Match wrap – Sunderland 1 Oxford United 1

There’s a Big Issue seller in Winchester who is one of the funniest people I know. During the festive season, he dresses as a giant threadbare Christmas tree dealing out a series of well rehearsed deadpan one-liners about how rubbish the Big Issue is. I was there on Saturday, walking behind a group of women doing their Christmas shopping; ‘Ooh it’s a girl band’ he said ‘which one’s the gay one? There’s always a gay one.’ They all fell about laughing, it won him another sale.

It reminded me of Viz comic’s running joke about the boyband Bros; there was the twins Luke and Matt Goss, and the anonymous third wheel Craig Logan, who Viz cruelly referred to as ‘Ken’ due to his generic role as ‘other’.

Nathan Cooper could be seen as Radio Oxford’s Ken. He’s not Jerome Sale, with the in-joke about fans phoning to cast their opinion of games they haven’t been to and the fabled (and to my mind, slightly over rated) one-liner about being ‘back on the coupon’ from 2010. He’s not the omnipresent Nick Harris whose gravely voice has soundtracked the club’s progress for more than a generation. Cooper is ‘other’, he’s ‘Ken’.

The Sunderland game was his 1,000th consecutive game, a phenomenal run which is outstrips Sale and Harris who have missed games due to other commitments. The landmark gave him a brief opportunity to step out from the shadows, to recognise his permanent and essential presence. There was a clip on Twitter of Karl Robinson presenting him with a shirt to mark the occasion, he seemed uncomfortable about being the story.

He’s sharper and grittier than Harris, closer to the story than Sale, an essential cog in the Oxford United experience. During one of the lockdowns, the club ran an episode of their podcast with him talking about our relegation from the Football League in 2006, his storytelling is brilliant, it’s a grim, but essential listen.

Cooper’s skills is his relentless consistency; his post-match interviews are a platform for the players, managers and owners to tell their version of the story, not a vehicle for his own views. It’s clever in its understated-ness.

It’s a lesson that the team seem to have learned this season, our play-off push is quiet, savvy and consistent. In the past we’ve had the thrilling cup runs and miraculous play-off charges. This season is different, there was no great fanfare when the covid-hit players returned from their isolation last week, the Sunderland game, which is usually a stand out fixture in the calendar, was treated as just another game, rearranged for practicality and convenience. The draw would be good enough, there was no point to prove, just a point to win.

We’re entering the stage of the season where things get chaotic. Cup competitions, Christmas and the weather play havoc with the fixtures; Rotherham, Wigan, Plymouth, Sunderland, MK Dons and Portsmouth all have cup competitions still to negotiate on top of their league programme. It’s not just the additional games, it’s the tiring Tuesday night trips to the other end of the country they have to deal with. Any inherent weaknesses are easily exposed, causing dropped points and derailed promotion pushes.

We, on the other hand, have the most straight forward fixture run we’ve had in years. No distractions or cup competitions to muddy the waters and skew the focus. With the work done to date there’s no catch-up to do, we just have to continue our quiet, steady progress. We don’t have to push, over-reach for the points, keep the run going, stay solid, pick off the points and let others make the mistakes. One game at a time.

Match wrap – Oxford United 0 Rotherham United 0

When Luke Skywalker hits the ventilation shaft in the Death Star creating a chain reaction that ultimately results in its destruction, it’s celebrated as an unparalleled victory for the rebel alliance. They get a special medal for it and there are celebrations across the galaxy.

We later learn that the ventilation shaft had been deliberately designed to create a systemic and catastrophic weakness in the Death Star’s defences. We also know that Luke thinks hitting the target is no big deal, no harder that shooting Womp Rats in his T-16 back home. The destruction of the Death Star is, ultimately, a big old hoo haa about nothing, particularly given what was to come.

The win over Fleetwood on Tuesday, in many ways, was our destruction of the Death Star. Our experience of them historically was of an indestructible battle weapon who we’d taken just two points from over twelve meetings before last season’s home win. Even that was filtered through the lens of iFollow, up to Tuesday, fans had no real-life experience of beating them. 

Add to that the under-resourced ramshackle rebel alliance that was drawn from our covid decimated squad and the win was celebrated as an unparalleled victory. What we hadn’t fully accounted for was that Fleetwood were a brittle side with systemic weaknesses.

The real threat was just beyond the horizon.

As I drove in on Saturday, the chirpy presenter on Radio Oxford trailing the game presented the case – ‘Oxford face top of the table Rotherham, unbeaten in their last fourteen games.’ I laughed. I laughed at the fact we have, perhaps, the worst squad crisis in the history of the club and we’re about to face a team with no obvious ventilation shaft.

What’s more, I’m still haunted by their last visit, a chastening experience, a brutalisation of not just our team, but our whole worldview. They were fast, aggressive and efficient and swept us and our ideals away in the process.

Fittingly, their players and the whole bench were dressed in black, with a splattering of red – presumably the blood of previous victims. And, there were so many of them. At one point, one of their players went down and their bench emptied to protest at the challenge; there must have been eight or nine identikit black-clad backroom staff lined up to shout from the sidelines while we had Karl Robinson and Craig Short doing their best to fill the spaces left by our isolating backroom staff.

What’s more, Rotherham were huge, most of their players must have been touching six foot tall. Their corner strategy was to flood the six yard box and try to get on the end of looping inswinging crosses. To counter, we seemed to use players like Cameron Brannagan to gnaw away at his marker’s knees in order to create space for Luke McNally – our only player even remotely of a similar size – to head away.

It was a brutal onslaught, in hideous conditions. The wind sliced the skin and played havoc with the flight of the ball. We know the Kassam wind can blow in four directions at a time, but has it ever been so cutting? A Vader-style death grip to the throat.

In our previous encounter Rotherham made the chances count being two-up in half-an-hour. It could have been the same here; they hit the post twice and there were long periods where we couldn’t get out of our half. If we had a plan to win the game, it wasn’t obvious. Survival was the objective – planned or forced upon us, it was hard to tell.

There were moments when fans would yelp in frustration as an attempted breakaway broke down or a tackle missed, but this was quickly swallowed back down as we were reminded of what had got us to this point.

The goals didn’t come and their intensity waned, the tumbledown squad began to show its qualities – Jamie Hanson was brutally competitive, Nathan Holland impishly penetrating, Luke McNally an impenetrable shield. Difficult to make work as a whole-system long term, but as the game began to loosen, the individual qualities came to the fore neutering Rotherham’s machinery. Perhaps playing a team who weren’t as well drilled and complete made it harder for them.

We started to make inroads, Seddon and Brannagan had chances, their keeper flapped to create opportunities for Dan Agyei. It wasn’t a meticulously planned assault, but a fettling of their defences. 

As the time clicked over into injury time the ball went dead, we hadn’t reverted to feigning cramps or injuries to slow things down and they walked to collect the ball rather than raced to create a final chance. It was 0-0, but we’d won, they were tired and happy with their point. They’ve scored three goals or more on ten occasions this season and they couldn’t get through us, now they just wanted to go home with their what they’d gained.

A week ago, we didn’t think we’d even have a team to play these two games, let alone come out of them unbeaten with four points. As the isolating players return to the squad in the next few days, Hanson, Trueman and others will likely melt back to where they came. We shouldn’t forget their names, or what they achieved. Who knows, perhaps in the future, Oxfordshire primary school teachers will question the brief spike in kids called Connal.

In some ways an unremarkably satisfying week, but in so many others, an unprecedented triumph. 

Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Fleetwood Town 1

With ten players out, no goalkeepers and half the club isolating you can’t help but think that, on one level, Karl Robinson is absolutely loving this. This could be his Battle of Stalingrad, his Rorke’s Drift. The armouries and smelting factories would drain at the end of the day to fill the stands and defend the citadel, condemming ourselves to an inevitable, but glorious, death for a cause that’s bigger than any one of us. 

If Fleetwood were cutthroat Zulus, then they were Guardian-reading savages with an appreciation of nuance and an understanding of the art of compromise. For all the expectation that we’d have our backs against the wall and that they would jimmy away cruelly at our obvious weaknesses, they seemed particularly sympathetic of our situation, allowing us time to find our feet and rhythm. In fact, they were so desperately impotent, the game has cost manager Simon Grayson his job.

The headline of having only fourteen senior players available doesn’t account for those carrying other niggles and worries; the drink, money, gambling or family problems that can fuzzy anyone’s brain, if you were legally able to leave your house, then pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and play on. Our shoulders relaxed and we settled to a tempo which, even if it was determined by our resources, was at least one the players were comfortable with. 

From wondering how we’d cover the gaps in the squad, the players were able to express their own personalities. It was like the epic victory over Swindon in 2012 when an injury crisis was so deep it required a complete remodelling of the very character of our starting eleven. As a result, we were less predictable and harder to play against. Gavin Whyte up front didn’t need to be Matty Taylor, Jamie Hanson could be the rugged utility player he’s always been rather than try to emulate the more cultured Anthony Forde.

The early goals settled the game meaning we needed to be professional and disciplined rather than full of blood and guts. Fleetwood, so often a frustratingly competent side, were simply not very good, which was a relief. 

Midway through the first half, Luke McNally went to ground forcing into stark relief the precariousness of our situation. Darting from the bench was not the distinctive shock of blonde hair that is Amy Cranston but a couple of more anonymous physios extracted from central casting. 

Cranston is a distinctive presence on the bench with her being, you know, a woman. Her absence reinforced the extent of the challenge; there was also no Wayne Brown, no John Mousinho; we talked about the players, but the crisis ran deeper than that. The anonymity on the bench alongside Karl Robinson was like going to watch Oasis, only to later realise it’s actually Beady Eye.

McNally’s injury highlighted how little scope there was for change. Lose him and there was nobody remotely suitable to take his place. It seemed to heighten the sensitivity to the problem – from eminent comfort, there was a sense this could get bad, really bad. Moments later, Hansen crumpled under a challenge and while everyone catastrophised about whether he was literally dead or not, Fleetwood waltzed through to squeeze the ball past Trueman for 2-1.

We’ve had goalkeeping crises before, but not one that involved our most senior fit keeper being unavailable the game clashed with Cubs. Managers are like pigs snuffling truffles when it comes to unearthing goalkeepers, whether that’s Luke McCormick or Jordan Archer, they always seem capable of digging one out from the bowels of Football League. We were grateful to have his experience, even if it was less than fifty games in the last seven years. He had no way of understanding the nuances of back four in front of him, he had to busk it; take everything on face value and play along best he could.

The third goal from Nathan Holland was a reminder that despite everything, there’s still quality at the heart of the squad. Karl Robinson praised the owners for their investment, he’s right, Holland’s fine finish was most likely cast in the board room and the decision to invest in the squad’s resilience. Nobody could have predicted just how valuable that would be back in the summer.

The emphasis of the game then changed. This is a two-part drama and Robinson needed to be mindful of Rotherham on Saturday. If someone like Dan Agyei has an hour of full-gas performance in him, how do you best spread that across the two games knowing he’ll need to feature in both?

We needed to avoid unnecessary pressure; another goal may not have changed the ultimate result, but it could have encouraged Fleetwood to take a few more risks which is always going to increase the chance of a kick, pull or injury. We needed to keep them passive and compliant, the ease with which we did is testament to what has been built at the club.

It wasn’t backs against the wall, it wasn’t gritty and determined, it was professional and clinical. It wasn’t Rorke’s Drift, although that maybe yet to come before this drama is fully played out.

Match wrap – Bristol Rovers 4 Oxford United 3 (after extra-time)

I didn’t really follow last night’s defeat to Bristol Rovers closely as I was watching Alex Horne in Wycombe. He was on stage, I wasn’t stalking him through the Sainsbury’s. The early kick-off meant that I could check-in just before he came on stage to see the game was goalless. As the first half closed of the show, I could see it was 1-1 and heading for extra-time. As the lights dimmed for the second-half, the two quick goals from Bodin and Seddon gave me with the assurance I needed that we would ease through while I enjoyed the rest of the performance.

The show closed and I opened my phone to confirm our progress into the second round. I located the result and couldn’t initially compute what I was seeing. As we shuffled out of the theatre, my brain kept trying to transpose the four and three because that’s what it expected to see. It didn’t seem possible that we could throw a 3-1 lead away in extra time.

For some reason, Twitter has started to helpfully deprioritise my Oxford United tweets, perhaps it’s making space for GBNews memes or something. Piecing together exactly what happened was tricky but, inevitably, there was plenty of catastrophising and claims that this was ‘typical Oxford’. 

The benefit of distance does allow for some perspective; extra-time isn’t normal; strange things can happen, though rarely stranger than what happened on Tuesday. We drew the match over 90 minutes, then lost the tie. It’s still not great, but had it been a league game, we’d have gone home with a point.

It also came three days after a dogged point away at Ipswich. There’s been a surprising reaction from Ipswich fans to our performance on Saturday. We are cheats, timewasters and – the ultimate diss at this level – ‘anti-football’. Alternatively, we battled for a point and chose wisely to protect it, rather than recklessly go for all three.

I recently came across the term ‘emotional architecture’, the idea of knowing how something works in reality rather than on paper. An ability to navigate the emotional structures of something; its relationships, strengths and weaknesses. People who have worked somewhere for a long time are particularly adept at it.

Ipswich Town fans are not totally unfamiliar with the third tier but it’s not their natural home. This summer was one of positive change for them and heavy investment in their squad suggested that promotion and the title was within their grasp. But, based on Saturday, they still haven’t come to terms with the emotional architecture of the lower leagues and are struggling because things aren’t how they want them to be. A big part of this is the recognition that every team at this level is, to some extent, flawed and limited.

We are no exception. On Saturday we showed guile and awareness of those limitations which helped manage that situation. Teams who succeed tend to be very good at dealing with what is in front of them. Those that fail are indignant the opponents don’t present themselves as they want to them to be. We have weaknesses which we need to manage if we’re going to accumulate the points we need for the play-offs and beyond. Ipswich didn’t like that and thought we should expose those weaknesses in the name of ‘proper foootball’.

In some sense, what we saw last night was an illustration of those weaknesses. We don’t have endless flexibility to change our system or the depth to provide cover in all areas. We could have managed the situation better – not least by not making three substitutions in the first game which totally destabilised us when leading – but the fact we have limitations should’t come as a surprise. Although most people try to ignore it, our failure to progress in the Papa John’s Trophy was an indication of the unavoidable weaknesses within the squad.

Is it something to complain about or part of the emotional architecture of this level of football? A reality we have to deal with best we can? I think it’s one of those things; you build your strength up best you can, accept your vulnerabilities and hope they don’t get found out too often. In a sense, that’s what the lower leagues are all about.

In a sense, the defeat might be a godsend. Back in 2016 we made progress in all competitions and by January were playing a blancmange of JPT, FA Cup and league games. By March, we were falling apart and hanging on with injuries to Joe Skarz, Ryan Taylor and Kemar Roofe, amongst others. We still had enough quality and hauled ourselves over the line for the ultimate goal of promotion, but I’m not convinced we could achieve that in League 1 if we also had to manage a good cup run. As difficult as last night proved to be, I’ll take it if it gives us a better chance of the play-offs or promotion.

Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Bristol Rovers 2

One of my favourite films is the 1983, ahem, ‘masterpiece’ War Games. In it, a teenage computer nerd (Matthew Broderick) hacks into a government computer thinking he’s accessing the latest computer games. The ‘game’ he plays turns out to be a simulation of global thermonuclear war which teaches a government supercomputer how to respond to a Russian nuclear attack.

Inadvertently, the game creates the perception that the US is under attack in real life putting the US military on red alert. As the prospect of World War 3 edges ever closer, the computer tries to calculate a strategy to counteract the imminent apocalyptic threat. With every scenario broadly advocating blowing everyone to kingdom come, to teach the computer about the futility of war, the nerd gets the computer to play an infinite number of unwinnable game of noughts and crosses.

I’m beginning to see a parallel here with the complex programming of our current squad. There’s a gaping weakness which everyone can see and nobody can fix. Matty Taylor’s opening goal against Bristol Rovers was the fifteenth time in nineteen games that we’ve taken the lead this season, the tenth time in the opening half-an-hour. Sam Finley’s response before half-time was the sixth time the second goal was an equaliser. As has been the common pattern this year, a strong start was followed by a period of collective narcolepsy, something we seem unable to combat.

It isn’t a terminal flaw; generally speaking we’ve been very good this season and are in a strong position. It’s a simple reminder that, at this level, as much as we want to believe our team is an all-conquering machine, the reality is that nobody playing at this level is close to being perfect. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this before any streak of arrogance skittles us.

Around the hour, we burst back into life, chances flowed, everything clicked, Marcus McGuane showed why teams like the biggest teams have taken him on in the past. The move that led to his goal was flawless in its execution. Then we were rampant, Matty Taylor hit the post and bar within a minute, at one point we broke clear with Williams, Sykes and Whyte marauding forward with menace before Cameron Brannagan nearly Peter Levened it into the top right-hand corner. The game became a full-throttle and very entertaining FA Cup tie. Then Brannagan tried from range again, then again. Each attempt was less effective and analogy to our whole performance. The purple patch began to pass, the little imperfections crept back in.

Everything that previously attracted McGuane to Barcelona, Taylor to Bristol City, Whyte to Cardiff and Williams to Fulham overwhelmed Rovers for a while but critically, the third goal didn’t come.

As the winded Rovers gulped in mouthfuls air trying to catch its breath from the onslaught, from the bench appeared Boden, Forde and Agyei to replace Whyte, Taylor and Sykes. Any triple substitution is a big statement, was Karl Robinson trying to get under the skin at the odious Joey Barton? Playing to the crowd by giving Matty Taylor his standing ovation? Or cocking a snook at what he oddly described last week as our ‘second derby’? Whatever it was, he seemed to overlook that the game wasn’t yet definitively won.

The grand gesture destabilised the team, momentum shifted from putting Rovers to the sword to focus on re-constituting the team mid-flow. All the while there was the prospect of someone making a silly mistake or Rovers pulling off something unlikely. The margin of error was too narrow for us to be showboating.

Karl Robinson focussed on Hanson after the game, but he was just the fall guy – when you make that many changes that quickly, the likelihood is that something will malfunction. It just happened to be Hanson at the centre of the penalty award, but it could have been anyone in that position. Had the changes been introduced more gradually, it would have been easier for the team to adjust and the more catastrophic mistakes would have been less likely.

Like every team at this level, we have inevitable and unavoidable weaknesses baked into who we are. It’s fine, and nothing to worry about, but we need to stay focussed and manage that risk. From the jaws of victory we seemed to forget who we are, and for that we paid the price.

Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Morecambe 1

I’m reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography at the moment. It’s quite a shocking read; from the first page Agassi is unequivocal about how much he hates tennis. It’s not just that after a long and successful career he’s done with the pressure and injuries, he’s hated it since the first time he picked up a racket. 

His father decided that he wanted his children to be professional tennis players and set up a tennis court in his back garden. He re-engineered a serving machine to fire balls more quickly and at a difficult angle for Agassi to return. As a young boy, he was hitting a million balls a year and hated every single one of them.

It also made him very good, of course, and it’s clear that as he got older he had the beating of anyone he played. Even if he went a set down, he knew when he would win barring injury or something freakish happening, because he had absolute control over his ability.

The book illustrates the divide between how sport is portrayed as a mythical endeavour full of talent and passion, and the technical aspect which really determines whether you’re good or not. Agassi was never that interested in the mythical aspects – he never dreamed of winning Wimbledon, it didn’t drive his desire to improve; that came from his over-bearing father.

As fans, we buy into sport for its drama and passion – the romance – even though it’s technique that determines how that manifests itself. It’s like watching a film or a play, you become absorbed in the story, but you wouldn’t be able to do that unless the actors knew where to stand and what to say when.

There was a familiar vibe during the win over Morecambe yesterday; a warm appreciative atmosphere and a fluid and attacking display. There’s been a lot of talk about the atmosphere this season and how it lacks a certain passion. But, I think what we’re seeing is the team and fans in absolute equilibrium. It’s not arrogance, but the team know what they need to do to beat a team like Morecambe and we, the fans, have absolute confidence they’ll do it.

It’s not always been like this; in fact, it’s rarely like this. During the promotion season in 2016, there was an asymmetry between what was happening at the club and what was happening in the stands. We were almost shocked to see an Oxford team playing with such style and panache. I remember after the win over Swansea, feeling immense pride at how grown up we seemed to be, how un-Oxford.

Most of the time, it’s been the other way around; we sing that ‘we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ while being taken to the cleaners by Rochdale or Scunthorpe. The asymmetric relationship between what we think we are and what we actually are creates the tension that creates the atmosphere – which could be misery and frustration or elated shock and relief.

If you watch the very best teams playing at home, the fans trust the players to do their job and the players trust their ability to deliver. If it goes wrong, that trust extends to allowing the team to fix the problem. Yesterday, we got a bit sleepy in the second half, Alex Gorrin’s ability to break play up wasn’t needed as much as someone to control the midfield and create some forward momentum. We missed the penalty and then conceded, but Marcus McGuane came on and we regained control of midfield and got back on the front foot to complete the job. Nobody was screaming at Karl Robinson to ‘sort it out’ or for the team to ‘wake up’; we kind of knew he would.

Afterwards Robinson spoke about preparations for the January transfer window and how he wasn’t particularly looking for another striker because it’s unusual for mid-season signings to score lots of goals. There’s usually a call from fans for multiple signings, usually including a striker, and Robinson himself has been prone to having an unreasonably long wish list. It’s borne out of an anxiety that the squad won’t be able to cope, it takes confidence to say that he’s largely content with what he has.

How long we can maintain this blissful equilibrium is, of course, another question, but it’s not a flash in the pan – Robinson looks visibly healthier than he did when he started at the club, the ground and pitch looks smarter, even if it is a bit of a ‘lipstick on a pig’, the squad looks deep and lush. If Brannagan isn’t available, Gorrin can come in, if that isn’t working, McGuane is available – we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul when we make adjustments to the side.

We could, of course, slip into becoming arrogant and entitled, forgetting the technical application or getting frustrated when teams don’t comply with what we want. It’s something you see at Manchester United at the moment where there’s an expectation that they’ll compete at the highest level because, well, they’re Manchester United.

They say it’s harder to regain a title than win one, but in the lower leagues it’s even hard to maintain stability for a whole season. Teams capitulate quickly with a couple of bad results, fans aren’t used to the feeling of success or how to regulate their expectations. We’re like a lottery millionaire unable to handle their new-found riches, quickly squandering what we have. 

This is particularly hard for us, a club which has had instability built into it for years, one that hasn’t seen a season-long period of superiority over a division for thirty-six years. We’re not yet title contenders, but we could be starting to readjust our expectations given the start to the season we’ve had. The trick is to not chase too hard, not adjust our expectations too much, to chug away picking up points and not getting too carried away with where it’s taking us.

The clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in, the weather is getting worse, Christmas and the January transfer window is looming and the FA Cup starts next week to disrupt the fixture flow. Mission accomplished for the opening period of the season but this is where the real test begins.