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.

Match wrap: Oxford United 4 Northampton Town 0

During the Conference years I’d get a mild anxiety about us scoring in the first eight minutes of a home game. My routine was so established that 3.08pm was when I finished my pre-match coffee meaning holding a hot drink as Matt Green gave us early lead would have me at sixes and sevens. 

There were far fewer disruptions to the pre-match routine in those days; you could park in the same spot, rarely had to queue and there were fewer people to bump into. I could leave my house at 2pm confident in the knowledge that by 3.08pm I’d be draining the last of my cup.

Now the matchday routine is determined by a long list of Covid rules, so many that I was worried that I might miss some. I suspect Covid rules are like the old saying about advertising; we know that only some of it works, which just don’t know which bits. While face masks and social distancing are clearly effective, I suspect the benefits of not throwing a ball back to a player is marginal. All in all, now is not the time to quibble, let’s just do everything to sort this out and figure out the science later.

Returning to the Kassam on Tuesday night wasn’t quite the fantasy I’d imagined when the lockdown first happened. I’d pictured a jubilant, throbbing crowd full of dashing Brycreamed Tommys kissing unsuspecting landgirls in bright red lipstick in the street. Somewhere between VE Day and Rochdale at home.

Instead, the return is necessarily cautious and gradual, the virus won’t surrender, it needs to be killed off and that takes time. I was torn between wanting to get back to football and it shattering my illusions by being awkward and underwhelming. I figured I needed to lean into it, surrender myself to the rules which are there for a far greater good. 

It’s an undoubtedly a more sanitised experience, the pre-match hubbub is missing; the bubbling of conversation isn’t there, simply standing together is a risk so everything is geared towards funnelling you to and from your seat. Nathan Cooper takes to the PA to warn people against facing each other when going to the toilet creating a troubling mental image of people peeing on each others shoes in the gents.

Ultimately, compliance is absolute and not a burden. No liberties are being taken away although wearing a mask with glasses is a challenge. When I secure my mask tightly enough, it minimises the misting, but doesn’t stop it completely. For much of the game it feels like I’m watching through a thin fog, which is just preferable to following a number of vividly coloured blobs chasing a small white blob around a big green blob. 

The atmosphere, though, feels familiar and genuine, voices aren’t as muffled as you’d think so despite its size, it feels like a proper crowd. It helps that fans are spread across all three stands creating an illusion of being more than the permitted two thousand that are here. With people sat in their bubbles, there’s no artificial symmetry you see at some games with fans regimentally sat in vertical rows one behind another. It all helps.

It’s the gaps where you really notice the difference. There’s usually a continuous ambient hum from the crowd, but when the action lulls, the stadium falls into near silence. It does give you an opportunity to hear the players and managers going about their business. I’m struck by Elliott Moore barking instructions at Alex Gorrin by calling him ‘Alex’ rather than ‘Gorro’ or some culturally appropriated nickname, like ‘Manuel’.

At one point the Northampton keeper launches the mother of all Hail Mary goal kicks deep into the Oxford half. The Cobblers manager Keith Curle screams ‘GO! GO! GO!’ at his front four as they chase the ball, trying to locate it dropping from the sky like happy labradors in a park. Sophisticated, this is not.

Curiously, I found I can read a lot from the general noise of the crowd, not just the roar of a goal or chance, but the less obvious hum. Normally, you can sense a change in atmosphere towards half-time, the sound of thousands of people trying to organise who’s buying the Bovril and what flavour crisps you want – which is always ‘whatever they’ve got, but not prawn cocktail’. During the first half I realise without those audible signals, I lose track of where in the game we’re at.

At the start, the players dribble out onto the pitch without fanfare. The taking of the knee can look tokenistic on TV but feels real and necessary in real life. Mide Shodipo holds his fist in the air, a reminder to the almost exclusively white crowd that this stuff happens to him and people like him. Racism not some abstract notion invented to annoy white people, it’s very real. Taking the knee is a political statement, make no bones about it, its message is to force change, those claiming to misinterpret it are choosing that path. It’s not simpering left wing woke-ism, people are bored of this shit. Taking the knee reminds us to make good decisions.

Once the game gets going, you realise it’s the immersive wide screen 4k experience of being there that you’ve missed the most. Going to games allows you to appreciate the endeavour and effort, even in a strange way, the pettiness. At one point a Northampton player throws the ball away while the referee isn’t watching and we are appalled and outraged, someone behind me calls the referee a ‘prick’; it’s great.

At first the performance mirrors the atmosphere, it’s good but a little disjointed, like we’re still trying to get the glue to set on this team. Marcus McGuane is a bull in ballet shoes; he looks like he should be used as a battering ram, but there’s a cultured ball player trying to get out, he just seems to lack a decisiveness which will turn his good work into chances. It’s not just the new players, James Henry seems a bit lost in the margins and Matty Taylor is either isolated or disengaged. It’s all not quite happening.

On the touchline, though, Karl Robinson seems calm, his only animation is due to his exasperation towards the referee, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned. As with last season, it needs something, or someone, to bond all the good stuff together. 

It comes, perhaps surprisingly, from Sean Clare, John Mousinho’s half-time replacement. Mousinho, it’s reported, is walking a tight rope, with the prospect of season ending surgery should his knee give way. When he goes down holding it, some assume his career is over. Robinson afterwards says Mousinho feels he was letting the side down. His performance doesn’t come across like that, but perhaps his body is just not doing what he wants anymore. It reminds me of one of Wayne Brown’s last games where his playing career seemed to end in front of our eyes, we chastised him in frustration, but it must have been awful for him.

It takes bravery to get down the flanks when you’re a full-back, you need to trust your team mates to cover for you and not berate you if you mess up, Clare seems to be growing in confidence and glides down the flank looping a ball to the back post for Matty Taylor to nod home for the first goal. The squad head to Clare rather than Taylor to congratulate him, then everyone comes together, bringing Clare into the fold gives us cohesion.

From then on, it becomes comfortable, Shodipo seems to only score one type of goal; cutting in from the left and sending a bouncing bomb into the bottom right hand corner for 2-0. Dan Agyei comes on and crosses with his first touch for Matty Taylor to head home the third. The two crosses from Agyei and Clare are so good, Taylor almost seems embarrassed to take the glory of putting the ball in the net, though there’s plenty for him to do on both occasions.

By this point we’re totally outclassing our opponents, confidence and the fluidity of last season is back. Josh Ruffels seems to be playing the role of jazz full-back, a defender who is given licence too act as an improvised attacking force with a free reign.

Then, into injury time Agyei picks the ball up again, glides past two players and bends in the fourth. It’s reminiscent of the win against West Ham with the joy of a perfect finale, the best goal of the night. Altogether it’s a thoroughly satisfying and convincing win; it’s not West Ham, of course, it’s Northampton Town, and while, in many ways, this falls short of the glory of that night, in others, given the intervening 291 days since I was last here, it’s better.

Afterwards we’re funnelled back out of the ground, the players are clapping the fans, but the steward needs us out so I’m gone before they get to us. Once out of the stadium, out of the grips of The Rules, people remove their masks and trudge back to their cars, I’ve missed that trudge more than I could have imagined. We’re not quite back in the old routine yet, but just being back will do for now.

Midweek fixture: Shirt stories – the number seven

Different shirt numbers stir different emotions; they’re full of memories and meaning. Whenever I see a number on the back of a shirt, I leap to broad conclusions about the player and how they should play. 

Of the traditional 1-11, there are two numbers with an air of mystery; the number 4 has been rejected from the defensive line in preference to numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. And yet, it also doesn’t look quite right in midfield. Of course, Kemar Roofe wore it up front and that’s just not right.

The other number is seven; growing up it was the number of the team’s star player; a player who could do anything, transcending all others. George Best was before my time, but his legacy still resonated at Manchester United and Northern Ireland, England captain Kevin Keegan was the best in Europe and in Scotland there was Kenny Dalglish. Both Keegan and Dalglish played for Liverpool, the best team in Europe. All wore the number seven, they all scored goals but were so much more than strikers. 

Oxford never had a number seven in the same mould; George Lawrence would power down the wing during the mid-eighties firing us to countless cup glories and promotion. He never made it to the 1st Division, when it was worn by new signing Ray Houghton. Houghton was terrier-like with boundless energy and, of course, the scorer the second goal in the Milk Cup Final. Into the nineties, Jim Magilton took on the shirt, a player full of deft passes and subtle touches. For the 1996 promotion season the shirt often went to David Rush.

When squad numbers were introduced in 1999, the shirt was given to Matt Murphy. Murphy was one of the great curiosities of the era; part supersub, part goal machine, part boo-boy. He was endlessly frustrating, I remember one game where he could do nothing wrong for the first twenty minutes, including one audacious back heeled through ball which made the crowd grasp and him wince; he pulled up lame and had to be substituted. That summed up his whole Oxford career, even though despite all that, he’s still our 10th highest ever goalscorer.

In 1999/2000 the club began to rupture, we’d sold several key players and failed to sell others like Joey Beauchamp and Paul Powell. The whole Jenga tower began to wobble. We narrowly avoided relegation and then tried to keep the failing squad together for the following year. Murphy took the number 7 shirt again in 2000/01 and finally the club collapsed in the most spectacular way possible conceding 100 goals and being the first team in the Football League to be relegated that year. At the end of that season, despite attempts to keep him, Murphy rejected us and left for Bury. It turned out that Murphy and Oxford had a curious symbiotic relationship – his career fell apart while we plummeted down the divisions. We were like conjoined twins, sharing the same vital organs.

In 2001/02 we moved to The Kassam Stadium and under manager Mark Wright the shirt was passed to Martin Thomas. Thomas signed from Brighton as part of Wright’s revolution. He was installed as the new club captain, meaning had the dubious honour of leading the side out for the first league game at the new stadium. Just fourteen games in, Mark Wright’s managerial career imploded in a blizzard of average results and accusations of racism. Thomas was collateral damage; his last game being Wright’s last game against Leyton Orient. New manager Ian Atkins dropped him for the next game and he didn’t play for the club again.

The following season Atkins handed the shirt to Chris Hackett. A local boy and sprint champion Hackett was mostly used as an impact substitute as he constantly threatened to breakthrough, but never quite achieved the necessary consistency. Without doubt there were moments; linking up with Dean Whitehead, Sam Ricketts or Jamie Brooks, players he’d grown up with were moments of joy in a period of Ian Atkins’ pragmatism and then the descent into madness under Graham Rix and Ramon Diaz.

Hackett survived three and a half seasons in the shirt. In 2005 after a pedestrian opening to the season under yet another new manager; Brian Talbot, the club which had acted like an attention seeking teenager threatening to take their life with an overdose of Tixylix, finally engaged in a moment of genuine self-harm. With the season apparently going nowhere, Firoz Kassam decided to cash in on his assets; Craig Davies was sold to Helas Verona, Chris Hackett to Graham Rix’s Hearts and Lee Bradbury was loaned out to prevent him earning an automatic contract extension. 

In their place Talbot signed a raw and pacey forward who’d impressed in two FA Cup games for Eastbourne Borough against Oxford. Yemi Odubade took the number seven shirt, his pace was blisteringly, but he lacked finesse and couldn’t carry the club on his own. Results collapsed and, despite the return of Jim Smith as manager, we plummeted to relegation from the Football League.  

2006 was the first season the Conference adopted squad numbers, and the shirt passed to Carl Pettefer, a ferret-like ball winner. Jim Smith packed his squad with ageing former Premier League players but Pettefer had a solid lower league pedigree and knew his role. So, while others came and went in terms of form and impact, Pettefer proved one of the most consistent, if unspectacular performers. The balance nearly worked with the club falling to a Conference play-off defeat to Exeter. The team never recovered from the blow of the penalty shoot-out defeat, Pettefer kept the shirt for the following season of struggle before moving on. 

Odubade reclaimed the shirt for a season under Darren Patterson, before Chris Wilder arrived to change everything. He gave the shirt to Adam Chapman, an eccentric playmaker from Sheffield United. Chapman scored a notable goal against Burton, wrecking their promotion party, then flitted around the starting throughout the 2009/10 season until captain Adam Murray suffered a season ending injury. Chapman took on the mantle, scoring a vital penalty against Rushden and Diamonds which put the club back on course for the season and a play-off final at Wembley. In the week running up to the game, it was revealed Chapman had been charged with reckless driving and was facing a period in a young offenders institute. Despite this, Chapman put on a man of the match performance as Oxford swept away York to regain their place back in the Football League. 

Chapman’s conviction meant the number seven shirt was vacated for the 2010/11 season. He returned the following season but was never quite the same, Wilder stuck with him for another two years before releasing him in 2013/14, handing the shirt to Sean Rigg, a consistent but unspectacular winger who lasted a year before leaving for Port Vale.

When Wilder left for Northampton Town, Gary Waddock briefly held the managerial post before the club was revolutionised in a takeover. New manager Michael Appleton passed the shirt to Danny Rose, a neat ball player who had spent some time at the club during the Conference years. As Appleton embarked on a radical campaign of culture change, Rose was a rare source of consistency. 

But, in 2015, Appleton was ready to fully unleash the power of his revolution. Rose suddenly seemed like an unspectacular journeyman in comparison to those around him. At Christmas, surprisingly, he was sold to Oxford’s promotion rivals, Northampton who were managed by Chris Wilder. 

Oxford were firing on all fronts; the league, FA Cup and JPT Trophy. Appleton brought in George Waring on loan from Stoke who took the shirt vacated position by Rose. Waring’s impact was limited to a single goal and a cameo in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final at Wembley and he left at the end of the season as the club celebrated promotion. 

For 2016/17 the shirt was given to Dan Crowley a loanee from Arsenal. Crowley came with a reputation and Oxford fans drooled over YouTube clips of his performances. Unfortunately a lack of discipline forced Appleton to concede that he needed to apply his ‘no dickhead’ policy and player returned to his parent club. In his place he signed Spanish striker Toni Martinez on loan from West Ham. Martinez, took on the shirt and made an immediate impact sweeping home a goal in a 3-0 demolition of Newcastle United in the FA Cup before scoring a memorable equaliser against Middlesborough in the next round.

With Martinez returning to West Ham and Michael Appleton moving on, new manager Pep Clotet handed the number seven to Rob Hall. Hall had been signed a year earlier, having spent some time on loan as a teenager from Oxford during the Conference years. Hall has kept the shirt for the last four years, and despite suffering a near career ending injury, he’s battled back and remodelled himself to become one of the most reliable players in the squad under Karl Robinson. Hall can always be relied on to pitch in with the odd key goal, not least against Sunderland in the League Cup last year. 

From Ray Houghton’s Milk Cup goal to Adam Chapman’s Burton busting free-kick, and from Toni Martinez’s equaliser at Middlesbrough to Rob Hall’s howitzer against Sunderland, the number seven has seen plenty of action over the years. It’s good to know that, in the possession of Rob Hall, it’s still in safe hands.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: The Taylor swift show

Sunday 26 July 2020

KRob may be ready to sign former target Garath McClearly from Donaldson’s Dairy. The 33-year-old attacker has been released by Reading and may be the man to fill the gap left by Jamie Mackie’s retirement last week. We understand this to mean someone whose legs have gone but will spend 20 minutes complaining to the referee about a fictitious cut on his head from a phantom elbow he didn’t receive from a centre-back he was nowhere near catching.

Monday 27 July 2020

The funeral of lifelong fan John Pattison was held in Abingdon on Monday. The whole thing had an Oxford United theme with the casket wrapped in yellow and blue. The service was held in a local Ben Abbey where John grew his Andy Whings to be with the Mark Angels. Keeping with the theme, the family said their goodbyes before departing for home to get beaten 1-0 by Bristol Rovers. 

Tuesday 28 July 2020

KRob is like a Dolly Parton Vegas show, no danger of rolling out a Somali nose flute orchestra, he’s just going to play the old hits. Stephen O’Donnell, a target in January, is back on the radar following the full-back’s release by Kilmarnock. O’Donnell’s selected quotes include: “I’m pretty relaxed just now…”, “…no point in getting carried away…”, “I’ll just keep calm” and “There’s no rush”. 

GLS senses we’re about three weeks away from him standing outside KRob’s house, stripped to the waste in the dead of night with a four pack of Tennents shouting “TAKE ME BACK KARLY, I’VE CHANGED”. Any final thoughts?

“I’m still pretty relaxed…” 

That’s fine Stephen, that’s fine.

Elsewhere, The Mirror are speculating that Wunderkind Ben Woodburn could be for the chop at Liverpool. Apparently games against Accrington, Lincoln and Tranmere are no longer considered adequate preparation for a Champions League campaign against Juventus and Barcelona.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

Oxford are reportedly in a ‘battle’ with Portsmouth for the signature midfielder Ethan Robson. Robson was recently released by doe eyed cash puppy Stewart Donald’s Sunderland. You probably won’t remember Robson from the lavish Netflix documentary about how one of Britain’s biggest clubs triumphantly finished 51st in the League. Robson played eleven games for the Mackems to fire them out of the Championship into League 1 and spent last season on loan at Grimsby Town, taking them to within a point of 14th in League 2. Fans are asking whether this might be the second coming of Gary Twigg.

Thursday 30 July 2020

He’s got a deep freeze, TVs and David Bowie LPs… KRob’s been hawking sulky sixth-former, Rob Dickie saying that his price ‘gone up’. There hasn’t been a bid yet but the price is definitely higher than that and maybe as high as ‘undisclosed’. 

Meanwhile, Tiger excitedly took to Twitter to not announce a major new signing. It feels like the time GLS boasted to his friends that he was getting Action Man for Christmas, before getting a ‘Special Reservist Colin’ doll from the local market.

Elsewhere, Arsenal keeper Emiliano Martinez has been telling his remarkable story from poverty in Buenos Aires to the Arsenal first team. Martinez’s big break was ‘doing a Mike Salmon’ on loan at Oxford in 2012 when he conceded three goals in his only game on loan against Port Vale. After this, his career hurtled downwards towards Saturday’s FA Cup Final.

Friday 31 July 2020

Turns out that Tiger’s tantalizing Twitter tattle was trailering the terrific transfer target Taylor. The former Woodstock Town strike and one-time Bullet Baxter to Josh Ruffels’ Zammo Maguire, who is famously averse to vaporous non-renewable energy sources, has signed a three-year contract.

We live in strange times, Trump, Brexit, coronavirus, so it seems somehow apposite that the one-man parallel universe Danny Hylton is still a Championship player having signed a new two-year contract with  Luton Town

Elsewhere, Watford don’t think there’s nobody, like Chey Dunkley.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Emiliano Martinez became the first ex-Oxford goalkeeper to win an FA Cup Final since Milija Aleksic after Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Chelsea. Martinez said that winning the world’s most prestigious trophy was OK, but nothing compared to the thrill of playing with the one and only Tony Capaldi at Vale Park in 2012.

Elsewhere, Tyrone Marsh has signed for Stevenage while two hundred and seventy three year old Dannie Bulman has signed a new contract at Crawley. Bulman says he’s already putting dubbin on his boots and smoking 30 woodbines a day ready for the new season.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Wycombe Wanderers 2

We are a speck living on a grain of sand for the blink of an eye. A global pandemic infecting millions barely registers as an event in human history – half-a-million have died from coronavirus – a generation defining moment – one person for every 116 that died in World War 2. We are inconsequential, yet we strive for purpose. 

Our over-developed brains are so big we’re born prematurely to fit through our mother’s pelvis. They give us the capability to invent medicines and vaccines meaning our lives need purpose for longer. Some turn to god or their job or suicide, if they don’t see the point, some turn to the community that coalesces around their football club; hooking on and becoming part of its story.

Beginning, middle, end; that’s how it’s supposed to work. But really it’s messy and unending, rambling and contradictory. It disappoints often and thrills occasionally. 

This season has been the messiest; a story about stability spiralled into a sprawling adventure; West Ham, Lincoln, Manchester City, Fosu, Baptiste, Newcastle, Shrewsbury and then, nothing. Then arguments, finger pointing, resolution, re-write, re-start and conclusion. 

It’s fitting that a story so devoid of structure might end with a mangled mess in a hauntingly quiet cavern. You can turn an office into a bar or a house into a shop, but a football stadium can only be a football stadium. Empty Wembley is just empty Wembley; no greater reminder of the gaping void this season has become.

Our experiences are instead piped through the TV; Sky’s subscription model needs predictable, crowd pleasing, linear stories about heroes and villains, where the heroes win every time.

From the outset, it was clear we weren’t the story of the play-off final; the plucky no-hopers of Wycombe and their unlikely ascent to the Championship was the chosen narrative. Like a straight-to-video family movie about a high school baseball team full of fat kids and outcasts led by a failed wannabe rock star in red cowboy boots. 

The script was pedestrian, the acting formulaic, the actors played their parts devoid of chemistry; like water and oil, two styles that didn’t mix. We moved the ball comfortably, they sat and waited.

After eight minutes of shadow boxing, the first engagement; a Wycombe corner. Everyone knew the plan, a deep cross to the back post. Eastwood flapped, beaten by the prospect as much as the delivery. Stewart attacked at the back post and in it flew. 1-0.

That’s Wycombe, sickeningly efficient. Sky offered spurious football metrics including ‘width per passing sequence’ – an unfathomable measure made worse by its expression as a percentage. In every carefully selected category, we were ranked best in the division, they were the worst. The tale of the tape showed that they would fail, unless the divine hand of the footballing gods smiled on the misfits from the valley of chairs. Oh, the romance.

After the goal, the game snapped back to its original pattern, we had the ball, they held their shape; the spectacle defaulted to two tactical units trying to outfoxing each other. We passed and prodded, pulling Wycombe out of shape, it worked, for a bit; there was a moment for Sam Long, then one for Marcus Browne. 

By half-time, I was fairly comfortable that we were still in it. We were never going to win the game inside the opening 20 minutes and we were doing the right things to fashion a genuine chance or two. We just needed to find the angle. All season we’d been searching for it; James Henry threading a ball through a crowd of players, Shandon Baptiste raking a cross-field pass, Marcus Browne surging menacingly down the flank. Could anyone find the angle nobody else could see and make the breakthrough?

In the end it came from Mark Sykes, who’d been enjoying space down the flank throughout, his shanked his cross inadvertently finding a trajectory up, over and beyond their ‘keeper and into the net. For Sky, the disappointment was palpable, the gutsy no hopers were going to stay gutsy no hopers; the failed fat kids weren’t going to win the trophy and kiss the girls after all.

Moments later James Henry did what he does; suddenly he found himself in an acre of space inside the box with just the keeper to beat, but rather than shooting he threaded a ball across the goal. Why didn’t he shoot? Maybe because a weighted crossfield ball to Matt Taylor had become a tried and tested way to goal; it worked at Ipswich, Walsall, Portsmouth and against Accrington, why wouldn’t it work now? Only this time, Stewart – an absolute giant throughout – toed it wide. Minutes later, Rob Dickie’s header went close; we were pressing, it was coming. 

And then the grim inevitability; a failed penalty claim in our box seemed to cause a lapse in concentration, the ball was lashed forward and looked like it had gone out of play, Marcus Browne claimed the throw, the ref waved to play on. A long ball forward dropped over Elliott Moore and into a space filled by the powerful Fred Onyedinma; Simon Eastwood paused, then decided to come, the striker’s toe touched the ball, the clash was unavoidable. It was clumsy, messy and fatal.

The penalty dispatched, we succumbed to our fate, the fight ebbed away, the endless months of battle finally broke our spirit. Wycombe had won, Sky had won, the joy we forced ourselves to believe was there, had gone. 

And at that, we evaporated from the scene, our purpose was spent. The slick footballing aristocrats beaten by the plucky misfits. The narrative swept through like a tidal wave. No moment to reflect on Rob Dickie’s last game? Cameron Brannagan? Matty Taylor? Marcus Browne? No chance to say goodbye. No opportunity to applaud Karl Robinson’s dedication, his endless enthusiasm, his boundless energy to reach deep into the soul of the club, extract its essence and channel it through his team. In the year we lost John Shuker, Womble and Jim Smith, the most fitting tribute to them all had fallen just short. 

TV were keen to remind us that Wycombe only had nine players at the start of the season; even Gareth Ainsworth tried to explain that while true, the intervention of a new owner in June had given him the funds to rebuild. These were not the outcasts and fat kids after all, they couldn’t be, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, it does them a disservice. The interviewer pleaded with Ainsworth to succumb to his idea that Wycombe were the new ‘Crazy Gang’. Ainsworth resisted, perhaps Wimbledon’s abusive bullying culture in the 1980s is not a look he’s going for. 

The game trended briefly on Twitter; “Wycombe promoted to the Championship for the first time” ran the headline alongside the keywords “Wycombe” and “Akinfenwa”. The cartoonish Wycombe substitute came on to amble around ineffectively for half-an-hour before shoehorning himself into the centre of the celebrations. The man who ripped the ball from the hands of his teammate in the 2016 play-off final for Wimbledon to score a decisive last minute penalty was, again, keen to make his team’s success all about him. What a character.

Some call Wycombe ‘anti-football’, which implies its cheating to play the way they do, in reality it’s like drinking a kale and blueberry smoothie; you have to admire the efficiency even if you can’t stand the taste. Their achievements are to be applauded, but a a fairy tale it’s not. The resolution of the season has left a wasteland of acrimony from Peterborough to Tranmere, and broader financial ruin for many other clubs. Wycombe will be giddy on their success, but are ill-equipped for the Championship. One of their players said they would enjoy every moment of it; but the novelty of losing 20-30 games a season will wear thin eventually. If they’re lucky, they’ll do a Burton and bounce back to a less elevated normality, but they could do a Yeovil and collapse completely.

And deep down, there is some solace in a deeper relief that we didn’t make it, at least not this way, I wasn’t convinced we were ready to be promoted anyway; a year in the Championship would have been exciting on one level, demoralising on another. I was stuck square between those stools.

I would have taken it; it’s disingenuous to say otherwise, but there will always be an asterisk against any team’s achievements this year. It’s a relief that it’s ended. Those fragments of memories are now just that; there is no denouement, just a series of messy strands, unfinished tales, frustrating near misses and a vaguely tragic end. But the real stories don’t have happy endings and convenient conclusions. They bind you more closely together and urge you to try it again, it doesn’t feel like it now, but it maybe the better way.