Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 2

It started weeks ago; do the players know how important the Swindon derby is? Let’s hope the local lads tell the newer players of its history and significance. It was like an anxious parent talking to their teenager before a party – “You know how important it is to stay safe, you’re not going to take drugs and get raped are you?”. 

Of course, all they needed to do was achieve what they set out to do every week – win the game. The 19 year run is the accumulation of seven individual wins. The biggest challenge of that streak is that with every passing game it was more likely end. Like stacking another Jenga block onto an increasingly rickety tower, the higher it got, the more likely it was to fall and more spectacular the collapse. If you’re not careful, you anticipate the fall before it happens, your hand begins to shake and the tower tumbles.

With no emotional outlet at the game itself, fans wanted to project the anxieties that result from near 20 years of bravado onto those who could influence it. A few years ago I treated myself to a Lego Millennium Falcon and spent the holidays building it. It was an absolute joy, when it was finished I looked at it admiringly and set it aside. The following day my then three year old niece filled it with Duplo characters who treated Chewbacca as their puppy. We’d built the Millennium Falcon over the seven game streak and were anxious we were going to hand it over to a toddler to ruin.  

The aim shouldn’t have been to inflate that expectation, but to deaden it. Of all the previous derby games over the last 20 years, this was the most straight forward; there weren’t the variables of fans and atmosphere. We just needed to go out and keep our heads, the rest should have looked after itself. 

But we’re a team built on emotion, in the image of its manager. It flows through us; sometimes it’s a torrent, sometimes a trickle, sometimes we surf on the crest of its wave, sometimes we’re dragged under by its force. We are desperate to please and are ready to sacrifice discipline and focus to achieve that.

It’s why Karl Robinson admires players like Liam Kelly and Marcus Browne, they please us, they make us excited, even if they sometimes struggle to do it for 90 minutes. 

Think back to the home derby in 2012, perhaps the most astonishing game in the seven game sequence. We only had half our first team and lost our star striker after 20 minutes. They were on a 10 game unbeaten streak. They were a team built on the raw energy and emotion of Paolo DiCanio and that should have destroyed us. But Chris Wilder was a pragmatist, his career has been about getting more out of constrained resources. We frustrated them and battled to hold the torrent, Scott Rendell put in a shift like I’ve never seen before, playing up front he didn’t get a glimpse of the goal, but he never stopped working. When we got our chances, we took them and with it a famous win.

The tables turned yesterday; John Sheridan, Swindon’s manager, played the game down, where we hyped it up. Their expectations were low, we were cockahoop. I was definitely of a similar mind, not because I think we have a permanent hex over Swindon, but because I thought we were in a false position in the league and that anyone below us were fair game. With none of the normal bells and whistles of a derby game to disrupt the flow we should have eased to a win.

Injected with the adrenalin of ‘the occasion’, we came out like a steam train, an emotional wave that threatened to swamp them. It nearly worked, Matty Taylor could have had three when he only had one. 

‘It feels like a derby’ said Jerome Sale, but it shouldn’t have done, it should have felt like a game as cold and clinical as the rest of the season has been. Like all great teams – Manchester United in the 90s, Chicago Bulls, Australian cricket, The All Blacks – winning becomes boring, clinical and procedural. 

So what happened? We blew up, ran out of steam, we burnt off our reserves in a blistering 45 minutes. Rob Atkinson had been majestic, but then started getting caught in midfield, Liam Kelly ran the game, but was in pieces after the break. As bodies and minds tired, we became overwhelmed by the expectation. 

Where was the leadership? The cool heads instilling the discipline we needed to slow the game down. Nathan Cooper remarked that Karl Robinson’s voice became more panicky. Who was offering the cool calculation? We’re so fragile, as the game progressed and the enormity of what we were about to achieve grew, we started to withdraw and panic, the shaky hand at the Jenga tower. We weren’t about to win a game, we were about to achieve #eightinarow. But we overshot it.

In Matty Taylor, James Henry, Alex Gorrin and Simon Eastwood we should have a leadership spine that will help us see these games out. But that commanding voice, the John Mousinho, Jamie Mackie, Jake Wright, Michael Duberry, Andy Whing, Andy Crosby, where are they? 

This isn’t new, it’s not a shock; a 22 year old with a season under their belt isn’t going to demand calm and focus. After the game a lot of people were picking it apart, but the issue is systemic, it’s been brewing for a while. We simply don’t sign experience, we don’t sign the players who will look objectively at the last ten minutes of a derby and think; it’s just another game, let’s see it out.

Mark Sykes was singled out, I don’t think Karl Robinson meant quite what came out when he said ‘everyone tells me he’s a good player’ as if he doesn’t. I’m sure he sees what he can bring, but it’s true that you can’t rely on him for a goal or to create chances. On the other hand, he’s 23, we’re asking a lot for him to influence a whole game.

It’s not like we were outplayed, the failure was spectacular and self-inflicted. I’ve watched their second goal several times and can’t quite understand what Simon Eastwood did. I don’t have an answer for the Eastwood dilemma; I don’t think we need to drop him as a punishment. He knows he made a mistake. Do you replace him with another inexperienced player as we face some of the better teams in the division? That doesn’t feel right either. 

So, the streak is over, the expectation is gone, I guess the good thing is that we weren’t in the stadium to see it. Like these things, the fear of defeat is worse than the real thing, life goes on, unless you choose for it not to, unless you dwell and ruminate, self-flagellate in an attempt to gain a pardon. Are you feeling the pain? But are you really feeling the pain? My worry is that Karl Robinson will do that, will disappear into his own well of self-pity. He feels it, I’ve no doubt, he doesn’t need to prove it to us. 

What big games can do is put into relief things which are already evident. What we saw yesterday was the hopes and fears of the fans being amplified through Robinson and into a squad of developing players. It worked for a while, but went spectacularly wrong. Somewhere there needs to be a regulation; either from Robinson or within the squad. If we don’t get that right soon we’ll start to drown. 

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

The Absolute State of Oxford United Survey in the summer was conducted at the height of our post-season optimism. When asked where people thought we’d finish this season, most went for second. But, when asked who would win the title, we only ranked eighth, outside the play-offs.

This showed that while we have a lot of faith in our squad, our biggest challenge is the competitiveness within the division. We’re good, but so are Hull, Ipswich, Charlton, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Peterborough, Doncaster, and well, the list goes on. 

This seems to have been more a shock to the players than the fans. It’s like we’ve been relegated from the Championship and expected an easier ride in a lower division. After four seasons in League One, it shouldn’t be a surprise that even the likes of Crewe and Lincoln have ability way beyond their brand might suggest.

That’s perhaps a little unfair, we’ve also had to cope with the unique combination of a short pre-season, the disappointment of a Wembley play-off defeat and the everyday mental challenges of the lockdown and pandemic. 

Either way, we’ve seemed bewildered and under-prepared, like we’ve been catapulted into this wasteland of a season not ready for the emotional and physical emptiness. As a result, we’ve seemed lost and listless, feeling a bit sorry for ourselves.

Before the game on Tuesday against Portsmouth, there was a shot of the players arriving stadium, the first player to walk through the gate was carrying a Sainsbury’s bag. It reminded me of the peculiarly casual nature of games nowadays with players getting changed in makeshift changing rooms and appearing on the pitch via a side gate rather like a park team might. 

The splendour of professional football, even at our level, has been stripped away. The intensity of gladiatorial combat, the ceremony, the baying crowds all gone. Motivation has to come from within. 

But then, last night that all seemed to change. Maybe the win over Wigan helped spark a little mental revival, a renewed love of the competition even without its trappings. Portsmouth may have been the best follow-up; they’re a club we’ve played more than any other in the Football League and, judging by my recent poll of the club’s biggest rivals, hold a unique place in our psyche – not a traditional derby, but not an inconsequential fixture. It’s almost a sibling rivalry, both friendly and edgy.

In some ways, it’s like Portsmouth are the club we want to be, something that was reflected in our performance. Although there were no crowds to please, there was something else driving us to a renewed intensity; an inner resolve to avoid defeat. The line-up helped, it reminded me of our League Cup games last season; the apparent weakness on paper helped to us to focus and be sharp from the get-go. 

With that sense of resolution, the game felt like a genuine away game; we needed to be aggressively competitive to avoid being swamped. The back-four were patient with the ball, something we haven’t seen enough of this season, the midfield were aggressive in the tackle and Dan Agyei up front knew his role was as much about stretching the play and occupying their defence as it was about scoring goals. Suddenly we looked both more solid and, at the same time, more threatening.

It was even satisfying to see the players squaring up to each other at the end of the game. In such a soulless environment; it is hard for passions to run riot like they might have done if there’d been a full stadium. The chest bumping and snarling, whatever caused it, helped conjure up an atmosphere and camaraderie, it was good to see Marcus McGuane squaring up to support Sam Long, the new and established combining as one. We’re not treading water until things get better, we’re working together.

The result helps to create the intensity that we’ll need if we’re to get out of the difficult position we’re in and perhaps even drive us to where we want to be. If we’re starting to acclimatise and enjoy this new world, then a derby on Saturday may be just what we need to come next.

Match wrap: Wigan Athletic 1 Oxford United 2

I used to work with someone who could fix things in an instant. A dispute in her team? They’d had a chat and it was sorted. A performance problem? They’d had a meeting and everything was back on track. As I got to know her, I found out her home life was much the same; an argument with her husband? A problem with her children? There’d been a problem, but everything was fine now.

She was very convincing and had a reputation as a bit of a fixer; if there was a problem, she could fix it permanently in an instant. But, the longer it went on, the more I became aware that the problems never went away for long. There was always another issue, argument or crisis that she moved to extinguish in the blink of an eye. But, as much as she assured everyone otherwise, the issues got gradually worse, she dealt with the effect, but not the cause. Eventually, she was firefighting on so many fronts people started to realise she was the constant when something went wrong.

She was convincing because it was how that’s how she assured herself that she was in control of her life when, in fact, it was gradually unravelling. She had practiced tirelessly to convince herself and others that she could fix the problems and achieve some kind of permanent stability. But, team issues became bullying accusations, arguments with her husband became divorce threats and one day, it was announced that she was leaving. 

As important as the result was, the idea that the win over Wigan fixes everything is a fantasy. With Portsmouth, Ipswich, Swindon and Hull coming up, it’s like successfully unlocking the door to a burning building. There are way bigger tests to come, even though it was welcome, and enjoyable, and necessary and expected. But, nothing is fixed.

And it never is. We all want things to be fixed in an instant, like the pandemic, we want to switch it off or to prove it’s not as bad as we’re being told. But that’s not how these things work, they’re a constant remoulding process, fixing something here, addressing something there, hopefully improving the overall direction of travel. James Acaster does a routine about the daily grind of ‘jobs and jobs and jobs and jobs’; an endless procession of trivial stuff that fills your time between periods of sleep.

I have a fundamental rule about managers; I’ve learnt that whether I agree with them or not is not a good measure of whether I can support them. Instead, I focus on whether I can accept their logic, the root of their decisions. I struggled to enjoy Ian Atkins, but understood what he was trying to do. Aesthetically, I could get on board Graham Rix’s football philosophy, but the logic of trying to turn Matt Bound and Andy Crosby into Iniesta and Xavi was beyond me.

Karl Robinson’s Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday helped to provide some assurances. One fan asked when the ‘right-back experiment’ would end. It was a veiled, even dehumanising criticism of Sean Clare. He’s not a player trying to find his form and settle into his new surroundings, he’s ‘an experiment’. If you take that metaphor to its logical conclusion, if the experiment doesn’t work, you throw it away. Given that other full-backs Josh Ruffels was a central midfielder and Sam Long was a central defender, when do their ‘experiments’ as full-backs end? 

Robinson went onto the front foot, Clare wasn’t an experiment and this kind of criticism was not going to help the player. Clare is a real person with his own strengths and weaknesses coming into a new system and a new team. He showed on Saturday (and has shown previously) he is a genuine threat as an attacking wing-back. Re-watching James Henry’s goal on Saturday you can see how much ground he makes up to pick up the ball that he crosses for the goal. A lack of effort is not a problem. It’s clear he’s not a Scott McNiven-type whose job is to defend the corner of his own penalty box nor is a Damian Batt player who seems to play in both boxes simultaneously.

Robinson also defended his use of the salary cap and keeping some in reserve and dealing with unknowns such as Cameron Brannagan’s eye issue. He’s right, football management is a constant work in progress, a process of moulding and reshaping. Working with what you have, managing the consequences of your decisions. It’s not a question of fixing a problem never for it to return. Given that Robinson is the root of the club’s culture, that’s encouraging to hear.

We’ve taken 72 points in the last 46 games, at one point last season we’d picked up 81 points in a 46 game sequence. Under Karl Robinson in any given 46 game sequence we’ve picked up on average 69 points. What we may be experiencing is not so much an evident failing, but more a readjustment from an over-performance from last season. Let’s not forget, had Josh Ruffels not scored in the last minute against Shrewsbury in March we wouldn’t have made the play-offs and all that came with it. The season will have been remembered as a much more moderate improvement.

On Saturday it was reassuring to see Henry and Taylor looking more threatening and I’m sure it will help with their confidence too. But, we were also reminded of our defensive frailties. We are neither wholly fixed nor wholly broken. Either way, the fact that Robinson remains on top of that brief suggests we’re still OK.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Crewe Alexandra 2

A couple of years ago some people at work started a weekly 5-a-side football night. Thinking this was hilarious, a couple of women from work got wind of it and decided to join us for the first game. It unleashed my deep-set anxieties from school of being routinely humbled by some wispy midget from Berinsfield or Icknield in front of a gaggle of the popular girls who had no interest in me. 

After about 20 minutes of what I thought was fierce, high paced competition, the ball dropped to me about 20 yards out from goal. Now, I’ve never had any pace, but my technique is OK. I am, what someone once told me, ‘a bit too continental for the British game’.  As soon as I received the ball, I knew I had a chance. I controlled it on my chest and then hit it on the half volley. The ball arrowed into the top corner; the goalkeeper even did that ‘didn’t see even it’ statue that always makes a goal look better.

It may have been best goal I ever scored. I’ve never scored many, there was a period where I played one game a year, a cobweb blasting Boxing Day run around, this streak included a six-year goal drought. 

There were audible gasps at the cleanness of the strike and my wondrous technique. I was the most senior member of staff in the game, so it helped to reinforce whatever limited authority I possessed in the office. It was quite a moment. 

As it happened one of the women had been filming the game in the hope of getting some gold dust footage she could share around the office. She captured my goal, upon reviewing the footage, it looked like we were in an advert for walking football. Nobody was running, nobody was near me, my feet didn’t even leave the floor when I hit it. I’m not even sure it was a half-volley; it may have bounced twice. In my mind it had been a goal which would have graced the Bernabau, the reality was very different.

Seeing myself in action was like an out of body experience, I wasn’t a graceful maestro with the ball with a quicksilver footballing brain. I was a three-legged hippo who got lucky. 

Most of us are fairly new to the experience of watching games via iFollow, so watching games is similarly alien to watching myself score. iFollow isn’t the lush multi angle entertainment spectacle of normal TV coverage nor the sensorial overload of being there. We want it to be one or the other because that’s what’s familiar, but it’s ultimately neither. As a result, understanding the game is difficult. When you’re at the match, you live the effort and struggle of the competition, but on TV everything looks fluid and effortless. iFollow is neither of these things.

Watching on a laptop doesn’t give you the peripheral vision of the game; the movement off the ball or the effort that is being put in. That said, last night’s defeat to Crewe seemed to show a distinct lack of basic organisation. Nobody was setting the pace of the game, passes were rushed or overhit, attacks were the result of raw effort rather than the product of a planned strategy.

The problem no longer seems to be limited to our defensive issues, we seem to lack both metaphorically and literally, a spine. 

There was no point when the back-four simply moved the ball between themselves to control the tempo of the game. In midfield, we were chasing shadows or trying to break up play, more destructive than creative. The strikers were left feeding off scraps or trying to achieve the impossible by dribbling through the massed ranks off the Crewe defence. There was just no apparent plan.

For the last two years we’ve enjoyed the unerring presence of John Mousinho and Jamie Mackie, while not always regulars on the pitch, their influence in the squad is currently being missed. The senior players are now people like Simon Eastwood, James Henry and Matty Taylor who seem to be quieter characters; great club men, but are they ready to lead? We seem to be missing the players who demand the character, focus and organisation we need to turn things around.

Karl Robinson is very in tune with the emotional side of the game whether that be promoting the value and purpose of being a real football club or managing its individual and collective mental health. However, the empathy he shows seems to result from experience, meaning he’s prone to his own fluctuations in emotion. It may be why he prefers exciting wingers to dogged defenders, emotion over pragmatism. The challenge is that if his emotions aren’t kept in check, they can become a distraction from the fundamental organisation of the team. 

The feeling of belief is slipping away, the loss of momentum can only be stemmed by stepping back, re-establishing the basics and building from there. We have such reliance on our emotional momentum, though, it may be reasonable to question whether we have the players to dig ourselves out of this hole. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 2

I would have loved yesterday’s game, the FA Cup is Boba Fett’s backstory in the battle for the empire; a short sidebar story in the season’s great odyssey. The curios of football’s backwaters going toe-to-toe with more established names. It’s a rare moment of character in an often sanitised and rational world. 

But, yesterday was more than that, the setting was perfect; the sun shone brightly and the sky was blue, but there was a reassuring chill in the air. The weather is a big part of the season – the unbecoming warmth of the early weeks, going to evening games in short sleeves, gives way to a more familiar cooler temperature.

Once the clocks go back, the real business begins; the temperature drops, the big coat comes out. The occasionals who’ve been tempted to a game by the warm weather disappear. The real fans revel in the gloom as games finish in a half-light and then darkness. We are people of the gloaming, we live in the shadows. We revel while others hunker down seeking light and warmth.

Walking to a game, you might go to a shop for match supplies, you queue with people gathering treats for an afternoon in front of the TV. We buy the same things, but we know we’re bounty hunting, seeking out another three points to bring home.

I love that people don’t understand why we do this, why we sit for two hours on an uncomfortable plastic seat in the cold. Weekends are precious and there are so many better options out there. I love the fact it’s too complicated to explain.

The autumn gives way to Christmas and we’re re-joined by the occasionals; family members and extended hangers on returning home for the festive period. It’s nice to see them and the dark and cold is pushed back by the light and warmth of that communion. Christmas offers a brief celebration before the New Year comes and then we’re truly into the depth of winter and the grit of the season. Games are postponed, cup competitions disrupt the rhythm, injuries mount up, it’s a chaotic, ramshackle reckoning. The weather is grim; gloves, hats, coats, layers and layers and layers. 

When the players come out there’s not the same crispness of applause, more a whumping sound of gloved clapping. The most dedicated battle their way up and down motorways, we meet in service stations; not just our own fans, but that wider national network of people like us. There’s a sense of mutual respect as we queue for a coffee or a lunchtime KFC. At the game we endure a deepening discomfort as the cold grips the fibre of our bones. Respite only comes afterwards, when you’re back in the car; the heating finally kicks in and the radio picks through the bones of the day’s events. Your fingers thaw, you can feel your toes, your humanity returns. 

And then, as the games tick by, the sun appears again, order is restored, for most, their fate in the cups is decided and there’s a league position to secure. The maths simplifies, as you edge towards that pivotal game, the six-pointer that’ll decide, finally, whether the season will end in promotion, the play-offs, relegation or nothingness. As we get to May, the warmth returns and the tension is released. At least usually. The giants of the game resolve their differences in the FA Cup, Champions League and so forth. And that’s it, we go into a reverse hibernation, away from the sun and warmth, pleading for the new season and cold to return.

Except, not this season, of course, we aren’t getting to sense the seasonal shifts, the big coat doesn’t get its ceremonial debut, the temperature stays artificially constant. I was not the slightest bit concerned about yesterday’s game. It was unfortunate that we’d drawn the best team in the competition who we’re very familiar with anyway, but it feels like we’re trying to get this season out of the way as quickly as possible. Like clicking continue on a game of Football Manager without changing anything because you’ve lost enthusiasm for your team.

The usual defensive frailties aside, we seemed to play OK, but this must be what it’s like watching training; good movement, passing, plenty of effort, but the goals at either end are of little consequence. I’m quite glad we’re out; it just allows us to get on with picking our way through the league season without distractions or even the disappointment of a big name draw that we can’t go to.

Looking at the optics, the prospect of getting to a game this season feels pretty low. It’s hard to see cases dropping to a level where the government will confidently allow fans back in before the spring. The current lockdown seems principally to allow some kind of normal Christmas to happen, but surely caution will remain through January and February at least. 

Maybe by the spring we might edge towards something, part test event, part PR stunt, if cases are falling or the prospect of a vaccine becomes a reality maybe there will be a will to return. But, by that point, the season will be mostly spent. The warm weather at the end of season usually feels like a reward for our perseverance through the harsh winter months and the elation and despair, the wasted energy of an away defeat or the rare reward of a 96th minute winner. That moment where you want to tell your non-supporting friends and colleagues you were there, but they’re not interested, so it just lives inside you to be re-run in your head when things feel bleak.

The league, of course, will determine where we start next season when, maybe, things are closer to normal. The priority has to be not to be any lower than we were when this whole thing started. As dislocating as this season has been, we can’t lose sight of that necessity. The cups, on the other hand, with all their self-contained beauty are an irrelevance or a painful reminder of what we’ve lost. I’m kind of happy it’s already over.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Rochdale 1

In 1996 we went six games without scoring, I remember the sense of growing desperation. We’d just enjoyed a thrilling, but narrow promotion the previous season and the fear was we’d been found out. The 10-hour barren run consisted of five away games, including a demoralising 1-0 defeat at Swindon. Catastrophising was rife as we advanced towards a point where we wondered if we’d ever score again; the path to goal seemed unnavigable.

We faced Stoke City, seventh in the table, at the Manor on a Tuesday night. In the first-half Martin Gray, a much maligned grafter in midfield, pounced on a Nigel Jemson knock back to score his first goal for the club. In Jemson, Martin Aldridge, Paul Moody and Joey Beauchamp, we had many more refined attacking options, but while their talents and magic had deserted them, Gray simply put in the work to find a way to break the duck. Nobody could predict that Gray would be the one to break the hoodoo. The goal opened the floodgates, we won 4-1 and followed up with another four wins in a sequence including 13 goals – most of which were from more refined talents than Gray.

Football is full of stories of hoodoos, luck and talent; a magical pantomime surrounding the realities of organisation, process and effort that really makes a team successful. I often wonder how genuine the pantomime is. When we say we hate another team, is we really hate the actual people who support that team, even though they’re likely to be just like you or I? It’s the same with players; do we genuinely believe they don’t care or don’t try when they make a mistake or lose a game?

I feel schizophrenic about it; on one level, I buy into the whole thing – football much is less fun if you’re fair, equitable and empathetic of players or opponents. However, I feel bad about the criticisms, and how I exact my frustrations at people who, in all likelihood, are just doing their best.

Last night’s win over Rochdale was a case in point. I’ve questioned Simon Eastwood’s form this season, but have no problem with his ability or commitment. He made a number of brilliant saves last night; each one made my heart sing because it signalled another step towards him being the player we know he can be. I desperately want to see him succeed, far more than wanting him dropped or punished when things don’t go well.

Likewise along the backline; there’s little doubt we have a deeper systemic issue at centre-back. It’s not a commentary on the individuals – Mousinho, Atkinson and Moore – it’s how we’ve struggled to plan effective succession in the wake of Rob Dickie and Curtis Nelson’s departures. 

At risk of an overstatement; Elliot Moore’s performance last night felt like a coming of age, it wasn’t just his goals – though his touch for the first and the domination in the air for the second was almost Matt Elliot-like. He was also commanding at the back and while we ended up defending more than we’d have liked, it was good to see the reward for his determination to keep Rochdale at bay. I hope, like Rob Dickie last season, this sort of success sees his confidence grow.

Likewise, our wobbliness at centre-back and the lack of protection in midfield without Gorrin or Brannagan – has put more pressure on Sean Clare to defend. As a result he’s been maligned in the opening weeks of the season, just at a time when you want him to settle into a rhythm. Last night he was able to show why he was brought to the club; he’s less of a Joe Skarz or Scott McNiven, more a Damian Batt; an attacking threat.

The only blot in the copybook was the penalty, which was again more about the pantomime of football than the realities. I hate these technical offences; like the offside law aiming to combat goalhanging but becoming a technical offence about putting your toe in the wrong place. The new handball rule is a departure from its original intentions – to stop a player gaining an advantage using their hands. The new interpretation means it’s in the interest of the attacker to direct the ball towards the midriff of the defender in the hope of it ricocheting off the hand.

So, in reality, this was as close to a clean sheet as you can get without actually having one, which is a massive step in the right direction. It was beginning to feel like conceding a couple of goals a game was embedding itself within our DNA.

Like the Martin Gray goal against Stoke, the product of effort over talent; this was the perfect way to win given the predicament we had find ourselves in. A timely reminder that with the application of a bit of graft we can achieve almost anything.