Match wrap: Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 3

I’ve had a funny week, before the Southend game I met with The Fence End podcast to talk about the possibility of taking part in an episode. When they tweeted this, the response came as a bit of a surprise. Someone said that they didn’t want this blog to be run by a person, more a mysterious ‘thing’.

I like the anonymity of Oxblogger; it’s partly intentional but mostly just evolved. It’s never really been tested before, it’s not like there’s much of a prize in unveiling me; I’m not the owner of a creepy theme park in Scooby Doo. I’ve never thought about the impact it has, but it turns out that some people quite like it as well.

So the reality that Oxblogger is written by someone real and normal, to the person who is actually writing it, and not a omnipotent super computer is quite a curious thing. I’m not equating myself to a superhero, unless I’m Benign and Mildly Diverting Man, but it made me think that it’s one thing buying himself a Lycra morph suit with a spider’s web on it, quite something else to step out into the street and demand people call you ‘Spiderman’. The difference between giving myself a name and that being a thing is quite big.

In 1998, Tony Adams, then England captain, said that the expectation of achieving a semi-final place in the World Cup was quite different to the reality of achieving it. When you’re a fan, you look at players with ability and think it’s just a simple process of switching it on at the right time. What Adams was pointing out was that the mental, physical, technical and tactical efforts required to achieve your goal are some way beyond simply just going out and expressing yourself.

The win over Shrewsbury, coming back from 2-0 down, and more broadly moving from 11th to 3rd in five games, underlines a similar principle. Some fans had given up on us a few weeks ago, and after 34 minutes many had given up yesterday. But, if we are to be a promotion chasing side, then we’ve actually got to be a promotion chasing side. The physical effort and the psychological application to want to turn the game around and not simply give up, is not to be under-estimated.

Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, talks about how an elite athlete has to strike the balance between the confidence to perform and enough doubt to want to put the effort in to be able to do that. If I’m going to run a marathon, I’ve got to believe I can, but I’ve also got have enough doubt in my fitness to train to do it. Too much doubt or too much confidence will lead to failure. In a football season, that balance has to be struck for ten months.

We seem to have found that sweet spot; the last five games and the comeback against Shrewsbury illustrating that we feel we have a right to be fighting for promotion. I can’t say I shared that view, I thought the play-offs could only be considered an unexpected by-product of an overall improvement at the club, I didn’t really see promotion as a goal in itself.

But now, in the same way I may need to accept that I am ‘Oxblogger’ – whatever that means, we need to accept that we’re a team on a promotion hunt. When Karl Robinson is asked about his future beyond May, he’s right to dismiss it because these opportunities are rare and don’t simply take care of themselves. When Robinson talked about being ‘a big club’ in the transfer market, it transfers to the rest of the show. Playing well, not accepting defeats, but also filling the stands home and away and supporting the team even when they’re 2-0 down after half-an-hour. We need to match the mental fortitude the team have shown.

Which is the final point – when we were in the doldrums in the Conference, Chris Wilder instilled an expectation that we would not only talk like a club too big for that level, but with Mark Creighton, Adam Murray, James Constable and others, we would act like it. When Michael Appleton instilled a dedication to technical professionalism akin to teams in higher divisions it paid dividends. Now Karl Robinson has implemented a mental toughness that deserves success, and given the challenges he faced when arrived and whatever happens now, he deserves to be recognised for that.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Southend United 1

In 1987 Terence Trent D’Arby released his debut album Introducing The Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. It was a tightly produced record borrowing heavily from the funk and soul classics of James Brown and Stevie Wonder. D’Arby himself was a phenomenal presence with a sensational voice; the tight rhythms gave him the platform to perform. It was an instant classic, selling 1 million copies in three days and winning a Grammy and Brit Award.

Two years later, emboldened by his success, D’Arby released his follow-up opus; Neither Fish Nor Flesh. He produced and wrote the record himself, unhindered by his previous production team. It was a sprawling mess of pretentious diarrhoea. To illustrate his indulgence; D’Arby appeared in three different guises – as himself, the Incredible E.G. O’Reilly and Ecneret Tnert Ybra’D, the latter accredited with providing ‘vocals and kazoo’. It bombed, and D’Arby’s career was largely over.

I was reminded of this sobering tale as we laboured to three points against Southend. In the past, having seen us fall apart against poor sides too many times, I would worry about our complacency in this kind of game. Now, I have such confidence in the side, I’m the one who risks being complacent. Such has been our desire to entertain and score goals, I expected us to sweep them aside.

From the get-go, something was up; but it wasn’t just our obvious fatigue or the fact we were playing into a headwind. We were untroubled by the clock with little sense of urgency. This isn’t that unusual, our patience at the start of games must be a deliberate tactic; we’ve come unstuck with it a few times this year when teams have started quickly.

But, then it started to feel like a cup game against a non-league side. Us, not quite able to muster the energy to really take the game to them, them providing a confusing mix of ability and ineptitude. As the game progressed, we got bundled up in their ball of confusion like a pair of trousers becoming entwined with a duvet cover in a tumble drier.

Terence Trent D’Arby openly declared his genius to anyone who’d listen, and many who wouldn’t. He surrounded himself with people who agreed with him, which provided no compulsion to compromise. He claimed (to some degree justifiably) the failure of Neither Fish Nor Flesh to be the result of institutional racism at his record company, when to most of the paying public, it was just a terrible record and he was an arrogant arse.

Did someone say Sol Campbell? Aside from the weather and the tiredness, what was particularly difficult to deal with on Saturday was the apparent lack of any tactical underpinning in the Southend team. They looked physically tiny; when fighting relegation its normal to at least establish a physical presence, but Campbell doesn’t seem concerned with that. Neither were they fast, nor did they press, but at the same time, they weren’t awful.

Where was the song? Amidst a mess of ideas and endeavours, there was no recognisable pattern. There was nothing for us to dance, sing or cry to, we seemed bemused, unable to engage. What resulted was a game of jazz noodling and meandering experimentation. Perhaps there was genius in there somewhere, but the nine minute kazoo solo ensured we couldn’t hear it.

In the end, it took Marcus Browne’s brutish physicality to break through the garbage, like a drummer hammering out a standard four-four beat to bring the other musicians into line. Like D’Arby’s original production team, sometimes you need someone to step in and drag everyone back to what you’re supposed to be achieving.

Browne chased across the field to rectify his own mistake and then swung the ball into the box for Matty Taylor to fire home. While others celebrated, Browne lay on the turf like a dying bumble bee having fulfilled its biological compulsion to protect its fellow bees after a sting. At that moment we needed that discipline and simplicity.

And that was all we needed, to get out of February with three points and a place in the play-offs. Sometimes it’s OK to have a staccato syncopated rhythms inspired North Africa, sometimes you just need a groove and a decent hook.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Accrington Stanley 0

Brinyhoof and I were talking about the Conference Play-Off semi-final against Rushden during our win over Accrington. He couldn’t remember whether he was at the game, what the score was or who scored. I can’t distinguish between George Thorne and Anthony Forde, so I can forgive him his forgetfulness.

My summary of the Rushden game was that it was a big game which went entirely to plan. In a sense, the Accrington game was similar; nobody saw it as a big game in terms of crowd or anticipation, but a comfortable three points was expected. And it delivered; a non-event of the highest quality.

The texture for the evening came from the news the club have turned down an approach from Blackpool for Karl Robinson. It had been mentioned a few days ago, but was given added credibility by Jacqui Oakley who was covering the game for Sky. 

Robinson claimed ignorance and the club were quick to confirm both the rumour and why Robinson seemed so blindsided.

For some, Robinson’s post-Accrington interview was a broadside at the board about what happened in January; a hand crafted threat to back him or he’ll walk. 

But, Robinson is not usually the most considered interviewee and the board are prone to its own missteps. So, the idea that everyone was suddenly hardballing in a game of high stakes nine dimensional chess seems unlikely.

The club’s claim that the offer came in before the Accrington game leaving no time to discuss it with Robinson is entirely logical. It’s certainly more logical than the conspiracy theories being hatched on Twitter.

But, it did raise an important point; Accrington are a team built to survive League 1; big, strong and organised and we showed ourselves to be a class apart from that. I genuinely think we’re capable of making the play-offs and even getting promoted, our weakness being the depth we have in the squad to sustain the form we need over a long period. With things beginning to fall our way at the right time, a play-off spot is not out of the question.

But, this summer our loans will return to their host clubs and we’ll probably lose a couple of players to high spending Championship sides. This will make us weaker than we are currently are, even with promotion. Pep Clotet faced similar blight losing John Lundstram and Marvin Johnson, along with Chris Maguire and Conor McAnely in 2017. The small but solid squad he inherited suddenly had gaping holes in it. 

This summer, the club will have to work hard to maintain its current position, harder still to move on from it. If we are in the Championship, we’d have to bridge, or at least narrow the financial gap between League 1 (with teams turning over around £6m a year) and the division above (around £25m).

For Karl Robinson there’s a decision take as to whether he feels able to recover from any losses he might sustain in the squad over the summer, and whether there’s any prospect of moving beyond the status quo to the fabled ‘next level’. If there are other clubs out there more readily able to meet those needs, we’re naturally vulnerable. Whether Blackpool offers that specifically, I don’t know, but someone out there will. 

For the board, it’s a question of whether they are willing or able to step beyond our current comfort zone. That’s no demand that they should, the club’s future is more important, but pragmatically, the club will eventually have to keep pace with the growing ambition of those who are making it the success it currently is.

As we get to the end of February, things are falling into place for a genuine charge towards the play-offs and beyond. It’s time to enjoy the ride and see where it takes us, but that shouldn’t prevent us, and Robinson from thinking… and then what?

Match wrap: Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 1

To paraphrase Half Man Half Biscuit, I was a pre-teen armchair Ipswich fan. When I was three, my dad let me choose my first football kit, and given the choice between old gold and black – his preferred Wolves option – and a blue and white ‘other’ – I picked the blue. When I asked who played in blue, dad said Ipswich Town and that was that.

It coincided with their glory years and fuelled many little obsessions I have about football. The FA Cup, flags, shirt number fonts, sponsors, penalty saves – Paul Cooper was the king – and a whole range of kit related things from away shirts to alternative coloured shorts.

I cried when Ipswich lost the 1981 FA Cup semi-final to Manchester City. Then they threw away the league title when they should have won it. They did win the UEFA Cup, but it was the beginning of the end of everything for me and them. In 1982, Oxford, who I’d been watching in real life, appointed Jim Smith. A few months later Ipswich manager Bobby Robson left for the England job sending them into a steep decline they’ve never really recovered from.

My transformation from Ipswich fan with an Oxford flirtation, to Oxford fan with an Ipswich past was all but complete. We soared as they struggled; in 1986, fresh from our Milk Cup win, we beat Arsenal to stay up sending Ipswich down in the process. It was kind of fitting.

Still, Ipswich Town v Oxford United holds a certain resonance for me. I can’t name any of their players, but I look at them as if staring through an opaque window at my lost childhood and the innocent wonder I used to find in football, most of which is lost never to be recovered.

With their brief period of glory bonded to my DNA somewhere deep down, I wasn’t expecting us to win on Saturday. A team like us, don’t simply go to Portman Road and beat a team like them. Ipswich were pre-season favourites for the title and still feel like an unobtainable benchmark we’d struggle to better. But, like a lot of teams that drop from the Championship, they’re clearly more damaged than they superficially appear. Even then, the club, it’s history and the ground still promotes something, for me, that is beyond us.

But, the win was a timely reminder of who we are and what Karl Robinson and the board have built. It has opened things back up for us as they go into free fall. It reminded me of our 1-0 win at Portsmouth in 2016 on the way to promotion. It wasn’t just the three points, it was the quality of the goal and management of the game in that setting that shows the maturity and potential we have.

It’s no coincidence that the core of Eastwood, Dickie, Brannagan, Gorrin, Henry and Taylor is back together, fit and healthy. That’s the unit that brought success earlier in the season. Keeping them all on the pitch at the same time has been the challenge. It’s a rare combination that we’ll struggle to maintain over the summer, so prepare yourself for more wailing about a lack of ambition, but for now, they have to be amongst the best in the division and we should just enjoy that.

The win turns what had been a daunting month into one of some promise. The remaining two games of February are both at home to lower placed teams and you get a sense there’ll be no complacency. We don’t feel like a team that does complacency. We’re the robust unit that lots of other clubs in this division aren’t, they trade off their great names and great histories, but they have a troubled soul. We probably shouldn’t forget that.

The season’s end is coming into view and it feels like after a brief wobble, we’re steadying the ship ready for the final charge. With fixtures starting to fall our way, we could build a head of steam that will take us into the play-off places leaving behind the more illustrious names the division has to offer. That is a memory that’ll be worth keeping.

Match wrap: Oxford United 5 AFC Wimbledon 0

There’s a romanticism about playing under the lights at Oxford which is a bit of a myth. It’s a treat to go out when most others are dutifully staying in, but a midweek game is typically cold and often wet, it’s watched through the slight foggy tiredness of a day’s work, the crowd is usually down on a normal Saturday leaving the atmosphere a bit empty and flat.

It wasn’t always like that, there was something slightly magical about the way The Manor, largely hidden from view during the day, set back from the London Road, lit up the night’s sky on a Tuesday or Wednesday night as everything else darkened. It was a beacon that enticed you into something joyful. Or maybe that’s just whimsy too.

On Tuesday, I left the house at my normal time and parked in my normal spot. I say ‘normal’, I haven’t been able to park there for weeks due to the crowds we’ve been attracting. The weather and opponents, as well as the inconvenience of a Tuesday night meant the place was quiet. It was both unusual and, at the same time, familiar.

Tiger’s programme notes were terse, addressing the brooding criticism of the club since January. There was a sense that all the goodwill built up over a surge up the table and two good cup runs was crumbling in the wake of two lads leaving for Brentford.

But, from the opening moments it was clear that we were so much better than Wimbledon. A class above. For all the talk about tiredness, injuries and a lack of transfer activity, we outplayed and outfought them. There was no harrying the full-backs from the opening seconds, no break-neck counter attacks to fend off, things which seemed to come so easily to our more recent opponents were completely absent. Against others, it’s felt like we’d been found out, whereas, in fact, maybe we’ve just been playing a lot of very good teams.

As the goals started to flow, for the first time in a couple of months, I felt we could breathe. In that workaday atmosphere, we could just be who we are. It felt as normal as games against Newcastle and Manchester City feel abnormal. For weeks nearly all our games have felt like a teeth-grinding hold-your-breath rocket ride, this just felt like a game of football in the mould of which we’re more familiar.

It reinforced to me that this is League 1 with its two divisions – the Championship, even Premier League, aspirants, and the League 2 over-performers. When you’re only playing the teams at the top, it feels like you’re failing, but then you start facing the teams at the bottom it shows that it’s not all doom and gloom. Overall, it provides a much better perspective as to where we’re at this season.

Of course there’s more we could do; we could take more financial risks to bring in players or resist bids from others. That’s a choice, mostly for those whose money is at stake. Demanding that we take those risks implies we’re failing and that any degree of prudence is ignoring that particular reality. We’re not failing, we’re a good side who are still in with a chance of the play-offs, which may even bring about promotion. But those things aren’t an ambition in itself, it’s the by-product of progress and, if you look at the season as a whole rather than small segments of it, it’s hard to argue that we aren’t progressing.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Sunderland 1

There was such a lot of focus on Storm Dennis on Saturday I wasn’t really prepared for the Sunderland game to go ahead. Unlike snow, which is more obviously disabling, rain and wind can cause havoc but games are rarely postponed. Perhaps I should have known better.

Wind can be enough to change the course of a game, particularly at the Kassam. I’ve said before that there is rarely one true ‘fair’ result, many games can go either way and it can take one moment to dictate which way that is. When you throw extreme weather into the mix, that moment may not be wholly the result of players’ abilities.

The Sunderland game was a classic in this respect. The weather added countless new dimensions to the game; a high clearance would blow the ball blow in one direction, a little lower in another. These conditions are not the same for both teams, as is often suggested; it changes in force and direction constantly. It’s largely down to luck as to whether you’re dealing with a tailwind, headwind or crosswind; each has to be dealt with differently.

They found the right thermal at the right time. Chris Maguire’s corner was a good one, but the wind helped turn it into something more dangerous. It wasn’t wholly down to luck, but nor was it wholly down to their ability. The differences between the teams were marginal.

The whole game was like surfers trying to catch a wave. Players had to look for the right thermal to get the ball to do what they wanted. Like surfing, you’ve got to have the ability to ride the wave, but you also need the wave and that’s not in your control.

For a while in the second half James Henry looked like he’d found the right thermals; his looping passes held up in the wind dropping for Agyei, Taylor and Browne. But otherwise, it was a dogged battle in which players played against each other and the conditions in the hope they might catch a break. They got theirs, we didn’t get ours and that’s what dictated the result.

Sunderland are like a rusty cruise ship ploughing into a harbour; there’s nothing particularly elegant about them, but they rely on their sheer size to maintain a steady pace towards the the play-offs. While we barely looked more finessed, there was little between us.

The fact we matched them should be evidence that writing off our season now is a mistake. Fans were quick to identify how difficult this month was going to be, but unforgiving when it turned out to be true. They recognised the impact the conditions might have, but ignored them in their post-match analysis.

League 1 is split into two parts – teams who will yo-yo between League 1 and the Championship, and teams that will yo-yo between League 1 and League 2. Our current challenge is to get into the former. Success means having an outside chance of the play-offs; which is pretty much where we are at the moment.

Most teams in League 1 are damaged in some way; crippled by their former Premier League experience or stymied by the economic realities of sustaining themselves at this level. Few can resist periods of turbulence; as we’ve seen, most teams have been on alarmingly poor runs, but they’ve also been capable of strong surges. Like the ball on Saturday, a gust that throws us forward can suddenly turn into a headwind. As a result, teams including us, have been finding themselves at the top of the table before falling away again.

I actually think that 11th isn’t a bad place for us to be at the moment. Wycombe, for example, are now a known threat and teams no longer under-estimate them. If they’re to achieve anything this season, they’ve got to sustain their performances under intense pressure. We, on the other hand, may find we catch a tail wind as the weather improves which takes us close to the play-offs just at the right time. Upcoming fixtures, and recent performances, suggest that this is genuinely possible. Making the play-offs for most teams is now a question of if or when their surge will come at the right time.

Since the New Year results haven’t been great, but we’ve played mostly teams in the top group. We’re about to go through a period of playing teams in the bottom group. The performance against Sunderland suggests to me that any lost ground from the last few weeks can easily be made up. But we need to remember that making the play-offs isn’t a minimum requirement, it would be an genuine achievement.

Match wrap: Burton Albion 2 Oxford United 2

Back in 2009 I watched our game at Burton on some dodgy internet feed. It was a famous night; Burton were expecting to confirm their ascent to the Football League before Adam Chapman’s zinger of a free-kick ruined it all.

The picture was glitchy and blurred and surrounded by adverts of exotic looking large breasted women, sat in expensive sports cars who apparently were available for sex right now in a village two miles down the road from me. Last time I drove through there, the only thing available right now are some tulip bulbs which can be bought with a donation to an honesty box.

It was a novel immersive experience with a small community of Twitter early adopters sharing the feed around and Twittering inanely throughout the game.

Fast forward 11 years and we were back at virtual-Burton; the stream via iFollow is legitimate and paid-for, the large breasted distractions have gone, the Twitter community is bigger. The production is better but it’s still pretty poor; even paying £10 for the privilege, I like its raw appeal.

The experience opens you up to the real-time opinions and emotions of hundreds of people simultaneously. It’s an odd feeling, even at a live game amongst thousands, the number of people you talk or listen to is relatively small and most will share similar views to you, that’s why you hang out with them.

In a ding dong draw there was a huge range of emotions; from despair to frustration to anger, to disengagement, elation, acceptance and more. At least with a heavy defeat or rousing win it’s relatively easy to find a consensus, but a draw with mid-table Burton opens up a wider debate.

Personally, in the context of the season, I think the point is acceptable. Burton are a solid and robust team, Nigel Clough is the epitome of steadiness; they’re slap bang in the middle of the table and in their last five games they have drawn four times. You could argue that these are teams we should be beating, you can equally argue that Burton are a tough side and any away point against them is a point gained. On balance, not forgetting who we are – a team punching slightly above our weight – for me it’s a point gained.

Encouragingly I didn’t feel the result was down to fatigue or injuries, I thought we showed good energy throughout. Players like Cameron Brannagan, James Henry and Matty Taylor all looked like they were coming back to form and fitness. The failing was tactical, our fast moving possession passing game is prone to errors, and we’re particularly vulnerable early in games when our opponents are fresh. We’ve been caught several times now early in games conceding possession and giving away goals. What gives me grounds for hope is that this is more fixable than bringing injured players back to fitness.

The final argument is that will always be trotted out in the event of a defeat; any failing is the fault of the board, no better illustrated than through their decision to sell Tariqe Fosu and Shandon Baptiste. This is a convenient argument, but seems over-stated; Baptiste, for all his potential, only started nine league games this season, winning three. Brannagan, Henry, Gorrin, Forde and Thorne have all been as influential. Fosu also had his moments, but looked tired in the final weeks of his time at the club and, in my view, has been more than compensated with the arrival Holland and Browne. The only justifiable criticism is that the club haven’t replaced Chris Cadden.

Back in the summer we predicted a finish between 8th and 10th, we currently sit 10th. This is a division full of teams susceptible to extreme runs of form. For all the challenges that this month offers, the priority for me is as much about limiting losses as it is about making gains.