Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Swansea City 2 (Oxford win 5-3 on penalties)

I came to bury the League Cup, not to praise it… 

The dappled half-light of Lake Garda was too much of a draw to plug into iFollow. When I saw the team to play Swansea last night, it confirmed that if Karl Robinson doesn’t care for the tournament, then neither should I.

The League Cup is our competition, it made our name, it gave us our history and saved us in ways we often miss. Had Jim Smith not been able to use it as a catapult towards the big league in the 1980s, would he have retuned in 2006 to help wrestle the club from Firoz Kassam? I doubt it. Would we have sustained decent crowds in The Conference? Probably not. Without the League Cup, I suspect our history would be very different. 

But it’s changed; you can resist it and deny it, but it has. Its original purpose was to give additional commercial opportunities to impoverished clubs between the start of the season and the start of the FA Cup. It served a purpose, it added value, with a rare trip to Wembley for the finalists, there was prestige. Now it gets in the way, the early rounds are little more than a pre-season friendly after the season starts.

You had to have patience to enjoy it; it wasn’t the explosive knock-out of the FA Cup. Games would be over two legs often weeks apart, in later rounds there would be replays and second replays, now there isn’t even extra-time. The manager’s ultimate objective seems to play the least-best team to get by; an eternal game of one-downsmanship. The only next step is to deliberately lose. That’s a big step, but if you don’t care about winning, then losing isn’t such a big thing. 

Boris Johnson was right about one thing, but only one, the herd instinct is strong; and the herd has moved on from the League Cup. When I checked my phone after 25 minutes and we were two down, I’d moved on too. It was time to declare it meaningless. 

Mountains and lakes have a funny way of giving you a perspective of what’s important and what isn’t. I wondered why we’re bothering to flog this dead duck, when you’re the smaller team and playing at home, and you’re still making eight changes, it’s clear how important it really is.

There were people perambulating along the lake, a few children jumping off the jetty and goups of young, tanned, beautiful Germans and Italians sitting on the grass as my phone announced that Alex Gorrin had pulled one back. If it had meaning in the confides of the Kassam Stadium, apart from it’s great to see him back playing, it didn’t reach the province of Trentino. 

We were back in our apartment as the game drew to a close, I tapped refresh to get confirmation that it was over when suddenly, there it was, Brannagan. Goal. Isn’t that just typical?

Penalties came thick and fast, if you follow both Oxford Mail and the official account on Twitter, then everything is double-time and sometimes out of sequence. Green tick emojis invaded my timeline, everyone was converting their spot kicks, then a red cross, McGinty saves. For the second game running, the hero appears from a file marked ‘Ones For The Future’. They seem to be for the now.

And, as if pre-scipted, here’s Cameron Brannagan to finish the job. Brannagan’s like Paul McCartney; others battle away playing their best songs, then Brannagan takes to the stage, breaks out Hey Jude and brings the house down. 

As the ball hits the net, it all means something again, the mechanics of the tie – two goals down, a fortuitous first, a last minute equaliser, a win on penalties against a Championship side – mirrors our 2019 win over Millwall; the last first round game in front of a crowd at The Kassam. That enabled a 4-0 win over West Ham, a breathtaking sweep of Sunderland and a full-house quarter-final against Manchester City. Maybe this thing does still have meaning, you just need a little more patience to enjoy it.

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Cambridge United 0

As the clock ticked into injury time on Saturday, I tried to console myself that at least I’d achieved a lifetime ambition of seeing Oxford United play in Europe. A biblical storm had been brewing around our Italian holiday apartment, so with kick-off approaching, we found a fertile wifi spot and fired up iFollow.

The storm, which belched out foreboding rumbles for at least an hour before it finally unleashed its full force seemed strangely analogous of the action being squirted down the recently installed super-fast, and ultimately shaky, fibre. Something was threatening, but it never quite arrived.

It had been a busy week, after the defeat to Derby I was at Wembley watching England’s women win the Euros. The reward of a rare moment of prescience on my part. A year ago, I decided there was little to lose from filling my boots with tickets for group games at Stadium MK, the semi-final between Germany and France and Sunday’s final at Wembley.

I loved it; my whole experience of the tournament, and of the women’s game more generally, reminded me of a study done by former Oxford United director Desmond Morris of football Oxford fans in the 1980s. His observations, which became the book The Soccer Tribe, had led him to conclude that football should remain a primal, combative and explicitly male game. Attempts to modernise – there was growing pressure because of financial problems and hooliganism – to make it more family friendly, less aggressive and more inclusive, he felt, would kill its core value.

I see that, if you over-sanitise football it becomes very boring. It needs a competitive edge. But, as Robyn Cowan pointed out on the Guardian Weekly podcast, nobody booed the German national anthem, nobody stuck a firework up their backside, nobody was arrested at Wembley or in Trafalgar Square. There were plenty of German fans around us, nobody made a single derogatory comment about them, spoke in a funny German accent or mentioned the war. I don’t remember anyone swearing (apart from Jill Scott, but we didn’t know that until we saw Twitter). My daughter habitually joins in with any football song regardless of the language being used, if people don’t call the referee a cunt, then neither will she. That must be a good thing.

And yet, the final still had edge, needle and tension. I know this because when the Germans equalised my immediate reaction was to disown the whole thing as a pointless façade and resist the urge to go home, which is the same feeling I had after Ryan Clarke dropped the ball into his own net at Wembley in 2010.  

It turns out that many accepted football norms; aggression, abuse, xenophobia, racism, are a choice and not priced into what makes the game great. Sunday showed that and Desmond Morris was wrong; football can offer all its glories without the primal baggage he believed fuelled it. He just didn’t have the imagination to see things differently.

The preceding 92 minutes on Saturday had been an extension of what happened at Derby. We looked solid and able to withstand a well organised and robust Cambridge side, but we failed to bridge the gap between strong and threatening.

There’s a line from the book Inverting the Pyramid that always stuck with me; fans want teams to win, managers want teams to avoid losing. Their job is so precarious, they become naturally conservative in the way they operate. If you listen to the BBC podcast, The Moment of Truth, about us and Rotherham last season, you’ll get a sense of the fear of failure that Karl Robinson has. How consumed he becomes about letting people down. There’s a risk that by addressing our weaknesses we supress our strengths, there have been some signs of that this season, we look more solid, but chances have been at a premium and Matt Taylor has been relatively anonymous as a result. 

I’m torn by the view that England’s success last week was ‘football coming home’; a lament about breaking a long sequence of failure. Yes, the women’s success sits alongside the men’s success, but theirs wasn’t burdened by that history of failure. Theirs is a re-imagining of the game, the righting of a ludicrous decision to ban the women’s game in 1921, to persevere and succeed against a tide of people who believed they didn’t deserve it. It’s justice and the right to be judged as elite athletes not as women playing a man’s sport. It’s all success.

So, with injury time approaching, it took a player also without a burden of history and expectation to pick the ball up on the left and see what he could do. Tyler Goodrham wasn’t weighed down by the expectation the play-offs or by defending any personal reputation. The point we were defending didn’t mean anything to him. He’s just a young player who wants to prove himself. He has everything to gain and little to lose. In a few years maybe he’ll cut that ball back or try to find a more reliable and sensible route to goal. I hope not. 

Not this time, he danced through the Cambridge defence, defying logic and team instructions, taking a risk to score a goal. Sometimes we have to reimagine history and play without fear of judgement to succeed.

We needed that, Tuesday’s game against Swansea and an always tricky game at Bristol Rovers could have seen us staring at a crisis of confidence four games into the season. As Goodrham wheeled away, he was consumed by the rest of the team, a great suffocating pile-on in front of the South Stand. From down the touchline appeared the manager body slamming all of them into the turf. The weight of a football club on top of one teenager. Some might see that as that as an analogy for his future. But maybe now is not that time.

Match wrap – Derby County 1 Oxford United 0

League football in July is not really my scene, it’s too early. Granted, every season has to start somewhere, but it feels disjointed and unfinished; holidays disrupt the rhythm of going to games, squads are incomplete and sub-optimised and results have no context. It’s like buying a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle from a charity shop, it’s daunting and you don’t know if you have all the pieces to complete it anyway. 

Although Derby was high on my list of away-days from the off, when it came out as the first game of the season, I was disappointed. Normally, I’d give an opening day 200-mile round trip a miss, I’m not so engulfed in a frothing unquenchable desire for ‘The Football’ to make the effort. 

But Derby versus Oxford is a family derby, my aunt and uncle are season ticket holders at Pride Park, we’re practically the Maxwells. The lockdowns mean we haven’t seen each other for years, so it was a rare opportunity to catch up, exchange news and gossip and compare notes about our football clubs. They even have a very convenient gym membership at the David Lloyd centre ten minutes from the ground, so we could benefit from the ample parking and pleasant bar area pre-match. I even had my nails done in the spa (I didn’t, but I could have done). Based on our experience, if Oxford can’t benefit economically and socially from a stadium development offering something similar, then there’s something deeply wrong.

I’d obviously been aware of Derby’s plight – financial collapse, mismanagement, skulduggery, administration, points deductions, relegation, then last minute deals, recovery, new players and a new dawn – but I hadn’t appreciated fully the damage it did along the way.

My aunt and uncle looked vaguely haunted, the collective wisdom of Twitter had suggested Derby had risen like Lazarus, ready to storm the division, but that wasn’t the impression I got. It’d been suggested they’ll run away with the division, but the more we spoke, the less convincing that seemed. They didn’t know the players, season tickets were distributed a week before the season started, there’s no payment plan in place, the kit has just been announced and has no sponsor, it won’t be available to fans until the autumn. They’d played three pre-season games, had four players at their first training pre-season session. I noticed later the lack of backroom staff warming the players up, unlike the larger clubs in the division, where each player seems to have his own coquetry of fitness coaches, tactical advisors and zen masters.

By comparison, we seem a model of stability. Leon Blackmore-Such, Amy Cranston, Wayne Brown, the little fitness guy who dishes out the Lucozade sport. Different kit, same people. We even wore alternative yellow shorts and socks which won’t be available in the club shop, which is exactly how it should be for a proper club.

They’d been saved, and for that they were relieved, but at what cost? There are many legal and financial hurdles to negotiate. How deep is the iceberg? How rotten is the core? How emotionally exhausted is everyone involved? Perhaps we did have a chance.

When we got into the stadium, the atmosphere was wild, Oxford fans as noisy and colourful as I can ever remember. Over 30,000 fans and this is lower league football. It’s easy to forget that we’ve become the patrons of the division, only Shrewsbury and Fleetwood have been in League One longer than us. We pick at the minutiae, but we were loud and confident, not a little team on a big day out, but a club comfortable with who it is, used to this kind of thing, readying itself for more. 

It was difficult to hear beyond our own noise, but Derby fans seemed subdued, perhaps happy just to be there, feeling slightly uncomfortable – not sure about the division they were in or even their own players – like buying a pair of new shoes, where they feel like they’re wearing you rather than the other way around.

On the field, we looked like we’d shed our notorious flimsiness, no more elfin wingers like Sykes, Whyte and Holland being bullied to the margins. McGuane prowled the midfield with menace, Browne strong, probing and mobile, Finlay assured, and of course, the recently anointed religious artifact, Brannagan, buzzing around with a confident maturity tying it all together.

But we didn’t seem to know what to do with this new-found muscle. Like a steroid filled, balloon-armed gym obsessive unable to apply their strength to anything but posturing in front of other steroid filled, balloon-armed gym obsessives. We wouldn’t be bullied, but how do we win games like this?

Understandably, they too seemed unsure and for all the spectacle, the game seemed to meander without purpose, punctuated only with half-chances. Perhaps we were just all too happy to go through the motions, still a bit pre-season-ey – perhaps if we’d taken some more risks, we could have rattled them.

The game drifted beyond half-time and into the last half-an-hour and we moved into a phase of which the science is still to be established; how to use your five substitutes. It’s a completely different dynamic when you can replace half you team.

Derby manager, Liam Rosenior, moved first throwing on Louie Sibley. Almost instantly, the dynamic changed, Sibley’s movement started to stretch us. A defensive muddle gave them the first real opening, but they were denied by a heroic goal-line clearance from Brannagan. Who else?

Karl Robinson was unmoved, even as we wobbled he seemed unwilling to make a change. Now their fans were making the noise, maybe a sign that it was time for us to manage the game into submission. But, even if we were trying to do that, we didn’t seem to be able to grasp it.

Eventually, Murphy and Gorrin were introduced. Gorrin will need games after a long lay-off, Murphy’s movement suggested he could have an impact, but the connections weren’t there, we didn’t know the runs he’d be making. 

Momentum was against us, we continued to wobble and backed off as Hourihane advanced on the edge of the box and let fly. A shot, a novel idea in an afternoon characterised by graft rather than craft. It was worth a try I suppose, the ball nestled in the bottom corner for 1-0. Cue: goal music.

We never really looked like getting back, with seven minutes added on, there was just enough time to enjoy the pantomime of sending Eastwood up and Brown on for a desperate last minute free-kick and us comically knocking the ball along our goalkeeperless back line before the referee brought the game to an end.

The whistle went, a cathartic roar filled the stadium, it was their moment and I don’t begrudge them it at all. But, based on our experience of League One promotion hopefuls, there’s work to do, they’re not the finished article but then, neither are we.