Match wrap – Wycombe Wanderers 2 Oxford United 0

There was an interview with Rob Couhig, the Wycombe Wanderers owner, on the Price of Football podcast over Christmas. He revealed that prior to taking a majority stake in the club he’d looked at investing in us. He’d been strongly advised against it by a friend due to the lease we have on the stadium. I can’t remember the exact words he used, but it was something like his friend said they’d never speak to him again if he bought the club.

So, instead, as an after-thought, he took over Wycombe and said he now has plans for them to have the most technologically advanced stadium in the world. Let’s say it again: in the world.

Now, this might sound like Lyle Lanley building the Springfield monorail, but Adams Park is certainly changing. It wasn’t long ago that the barrier between the away end and the pitch was a series of crash-mats that fans careened through the moment there was any excitement. Now they have those animated advertising boards and a massive video screen showing replays. The fan park outside works well with lots of space and choice. 

Despite this, it’s always going to be an incongruously modern overlay on what is a stadium which is still, at its very heart, a lower-league, maybe even non-league, facility. Quite a way from being the most technologically advanced stadium in the world. I don’t begrudge them any of it, I’ve said before Adams Park reminds me of The Manor, and it’s rarely a bad day out visiting there.

That said, their success maybe starting to spoil the party; they seemed ill-equipped to deal with the pitch invader and the assault on Gavin Whyte in the second half by one of their fans went completely unpunished. I could also live without twenty minutes of 30-year-old heavy metal standards being pumped out prior to the game. I’ve searched for a metaphor to describe the feeling, and the best I can come up with is that it’s like playing Heavy Metal at a Wycombe Wanderers game. 

Wycombe have long been styled around the Cuban heels and tight jeans of Gareth Ainsworth. The music seems to be a homage to him. Wycombe fans love him, the media certainly do; no Gareth Ainsworth interview is complete without another reminder that he plays in a rock band and unbuttons his shirt to his naval on warm days. I suppose it’s one definition of counter-culture, but he’s 48 and married with children, in the real world, a man’s devotion to an ancient aesthetic, dressed up as something young and fresh would be considered vain and weird. With what can only be described as aural-Ainsworth pumped through the speakers for half-an-hour before the game, we can only conclude that Wycombe has become a cult which has coalesced him.

While that feels very odd to anyone not seduced by its charms, it’s working. There are two ways to win games; you can pull the opposition apart like we do by moving the ball around at speed until someone loses their bearings. Or you can hold firm and bash them around until everyone falls over. Ainsworth’s approach is very much the latter.

Their second goal illustrated this perfectly; while in possession, Sam Long went down under a heavy challenge, we regained possession and continued to probe so the referee played the advantage. When they got a block in, the ball ricocheted into the space that Long – who was still down – would normally have occupied, giving them a gap and an opportunity to break away to score. It’s infuriatingly effective.

At the top of League 1 there are lots of teams who are impatient to go up; some, like Sunderland, can’t afford to stay down, others like Wigan and Rotherham are expectant. They all play a physical, high-pressure game and Wycombe are much the same. It’s not anti-football, it’s proven to be successful at this level time and again, so why wouldn’t you adopt it?

We simply don’t compete when facing these teams; compare our most physically intimidating player – Elliott Moore – with Ryan Tafazoli. Moore is taller, but Tafazoli still looks bigger. When we were able to play, it was forty yards from the goal, even if we did manage to find some space to bring the ball under control, we were still thirty yards out with the likes of Tafazoli still to beat. Mark Sykes and Matty Taylor spent 90 minutes bouncing off these players, each collision chipping another bit of energy away. In the end, we were left with half-chances.

We play great football and we win a lot of games, but when we come up against these physical teams – the ones who now occupy the top four places in the division – we’re muscled out of contention. That’s not a major issue across the whole season, this is a bad patch and I think we’ll get a second wind when we start playing teams who are less physical and easier to pick apart, but if we do get into the play-offs, the only teams we’ll face are those with physicality in their game – it’s done for us in our previous play-off campaigns. 

Do we sacrifice speed and agility, for strength? Not wholesale, but we need the options. When James Henry and Gavin Whyte came on, our game plan started to work, but it was too late. If we’d had players who could challenge Tafazoli – who despite everything seemed vulnerable as he spent gaps in play having to stretch out his muscles – and his centre-back partner Anthony Stewart, then the likes of Henry and Whyte may have been able to affect the play further up the field. People talk about getting a striker in as a back-up to Matty Taylor, I would look for one as an alternative, a Plan B. We need someone who can bully defenders and hold the ball up, goals are a secondary issue because they’d give openings to others. It’s not how we play, but we’re losing points because we don’t have that option.  

At the final whistle, there were fireworks and the PA boomed out Our House by Madness, apparently a reference to an Americanised idea of a stadium being a club’s home which they will protect to the death. The overall atmosphere throughout the game was great, but this was a bit strange, another part of the cult that’s building around the club. All this might feel a bit odd, but it’s the reality of what we’ve got to deal with, we probably need to wake up to the that idea.  

Match wrap – Lincoln City 2 Oxford United 0

This equivalent weekend six years ago we beat Swansea City in the FA Cup. For me, it was the most perfect performance in an almost perfect season. Suddenly the national press took an interest in what was happening at the club; there was a flood of stories about the secret revolution that was happening; the innovative recruitment of Premier League academy players who’d hit a dead end and the introduction of sports science and analytics to a level of football that was in the dark ages. I thought we were on the road to becoming one of those über modern clubs like Swansea, Bournemouth and Brentford, able to succeed without selling their soul.

At the heart of it all, of course, was Michael Appleton; steely eyed with rippling muscles, looking like no other manager in football. It’s an interesting aesthetic to workout to build muscles beyond what might be considered to be natural. It’s like having a breast enlargement so large and obvious that it doesn’t so much create confidence or an attractive shape as scream, ‘Look, I’ve put five grand in my bra’. It’s not like Appleton needs to be physically, excessively, strong to be a football manager, he’s not going to biff anyone on the nose or do that thing on World’s Strongest Man where they have to lift giant stones onto barrels.

But Appleton was a man of extreme investment; you can’t imagine that he ever doom scrolls on his phone while watching Homes Under The Hammer. The sleeve tattoo, the Masters degree, the need to prove himself and succeed practically bursts out of him. His face, a rictus concrete grimace, looks like it’s straining to contain a primal scream that says ‘I have value’. We love him, but it’ll never be enough. The intensity eventually wore him out at Oxford, mentally he couldn’t sustain it, nobody could. He admitted, at the end of the 2016/17 season, that he needed a rest, then he was gone to act as an assistant and get out of the limelight.

Karl Robinson, by contrast, is an avalanche of emotion, whatever pressures, desires and enthusiasm that flows into him, almost immediately flows back out again. Where Appleton is like a dam ready to burst, Robinson is a free flowing river. The biggest challenge he has is trying to ensure that the flow doesn’t burst its banks and flood everything.

The defeat to Lincoln means we’ve now won just one in the last four, or perhaps we’ve lost just two in the last thirteen, or perhaps it was only our first away defeat since Cheltenham in September. There were people immediately after the whistle almost calling for an overhaul of the squad despite us still being fifth.

It didn’t help that in addition to those in the ground, we could also watch the game unfolding live on iFollow. It’s true we weren’t at our best, but then it was like that at MK Dons and we turned it around. If Matty Taylor’s early chance had gone in, it would have been very different, his disallowed goal, although a correct decision, shows we weren’t that far away.

Herbie Kane’s red card was obviously a blow. Whether it was justified or not was hard to say. Steve Kinniburgh and Jerome Sale tried to articulate the issue with it, it was a punishment for a previous fouls or something that tends to only happens when you’re away from home. I think the issue is that up until that point the referee hadn’t issued a yellow card despite there being moments that would have warranted it – the little set-to between Chris Maguire and Mark Sykes. The players had no idea where the line of acceptabilty was; a full blooded challenge was generally fine in most cases, then suddenly it wasn’t.

The introduction just after the hour of James Henry and Nathan Holland was a timely reminder that as good as Ryan Williams and Gavin Whyte have been, it’s players like Henry and Holland that have given us the edge in the past. The mass of covid changes we had to make against Fleetwood and Rotherham saw the squad being quickly recalibrated, then there was the relapse against Wigan. The loss of Thornily, Brannagan and Kane is another lurch.

Runners call it ‘flow’, cyclists call it ‘form’; a sense of effortlessness, that everything is working just so. For most of us, if we’re lucky, it lasts until we become conscious of it. That’s the point when we become aware of a pain in our leg, a need to go to the toilet or that one of our socks is slipping down.

For the most successful sportspeople, it lasts much longer, but it’s a precarious thing. Cyclist Chris Boardman once said that when you’re in a time trial, you’re constantly asking yourself ‘can I sustain this effort?’. If you say ‘yes’ you’re not trying hard enough, if it’s ‘no’ you’re going too fast; the answer you’re looking for is ‘maybe’. Reading about the Novak Djokovic case in Australia, it doesn’t seem that he’s quite the anti-vaccination freedom fighter as he’s sometimes portrayed. It’s more that through his successes he’s managed to reach a mental state where he has complete self-confidence in his own often unconventional ways. Nothing – including vaccinations, pandemics or even national border policies – can or should disrupt his status quo. It is utterly selfish, but he’d argue that the ends justify the means.

A few weeks ago I talked about our ability to constantly evolve our midfield – Gorrin, Kane, Brannagan, McGuane, Sykes, Henry could be brought in, play a few games, have an impact, then be given a rest. In recent weeks we haven’t been able to rotate the squad like that, great chunks of it have been ripped from us. We’ve survived, but it’s disrupted our flow and form, we’ve gone from drought to flood and back again.

Michael Appleton’s response, you suspect, would have been to stand firm and let the crisis pass. There is no Plan B; it’s a rigidity which nearly did for him in his first season at Oxford and he’s under similar pressure at Lincoln despite their success last year. The risk for us now is that the more free-flowing Karl Robinson over-compensates, that he tries to inject his energy directly in the veins of the squad; bringing players back before they’re ready or trying some tactical revolution to jump start us. As much as form feels like a magical, ethereal energy, we need to manage our way back into it. No panic, but not ignoring the issue. With Wycombe next week and Sheffield Wednesday the week after, there’s no down time to re-set ourselves and find our form. Robinson needs to think clearly, as much as the here and now might demand his attention, he needs to think how he manages the squad over the next few weeks to steer us both through the current challenges and back into the form that we enjoyed earlier in the season.

Midweek fixture – My first game

My first Oxford United game was on the 27th December 1975, I was three years old and as legend has it, spent most of it staring at the floodlights while standing on the London Road terrace. 

The result is a matter of record; a 2-1 defeat to Southampton with a goal from Mick Tait in front of 12,004 fans. Beyond that, I know virtually nothing; there’s no video of the day and it’s not exactly an event etched into the collective memory. It may have been my first game, but it was of little importance in the great scheme of things. 

In the great void of my memory, I’ve managed to conjure up a mental image of me standing amongst spindly men in frock coats and top hats, like something out of a Lowry painting. It’s an image of something generically old fashioned, although more likely, given the fashion of the day, I would have been surrounded by men in voluminous bell bottom jeans and denim jackets covered in badges.

Bohemian Rhapsody was number 1, the country was mired in the Northern Ireland troubles and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. Two days after the game, the Sex Discrimnation Act came into force. Different times. 

I will never see that first Mick Tait goal, in fact, I’d never even seen a photo of the game, assuming all records of the day were consigned to history, never to be unearthed. Then it dawned on me that a record must exist; a programme for the game must be out there somewhere and, perhaps, for the game after, at home to Bristol City, thereby opening up the possibility that I might be able to piece the story of the day together. 

Programmes served a different purpose back then; they were the primary communication channel with fans and much less of a commercial vehicle. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it before, almost every game in history has a programme, and I’d never thought to seek these ones out. It took about two minutes to find them on ebay.

The reason I was there, almost certainly, was because we’d have been visiting my grandparents over Christmas in Abingdon. All my early Oxford United experiences happened around that time of year, perhaps it was my dad’s attempt at some early bonding, though I suspect it was just a way of getting some relative peace and quiet from the family.

Played just two days after Christmas, the game was the second of a double header; the previous day we’d lost to Luton 3-2 at Kenilworth Road (Southampton had beaten Bristol Rovers at The Dell). We were in 20th position of Division 2 and would eventually succumb to relegation, Southampton were fourth and would go on to win the FA Cup the following May beating Manchester United 1-0. Of the eleven that started that day, ten started at Wembley with just Peter Osgood replacing Hugh Fisher who dropped to the bench. 

The programme around that time was in the style of a tabloid newspaper which would have been too large and cumbersome to read at a game. The photos were in black and white but its editorial felt more independent than the programmes we know today. Nowadays, everything has to be exciting and positive; back then, there was a more measured approach, the good and the bad reported in equal measure. 

The crowd was obviously swelled by the Christmas holidays, it was twice the average gate for the season. Oxford wore blue and yellow stripes, a two year experiment which was abandoned at the end of that season. The idea was resurrected when we returned to the Football League in 2010, much to the dismay of many Oxford fans. Personally, I quite liked those stripes, perhaps that first game left an indelible impression on me.

The real buzz before and after the game was an FA Cup third round tie away to Manchester United, which was to be played the following Saturday. The match report talks about Derek Clarke scoring a spectacular opener before Manchester United pegged Oxford back with two disputed penalties. The decisions so incensed the Oxford hierarchy that the club lodged a formal complaint about referee George Courtney. Mick Brown melodramatically said “All I have is a broken heart after Manchester”.

Both club’s had finished in mid-table the previous season, but were obviously heading in different directions; Oxford had sold Dave Roberts and Hugh Curran, and there was little hiding the pressure manager Mick Brown was under. His programme notes see him in the classic survival mode of a manager – poor results are the result of bad luck rather than bad management. Despite relegation, these were less reactive times and Brown would survive another three and a half years. The club’s AGM had been held earlier that week with shareholders complaining about the board’s short-termism, and its decision to close the club’s youth hostel, rather than questioning the manager.

Southampton featured England striker Mick Channon, who was the league’s top goalscorer, but the most famous person on the pitch may have been the referee. Improbably, the man in black was Jack Taylor who, despite being described in the programme as a Wolverhampton butcher, had refereed the 1974 World Cup Final and received an OBE in the New Year Honours the previous year. Taylor’s main claim to fame in that final was awarding the Dutch a penalty after 60 seconds. From Beckanbaur and Cruyff to Peter Houseman and Bobby Stokes, it’s hard to imagine why, with a full programme of domestic football on at the same time, that Taylor – who was considered to be amongst the best referees of all time – might be assigned such a game of limited significance. 

As for the game itself; Mick Channon created the opening goal in the 26th minute giving an opening to Bobby Stokes, who scored the winner in the FA Cup final, to shoot via a Colin Clarke deflection through Roy Burton’s legs. A second goal, another deflection, this time off Nick Lowe made it 2-0.

Oxford’s response came in the second half attacking up the hill towards the Cuckoo Lane End. Tait’s goal, which according to the non-bias assessment of the programme’s editor, was the ‘pick of the bunch’. Tait broke through, leaving Southampton defenders David Peach and Peter Rodriguez trailing to lift the ball over the goalkeeper to make it 2-1. 

Mick Brown claimed that as both were own goals, it was a clear sign of his endless bad luck. Late on, with Oxford pressing, goalkeeper Saints ‘keeper, Ian Turner, pulled off a world class save, Derek Clarke hit the bar and Mick Tait nearly doubled his tally. But, ultimately it was all for nought.

Nestled away in the London Road a bewildered and probably very cold three year old headed off with his dad back to the car and to Welford Gardens in Abingdon. The end of one journey and the start of another.

Oxford UnitedSouthampton
Roy Burton, Les Taylor, John Shuker, Nick Lowe, Colin Clarke, Billy Jeffrey (Peter Foley), Peter Houseman, Steve Aylott, Derek Clarke, Andy McCulloch, Mick Tait (1)Ian Turner, Peter Rodrigues, Mel Blyth, Jim Steele, David Peach, Hugh Fisher, Nick Holmes (1), Jim McCalliog, Mick Channon, Paul Gilchrist, Bobby Stokes (1)

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Cheltenham Town 1

My favourite date of the season is Boxing Day; I’m ambivalent to the opening fixture and the significance of end of the season games only becomes clear nearer the time. There’s a warm fuzzy glow around Boxing Day and the anticipation of some wholesome Christmas joy. Despite the expectation, on average, the happy coincidence of a home tie that goes ahead which we win only happens every three years.

New Year’s Day is Boxing Day’s slightly disappointing cousin, families have returned home, so we don’t get the new horrified Japanese girlfriend who expected an English Christmas to be something from a Dickens novel and thought she was going to Old Trafford. There are fewer Quality Streets being handed around during lulls in the game. We don’t get the non-conformist behaviour, like the couple near me a few years ago who happily drank pints in the stand while watching the game, then left half-an-hour early.

By comparison, New Year’s Day is rubbish, it feels like being spat out of hyper space. Prior to New Year’s Eve, everything feels far away; but suddenly it’s the new year and you’re confronted by all its horrors. You spend the whole day shaking off the grogginess from the night before then, as your head clears, the great return to work suddenly comes at you like a steam train. You’re Penelope Pitstop tied to a railway track as the juggernaut approaches.

As a result, there’s a lot of transposition in a New Year game; the team are often perceived to be sluggish, but that’s because the fans feel sluggish. There’s often a lot of talk about players training on Christmas Day, but much less talk about what they do for New Year; I doubt they’re up at 2am playing Pie Face for shots.

The slow start against Cheltenham was unlikely to be because of a hangover; they were just well prepared. They started quickly in an attempt to nullify our own fast starts. Feeling their way into the game would invite trouble and they weren’t going to do that. Their plan seemed to be to flood forward to prevent us from setting up base camp from which we could launch an attack. We didn’t concede, thankfully, but it meant we then had first to survive, then to rebuild our game plan.

We eventually got hold of the ball and started to move it around like it was a training drill, it was the sensible thing to do to reset ourselves, but it gave them a chance to build their defence. The second part of their plan seemed to be that they were going to defend – they were in no rush to touch the ball, let alone go for goals; they were ready to sit it out. The question was how long could they maintain their shape and discipline.

I’d assumed we’d just keep working them until they started to fall apart but their great wall of five at the back meant there was no way around. Of our last twenty-odd goals, only one has come from outside the box and that was Mark Sykes’ winner at MK Dons which was an open goal from a goalkeeping error. Getting balls into the box, and particularly to the back post from the wing, is our thing; their great impenetrable wall needed to be dismantled if we were going to follow a similar pattern.

I wasn’t particularly concerned with Matty Taylor’s missed penalty. We seem to miss quite a lot of penalties, and it doesn’t do us a lot of harm. The award was a bit of a bonus, it would have been hard for the ref not to have given it, given the clear contact the keeper made with Taylor, but he was going away from goal and didn’t seem to be fully in control of the ball. A penalty always seems a disproportionate punishment in those situations. It also made the more obvious penalty claim, for the foul on Sykes, harder to give.

There was always a chance they’d make a breakthrough; but scoring didn’t seem to be their primary objective. It’s a good plan against us this season, you have to be very good to play through us but we will tend to lapse at least once in a game. For their goal, Mark Sykes seemed to forget where he was with his little trademark flick which often gives him a couple of yards on a defender when he’s on the attack, as a defensive manoeuvre it simply put the ball in the path of Callum Wright to prod home.

There was plenty of time to respond, although there were a few panicky catcalls from the stands. We still needed to take down their wall to thread through Sykes or Williams to create a chance. But, perhaps unexpectedly, they held firm deep into the game. The midfield three of Kane, Brannagan and McGuane are a strong unit, but they’re all erosional, their constant pressure wears defences down. If that doesn’t work, you need something else. That’s where we miss someone like James Henry, who has the ability to change the shape of the play, to disrupt the game and find a new way through their defence, maybe not through the wall, but perhaps over it. Without him, we’re reliant on plan A and that wasn’t having the desired effect.

The wall held. Only the introduction of Gavin Whyte – apparently not fit enough to last a whole game – started to have an impact. Whyte is like a ballbearing fired from a catapult, he’s so fast and precise he can get through a defensive wall almost without leaving any mark, once he was clear, it was down to him to thread the ball across the six yard box for Mark Sykes to slide home for the equaliser.

It’s been said before, in the past in these situations we might have become frustrated and lost our discipline, or panicked and conceded late on. But we’re not like that now; we may have wanted to go for the win, but we weren’t going to sacrifice everything for it. Of course, the idea is to send everyone home happy and complete the narrative. But this season, the story isn’t about what happens on any given day, it’s about where we are in May. In a sense, it takes confidence to do that – to avoid snatching for short-term glory, particularly on days like Boxing Day or New Year’s Day when things are supposed to be different. It’s been a problem for these games in the past – the record breaking crowd against Woking in 2006, the Americanised razzmatazz of the game against Plymouth in 2013, the kangaroo court designed to humiliate Chris Wilder in 2016 – all pre-designed to create a moment – a glorious victory – which ultimately fell on its face. It’s a long season, and we’re going to need all of it if we’re going to be successful.

After the highs of the Wimbledon game, the draw felt like one of those game; full of anticipation and expectation that fell a bit flat. As Michael Appleton might have once said ‘It was one of them’.

Match wrap – Oxford United 3 AFC Wimbledon 0

Wimbledon wrote to the EFL last week protesting about the number of covid-related postponements across the Football League. They called on them to investigate ‘fully’ all postponements due to covid. The main thrust of their argument was that they’ve done everything properly, so why can’t everyone else?

It’s not clear exactly what they’re hoping to get from this, they talk about how they’ve sacrificed their competitive edge to secure player safety and fulfil fixtures. This ignores the fact since being in League 1 they’ve finished 20th twice, 19th once and are currently 18th – their season looks pretty much on-par with their competitiveness in previous years. What do they want? Special bonus points for self-righteousness?

They’ve become a funny club; the original phoenix club, resurrected from a gross injustice, re-formed as little more than a park team, dragged back through the divisions, now they’ve reclaimed their spiritual home. There’s so much to admire, but it seems that we now don’t admire them enough. The EFL must investigate, and if teams are found not to be as real as Wimbledon, then they should be punished. Idealistic and principled to the point of being unpalatably radical – the Jeremy Corbyn of football.

Ultimately, covid will do what covid does. Wimbledon may have a god-complex with an percieved ability to control the virus, but in reality, the virus chooses who it infects and how far it spreads. In that sense, football is a level playing field and all we can hope to do is manage the situations as they arise. To write letters to the EFL about how great they are and how awful everyone else is seems like an act of hubris.

Wimbledon’s misfortune is that they’ve missed out on a couple of potentially lucrative Christmas games. It’s turned into a strange period; what is usually full of bustle has become more like a winter break. Christmas is usually a great disruptor, testing teams’ true resilience and their credentials for the rest of the season. In fact, for us at least, it’s become an opportunity to recharge the batteries and regain our competitiveness. My own Christmas has been very similar; no less than six plans have been canceled or curtailed due to covid, maybe Wimbledon want me to be investigated too.

As it happens, the one plan which did go off without a hitch was the one I’d managed to double-book with the game. The busy Christmas period usually consists of the Boxing Day game, a regular Saturday fixture and New Year. This year, with Christmas on a Saturday, the regular fixture was moved to Wednesday – the first non-Bank Holiday. I’d forgotten all that and assumed it was an afternoon kick-off; happily booking something for the evening with nobbyd and his family. He’d also planned to go to the game until he’d spotted the clash, so we ended up eating lasagne while furtively checking the scores.

Of course, the corollary to Wimbledon’s complaint about games being postponed when clubs are too weak to field a team is that games go ahead when clubs are strong enough to compete. We’re not only rested, we’re full of antibodies, having survived two outbreaks, if we are going to be battered by omicron over the next couple of months, we may be in a better position than most in terms of surviving it.

Having sacrificed our competitiveness and perhaps a point against Wigan – a game which, by rights, shouldn’t have gone ahead – we surged back to form against Wimbledon. They were the perfect opponents; for all their huffing and puffing about how mean the world is to them, despite their origin story, they’re just another one of those lower-division clubs which have become canon fodder for us this season. 

I don’t know how comfortable it is to admit this, because we all want to retain an earthy authenticity, but this season we’ve evolved into a bona fide promotion chasing side. We’ve bridged the divide from that batch of teams – including Wimbledon – who will bounce between League 1 and 2, we’re no longer on the coat tails of those who have ambitions for the Championship; we’re now one of them. Last night’s performance showed that in spades. For all Wimbledon’s grumbling, their mumbling about the disadvantages they face compared to other clubs, we’re currently in a very different space to them and no amount of EFL investigations is going to bridge that gap.

With the squad relatively fresh and hopefully free of the worst of covid and with fixtures coming at a steady pace, our calm, methodical winning formula seems to be withstanding any test put in front of it, as the dark clouds of covid gather, our chances of promotion seem grow with each passing week.

Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Wigan Athletic 3

I was anxious about going on Saturday. The advice has been somewhat hazy – there’s been a vertiginous growth in covid cases driven by a new mutant strain, but you can still go to nightclubs. Nightclubs? For all I know the bloke who sits next to me could have been grinding away to club bangers with covid’s equivalent of Typhoid Mary. He’s in his seventies, but still. 

All morning I waited for the news that the game had been postponed. Pretty much every other game had gone, and I figured it was only a matter of time before the Football League jacked the whole thing in. We seem to be creeping towards more restrictions as cases rise and it seems likely we’ll be back to iFollow before long. Unless you’re a ding dong who thinks this is a grand conspiracy, any debate about controls (not restrictions) is a euphemistic discussion on acceptable levels of death and suffering. If you’re against controls, then you accept large amounts of death, if you accept controls (few people are ‘pro’-them) then your tolerance to death is much lower. There’s no right answer to this, so rather than talking about abstract ideas of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ – let’s just debate what the number should be. 

I digress. I figured as we’d be outside and there’d be a crowd but it wouldn’t be crowded, I’d go, I’m more worried about spreading the virus than catching it, and I haven’t been anywhere for a week, so on balance I figured it was OK. It might be last time in a while. During The Plague, theatres shut every winter to prevent viral spread, we might be experiencing the same sort of cycle.

I snaked my way through the sparsely populated SSU concourse, and into the stand, the person sat nearest to me was three seats away. Brinyhoof had prioritised family over football, the weirdo, and my usual seventy-year old neighbour was still extracting himself from the fumblings of Typhoid Mary. Perhaps. 

It’s ironic that the game probably only went ahead because the away fixture last month didn’t. We’d been goaded for not playing the game against Wigan even though we didn’t have a fit goalkeeper, the pressure to show we were made of sterner stuff was too great. In reality, covid had ripped through the squad again, but you sense Karl Robinson felt he had a point to make in completing the fixture. Objectively, with four new cases, including Herbie Kane, Cameron Brannagan and Luke McNally, and a total of ten players out, we were surely within our rights to call for a postponement. 

Our pride came before another fall; I looked over to the players warming up on the far side to see someone rolling around on the floor. Players muck around during warm-ups all the time, last week at MK Dons Karl Robinson lined up Simon Eastwood and Craig Short mid warm-up to find out who was tallest, and it initially looked like it was just more high-jinks. It was clear from the reaction of the coaches that something more serious was up. It couldn’t have been more serious; James Henry limped down the tunnel and suddenly we were eleven players down with just thirteen available who had first team experience.

Wigan were big, a great expanse that filled the pitch – it was like hobbits attacking orcs at Mordor. Only Elliott Moore looked like he could compete physically, like he’d been adopted as a baby to join our diminutive ranks. In the opening minutes we moved the ball around, finding gaps and making some early progress. The efforts only administered flesh wounds; if we broke one line, there was another one to slay. We couldn’t take them all. 

You can see that Wigan are built for promotion; there are no bells and whistles, no deep philosophy, they’re a unit designed to generate results. They don’t feel they belong in League 1 and aren’t going to waste any energy trying leave a legacy that will live long in the memory of those left behind. Someone on the radio described it as anti-football, but football has never been solely based on entertainment, otherwise results would be decided by a jury, like in Strictly. You’ve got to enjoy the narrative – we were fast and clever, they were organised and strong.  

Despite our early promise, a Wigan corner played to the back post caused mayhem as it was headed back into the centre for Will Kean to nod home. Twenty minutes later; Steve Seddon’s defensive header had all the strength of a toddler throwing a bowling ball. It lopped half-heartedly into the path of Max Power who slammed home for 2-0.

It was ominously efficient; we had the arsenal to compete, but maybe not for ninety minutes and certainly not to come back from a two-goal deficit. At what point would the collective spirit evaporate and write the game off? And when that happens, what damage might they do to us?

Some couldn’t watch, making for the exits as Wigan celebrated, the dark clouds of 2017 were gathering. Back then, the players had been thumped over the head by Pep Clotet’s ultra-technical playbook too many times and Wigan’s machinery rolled through us, crushing any remnants of pride with seven goals. Now, again, there seemed little to play for and it was starting to look like a question of how many they might score.

But Karl Robinson’s Oxford is a different beast, the orcs were winning, we were taking on board casualties, but we were not going down without a fight. As if the preceding half-an-hour hadn’t happened, we continued to dance through their defences. This time the combinations worked as Bodin, Whyte, Taylor interplayed to give Ryan Williams an opening to guide the ball home for 2-1. The people who’d left in disgust snuck back into their seats. We can see you sneaking in, we should have sung.

Bodin and Williams have both had fitful seasons, but were fully committed to the fight, there was no sulking, no capitulation, though you’d have forgiven them if there had been. Sometimes its not the first-teamer who tell you about the spirit of the squad, it’s those on the sidelines.

The goal galvanised the crowd, the usual sedate contented atmosphere at the Kassam gave way to one with more snap, more venom. Our tails were up and we had wrongs to right. The Wigan machine didn’t look vulnerable, just a bit cumbersome. For all they gain in power, they lose in agility. When the battlements hold firm they look impenetrable, but we’d found their weakness, the ventilation shaft in their Death Star, to mix megabucks film franchise metaphors.

The game moved at breakneck speed; we got to the hour mark looking on par, both teams now beginning to flag under the constant pressure, but you didn’t sense a truce was coming. They would soon hook their damaged and exhausted resources and bring in refreshed replacements. We had Dan Agyei, after that we were looking at veterans and children to take the fight on. 

On the hour Anthony Forde, another fringe player, picked out a long ball on the right flank cutting inside and slid in a brilliant cross for Matty Taylor to equalise. I’ve criticised senior players for a lack of obvious leadership on the field, but Taylor has grown this season, he’s not just a hired gun, he’s talismanic. Impossible, improbable, glorious, everything has gone against us and it’s 2-2. We’re slaying the orcs.

Agyei’s introduced, and that’s it, that’s the totality of our reinforcements. We continue to look dangerous; even as the energy levels flash red, we look more likely to get the winner even though they always look capable of delivering one fatal blow. That moment comes with four minutes to go. James McClean, a Republic of Ireland international with nearly 90 caps, powers down the left flank – he represents a depth of ability we can’t compete with, not today. He cuts inside and drives home for the winner. His momentum takes him behind the goal where he arrogantly celebrates in front of the Oxford fans. In his moment of ecstasy he doesn’t realise that his winner is a hollow sham; his well-resourced promotion machine have scraped past a ramshackle ensemble of fringe players playing out of position. What a hero.

The whistle goes, the players drop to the floor. All that effort for nothing. But is it? When you strip away the results, the star players and the meticulous plans you see something of the real spirit in the club. Players with the will to put in maximum effort when they had every reason to cave in, fans roaring them on when they could have justifiably stayed at home. A defeat, perhaps, but one which revealed much about what we’ve become as a club.