Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Charlton Athletic 1

For seventeen months we’ve looked forward to the great return. Our collective fantasy painted a picture akin to the VE Day celebrations; it would all be over and normality would return on a great wave of emotion and relief; gap toothed squaddies would be kissing pretty land girls in the streets. Yesterday was that day, but not because it’s over and the war is won, but because we’ve reached a level of infection and death which we collectively believe to be acceptable, for now, at least.

From the outset I realised that I was out of match practice – where to park, when to leave, what to wear; the symbolic but clinical returns of last winter and in May were carefully orchestrated, a proper match requires you to plot your own path through the chaos.

Did it feel normal? Social distancing was impossible as people collected under the stand and few were wearing masks. A mistake, in my view, it’s hard to imagine that games won’t create a soup of infections which could push things to intolerable levels. Whether we’ll be locked out completely, I’m less sure, but I can see mandatory mask wearing and limited capacities returning. I felt my psychosomatic Covid symptoms return – my chest tightened slightly as people brushed against each other.

None-the-less, the stands bubbled expectantly. I’m not the best at small talk and did wonder what I might say to those around me whose only common reference is the games we watch. Given the age profile of the South Stand Upper I thought saying something like ‘you survived, then’, could be viewed literally rather than figuratively. In the end, the first rejoinder was emotional and shakespearean.  

‘Alright?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Good to be back.’

‘Yeah.’

It was one for the ages. Just before kick-off Karl Robinson strode onto the pitch to applaud the fans. For over a year, he’s been team manager, media spokesperson, community champion and fan representative inside the club’s biosecure bubble. It must have been exhausting, but it has allowed him the opportunity to mould the club further into his vision. When he joined, one of the attractions was that he could address his work/life balance. He looks like he’s achieving that; healthier, calmer and more content. 

As we waited for kick-off, someone in front had a programme open at a page that introduced our new signings; Williams, McGuane, Holland, Whyte. New, and at the same time, not so much. In the past, new signings have needed time to settle and that’s been reflected in poor early season results. Our new players know the club and most know Robinson and his ways. Simon Eastwood, a real clubman, warmed in goal knowing that his services were not required. If nothing else, he reinforces Robinson’s culture; others respond.

Charlton come with a reputation; you expect them to be competitive at this level, but they’re hard to judge. A large and noisy following enhanced the sense of occasion, but, like many similar clubs in the division, they teeter on the edge of disaster. Whether we were competing against one of the best or picking apart a struggling club was hard to tell. 

The game seemed to pass slowly, the opening quarter felt more like the opening half. A lack of match practice on my behalf, I guess. Suddenly, from deep inside our own half the trap was sprung; Ryan Williams picking up a loose ball, feeding Gavin Whyte via Cameron Brannagan. Whyte’s blistering run and shot shredded the Charlton defence and Williams was there to mop up for the opening goal. 2014’s outstanding player latching onto the rapid counter attack of 2019’s outstanding player. Both new and yet also familiar.

Minutes later, Brannagan is there again to make it 2-0. His friend was involved in an accident this week, and with his difficulties last year, the relief of just being able to play was palpable. Karl Robinson’s strength is that he looks after the whole player, on and off the pitch, Brannagan responds. 

It didn’t feel like a 2-0 game, but then, it didn’t feel like Charlton deserved to get back into it with their penalty. Defensively, as is often the case, we look thin on the ground in terms of personnel, but Charlton had layers to cut through and didn’t look capable of finding a path. 

In recent seasons, we’ve looked to James Henry to pull the strings to get us through games; sometimes he’s had to yank them with all he’s got, but now the machine seems more coherent and solid, the burden of responsibility has reduced and he’s able to keep things ticking over, he can sit and wait for opportunities rather than go looking for them. Maybe it wasn’t so much that Charlton couldn’t find a way through, it was just a risk knowing they’d likely be caught at the other end. 

The game became attritional in the second-half, but we had players like Taylor and Mousinho able to manage things when they got fractious. We stretched it where we could without taking unnecessary risks. There were no last minute panics, no heartstopping dramas. The leadership we missed at times last year, the ability to manage games as a robust unit, seem to be there this season. 

The club we were annexed from seventeen months ago has matured in our absence. Karl Robinson seems calmer and more content, trusting his squad, whether it’s the firebrand pace of Williams and Whyte or the assuredness of Mousinho and Taylor. The benefits are clear, allowing him space to make cogent decisions, like responding to the late injury to Anthony Forde. In the months to come, that extra mental capacity may be enough to get us to where we want to be.

Match wrap: Burton Albion 1 Oxford United 1 (2-4 on penalties)

Years ago I damaged ligaments in my ankle playing football. As I went over, I felt an obvious pain and a strange feeling, which may have been a tear or rupture. One of my teammates gave me their sage medical advice and said I should just ‘run it off’. I tried, and even went to see Oxford that afternoon; it’s amazing how a last minute Julian Allsop goal can act as a soothing balm.

A physiotherapist friend checked it over and gave me some advice, but I didn’t do any proper rehabilitation. Months later, apparently fit and recovered, I was fetching a ball back during another game and went over again. The advice I got was that, essentially, the damage done initially had taught my ankle how it could behave – which was completely at odds with how if should behave – although the pain had gone the injury remained.

It’s an odd time being a fan at the moment; the messaging, both by the club and more broadly, is about a great return to normality. And yet, every time I try to engage, I can’t find any purchase. Last night’s game involved a last minute equaliser and a penalty shoot out win but it didn’t stir much emotion in me sitting at home.

It’s early days and it was only Burton and it was only the League Cup, but it feels like the damage done when the physical bonds with the club were severed still remain and may take more time to heal than we thought. 

With eight changes to the starting line-up, it was hard to gauge anything from the team selection – as fans we don’t particularly know where our strengths and weaknesses are, watching on iFollow gives you a two-dimensional view of the game, not the rich experience of being there. It’s difficult to know how under-powered we were.

If you consider that Tyler Goodrham wasn’t seventeen when the first lockdown happened, Joshua Johnson was fifteen; these are names fans might vaguely recognise from the website or the odd EFL Trophy game, but their recent development has been largely hidden from sight; we didn’t see them coming, we don’t know how good they are. Are they on the bench because the club is struggling for depth or is this a golden harvest of rich young talent? All the threads and narratives have been lost, somehow we need to re-engage and recap the story. Where are we strong? Where are we weak? Who are the duds? Who is the golden child?  

Readjusting might be a similar issue for the players; playing in front of fans will always be their preference, but it comes with new pressures; not least the unique pressure at the moment to be the centrepiece of a barnstorming ‘return to matches’ party. It’s in the very nature of football that at some point someone will lose or have a stinker. At some point the party will be pooped, nobody wants to that guy.

All this may explain the reasons for so many changes, the reluctance to throw first choice players back into the mix after periods out – to do too much too soon. The temptation might be to lurch back to normality – or even reach beyond and grab at every opportunity to celebrate and entertain. It’s one of Karl Robinson’s more obvious instincts; he’ll be desperate to play his best team and give someone a pasting to reward the fans, it’s how he’s built. He’s not Ian Atkins or Chris Wilder with their dour philosophy of winning the battle before winning the game and only entertaining when it’s absolutely necessary. We’re told that we all want this riotous return to action, but is that what everyone wants or needs right now? Do we need a full-on party or just a toe in the water? I don’t suppose a club would market any game as ‘come along, it might be OK’ but maybe a solid away draw and a solid Carabao Cup win is just what the doctor ordered to help with our rehabilitation and recovery. There are risks of burning ourselves out before things get serious or disappointing people and falling into a rut, realising that the one thing we all thought we were missing is, in reality, a bit rubbish. Whether it’s by accident or design, a cautious, solid start to the season to reconnect and ease people back may be the best option in the long term.

Match wrap – Cambridge United 1 Oxford United 1

There were only ten days between last season’s League 2 play-off final and the start of the European Championships, which overlapped with the Tour de France, which ended just four days before the Olympics, which end today; the day after the start of the new football season.

Perhaps cricket is your summer preference, but it still stands; there’s been no respite from big sport this summer. If you add our strange and subdued pre-season and the uncertainties of, you know, The Bug, the season seems to have emerged on our doorstep like the half-brother you didn’t know you had. 

There’s an old joke; the season starts with hope and no experience and ends with experience and no hope. In my mind, a new season should bloom; new kits, new players, bronzed faces and refreshed fans. A kernel packed full of optimism that explodes into life. I used to like seeing pre-season photos in the first programme of the season; the purple-faced players desperately trying to work off the indulgences of their six weeks in the pub. The new season saw the team renewed, the build up to that point was more hidden from view. Things have changed now, every day of the summer is documented, players don’t let their guard drop like they did, we never fully lose track of the comings and goings of the closed season. Football is just one long continuum and not necessarily better because of it.

In truth, I haven’t fully reconciled the idea of returning to an unrestricted stadium, so don’t share the sense of excitement that others do. Japan shut their entire Olympics down to fans with only half the cases we have in the UK, and they seem like very sensible people. I know we all want to believe that things are normal, but they’re not and I can’t help feel the return to full stadiums may be a bit like last year’s ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ bonanza – something that seemed like a good idea at the time. It might be that the stadiums stay open throughout the season, but without restrictions? I’d be surprised.

Things at the club seem a bit incomplete too; the quiet pre-season programme was necessary, but the protracted takeover seems to be having an effect from the distribution of season tickets to the late release of new kits. Karl Robinson needs more players, and although that’s not unusual, it all feels a bit like a work in progress. 

Does it matter? I realise there’ll be a first time back in the stadium surrounded by people and that might feel odd. I’m not particularly worried about myself; I’m vaccinated and reasonably healthy, the risks are fairly low. I’m more bothered by the prospect of future restrictions and disruption and that we’re not doing enough now to prevent problems in the future – plenty of countries have seen big surges from a much lower base. Would a gradual return be more sensible?

On the pitch, it’s more about the conventional issues. If promotion is the goal, it’s no secret that our sluggish starts have cost us in the past. New players have taken a while to settle into the culture of the club; some never get there and major surgery is needed at Christmas to get things back on track. Thinking back to previous promotion seasons, the summer is characterised by a wave of positive energy with signings coming thick and fast and the club feeling positive and on the front foot. It’s not a negative feeling at the moment, but more that we’re working through issues than we’re fully focussed on the goal. Have we done enough during the summer to make a decent start we feel we need? Or, is this the pattern we just have to get used to?

The draw with Cambridge won’t define the season; it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be expecting to do much more than stay in the division this season and it could be too easy to to look at the result as two points dropped. In some senses, it could play to our advantage in avoiding an over-reaction – it wasn’t the demoralising failure against Lincoln last year, but neither did it create the illusion that everything is motoring like it should.

Although it’s characterised as a great party, the key to starting the season is to be conservative and not get too carried away. If it were cricket it would be like a new batsman getting to the crease, blocking the first ball with a solid forward defensive, patting down an imaginary piece of rough ground and resetting for the next ball.