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.

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.

Match wrap – MK Dons 1 Oxford United 2

“A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arseholes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arseholes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

Tim Minchin

The criticism of Boris Johnson and his government hosting Christmas parties and then lying about it during last year’s lockdown is completely justified. It is not so much their sense of entitlement that should be criticised, but the damage they have done to achieving any kind of collective action against the pandemic. 

The fury extended to Allegra Stratton, the government’s spokesperson caught on camera all but confirming the party happened. She is more a product of than a contributor to the culture. Inside the bubble, behaviours can be justified – everyone is doing it, nobody said otherwise. It’s no different to the unspoken collective decision of fans at The Kassam to not wear masks at games. It’s probably wrong, but we still do it. Confronted with the reality from the outside has clearly caused her a deep emotional trauma. There was a rabid pile-on with people picking apart her apology as an insincere sham. It should be possible to hold two apparently conflicting opinions – that the parties and lying is wrong, but that some of the individuals involved are genuinely mortified at their own behaviour. I hope someone is looking after her. 

Similar conflicts exist with MK Dons. For all the opprobrium surrounding their origins, there’s still a lot to admire. The parking is good, the people are friendly and the facilities are first class; we would kill for something similar. Even their commercial work is to be admired; whenever there’s a corner, an advert for Yokohama tyres flashes up because, well, they’re good on corners. Sadly there’s no advert for traffic wardens for each penalty or any promotion of dustbin men at a throw-in. Some people will have you believe that just because their origin story is wrong that everything else about MK Dons is wrong. It isn’t, in fact, as a modern football club, it’s pretty much a model to aspire to.

Filling the stadium will only come with success, based on their crowds, their fanbase – that is, the crowd they might expect without any boost from results – is not dissimilar to our own. It’s a big venue to generate an atmosphere in when it’s a third full. Otherwise, it’s a team lifted straight from a textbook of how to run a modern club.

Fittingly, the first half yesterday saw two teams drawing from the same textbook. Modern football is based heavily on possession and fitness, the aim is to move the ball around at pace until someone loses concentration and a gap appears. Most of the first half followed this pattern; they played down the flank drawing Sam Long out of position, exploited the gap he left and scored in what looked like slow motion. 

The finish looked like something you see on the training ground – the ball hitting the net was almost an aside, the interplay that led to that moment was the critical moment.

Despite the goal, both teams returned to their playbooks, moving the ball around at a reasonable pace without any real purpose. Mark Sykes broke free on the right to cross to Matty Taylor, but he was judged off-side. With both teams in anonymous monochromatic kits, they could have been filming for a training video. 

The stadium fell silent, the shouts of the players could be heard from the stands, the board went up to indicate the amount of injury time to be played – one minute – it was a half of virtually no incident.

With the stadium going cold, the players now into their third consecutive away game and the rain pummelling down, MK Dons could simply put the game into a sleeper hold. If they could keep us quiet, we’d run out of steam long before the final whistle and they could take the points. It was turning into a grim afternoon.

At half-time the wind slightly changed direction, blowing the rain into the stand, we’d been sheltered from the worst of it for the first half, now it was driving into our faces. The textbook wouldn’t save us now, unless we used it as shelter.

In the second half we looked sharper and more purposeful, we started to make inroads into Dons’ territory. Encouraging, but not surprising. We were always likely to rally at some point, and this was it, but time was against us. In reality, a second half has about half-an-hour of football, the final fifteen minutes is attritional, tactics – the textbook – are an irrelevance. We needed to get something on the board, a point would have been OK.  

The moment when football gives way was becoming evident; tackles became more petty, confrontations between players more edgy, the clinical nature of the first-half was eroded by tiredness and the cold. Just past the hour, we were into the danger zone, substitutions would disrupt the flow of the game, players would run out of steam, the chances of getting anything from the game would seep away. 

Set pieces became important because they rely less on athleticism, Herbie Kane, swings in a near post free-kick, Matty Taylor’s positional instinct gives him a space to nod the ball goalwards, the keeper flops and it squeezes in. A goal. Just in time.

The clock is relentless, we wait for the moment when both team concede to the draw, happy with the point. That’s what the textbook says, protect what you have. With the pages sticking together and the ink beginning to run, the book is finally cast aside. Football is no longer about passing and movement, it’s about what’s left to give, what spirit remains, the will to win. 

The Dons have little in the tank, they continue with that most modern of afflictions – playing from the back. Theirs is a particularly extreme version, their keeper receives goal-kicks from his centre-back putting them under unnecessary pressure. It’s like they’re trying to prove a point, that they’re a proper football team, who does things properly, like the textbook says.

There’d been warnings, not just in the game, but last season too. It’s a strategy that frequently gets them in a mess. The keeper plays the ball out, Marcus McGuane who is fresh, presses the recipient to make a tired pass back to the keeper. His touch is poor in the rain and Nathan Holland pounces. For all Holland trickery, this is more prosaic; just get something on it, anything. The deflection squirts the ball across the pitch, the keeper’s prone on the floor, Mark Sykes is twenty yards out. Compose. Compose.

He takes a touch, and slides it home. 2-1. A goal of pure spirit. Now it’s just about holding on; the rain drives down, the ball skids ominously, they break down the right and Simon Eastwood spreads himself to block from three yards out. Moments later Jordan Thornily is dismissed, we’re now scrapping for the points. The resulting free-kick takes an age to set up, the tension rises, and then… the shot is plops into Eastwood’s hands. We’re home.

There is nothing wrong with the textbook, we gain more than we lose by using it. But, as MK Dons have found, it will only take you so far, you can’t create spirit and determination from a business plan.

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.