Match wrap – Plymouth Argyle 1 Oxford United 0

As if to prove it’s possible to have one, this weekend sees the running of my favourite bike race, the Tour of Flanders in Belgium. Unlike the Tour de France, which is designed to help riders finish the race, one-day races like Flanders are the complete opposite.

It’s brutally long – 163 miles – that’s six hours of cobbled sections and sharp inclines – the roads become strewn with broken bikes, broken collar bones and broken spirits. Every so often there is what is known as ‘a section’ – a section of the race or a decisive moment which will break some of the riders’ will to race. The idea is that the race is sentient, it ‘selects’ it’s strongest competitors. It’s so brutal, the riders can only hang on and hope they might be chosen. There might be twenty riders, then a short burst of speed or steep climb on a bumpy surface can leave just a handful with the energy and spirit to keep going. What nobody knows is when the spirit will be crushed or when fate will play its hand. Eventually, as the finish line approaches, the chosen riders of the day look around and see who they have to compete with in order to actually win the race, even though most are just happy to finish.

I get the same feeling about this season; we’ve played really well and entertained throughout, but we can’t influence who is in the division and there are too many variables for us to control. Ultimately, the division itself will select who wins, we can only hope to be in the right place at the right time.

As disappointing as yesterday’s result was, it’s a privilege to be still in a race as good as this one. Look at the teams who don’t seem to have made the latest selection – Bolton, Portsmouth, Ipswich – and the teams still in the race – Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Wycombe. And that doesn’t include Rotherham, Wigan, MK Dons and Plymouth who look beyond reach, but will still influence who finally makes the play-offs.  

I look at the Premier League and how it organises itself broadly along the lines of who has the most money, and the Championship which reminds me of the Conference when we were in it with relegations being decided by points deductions and financial irregularity as much as football. For me, League 1 is the best division in the country. We’re lucky to be in a country where the third tier of professional football is so utterly compelling. Those who dismiss it on the grounds of the quality of football have no idea what they’re missing.

It’s not even about promotion. Look at Peterborough – dominant in League 1 last year and anchored to the bottom of the Championship this. I like being in League 1, it’s a great place to be. I want us to go up, but not because I’m desperate to play at a higher level, but because I’m excited by the prospect of how it all might play out this season.

Will we make it? The defeat to Plymouth is a reminder that while we deserve to be fighting for the play-offs based on the whole season, we still struggle in the head-to-heads, those selective moments which will decide whether we’re good enough or not.

We’re edging closer – we’re ten points better off than we were after forty games last year. Against the top six teams in the division we already have more wins (three compared to one) and more points than last season (twelve compared to seven last year) and we still have three games to play against the top six including two at home. In normal circumstances, we’d be home and hosed but this is a division sliced in two with a huge cohort of play-off and promotion hopefuls and everyone else. We can compete in this division, but we can’t control it. Those at the top are all very similar, we’re just waiting for those selective moments to find out who will triumph.

We’re in the right group, and it’s tight and nervy, but it now looks like four teams competing for two places. Can we do it? Maybe. And that’s the joy, every game is meaningful, every marginal moment, chance or decision means something. The offside decision for the penalty was critical yesterday, but only because of what has happened in the previous 39 games and what is still to come. Karl Robinson’s philosophy is to embrace the challenge, and so should we. We can tie ourselves in knots about our bad luck, bad decisions or bad tactics. We can flagellate about not being good enough, but the world is a difficult place right now and the fact that we have a role in this epic story, one we can immerse ourselves in every weekend, is a privilege. 

A Joey Beauchamp wrap

It’s an unbearable truth that whatever is or has been written about Joey Beauchamp, it will always be inadequate. People will talk about his talent and his commitment to his club, his redemption story, the joy he brought and how he shaped and defined us as people. But, as much as you dig for the words and assemble them best you can, they will inevitably fall short of describing what he meant. 

I suspect the tragedy is that Joey has always struggled to articulate his own purpose, to comprehend his own place in this complex web which is both rich and vibrant and equally meaningless. He was a fortunate accident; an Oxford boy with a talent who played for his hometown club. There’s no doubt that Oxford United fans loved him, but it was always articulated as the Joey Beauchamp who played football in the 90s. In many ways, that image wasn’t him, his image represented us, our hopes and dreams and our collective experience of the time. His greatest successes are recast as our greatest successes.

When that time passed, what did it leave him with? He wasn’t rich, outside the Oxford United community he was anonymous, in the swamp of 90s nostalgia-porn he was mostly the butt of the jokes. As a middle-aged man, a physical shadow of his former self, he could be forgiven for asking what the point was. 

The point is that there is no point. We are the only species on earth that seeks purpose in our existence, that there must be meaning in the things we do. We have to have ‘careers’ and spend our time productively, we must leave a legacy. 

Some keep digging around for a reason to exist, they dig so deep all they can see is the hole they’re in. They look up and see where they’ve come from and wish they were back there and had never started digging in the first place.  

Football clubs help provide a sense of focus in this whirlpool of meaningless, they help to stop you digging. They hold our memories and feelings in trust; watching Joey’s goal against Blackpool transports us back, it makes us happy for having seen it and sad at the passing of time. In many ways that reminds us of our irrelevance. That singular moment, one I can remember with pin sharp clarity, is always slightly out of reach, try as you might, you can’t recreate it, not fully. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you stop trying to recreate it and simply celebrate it for what it is.

At least it happened and we can entertain each other with stories about what it was like to watch it. A football club is a great amorphous mass of memories. We feed into it and draw from it; we celebrate and despair collectively. But it is like a giant pyramid selling scheme – it only means something because what has gone before means something, and what went before that meant something. In some senses, Joey Beauchamp was at the top of that pyramid, while everyone else is caught up in the mania of this pseudo-meaningful existence, he faced the stark reality that as a once in a generation talent, an icon and a talisman, he was, in truth, just a person trudging through a long meaningless life heading for the inevitable cliff edge that we all reach eventually. Life is a boring story which ends badly.

But while that journey is long and hard and often unrewarding, we need to find things to do to fill it. We are currently fourth in the table and have just registered a sensational 4-0 away win at Charlton. In recent weeks we’ve beaten Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 and Gillingham 7-2. Even the defeats to Wigan, Bolton and Wycombe have provided a thrill. At the end of every week there is a game, the aim of that game is to win, however many Oxford fans there are in the world and whatever world view we have, we all, at least, share that goal.

Those games and that objective is meaningless without what came before, or what might happen after we’ve gone, and that belief sustains us. Without it, Cameron Brannagan’s 25-yard drive for 4-0 is just a man kicking a ball. Each win and each goal is given purpose because of Joey Beauchamp, Gary Briggs, Malcolm Shotton, Paul Simpson, Chris Allen, Ron and Graham Atkinson, Arthur Turner, Jim Smith, Ken Fish, John Shuker, James Constable, Kemar Roofe, Micky Lewis, Michael Appleton, Sam Long, Matty Taylor, Karl Robinson and every other person who has helped to sustain this club and community for 129 years.

For every player at the centre of that community, there will always be a period of reflection and melancholy as the memories morph into myth. Joey Beauchamp could be mesmerising, even now there are clips of him flying down the wing and cutting inside and I can’t imagine how he did it or imagine anyone else being able to do it. I can remember the sharp intake of breath when he did and the swell of noise coming from the London Road. He could also skulk around on the wing anonymously and people would berate him for it. He could play brilliantly, which is what we all remember, but he could play badly and off the field he had all the joys and terrors we all must deal with. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have one strand of your existence become your singular defining factor, or what it would then feel like when that defining factor finally leaves you.

My dad once went on a group tour of the Emirates Stadium, he was shown around by Arsenal legend Charlie George. George clearly loved telling stories of his playing days and my dad loved chatting to him. They’re both old men now, in many ways they’re equals, but they’d found a space that gave them a sense of fulfilment as they enter their final years. We’re not big enough to have the infrastructure to wrap everyone in that financial and psychological security blanket, but we must find better ways of supporting people like Joey.  

A few years ago, Karl Robinson invited Beauchamp and James Constable to train with the current first team. It was a reminder to those playing what they were representing, the continuation of a rich golden thread. It was a masterstroke giving current players a reason to commit to the club. For a brief time it must have given Beauchamp and Constable a renewed sense of purpose and relevance as their lives transitioned to something else. Robinson talked about creating a players’ coffee club, a place for them to feel a new sense of connection with their contribution – not put on a pedestal as special guests or legends to perform for fans, but to continue to be part of something, a little bit less alone. 

One of the tragedies of Joey Beauchamp is that he never got to see himself play, he wasn’t in the London Road when the ball hit the back of the net against Blackpool, or when he slotted home against Swindon, or saved us from relegation at Tranmere. Perhaps if he had, he would have stopped trying to find his path and purpose and would have realised he was already there.

Match wrap – Accrington Stanley 2 Oxford United 0

I used to follow Andy Holt, the Accrington Stanley owner, on Twitter right up to the point where I came to realise that what he seems to advocate is that everyone should be exactly like Accrington Stanley.

They’re an anachronism in League 1, they’re not one of the larger clubs aiming for the Championship, nor are they like the bunch of teams who are likely to yoyo between the divisions indefinitely. They’re well run and successful on a meagre budget, but if we were all to follow the same model, football would be poorer as a result. It’s perhaps fitting that they sit absolutely mid-table.

It also makes them harder to play against, they don’t have the limitations of smaller clubs that allow us to pull them apart as we’ve done on a few occasions this season, they’re not going to have the single-mindedness to muscle us into submission like the better teams in the division. They barely have any supporters, so it’s not like you can stoke the atmosphere and turn their fans on them.

It was hard to know quite what our gameplan was on Tuesday. We started as though we were still playing injury time against Portsmouth. The weather seemed to create a sense of uncontrolled urgency and desperation. It played into their hands, while we raced around trying to create openings, they seemed happy to keep tempo. They paced themselves in such a way that they could keep up while not extending themselves. It meant that we were likely to make mistakes and they were likely to retain the energy to exploit them. It didn’t so much play to their strengths as play to one of our weaknesses.

It was mentioned in commentary that conceding goals is, effectively, priced into our style. We’ve only kept six clean sheets this season and have conceded two goals in six of our last seven games. In three of those seven, we’ve won in a thrilling way, in three others we’ve lost. On Saturday, my dad texted having seen what he thought was the final score, saying we’re not consistent enough for promotion (we were 2-1 down at the time). Having just seen the Portsmouth win, I thought he was mad, but looking at the last month or so, he may have a point.

In terms of sheer entertainment, I wouldn’t trade the last few weeks for the three points on offer yesterday, but I’m less convinced by the argument that we should have a way of playing that accepts we’ll concede goals and simply score more.

That principle: ‘if they score three, we’ll score four’ sounds good and full of dashing joie de vivre, but it can become tedious in reality. I once worked with someone who called themselves a disruptor and a maverick. That seemed quite exciting until he set up an unauthorised business unit clearing leaves from train lines – pretty much the opposite of what his employer did. He was fired and the mopping up took months.

The origins of the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ philosophy came from Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team of the mid-nineties. They were, perhaps, the most entertaining team of the modern era, one that won precisely nothing and whose architect is now looked on as a bit of a naive buffoon.  

Karl Robinson has created, perhaps, one of the most entertaining squads we’ve ever had. It’s certainly the best Oxford team never to have won anything (so far). The best teams, whether it’s in the Premier League or in League 1 are intolerant to their weaknesses, even those that only occasionally materialise. Wigan are probably the best example in League 1 this season; they’re not willing to sacrifice points and promotion for style and principles.

Last night our usual fast paced, high possession game looked fragmented and disjointed. We only started to look like we were in control in the latter stages, by which point we were chasing the game and battling the worst of the conditions.

We’re effectively going into games knowing that we’ll concede, we might as well start games 1-0 down. That’s all priced-in and accepted, which is fine when you fire in two world class goals in the final moments, but less so when you’re sodden wet and chasing shadows.

Are we ready to adapt? I doubt it, and I’m not even sure if I want us to. We do serve up a very good product and I don’t know if I’m ready to give that up. But, if we do want to get promoted and, beyond that, survive at a higher level, any tolerance of weakness will ultimately cost us in the long term.

Midweek fixture – Oxblogger’s mid-season survey results

The results are in; Oxblogger’s mid-season survey reveals a club on the up and expectations of the play-offs still burning brightly. And this was before Cameron Brannagan and Mark Sykes rumours, or Jordan Thornily’s return to Blackpool, or Stratfield Brake. So things have probably changed a bit, but, what did we find? Read on…

Overall

With the return to stadiums seemingly a permanent thing now, and the fact we’ve enjoyed a much better start than in previous seasons, the overall mood is good. We’ve not quite hit the peak in mid-2020 – which we can call ‘pre-pandemic levels’, but some way ahead of where we were at the start of the season or, indeed, a year ago. It seems that the general mood is influenced by two factors – short-term form and relative performance to six months ago. So, a few good results can really shift the mood and you don’t necessarily need to be pushing for promotion to make people happy as long as it’s better than it was a few months ago.

Squad

After taking a bit of a dip, the squad is looking healthier than it has done since mid-2020. The mid-season assessment is always a difficult one with the transfer window distorting opinions as the month progresses. To date, there’s been virtually no movement – the results came in after Jordan Thornily went back to Blackpool. Despite a degree of anxiety about the lack of movement, we’re generally very happy with the quality we’ve already got.

Manager

Karl Robinson’s stock remains very high, registering an average rating of 8.7. It’s not as high as his highest peak – an 8.9 coming directly after the play-off defeat to Wycombe in 2020 – but a huge improvement on his starting rating, which was just 6.1.

Directors

The survey came before the news of the club went public on the move to Stratfield Brake. Despite this, the directors rating of 7.9 represents a new peak. One of the most noticeable things about the survey has been the growing appreciation of those running the club. Back in 2019, we’d just come off the back of a difficult season which had seen a number of winding up orders. Ever since, the owners have strengthened the squad, bought the lease to the training ground and kept the club afloat over the pandemic. The fans seem to really appreciate that.

Relationship

The relationship between the fans and club returned a solid 7.8, a slight growth from the summer. This isn’t bad considering that we still seem to be in a bit of limbo with regards to who actually owns the club. Considering this, there seems to be a lot of trust that these issues will be resolved as there’s no sign it’s souring the relationship with the fans.

Favourite players

The fans’ favourite players always fluctuate wildly, although Cameron Brannagan is consistently in the top two. This time around, he’s topped the table with Mark Sykes, Matty Taylor and Herbie Kane making up the big four. Mark Sykes surge to second place reflects a remarkable upturn in his form.

Back in July Sam Long topped the table, but he’s dropped back to fifth with just 3.6% of the vote. The graph below tracks Cameron Brannagan’s scores over the years compared to Sam Long. Brannagan has always been a pretty consistent performer, whereas Long seems to be pretty boom and bust in the eyes of the fan.

Where will we finish?

Obviously with half-a-season of experience in our back pocket – predictions of where we’ll ultimately finish become more certain. At the start of the season 21% thought we were in line for automatic promotion, this has dropped to 7%. 45% thought we’d make the play-offs, that’s shot up to 87% with the most likely finishing spot being 5th. Hard to know whether we’ve become more pessimistic or optimistic, but, there’s at least a growing consensus.

Who wins the league

In terms of where this all ends up, it looks like the title is a three horse race between Rotherham, Sunderland and Wigan. Wigan are over-performing given that you predicted they’d finish 16th at the start of the season. Pre-season favourites Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town are a bit lost in a large no-mans land.

At the other end, Doncaster Rovers and Crewe Alexandra look doomed along with Gillingham and Morecambe, who were pre-season relegation favourites. Cheltenham and Cambridge were both predicted to go down at the start of the season, so will be happy to be in mid-table.

PositionPre-seasonTitleRelegationDiff.
14Rotherham47.9%47.9%
23Sunderland28.7%28.7%
316Wigan22.2%22.2%
48Oxford0.6%0.6%
59Portsmouth0.6%0.6%
61Sheffield Weds0.0%
72Ipswich0.0%
85Charlton0.0%
97Bolton0.0%
1013Burton0.0%
1117MK Dons0.0%
1222Cambridge0.0%
1323Cheltenham0.0%
1410Accrington0.6%-0.6%
156Lincoln0.6%-0.6%
1615Plymouth0.6%-0.6%
1712Shrewsbury0.6%-0.6%
1821Wycombe0.6%-0.6%
1914Fleetwood1.2%-1.2%
2020Wimbledon2.4%-2.4%
2124Morecambe6.0%-6.0%
2218Gillingham8.4%-8.4%
2319Crewe39.5%-39.5%
2411Doncaster39.5%-39.5%

Match wrap – Doncaster Rovers 1 Oxford United 2

With the Tories breaking their own rules, Covid cases soaring and iFollow on the TV in whatever it is that three grades below standard definition is; Tuesday night made me feel a bit nostalgic. The barren wasteland of the terraces at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium presented an atmosphere not dissimilar to football under lockdown.

Doncaster, like Rotherham, are a club I’ve admired with their nice new stadium and moderately, but not overwhelmingly, successful team. Somehow, they managed to modernise gracefully, keeping their feet on the ground and not losing sight of their wider purpose. 

So, its been odd to see their implosion and descent towards the bottom of the division. Like all football clubs at this level, despite everything, they’re still built on the shakiest of foundations where a loss of nerve, a poor managerial appointment or a dodgy signing can see the whole house of cards collapse. Perhaps we should be warned, as good as it feels now, the potential for it all to unravel is real. 

It was startling to see just how poor they were in real life, I missed the first two minutes of the game and with it, apparently, two clear cut chances. We then proceded to overwhelm them as their lack of confidence seeped into every pore and chaos wrapped itself tightly around their throat.

The fact we didn’t capitalise on Mark Sykes’s opening goal made the game unnecessarily competitive and it was of little surprise to see them equalise. We’re still quite a leaky team, with only five clean sheets all season, conceding is a standing agenda item.

The response from some fans was that this was ‘typical Oxford’ making meal out of something which should be straight forward. But was it? In the same way that the pandemic is apparently over and, at the same time, far from over, our post-pandemic relationship with the club has perhaps yet to be fully established. We’re back, but but still not fully complete. So, what is ‘typical Oxford’ in 2021/22? 

There was a time in the bad old days when we would have been impressed if a player came onto the pitch with their shorts the right way round. Scoring a goal was not the culmination of a highly coordinated, complex and skilled operation, but an accident of chance resulting from solid graft. Cheering wasn’t a celebration, it was a gesture of collective surprise.

There was at least one cross-field pass last night from Cameron Brannagan which was made with such nonchalance it barely raised a murmur amongst the commentators. Marcus Mcguane, who looked a level above everyone else for an hour, sprayed a ball out wide; a 40-yard pass that wasn’t even mentioned. We were so complete and dominant, I’m beginning to think that edgy and awkward is not ‘typical Oxford’ anymore.

Going into the last five minutes, chasing a winner was a case of claiming what we richly deserved. It wasn’t the ‘typical Oxford’ that involved grinding out a result and losing in the last minute. It might be what’s deep in our muscle memory as fans, but it’s not us on the pitch. Not now. 

Despite the equaliser we quickly regained our composure and set about seeking justice for a dominant performance. As is often the case in these situations, with them defending deeply, any breakthrough relies on someone being brave and doing something slightly different to change the angles and knock your opponent off balance.

Steve Seddon burst from his full back position, unconcerned by the hole he left behind to break the lines and square it to the ever-reliable James Henry for the winner. I yelped into the silent abyss of my living room, the noise echoed off the walls. 

Was this ‘typical Oxford’ one with and an unerring ability and confidence to secure the right result regardless of the difficulties presented to them? Perhaps we’ve changed. It’s almost like we have an identity crisis, but probably one that we all would welcome.

Match wrap – Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 0

It’s often commented, this season in particular, how much better the atmosphere is away from home. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise; we’re on our best behaviour on the road. At home there’s no compulsion to put on a show, it’s the equivalent of sitting in front of the TV with your trousers unzipped scratching yourself. Everything about an away game is an event; the journey, the food, the ground, singing yourself hoarse. It’s different. 

I was last at Portman Road forty years ago; I was a home fan then, sat in the three tier main stand. The posh seats, or back in the early eighties, the safest. ‘We’ won 3-1 against Wolves, the team my dad supported. You could say the intersection of his old-gold (let’s call it yellow for this analogy) and my preference for blue, was the yellow and blue of Oxford who we watched as a secondary treat during Christmas visits to my grandparents.

Ipswich Town form some great memories of my childhood; the FA Cup win in 1978, the UEFA Cup of 1981. Bobby Robson, Paul Cooper, Paul Mariner, Arnold Muhren, Eric Gates and my personal favourite, winger Chris Woods.   

When we got to Portman Road yesterday, the memories flooded back. It was exactly as I remembered it, nestled in the town. Interwoven into the fabric of Ipswich life, Town and town to our town and gown. For us, football is something you go to, for Ipswich you can drop off your dry cleaning before walking to the stadium. 

On the side of the Cobbold Stand are giant pictures of Mick Mills and John Walk, their history and, to some extent mine, is writ large.

Most grounds of my childhood – Highbury, The Manor – are gone, but broadly speaking Portman Road is unchanged. This is one of the remaining legacies of my past, like meeting a first crush cutting through the weathering of age to see the beauty of their youth. We went into the club shop and saw the vintage replica shirts with the Pioneer sponsor, Adidas everywhere and a book celebrating the 40th anniversary of their UEFA Cup win. It’s the only opponents’ club shop where I could buy 85% of their merchandise.

It was like part of my childhood had broken off and was just floating there in front of me. I had my daughter with me, but couldn’t explain what I was feeling, it was all about mortality and futility. For a brief period, I was a ten-year-old Ipswich fan.

Inside the ground, the players’ tunnel is in the corner with a strange shed built on top. The stadium is the product of its history, complete and coherent and a hotchpotch at the same time. When the teams came out, there were chequerboard flags and their players wore tracksuit tops; these are literally things I obsessed over.

My life now is very different, so fittingly where so much about Ipswich is familiar, so much about Oxford has changed. We’re unrecognisable from the club of ten years ago, let alone forty. 

Before the game, there was a thankfully restrained Remembrance Day ceremony. It wasn’t the hideous over-engineered debacle of Portsmouth two years ago which had so many elements somebody forgot to bring the players out before it started. Even so, the fans’ hushed reverence began while the coin toss was still being completed, it meant it was one of the more tense decisions about which end to face that Elliott Moore will need to make.

We started well, controlling and probing with menace, there were fleeting moments where an opportunity seemed to open up before being shut down. The real chances fell to Ipswich who hit the post twice and drew good, if routine, saves from Simon Eastwood. 

After a solid first-half, the inevitable lull came early in the second. At home, we might think of it as that dopey period which seems to be a characteristic of this team. Away, we’re more forgiving, we chivvy, we don’t chide. The efforts of the first half were always going to catch up with them at some point. As we retreated, Ipswich threatened again and a goal seemed to be coming. But, they too would eventually pay for their efforts, it was just a question of whether we could hang on until they blew up and whether we had anything left in the tank.

On the hour, the storm seemed to have passed, leaving the final half-an-hour for a slug-fest. Subs warmed up with menace on the far flank, Marcus McGuane was our most obvious threat, but even he couldn’t affect enough change.

The final exchange of blows had winded both sides. As the clock ticked by, I predicted there would be one remaining big chance, but for whom, it was difficult to say. In fact, we were done, the engine, quite literally, went into limp mode. To the fury of the home support, we strangled the life out of the game with a series of stoppages. Anti-football, they call it, securing an away point is more accurate.

We left the stadium into the chilly autumnal darkness and that lovely buzz of a thousand post-match analyses before weaving our way through the shadows, away from my childhood and back to the car. We edged our way back to the road and caught one last glimpse of the floodlights as they beamed into the stadium. Happy memories of the past and of the present, that’s why we do away days.

There’s been one goal in five fixtures between these teams in the last three years. BBC cricket commentator and Oxford fan Henry Moeran described it as the most boring fixture in football. Personally, I loved it.