of Marlow Town, which featured Les Phillips and Peter Rhodes-Brown in their number. On a potato patch pitch we put on the most fancy-dan performance and were out battled. It popped any bubble of positivity. 

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

This season Portsmouth are best described by what happened before the game. Fratton Park is one of the larger traditional grounds in the division and I was looking forward to the crumbling steps and rusting corrugated iron that holds the place together. It’s the sort of football environment I was brought up in.

Beforehand, they ran two interviews over the PA; one with Kenny Jackett and the other with a player, both talked about their lowly league position how their form was good and bad at the same time. A bit like us last season; never completely terrible, but somehow unable to climb the table.

Then came a bloated Armistice ceremony; there’d be a reading, the last post and a minute’s silence. There were drummers, flag bearers and some children on the pitch, but no players. The crowd fell silent for three or four awkward minutes, nobody could ask if something had gone wrong because speaking is disrespectful.

Then kids in Portsmouth kits came on to make a guard of honour and the players started to appear. The endless silence broke. The players were applauded on, the captains laid wreaths and then they lined up a second time for the reading, last post and minute’s silence.

And that’s Portsmouth; trying to do the right thing and simply getting it wrong. A proper muddle.

The conditions, injuries and fatigue were always going to even things up. It was never going to be straight forward, you could see early on that the patches of sodden turf and the wind meant passes and clearances were easily miscued, overrun or under hit. It suited grafters like Alex Gorrin and John Mousinho much more than ballplayers like Tariqe Fosu.

After their penalty we looked spent and I was thinking that we’d take the narrow defeat; which was much better than our last two visits. Fratton Park had came to life, we were stuck between chasing the game and conceding more. The introduction of Anthony Forde gave us renewed energy and some quality in our delivery. James Henry suddenly started getting more of the ball; our experienced players took control, pushing Portsmouth further back.

It was this experience and confidence that jimmied away at their insecurities. It wasn’t just desire, it was the application of professional experience, knowing we could get something from the game, even when things were going against us. After a few close calls it came, James Henry to the back post; Matty Taylor heading back across the keeper; a training ground drill. It was no accident, no desperate lunge for survival, this is what experience gives you, the deep muscle memory to keep applying what you know until you’re rewarded.

It was such a treat to see us applying the screw, so often we’ve been the victims of teams which played on our weaknesses – teams like Portsmouth. Dare I say it, it’s the character you see in promotion teams.

But, there’s no getting around the fact injuries are building up and we looked tired. Next week we have a bit of a free hit in the FA Cup – we should have enough quality in the squad to get a result, even if it is a bit of a patched up team. Then, there’s a likely postponement the following week because of internationals. It gives us a bit of time to recover before we visit Southend on the 23rd – it couldn’t have come at a better time, it’s been quite a few weeks.