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 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.
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?
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That Brexit’s a funny thing; the most likely way of leaving the European Union by the 29 March in a way that minimises damage to the economy has been killed by the people who wanted that to happen.
It’s almost as if those who want Brexit are using it as a political tool to damage members of their own party. Or perhaps they know they’ve got it wrong and are working to grind it into the floor without losing face. Or perhaps they are just fantasists and don’t really know what they want. In short, it looks like those who said they wanted Brexit, don’t actually want Brexit.
Two hundred and twenty miles north of this debacle another was unfolding. Well, not quite; I was quite relieved with the 0-0 draw against Rochdale given what happened at Gillingham on Saturday. The difference between scoring and not scoring, though, was pretty significant. We’re still in the relegation zone, a goal would have put us 18th.
I’ve been pretty calm about the prospect of us going down; we had a tough January and negotiated it reasonably well. Some solid form between then and the end of the season would see us safe. It’s not where we want to be, but I thought we could get to May and restock.
Then I look at the table and see Rochdale are below us, Gillingham were just above us, on Saturday we’ve got Bradford who are also in the relegation zone. Then look further down our fixtures list we’ve got Luton, Doncaster and Charlton. Suddenly we’re running out of the free hits we assumed would get us out of trouble. When are we planning to run into the form which would see us safe? Like a Brexiteer not wanting Brexit, are we’re in a relegation fight but we’re not fighting.
The table gives us a sense of security; everyone else is missing the same opportunities we are. But it’s like a game of reverse chicken. Who is going to take the opportunity to blink and put in the shift needed to get out of trouble?
And this is where I’m beginning to pivot. Our players may not be as good as we’d like to believe, but they’re good enough to sit in a pack of teams with the chance to staying up. Many of our toughest fixtures are behind us and yet, we still seem incapable of creating a run to get us out of trouble. Like Han Solo trying to get to lightspeed and finding the Millennium Falcon failing him at the key moment, why can’t Karl Robinson find the edge that turns draws into wins?
I can’t answer that, but nor can he. I agree he’s been given a raw deal with the off-the-field problems, but he does seem to have been given just about the right tools and time to at least finish higher than 21st.
Robinson simply staring at his team and telling us that it was all supposed to work, there’s a point where you’ve got to get under the bonnet and find out why it isn’t. He may have the ability to deliver results in the right environment; I’m doubting it’s this is the right environment for him.
We are in a division of the finest margins, where the difference between 13th and 21st is four points. We can take a crumb of comfort from this; although it feels like we’re constantly missing the mark, everyone else is in the same boat and we remain very much in the dogfight to stay up. The hope is that we’re sitting at the back of the pack, Mo Farah style, and will surge towards safety just in time for the end of the season.
Certainly stats website Experimental 361 seems to think we’ll be OK, and some analysis from the Oxford Mail pointed towards our comparatively easy run-in as an indicator of hope. But, a bit like the assumption that someone will come to their senses about Brexit and come up with something that will avoid food and medical shortages; who genuinely knows?
The difference between success and failure is hard to fathom in the division; the top five are mostly teams that wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship. But, Luton Town, a historically a benchmark for us, are top. Size alone doesn’t guarantee success.
The next group are looking at mid-table safety – while most have had their successes at this level or above, Wycombe are there. It also features Coventry and Blackpool, who are not exactly known for their stability.
So, what is the key? Despite their off-the-field problems, Coventry have Mark Robins, who is a very capable manager, Wycombe and Luton have established a solid, stable business model. Nobody can argue we’ve enjoyed stability off-the-field and there are many who will argue that Karl Robinson is not a capable manager.
I don’t subscribe to that view wholly, but it is difficult to fathom the logic behind current team selections. Robinson described his bench yesterday as ‘unbelievable’, but didn’t play them. He’ll argue about not changing a winning team, although that ignores how genuinely terrible the first half against Scunthorpe was last week.
That became the Jerome Sinclair show, but it was Gavin Whyte who animated the game coming off the bench.
I don’t think Luke Garbutt is as bad as some suggest, but it is difficult to argue that he has a significant influence over games, yet from somewhere in recent weeks, he’s become a first choice player. With Whyte appearing to be fit, it is hard to see why Garbutt is the preferred option. Someone suggested that Everton may be putting pressure on the club to play him, I don’t know if that happens, but it’s more logical than playing him because of his performances.
All season Marcus Browne has been presented as a finely tuned thoroughbred, constantly on the verge of injury, but he made the bench ahead of Carruthers, so we might assume he was fit to play some part. He remained on the bench.
Mark Sykes has had a reasonable start to his Oxford career, but by his own admission he’s benefitted from John Mousinho’s mentoring. Nick Harris raves about him in away games, but last week he was patchy. Cameron Brannagan is not exactly an old hand, but he was fit and available and didn’t get a sniff.
I could also make arguments for Jamie Hanson over Sam Long or Jamie Mackie over Jerome Sinclair. Although both are less obvious. I understand players carry injuries and that fatigue needs to be managed, but it is hard to see why the more marginal players – Long, Sykes and Garbutt and being consistently preferred to more established players. One or two, I get. More than that, less so.
Robinson can argue that we’ve just come off the back to two wins, and that the defeat to Gillingham was in the last minute. He argues we should have had a penalty, but ignores the fact that without Simon Eastwood’s save, that would have been immaterial. Plus, he’s got Rochdale on Tuesday to think about. It’s always more complicated than fans assume it to be. But, in a division of the finest margins, it feels like we’re marginalising those who give us the edge.