Summer transfer window – June 2021

It’s the 1st of June, so, what do we know – Josh Ruffels is out of contract and rumoured to be heading for Nottingham Forest, Rob Atkinson is interesting Bristol City, Cameron Brannagan could be off to Preston North End and Jack Stevens may be heading for Middlesborough. Away from the club, John Lundstram looks set to leave Sheffield United and Joe Rothwell may be on his way into Bramall Lane. Then, of course, there’s the West Brom manager’s job which Michael Appleton, Chris Wilder and even Karl Robinson have been linked to. Looks like it’s going to be a busy summer.

Tuesday 1 June 2021 – Mark Sykes to Ipswich Town?

Football League World are claiming that Ipswich Town are interested in Mark Sykes. Ipswich have been recently taken over and are promising sweeping changes; so expect them to be linked to anything that moves.

Wednesday 2 June 2021 – Paul Digby signs a new contract at Cambridge United

Cambridge United defensive midfielder, Paul Digby, who was rumoured to be interesting Oxford has signed a new contract with the recently promoted team.

Thursday 3 June 2021 – Alex Cochrane and Joe Tomlinson rumoured to replace Ruffels?

Either Oxford are starting to look at a post-Ruffels world or they’re gently applying some pressure on the left-back to sign a new contract. Brighton’s Alex Cochrance and Eastleigh’s Joe Tomlinson are both rumoured to be lined up to replace him, should he choose to move elsewhere.

In 2014/15 Michael Appleton set off on a quest to sign every young player in the country; Wes Burns made six appearances on loan from Bristol City before disappearing to get on with his life. Apparently last season he was at Fleetwood, but has now joined Ipswich Town.

Friday 4 June 2021 – Rob Atkinson, Ryan Williams and Cameron Norman

The Bristol Post suggest that there’s still a way to go before Bristol City land Rob Atkinson. The stumbling block is the characteristically insane £2m valuation the Oxford have placed on him. That means very little, firstly; the Post claim this is what QPR paid for Rob Dickie (and surely didn’t), and secondly, although under no pressure to sell, the club would surely bend at a fee of less than half that, and everyone knows it.

In more probable news, former loanee Ryan Williams may be returning to the Kassam after being offered a reduced-terms deal at Portsmouth.

Cameron Norman, who played for half-a-season in 2018/19, has signed for Newport County.

Sunday 6 June 2021 – Canice Carroll leaves Queen’s Park

Former Oxford full-back Canice Carroll’s career has started to go a bit Jefferson Louis; he’s been released by Queen’s Park, who he signed for at the end of 2020. He’s now looking for his sixth club, at the age of twenty-two.

Monday 7 June 2021 – Freddie Grant to Bath City

Freddie Grant, who had a glancing blow with the Oxford first team in 2016 has signed for Slough Town from Bath City.

Wednesday 9 June 2021 – Ryan Williams signs

That’s the first one in the bag; winger Ryan Williams has returned to the club having turned down a reduced terms deal at Portsmouth.

Tyler Roberts, who was briefly on loan at Oxford in 2016 has signed a new contract at Premier League Leeds United.

Thursday 10 June 2021 – Ellis Harrison to sign?

Rumour is that Portsmouth’s forward Ellis Harrison is next on Karl Robinson’s radar. Harrison would link up with Matty Taylor who he spent three years with at Bristol Rovers.

The world’s least surprising announcement has finally been made, but Josh Ruffels has opted for Huddersfield Town rather than Nottingham Forest.

And finally, Blackpool’s Luke Garbutt has signed a new two year contract with the recently promoted Seasiders.

Friday 11 June 2021 – Jack Payne, Aaron Martin and, er, Lee Molyneaux

Teeny tiny Jack Payne continues to pursue his underwhelming career having left Swindon Town for Crawley Town, Aaron Martin has turned up at Port Vale while Lee Molyneaux has signed for Baffins Milton Rovers. They’ll be dancing in the streets of Baffins, Milton or possibly Rovers tonight.

Wednesday 16 June 2021 – Alex Dyer to Colchester

Alex Dyer (M’Lord) has been appointed as Colchester United’s assistant manager six months after leaving Kilmarnock.

Meanwhile, rumours that John Lundstram will be joining Kemar Roofe at Rangers next season seem to persist.

Friday 18 June 2021 – Sam Smith to sign for Cheltenham?

Sam Smith, who spent half a season on loan to Oxford from Reading in 2018 could be about to sign for Cheltenham, where he was on loan last season.

Sunday 20 June 2021 – Celtic targeting Rob Atkinson?

Celtic are now interested in Rob Atkinson, according to Bristol Live, who quote The Sun, the Glasgow club are interested in Atkinson as part of their rebuilding plans following last seasons failure to retain the Scottish Premiership.

Meanwhile, Karl Robinson is apparently interested in signing James Robson from Dundee United as a replacement for Josh Ruffels.

Oh, and want to feel old? Aaron Woodley has been signed up as player-coach at North Leigh.

Monday 21 June 2021 – Jordan Graham

Stepover kid Jordan Graham is being linked with a host of clubs since turning down a new contract at Gillingham. Birmingham and Hull are both in the running, as is another link up with Michael Appleton at Lincoln.

Tuesday 22 June 2021 – Ryan Taylor joins Grimsby

Ryan Taylor has signed for Grimsby Town after leaving Newport County.

Wednesday 23 June 2021 – Joe Grayson for Barrow, Sam Slocombe for Scunthorpe?

Joe Grayson, who hung out with the squad when he was on loan from Blackburn Rovers last season, has signed for Barrow. Meanwhile Sam Slocombe’s move to Scunthorpe from Notts County is on hold.

Thursday 24 June 2021 – Jordan Graham signs for Birmingham City

Jordan Graham has followed in the footsteps of Pep Clotet, Dan Crowley, Matt Green and Simon Marsh and signed up to Birmingham City’s annual relegation fight.

Friday 25 June 2021

The Newcastle Chronicle has listed Rob Dickie among the forty players currently linked with the club. James Clarke has joined Newport County after leaving Walsall in May. The Sheffield Star say that Rangers, Burnley and Crystal Palace are all interested in John Lundstram when his contract expires at the end of the month. West Brom’s new manager (Michael Appleton or Chris Wilder), former Barnsley manager Valerien Ismael, his keen on making Alex Mowatt his first signing.

Sunday 27 June 2021 – Jason Kerr linked with the Yellows

Oxford are ‘monitoring’ the availability of defender Jason Kerr who skippered St Johnstone to a Scottish League and FA Cup double. Hibs and Wigan are also interested.

Monday 28 June 2021 – Cochrane signs for Hearts

Alex Cochrane, who has been mentioned in despatches previously as a replacement for Josh Ruffels has signed for Hearts.

Tuesday 29 June 2021 – Obika, Kelleher and Baldock

Fiarce Kelleher has signed for Bradford from Wrexham. Jon Obika has signed for Morecambe, having left St Mirren. George Baldock has been linked with a move to Celtic, where, ironically, he would take up the vacant right-back spot left by Johnjoe Kenny.

Wednesday 30 June 2021 – Bodin and Asonganyi

Winger Billy Bodin has signed on a one-year contract following his release from Preston North End, while Dylan Asonganyi has signed for Maidenhead.

Midweek fixture: ‘This poxy league’: The doomed 2008/9 play-off dash

It’d been a difficult start; just before Christmas 2008, former Halifax boss, Bury’s assistant manager, Chris Wilder had been the underwhelming choice to replace Darren Patterson as Oxford United manager. A week later, in Wilder’s first game, diminutive winger Sam Deering broke his leg in a 2-1 defeat at Salisbury. Two weeks after that it was announced the club had been deducted five points for fielding an ineligible player putting them five points above the relegation zone.

Eddie Hutchinson had been at the club for three years but hadn’t been in Patterson’s initial plans for the season. As the season progressed in its fitful way, he eased back into contention. The rules stated it was the club’s responsibility to register the player as well as ensure the registration arrived; like being responsible for sending an email and its read receipt. We’d fallen foul of a flawed and arcane system. The Conference hated us.

It could have been worse, the original penalty had been the 11 points gained while Hutchinson had been on the pitch that season – clearly the authorities had never seen him play. The club were angry, Chris Wilder was angry, the fans were angry; immediately following the Salisbury defeat, the team scorched through a run of eight wins in nine games only to be halted by top of the table Torquay. 

Just two of those games were away from home, so the revival was evident in front of the fans. James Constable, on loan from Shrewsbury Town, was on course to become the first player in 22 years to score more than 25 goals in a season. A spirit galvanised the club and fans in a way that had been woefully absent for years, BBC Oxford radio DJ Malcolm Boyden capitalised on the newfound spirit – ‘Believe’ he said.

The run propelled us to within six points of the play-offs with four games left. The odds were still stacked against us, but we were the form team of the division.

Easter weekend would start to determine the fate of the season and we went into it with one defeat in 17 while others were wobbling. 

Momentum, a distant dream becoming a reality, came with pressure. Wrexham, the next visitors to the Kassam, had been relegated the season before and were still a big club in the division. The game was tight and tense, the minutes ticked by; with the dream slipping back into the ether, deep into injury time the ball was worked out to the left wing to an early Wilder signing Craig Nelthorp. At the other end, desperate Oxford fans screamed to keep hope alive and make something happen, Billy Turley theatrically threw himself to the floor, unable to look. There would be no counter-attack to defend, no second ball, no next time; it was now or never. 

Nelthorpe slung in a hopeful cross, James Constable strained every sinu to make the connection, guiding the ball goalwards, off the underside of the bar. For a moment, nobody could be sure it had crossed the line. Constable wheeled away in celebration and the Wrexham keeper threw the ball at Adam Murray like a frustrated child. The crowd paused in disbelief at what they’d witnessed, they’d believed in a miracle and it materialised in front of them, the belief soaked in. We’d done it.

Revitalised, three days later we headed for Woking finally looking like a club that was too big for the Conference. We’d been bloated and overblown and mistaken that as a sign of strength, now we were rippling, bursting at the seams. Oxford fans travelled in huge numbers, overwhelming the stadium, creating a carnival of yellow and blue. Kick-off was delayed an hour due to overcrowding in the away stand, Chris Wilder appeared from the dressing room to settle the fans; a cool head in an overheating situation. In the past, these disruptions may have dislodged us, knocking our focus, but we cruised to a 2-0 win with Oxford fans celebrating from all around the ground. It had been an occupation, but what we were conquering were our demons.

The deficit to the play-offs reduced to three points, Kidderminster, Histon and Stevenage had games in hand. Histon used theirs against Ebbsfleet three days later to reinstate a four point gap.

Next was the visit to champions-elect Burton Albion. The Conference is full of teams either falling apart or indulging a local millionaire in a brief, doomed football fantasy. Burton’s success was based on slow and steady improvement. Manager Nigel Clough had spent eleven years carefully building the club towards promotion, but he’d left for Derby County and while they were becoming rudderless, they still had plenty in the bank and their title was all but assured. They were now within a point of fulfilling their dream of making the Football League. The game was live on television, the stadium was full and expectant, we were just bit part guests at their promotion party.

The story was so focussed on Burton, we were the forgotten force. The game was nervy with neither side really finding any rhythm. Being awkward felt good, like we’d turned up, spiking the punch with liquor and commandeering the stereo. Deep into the second-half Oxford won a free-kick twenty-five yards out on the right. It was an awkward position; too near to cross, too far to shoot. Only a delivery of the highest quality would yield anything. Adam Chapman, who Chris Wilder had brought in on loan from Sheffield United, fizzed with panache and ability, but surely this was beyond his talents. His free-kick curled beyond the wall and into the net sending the travelling fans into rapture. Burton’s dream was crushed, for a few days at least, while our mission was still alive. “We’ve been the best team in the league over the last four months.” a breathless Billy Turley told the TV reporter afterwards.

The following day, things got even better; with Kidderminster playing Histon and Stevenage playing Torquay, the four teams being chased down by the now rampant Oxford were always going to take points off each other. Both games ended in a draw, perfect, the gap closed to two points.

All four still had a game in hand, but Kidderminster’s was against Stevenage and they couldn’t both win, if either Torquay or Histon dropped points, the whole thing would go to the final day and that’s all we could ask. Stevenage took the three points against the Harriers, while Torquay, making a debilitating 600 mile midweek round trip, could only pick up a point at Barrow. It was on.

Into the final day, we simply needed a win to stand a chance of making the play-offs; everything else was out of our hands. Torquay, three points ahead, but without a win in four, hosted champions Burton while Kidderminster had Kettering. Chances were slim, but not impossible.

If the game against Woking showed that our new found confidence was too big for the Conference, the game against relegated Northwich Victoria showed that even we struggled with the seething beast of hope and expectation. 

Over 10,000 fans packed the Kassam, nearly 4000 more than the next biggest crowd of the season. Northwich, though doomed, were on a late season surge, having won their previous five games, but focus was all on us. 

We looked disjointed, finding the nervous energy hard to control. An early goal would have settled us. After eight minutes a goal came, but it was at Burton; the news was good, the champions were a goal up. A goal for us now would put us equal on points and a goal from the play-offs. 

Five minutes later the advantage slipped away; Torquay had equalised, we were back to square one. Northwich, with Ryan Clarke in goal, cushioned our threat and it was no surprise to see them take the lead on the stroke of half-time. With results going against us, things began to unravel; the season was dwindling and thousands of fans, there for the spectacle alone, began to lose their poise.

A minute after half-time things got worse, Torquay had taken the lead, we needed a miracle, but Malcolm Boyden’s belief was running short.  

Six minutes from time, James Constable’s equaliser set up the possibility of a pyrrhic victory. The goal sparked was an invasion, someone ran on the pitch in his pants, others followed, goalie Billy Turley wrestled one fan to the floor. Somewhere in the melee a fan attacked a visiting player with a corner flag and Northwich walked off. It took an age to sort out, and as results came through confirming another season in the Conference, concentration evaporated and we conceded again. In the Oxford Mail stand a fight broke out between two women. It was a wild and chaotic end to the season.

In the end we were just four points short; it wasn’t the result hadn’t did for us, the five deducted points for an administrative error had confined us to another season of purgatory. Chris Wilder seethed; “We need to take it out of people’s hands by producing a winning team and get out of this poxy league.” he said. His comments resonated through the club and through the summer as he built a team aggressive in its ambition to return to the Football League. Twelve months later, at Wembley in the pouring rain, as Alfie Potter swept home the decisive goal against York City, he made good on that promise.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Plymouth Argyle 1

I’ve come to realise that I don’t really watch games; I feel them. Only being at a game secures my attention and even then I can be easily distracted by what’s happening outside the Vue cinema. I don’t mean that I summons the spirits of Ricky Sappleton and Kristaps Grebis, Jimi Hendrix style. I mean I don’t have the patience for tactics or positioning; I would need to consciously figure out which wing Brandon Barker plays down. If a game is boring, I’m very likely to be reaching for my phone as it progresses in the background.

On Saturday I was invited to go on BBC Radio Oxford’s Wasn’t At The Game Show. This is their new post-match discussion programme and not, as I had to explain to a friend, a gameshow. I said yes and did what all normal people do; panicked that I didn’t have a single opinion or be able to string a sentence together. Mass media broadcasting is not my safe space, to be honest, I wouldn’t even list being with other humans as a forte.

Not wanting to be the sole reason for the government to #defundthebbc, I had to concentrate on the Plymouth game. I’d decided that it was the worst game to choose; every conceivable outcome was still in play; it could be a discussion about our play-off tilt or how we came up short. Key players were missing, would that be the central issue or perhaps those coming in would step up and have a defining breakthrough moment.

From the outset, the strategy seemed reassuringly obvious; Plymouth have been conceding a hatful of goals, but were in no danger of going down (I looked that up), we could use the pace of Dan Agyei and Mide Shodipo to get at them and break their feeble resistance. If we could get a goal or two, we could control things with the likes of Gorrin, Forde and Hanson coming off the bench to see the game out. Just call me Paul Merson.

Chances came early; we were getting the ball forward quickly down the flanks. It just needed a bit of quality, a James Henry moment, to make the breakthrough. Except James Henry wasn’t there, and that was the missing piece, that moment of quality. Step up Elliot Lee with a fiendish free-kick, a nightmare to defend: 1-0.

Despite the chances, they weren’t a busted flush, we needed more, I might end up looking at my phone when things aren’t going well and we sometimes assume footballers are uncaring mercenaries metaphorically doing the same, but you can’t play the game professionally without an innate sense of competitiveness. 

The second goal didn’t come, we hadn’t broken them; the inevitable lull came immediately after half-time. In the plan, I imagine we were hoping to be keeping the ball and take the sting out of the game, if we could get to the hour mark we could bring on our defensive minded players to lock things down.

Instead, they began to press, we began to buckle. We were stuck between sticking to the plan and going for another goal. Like Glenn Close waking up in the bath in Fatal Attraction; was their efforts a last gasp of breath or do we need to strike the final blow? This is what we’ve missed this season, someone to make those decisions on the pitch. Before we knew it, it was 1-1 and the season was coming to an end.

Relieved of the quandary, the maths simplified; we needed another goal. The equaliser at that time, when there was time to do something about it, was just what we needed. We could have regressed and conceded in the 85th minute when there wasn’t time to react. Instead, we woke up, we’re at our best when we’re instinctive, going for goals, attacking for fun. We are nothing if not entertaining. 

And that’s what we did, attacking their brittle defence, which is a real house of straw; a quick puff, a moment of quality from Mark Sykes and another from Matty Taylor and it’s 2-1. Sykes is a player I’ve struggled to characterise, I’d always assumed he’d be like Gavin Whyte – they’re both Irish, you know – but I actually think he could become more of a James Henry, linking and controlling the tempo.

The third confirmed the execution of a well made plan and the move to fifth, FIFTH? I logged onto Zoom to friendly acknowledgements from Robyn Cowen, Stevie Kinniburgh and Nick Harris. Cowen is part of a vanguard of female commentators – normalising what was once inconceivable – and a champion of the women’s game, Kinniburgh, a breath of on-air, fresh air this season and a natural analyst and Nick Harris is Nick Harris the voice of Oxford football for decades. Now the idiot had joined the meeting.

They were unpicking the outcome of the day; who had games in hand? Against who? Jerome Sale joined the meeting, the discussion started, I opened my mouth and a sentence of vague coherence came out. They nodded reassuringly and we were off.

I’d half expected an hour trying to figure out what a high press was, and who’d been running the channels, I still don’t really know what those things are. But, instead it was a friendly conversation with people who I felt I knew, but had never met. I sat in wonder as Kinniburgh tried to articulate every connotation of the outcome of the league. Enjoyed Cowan’s off-mic joking about how Karl Robinson would react to the result. Nick Harris still talks with a childlike enthusiasm for the club; just before we started I saw him telling someone excitedly off camera ‘We’re fifth, yeah, FIFTH!’ – there’s no performance in him – you imagine him having the same conversations in the pub as he does on the radio. He just seems happy to be guiding another generation of Oxford fans through the ups and downs of following the club. Jerome Sale was more analytical, like many of us, he can’t see a path to the play-offs with others’ games in hand, but, to paraphrase Kevin Keegan, you know ‘he’d love it if we do’. The quartet together represent us all – analysts and enthusiasts, pragmatists and dreamers, clued up and clueless.

The time whizzed by, I just about held it together and enjoyed a conversation with genuinely nice, like-minded people. Somehow I thought they’d have it all figured out, but they’re like all of us, excited and fearful, optimistic and pessimistic. They’re trying to find the solution, to know the outcome of the season before it reveals itself, like us they’re looking for an inflection in the voice of Karl Robinson or a historical parallel to explain what will happen next. Be reassured, they’re fans and they’re feeling it too.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Evans outsized

Saturday 17 April 2021

Fatberg Steve Evans was left swimming in a vat of his own high saturated frustration on Saturday as Oxford United came back from 2-0 to beat Gillingham 3-2 with three goals in the last fifteen minutes including two from Headington United’s Sam Long. Evans was fuming at the result; he hasn’t been this angry since his Deliveroo delivery driver said he couldn’t fit his order of 18 buckets of KFC in the boot of his Skoda Fabia.

Sunday 18 April 2021

Celtic’s Mark Wilson – who Celtic fans describe as the best player ever to play for the club called Mark Wilson – has said that former Oxford loanee Jonjoe Kenny – a player so good they named him thrice – shouldn’t be offered a permanent deal when his loan runs out. Celtic have had a shock this season as they’ve found other teams willing to score goals against them. Wilson doesn’t see Kenny as the man to cynically reclaim the Scottish game for the minority.  

Monday 19 April 2021

Asked about the European Super League, KRob implored the powers that be to look at the bigger picture; the future of all Saturday night family entertainment. He fears for the prospects for the future Steve Brooksteins and Honey Gs of this world if the plans were to go ahead – “This is about the game that we love and to take away the X-Factor is going to dampen the passion.” he said. 

Tuesday 20 April 2021

On the anniversary of the Milk Cup win, it was eighties throwback night on Tuesday as Oxford travelled to the new Plough Lane to face Wimbledon. Oxford thought Heaven Was a Place on Earth when they took the lead through Josh Ruffels, James Henry received a Lady in Red card after his handball on the line gave away a penalty. Wimbledon then got the Eye of the Tiger, scoring twice in quick succession to secure a 2-1 win.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Jose’s son John Mousinho has been elected to the PFA Players’ Board, an important role in a time of significant turmoil in the game. It’s important to give the players a voice on issues such as club finances, head injuries and the globalisation of the game. It also gives Mous the opportunity to buy a new clipboard and some box files from Rymans; ‘Watermelon shaped pencil case? Don’t mind if I do.’

Thursday 22 April 2021

It was the Seven Minute Twenty-Eight Second Fans Forum on Tuesday with Niall don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. The first question was about the stadiumsituation which was rapidly followed by a question about the stadiumsituation and then a question about the stadiumsituation. To which the answers can be summarised as ‘maybe’. McWilliams confirmed that the club were working on the assumption that the ground would be working at 50% capacity with no away fans next season; think the atmosphere of playing Accrington Stanley on a Tuesday night, but every week.

Friday 23 April 2021

The Peterborough Telegraph have gone all jet packs and power pills and looked at the team of the season based on, woo, statistics. Three Oxford players have made the cut based on, woo, statistics. Jack Stevens has bettered his expected saves by 7.6%, Rob Atkinson has 2.6% progressive runs per 90 minutes, Alex Gorrin has defensive duel success of 62.07%. Surprisingly Sam Long isn’t there, even though he has 100% no interest in this kind of claptrap.

Match wrap: Swindon Town 1 Oxford United 2

I don’t often write a post with a pre-conceived idea of how it might turn out. I usually write to figure out what I think rather than communicate a fully formed idea. 

When I wrote about Micky Lewis at the weekend, it made me think about his contribution to the club. It’s easy to label him a legend, but why? He didn’t score crucial goals, lift trophies or manage us to promotion. In many ways, he was unremarkable; omnipresent but never a star. And yet, the impact of his death has hit harder than most.

He helped steer us through of two of the deepest crises the club have faced; the death of Robert Maxwell in 1991 and our period in the Conference. It seems trite to say he always gave 100% through those times, but he genuinely did. What’s remarkable is how long he managed to, emotionally and physically, sustain that effort when it would have been easier, and understandable, to give up. He seemed able to regulate himself so that he could give 100% without ever running out of energy.

That’s been a big theme this season; the empty stadiums have tested everyone’s motivation. The beauty of the Oxford Swindon derby is that it’s hidden from mainstream view; an illicit bare knuckle fight in a dank underground car park. Last night’s game should have been another secret gathering in an epic feud; a broiling mess of nerves in the run-up and the Stretton Bank full and noisy on the night itself. 

But, there was no build up, no clamour for tickets, nobody tweeting about their journey, no great cavalcade of yellow down the A420. Derby games should start weeks in advance, I bought my iFollow pass twenty minutes before kick-off.

Instead, the empty County Ground looked tired, the pitch deluged with water from the sprinklers; an ugly spoiler tactic designed to bog us down and kill the spectacle. In the super-low-definition of my internet stream, the vibrancy of the derby was sucked dry.

I can’t pretend I was excited or nervous, the seven-in-a-row bubble had burst. We’d already died on that particular hill, although it had been pleasingly sullied by the laughably amateurish commemorative merchandise, like a desperate husband spoiling a romantic night-in with some highly flammable ill-fitting see-through negligee he’d bought off the market for £3.99.

There was a dull ache; a looking-forward-to-it/not-looking-forward-to-it vibe. There was still more to lose than to gain; we’ve established ourselves as the dominant force in the relationship, we’re not the plucky battlers who find glory in defeat, we had to re-establish The Way Things Are or face deepening humiliation. 

Mustering the motivation was only part of it, we also had to regulate our energy; this season we’ve flooded our opponents and been caught out as we were against Swindon in November and MK Dons last month. Against better teams we’ve been forced to temper our enthusiasm to get forward and looked better because of it, but that was because of them, not us. Finding that controlled aggression on our terms has been an issue.  

They were there to be beaten; their form is abject; their culture is toxic and their business is in turmoil. The challenge was not about them but us; to balance our natural exuberance with the need to sustain ourselves to a successful end.

Typically, we started like a train; better teams have double and treble-teamed Brandon Barker, letting him burn himself out until he’s no longer a threat. Swindon seemed unprepared for his pace, giving him space to knock the ball and run, gifting him a freedom he hasn’t had before. Just three minutes in, an effortless raking cross field pass from Elliott Moore pulled the Swindon defence apart allowing Barker to cut inside and drill home for 1-0.

The goal ignited Steve Kinniburgh in the commentary box, the aural equivalent of limbs on the Stretton Bank. Kinniburgh is the Oxford Mail Stand to his South Stand Upper colleagues. He’s perfect for these times, filling the gaps, roaring approval, growling in despair, riding the rollercoaster we all desperately want to be on. Suddenly, it was feeling more like a derby.

On the pitch the intensity continued to flow. Mark Sykes can sometimes look like he’s enjoying a game on his own in the park; but he powered into a challenge drawing a melee of players. Rather than be sucked in, he wandered around impassively while others pushed and shoved, it probably saved him from the red card Karl Robinson says he deserved. 

Minutes later Elliott Moore was hacked down and the players came together again. If there’d been fans in the ground, they’d have been baying for blood. You don’t like to see players fighting, but really, you do, and especially tonight. The intensity was there and yet it still felt like we were in control of our emotions. That controlled aggression kept them occupied and wore them down but not at the expense of burning us out; a style right out of the Micky Lewis playbook. 

In reality, the difference between the two teams was vast, but even those chasms aren’t always be enough; a flailing leg in the box threatened to scupper all the good work that preceded it. If there was any doubt before, the spot kick confirmed the end of one era and the beginning of the next. From those final ghastly moments in November to another wonderfully athletic save from Jack Stevens; the gloves have passed from one generation to the next. 

Even before the kick was taken, that felt like a blip, like we still had more to come, even if they’d got back on terms. We weren’t burnt out and hanging on like in November, there was no sense of foreboding. If we had to go again, we would. It felt like they’d expended everything just to stay with us, but we had another gear to come.

That came eight minutes from time; all the groundwork of the previous eighty minute opened the play up for Dan Agyei. His strength and pace exploited their world weariness to double the lead. He wheeled away, celebrating in the same spot Rob Hall did when slamming home his winner four years ago. 

The last-minute consolation was the death throe of a felled and weakened beast. Once upon a time Swindon were a seething monster we had to fell with guile and cunning, now they’re broken and beaten. The late goal heightened the pulse slightly, but you never really got the sense they believed that they could muster an equaliser.

A derby win to a redress of a momentary imbalance through the cold, controlled execution of a plan. A performance delivered on our terms; committed and intense, but with the staying power to seeing the job through. A proper job; Micky would have approved.

Midweek season: Oxford United mid-season review

It’s been a frantic and disrupted season, hard to believe that we’ve nearly burned our way through half of it. It feels like we’re in a sprint against the pandemic; surviving is more important than to thriving. In anticipation of the Absolute State of Oxford United Mid-Season Survey results – which you can still take part in – now is a good time to look back at what we were all thinking at the start of the season.

Back in September expectations were high; 23% of people thought we’d get automatic promotion with another 49% seeing us in the play-offs. Currently, we’re 12th – a position just 2% of you predicted – though things are looking up now, objectively it’s been a bit of a disappointment so far. 

Of all teams in the division, Wigan Athletic, currently in 22nd, were your favourites for promotion; though in mitigation, many of their problems were still emerging at the time and their slip into administration was viewed as a blip. You had Portsmouth, currently third, in second with Peterborough United, currently sixth.

Lincoln City are this season’s Wycombe Wanderers, and I don’t just mean they feature men with arms the size of a child’s waist. They’re currently top despite you having them down in 12th. That said, one soothsayer out there predicted they’d be the dark horse of the division. Hull City are in second where you had them in 4th.

The overwhelming view was that Swindon would finish bottom, despite our obvious bias, they’re making a good fist of it in 23rd and look in deep trouble. Rochdale, currently 21st, were also expected to struggle along with Wimbledon who are 20th. Nobody really saw Burton sitting at the bottom of the table, you saw them comfortably settling in 16th

Comparing us to others, you saw us finishing 8th, with games in hand and a bit of form, we certainly look better for that than we did a few weeks ago. 

PredictedActualTeam
123Wigan Athletic
23Portsmouth
35Peterborough
42Hull City
58Ipswich Town
610Sunderland
77Charlton Athletic
812Oxford United
911Fleetwood Town
1013Blackpool
1118Bristol Rovers
124Doncaster Rovers
131Lincoln City
1415Plymouth Argyle
1517Shrewsbury Town
1624Burton Albion
1714Gillingham
1816MK Dons
196Accrington
2019Northampton Town
219Crewe Alexandra
2221AFC Wimbledon
2320Rochdale
2422Swindon

We underperformed in both cups – in the FA Cup 49% you thought we’d make the 4th Round with another 44% the fifth, but there was no charge to Wembley as we tumbled out in the first round to Peterborough. Similarly, in the League Cup, 33% expected us to make the 3rd Round, but we fell to Watford in the second. A lot, of course, depends on the draw in the cups so in the circumstances, that wasn’t a terrible showing.   

Hopes for the season

In terms of hopes for the season, there were some common themes.

Promotion

The biggest theme was the hope that we’d gain promotion; that seems to be a long way off at the moment, though after our early season reality check and sudden return to form, we might still have an outside chance of making the play-offs. From there, who knows? 

Stadium

Resolution of the stadium situation was another big hope, but with everything that’s been going on, it’s barely been spoken about. 

General progress

More generally, people wanted to see us progress. But in a world which is going backwards, perhaps standing still or only going backwards a little bit, is success. It’s all relative. 

A return to normality

People also just wanted a return to normality and we’re nowhere near that. The opportunity to get back to games has been snatched away, though the good news, perhaps, is that so far, no league clubs have gone bust. There’s a long way to go, but we need to count every blessing.

Nine in a row

Sadly, the hope that we might enjoy ‘nine in a row’ was lost in a moment of madness back in November. I suppose it’s not that far from ‘none in a row’.

Predictions

Fans

The prediction that we might see a game in real life by October didn’t materialise, but for a lucky few it happened in December. One prediction was that no crowd would top 4000 all year and that away games would be out of the question, both of seem highly likely. Some predicted another interruption to the season, which seems to be hanging in the balance.

Players

There was plenty of expectation around our strikers – Matty Taylor was predicted to get 20-30 goals – he’s currently on nine, so he needs a bit of a run if he’s to catch up. Dan Agyei was expected to have a breakthrough season with 15-20 goals, so far it’s just two. Rob Atkinson was also predicted to emerge as a key talent; when he’s been fit, he’s shone.

Some predicted Cameron Brannagan would move in January which looks highly unlikely, as is the return of Marcus Browne, which some had hoped for. 

One person did predict that Simon Eastwood would be replaced as our first-choice keeper. At the time, that seemed extremely unlikely. Another thought he’d move back north before the season is out, which doesn’t seem out of the question now.

Off the field

Predictions of financial chaos across the divisions haven’t materialised, but clubs can’t live off fresh air forever. We seem to be pretty stable, so the prediction that we might suffer another winding up order is, as yet, unrealised. 

Quite a few people thought Karl Robinson would leave, but there’s much less management volatility this year, so a sacking seems unlikely nor the opportunity to go elsewhere.

Matches

When it came to individual games, the Swindon derby was in sharp focus; the large minority who expected us to falter had their fears realised. Someone predicted there would be a 1-1 draw with Sunderland and another game against Manchester City, but we’ve seen neither.

In the league more generally, most were predicting a rollercoaster season of ups and downs; it’s reasonable to say that has been the case. One person thought the final game of the season would feature 10 teams with a chance of the play-offs – as it stands, around eight teams could make the play-offs without too much effort but there were 12 points separating the top 10, not two and, as one thought it might. It also doesn’t look like relegation will be determined by point deductions.

Other

In other predictions, there was no red away kit, Jerome Sale is not yet an award winner no has he sworn on air, but there’s still time.

Once again, we see that when you predict everything, you’ll get something right. But, above all, we’ve learnt that fans are mostly terrible at predictions and that the mood can change very quickly. Next week, we’ll look at the state we’re in now and how that’s changed since September.