The wrap: Luton Town 3 Oxford United 1

So that’s it, the end of a brutal and bruising year. One where every game appeared analogous of the whole season, yet seemed to signal something different. A season full of contradictions; where we’re owned by the richest people in our history, but can’t pay the bills, where we’ve developed an infrastructure for the future, but struggled for results today, where we spent 84% of the season in bottom seven (55% in the relegation zone) and finished in the top half of the table.

Because of this, I genuinely thought we might beat Luton, but in the end we stuck to the script; which I suppose, was a contradiction to the script-ripping nine months we’ve had.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Luton were champions; it’s difficult not to admire what they’ve achieved as a club. I’ve always seen them as a barometer; how we’re doing relative to each other and what we can achieve. But simultaneously, they (their fans, and perhaps just a minority of them) are loathsome, as their reaction after the game showed. And if you think that them taunting the away end and throwing a smoke bomb into the stand is just the excitement of the moment, then you’re forgetting them doing something similar in 2010 when York City players were forced to into the away end to escape. No set of fans deserve their success less.

In other ways, it’s heartening to see Luton succeed, it gives us a glimmer of hope. In truth, if you look at all our ups and downs over the decades, mid-table in third tier is probably our natural place, despite ambitions stating otherwise. The biggest challenge is that the increments needed to navigate beyond where we are grow by the year. A team can spend £4m on a striker and finish fifth in the third division now.

Luton’s promotion means that three of the four teams you’d think have Championship infrastructures – Sunderland, Portsmouth, Charlton and Doncaster – will still be with us next year. Of those coming down, Ipswich, Bolton (if they survive the summer) and Rotherham are all similarly capable of competing for promotion despite their woes.

For us, bridging the gap and breaking into the top six has to be our target. This season reminds me of Eric Morecambe’s famous line to Andre Previn – we played all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order. If we want to progress, then we have to be more organised; our season was killed by our form in the opening weeks, which was preceded by a chaotic summer.

The last few weeks have been as entertaining as anything we’ve seen in the last decade or more, even the promotion seasons, which have been laced with anxiety. We’ve been swashbuckling and daring, sparking life back into the club just as it seemed to be on a downward spiral. Even narrowly avoiding relegation in our 125th year would have been a grim way to celebrate.

Any sign the problems that caused us to fail so badly are sorting themselves out may come in the next couple of weeks. Our previous two promotions were characterised by high quality early signings. Fans will always get jittery during May and early-June because signings aren’t flowing in. In the main, that’s not justified because football slows down during those months as people take a well-earned break. However, if our results on the pitch in the last couple of months are a reflection of us getting our act together off it, then maybe we’ll see some signs of that in the coming days.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Doncaster Rovers 2

It took a double take for me to realise that we’d made eight changes for the draw against Doncaster. At first glance, it looked like a fairly predictable starting eleven. That’s probably because there were only four from the starting eleven that played against Charlton just over a week ago.

With Kashi serving a customary ban, Hanson’s inclusion was no shock. Whyte and Browne for Garbutt and Sykes didn’t feel particularly experimental given both have featured regularly throughout the year. Only Nico Jones coming in for Rob Dickie was any real surprise.

Karl Robinson was back to his babbling best, if that’s what you can call it. Beforehand he said he wanted Jones to make mistakes – because that’s how you learn – and said afterwards that he ‘loved’ his own goal. Thankfully Nathan Cooper gave him an outball on that by suggesting that it was because of Jones’ reaction. Yes, said Robbo, moving incomprehensibly into a detailed description of some ‘diag’ Jones made shortly afterwards.

For all his nonsense, what I will say about Robinson is that he’s got a nice tone when talking about prospects, although referring to every young player as the future of the club does wear a little thin.

It’s a fine line though, there is undoubted benefit in giving young players the opportunity to experience the pace of first team football and the feeling of playing in front of a crowd. But, asking him to play the full 90 minutes against a decent team whose season is still very alive was a big challenge.

I thought it was a step too far, if I’m honest. It wasn’t a bad display in the context of his age and experience. The own goal and a couple of critical slips can be written off as unfortunate, but, more experienced players’ have the deep muscle memory to adopt starting positions that mean they’re less likely to get into similar muddles. Giving Jones the full 90 minutes asked a lot physically and mentally, and gave him a lot to process afterwards. Apparently Robinson took time to talk to Jones afterwards, perhaps he knew he had work to do to maintain his confidence after a challenging afternoon.

Will it make him a better player, or damage his confidence? Time will tell, but it was a gamble that, perhaps, wasn’t needed. I’d have preferred Mousinho for an hour – assuming he was fit – perhaps giving Jones half an hour.

Whatever, against a club whose season isn’t over, we were the better team. It was heartening to see that for once, we showed a bit of savvy with the wind. You could see Browne’s long-distance daisy cutter just after half-time which led to Sinclair’s wrongly disallowed goal was pre-planned. For his failings, Karl Robinson will use every tool he’s got to win, we haven’t seen since the days of Chris Wilder.

People have said that they don’t want the season to end, but I think it’s coming at just the right time. There’s no guarantee that we could keep up our current pace and a couple of defeats could have knocked us back to where we were. Instead, we can head into the summer on a big positive, which should help with season ticket sales and general positivity towards the club in general. Meanwhile, the owners and management get a break to sort out the messy backdrop against which the season has been played out. Then perhaps, just perhaps, we can come back in August and achieve something closer to what we expected to achieve this season.

Midweek fixture: 101 Milk Cup Final (related) facts*

  1. The basics: on April 20th 1986 Oxford United beat QPR 3-0 at Wembley to win the Milk Cup. The club’s greatest ever triumph.
  2. A terrace ticket for the game was £5; in today’s money that would be £14.39. Seated tickets were £16 (£46.06). In 2019, tickets for the final were between £40-£150.
  3. The programme was an A4 sized brochure style publication and cost £1 (£2.88 in today’s money). The 2019 League Cup final programme cost £10.
  4. The team wore what is now considered to be its traditional colours – yellow with navy blue. In fact, it was the first year we’d worn navy blue shorts and socks, before that we’d word a lighter royal blue and before that gold and black. We played in a darker blue between 1900-1950, but the shade used in 1986 was fundamentally a new one.
  5. To much hilarity, we were sponsored by Japanese company Wang computers. It’s very unlikely the club ever received any money from the deal as it was struck by Robert Maxwell as a way of getting a discount for a computer installation for his newspaper business. Rumour is that the system was never implemented.
  6. The final shirts had a slightly different ‘Wang’ logo to the regular league shirts. The word usually had a frame around it, but for the final it was removed. This is likely to be because there were rules about the dimensions of sponsor logos for TV matches.
  7. Alan Judge wore a special goalkeeping shirt with a diagonal shadow stripe. Swanky.
  8. Radio Oxford commentator Nick Harris was on duty for the final, before the game he walked around the pitch perimeter with a giant backpack containing a transmitter which allowed him to broadcast ‘on the go’. He’s still commentating, albeit from a more sedentary position, 33 years later.
  9. One of the ball boys at Wembley was one Joey Beauchamp, who went on to become one of the club’s greatest ever players; playing 375 games for the club. Beauchamp can be seen behind the goal celebrating Jeremy Charles’ third goal.
  10. The official cup final record was My Oh My by Prism and Oxford United. It was released on legendary ska and reggae label Trojan Records.
  11. Most of the culprits associated with the record appear to have disappeared. Lead singer Trina Jones is now senior manager of publishing relations at iHeart Radio. At least, I think so.
  12. The club’s official suits were provided by Van Heusen via Shepherd & Woodward on Oxford High Street. An advert featured the reassuring strapline ‘Worn by Oxford United When They’re Not Playing Football’.
  13. The club produced an official preview, which revealed the players’ nicknames. Some were more convincing than others – Hebberd was known as ‘Nijinsky’ and Briggs as ‘Rambo’, but one might question whether anyone called Ken Fish ‘Come on, Come on’, Maurice Evans ‘Do-be-do’ or Alan Judge ‘The Flying Pig’. Calling nearly man, Mark Jones ‘The Nearly Man’ is just mean.
  14. Before the main event, there was a celebrity game between Jimmy Tarbuck’s Rangers and David Frost’s Dons. The Dons team included Tommy Cannon, Jimmy Hill, Michael Le Vell (Coronation Street), Alan Parry, Dennis Waterman and Adam Woodyatt (Eastenders).
  15. Tarbuck’s Rangers had Bobby Ball, Bobby Moore (eh?), Patrick Mower, Paul Usher (Brookside), Martin Shaw and Sean Wilson (Coronation Street).
  16. I’m fairly certain Tarbuck’s Rangers won.
  17. The national anthem and ‘further selections’ were played by the 1985 World Showband champions, the Bristol Unicorns Youth Band, the most successful British marching band ever.
  18. As fun as this was, the real game kicked off at 2.30pm and was broadcast live on ITV. The host was lifelong Oxford fan Jim Rosenthal. Famously, Rosenthal wore an oversized rosette and one of the club’s horned caps to show his allegiance, which got him into trouble with his producers. Pundits were Jimmy Greaves, Ian St. John and Mick Channon. Brian Moore was in the commentary box with Greaves as co-commentator.
  19. Although the game was warm and sunny, earlier it had been grey and wet; you can see the pitch cutting up during the game. The London Marathon was run in the morning, Grete Weizz won the women’s race in 2 hours 24, and the men’s race by Toshihiko Seko in 2.10.
  20. Oxford fan Paul Scaysbrook completed the marathon in an Oxford shirt and horned cap. Bob Wilson interviewed him on TV. Scaysbrook only finished an hour before kick-off, but still made the game just before half-time.
  21. In goal was Alan Judge, whose Oxford career lasted 19 years, although there was a twelve year gap without a game. In 2004, as goalkeeping coach, he played against Southend United due to an injury crisis. He’s also the only player in the team to have played at The Manor and the Kassam Stadium – in 2003 he played against Cheltenham Town, again due to an injury crisis.
  22. Before becoming a professional footballer, skipper Malcolm Shotton worked in a women’s underwear factory as a hosiery knitter. The captain of our second visit to Wembley in 2010, James Constable, also worked in a women’s underwear factory before turning pro.
  23. Stay with me on this; the sister of our third Wembley captain Johnny Mullins is glamour model – Geena Mullins – who presumably spends quite a lot of her time being photographed in women’s underwear. The sister of our fourth Wembley captain – John Lundstram – is Jodie Lundstram, a beautician who was on Desperate Scousewives; a reality TV show. There’s a link there somewhere.
  24. The final proved cathartic for number 10 Trevor Hebberd, who scored the first goal and was man of the match. In 1979 he played in every round of Southampton’s run to the League Cup final, but didn’t even make the bench for the 3-2 defeat to Nottingham Forest at Wembley.
  25. Hebberd was 25/1 to score the first goal, one Oxford fan bagged £2,500 – over £7,000 in today’s money when it hit the back of the net.
  26. Hebberd was Jim Smith’s favourite signing while at Oxford.
  27. Hebberd and Malcolm Shotton were the only players to play in every round.
  28. Glaswegian, Ray Houghton, scorer of our second goal, may never have had an international career if it wasn’t for the Milk Cup run. After our 2-2 semi-final first leg draw against Aston Villa, John Aldridge introduced Houghton to Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton. Charlton didn’t know about Houghton’s Irish heritage, and promptly signed him up for Republic.
  29. Ray Houghton was famously the only player in the squad who hadn’t been signed by QPR manager Jim Smith. Neil Slatter was the only other player signed that summer.
  30. Houghton spent some of the previous summer training with QPR with an expectation he would sign for them. He didn’t.
  31. He’d won the League Cup again, with Aston Villa, in 1994. John Aldridge was manager of Tranmere when they were runners-up in 2000.
  32. Scorer of our third goal, Jeremy Charles was sporting a particularly bushy beard. This was the result of his decision not to shave until we were out of the competition.
  33. Charles had signed for Oxford 10 months earlier; from Queens Park Rangers.
  34. His career was ended by an injury sustained in Oxford’s next League Cup game against Gillingham the following season. He only scored one more goal for the club, against Nottingham Forest.
  35. Along with Charles’ beard, we were pretty moustachioed-up with Malcolm Shotton, Gary Briggs and John Trewick. Up front, John Aldridge, who usually sported a ‘tache, shaved his off.
  36. QPR had no moustaches in their team, they preferred mullets.
  37. Our main goalscoring threat was John Aldridge, who scored 34% of our goals that season. He had a quiet game, drawing a save from Paul Barron which led to Jeremy Charles’ third. Aldridge also missed a penalty at Wembley in the 1988 FA Cup final, and although he scored in the Charity Shield that year, he finally broke his cup final Wembley duck for Liverpool in the 1989 FA Cup final.
  38. At twenty-eight, the oldest player in the team was Dave Langan, one day older than Malcolm Shotton. Kevin Brock was the youngest player at twenty-three.
  39. The longest serving player in the team was Gary Briggs who made his debut in 1978.
  40. Slatter, along with Peter Rhodes-Brown and Billy Hamilton all missed out because of injury.
  41. The starting line-up contained two changes from the game immediately before – an away defeat to West Ham. Jeremy Charles came in for Billy Hamilton and Kevin Brock played in place of cup-tied Steve Perryman.
  42. The QPR side included Republic of Ireland international John Byrne. Byrne spent a memorable period at Oxford in 1993 partnering Paul Moody.
  43. QPR striker, Gary Bannister spent 10 games on loan at Oxford in 1992.
  44. The QPR squad also had Peter Hucker who played in goal for us between 1987 and 1989. It also had Gary Waddock, who had a disastrous and brief managerial spell at the club in 2014.
  45. Going into the game, we’d not won in seven games. QPR hadn’t lost in eight.
  46. At the time the 3-0 win represented the biggest Wembley win in League Cup Final history. That was equaled in 1996 by Aston Villa, and only bettered in 2006 when Manchester United beat Wigan 4-0.
  47. We inherited the cup from Norwich City, who had beaten Sunderland in 1985. Our successors were Arsenal, who beat Liverpool 2-1 the following year.
  48. The final was our first clean sheet in the tournament after beating Northampton Town in the second round.
  49. It was generally believed that Oxford’s path to the final had been fairly easy, which is true. However, it did include knocking out the cup holders, Norwich City in the 4th round, along the way.
  50. It was the first win over QPR in nearly 13 years and the first League Cup meeting for 19 years. We lost 1-5.
  51. We met them again in 1995, losing narrowly 2-3 over two legs. The Milk Cup Final was, therefore, our only League Cup win over QPR.
  52. The official crowd was 90,396, the lowest Wembley crowd for a League Cup Final before Wembley was made all-seater.
  53. It was still by far the biggest crowd Oxford have ever played in front of – the next biggest being 74,434 against Coventry City in the Checkatrade Trophy in 2017.
  54. There were 16,396 more people watching the game than in all our preceding Milk Cup games that season put together.
  55. Manager Maurice Evans famously sent physio Ken Fish up to collect his medal. Mr Fish was a 50s throwback sergeant major type with a clipped English accent. In fact he was South African, joining the club in 1964. He stayed for over 20 years years and died in 2005, aged 91.
  56. Maurice Evans nearly wasn’t the Oxford manager at all. He was sacked by Reading in 1984 and found the experience so depressing he nearly gave up the game completely. Jim Smith persuaded him to come to come out of exile. Even when Smith left, Evans was his very reluctant successor. All the time he was manager, he didn’t have a contract because he didn’t believe in them.
  57. The trophy was awarded by Sir Stephen Roberts, chairman of the Milk Marketing Board.
  58. The 1986 final was the last to be sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board, changing its name to Littlewoods Cup. Following our second win at Wembley – the Blue Square Premier changed its name and after our third trip to Wembley for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy changed its name to the Checkatrade Trophy.
  59. The win would have seen Oxford United qualifying for the UEFA Cup, but due to English teams being banned from Europe after the Heysel Stadium disaster, it ever happened.
  60. Heysel may also have contributed to Jim Smith’s departure from the club. He and Robert Maxwell started negotiating a new contract on the night of the disaster, they broke off their discussions as the news came through, only to resume them a month later. By this point, QPR were ready to pounce.
  61. Jim Smith fell out with Robert Maxwell because he wanted £50,000 a year and Maxwell wanted to pay only £45,000. Smith wanted the equivalent of 4.3 times the then national average wage. Today the average Premier League manager earns over 50 times the national wage.
  62. Jim Smith took over from Frank Sibley at QPR. When he left, he was replaced by Trevor Francis.
  63. Despite his early set back, no subsequent QPR manager that has been in post any length of time has a higher win ratio and only two – Ian Holloway and Gerry Francis, have lasted longer.
  64. It wasn’t the first League Cup success for Assistant Manager Ray Graydon. He scored the winner for Aston Villa against Norwich City in the 1975 final. His penalty was saved, but he converted the rebound.
  65. The following Saturday, we lost 2-3 away at Ipswich. Steve Perryman came back in place of Kevin Brock in an otherwise unchanged team.
  66. The 1986 Milk Cup was the only major domestic trophy not won by Liverpool that season.
  67. Missing out on the UEFA Cup, the club didn’t even qualify for the Screensports Super Cup, a domestic replacement for European football following the ban. It was abandoned after one season.
  68. The Milk Cup wasn’t the only domestic national competition won by Oxford that season, though. We were also the Daily Express 5-a-side champions beating Arsenal in the final.
  69. The winning squad was Houghton, Shotton, Aldridge, Hebberd and Trewick. In goal was Oxford City keeper Paul Whittington.
  70. It wasn’t our only tilt at getting to Wembley that season. We made it to the semi-final of the Full Members’ Cup, but lost 2-5 over two legs to Chelsea.
  71. Oxford fans were in the East Stand of the stadium, the tunnel end.
  72. In the pre-match interviews Maurice Evans claims there’s an Oxford banner saying ‘Aldridge strikes more often than Maxwell’s printers’. This was a reference to the fairly brutal modernisation of the newspaper industry which was going on at the time.
  73. QPR fans had a puntastic banner which said “We made Chelsea Neil, we made Liverpool Byrne and we’re sending Oxford down the Bannister”.
  74. None-the-less, things were pretty grim in the QPR end with members of the National Front fighting the poilce and black fans in the stands.
  75. Our reign came to an end with a 0-1 defeat to West Ham the following season. Seven players who were in the final played in that game.
  76. Because sentient women didn’t exist in the 1980s the tabloids featured a bevvy of glamorous beauties alongside the match reports the next day. The Star went with the ‘lovely’ Andrea Kovic wearing her swimming costume back to front. She wants to go in a hot air balloon and keep ‘all her legs in one basket’. The more respectful and enlightened Mirror had Corrine Russel – a Benny Hill favourite – in a string bikini showing off bingo numbers.
  77. On the same page there’s a story about Jimmy Saville boasting about his sexual conquests while marathon running. Ew.
  78. Otherwise, the news was mostly about the Queen’s upcoming birthday.
  79. The Guardian described our performance as having ‘attacking movements of verve and accuracy not often seen in Wembley finals’. Crikey.
  80. The Times said QPR were ‘Woefully poor in defence, laborious in midfield and negligible in attack … their challenge was surely one of the most feeble ever to have been staged in the national stadium’. Oh.
  81. Later it emerged that many QPR players had been fed a triple does of Mogadon sleeping tablets the night before to help them sleep. A contributory factor to their unusually gormless performance?
  82. Maybe, Johnny Byrne blames the fact they watched Spurs the previous day. Whereas Martin Allen thinks they had become fatigued by the endless expectation.
  83. Had the game been a draw, there would have been extra time. After that, a replay would have been played at White Hart Lane on Wednesday 30 April.
  84. Alan Judge is the seventh oldest footballer in Football League history. He became a driving instructor and lives in Bicester.
  85. John Trewick played for Birmingham City before moving to non-league. After retiring he enjoyed a successful coaching career before retiring from the game completely. He now lives in Solihull.
  86. Malcolm Shotton managed Oxford in 1998, enjoying initial success before his sergeant major style rubbed everyone up the wrong way. Became a coach at Loughborough University before becoming a car salesman. Occasionally joins Radio Oxford for co-commentating duties.
  87. Gary Briggs moved up to Blackpool where he worked as a civil servant and caretaker.
  88. David Langan lives in Peterborough where he endured some fairly tough times, worked at Peterborough Town Hall. Published his autobiography in 2012.
  89. Les Philips works for a building company locally.
  90. Trevor Hebberd moved to Leicestershire where he worked for a steel merchant in their warehouse.
  91. Kevin Brock managed a number of local teams including Oxford City and Banbury United. Lives in Bicester.
  92. Ray Houghton enjoyed huge success with the Republic of Ireland, Liverpool and Aston Villa. Now works as a pundit.
  93. Jeremy Charles now runs Sydenham Charles Vehicle Leasing.
  94. John Aldridge moved to Liverpool winning the league and FA Cup amongst others, then had a successful spell in Spain with Real Sociedad. Managed Tranmere before becoming a media pundit in Liverpool.
  95. Andy Thomas followed a similar path to Kevin Brock managing a number of local teams. Works at Wychwood golf club in Chipping Norton.
  96. Maurice Evans died in 2000 of a heart attack aged 63. A lounge is named after him at the Kassam Stadium.
  97. Robert Maxwell died in 1991 falling off a boat after having a heart attack. Shortly after, it was discovered that Maxwell had been using millions of pounds from The Mirror pension fund to shore up his businesses which were crippled with debt. At the time Guiness were QPR’s shirt sponsor. In the directors’ box was Ernest Saunders, who was later caught up in the Guiness share manipulation trial. Top guys.
  98. The 20th April has proved pretty lucky for the club ever since, we’ve won six and lost two, including two 3-0 wins – against Brighton in 1991 and Rochdale in 2013.
  99. No Oxford player was born on 20 April 1986, in fact no player has been born on 20th April at all. Current captain John Mousinho was the first future Oxford player to be born after the Milk Cup on the 30th.
  100. In May 2001, in what was the last game at The Manor, Alan Judge organised a re-run of the game for charity. The game ended 4-4 in front of 3,500 people. Judge, John Trewick, Gary Briggs, Kevin Brock, Les Phillips, Trevor Hebberd and Jeremy Charles all played.
  101. In 2016, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the win, a number of the players re-united again for the game against Hartlepool. Jeremy Charles, Trevor Hebberd, Andy Thomas, Alan Judge, Gary Briggs and Les Phillips all attended alongside a number of the squad players from the time.

* All facts would benefit from further verification and modification, I’ve done my best, right?

The wrap: Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 3

The first game I saw this season was at home to Accrington. People were already talking about how unprepared we looked in our first few games. Against Stanley we took the lead twice, but lost 3-2. I mentioned at the time that perhaps this high energy style was what Karl Robinson was looking for, and perhaps both players and fans had to get used to the approach.

Robinson’s personal style is all action, of course, it’s perhaps not a surprise to see his teams playing the way they do. What is evident is that when it’s not working, it can be embarrassingly bad – being 3-0 up against Scunthorpe and drawing 3-3, conceding eight minutes into injury time against Luton, for example. When it does work – as it has in recent weeks – it’s brilliant, we haven’t had a sequence of games like this since promotion in 2016.

I was walking in The Chilterns with a patchy 4G connection during our win over Shrewsbury, but when information did filter through, it had a familiar feel about it. Conceded a penalty? Like Charlton, sending off? Like Walsall and Charlton, thrilling comeback? Charlton (again). All that was missing was the 94th minute winner.

Unless you’re there, not only does it take a while to piece it all together, it’s a lot to process. Ahmed Kashi has been sent off twice, and was booked against Charlton, Marcus Browne and Simon Eastwood have both received red cards. If you add people like Cameron Brannagan – 14 yellow cards this season or Jamie Mackie (11), you start to realise that this approach is not without its collateral damage. In addition, we’ve had to come back from behind twice and relied on injury time goals twice. This doesn’t happen very often.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a lot of fun as we’ve scrambled for safety and then made a bit of a mess of others’ promotion and relegation fights. I’ve loved Ahmed Kashi’s lunacy; bans give others opportunities, which keeps it interesting when the results are largely meaningless. But, is it sustainable across a whole season?

If we are going to mount a promotion bid next season, we surely can’t do it relying on 35 yard last minute winners or having to deal with the consequences of bans and injuries resulting from an over-combative style. We won’t have a big squad next year, so it’s not likely Karl Robinson will have options to draw on, he needs to keep his players playing. If we’re going to do well, then we need to be able to pick up points efficiently with minimal fuss. With the summer in our sights and players likely to leave anyway, then what happens between now and the end of season can be as messy as it likes, But, there’s nothing wrong with a controlled 2-0 win, and we will need to learn that at some point.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Charlton Athletic 1

My evolving theory about League 1 this season is that the division mostly consists of fairly average teams, of which we are one. There is a small group of marginally more competent teams who will fight for promotion. But, no one is really capable of competing in the Championship for any length of time. Is it better to know your level or fight to get into a division you’re not equipped to compete in?

Our recent run has been slightly tinged with the concern we’ve merely hit a good run of opponents at the right time – Walsall, Bradford, Wycombe and Wimbledon all look like relegation candidates and we played them one after the other, drawing with with one and sneaking past two in the last minute.

Charlton offered a different proposition; not only are they in that group of teams looking to go up, there were times in the opening minutes where they blew my theory out of the water. Perhaps they could sustain themselves at a higher level. I thought they were much better than Sunderland or Portsmouth. The fact they were unbeaten in eleven supporting that view.

Their penalty was soft, I thought, but may have done us a favour given the chaos later. It made it much harder for the referee to make big decisions on marginal calls without the game descending into a farce that would have been of his making.

There was something about the sunshine, the meaninglessness of the game from our perspective, the buoyancy of the Charlton fans and the early goal which gave that foreboding sense that we were going to collapse in the theatre of it all.

Then it all turned around. Just when we could have switched off, we resolved to show we weren’t just a makeweights in someone else’s end of season adventure. Curtis Nelson, perhaps playing his penultimate game at the Kassam, had plenty of time to watch the ball drop, but caught his volley perfectly. And then Garbutt slammed home his brilliant second.

Garbutt’s resurrection may be the story of our revival. He could easily have crumbled under the criticism of earlier in the season, he’s well paid and is not from round here so he could have just given up. Instead, he’s dragged himself back into the team, changed position and transformed. He’s now the one gee’ing up the crowd and, at Walsall, disappearing into it. Karl Robinson’s role in turning his season around can’t be ignored, either.

The second half was entertaining but barking mad – Simon Eastwood was rightly sent off although it was clearly a miscalculation rather than a deliberate attempt to cheat. His one-match ban implies that the FA agree, so it does make you wonder whether red is too harsh a punishment for a momentary mistake.

Incidentally, I’m not a fan of a team being allowed to make an immediate substitution when a goalkeeper gets sent off. Clearly it would have disadvantaged us, but I think you should have to wait until the next available stoppage before making any changes.

There was half-an-hour to hold out. I remember looking at the clock and realising that Eastwood had only been off the field for six minutes; it felt like hours had passed. They had territory and possession, and won a lot of corners, but we didn’t cave.

Eastwood’s dismissal should have signalled the end of our hopes of taking the points, but in reality, we had the better chances. In many ways it was reminiscent of our fabled win at home to Swindon in 2012 when James Constable was sent off.

Solly’s sending off was as much about Jamie Mackie’s fall as it was about a dangerous challenge. Perhaps that was more deserving of a yellow, although I thought Lapslie should have been sent off for tripping Jerome Sinclair when he was clean through. It could easily have been a goal from Garbutt, who benefitted from the advantage, with Lapslie then being sent off for the foul. Practically every decision and incident could have gone the other way; it was that good a game.

Leaving the game with adrenalin coursing through my veins once again got me thinking; in terms of sheer thrills, spills and drama; is there a team offering better value for money in the country than us right now?

Through all the mayhem, though, was a refreshing level of gamesmanship and guile. We would have been overwhelmed with less maturity. It’s something we have frequently lacked in the past. Michael Appleton prided himself on developing players, Pep Clotet on his tactical acumen, Karl Robinson’s thing is winning games at all cost. He’s more a Chris Wilder, with all the baggage that comes with that.

It was Robinson who introduced Mackie and Hanson because he knew they’d dig in. He removed Kashi to protect him from a second yellow, god help him if Josh Ruffels’ last minute chance had gone in. For all Robinson’s streams of consciousness when interviewed, he kept his head when all those around him lost theirs.

It goes without saying that Jamie Mackie led the charge with a masterful performance of pushing, being pushed and being outraged at being pushed. Cameron Brannagan showed his growing maturity being tidy and combative at the same time. The back-four protected Jack Stevens admirably, with Josh Ruffels and Sam Long both offering outlets when the chance was offered. Not that Stevens was a passenger, his scooped save being as good as anything Simon Eastwood has produced this year, in fact I’m not sure Eastwood would have the athleticism.

Every Charlton shot was met with two or three players falling over themselves to block the ball. Total commitment and discipline.

With the younger players learning from the older players, what emerges is an increasingly competent and effective unit, one capable of performing against the best in the division.

And this is what turns a team from being a League One also-ran into potential play-off or promotion candidates. It’s come too late for this season and large chunks of the squad will disappear over the summer, but if a DNA is emerging and some off-the-field stability can be established, then we can, perhaps look forward to next season with a degree of optimism.

The wrap: Oxford United 0 AFC Wimbledon 0

They say drowning is pleasurable. Perhaps it’s the sense of helplessness; that your destiny is secured and you are no longer faced with the competing forces of life in general.

There was a similar beatific calm about our draw with Wimbledon, we’re pretty much safe, we can’t go up, we couldn’t even change our league position as both 11th and 13th were mathematically out of reach.

I kind of like it, I mean, like when you’re drowning – you may enjoy while but you know you’d miss being alive – I’d ultimately miss the lack of competition and purpose, but for now, in sitting in stasis, I quite enjoy the moments of peace.

I sat with Brinyhoof, chatting about life and his success as one of the world’s leading fantasy football league managers (Bundesliga edition). In front of us, we played well, made chances and scored none of them. Afterwards – with the players still leaving the pitch – I summarised the game as ‘full of entertainment, though I can’t remember a single moment of it’.

They, of course, have no such luxuries, with a very real relegation battle on their hands, and you can tell why. Like Walsall and Bradford, both of whom we’ve beaten recently, they’re just not very good. Wally Downes, a veteran of the Crazy Gang; the grimly romanticised Wimbledon team of the eighties, is turning the club from a fan-driven metrosexual cosmopolitan snowflake liberal wet dream into an unpleasant unit in the image of his own playing career. It’s probably out of necessity rather than anything else, they were always in for a battle to stay up, though perhaps they’ve taken the term battle a little too literally.

That said, it didn’t really affect us, only Aaron Ramsdale’s heroics in their goal prevented it from being a comfortable win. At any other stage of the season, we’d have been apoplectic, but there was a general shrug of the shoulders. You play well and don’t win; it happens.

In the 69th minute, Karl Robinson introduced Jamie Mackie, Jordan Graham and James Henry in a triple substitution. It was a slightly odd move; an unnecessary act of aggression – we were in control of a game that ultimately met little. But he felt it necessary to make a triple substitution by bringing on senior players, which is usually a sign that the game must be won at all costs.

Maybe it was a reminder that cruising through the last few games of the season is not acceptable. You get a sense that Jamie Mackie, in particular, is unlikely to let the intensity of his game drop whatever it is he’s playing for.

But, this does raise the question about how you approach the final games of the season – in 2015, Michael Appleton’s first year, it became an opportunity to build momentum, pre-season before the pre-season. It could be an opportunity for fringe players to prove themselves, in the context of new contracts; although I think most of those decisions make themselves. Perhaps it’s a chance to blood some young players.

We need to be thankful that the form we’ve had came at the time it did; our run-in – Charlton, Shrewsbury, Doncaster, Luton is pretty tough, if there was much hanging on them, we might fear for ourselves. But, they offer a good opportunity to see just how good we are (or aren’t).

I don’t think this is about cruising to the end of the season as tempting as that is, it’s about seeing who has the appetite to play at an intensity needed to mount a decent challenge next year. After all, if you can motivate yourself when there’s nothing riding on it, you should be able to motivate yourself when there’s all to play for.

The wrap: Walsall 1 Oxford United 3

The Bescot Stadium was a new one for me. I’d often seen the sign off the M6, and the main stand poking above the flyover and thought it an obvious one to tick off the list. The problem was that though we are, in many ways, similar clubs, we haven’t met that frequently. Yes, three times in the last three years, but before that there had been a sixteen year gap.

I was looking forward to it; the stadium is complete and compact in a classic lower league style. The relatively short journey, plus our good form, was sure to draw a decent following. Plus, there was a little less tension now we were sitting loftily in 12th.

In fact, the ground a curiosity, apparently designed by an architect who missed his lecture on cantilever structures. Rather than clean sight lines, socking great girders prop up the roof, obstructing the view. I’ve been to old grounds and sat in areas with poor views, but that’s more because seats had been installed where they were never intended to be, the problem at the Bescot seems to be obviously avoidable.

I’d known about this beforehand, but underestimated how bad it was. To top it off, their main stand, more modern and offering unobstructed views and corporate hospitality – their equivalent of our South Stand – is behind the goal rather than down the side, the whole stadium does its best to stop people from watching the game.

This season, that’s probably not a bad thing if you’re a Walsall fan, they’re a poor team and are surely set to go down. It was only our gift of Curtis Nelson’s dithering, then Marcus Browne’s lunging tackle, resulting in his red card, that made it competitive.

Browne’s sending off could mean we don’t get to see him again. He’ll have a three match ban, which will bring us perilously close to the end of the season, and I wonder whether Karl Robinson will be bothered about giving him game time before he heads back to West Ham.

In reality, Browne’s sending off probably made the game harder for them. Fitness no longer seems to be a major factor when you lose a player, and it probably forced us to be more tactical. They didn’t have the ability to breakdown a team whose first instinct was to defend what they had.

There weren’t many chances, it wasn’t a great game, but we were prepared to attack when we could. Sam Long drove into the box to cross for Luke Garbutt who set himself to bury it. It reminded me of Trevor Hebberd’s goal in the Milk Cup, it seemed to take an age to get his feet right and shoot. I didn’t see it hit the back of the net – those obstructed views again – but there was little doubt from the sea of bodies and the cacophony of noise around me.

Garbutt, the release from a torrid season evident, headed directly to where we were, fists clenched, eyes bulging. Around us were a large number of latecomers from the pub who hadn’t been able to barge their way to the back of the stand. There seemed to be a moment when Garbutt realised what he was heading into – a seething mass of Adidas trainers, Stone Island jumpers and coats with goggles in their hoods. There was fear in his eyes, but he was fully committed and piled in anyway, disappearing into the morass. The unlikeliest player to bond the team with the fans.

Jerome Sinclair’s celebration for his clincher was more controlled; perhaps he’d learned from Garbutt. Cameron Brannagan didn’t hold back though, he’d been fiercely competitive throughout, and ended in the melee, arguing with stewards. In any other world, I’d have been appalled by it all – and there is a post somewhere about the toxicity of patriarchy at football – I’ll save that for a defeat – but in the moment, this was glorious.

Rob Dickie seemed to do some sterling work calming things down. He’s coming of age on and off the pitch. His goal was fairly routine, but his overall game is hopefully showing that we may not miss Curtis Nelson, when he inevitably leaves, as much as we thought we might. The benches cleared, leading to Ahmed Kashi also being sent off, which I found out 3 hours later. He’ll serve a one-match ban, but I hoe we see him again next season; nobody else is as efficient with the ball.

We’re pretty much safe and with no chance of the play-offs we can start to reflect. We may not yet be fixed – particularly as we continue to be dogged off the field – but this run is rebuilding some faith and, more importantly, a bond between the team and those who follow it.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Wycombe Wanderers 1

Saturday’s game was preceded by the news that the club’s stuttering administration had failed to pay its non-playing staff on time. The reasons given by Karl Robinson was, once again, the flow of cash coming from Thailand, presumably via Singapore, where the club is registered.

Incidentally, if you’re questioning why players get priority, my understanding is that because they are unionised via the PFA, there is a standard invalidation clause in player contracts for non-payment of salary. The club has to protect their assets.

This is a reason, but no excuse, many companies push money around the world to pay people, so why are we so different?

League 1 is a wasteland between smaller, well run teams in League 2 and the Conference, and the escalating scrap in the Championship to get to the Premier League. We have to spend more than we’re able to generate organically through ticket sales and merchandise just to maintain our status.

So, we’re reliant on our owners and the loan system. We’re often critical of loanees because the lack of control we have and the perception they might lack commitment.

In reality, a loans give us access to players we can’t otherwise afford. The division is awash with players from the Premier League academy system. But, academy football is all about creating rounded, technically capable professionals more than players brave enough to scrap for points. Ability takes you so far in a first team game, but winning games takes something else.

It’s a big factor in the division this season; lots of capable teams; few who can win matches on a regular basis. Our last three wins have all been punctuated by inspired moments that have broken the deadlock. Josh Ruffels’ crossfield ball against Bradford, Rob Dickie’s pass that led to Jerome Sinclair’s opener yesterday, Jordan Graham’s switch to Ruffels in the last minute, and, of course, Ruffels’ spectacular finish to win it. Earlier in the season, we didn’t have that, now we do and it’s making all the difference.

Wycombe’s ambition is largely to stay in League 1, Gareth Ainsworth has engineered them accordingly. They’re physical and difficult to play against, Ade Akinfenwa is the antithesis of a technical academy player. I can’t quite work out what the strategy is with him, standing still seems to be a big part of it, but he’s very effective with the limitations he has. It looked like we might get overawed by their gritty desire for points, and their noisy following, until Ruffels – who admitted he needs to learn to step up – took control of the situation.

We are starting to see players emerge from the constraints of their academy hothouses and turn into players that can win games. Luke Garbutt has had an unremarkable year, but he showed much more bravery going forward, Rob Dickie often looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he’s growing with every game, Jerome Sinclair is a very solid player, but you can see he needs more time to turn into the selfish goalscorer he needs to be. Jordan Graham is sometimes criticised for over-playing, but he’s one of the few capable of doing something different.

Coming into form now should be enough to see us safe, which has largely been the objective since the opening weeks of the season which wrecked our prospects. In the context of a division that struggles to win games consistently and a club that has done its best to disrupt any modicum of stability, Karl Robinson has to take credit for the relatively comfortable position we now find ourselves in. He’s been manager, coach and club spokesman on a range of topics that are out of his control, if you blame him for failure you should have the good grace to praise him for success.

The wrap: Coventry City 0 Oxford United 1

Cameron Brannagan sends over good quality deep corner, it somehow lands, via Sam Long, at the feet of Curtis Nelson, who bludgeons away at the ball with every part of his body until it stops coming back and stays in the net.

This is a season for the hackers and battlers, not the lovers and dreamers. In a mirror image of last week – the madness of the last minute aside – they were us; the better side but not good enough to win. We were overwhelmed in the opening minutes and it looked like we were in for a torrid afternoon, but they ran out of ideas and the threat subsided, as it often does with teams in this division.

On our part, we were wasteful, tried to get it forward too quickly, meaning the strikers couldn’t support the defensive effort by holding the ball. We were there for a point, surely. We simply had to wait for the ball to come back and hope that we’d stand firm, which we did, by and large. We were resolute and took the opportunity when it came. There were lots of good news stories; Sam Long was excellent, Ahmed Kashi is calm and efficient with the ball in a way that no others are, a gem hidden in full sight.

Walking back to the car, Coventry fans were complaining about their lack of ideas and how their limitations were being exposed. They could have been us trudging away from the Kassam, and they’re two points off the play-offs. The Ricoh is a lovely stadium, but they only open three sides, we have more in common than divides us, it seems.

This week Karl Robinson ‘celebrated’ his first year in charge with a retrospective in the Oxford Mail. He reflected on the problems he’s had – ‘reasons’ for failure if you’re generous, ‘excuses’ if you’re not. The training ground, the stadium issue, injuries, winding up orders and his best signing shaming himself on Twitter. If management is the art of removing the excuses for failure; then he’s got a few in his locker. Whether they are reasons or excuses is open to endless debate, but it’s hard to argue that he’s been given the ingredients for success on a plate. In a tight division, these are the margins which have tipped us onto the wrong side of the edge, regardless of the millstone of having a ‘top-eight budget’.

Coventry, of course, have their own off-field problems, many clubs in League 1 do. Either a systemic lack of money or things which are darker and more venal. Virtually nobody is truly equipped for The Championship. The now fabled thirteen team relegation battle illustrates how most teams are negotiating the season on a high wire with no safety net.

Normally, being thirteenth with seven games to go would have you reaching for a spreadsheet to place fancifully optimistic predictions that allow us to sneak into play-offs. Nobody ever writes off their season until it’s mathematically impossible. This year, we’re still looking down, at the four point gap, even though in terms of our position, we’re now closer to the play-offs than we are to the relegation zone.

As we turn for home this season, there’s very little fun to be had, it’s all about hacking and bludgeoning our way to safety. It seems unlikely that things will be fully decided until the last knockings of the year. But with everyone seemingly susceptible to the same failings, yesterday’s result was a big step towards staying in League 1 next season.

The wrap: Oxford United 1 Bradford City 0

Let’s get to it.

It’s 0-0 in a relegation six-pointer, we’ve been the better team, just not good enough to beat them. The board goes up, four minutes of injury time. Some people have left, accepting the point, but our pressure is showing encouraging signs that we could still get something from the game. There are 57 seconds of injury-time to play.

Let’s start with Bradford manager, Gary Bowyer who wound the whole hullabaloo back to a challenge by Curtis Nelson on Eoin Doyle in the build up to their chance. Bowyer described the tackle as ‘wiping out’ Doyle, for which Nelson should have been booked.

Nelson’s challenge is robust, Doyle’s run is checked in the process, but the referee waves play on; Bowyer describes this is as ‘fair enough’. As a result of the challenge, Nelson is out of position and Doyle is able to regain his balance and drive on. He’s the one who squares the ball with Nelson scrambling to recover. He’s clearly got the advantage; wiped out, he isn’t.

The ball is squared to Lewis O’Brien at the back post, he has an open goal; Cameron Brannagan slides in to make a challenge. O’Brien misses. The referee, Andy Davies, who has good sight of it, if a little behind the play, awards a goal kick. On Twitter, a Bradford fan said it was a corner, but the immediate reaction of the Bradford fans is that it was a miss not a block. Bowyer also claims O’Brien said it came off Brannagan, but he doesn’t seem to make a big play for that argument.

Given the velocity and direction of the ball from the shot, it doesn’t look like Brannagan made any contact. That’s not to say it doesn’t take a nick, but there are four Bradford players in the attack, none appear to protest at the decision. Doyle seems to gesture at something, maybe Nelson’s challenge, but he’s not the best sighted Bradford player. O’Brien holds his hand up at something as the play moves on, but spends more time mourning his miss than claiming a corner.

Simon Eastwood retrieves the ball from a quick-thinking ballboy, firmly places it in the six yard box and passes it to Josh Ruffels who is already on his way down the flank. There are three conditions for a legitimate goal kick; the ball must be played from the six yard box; which is fine.

It must leave the penalty box before it is touched. Nathan Cooper claims there’s some question as to whether the ball leaves the box before Josh Ruffels touches it. Gary Bowyer doesn’t make any reference to this, showing that everyone is looking for something different. Curiously, according to the rules, the ball isn’t ‘in-play’ until it leaves the box. So, from the moment Simon Eastwood touches it to the moment it leaves the box, the ball is in an existential crisis, stuck somewhere between being a football and not being a football.

Anyway. The official footage is inconclusive. This video on YouTube shows it from the North Stand; the incident is at about 8 minutes 55 seconds. It shows the ball from Eastwood to Ruffels, someone’s arm gets in the way at the moment he first touches the ball. There’s a still on Twitter which looks like he may have touched it inside the box, but on the video, he seems to be outside and allowing the ball to come across him. He’s predominantly left footed, so it would make sense that he would allow it to come over to his more natural side. It’s not conclusive either way.

There’s nothing in the rules to say why the ball should leave the box. If it’s to protect the defending team, then it’s fairly immaterial. If it’s to protect the attacking team, then it should be retaken because, somehow, they’re disadvantaged. The rules, and that rule particularly, tend to err on the former, not the latter.

There are four Bradford players left behind in the box. Technically, the kick shouldn’t be taken until the box is clear of attacking players; which is the third condition. However, the FA state the reason for this “… is to prevent the attacking player gaining an advantage from being in the penalty area which is not permitted by Law 16.”

With the onus on protecting the defending team’s right to take the kick unimpeded, you have to look at the context. O’Brien is sitting on the floor, two have their back to play and Jack Payne is talking to the ref. None are preventing Eastwood from taking the kick. Bowyer and Karl Robinson didn’t know the rule, nor anyone else, it seems. Nobody protests until the linesman makes a big deal about it.

We are 17 seconds into the incident.

Ruffels sets off, the linesman appears to stop, but the camera pans past him. He doesn’t seem to flag, the fan video doesn’t make any reference to him doing it, the referee doesn’t stop or signal anything, he’s watching Ruffels and would probably be able to see the linesman in his peripheral vision. There doesn’t seem to be a flag, I don’t remember there being one. The incident is over and the play has continued. Any errors made in the previous phase are no longer relevant.

Ruffels launches a glorious cross-field ball to Gavin Whyte. It reminds me of Bobby Moore’s ball to Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup for the fourth goal; massively over-looked in the wider context.

Whyte darts inside, but his shot balloons up, possibly off Jerome Sinclair. When Ruffels makes his pass from inside our half, Jamie Mackie is the closest player to him. When the ball drops from Sinclair’s ricochet, seven seconds later, it’s Mackie arriving to pick it up in the box.

In those seven seconds, Mackie has covered nearly 35 metres at an average speed of 11 miles an hour. His anticipation and desire to get in the box is remarkable. He controls the ball at hip height, and in a single movement, takes a couple of steps to balance himself, then slams the ball home on the volley. It’s a brilliant counter-attacking goal and a sensational finish; in the context of the season, and everything that’s happened in the previous 30 seconds, it’s a goal for the ages.

Pandemonium. The Oxford bench clears, last time we saw that was against Wycombe when we were promoted. There’s some suggestion that Mackie, who had already been booked, might get another card for his celebration. It’s difficult to know what he’s supposed to have done; he’s grandstanding, but it’s everyone else going bananas.

With the dejected Bradford players preparing to kick-off, the referee consults his linesman and appears to disallow the goal. Mackie falls to his knees. Quite why the goal has been chalked off is hard to fathom. A Bradford player picks the ball up and heads for the penalty spot. That’s wishful thinking, there’s no suggestion it’s a penalty, but it creates more consternation. On the advice of the linesman, the referee appears to be pulling the play back to re-take the goal-kick, presumably because of the players in the box.

Players and officials start pushing and shoving on the touchline; Curtis Nelson calls for non-existent VAR, Karl Robinson suggests afterwards he watches too much Premier League football (which doesn’t have VAR). He ignores that he also gestured to the video team at the back of the stand to see if they can help. We can see you Karl. Hmm.

Afterwards Jamie Mackie claims he asked the referee to take some time to reconsider. If he did, it’s good advice because if he disallows the goal, he’s got a major crisis on his hands. The ref consults his other linesman. Presumably that’s not because he’s seen something different, perhaps to get a second opinion. If he’s done that because of Jamie Mackie, then Mackie is a god twice over.

The goal is given, it’s a horrible way to lose a game and a great way to win one, but it’s the right decision. Law 5 states: “Decisions will be made to the best of the referee`s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the spirit of the game”. In the spirit of the game, the goal-kick issue is trivial and the goal should stand.

There are only 17 laws in football; the rest is process and interpretation. There were Bradford players in the box when the free-kick is taken, which is the only bone of contention, but the law says that a re-take ‘may’ be taken (not ‘must’) if the process isn’t followed. It’s not considered a foul, it’s a process issue. Nobody should be punished.

The interpretations of that law puts the onus on protecting the defending team (us). There was no reason for the referee to get the kick re-taken. If the Bradford players were protesting at anything, it was that the referee hadn’t punished them for getting out of the box for the kick. It’s a funny world.

The referee’s error in handling the situation was probably two-fold. The game had long moved on by the time the issue was highlighted. He should have decided that the incident was in the past – the game had restarted, in which case the incident is no longer up for discussion (Law 5) – and trivial in context.

The second thing is that he should have taken both his linesmen to the side and decided in a single decision. Moving from one side of the pitch to the other meant players followed him around creating more mayhem. If anything, the linesman’s pedantry was at fault as it put doubt in the referee’s mind. In a world where VAR is considered the answer to everything, maybe the ref needs to be praised for taking the time to figure it out, or for listening to Jamie Mackie.