Match wrap: Bolton Wanderers 0 Oxford United 0

I was looking forward to the novelty of watching us play Bolton on iFollow. I was never going to travel north on a Tuesday night, so the opportunity to see the game with one eye on The Bake-Off was a little bit of joy to break up the tedium of the week. 

The result was a faded facsimile of anything we might consider as being football; the limited production values meant that it wasn’t TV football as you know it, and it’s not even close to a replacement for being there.

Despite Bolton’s evident problems and the fact they’d conceded 21 goals in the previous four games, I shared the view that we definitely had it in us to make the game more difficult than it should have been.

Perhaps that’s just natural pessimism and fear – nobody wants to be the first team that gets beaten by such a beleaguered club. Dig a little deeper, though, and it was clear that they weren’t to be under-estimated. They’ve taken a point from Coventry at home and took the lead on Saturday against Rotherham, most of the goals they’ve conceded have been later in games when they got tired and lost shape. 

The presence of Jake Wright in their starting line-up should remind us that they are not the team of juniors they were at the start of the season, plus, by the law of averages, they will pick off points here and there. They’re like a non-league team in the cup – most of the time they’ll lose to more established opposition, but that doesn’t prevent them from winning once in a while.

The onus was on us to control the game; but in fact we were the ones who showed immaturity. Their shortcomings were evident but we were still overrun by youthful exuberance for the opening 20 minutes. Afterwards, Karl Robinson wanted us to acknowledge their performance, but we looked woefully under-prepared.

A more disciplined and organised side would have absorbed the pressure. Extinguished the enthusiasm. Strangled the life out of their rawness. Watching it on an iPad, it looked like a game of FIFA on the Playstation; two teams attacking without any obvious plan. For them, there was little to lose for us, it was unforgivable.

As the game progressed, thankfully, things seemed to balance out a bit and we started to edge back into it. But at no point did we look more than an average threat. 

There was no craft, no calm and little shape. Professionally, it was little short of pathetic. There are things I like about Robinson; he gets football clubs at an emotional level, he has time for people. He serves his club in a way managers rarely do. But, he’s not there to think like a fan; he’s there to plan, establish structure and instil discipline. Quite simply, we should have won comfortably. We’re facing teams that are set up not to lose first and foremost and yet we simply hammer away thoughtlessly and expect to cut through them. I’m a long way from calling for his head, but his approach, like his touchline persona, is childlike; you have to question how far it can take us. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Tranmere Rovers 0

There were two people behind me for the win over Tranmere on Saturday. Irregular visitors to the Kassam, they talked knew how we were getting on but still referred to each player by number. One of them had already seen us this season. “It was much better than this” he said. We’d played four minutes.

It surprises me that people still assume football to be easy. That combining the activity of eleven people at speed, while another eleven try to stop them should effortlessly flow. “What do they do in training all day?” one said. Oh, I suspect they sit around talking about how brilliant they’ll be on Saturday.

Mackie was ‘too slow’ and Fosu ‘too lightweight’. In fact, Mackie is not quick, it’s different – too slow implies that he has speed he not using. Fosu is slight, so he won’t hold the ball against a defender the size of Manny Monthe but it means defenders have to be more careful, which weakens their game. Fosu won a lot of position simply by using this perceived weakness.

There were moments on Saturday when the combinations faltered at the final hurdle. On two occasions, Jamie Mackie made runs to the near post, only for the ball to go behind him and roll harmlessly across the goal. There were groans of frustration at the inaccuracy of the cross and Mackie’s poor positioning. In fact, both had been perfect; what was needed was someone at the back post to put the ball away.

In the first half, twice we broke from defence, while Mackie battled for the loose ball, there was a great thick defensive line of yellow leaving the box at an unremarkable speed. On the third occasion, James Henry put in a spirt of effort to burst out of the line giving Mackie an outlet and us an attacking shape. Those moments can be decisive, and they’re not there yet.

It was the emergence of experience that gave us the win; Fosu’s moment of petulance in wanting to take the first penalty was understandable, but the experience of Henry and Mousinho to go with logic ensured the goal. Mackie always plays the referee as well as the game he used his strengths well. Henry’s calmness from the spot to follow the process and get the job done tipped the balance.

What’s missing are the finishing touches; Ben Woodburn almost doesn’t want to score enough. Those Mackie runs gave openings that could have given him simple tap-ins. It’s a desire that gave Liam Sercombe a hatful in 2015/16 and is giving Cameron Brannagan his goals this year.

Tranmere looked like a team that have been promoted too quickly. They don’t seem to have the bank of players to perform at this level. They had gaps as well, particularly up front, but our gaps were smaller, which was the difference.

The table still looks a bit of a muddle, Wycombe are third, Lincoln have lost four out of five. It’s possible others are suffering similarly, it makes for an interesting and exciting league, but the quicker we can link everything up, the faster we’ll climb the table.

Match wrap: Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 1

Let’s face it, a 2-1 defeat away to Fleetwood is not, in isolation, an unexpected result, but it means just one win in seven and 20th place in the division. It’s opened all the old debates about Karl Robinson’s suitability and our prospects for the season.

It’s not a simple question of Robinson’s competence, or if he’s likeable or not. I can see both sides of those arguments. For me it’s about the compitablity between his approach, and the club more broadly.

Robinson wants to play a fast, all action style, but with late summer signings and the loss of Gavin Whyte, we currently have a squad trying to bed in while travelling at a thousand miles an hour.

Had we been in League 2, I think he could deliver a season in the vein of 2015/2016; fast, exciting, full of goals; sweeping all before us including a few higher league scalps in the cup. To ape an old Viz comic strip; we’d be all special weapons and no tactics.

But, League 1 is more savvy and we’re being undone by solid, streetwise teams – Fleetwood, Burton and Bristol Rovers. It reminds me of the scene in Indiana Jones where faced by the swashbuckling swordsman skilfully wielding his weapon, Jones simply pulls a gun out and shoots him dead.

We don’t yet have the cohesion to wield our sword skilfully and execute the kill. Worse, we don’t have the bedrock of Curtis Nelson at the back and even Simon Eastwood seems shakier, particularly with shots from distance.

All this against a backdrop of a ownership which, tentatively, seems to be finding its feet. The emergence of Zaki Nuseibeh as a calming voice of reason – talking about building sustainably and responsibly has replaced the eery silences of last year. In addition, we have enjoyed some good PR with the squad numbers, the symbolic signing of Kash Siddiqi and Zaki himself talking about the regulation of clubs in the light of what has happened to Bury.

But despite that steadying hand, Robinson pursues his campaign to please with a maddening thrill-ride of entertaining, but ultimately unproductive football.

Based on last year, the results should come. With Bury’s demise and Bolton’s points deduction, the trapdoor is significantly smaller. But, if we are to do more than simply survive then we seem to have gone the wrong way about it. Wycombe are currently top; a team who specialise in working within their limitations and not over-stretching. The fantasists may have one eye on the Championship at the moment, but I suspect internally they see each point now as a step towards survival from relegation in May. If they’re in a similar position at Christmas, perhaps they’ll readjust their expectations.

At the moment we’re not recognising our limitations – cohesion, fitness, a shaky defence – as a result, we’re over-stretching and being picked off. Stopping the rot should be the focus, even if it means abandoning some of our principles.

Midweek fixture: The Absolute State of Oxford United Part 4 – Your favourite players

It feels like an age since the Absolute State of Oxford United survey went out; you can read Part 1 – Ratings, Part 2 – Predictions and Part 3 – Expectations (folded into the season’s preview). Part 4 looks at one of those perennials – favourite players.

Of the current crop, Gavin Whyte, when he was still at the club, was your overall favourite players. Now he’s gone, Cameron Brannagan takes the reigns with 18.4%. Brannagan ticks a lot of boxes for fans; he’s committed and passionate; there’s never a game where you feel he’s phoning it in. Moreover, he’s got that profile of players from Michael Appleton’s time – Lundstram, Rothwell, Ledson and Roofe – players who came to Oxford from bigger clubs looking to progress their careers. He wasn’t an Appleton player, but it feels like he was.

Next up was Josh Ruffels (16.7%) with Simon Eastwood clocking a solid 11.9%. The appeal of Eastwood and Ruffels is their longevity, their apparent commitment to the cause. Neither are homegrown as such, but it feels like they are.

I wasn’t sure whether asking the question about your least favourite player was a good idea and people agreed; it was a mistake with lots of people refused to answer. I will say one thing; it probably isn’t a surprise to hear that Jamie Hanson was identified by a large minority as a least favourite. He came in with a big fee and didn’t perform last year; but here’s a prediction for next season – I reckon if he’s given a chance, Hanson may become a fan favourite next season in the vein of Andy Whing. Everyone loves a tough tackler who wears his heart on his sleeve and if he can get a run in the team, I can see him thriving.

All time favourites

When it comes to favourite players of all time, no fewer than fifty-seven players were nominated, although I’m guessing that Juan Pablo-Raponi and Justin Richards were a joke and there were one or two nominated because they were nice to the respondents kids once outside the ground.

Thirty-one of the fifty-seven received a single vote; and there’s clearly a story behind every one.

It’s tricky to compare players of different eras and easy to conflate ‘favourite’ with ‘best’. Danny Hylton is one of my all time favourite players – but only received one vote. Paul Powell was one of the best players I ever saw and didn’t receive any. Forced into making a choice of one player, favourite always trumps best.

The votes inevitably favour more recent players – if you’re younger, they’re the only players you know, if you’re older, your memory fade.

There is very much a holy trinity that spans the eras – John Aldridge took 9% of the vote, followed by James Constable (17%) with Joey Beauchamp (20%) topping the lot. 

Beauchamp’s last game for Oxford was in 2002, but he hits the sweet spot for a favourite player – genuinely homegrown, loyal (apart from his Swindon apparition), and above all, breathtakingly good at football. I don’t understand why the club don’t capitalise on his legacy and legend as other clubs have done (benefitting him in the process). In many senses, Beauchamp is Oxford, he should be revered and remembered. 

Notable others? Kemar Roofe was the highest ranked player of the most recent era (Appleton – Clotet – Robinson) with 7% of the vote. Roy Burton is the stand out name from the pre-TV era with 2% nestling alongside the likes of Billy Hamilton and Trevor Hebberd. Of the current squad, only Josh Ruffels made the list with a single vote. It seems to become a favourite player, you need to no longer be at the club, allowing for your legend to be re-edited with all the bad bits taken out.  

I don’t know why I asked for three nominations for a Hall of Fame, it’s a nightmare to analyse and produces similar results to the Favourite Player question. It does give some more latitude in the voting with seventy-one different names nominated. 

The top three all clocking over 100 votes were again James Constable, Joey Beauchamp and John Aldridge. Fourth (Kemar Roofe) polled less than half that (48). The top 10 was completed by Matt Elliot, Ron Atkinson, Paul Moody, Gary Briggs, Roy Burton and Trevor Hebberd. A pretty era-spanning bunch. Malcolm Shotton was 11th, one vote behind Hebberd, clearly that goal at Wembley made all the difference.

Halls of Fame, like the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, only really get interesting once you’ve got the obvious ones out of the way. Yes, get The Beatles and Rolling Stones in, but also recognise Metallica and Run DMC. 

From the Headington days, Maurice Kyle, John Shuker and Graham Atkinson all got a number of nominations. From the 1980s Kevin Brock, Peter Foley and George Lawrence. In the 90s Paul’s Simpson and Paul Reece were mentioned, though barely troubled the scorers. Dean Whitehead and Billy Turley were the only players from the early 2000s to pick up votes, but perhaps that’s no surprise.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Coventry City 3

The half-time guest on Saturday was legendary goalkeeper Roy Burton. Burton was the quintessential lower-league footballer with a great mop of hair, a droopy moustache, and a paunch. The London Road would stare mesmerised as his shorts would drop revealing the top of his bum crack whenever he took a goal kick.

He played in the 3rd Division mostly; the same level as the players today. If Burton reached the half-way line with a goal kick he was considered a marvel. In the modern age a lower-league player – a lean product of sports science – is expected to routinely spray forty-yard passes onto the toe of a fast-moving winger without a murmur of appreciation.

But, what yesterday’s draw showed was the joy of lower league football and all its glorious flaws. We can argue about a lack of cutting edge up front or the alarming number of goals we’re conceding, but as a spectacle it couldn’t be better.

League 1 football is a riot, most clubs are pretty evenly matched so games involve two teams hammering seven bells out of each other until the referee tells them to stop. On the sidelines, two managers explode as all their hard work crumbles in front of them.

It’s a ninety minute exhibition of the wonderful imperfections of the human experience. Jamie Mackie’s story arc involved missing an absolute sitter in the first half before spending most of the game vainly chasing shadows like a toddler playing piggy in the middle with two NBA basketball players. Then, when all seemed lost, he somehow organised himself to spark a revival with a spectacular goal. Afterwards he babbled on about hard work and scoring goals and hard work and other things.

James Henry was absolutely majestic throughout, but was left after the game splayed on the floor, exhausted and frustrated that his efforts had come to nothing. Where Mackie’s day was one of failings which turned to triumph, Henry’s was a triumph which ended in failure. And then there’s Fantaky Dabo, who calmly gifted us two own-goals giving him nightmares for days to come.

There was the 30 seconds of madness from Ben Woodburn’s shot hitting the post to Coventry going 2-0 up. Then, as if that wasn’t drama enough, us doing the same to them to pull it back to 3-3. The bloke next to me asked how many minutes of injury time I thought were left. I said I didn’t know, what I wanted to say is that I didn’t care.

All the while there was the ludicrous vignette of fans confronting each other in the North Stand while all over the pitch players picked and niggled each other with unchecked off the ball fouls. Stories within stories within stories.

I looked at the Premier League results after the game; Manchester City had thrashed another also-ran, later Liverpool would do the same. We are in awe of the passing, the shooting, the achievement of near-perfection. And, just in case, if the results are in some way anomalistic, we can correct them in real time with the use of technology scrubbing away the drama to create a gleaming globalised media product and all the marvellous money it creates.

Whether it’s in films, music or sport perfection is always the goal for those involved, but perfection is predictable and boring. In League 1 it’s the failings where all the value is. At 2-2, the game opened up as the teams were stuck between the desire to win and the fear of losing. Balls would over-run, passes would deflect off players for corners and throw-ins, nobody was in control, but in life, we never are. It was one team against another team against physics.

In League 1, it’s the joy of overcoming our innate human failings, the despair of succumbing to them, the immense and unrelenting frustration that makes it the happy riot it is.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Millwall 2 (Pens: 4-2)

Despite the group behind me and their Sunday League tropes of ‘Travel!’, ‘Drop!’ and ‘Whose tracking?’ last night’s Carabao Cup game was a benchmarking exercise. As such, it revealed something curious about our squad.

The test was not just playing a better team but also a referee applying some kind of subconscious ‘Championship tariff’ – where decisions are based on a presumption that lower league players are more likely to mistime tackles and make fouls, more likely to fall over through their own incompetence than through someone pulling their shirt. We shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve seen it all before. 

I went to the game feeling neutral; I wanted us to win, but wasn’t that bothered if we didn’t. On the other hand a defeat – the fourth in a row – would create tensions we didn’t need. You can say a game doesn’t mean anything, but it always does.

The result was encouraging because we were more conservative. This may have been deliberate; Sam Long knows his role, Elliot Moore could focus on his job of being physical and blocking things. Nobody expected Kevin Berkoe to bomb on and make chances, so he had time to check his positioning and get used to the pace of the game.

We were calmer and more patient; less eager to please. We didn’t want to concede, there was no attempt to win the game in the first 10 minutes. We weren’t scintillating going forward, but we had chances, as did they. They could have scored, we should have had a penalty. There was the odd cat call for a thirty yard cross-field ball out of defence or for Jamie Mackie to somehow gain an extra yard of pace, but overall we actually benefited from being a little slower and a little weaker.

In the league we’ve started at a frantic pace and have fallen away, last night we started more moderately and accelerated. Just after half-time they simply accelerated more quickly – as better teams do – just as you think you’re matching them, they apply greater pressure. 

By the second-half they were better but not by an unexpected margin; had we left going down 2-0 in the League Cup 2nd Round to a Championship team, it would have been disappointing but expected and forgettable.

When they accelerated, they were faster to the ball, attacking with pace; strong and direct. We want to aspire to being like that. In midfield Shandon Baptiste, was in control early on, but started to feel the pace as the game progressed. We weren’t quite chasing shadows, just finding it harder to get a foothold and a way back into the game. We battled valiantly, which is all we could ask, but at 2-0 it was all over.

Or so we all thought; an injection of quality in James Henry and Ben Woodburn brought more pace and craft, and gradually we reclaimed parity. First in quality, then in goals. On paper, two-goals in the last three minutes sounds thrillingly exciting, over 90 minutes, it was just about what we deserved. 

The penalties aren’t a lottery; the better team always tends to win. Perhaps it was their shock and our elation, but our four kicks showed focus and composure; a discipline that’s been missing in recent weeks.

Whether the patience was deliberate or enforced is hard to tell. But, it worked better than our all action first-choice style. It feels like we have better strength in depth than last year, but without Gavin Whyte, Marcus Browne, Curtis Nelson or (latter season) Luke Garbutt our first choice seems weaker. We don’t have the control or the game changers, at least not yet. As a benchmark, that’s where we seem to be today.

It gives Karl Robinson a dilemma; should he sacrifice style and flair for results? Keep Sam Long and his discipline, but lose Chris Cadden and his pace? For me, to get some traction into our season, we need these results more than we need the style, but can Robinson curb his urge to please?

Match wrap: Bristol Rovers 3 Oxford United 1

For all the brouhaha around Matty Taylor’s return to Bristol Rovers with the personal security and amnesty bins, the real issue for Oxford United was probably nearly two hundred miles away.

Curtis Nelson hasn’t started a game at Cardiff City, he’s been sat on the bench waiting his chance. Meanwhile, after an encouraging start, we’re shipping goals like there’s no tomorrow – nine in a week. It’s possible his greatest impact this season is our defensive problems.

Although we can’t really hope to replace Nelson like-for-like, his departure was no surprise. It was nearly a year ago that Karl Robinson took the captaincy off him because of his reluctance to sign a new contract. Even before then, it was difficult to see him; given that it’s the most important contract decision of his career, choosing us over a chance to play in a higher division.

John Mousinho’s age is similarly predictable, age is like that. He was brought in principally as an emergency cover for Nelson when he damaged knee ligaments in 2017 – a leader without doubt – it’s clear he would have physical limitations. Also, let’s not forget that Robinson didn’t really have him in his plans, offering him a coaching role during the summer.

Rob Dickie is at the other end of the spectrum; an excellent prospect and developing well, but with some way to go before becoming the commanding presence of his defensive partner from last year.

In fact, after nearly 18 months in charge, Elliot Moore is the first centre-back Karl Robinson has signed. And that was days before the start of the season. Moore may become the towering defensive unit we’re looking for. He’s certainly got the physicality, but there’s more to being a top class centre-back than being called Elliot and having a Leicester and Oxford connection.

The issue goes further; our first choice full-backs are Josh Ruffels and Chris Cadden. Ruffels is a converted midfielder and, although I haven’t seen much of Cadden, I can see what Radio Oxford match summariser Steve Kinniburgh means when he says he prefers Cadden’s attacking threat to his defensive capabilities. Few will want a return to the days of Hunt and Newey, but something a little more defensively minded – think Ford and Robinson – might give more confidence. Or perhaps the Baldock and Skarz approach of one bombing forward while the other provides cover.

Whereas in midfield we’ve built a bit of a dynasty from Lundstram to Ledson to Brannagan, in defence we seem to have ignored all the signs that we were always likely to run into difficulties. It’s a far cry from 2016 when we released Jake Wright because we had too many central defenders.

Perhaps Karl Robinson has been too eager to please, bringing in exciting talent like Gavin Whyte or Tariqe Fosu, and trying to fulfil the endless bleating about needing a ‘twenty goals a season striker’, while ignoring the more mundane realities of our defensive capabilities.

There’s more to come from Dickie and Moore, but there’s little cover if that goes wrong. Mousinho can’t play every game and it isn’t his best position anyway. I still think we’ll surprise the good teams with our attacking threat and overwhelm the poorer ones. However, beating teams like us, like Bristol Rovers and Burton, are going to need more balance between our attacking threat and defensive ability. Everyone is so similar, the wins will come in the margins.

There’s still a week to go until the transfer window closes but those who are available are likely to be in the mould of Moore or Mousinho – youngsters looking for game-time, or older players who are moving to the margins of their squad. It looks like we’ll have to deal with what we have. It’s time to get organised.