Match wrap: Blackpool 3 Oxford United 3

I was in the sixth form in the summer of 1990; A Levels were coming to an end, a new world of freedom and opportunity was opening up. I was working in a video rental shop and earning more money than I could ever have imagined – £4 an hour tax free. I could afford to go to the pub and still buy a pizza on the way home. I once bought four albums on cassette in a single shopping trip.

I’d watched the group games of Italia 90 at home with my mum and dad, which had been the normal way of watching football on TV for as long as I could remember. With Oxford United alumni, Mark Wright, heading home the winner against Egypt in the final group game, England limped through to the second round to face Belgium on the same night as the first post-A Level party of the season. 

The party was at Ian’s house; the game wasn’t planned as a centrepiece, but we naturally congregated around the TV. I thought it would be funny to create a ticker tape welcome to the England team as they entered the field. As the tense tussle progressed deep into extra-time, the drink flowed everywhere. With penalties looming, David Platt span to volley home Paul Gasgoigne’s floated back-post free-kick for the winner and the whole place went bananas. 

Rob, the school’s head boy, jumped up, a slosh of lager coming out of his can. The ticker tape and beer mix had turned the wooden floor into an ice rink and with no traction underfoot, he slipped, hitting his head on the corner of the TV, he sprang to his feet with a big smile on his face. The whistle went and the party started in earnest; we danced late into the night to the acid house tunes that had replaced Leonard Cohen and The Cure on the sixth form ghettoblaster.  The following morning the ticker tape had dried like concrete to the floor, but we were long gone by the time the host was trying to chip it off the floor before his mum got home.

Suddenly, we were in a perfect storm of national fervour, newly found freedom and a favourable World Cup draw. Parties that coincided with England games had added kudos. With each game more girls seemed interested in our knowledge of Tony Dorigo and Steve Hodge; there were pretty ones, cool worldly ones and some that didn’t even play the violin.

The semi-final against West Germany was at James’ house; he was cool, arty, laid back, unassuming and good looking; everyone liked him and everyone was invited. His parents were bohemian artists and had no issue with the entire school descending on the house, they probably weren’t aware of the game. The place shook violently with expectation.

Beyond the historical record, I don’t know what happened in between, my next clear memory was of four of us alone in an empty village pub down the road sitting ashen faced as the colour of the world drained away. England were out. What happened to the party? Did everyone just leave when Chris Waddle skied his penalty? I just don’t know, it was like a light had been switched off.

We met up again for the 3rd place play-off at Pete’s house, ornaments had been removed from the front room in anticipation of a raucous night, but the magic had gone. We watched solemnly, hoping to recreate something of the previous nights. One girl came, Ian’s new girlfriend, a kind of man-of-the-match trophy for the performances of the eleven days since the Belgium win. She sat bored as he pawed away at her, they’d split up within a week.

If Tuesday’s loss to Blackpool was the dispiriting defeat to West Germany, then last night’s second leg was the third place play-off against Italy. An administrative necessity; a game that never was. Some fantasised about a record breaking comeback and Matty Taylor’s opening goal momentarily suggested it could happen, but it had been clear since Tuesday who was the more deserving team.

It’s hard to know whether we played better or if Blackpool were a bit more lax with their three goal cushion. We battled well and showed admirable spirit to stay in the game and salvage a draw. The two goals immediately after Taylor’s had me fearing the worst, there was a long way to go in front of a partisan crowd and the quality of the goals screamed for us to surrender, but we didn’t and that’s to be applauded.

We stood fast and at least put on a show, but in many ways we ended the season pretty much where we started. We end as second top goalscorers in the league, but with the eighth best defence, we’ve won once against the top nine. Perhaps as significant is the fact we’ve drawn fewer games than anyone in the top half of the table. 

We do the exciting bits really well, perhaps as well as any Oxford team since the eighties; we score goals and win games, but when we need to shut up shop and take a point, that’s where we’re lacking. It was evident at Lincoln on the opening day and it was evident last night. The better teams – and Blackpool is one – don’t give away defeats cheaply or chase wins unnecessarily. Our ability to concede within minutes of scoring last night showed the lack of composure, even our more senior professionals – James Henry and Matty Taylor – had moments where they seemed to lose control, which could have been red cards. 

I remember the feeling of the 1990 semi-final penalty shoot out, and the re-run at Euro 96. In those two tournaments Germany scored ten consecutive penalties and never looked like they’d miss. They were composed and calm, never losing sight of the ultimate objective; nobody tried to break the net, let alone clear the stand Waddle-like.

This lack of leadership and the composure that comes with it has been a lingering factor all season. When we’re free and on the front foot, playing teams who are technically inferior, we’re brilliant to watch, we want to score goals and entertain, but when we need to take a breath against the better teams, who is making that call?  

We’ve certainly progressed from where we were; earlier in the season we’d never see the back four moving the ball around taking the sting out of the game, that’s been more evident in the last few weeks. Perhaps we’ll see this accelerate next season as players like Rob Atkinson and Elliott Moore gain more experience and confidence, but I still feel there’s an argument for bringing in a couple of experienced players to be around the squad who can come in and influence the mindset of the team when it’s under pressure.

Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. I’m not disappointed, this season was about getting through, the fact we’ve had so many great moments is a bonus. We’ve played more league games than any other team in the division over the last two seasons and had virtually no break. I hadn’t contemplated a trip to Wembley or Championship football and, in fact, feared a little what it might do to us – another crushing defeat or a season battling relegation. Each step forward seemed like another step towards a poison chalice, although that didn’t make it less enticing.

In truth, I’m a little relieved it’s over and that we can have another go in a league we know we can compete and develop in. It finally gives everyone a chance to rest, physically and mentally, and to prepare properly for the new season; which, hopefully, will be a little bit more normal and maybe a little bit more successful; we’re very close and that’s all we need.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Blackpool 3

In some ways the whole purpose of our existence is to leave things behind; for some, it may be by having children, for others; ideas and memories. In many ways, a football club is the product of its past; a vessel for collecting memories sustained through their re-telling from one generation to the next. It manifests itself in our matchday routines, our symbolic artefacts of shirts and scarves, and our embellished stories of away trips and famous wins.

Without being fed a steady stream of new memories, the club would eventually fade away to meaninglessness. We never fully lost the connection, but it has withered over the last year. Last night felt like we were picking up a dropped thread; resuming that interrupted flow.

The game against Blackpool was intended as a great re-connection of the club to its fans. When the pandemic first hit, we fantasised about this day as an instant return to normalcy, as if the virus would surrender and its damage be instantly repaired. Sadly, pandemics follow their own path; there would never be an overnight return to how it was, it was always going to be gradual and imprecise and maybe never fully complete.

I arrived at the ground, passing signs for the vaccination centre, and saw several familiar faces making their way to the stadium. The crowd, stripped of the day trippers and casuals that dilute the regular faces, was both reassuringly familiar and strangely intense, there was simply nobody I didn’t recognise. It was like a sitcom Christmas special that had no extras and too much budget for guest cameos.  

With the attendance plan meticulously organised to maximise the crowd, the atmosphere was curious. The aesthetic reminded me of populating a Subbuteo grandstand with a pack of 5 figurines, it was the maximum crowd possible, but regimentally inauthentic. 

Normally for home games, there’s a reassuring hum of routine, but instead there was a joyous novelty like it was an away game. Without opposition fans, and with the sunshine, benign partisanship and everyone spread out, it felt like a bucolic pre-season friendly. 

Underpinning all this was the purpose of the game itself, in many ways the play-off was hidden from sight. We were happy to be back at the ground and attending a game, there was little space for any big game angst. 

Despite a bright start and an early chance for Mark Sykes, Blackpool altogether looked more prepared for the actual challenge of fighting for promotion. For them, the result meant more than the occasion. 

Nothing was better illustrated than Luke Garbutt. I saw him once at Chieveley Service Station waiting to be picked up for our trip to Bristol Rovers when he was on loan to us from Everton. He was slim, good looking and well groomed; standing outside a West Cornwall Pasty Company concession, he reminded me of an estate agent who lived with his mum and spent all his disposable income on his car, its insurance and clothes. He still looked like that at Ipswich last season, but now at Blackpool he looks like he sustains himself spearfishing salmon on the Yukon using a canoe that he’s hand whittled. His beard is full, his hair is long, unkempt, and held back with an elastic band. He looks about a stone of muscle heavier. It’s like he’s decided it’s time to knuckle down and make something of his life.

As we toiled to get a foothold, their first goal was greeted with an eerie silence. I waited for the delayed distant cheer of the away following, but it was if the goal had been disallowed. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t register as a problem, deep down, I didn’t think it’d been given. It wasn’t until the second goal that I snapped out of it and realised the prospect of promotion, the whole reason for being there, was rapidly slipping away.

The opening goal resulted from a howling error from Josh Ruffels, and the second from a raid down his left flank which he seemed happy to watch admiringly from afar. Apparently he’s destined for the Championship next season, but he looked lightweight compared to Garbutt. After the game, Steve Kinniburgh pointed out that he’s nearly 28, a senior professional even though he still looks like a clean-cut prospect. The whole team does; neat, tidy and talented, like they’re trapped in a bubble where people never grow up.

All over the field Blackpool had the physical maturity we’re missing; Ellis Simms was mobile and powerful up front, making Elliot Moore look like he needed to grow a bit. They were organised too, a single unit; during lulls in the crowd you could hear the bench barking for them to ‘hold’ or ‘move’ and they did as a disciplined, singular whole. We could neither go through nor find a way around. Brandon Barker had moments early on and Sykes found his way through the cracks, but otherwise we were constantly out muscled and manoeuvred, barely able to land a glove on them. It reminded me of Rotherham last year when we were strong-armed to a comprehensive defeat before half time. This doesn’t belittle Blackpool’s ability; they look far more equipped for the challenge than we do. 

Before the game, we were billed as the division’s entertainers and Blackpool as a dour defensive unit. While we have a lot of fun playing against the lower sides; it was pretty obvious which approach is more effective to achieve the long term goal. We entertain, they progress.

There’s still a second leg of course; let’s not give up too soon, but the result reminded us that as far as we’ve come under Karl Robinson, we’re at a point where we need to make some tough decisions about leadership, strength, organisation and pragmatism. If we want to compete at the top of this level or above, we may need to sacrifice a bit of style to find a bit more substance.

Being critical feels desperately unfair in so many ways; what the team have achieved is as remarkable as the way they’ve achieved it. In a grim year, they’ve provided plenty of highs, and for that we should be grateful. They don’t need to explain or dwell on what went wrong, we just got found out; a reminder that against the eight other teams in the top nine, we’ve now won just once in eighteen league, cup and play-off attempts. 

Last night’s game was a much welcome re-connection, even if it wasn’t the party we envisaged, it was a step in the right direction and for that we should be content. Maybe Friday will bring a miracle, and it will all be forgotten, but more likely it won’t. If a football club is a vessel for memories, perhaps what we’ll draw from the result is the lessons we need to learn in the future.

Match wrap: Oxford United 4 Burton Albion 0

And so it came to this; we needed an improbable set of results to sneak into the play-offs. But, Portsmouth; thirteen points ahead of us at Christmas, just needed a win at home to Accrington and ours would be a lost cause. 

They’ll do it, though, won’t they? For all the farago surrounding the last game of the season, good teams tend to deliver. For all the sharp cuts on Sky’s screaming trailers, the reality is not that dramatic; good teams find a way to secure the points they need and move on, the fake news drama is long forgotten as they head to the play-offs and us to the beach.

For us, the rambunctious interlopers, second bottom at the end of October, we would finally find our level; not amongst the contenders but with the bystanders. We would commend ourselves on our bravery while quietly filing the season away in a bin marked ‘forgotten’. That’s how it works, doesn’t it?

Last year, our journey to the play-offs felt like threading a needle through an increasingly narrow eye. The pre-pandemic run, Josh Ruffels’ decisive last minute winner at Shrewsbury, the debate about the future of the season, the intricacies of points-per-game calculations, play-offs ties that felt like having your teeth filed, a cavernous soulless Wembley and a dispiriting defeat to bring it all to an end. An ever narrowing, treacherous and doomed path to nowhere.

But this felt different, a crazy run had got us to this point; goals flying in, comeback wins, returning from the dead with a last minute double from our homegrown full-back and spirit animal. Insanity and never not fun.

This time we were here to crash the party; to stumble through the door, get off with your mum and commandeer the stereo. But, it would end, eventually, surely someone would kick us back out onto the street.

A few weeks ago, Karl Robinson talked of taking the handbrake off; living in the moment, just seeing what happens, what did we have to lose? We’d survived a coach being disabled by disinfectant, opponents turning up with an outbreak of covid in their ranks, postponements, a stadium fire, countless makeshift changing rooms fashioned out of burger bars and hospitality suites, we’d revived ourselves after a grim derby defeat. We weren’t ‘in it’, but we also weren’t ‘out of it’.

By contrast, at Portsmouth there was expectation, pressure and minimum requirements to make the play-offs. They’d been buckling, for sure, but they still had enough in the tank, didn’t they?

There’s hope and there’s logic, and that wasn’t in our favour. We stepped onto the pitch free of pressure, free from logic; just play the next game. We were magnificent, swashbuckling, brave, playing with light in our heart; nobody expects us to make it, so why not just enjoy it? 

If we were nervous, it didn’t show; the early goal scythed through Burton’s defence for Mide Shodipo to nod home. Burton looked club footed by comparison; they’ve hauled themselves to safety which is a triumph in itself, but there wasn’t much left to give apart from the heavy artillery of their long throws into the box, which were easily mopped up.

News filtered through of an Accrington goal; how were Pompey feeling now? A black cloud darkening their mood? Consumed by their own failings? Helplessly watching the sands of fate drain between their fingers? Every Accrington win at this level is a triumph against the odds, they’re not going to let an opportunity pass when it’s presented to them.

Tired, calamitous Burton defending allowed Matty Taylor to head home the second; the scoreboard marked up another goal, but the real impact was on the south coast. We looked so light on our feet while they looked dead on theirs. We were breaking their spirit and resolve, how after all this time, and all that’s happened, were we so full of energy? 

When Elliot Lee’s ridiculous daisy cutting free-kick squirmed under the wall and through the goalkeepers hands it was confirmed; we were home and hosed and destiny would pass over to Fratton Park to decide our future. They toiled, broken by their own expectation, blinded by our light, bamboozled that we’re enjoying this. This is the sharp end of the season, the pressure is supposed to be too much to bear.

For us, though, there is no expectation; we just have more to gain. The handbrake is off, the consequences of failure minimal. We’ve survived a pandemic, we’re still in with a chance of the play-offs despite everything, whatever happens now is a bonus. We’re better like this; playing on adrenaline, luck and emotion. The tortuous intricacies of last year have been shed, we’re playing with a freedom that those around us have long since lost, swimming in a deep well of their own doubt.

As injury time came, a long ball from Jack Stevens dropped to Sam Winnall 25 yards out, why not have a lash? The manual says keep the ball, but that’s not fun and that’s not us. What’s the worst that can happen? The strike was sweet and true, playful and mischievous, now that is us.

Radio Oxford passed through to Radio Solent for the final moments of the game at Fratton Park, the mood was bleak, the commentators knew it was long since over. Not good enough, overwhelmed by their own shortcomings, their squandered chances, and a history that hangs around their neck like a noose.  

We haven’t threaded our way into the play-offs, we’ve crashed into them; we’re not expecting to play Championship football next season, but it would be fun to try it. We come without the baggage of expectation, without a legacy of opportunities squandered, without that sense that even if we did succeed, we’d still be below our natural level. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The fans will return, the air will be fresh, we are fortified by what we’ve achieved, we enter the next stage as rascals and outsiders, playing with a smile, not dwelling on what we’ve lost but revelling in what we’ve achieved, you never know, that could be enough.

Match wrap: Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 3

After the win over Plymouth, fans engaged in the kind of complex maths that would make Rachel Riley giddy. We’d set the cat among the pigeons with our run, but teams had games in hand, but those in the strongest position had the hardest run-in. But, but, but…

As the week progressed, things became clearer although nothing had changed for us; we needed to beat Shrewsbury. 

I joined the social media boycott to protest about online abuse, although it was a late decision, I hadn’t realised how absolute it was going to be until after it started. I don’t suppose anyone will change their behaviour because of me; but to break the line seemed like it would undermine the point being made. 

I doubt that most online abusers are fully paid-up eugenicists. To most who do it; it’s a way of venting anger or gaining social capital through the likes and retweets that tend to reward extremes. It’s the equivalent of a teenager attracting a girl’s attention by kicking a ball in her face. The precise nature of the abuse is not relevant just so long as it has impact. It’s not so much that these people are racists, it’s more they don’t care about the impact of racism. With social media, there’s no consequence of stepping over that line, if a line existed in the form of bans or prosecution, the abuse would reduce significantly and quickly. These aren’t victimless crimes; social media companies have a responsibility to change the rules of the game. If not them, then the government needs to step in.

I logged on to the eerie silence of Twitter twenty minutes before kick-off, casually opened iFollow and got a jaunty ‘500 error’ with two Adidas Telstar footballs where the zeros should be. It made me more angry that they trivialised their error with the use of a 45 year old football design, albeit a classic. Others were struggling too. I have an FM radio somewhere in my shed and another in my car, but otherwise no access to Radio Oxford’s commentary; in a fully connected world, I was drifting in a vacuum.

The feeling reminded me of those end-of-season away games where the hosts under-estimate our support; Woking in 2009 or Crewe in 1996. Post-Hillsborough, these are rare and special things. The authorities are rightly sensitive and quick to make big games all-ticket. The home club has to be winding their season down, while the away team need to be on a stealthy mission that nobody beyond the club itself has noticed. 

Metaphorically, the iFollow lockout meant we were queued up outside the away end, growing increasingly concerned that we weren’t getting in for this crucial game. It’s every man for themselves, some continue to queue, there are rumours about other turnstiles opening, others chance their arm, trying different routes in. On Twitter, someone logged on via Shrewsbury’s iFollow – it was like getting in the home end. The equation on the pitch may have been simple, but the chaos was growing.

There’s a thrill in those games, a lawlessness; fate and ingenuity take over; senses heighten; the game kicks off and you’re split between your mission to get in and the need to follow the game. Somehow, the combination of a broken iFollow and the social media blackout – plus my lack of available outdated technology – meant I had to sense the game rather than follow it, keep persevering, but not take my eye off the action.

We scored early; I was still trying to find a digital turnstile to let me in. The few Twitter comments about the goal were like the slightly muted roar coming from one direction of the ground synonymous with an away goal. They equalised, then led; I was once stuck outside St Andrew’s during a promotion decider against Birmingham City in 1994. From the sounds coming from the Oxford end, we were doing well, but they scored and the 20,000+ Birmingham fans engulfed the noise we were making. Shrewsbury’s goals gave me that feeling; the bubble bursting.

Finally, half-an-hour in, a cyber steward opened a side gate and I was in. I was still trying to orientate myself as half-time came – the equivalent of wanting to find my seat but having to stand on a step and not catch the eye of a steward. 

Steve Kinniburgh ripped into the team, I don’t know whether it was justified from a performance perspective, but the reality is that successful teams cut through chaos, blank it out, compartmentalise their ability and let it flow. If they play, he said, we win. The big question was whether they could find clarity through the fog of war. If you can’t do that, your destiny, individually and collectively, is to play in the lower leagues. It’s that stark.

As if they’d heard that, the equaliser was a goal of precision and incision that cut through the chaos and context. It was beautiful in its simplicity; short, simple passes, each move showing patience and progress. The kind goal that makes you wonder why they don’t just do it all the time. Football is mentally challenging, physicality and technique is fundamental, mental agility and discipline is where games are won and lost. 

The winner from Dan Agyei was another example of a player taking responsibility for his destiny. In the past, Agyei’s been an instinctive player; games happened to him. If a ball was available, he’d play, but he was passive and could become marginalised if it didn’t run for him. In recent months he’s changed, when Sam Winnall’s knock down didn’t quite fall for him, Agyei went looking for the ball, taking responsibility for his performance and that of his team. He wanted it and, even with his back to goal, wasn’t going to be denied.

Even at the death, Jack Stevens was all-in committed to taking the three points with two wonderful saves. Clarity, focus, commitment, victory. Hope burns eternal.

The mysteries of the season continue to reveal themselves. I still marvel at the genius of a system where everything is still to be decided in the last of forty-six games. Although the infinite chaos of fans is absent, there are questions about what we’ll do next week, what others will do, whether we can make the play-offs, whether we can win them, whether we can cope in a higher division. Those who prevail will be the ones who navigate through the chaos. What others do now is immaterial, the maths hasn’t changed for weeks; we simply have to win our next game.

Match wrap: AFC Wimbledon 2 Oxford United 1

After the Gillingham game I created a spreadsheet in an attempt to calculate our chances of making the play-offs this season. I do this quite often around this time of year as a way of managing my anxiety and reassuring myself that things are going to be OK. 

I’d predicted that we would beat Wimbledon but that Portsmouth would defeat Swindon, Ipswich would see off Northampton and Charlton would draw to Plymouth. I was wrong on all counts. 

The game against Wimbledon was played against a curious backdrop with the spectacular implosion of the European Super League. It felt like a ruling family being systematically executed in a military coup as each club announced their departure from the project. Meanwhile we carried on like the string quartet playing on the deck of the Titanic as it sank.

A lot has been said about the European Super League, about its unfairness, the greed and the impact it will have on other clubs. What was never mentioned was how stultifying boring it would be; I can’t conceive how it would offer anything better than what’s on offer now. Even now prestige Champions League games between the top clubs barely raises a ripple of interest in me due to the general over-saturation of the game. I don’t know why it would be better if it were guaranteed to happen every single year. Has nobody heard that scarcity increases value? 

Perhaps outside Europe, where there is less appreciation of the perils of promotion and relegation, the proposal seems plausible. Perhaps that highlights that it’s not just about more meaningful games; the ESL would likely become a touring circus travelling to where the demand was. The multi-billion-pound fantasy of playing matches in front of 90,000 Chinese or Qatari half-interested fans would come a big step closer. That said, even fans who did engage with it would surely eventually realise that football’s value is not in the quality of the passing shooting and tackling but in the perverse joy of uncertainty and instability.

My spreadsheet, which despite my inherent bias doesn’t see us achieving a play-off spot, is a case in point; four predictions, all incorrect. Proof that you cannot predict what will happen next in League 1 with any certainty. And, as frustrating the result was, that’s not something I’d want to give up. 

The performance itself was full of energy and attacking intent and we looked largely in control for long periods. A lot of this is down to James Henry’s return from injury; he alone appears to be the difference between us achieving the play-offs and not.

Having got our noses in front, we looked pretty comfortable and even had a bit of swagger as shown by Cameron Brannigan’s audacious free kick from inside our half. But, that rich vein of confidence wasn’t likely to last forever.

Then came the moment that changed it all. The penalty incident was a quadruple whammy; not only did we concede a penalty, a goal and go down to 10 men, Henry’s dismissal rules him out for the rest of the season. It surely puts paid to any play-off ambitions. It’s these moments, where seasons pivot and uncertainty strikes, that make football such a compelling watch. Those involved in the European Super League wanted to remove that uncertainty to protect their investments. But that’s like wanting to have wild sensible sex; it’s one or the other, you can’t have both.

Once the penalty had been converted and Henry had been cosigned to the dressing room, we reverted quite quickly to the team that have we’ve been in long stretches this year; full of energy, full of endeavour, full of effort but lacking in structure, calmness and a clear head. If we do want to progress, we can’t be just rely on Henry to provide that.

According to my spreadsheet, if you’re interested, Charlton seem the most likely team to make the play offs now, but it’s far from certain given their run-in compared to others. It’s very likely there’ll be more twists and turns before the season is out and while it seems unlikely that we will be the victors it will come down to who can time their run of form the best, which implies a degree of control over your performance, which nobody truly has.

In the context of the evening where the biggest clubs in Europe became the humblest, to watch a game which went from expectation to elation to despair and frustration in just 90 minutes was a timely reminder of why football is such a great game. Although the season could be over and the result is disappointing, I find myself enjoying being part of such a fluid and unpredictable world. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Gillingham 2

A great hulk of a man with a reputation that echoes across the lower leagues. It’s a reputation that masks his limitations, but it keeps him at the forefront of our minds and, more importantly for him, it maintains a demand for his services. 

In December 2019, Ade Akinfenwa approached John Mousinho in a melee – we were 25 minutes into a tense almost-promotion decider, almost-derby – Alex Gorrin had floored a Wycombe striker and it all kicked off. With Akinfenwa already on a booking, Mousinho knew that any contact with the self-styled Beast would put pressure on the referee to produce a second card and eject the Wycombe striker from the game. Mousinho stood firm, he didn’t retaliate, he didn’t step back, Akinfenwa was now committed, if his brand was to be upheld, he would have to see it through. He pushed Mousinho in the chest, the lightest shove, and the experienced defender crumpled on the floor. The referee had no option and Akinfenwa, and Wycombe’s chances of victory, were gone. 

It was a rare moment of Oxford showing a mastery of the darker arts of football. Something we have missed this season at times. If you were to distill a good League 1 team into its component parts, somehow put it in a centrifuge to separate out it’s individual elements, you’d probably produce one lump of pure Oxford United and a lump of pure Gillingham. 

There’s nothing sophisticated about a Steve Evans team, no working the ball from the back because that’s how it’s done nowadays. Goal kicks go long, throw-ins; longer, attack in numbers, defend in numbers. Like Wycombe last year, it has its limitations, but it’s effective enough. If you can get your noses ahead and shut up shop, then you can frustrate your opponents into paralysis. 

You can see why clubs employ Steve Evans; he’ll never make you worse or cost you a lot of money; where other managers could force an owner into investing in a sophisticated system which has no material benefit, Evans will get a committed set of players together and work them into the ground.

We seemed surprised by it when we shouldn’t be; it’s probably the only club whose billing has the manager’s name preceding it; ‘we’ve got Steve Evans’ Gillingham on Saturday’. 

In truth, I thought we coped better with the onslaught than we have previously. In the opening minutes it was a bombardment, but when we did get on the ball, we slowed things down, moved it around and tried to take the sting out of it. We needed to kill the game stone dead, keep possession, tire them out, but while the beast stirred, we were always vulnerable.

We were dragged into Steve Evans’ world of harassing and harrying, some call it anti-football; but it’s still part of the game and one we’re rarely keen to touch. An engineered drinks break immediately preceded their opening goal; go figure. 

Their second was a sucker punch, Josh Ruffels limping in the box from a heavy challenge; a wounded gazelle showing a moment of vulnerability, the ball was worked out down his flank, allowing Jordan Graham to cross and Robbie Cundy slot home. We were being haunted by our 2016 promotion squad.

It was this season in microcosm; beaten by the darker arts, a lack of guile, experience and leadership. We didn’t do enough to slow the game down, to nullify their threat, even to take them on at their own game as Mousinho did with Akinfenwa last season. You can argue that it’s not right, but they’re the ones with the lead. Gillingham may lack grace and style, but does it really matter when the calculations are this simple; the winner stays on, the loser’s season is over.

A moment of class from Sam Winnall two minutes later reignited the game, but it still looked like a point was the best we might hope for, and that wasn’t really enough. But, it put Gillingham in a difficult position; continue to shut up shop and risk conceding again or follow the old game plan and go at our throats, potentially leaving them vulnerable – particularly with Dan Agyei offering a pace outlet. It was a lose/lose situation.

The game and season was concentrated into fifteen minutes; for us, it was simple, we needed another goal at least, it didn’t really matter if we lost 2-1 or 3-1 or 10-1. We needed something to get us back on terms.

But of course, it’s not just expensively constructed talent and cynical gamesmanship that makes a team great. A hail-Mary cross from Anthony Forde drops from the early evening sun to the back post and there’s Sam Long; the embedded spirit of the whole club powering through three Gillingham defenders to head in the equaliser. In the context of the game, it’s enough; a point, and a squint at the table, and we live to fight another day.

It’s not just that Sam Long is a local player whose been with the club since he was eight-years-old, he’s overcome near-career ending injuries at crucial stages of his life. As the club moved forward, he battled just to stand still, had the club decided the young injury prone defender was surplus to requirements, nobody would have batted an eyelid and there wouldn’t have been many clubs lining up to take him on. Even when he was back to fitness, there have been plenty of attempts to replace him; Ricardinho, Chris Cadden and Sean Clare have all been brought in; but he’s seen them all off. Sam Long knows that you can’t give up when there’s still a chance.   

So, maybe those experiences have galvanised something in him, a need to persevere, right to the end. Never say die. In the context of the game, a point would have been enough, a poor performance that we battled back from. But in the context of the season, in the context of Sam Long’s club and career, it wouldn’t have been enough. It would have been a wasted opportunity. There’s still a glimmer of hope; and while hope remains…

And so, there we were, 94 minutes on the clock, the strange bright early evening sun bathing the eerily empty stadium. It’s a hue I’ve started to associate with the pandemic; the same, strange glow that bathed our play-off game against Portsmouth last year. Cameron Brannagan is given space to set himself. Gillingham, for all their gamesmanship are broken, from 2-0 up, even a draw is a defeat – they’ve got to sit in front of a purple-faced Steve Evans in a few minutes – a draw isn’t enough for their efforts, their manager or their season. 

Brannagan’s long deep cross drops beyond its intended targets, perhaps the strange kick-off time made the flight of the ball harder to judge. But where others were waiting for it to drop in the middle of the box, at the back post one man is attacking it. Sam Long, the embodiment of that other crucial ingredient in a successful team, an undying spirit. It’s no easy chance, a deft, light, guided finish is needed to put it beyond the keeper. That’s 3-2 and that’s the game.

A position in the play-offs may still be a quirk of how the fixtures have fallen; but it’s a reminder that beyond tactics, style and gamesmanship, beyond the dark arts and the beautiful game, there’s always hope and while that’s alive, we keep fighting.