Match wrap: Blackpool 2 Oxford United 1

Predictably enough, the reaction to our first defeat of the season on Radio Oxford was apoplectic. According to some, the loss scraped away the veneer of a good start, exposing the inadequacies at the club from Board level down.

There isn’t a lot to support that, of course. We were playing the team currently top of the table (albeit after just two games), away from home, we dominated and lost, in part, to a soft penalty.

In a sense, the defeat serves us well. It gets it out the way; had we come away from a sequence of Sunderland, Peterborough (twice) and Blackpool unbeaten we’d have been delighted; which might have caused a problem.

Alternatively, had we come out of it with perhaps a point or none – which would have been far from unrealistic – then the pressure would be bordering on intolerable, and it’s still only the middle of August.

The prospect of us going up automatically remains remote, in the Absolute State of Oxford United survey, it was clear that the expectation was a finish anywhere from 8th-10th, higher than that would be considered over-performance, but it will also be a play-off place.

Maybe we have got a team capable of achieving more than was expected, but blasting out from the front and expecting to maintain that kind of form throughout the year is ambitious to say the least.

Three games in and we’re not panicking about where our first points are coming from, nor are we anxious about what our first defeat will do to us. We’re up and running, with a solid base to work from.

The true picture is unlikely to reveal itself before the clocks go back. In the interim, this period is about completing any transfer business, and setting our stall out and finding a rhythm. Getting a win and a defeat out of the way are both pretty healthy in my view. The nature of the defeat is like the one against Blackpool, far better than a tanking – as we did against Barnsley last year, or a defeat which should have been eminently winnable – as in 2017 against Cheltenham. In fact, this is the latest first defeat we’ve had since promotion in 2016 (defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup) and the latest in the League since 2013.

That said, we now enter a sequence of games against decent teams we should probably expect to compete with – Burton, Bristol Rovers, Coventry and Fleetwood all represent benchmarks for us in this division. In fact, in the survey, fans predicted they would occupy the four positions between 11th-15th. A positive set of results and maybe we should be recalibrating our expectations upwards a little; poor results and there may be grounds to worry.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 0

It should go without saying that you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from games in August. But, without the fatigue and injuries that will come later in the season, and a lack of context and pressure, it is possible to get a feel for the general health of the squad.

Tuesday’s League Cup win over Peterborough was my first game of the season, having missed Saturday’s game. Last year, my first game was our 2-3 defeat to Accrington where it was obvious we were trying to play a high energy game, which was exciting but ultimately chaotic. The season before was our 3-4 defeat to Cheltenham in the League Cup where it felt like the players were doing a physics A-Level exam having only been taught half the syllabus.

Tuesday’s game was similar to last year in that we’re clearly trying to play at a very high tempo. There were moments in the first half that were bewildering in their pace and accuracy. Peterborough’s physicality was driven less out of malice and more out of the fact they couldn’t lay a glove on us. The lunging tackles, which injured Malachi Napa and should have resulted in a red card for Frankie Kent for his challenge on Mark Sykes, were the result of not being able to keep up.

But, unlike last year, everyone seems in tune with the philosophy. Cameron Brannagan and Rob Dickie are maturing into leaders on the pitch, Jamie Hanson’s work-rate was excellent and his temperament more measured. Ben Woodburn and Elliot Moore need a bit more time, but they didn’t look out of place. Given how tough our opening fixtures have been on paper, this could have been a must-win game. In fact, our start has been good, so we could relax a little and make changes. That didn’t seem to effect the cohesiveness of the team as a unit, which suggests everyone is buying into the style Karl Robinson wants to play. Although Peterborough had better quality chances, as a unit we looked strong, given that the changes could have been disruptive, it suggests good strength in depth.

What’s still missing is the end product; people mocked Peterborough striker Ivan Toney, but we’d kill for his strength and mobility. Perhaps Dan Ageyi will be that missing piece of the puzzle, but it sounds like we’re still looking for another striker (the still vacant number nine shirt suggests that’s the case). Despite that, with three games without conceding a goal in open play, frankly we couldn’t have wished for a better start to the season.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 0

The club posted a short video on Twitter immediately after the Sunderland game of the players walking towards the away end applauding the Oxford fans. In front of them were banks of red seats vacated by the home support.

It struck me how well they’d coped in such surroundings. Or had they? Chris Cadden and Alex Gorrin regularly played at Ibrox and Celtic Park, Tariqe Fosu played at The Valley; a Premier League quality stadium. I’m sure there’s an accumulative pressure from playing your home games in large stadiums; but as a one-off, with perfect conditions and no expectations, is it really that difficult to perform?

Which is not to say that the result wasn’t a good one, it was. But my mind turned to our own home and Peterborough. How will our new signings cope with the curiosity of the Kassam Stadium? Its weird open end and ability to zap atmosphere is one thing, but the fact we’re limited as to what time we can get into our own stadium and that the wind can blow in four different directions at the same time is something unique to us.

Saturday’s game, then, was a good test in more ways than one. Howling wind, torrential rain, pretty much all the nonsense the Kassam can conjure up was thrown at them. And, of course, they coped admirably.

Tiger stated that his ambition this season is promotion; more a vision than an expectation, I suspect. His philosophy seems to be to aim ambitiously high as a way of achieving more modest goals. That’s fair enough, although when the vision isn’t realised, he’s open to criticism.

Four points from two tough opening fixtures is really encouraging when simply taking a point from the two games would probably have been acceptable. There’s also a greater sense of calm around the place; the owners are more open, the signings have finally been made and appear to be performing. But, it’s easy to think things are fixed and that promotion is achievable after all.

Every season, with little else to write about, the national press will pick up on a team in the lower leagues with good early form and try to make a story out of it. They never follow up if (and often when) it goes wrong and the club returns to its natural level. I hope that we don’t see an interview with Karl Robinson about how the club has transformed and is driving for promotion, because we need to remember that promotion would be a surprise.

To keep everyone’s feet on the ground; we shouldn’t look at the four points we’ve accumulated, where we might have expected only a couple, as part of a promotion push. We need to takes things steadily; enough points to avoid relegation, then to improve on last year, then, well, maybe we can look further ahead.

Match wrap: Sunderland 1 Oxford United 1

I make no secret of not particularly liking the start of the season. I used to love it, I’d really feel the gap between the end of one season and the beginning of another. I loved the new kits and players and, above all, the renewed sense of hope and anticipation. Now, football is everywhere, all the time, so a new season is not really anything new. It’s just, well, the continuation of football.

What I’ve learned to enjoy more is the rolling narrative as the year progresses, the sense of emerging drama, the battle through the winter and the mad dash, exhausted and battered, to some kind of conclusion in May. In that sense, I prefer my football more Scandi-drama than The Fast and the Furious.

I was a bit split about what would make a good result on Saturday. We’ve had a good final week of the summer and there are signs of optimism. A win, while capping it off nicely, might also have tipped expectations too far. Beating anyone on the opening game of the season is positive, beating Sunderland away could have created a sense that we were fixed, when we are anything but. Anyone who remembers the 4-1 win over Portsmouth, or going back 20 years, a 2-1 win at Stoke where Steve Anthrobus scored the winner on his debut will know these results are meaningless.

Even when we took the lead, you could sense the immediate optimism; Rob Dickie had become an able replacement for Curtis Nelson, Ben Woodburn was a cut above in quality. Yes, perhaps, but judge them in 15-20 games, not on the basis of the opening twenty-five minutes when minds and bodies are sharp and the weather is good. The mark of a good team is not whether you can perform, but for how long you can sustain it.

Equally, a defeat could have popped our fragile ego, if it had been mid-season, we might have shrugged it off, but seeing ourselves sitting dead last in the table, as we did last year, could have sent us into a deep depression. A defeat also would have put greater pressure on the games coming up. Last year’s opening fixtures were tricky, this year is no different.

Of course, in the moment, during the ninety minutes I desperately wanted us to win, but in the grander scheme a draw is almost a better result. We’ve taken a point in one of the most difficult fixtures of the season, we only conceded because of a penalty and one of our new signings got the goal.

In a game of cricket, it’s a bit like opening an innings with a solid forward defensive rather than slogging the ball out of the ground for six. Now, we have to build.