Match wrap: Accrington Stanley 1 Oxford United 4

Perhaps it was always going to take the activation of a coach’s safety system with an anti-bacterial spray to break a sequence of defeats. It’s the 2020 version of a striker breaking a goalless streak with the ball going in off his backside. Which never happens, but probably will before the year’s out.

It was good to see the reconnection of the supply line between James Henry and Matty Taylor after a few games where it’s been faulty. It’s such a vital artery of our attack, so much so that for me it’s the only explanation for James Henry’s infamous decision not to shoot at Wembley, Taylor was lurking at the back post it was such a reliable option, he looked for it.

Players, like Marcus Browne and form, like Cameron Brannagan’s, come and go meaning the Henry/Taylor supply line is the Panama Canal of the Oxford attack. Has there been a better combination than Johnny Byrne and Paul Moody? And before that, Billy Hamilton and John Aldridge? We’ve had many excellent forwards, but reliable combinations are exceedingly rare. It’s reasonable to say that while that combination remains intact, so do our promotion chances.

Having said I wasn’t planning on watching the game, inevitably, perhaps, I found another £10 and two hours to weld myself to the settee. It’s a dirty affliction. Again, to create the fig leaf of an away experience I kept the local commentary rather than choosing Radio Oxford. Their summary was that while we were worthy winners, there were some curious decisions that influenced the outcome.

Not least the penalty decision. They felt it was nailed on, I’m conflicted by it. It’s hard to imagine that Simon Eastwood’s intention was to punch the player in the face, seven feet in the air, eighteen yards from goal, in the full view of the referee in order to prevent an obvious goalscoring opportunity. An accident, for sure, but a foul? The only logical explanation is that Eastwood was punished for not giving due regard to another player’s safety, but it’s hard to imagine what he should have done instead. The punishment seemed disproportionate to what seemed quite obviously an accident.

The commentary team at BBC Lancashire were sure that things would have been different had there been a crowd. They talked about ‘1500 Stanley fans roaring them on’. Fifteen-hundred? Roaring? Whatever, you do wander how the referee would have acted if he’d had the benefit of the home fans’ advice. Eastwood didn’t even get a booking and then minutes later Dion Charles was sent off for a push. Would that have happened with fans? They doubted it, me too.

Of course, this had been earmarked as a test event. I’m perplexed by the suspending of the programme to return fans to games. As I see it, there are four levels of controlling coronavirus; a vaccine solves the problem, effective treatments reduces it, modifying behaviours and an effective testing manages it and a lockdown hides from it.

A full lockdown is only viable when the virus is out of control because of the trade off with the economy and the length of time people will comply. It buys some time to get testing in place and to learn more about effective modifications. You can debate whether the government has used that time wisely. Despite an apparent resurgence in cases, the announcements this week amounted to a minor tweaking of the modification rules. It’s questionable as to whether we ever locked down in the first place when comparing our restraints to others both in speed and severity, and that seems to be reflected in the resulting fatalities, which were among the highest in Europe. 

I get that another full lockdown has severe consequences, and so we’re pretty much where we’ve been for the best part of four months – behaviour modification. Except in football.

This is not a Tim Martin babble about how nobody ever caught coronavirus in a Weatherspoons. There’s no way we should simply pretend the virus doesn’t exist. By general medical consensus, the passing of the virus between people is reduced significantly outdoors, so a football ground is theoretically far safer than plenty of other businesses which are currently open, not least pubs and cinemas.

They are also super-controlled environments – far more than any shop. One of the by-products of hooliganism in the 1980s and disasters like the Bradford fire, Hysel and Hillsborough is that stadiums are designed and managed to control people. All-seater areas ensure people are fixed in position, tickets are issued, databases maintained, entrances are well stewarded.

Developing a vaccine involves starting small and measuring the impact, if that’s successful then you move on to a larger and more varied sample, until such time that you can confidently predict what would happen if you made it available to all. 

Football matches seem a perfect environment to do the same thing. You limit admission to people with tickets, maybe even only to those who are in a low-risk category and who are prepared to stick to some clear rules – such as arriving at a certain time, not moving from their allocated seat and be contacted afterwards. If that’s successful, try it again with more people, until we find the highest safe number of people that can watch a game without it significantly impacting the spread of the virus. The beauty of football is that there are plenty of games and lots of people willing to take part.

One argument for the pubs being kept open is the political benefit. it’s a bit like fishing rights in Brexit talks – from an economic perspective it’s irrelevant, but for some reason pro-Brexit campaigners obsess with the nationality of the fish they eat. But, wouldn’t crowds at football have a similar impact? Just a few fans dotted around the stands would provide a degree of political capital, promoting the idea that we were winning the battle against the virus. Every empty stadium is a reminder of where we are, and of our failings, on TV every day.

Or, perhaps, it’s easy to be lulled into the idea that this is part of a masterplan, maybe it’s just the case that they’re making it up as they go along. The first I heard of the suspending of the programme was when Michael Gove was on Breakfast TV and was asked about it. It hadn’t been part of the initial announcement. Was it even on his radar? Did he simply make a snap decision there and then? Once that hole is dug, on the spur of a moment, is it possible to get out of it? 

Lockdown football is doing funny things to teams and games; Sunderland and Ipswich who have to live with the pressure of their under-performances, have started well without fans, Accrington, who benefit from being a small and contained unit – us against the world, greater than the sum of their parts – have struggled to find their feet now they’ve been reduced to simply being small. The longer the lockdown goes on, the more unpredictable this season will get, but you have to question whether it’s really necessary for it to last? 

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Sunderland 2

Adam Yates is a professional cyclist. In a golden age of professional cycling, he’s not a household name like Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish, none-the-less, he’s currently the country’s best road racer and will roll into Paris today in ninth place in the Tour de France.

It’s been a curious Tour for Yates; like most riders, his preparations were scuppered by the lockdown. As a result, he didn’t feel he had the form or fitness to challenge for the overall title and planned to spend the race looking for individual stage wins. Then, on stage five, 17km from the end, the then race leader, Julian Alaphilipe, broke an idiosyncratic rule about when riders are allowed to take food and water from the roadside. He was given a 20 second penalty which handed the lead to Yates.

It was the fulfilment of a dream, but even when he lost the yellow jersey four stages later, he’d become a marked man. His opponents couldn’t be certain that he wasn’t bluffing when he said he couldn’t win the overall race. So, even though he was never close to the title, as he’d said, his attempts at winning a stage were persistently neutralised, just in case.

We could be suffering a similar fate, for the last eighteen months we’ve been quietly picking up momentum, then a freakish quirk – making the play-offs via a points per game calculation –  propelled us into the spotlight. Suddenly our threat, or maybe just our perceived threat, is in plain sight of everyone.

It’s not just the qualities of Matty Taylor, James Henry and Cameron Brannagan. Even emerging talents can’t be given an inch; what if Joel Cooper is another Gavin Whyte? What if Rob Atkinson is another Rob Dickie? We are now a team to be studied and neutralised.

Sunderland, on the other hand, have had a significant chunk of their expectation, and the inertia that comes with it, removed in the shape of their over-expectant fanbase. Jerome Sale and Nick Harris frequently referenced the 1800 Sunderland fans who would have roared, and perhaps barracked, their team in normal times. With just a handful peaking over the fence end, the players could get on with their work largely uninterrupted. By the time fans are allowed back in, they might have so much positive momentum from that, they’ll be difficult to stop.

We’ve hit a reality buffer that has stifled our momentum. We’re perceived as a threat; Lincoln stifled us, Sunderland respected us and didn’t let complacency slip in. Now we need to find a new wave, one that propels us forward – great seasons often have them; Mark Creighton’s winner against York 2009 or our 4-0 win over Brentford in 2015. 

This is a massive challenge as there’s another cold reality brooding in the background. Karl Robinson admitted he’s bored of playing in empty stadiums, Jerome Sale said he was sick of it. These are canaries in the mine; an early indicator of the wider mood. 

The Zoom parties and cardboard cutouts are gone, we’re left with queuing and masks and government incompetence and dumb conspiracy theories. The novelty of seeing every game on iFollow is becoming part of that chore with every passing game, something made no easier by defeats. 

In normal times, even in defeat, there are always little joys in simply going to a game. It’s not dedication or commitment to go to football, it’s fun, even when it’s terrible. Sometimes it’s the self-flagellation of terribleness which makes it fun, as anyone who has had the pleasure of going to the toilet at Portsmouth will testify.

Normally I’d buy our new home shirt before the first home game of the season; a moment of child-like joy. I now realise that it’s a guilt-free treat, it’s just what I do; I don’t worry about whether I can afford it or deserve it. It’s the process of looking forward to going into the shop, picking it off the rack, taking it to the counter, even having it handed to me in a branded carrier bag. I did it with my dad in the club shop at the Manor, now I do it on my own with my own money, but the thread to the past is still there. Buying online maybe necessary, but it seems so clinical. 

Then amongst all these little moments, sometimes there’s a spark – Jamie Mackie’s last minute piledriver against Bradford or a barking mad 3-3 draw against Coventry and everything gets propelled to another level. But where is this momentum coming from now when the rewards for just keeping things ticking are diminishing?

The club have said that they expect to allow a thousand fans into the Crewe game as a test event. But, with cases rising, you can’t help think that the numbers will be controlled for some time yet. Even if stadiums can be kept open, a return to normal won’t start until cases fall again, and with nobody wanting a third wave, it’s hard to see anything along those lines until the spring.

Maybe just having some fans will help with the re-boot that this season needs, a rekindling of some kind of hope. Unless you’re winning regularly and genuinely pushing for promotion, it could be a long season slogging away in mid-table or below, and I think it’ll be much easier and quicker to become mired in that this year.

Results, it seems, is the only way of maintaining the interest and stimulating momentum. It’s still very early, but football doesn’t have the grip it usually has and live streaming will rapidly lose its novelty when results are below par. At the moment, I don’t think I’ll watch the Accrington game, or at least, I won’t put aside other things to do so. When things do return to normal, you suspect that the grip will be vice-like and people will flood back, but for now all we have is results.

The answer, of course is frustratingly simple, and the same answer to every difficult sequence. It is tempting to look back at what’s going wrong, or forward to where we want to get to, but promotion is always a byproduct of teams that continually focus on winning the next game, and that, I guess, is the answer.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Watford 1 (0-3 on penalties)

Steve Kinniburgh talks with the attack and authority, he’s not quite the pantomime villain of a Graham Souness or Roy Keane, but he carries the air of a man who has earned his right to an opinion. 

I much prefer Kinniburgh to Peter Rhodes-Brown whose radio analysis rarely gravitates beyond ‘the lads knocking the ball around well’ and ‘wanting to grab an early goal’. But, if you’d challenged me to describe Kinniburgh’s Oxford career I would have said it amounted to a handful of games on loan from Rangers alongside another player (who, it turns out, was Ross Perry). The reality is that he started as many games as Alfie Potter did in our 2009/10 promotion season, as well as another ten in our first season back in the Football League.

I have much clearer memories of the details of our 2015/16 season, but was still surprised to see that Jordan Bowery scored seven goals in nine starts, ahead of his more storied colleagues Chris Maguire, Alex MacDonald and John Lundstram. Going back a bit further, not many people talk about Mark Jones’ 28 game contribution to the glory years of 1983-86.

If successful sides are built on a solid defence then fringe players are the grout that holds them together. England’s World Cup winners are chiselled into the national consciousness and there are stories of people with tattoos of famous cup winning teams, but the dream of a fixed, first-choice eleven that carries you through a whole season is a myth.  History might condense promotion squads into a ‘classic starting XI’ but it’s a trick of the light that your best seasons had the same players trotting out every week. 

For example, if, like me, your classic promotion team from 2010 is Clarke, Tonkin, Wright, Creighton, Batt, Bulman, Clist, Chapman, Midson, Constable, Green, then you might be surprised to hear that the only time that group ever played together was against York at Wembley. This was due, in no small measure, to Rhys Day’s 15 games and Kevin Sandwith who contributed 16, only three fewer than Anthony Tonkin. 

If this season is to be a success, then it’s these fringe player contributions will be critical. The Watford game saw eight changes from the defeat to Lincoln so provided an opportunity to test the capability of our extended squad. 

It’s too early to tell which of those players are easing their way into a more regular spot and who is settling into a season at the margins, but the signs were encouraging. I’m not sure if Derick Osei Yaw is a raw impact player or a genius, both he and Dan Agyei looked exciting and mobile up front. Rob Hall, you suspect, is settling into his role as a dependable back-up. In goal, Jack Stevens’ performance should ensure that the sharp intake of breath resulting from Simon Eastwood taking a knock is a little less sharp in the future.

I normally enjoy this stage of the League Cup – the weather is nice, the pressure is off, the crowd is good natured and there are a few nuggets of interest that comes from playing teams from a different division. But, at the same time it’s nearly impossible to evaluate your opponents – we could have been playing ex-Premier League Watford, or run-of-the-mill Championship Watford or a Watford side on the precipice of falling through the divisions, or the backup Watford of all these incarnations. In terms of quality, any one of their players could be playing anywhere from the Premier League to the Conference in a year’s time. So, we still don’t really know whether taking them to penalties represents a real triumph or a disappointing under-performance. On balance, I think it was a good solid test of the extended squad which is precisely what we were looking for.

They allowed us the space to attack them in a way that Lincoln didn’t – as a result we were able to show there’s strength and ability throughout the squad. The biggest concern remains in defence, John Mousinho’s injury adding to Josh Ruffels’ highlighting that in that department we are vulnerable.

In a sense Mousinho’s injury could have a dose of fortune; for all the goodwill and good signings, it appears to have forced Karl Robinson to think about his defensive cover for the season. Now he has to decide if he thinks Mousinho can play 30 games this season, or the same for Rob Atkinson. As harsh as Atkinson’s red card may have been, the fact it was rescinded was such a rarity, we should look on the fact we currently have two functioning centre-backs for Sunderland, Accrington and Crewe as a matter of freakish good fortune.

The result in the end was by-the-by, even if we had managed to score any of our penalties, after Hall, McGuane and Forde, it was genuinely difficult to think where the fourth and fifth spot kicks would come from. From the moment the final whistle went, it was clear our chances were ebbing away.

All in all a positive evening, although there is an uncomfortable truth that we haven’t won in normal time for six games, a sequence we could really do with breaking before it begins to lodge in peoples’ heads. The enigma that is Sunderland are next, and it’s hard to say if they’ll present a big problem or a potential three points. Given the recent results between the clubs, it would seem their strengths and weaknesses complement ours and a draw would seem the most likely outcome. After that, Accrington and Crewe look like a good opportunity to finally break the sequence. 

Despite the sequence, while there’s no real prospect of the season becoming a struggle, the margins in a promotion charge are narrow. Even at this ludicrously early stage, we don’t want to fall too far behind because getting back on terms will take time and effort. Sticking to the process will be key, maintaining the culture that seems to exist throughout the squad. Karl Robinson has plenty in the bank and his players believe in the system, so you would think it’s going to come good sooner rather than later.

Match wrap: Lincoln City 2 Oxford United 0

The office at work re-opened at the beginning of August; it only has 25% of its original capacity and you have to sign a piece of paper where, theoretically at least, you could be disciplined for making someone else a cup of coffee. There’s no requirement for anyone to go in, but it’s available should anyone want to use it. After six months working at home and having changed how we work to fit the new world, while I feel I have a moral responsibility to go in, I can’t find any specific reason why.

The reverse is true when it comes to watching these lockdown games on iFollow. It’s convenient and cheap but the problem is that I can’t find a reason not to watch them. I probably wouldn’t have gone to Lincoln in normal times – I’ve been to Sincil Bank before and I can think of no particular reason to go again. In fact, I quite like the inaccessibility of some fixtures, I like the effort required to attend them, but also the reason not to. 

When I started watching football, there wasn’t even regular match commentary on the radio, I remember the Saturday afternoon Radio Oxford show having a ‘prayer mat’ that they’d metaphorically get out if we needed a goal. There would be periodic updates, a bit like we do now from Witney Town or Berinsfield. The football happened while you did other things.

iFollow demands your attention in the way radio doesn’t, you’re stuck to your sofa, shutting out as many distractions as you can so you can follow the game. But the convenience, price and the lack of an alternative – that is, actually going to a game – makes it compelling, though not in a good way.

One benefit is that you get the commentary from the local BBC radio, which at least gives a virtual away day a sense of some of its mystery. Amidst debates over the word ‘athletical’, goal updates from Gainsborough Trinity and a lengthy discussion about how Lincoln’s play-off failures hadn’t damaged their ability to climb the divisions (until it was pointed out that there had been 18 years between their play-off failures and their next promotion), Radio Lincolnshire were reassuringly bias and ill informed throughout. 

Above all, though, they gave off a sense that Lincoln’s principal role was to contain us because we were such a dangerous opponent. It was similar to how we might treat the visit of Portsmouth, Ipswich or Sunderland. Our new found status, following our play-off defeat, may have delivered us a reputation we need to play up to.

The problem is that we can’t bring the whole package; it is very likely that we’d have sold out the away end at Lincoln, we’d have brought the noise and the occasion. The pent up momentum that has built up, even over the last week, would have flowed through the game, toppling anyone not braced for it. Fans don’t win games, but they can change the dynamic.

Stylistically they weren’t a team we’d recognise as being Michael Appleton’s. Their shape and discipline meant we couldn’t play round them, through them or over them. Added to that was an efficiency in attack that Appleton’s Oxford didn’t really have; when they did get a chance it was decisively executed. Dare I say it, it reminded me less of our 2016 promotion team and more of Wycombe Wanderers.

In a sense this has echoes of the 2014 World Cup, where Spain came to the tournament as World and European champions full of the tika taka only to find the Germans had invented a new, direct way of playing which simply bypassed all the passing. Surely Gareth Ainsworth hasn’t stumbled across a revolutionary way of playing at this level?

If so, League 1 is going to be a massive challenge for us – we have plenty of firepower and creativity, we moved the ball well but as was rightly pointed out, there was little penetration until we were 2-0 down. Teams built on a solid shape with a super efficient, well-drilled, attack against our defence could present some difficulties. 

As much as Rob Atkinson has impressed during pre-season, it is still asking a lot for him to perform 46 games at this level, and John Mousinho surely doesn’t have a lot of games in his legs. It feels like there’s a big gap between Atkinson’s physical ability and Mousinho’s experience and dependability. Let’s not forget that Elliot Moore is still only 23 himself; it feels like we have emerging talent and dependable but fading ability, but nobody in that mid-career sweet spot that we can definitely rely on all season.

Add to this is Simon Eastwood, whose shot stopping appears to have returned to form, but decision making remains decidedly shaky. Though perhaps his occasional surges out of his box are a sign that he lacks a bit of confidence with those in front of him. You don’t get a sense that we have a defence which will ship a ton of goals, but when an attack is efficient and direct, these minor lapses will get punished.

For all the excitement of bringing in Winnall and Taylor, our defence remains a blind spot. Losing Rob Dickie and John Mousinho’s age are no surprises, even before that Curtis Nelson’s departure was always known. In the whole time Karl Robinson has been at the club, he’s yet to sign a centre-back with games under his belt. I think Atkinson and Elliot will come good, but they’ll do it in the glare of real games with lapses along the way. In a promotion hunt, it won’t take too many lapses to turn success into mid-table.

Of course, it’s only the first game and it doesn’t mean much. It puts pressure on the upcoming games to find some form and get points on the table, but it’s far from proof that we’re a poor team. Robinson has had a good transfer window, but if there is money in the budget, then a mid-career central defender wouldn’t be the worst investment. But, then again, perhaps that’s the problem with games on iFollow; you watch them rather than feel them, analyse them rather than enjoy them, consume rather than participate. Maybe I need to find an excuse not to watch them as much.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 AFC Wimbledon 1 (4-3 on penalties)

We’re back, or are we?

I watched the brilliant Netflix documentary series, Hip Hop Evolution, a few weeks ago and specifically the story of the ‘cyphers’ which sprung up around Washington Park in New York in the late 1990s. Cyphers were sessions where kids would congregate and try to outdo each other with their rhymes and wordplay in freestyle rap battles. 

Cyphers were an organic reaction to the money-motivated populism of Puff Daddy, which in turn was a reaction to the grim gun violence which led to the killing of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. 

Where Puff Daddy sampled great chunks of familiar million-selling songs and ran reductive raps over the top with the sole aim of selling bucket loads of records, the cyphers re-connected kids with the origins of hip hop. Rather than instant gratification from pop samples which played to a worldwide audience, DJs went back to finding obscure records to sample to create new sounds and beats while MCs outdid each other with the complexity of their rhymes and rhythm. What resulted was a generation of skilled lyricists like Talib Kweli, Common and Eminem.

One commentator explained, it was a reconnection of the output with its context. With the likes of Puff Daddy, hip hop had become solely about money, playing to the lowest common denominator, this new wave was about its community, building their reputation by being more skilful and clever than the others.

The link between football and its context is currently being tested, watching via an internet stream remains a mostly soulless experience. It’s necessary, and in some ways helpful, to be reminded that we remain in the midst of a crisis, and that things are not normal. It’s therefore right that Karl Robinson treated the Wimbledon game as an extension of our pre-season friendly programme. Entertaining the crowd wasn’t necessarily a priority. Even when league games start next week, it will still feel like we’re treading water until we can reconnect the games with their context and have fans back in the ground.

The re-structured season may play to our advantage. There is a built-in stability this season; only Marcus McGuane, Rob Atkinson and Derick Osei Yaw (briefly) made their debuts compared to five players last season and six the year before. Both those seasons started unevenly with just two wins out of our first eight last year, one less than the year before. 

But aside from the settled squad, our difficulties at the start of a season is down to the style we play, lots of passing and possession accompanied with blistering attacks in numbers. The movement needs to be second nature if it’s to be effective and, while that’s bedding in, we can look like a group of busy fools getting picked off by more conservative opposition. Take, for example, last season’s 4-2 defeat to Burton, there were times when we looked brilliant, but then we were unpicked by a team whose idea of cutting loose is to undo the top button of a Marks and Spencer shirt. In both previous seasons it took some time to find our flow. 

The stability we’ve managed to achieve over the summer means that most of the DNA remains intact. Osei Yaw aside, whose appearance was too brief to judge, Atkinson looked comfortable in place of Rob Dickie, while McGuane was industrious throughout. There was one brilliant pass which nearly put Matty Taylor through, but otherwise you could see he was still trying to figure out where the angles were with an extra touch which often lost him the opportunity. You get the sense, given time, he’ll be more confident of where his team mates are making his play more incisive. The lack of crowds – with their ability to erode as well as build confidence – may be an advantage.

It was also good to see Cameron Brannagan back in form. While few were prepared to admit it, least of all Brannagan himself, he didn’t quite seem the player he was post-injury last year, which may be why he’s still at the club, but it looks like we’ll benefit as a result. Also, Simon Eastwood continues to come back into form after a rusty play-off campaign. 

So the Wimbledon game, along with the EFL Trophy game against Chelsea Under 21s on Tuesday acts as an extended opportunity to bed new players in without the pressure of the fans complaining at a missed pass or opportunity. In addition, there isn’t the carrot of a big Premier League payday to play for which can tempt managers into looking for short term results over long term benefit. Whatever the second round brings, its advantage is in the minutes the players have on the pitch together, over the glories of the result. The lack of urgency in the early stages of the season should allow new players to settle and existing players to find their feet.

Pretty much every year I say that the season starts with all idealism and no facts and ends with all facts and no idealism. No single game defines the outcome of a season, least of all the first, so drawing significant conclusions to the draw with Wimbledon; our frailties at set pieces or the lack of clear chances up front is a fool’s game. While we seek answers to open questions, football is all a process of evolution. It’s why we, as fans, live with it constantly questioning and concluding only to find that the game has changed and the context moved on. 

Last year we’d won only three games of our opening ten, something that’s forgotten given what came later. That period could have been the difference between the play-offs and promotion. The year before it was just four wins. The front loading of League Cup and Trophy games this season affords us more opportunity to try, and fail, before the season gets into gear and, hopefully, the context; the reason for doing this in the first place, begins to return.