Match wrap: Hayes and Yeading 0 Oxford United 2

TV companies probably need to stop looking quite so hard for the ‘magic of the Cup’. There are investments to repay and advertisers to satisfy, but constantly chasing the magic doesn’t really work.

I hadn’t realised before the Hayes and Yeading game that the tie represented the biggest gap between two sides in the draw. It’s almost as if it were selected on the basis that it was where the most magic was likely to be. Had there been an upset, it might have been but it was also the tie most likely to return a predictable result; which is ultimately what it did.

In reality, with five divisions between us, we would have had to drop our performance quite considerably, while they played at their very best to make it remotely competitive. The application of anything approaching a par performance on either side and the result was a foregone conclusion.

There was a degree of snottiness that we put out a strong team. There was concern about potential injuries and fatigue; as if fielding a strong team against weak opposition is belittling of your status.

Although Karl Robinson talked about respecting the competition; his selection was made easier with next week’s international break. With no game next Saturday; and a meaningless EFL Trophy game against Crawley in midweek, we could play a strong team in the cup with fringe players getting a leg stretcher on Tuesday. That still leaves time for players to rest and recover before things get meaningful again in a couple of weeks. It doesn’t happen often, but the fixtures are falling our way at the moment.

The first 45 minutes couldn’t have been more straight forward though we were a bit sloppy with the chances we had. The main culprits were those we have probably enjoyed most this season; with Henry, Fosu and Taylor all missing chances they should have put away.

The second-half was more competitive; we were a bit slow out of the blocks and they seemed to realise that they’d nothing to lose by taking some risks. But, despite Simon Eastwood doing some decent Simon Eastwood things, the biggest concern was just about the relative embarrassment of conceding, rather than the result going the wrong way.

In the end it was perhaps fitting that the goals came from Sam Long and Rob Hall. Both have had to keep things professional and play percentages in recent years; Rob Hall has to manage his effort carefully because of his injury record while Sam Long has learned his core value is his consistent reliability. In simple terms, it keeps him in a job.

It’s the Halls and Longs of the world that get you through these games. The ones who will always deliver a near par performance. In this great search for the magic of the cup; sometimes simple professionalism will do.

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

This season Portsmouth are best described by what happened before the game. Fratton Park is one of the larger traditional grounds in the division and I was looking forward to the crumbling steps and rusting corrugated iron that holds the place together. It’s the sort of football environment I was brought up in.

Beforehand, they ran two interviews over the PA; one with Kenny Jackett and the other with a player, both talked about their lowly league position how their form was good and bad at the same time. A bit like us last season; never completely terrible, but somehow unable to climb the table.

Then came a bloated Armistice ceremony; there’d be a reading, the last post and a minute’s silence. There were drummers, flag bearers and some children on the pitch, but no players. The crowd fell silent for three or four awkward minutes, nobody could ask if something had gone wrong because speaking is disrespectful.

Then kids in Portsmouth kits came on to make a guard of honour and the players started to appear. The endless silence broke. The players were applauded on, the captains laid wreaths and then they lined up a second time for the reading, last post and minute’s silence.

And that’s Portsmouth; trying to do the right thing and simply getting it wrong. A proper muddle.

The conditions, injuries and fatigue were always going to even things up. It was never going to be straight forward, you could see early on that the patches of sodden turf and the wind meant passes and clearances were easily miscued, overrun or under hit. It suited grafters like Alex Gorrin and John Mousinho much more than ballplayers like Tariqe Fosu.

After their penalty we looked spent and I was thinking that we’d take the narrow defeat; which was much better than our last two visits. Fratton Park had came to life, we were stuck between chasing the game and conceding more. The introduction of Anthony Forde gave us renewed energy and some quality in our delivery. James Henry suddenly started getting more of the ball; our experienced players took control, pushing Portsmouth further back.

It was this experience and confidence that jimmied away at their insecurities. It wasn’t just desire, it was the application of professional experience, knowing we could get something from the game, even when things were going against us. After a few close calls it came, James Henry to the back post; Matty Taylor heading back across the keeper; a training ground drill. It was no accident, no desperate lunge for survival, this is what experience gives you, the deep muscle memory to keep applying what you know until you’re rewarded.

It was such a treat to see us applying the screw, so often we’ve been the victims of teams which played on our weaknesses – teams like Portsmouth. Dare I say it, it’s the character you see in promotion teams.

But, there’s no getting around the fact injuries are building up and we looked tired. Next week we have a bit of a free hit in the FA Cup – we should have enough quality in the squad to get a result, even if it is a bit of a patched up team. Then, there’s a likely postponement the following week because of internationals. It gives us a bit of time to recover before we visit Southend on the 23rd – it couldn’t have come at a better time, it’s been quite a few weeks.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Sunderland 1 (won 4-2 on pens)

I’m in Devon so I’m missing tonight’s game. It’s just one of those things; nobody planned for us to be playing for a quarter-final place in the League Cup in October. The weather is wild, so it’s just me, a wood burner and my thoughts.

Pre-match

I reckon this is the biggest home game I’ve missed since we played Leeds United in the FA Cup in 1994. I was at university and couldn’t get through to the ticket line on the phone before it sold out. I came home anyway so I could hear the commentary on the radio. I had cheese and bacon sandwiches sitting in a flat that my parents were staying in following a house fire. We led 2-0 before being pegged back to 2-2, then beat them in an epic replay at Elland Road.

On Twitter, the club have announced the car park is full; that would usually give me anxiety attacks, now I’m kind of missing that feeling.

Kick-off

I was brought up following games remotely; I remember listening to the 1981 UEFA Cup Final between Ipswich Town and PSV Eindhoven on the radio, there was an exotic other worldliness to it, the static on the commentary as though it were transmitting from the moon. I remember Nick Harris’ gravely tones reporting our League Cup replay at Old Trafford in 1983 and our quarter-final draw with Everton at The Manor. I loved those times, who wouldn’t?

That 83/84 run was legendary; but it’s easy to forget the players who were involved – Vinter, Biggins, Whatmore, Ray Train. All largely forgotten now given what came next, but they laid the foundations. Does this run feel the same?

0-15 Minutes

Five changes to our starting eleven, but I feel strangely calm about it. I’m not sure if it’s confidence or that I’m not actually that bothered about the result. If this is the start of something big then people like Mark Sykes and Sam Long will be the Ray Trains and Neil Whatmores of the story. No headlines, but dependable and essential.

15-30 minutes

I don’t know if having those squad players starting is right for this game. It worked against West Ham and Millwall because it encouraged a more disciplined display. Perhaps against a fellow League 1 team we should be sticking to the formula that’s been working.

Um, no. 1-0. What a player Rob Hall is. It’s a nightmare for someone who relies on pace when injury and age starts to catch up with them; you’ve got to completely remodel your game. So many players can’t, Rob Hall is making a great fist of it.

30-45 minutes

Is this League Cup run the story of resurrection? The story of modern day Mick Vinters and Steve Biggins’? Mark Sykes was due to go out on loan just before he was man of the match against West Ham, Shandon Baptiste has shone after serious injury, Rob Hall – out for nearly two years – scores against Sunderland. Now Sam Long’s just put in a great block – don’t forget his story either.

I fear what Max Power might do, but I think that’s just nominative determinism.

Half-time

1-0. The weather here is foul and we’ve sprung a leak. The heat from the wood burner has moved from warm and cosy to oppressively hot. I don’t want to lose the flame, but if I put another log on the fire, I think I might die.

45-60 minutes

If you normally consume your football only via social media and TV, you’re mad. It’s like eating vitamin pills; functional and pragmatic, but stripped of all its joy and magic. Don’t let people trick you into thinking football is better when you watch it on TV or when you’re betting on it. I’m missing that sensation in the pit of my stomach where you want to leave but you’re compelled to stay.

I think it’s the feeling of supporting the players as people that makes watching your club in real life so much better. Footballers are often painted as automatons; assets to be bought and sold, critiqued and deified. But, when you’re on the journey with them, that’s what makes is special. Is your support enough to ensure success? Probably not, but what else have we got?

60-75 minutes

Oh god, we’re into that phase when you start to dream of glory, but fear a collapse. Great blocks by defenders are so edifying, but why are we having to block so much? Now I am invested; now I need for us to win.

Looking at the other scores tonight, apart from Colchester, who are beating Crawley (Dannie Bulman has scored and he’s 62 next birthday) there won’t be a duff draw in the next round. I bet we get Colchester. OH GOD STOP THINKING ABOUT THE NEXT ROUND.

75-90 minutes

I’m in that regressive state; doing nothing more than refreshing Twitter. They’re going to score aren’t they? A goal’s coming.

It’s come. 1-1. In a strange way, I’m relieved. But now what? Jamie Mackie, that’s what. There’s something about this squad; every one has a story. Mackie has no pace, little craft, and yet through pure effort, he gets results.

But, this is what I hate; Long, Sykes, Hall, Mackie, they’ve all got stories, I don’t want our club to let them down.

This is going all the way.

Penalties

Now I’m lost in purgatory; I hate penalties when I’m there, but watching them via Twitter is the pits. I follow three accounts that live tweet games, that’s 30 tweets just for the spot kicks, all slightly out of sequence. I can’t keep up.

The good news is that it’s just about kicking the ball now. I reckon playing those marginal players has back-fired a bit. It makes a great story, just not tactically. Now, though, it’s just a question of who can kick it the best.

Oh god, here they come, we’re going to miss every one.

Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal.

They’re showing it on Sky Sports now, I can watch it on my iPad; but the tweets, the feed, it’s all out of sequence.

THEY’VE MISSED.

McNulty steps up to take their decisive fourth. On the video he’s running up to the ball; before he gets to it, I get a notification we’re through. Then I watch Eastwood save it. What a mess. But that’s it. We’re through. We’re bloody through.

Final whistle

This is a redemptive story; from Karl Robinson to Rob Hall to Sam Long to Shandon Baptiste to Mark Sykes. And for John Mousinho who was being encouraged to quit during the summer. I don’t quite know how we’ve done it, but this is a redemptive club; this is like 1983/4; whatever happens now in this competition, we’ve had an adventure and that’s all we’re asking for. Only, for the next part of the adventure, I’m bloody going to be there.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Rochdale 0

I’m in exile. I mean, I’m not a deposed opposition party leader in a despotic country, I mean I’m away.

It’s all Michael Appleton’s fault; in his first season I was so fed up with Oxford, I decided that I would no longer navigate my life around the fixture list. In fact, at the end of 2014/15, I decided the next season would be my last as a season ticket holder unless things started to look up.

Then they started to look up. Really up.

The legacy of that low remains today; October half-term is spent on holiday, this is the first year that I’m regretting it. Partly it’s because the way the fixtures have fallen, with Ipswich’s visit likely to be postponed, my next home game is probably Shrewsbury on 7 December. Mostly, I’m missing it because of what’s happening to us.

In 2014/15, I’d lost faith, the club was being passed from one owner to another, from one manager to another and while we were making material progress, it felt like I was waiting for the return of a buzz that was never likely to come. The club wasn’t delivering whatever it was I was looking for. First I was its lover, then it became decrepit and I became its carer. Now we were just tolerating each other. A relationship of duty.

I came to the conclusion I could simply pick and choose my games, be that glory supporter we all hate. But I’ve paid my dues, who would know or even care if I wasn’t there every damn week?

That season was my all-time low; I haven’t got close to it since, even during last year’s wobbles. That said, the Pep and Robinson years have risked dragging me back towards that position.

People had hoped that this summer would bring that explosion of positivity that we saw in 2015 and 2009. But it never came, if anything up until the last few weeks of the transfer window we seemed to be regressing.

But suddenly it’s clicking; the results, of course, but the club is gelling off the pitch. Friday’s announcement that James Henry has signed a two year contract is the equivalent of James Constable’s signing in 2009 or Kemar Roofe’s 2015. A major step-change, it’s as much a professional endorsement from Henry as it is a signing for us.

Suddenly we’re in a different place, the form which could have been seen as a freak set of results is turning into a new normal. We’re here, but where is that?

2016? Not really, there was something magical about that season; a reawakening of the club, a genuine shock. 2010? No. That was about recovery. What about 1996? No, it doesn’t feel like that.

So what does it feel like? Well, I struggle a little to say this because it almost feels like sacrilege to compare, but in terms of results, goals and entertainment, this is as dominant as we’ve been since Jim Smith’s double championship winning team in the eighties. I can’t remember an Oxford team being so impervious, nobody can lay a glove on us. We haven’t been like that since those glory years.

There’s still along way to go before we start properly comparing this team to that of Briggs and Aldridge, but the signs are there; if you’re not there to see it, you could be missing something really special. I know I am.

Match wrap: Rotherham 1 Oxford United 2

I’ve struggled with the idea of teams gaining momentum. Every game starts at the same point with its own unique set of challenges – injuries, suspensions, opponents, tactics. The idea that it’s possible to transfer something from one game into another, and for that to accumulate – thereby having momentum – doesn’t seem to make sense.

I can see that good results change things – slight injuries are more likely to ignored, players are more likely to commit to systems that appear to work, they believe in each others’ abilities; if I was a striker, I’d more likely get into the box knowing Cameron Brannagan was crossing it than, say, Courtney Pitt.

It seems, then, that momentum is fundamentally a product of trust. When you start to trust something, then you’re more likely to commit to it. If you commit to it, it’s more likely to be successful.

It’s taken time to trust the latest incarnation of the club. That’s not surprising; we spent a good proportion of last year near the relegation zone and went through four winding up orders. In addition, it’s easy to forget what Karl Robinson inherited; a few remnants of Michael Appleton’s years – many of whom were on the verge of leaving – and Pep Clotet’s legion of oddbods.

But, trust is coming and perhaps it’s here. The Rotherham result might be the most significant piece in the jigsaw puzzle yet. They are exactly the type of club we aspire to be; apparently well run off the field and a robust capable team on it. Without denigrating the West Ham win, strange results happen in cup competitions, and something like the 6-0 win over Lincoln can be viewed as once in a life time aberration. The game against Rotherham, like the Doncaster game last week, are the workaday league games which determine which end of the table we end up at.

The clocks go back next week, which is when the season really starts; the top eleven teams – with us in fifth – all look like they could threaten the play-offs. Of the others, Portsmouth are the only team you might think capable of joining the scrap.

This is not dissimilar to last year; where we were in a large batch of teams separated by a few points, only that was at the other end of the table. I might be alone in constantly looking down, but when I look at the National League table – which we were in only few years ago – I see teams like Woking, Solihull and Bromley. I can no longer imagine us being amongst them. Even looking at League 2, it no longer feels like a group of clubs like us. My latest breakthrough, and this has only been in the last few weeks, is that we are more naturally aligned to Doncaster and Rotherham than we are teams towards the bottom in League 1.

There’s a point where we have to trust we’re part of that group of genuine play-off and promotion contenders and not there by virtue of a set of short-term freak results. Whether you are ever actually ‘there’ is difficult to say, I suspect many fans of most clubs look down before they look up, we know more than most that past performance is no indicator of future performance.

The last few weeks and our resulting League position have bought Karl Robinson the space he’s needed. His system is working, the players are bought into it, the fans are being absorbed by it. The circle of trust grows – which is also what will grow crowds – and that’s where momentum starts to kick in. If we can settle into this new status; who know where that will take us?

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Things that everyday folk leave behind

Saturday 12 October 2019

It was another immaculate display on Saturday as Oxford romped their way to a 3-0 win over Doncaster. Afterwards KRob broke off a live radio interview to have a ruck with the Donny subs who were warming down on a part of the pitch they weren’t supposed to be on. ‘Sorry, things are so perfect, I’ve got nothing left to lose my shit about.’ said KRob panting with the satisfaction of a dog that had just had a swim in cow slurry.

Sunday 13 October 2019

The sad news as Oxford United super-fan Andy ‘Womble’ James died on Sunday. At one point, Womble attended 1200 consecutive Oxford games over a period of 15 years. That includes every one of Les Robinson’s 458 games for the club, each of the 101 goals conceded by Richard Knight in 2000 and every lung busting run made by Dave Savage, which our statisticians calculate as being approximately none.

Monday 14 October 2019

As GLS wakes on a Monday morning with the rain hammering down against his window he often questions the futility of life’s purpose, why nobody on Come Dine With Me serves baked beans on toast in front of the TV and who is East Yorkshire’s best player. Thankfully, a third of those questions have now been answered. East Yorkshire, if you’re not sure, is basically Hull with an en suite. Fourth in the list was jugged eared Oxford legend Dean Windass. Next, the futility of life’s purpose…

Tuesday 15 October 2019

… or Hearts’ worst decisions, perhaps? Former Oxford manager Graham Rix was so dedicated to nurturing young talent they put him on a special register. Edinburgh Live have voted his appointment as the Jambos’ manager as their second worst decision ever. Apparently when the Hearts owner looked Rix in the eye, he saw a hero. Perhaps he should have looked longer, he may have seen that he was also a paedophile, racist and bully, as well as a terrible manager.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

The club have announced that they plan to offer an option to fans for a refund to season ticket holders for the game that was cancelled due to Bury’s demise. It reminds GLS of the time Auntie Edna was caught routing around in dead Uncle Albert’s suit pockets looking for his wallet while he lay in his casket in the front room.

Liverpool wunderkind Ben Woodburn has opened up about his career to the Daily Mail. ‘Turning twenty means he can no longer be called a teenager’ said the Mail in a rare moment of factual clarity. 

Thursday 18 October 2019

It was the Six Minute Eighteen Second Fans’ Forum on Thursday with Jose’s son John Mousinho. Like a slightly plump lady being asked when the baby is due; most of the questions focussed on the retirement he hasn’t announced and coaching he’s not doing. Au contraire; said Mr Mousinho, he is in the form of his Oxford United life; and what does he put this awakening to? ‘We’re playing so well, I don’t have to touch the ball as often’.

Prize for the most conflated footballing analysis goes to Football Fan Cast who claim that ex-Oxford loanee Jordan Graham is so desperate to get his career back on track he’s gone to a racist country to do it. Graham is currently on loan in Bulgaria.

Friday 19 October 2019

Oxford head for the Big Apple on Saturday to play at the ground so bad they named it once – The New York Stadium. Oh yes, we wanna wake up in the city that never sleeps… Rotherham. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Doncaster Rovers 0

I was getting some shopping on the way back from the game on Saturday. Someone, recognising my top, asked ‘did they win?’. This occasionally happens outside the ground, usually by kids menacingly riding their bikes, but I was 15 miles away and it was the second time it had happened in a few minutes.

I won’t describe the person for risk of unfairly stereotyping, but I wouldn’t normally associate them with having an interest in the club’s fortunes. They wanted to know who scored, hoping I’d say Tariqe Fosu.

‘Tariqe Fosu lives next door to me’ they said by way of explanation. I said he’d been great and I got the sense they took some residual pride in the fact their neighbour was getting such praise. I once told Perry Groves he was great when I randomly phoned him up to do a market research survey. I didn’t mean it, but with Fosu I genuinely did.

I wasn’t sat in my normal seat at the game; with a new angle I saw the work he put in. When I see players like that, it genuinely fills my heart with joy. He’s a jobbing footballer working his socks off for my club. ‘He’s such a lovely bloke’ the person said.

A few minutes earlier, Karl Robinson had broken off his live post-match radio interview to sort out a dispute between the Doncaster subs and the club’s ground staff.

This was typical Robinson; easy to mock, but impulsive and authentic. He talks about the importance of the whole club, he takes time out for kids, older fans, he supports the staff from the groundsmen to the ticket office. Last year it threatened to overwhelm him, with his core responsibility being the team, but he seems to have found a sweet spot.

Exactly halfway through the second-half, after a dominant display against a team we should aspire to match this season, we seemed to run out of energy and started to get pushed back. It wasn’t a surprise, we’d been so good that maintaining it for 90 minutes was always unlikely. Robinson whistled for Shandon Baptiste to come on and instantly the balance was redressed. He was in total control.

Fosu is his protege, he has the attacking qualities to simply focus on that and – let’s face it – get away with it, but yesterday it was his willingness to track back and cover Josh Ruffels, to block crosses like a seasoned full-back which was so impressive.

Robinson made the point in his post-match interview of the example Jamie Mackie offers to other players, he could have mentioned John Mousinho and James Henry. None are at the peak of their careers, Oxford isn’t their perfect destination, but they play like it is, never letting up. All over the pitch there are examples of the value of working hard and buying into and contributing to a culture.

Every season has its narrative; the 1995/96 promotion was a redemptive story about a remarkable late season run, 2009/10 was a rebirth born out of sheer bloody mindedness, 2015/16 was a marvel of science and planning.

What is emerging this year is a one-club culture; it permeates from Robinson through the players to the backroom staff and to the fans.

People often talk about the fans being the heart of a club and in one sense they are, they’re the only constant. But as the crowds show, they’re also the first to walk away when things aren’t great.

Josh Widdecombe once wrote that football wasn’t a great subject for comedy because it isn’t universal. It’s massively popular, of course, but not as all-encompassing as the general challenges of life. Getting a club to permeate beyond its core set of followers is a massive challenge. Results help, of course, but so does someone like Tariqe Fosu being a great neighbour. When random people talk to you in supermarkets about the result, you know the ripples are being felt. Perhaps they’ll buy a ticket soon, just to see him play.

Where that takes us, I don’t know. I took a bit of criticism last week saying I didn’t know whether our style could be sustained. It was genuine; it’s not a question of doubting it; I don’t know whether it can.

But, it is working, the product is great, an Oxford top is the stimulus for a discussion about the club, we can be proud that we’re part of a movement not some marginal obsession. I can talk about Tariqe Fosu’s performances with a stranger in a way I could never do about Carl Pettefer or Tim Sills. The challenge now is for it to permeate more widely, Robinson is an ambassador, but so is Fosu and so are we. Nobody knows how long this will last, but there’s something good happening here, let’s broadcast it.