In this episode, we’re heading back to 2002 and a second round of the FA Cup against Swindon Town. Ian Atkins was at the control and the club were in the grip of his footballing revolution. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s probably a ball launched long by Matt Bound for Steve Basham and Jefferson Louis to chase.
One of the lasting memories of the 1996 promotion season was the bounty of goals we achieved from corners. Joey Beauchamp would swing a ball into the near post; Matt Elliott would flick on and Paul Moody would mop up from the resulting chaos by heading home. Occasionally the players would change, but the system never did.
We all get excited by the award of a corner; in terms of crowd response, it’s the next best thing to a goal. And yet, just 8% of corners result in a goal; a figure I suspect is dropping as teams get better at defending set pieces. But still, when a corner is awarded, an anticipatory frisson spontaneously surges through the fans.
We were reflecting on the terrace bon mot ‘you’re shit ahhhh’ during yesterday’s game against Plymouth. Like the fans’ response to a corner, it’s an integral part of every goal kick. Its origins were a genuine attempt to put the goalkeeper off by making as much noise as possible. I suppose in those days goalkeepers often looked like some of the fans on the terrace and it was reasonable to assume they would respond as a fan might to any unexpected noise by shanking a kick into touch.
It’s increasingly obvious that it has no effect on the keeper’s concentration or the quality of the resulting kick. Sometime during the 1990s the ‘you’re shit, ahhh’ appendage was added. It was almost a recognition that the chant was absurd and pointless; the terrace equivalent of Baddiel and Newman’s History Today sketch which ended with two ageing academics trading playground insults; ‘that’s your mum, that is’.
Now it’s just part of the ambient noise of a game and happens out of some deep cultural obligation, a ceremony to keep the memory of our fallen brothers alive.
“OOOOHHHH AAAAHHHHH YOU’RE SHIT AAAAAHHHHH”
“Why do you do that dad?”
“Because it’s what your grandad and great grandad did on this very spot right up to the day they died. I will not let their memory fade to dust.”
Perhaps, if the genuine aim is to put the goalkeeper off, the crowd should remain completely silent and murmur in inaudible sarcastic tones as the ball sails through the air. The psychological damage that could do to an insecure ‘keeper could prove fruitful, after all, nobody likes people talking behind their backs.
Football is a visceral experience, we live every near miss with spontaneous abandon. We thoughtlessly respond to what’s in front of us; the bloke in front of me yesterday responded to each chance with variations on ‘bloody useless’ or ‘just stick it in the net’ as if James Henry was consciously preferring to see if he could hit the Chaokoh ethically sourced coconuts advert and had absent mindedly overlooked the fact he could do with popping a couple of shots in the goal before the clock runs out.
Professional sports people often talk about controlling the controllables; focus on the process and the outcomes will take care of themselves. Those who can do that are the ones who succeed, the outcome – a near miss or an exasperated noise from the fans – needs to be set aside because the process is where success lies.
The irredeemable divide is that fans tend to focus on outcomes. The result alone determines the effectiveness of the tactics, selection or any given move. We ramp up the pressure and force our way into the consciousness of the players because there’s no such thing as a good move with a bad outcome.
Oddly, what we seemed to be watching on Saturday was two entirely separate games; one was all about the inputs. We created a host of chances, particularly in the second half, carved them open time and again, we just didn’t convert them. There was one move where the ball skimmed across the goal, the intended target, Matty Taylor, was a long way behind the play having helped carve out the chance. It was greeted with frustration, but really it just illustrated how difficult football is to play.
Then there was the other game; the one which was all about the outputs – they exploited our weaknesses and efficiently took the opportunities for a comfortable win. Unlike teams who’ve out muscled us in the past, I thought they looked like a parallel of us – they were us on a good day, we were them on a bad day. It’s rare to see a game so stark; strangely enough, their biggest challenge may be to be aware enough to realise that this kind of result flattered them a little and that the tables could turn very quickly.
For us, there was some debate about whether you lock up our defence with Alex Gorrin or galvanise our attack with James Henry. One person on the phone-in wanted to drop Henry for Gorrin, but only after Steve Kinniburgh reminded him that he could only have eleven players on the field.
For me, despite the result, the combination of Brannagan, Henry and Herbie Kane seems an obvious first choice. Gavin Whyte looked a bit lost playing in a central role, but became more threatening when he switched with Henry; which came just as he ran out of steam.
Whyte’s just recovered from Covid, and I wonder whether that’s another factor that we overlook too easily. Sam Long also looked just off the pace and has also recently recovered from the virus. We ask a lot of players physically, perhaps the effects of the illness linger longer than we realise. Still, few fans will factor these things into their analysis.
Not so much a game of two halves, but a game of two layers of football; when simply looking at the result and even the nature of their goals, our visceral response may be to criticise and howl with derision. But, when moving from the subconscious to the conscious, from the visceral to the analytical, we’re not far away at all.
With the club broke and on its knees, and with food parcels being delivered to the club, Oxford were handed a lifeline when they were drawn against Chelsea in the FA Cup 4th Round. It turned into a night of intense drama, the highest highs and the lowest lows. The last great night at the ramshackle Manor ground.
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In the years immediately after our promotion back to the Football League, when I chanced upon a Conference game on TV, I’d look for an Oxford connection. There was always a Carl Pettefer, Kevin Sandwidth, Craig McCallister or Phil Trainer plying their trade in some non-league toilet. These players were part of a rotating pool which might, at some point, gel in such a way to bring success. For players, a Conference football career was like a hall of mirrors where every turn is another dead-end. Success wasn’t so much about the individuals, but about the stability that could be offered by the clubs.
We now fish in a different pond; in the lead up to Cameron Brannagan’s opening goal against Sheffield Wednesday, Herbie Kane robbed Marvin Johnson, who gave the ball to Brannagan who beat Chey Dunkley to score. In ten years time, I’ll be writing that sentence to describe a goal in Sam Long’s testimonial game.
The loss of Johnson and Dunkley along with John Lundstram in 2017 skittled Pep Clotet’s prospects before he’d started. Along with Chris Maguire and Curtis Nelson, who was injured early in that season, they represented the core of Michael Appleton’s League 1 squad. The world turned, everything changed, and we didn’t have the resilience to cope. These were players we relied on and had acquired through ingenuity rather than something systematic.
The season has been set against the backdrop of a mild September and the return of fans to games. It’s been very pleasant, but yesterday was different; football as we remember it; made edgier by the weather, the setting and the opponents. Would we cope?
Sheffield Wednesday are a classic of their genre; a huge club with momentum going in the wrong direction. At their core, they’re rotten and it will take time to weed that out, they need calm, stability and time to do it. In the immediate aftermath of the result, their fans were calling for Darren Moore’s head; he’s too nice, apparently. That sort of pressure builds until the owners wilt and another poor sucker is brought in to try and revolutionise the club in a six month window. They’ll get there eventually, it’s a question of how many false dawns they’ll need to see before it happens.
With Dunkley, Johnson and Shodipo – three players who we know can change games – you would think that promotion would be assured, but if they’re not in a stable environment, they risk losing the edge that made them different. For me, this was the key test of the opening phase of the season. A double-header away from home against Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland could have put us on the back foot with ground to make up, we’ve done it before, but it still creates pressure. With three points and Sunderland postponed, October – with only one more away game – suddenly looks like the month to drive forward. November gets harder, but then it always does.
That opportunity comes from deep within the club; One thing that is evident from Karl Robinson’s approach is that players love it; Cameron Brannagan could play at a bigger club, even if it wasn’t a higher level, James Henry would grace any side as his sublime and timely finish showed. It’s the stability that gives you the edge to push into the 93rd minute and snatch a winner. Watch Henry’s run for the goal (it’s better on the videos shared by fans on Twitter), it’s an extraordinary illustration of his determination to have an impact. First, he swings out wide to the left before drifting into the middle and then to the front post to execute a world class finish. Any discontent, any moment of frustration borne out of a training ground argument or a casual disregard of his wellbeing could have been enough for him to give up and accept a point. Yet, he found the edge, he did the extra, he wanted to win. Cue biblical scenes in the stands, that loss of sense that gives you hope in a cruel world, righteous justification for the effort and risk of travelling to the other end of the country in a fuel crisis. Logically, there is no logic, but at that moment, it all makes sense. This was a win which found an edge from within a contented club; it gives you hope on many fronts.
From the London Road, you wouldn’t have known The Manor was there. Like all old grounds, it was woven into the fabric of Headington life, nestled amongst the people who built and sustained it. It was only in the evening when the lights of the regular world dimmed and the floodlights came on that it glowed like a beacon in the darkness.
The idea that games under the lights are special has been transposed to the Kassam. In truth, most Tuesday games are muted occasions, people scuttle back from work to make the kick off, others are unwilling or unable to venture into the night, there is little build up or preamble, it is often a practical, pragmatic affair. Unless the opposition are sufficiently enticing to pump the atmosphere up, the crowd is usually more sparse and often groggier.
Last night the rain pummelled down unrelentingly, it was cold and the opposition was underwhelming; The Bake Off, Champions’ League and central heating seemed seductive alternatives, these factors, and the petrol crisis, thinned the crowd to only the most hardy and/or insane, it’s hard to imagine anyone chose to attend because they fancied a bit of fresh air or play chicken with their fuel gauge.
The concourse looked like an air raid shelter as people left it until the last minute to venture into the stand, once there, with the roof protecting us from the worst of the weather, it was rather calming and bucolic. It’s hard to dislike Accrington or their fans with their Corinthian aesthetic, apart from their obvious limitations, like they’ll only ever look like an over-achieving Conference North team, they’re the club you’d like to be – stable, authentic and rooted in their community. In many ways it played to our our advantage as we’re very content in our own skin at the moment.
Let’s be honest, Accrington were poor, they’re shipping goals left, right and centre, and offered virtually nothing up front. The polite, gentile atmosphere was a catharsis Nathan Holland, who needed game time, a good pitch and an accommodating opposition to stretch his legs and show what he can do. His goals will give him the confidence the needs to make more of an impression this season. Likewise, Matty Taylor and Mark Sykes both buried demons that seemed to be hanging over them while Herbie Kane showed he might be the spark of difference we’re looking for this year. In such a likeable squad, we need a cult hero, Kane could be that man.
With points dropped in recent weeks and Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, we needed the points to stave off any lingering fears or panic. With the Sunderland game likely to be postponed, October is suddenly looking eminently manageable, the relaxed Saturday to Saturday schedule should help manage injuries and fatigue setting us up nicely for the chaotic middle section of the season that will define where we end up.
Overall, a satisfying night, as comforting as a bowl of pasta in front of a re-run of Location Location Location. It was good to feel the chill of winter and to pull the zip of my jacket up to my chin. Not quite a magical night under the lights, but wholesomely satisfying none-the-less.
I have a relative who is, let’s say, not that keen on the EU even though she’s lived an abundantly comfortable life in its apparent shackles. She’s never explained what she hoped to gain from being released from its constraints, and seemed entirely blind to the comforts it has given her. Now her fuel bills are spiralling, she can’t put petrol in her car and some of the food she used to take for granted isn’t there. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge the relative luxury she lives in, taking for granted the continuous flow of essential goods and services as if they arrived by magic. She remains blissfully unaware of how comfortable she is.
I noticed the other day that I’ve barely tweeted this month, there hasn’t been much to say about the club beyond the games themselves. Even walking to the stadium on Saturday it was so quiet, there was a moment when I wondered if the game had been postponed. Around the stadium, people milled around rather than buzzed.
Once inside, it struck me how good the stadium is starting to look with the new perimeter fencing and the immaculate pitch. On the pitch was a hive of activity as players warmed up watched by a phalanx of coaches. Not only did it feel very professional, it also gave a sense of occasion even though there were relatively few people there to see it. After the game, there were gushing plaudits on the radio about the performance, which, let us not forget, was a 1-1 home draw against 19th placed Gillingham.
In many ways it was a very good performance, we made plenty of chances and looked solid enough at the back. We’re very entertaining to watch and it’s difficult to identify a single player who you’d want to criticise or take issue with.
But, it was a 1-1 home draw against 19th placed Gillingham. The issue might be the relative comfort with where we’re at as a club. Matty Taylor’s early goal seemed to be greeted with the kind of response you’d hear given to a batsman reaching his half-century at county cricket. Granted it was early, but it was still more polite applause than frenzied excitement. The opening period threatened to bring a flood of goals, but we got a bit sleepy and Alex MacDonald fired in the equaliser after being given about three minutes to set himself for his shot. Nobody seemed to criticise the lack of closing down or vent their frustration, many were too busy gently applauding MacDonald’s strike. It was a good strike from a nice man, perhaps we needed him to knee slide while kissing his badge in front of the East Stand.
Afterwards, many people talked about how we needed to be more clinical. This means taking responsibility and doing something beyond what you’ve been asked to do. Yes, there will be goals that come direct from a training ground routine, but more often than not, goals result from players doing something nobody unexpected, breaking the rules. Moments after Mark Sykes came on, he nearly converted a chance by not being in the place he was supposed to be, but there was precious little of that.
We lack an edge, all good teams have them, they often manifest in people that go against the culture of the team, perhaps even of the notions of professional football. In 2016 we had Danny Hylton, a player who was the polar opposite of Michael Appleton’s clinicalism, Wycombe have Akinfenwa, Gillingham have Steve Evans. Jamie Mackie used to play that role, a slightly absurd character for whom the plan is torn up the moment the game starts. Everything we did on Saturday we did well, but it followed a template.
Ironically, in previous seasons both Gavin Whyte and Ryan Williams have had that wild card role, an ability to play their own game and find runs and angles that don’t exist on a tactics board. It throws the opposition off; obviously if you play enough balls into Matty Taylor he will score simply because he’s very good at that, but think about last season’s game against Gillingham and Sam Long’s last minute winner, nobody had that on their plan. James Henry has his moments, but he’s less influential when pushed out wide. Currently everyone is sticking to the plan and it’s the plan rather than the result which is of precedent. Herbie Kane showed glimpses that he may offer something in that vein, with confidence and fitness he could be the one who can offer something different.
It flows into the stands; we haven’t won a league title for 36 years, nobody talks about wanting to do that anymore. Automatic promotion is rarely mentioned, our goals focus on reaching the play-offs. But there are clubs around us who are more anxious, more edgy, less patient to see success. While we wait for the jigsaw puzzle pieces to fall into place, others are picking up the gnarly, ugly points that make a difference at the end of the season.
Off the pitch too, there’s a sense of working to a template. Long gone are the days of the club’s Twitter alter-ego ‘Clive’ or the authenticity of Sarah Gooding, when she was at the helm. The club’s communication has become more anodyne; competent, informative but a little bit dull, too polished. I’m not pretending that Twitter defines the club, but, I suppose, it does maintain the dialogue in between games. Its like that the club’s Twitter character used to be one of the fans now it’s firmly within the club’s corporate structure.
This has all made us very comfortable and maybe rather too accepting of a 1-1 draw with 19th place Gillingham. This is Karl Robinson’s club now, there’s so much to admire; the style we play, the progress we’re making off the pitch, the likeable squad and Robinson’s genuine appreciation of the fans. All is well in the House of Robinson, but that might be part of the problem.