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.