Match wrap: Peterborough United 2 Oxford United 0

On Saturday morning I still didn’t know whether we were playing Peterborough at home or away. It’s all pretty much the same these days, the only journey you take now is into your junk folder to see if an access key has been sent to you or not.

I’m torn on the ubiquitous availability of games nowadays; I appreciate that it’s the next best thing to being there but sometimes I wish it was all a bit more out of reach. I think I’ve said before, I don’t toggle the radio commentary that comes with the feed preferring whatever local radio commentary there is. Otherwise every game would seem almost exactly the same.

Styles vary; Lincoln’s commentators avoided naming Oxford players completely, Accrington’s were well versed, Peterborough’s had picked up concerns about Sam Long and made that the central fact to be repeated as frequently as possible.

There are common themes; the play-off defeat, of course, is presented as if we are a Championship side in the wrong division. Players like James Henry, Matty Taylor and Sam Winnall give extra weight to our reputation. More than once, the commentators have made a point about Liam Kelly being on loan from Feyenoord, such an exotic beguiling creature.

This promotes a disparity between clubs which doesn’t really exist. Steve Evans last week and Peterborough this liked to claim that we’re operating with a stratospheric budget even though Posh have spent more heavily this summer. In many departments we do seem to have the assets to match the reputation – we create chances – but we’re not the full package. 

Putting aside our defensive problems for a bit, have we recovered from the emotional trauma of the play-off defeat, and the intensity of that three-week campaign? Did those games help or hinder our pre-season preparations; many clubs have had months of rest, whereas ours has been disrupted.

Above all, there’s the loss of the emotional thrust that comes from having a crowd behind you.  It seems unlikely that we’d ever simply outspend the division. Despite claims by others, success would in part be down to the momentum we can create as a club, not just a team.  

Let’s be charitable, the pieces are still falling into place. Maybe there’s a readjustment going on; before lockdown we had five wins in a row propelling us into the play-offs but before that we’d won one in eight. Much like Wycombe, our play-off place owed a lot to timing. With hindsight, and looking at Wycombe’s start, perhaps the defeat was no bad thing.

There are other chinks of hope; it’s difficult to know how much home and away makes a difference, but we’ve only played once at home and teams like Peterborough, Sunderland and even Gillingham are clearly going to be competitive this season. On the other hand, we do need to be competing with these teams if we expect to make the play-offs or better. 

There’s also time now to settle the squad into the season. Time will tell as to the wisdom of the decision to not replace Rob Dickie, but the die is set, the players can at least focus on their performances without having to think about the disruption of new players coming in. Perhaps, once fit, a back-four of Clare, Atkinson, Moore and Ruffels will become a solid unit.

The key now is to do the opposite to what we instinctively want to do. Rather than panic, we need to stay calm and ease into the season. We feel like a dragster which is so powerful its wheels have ripped off the second the engine engaged. Time to reattach the wheels, ease off the power a little and accelerate away more slowly. 

The prospect of the derby next week leaves me completely cold and, ironically, it’s likely to be the first game I miss this season, at least in part. I’m OK with that; for me it’s always been a visceral experience, outside of the fan experience Swindon doesn’t stir much emotion. In a sense, that might be the best attitude; objectively on paper MK Dons and Swindon at home are both winnable games. Getting too emotional about it – with Karl Robinson being an ex-MK manager, of course – adds weight to these fixtures we don’t need.

Our current struggles may be no bad thing; we could do with not being the Harry Potter of League 1 – The Team That Would Be in The Championship, The Team That Played At Wembley In A Pandemic with The Boy from Feyenoord. 

Despite being bottom of the table, there’s no sense that Karl Robinson’s position is under any threat from within. Managers are probably safer now than ever before because clubs can’t afford the compensation. But with next week’s game now looming, we risk teetering on the edge of a crisis.

Quite how that will manifest itself is hard to tell. There’ll be no barrage of abuse from the stands, no toxicity hurled in the direction of the technical area, but Karl Robinson is a rare manager in that he thinks like a fan. He knows what this means and is all too aware of the difficulties fans are facing more broadly as a result of the pandemic. He’ll be desperate to win the derby for us, to avoid being the man who broke the spell. But, he needs to avoid trying too hard, too much overcompensation could blow up in his face. This was something that Chris Wilder was a master at; while Paolo DiCanio lost his mind in the ballyhoo, Wilder stuck to a game plan and even with a weaker team masterminded three famous wins. Keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and all that will be key. The next week feels important, otherwise the biggest crisis the club could face may be inside Karl Robinson’s head. 

Match wrap: Gillingham 3 Oxford United 1

I was talking with a someone at work this week who’d been beating themselves up about a conversation they’d had with our Chief Executive. In the preamble to a meeting, the CEO asked a couple of questions about something she was working on. She didn’t know the answer one of the questions and felt exposed and unprepared.

It was likely our CEO was just asking the question to pass the time. She readily admits she hasn’t got time to think everything through, prepare for every meeting, she’s not even very keen about being the polished, indefatigable leader people expect her to be. She likes to chat, she understands that people don’t always have all the answers at their fingertips.

My colleague said since she’d started managing people, she noticed how much they expected her to know everything and how every decision was taken as gospel, even though she was only ever making a judgement. She didn’t really like the pressure of being the sole decision maker, she wanted people to help her, question her if they felt the decision was wrong. But, at the same time she felt the pressure to be seen to know everything.

It’s very easy to assume that people in charge know everything, that decisions are precise, objective and well thought through. The illusion of control is part of leadership. Except, we are, ultimately all flawed humans winging it the best we can.

As a result, I’m not really keen on criticising people with responsibility for one-off decisions, most people are trying to do their best, single mistakes shouldn’t define a person. We all act irrationally sometimes, we all suffer anxieties, stress and blind spots. We make mistakes that we regret. Trends, data and track record should be the key to assessing someone’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses. 

Karl Robinson is over 900 days into his time at Oxford United; it’s been a progressive and positive experience. It’s hard to criticise both in the sense that it seems so unfair in the context of his success, but also because it’s not easy to find anything to criticise.

But, in that 900 days he’s never signed an experienced centre-back. Elliot Moore and Rob Atkinson were both signed with no league experience to speak of. John Mousinho, at the other end of the spectrum, pre-dates Robinson’s appointment. Likewise, he was gifted Curtis Nelson and Rob Dickie from previous managers.

It’s not like he’s lacked resources, he’s signed an array of strikers and midfielders. He’s been less successful with full-backs; perhaps over-ambitious. He got Chris Cadden over the line, but only by sacrificing control over how long he had him for.

This has been exposed this season, no more so than in the defeat to Gillingham, we had 31 shots and dominated possession. Robinson thought we deserved more, and we did. But it wasn’t a case of converting one of the chances for the three points, we needed to convert four because of our porous backline.

We’ve had a decade of success with centre-backs – a rolling programme through Mark Creighton, Jake Wright, Johnny Mullins, Chey Dunkley, Curtis Nelson and Rob Dickie. Dunkley, Nelson and Dickie are all in the Championship, a destiny that was evident long before they left. There was lots of time to prepare for their succession. John Mousinho has provided stability to allow the others to develop, but age is no surprise, and even Karl Robinson tried to encourage him into semi-retirement at the beginning of last season. This is a problem that has been over a year in the making.

Maybe Elliot Moore was expected to step into Dickie’s shoes, but Dickie stepped into last season with significantly more games under his belt than Moore has now. There’s absolutely no blame on either Moore or Rob Atkinson, it’s a more deep-rooted issue than individuals and their ability.

I’m generally satisfied with a manager if I can see the logic of what they’re doing, I could see what Ian Atkins was doing even if I didn’t like it, for example. If this is all planned, I can’t see how we’ve got to a position where we have such a lack of experience at centre-back. 

It isn’t quite as simple as that, of course, effective defences are units, full-backs, centre-backs and goalkeeper. They become greater than the sum of their parts – Joe Skarz and Jonjoe Kenny were improved by Jake Wright and Chey Dunkley, Mark Creighton and Jake Wright were improved by Damian Batt. But weaknesses in the unit impact everyone. Sean Clare seems to be taking some time to settle in, Simon Eastwood, Josh Ruffels and Sam Long all seem a bit out of sorts. It’s not likely to be a simple solution as each area will affect another, so isolating the cause is a real challenge. But, the lack of an experienced, mid-career central defender is an undeniable fact.

Simon Eastwood made a great point in the Oxford Mail this week, he doesn’t watch highlights, he said, because you never see any saves, just goals. it supports a theory I have about football fans; they love strikers, watch them all the time, they’re the ones that make the edit. We learn about their movement and ability. Midfielders are similar, we see the passes that make the chances. You rarely see a back-line simply shutting up shop, we’re not that interested in it, it’s boring. Ian Atkins is the person who Chris Williams described as ‘the man who taught him everything he knows about football’. Atkins was a master at creating defensive units. Fans have almost no idea what goes into that, more so about what makes a good goalkeeper, they’re judged only on how spectacular their saves are or how big a howler they made. The fundamentals – organisation, distribution, positioning is mostly lost on us. Andy Woodman never made spectacular saves because his positioning meant he never had to. 

I recently heard Bradley Wiggins talk about his Tour de France victory in 2012, it’s widely viewed that the course was suited to his ability because it contained lots of time trials, his speciality. He pointed out that he still had to ride the other stages and win those time trials. “Perhaps you should try becoming a world class time trialist.” was his trade off.

The same with goalkeepers; we have virtually no idea what it takes to make a good one. They train separately from the team, with specialist coaches. Even a penalty save is frequently described as being ‘at a good height’ as though it’s easy. Perhaps you should try saving a penalty that’s ‘at a good height’. 

One of Karl Robinson’s great qualities is how he relates to the fans’ experience of football. He gets it like no other manager I can think of. His football plays to the fans’ sensibilities – exciting, attacking, entertaining. It’s the stuff that makes the edit. Perhaps that other side, the technical, organised defensive line is simply a blind spot. He takes a fans’ view; defensive organisation is boring, goalkeeping saves are at a good height. He’s not as interested in what that takes; it’s the bit of his job that he puts off and puts off until it becomes a crisis. We all do it. 

There was so much in the Gillingham performance that suggested we’re ultimately going to be fine. But fine and successful are different things. We genuinely could have scored four. But, if we are a team that expects to concede one or two goals a game, then the margin of success narrows. If promotion is the goal, that’s a pressure we don’t need. 

Match wrap: Oxford United v Crewe Alexandra (Postponed)

I once read that Twitter is at its best during the first few minutes of a breaking story, and at its worst over the next few days. And so it was on Saturday when it broke that Oxford’s game against Crewe had been called off. 

In typical Twitter style, the timeline of events was still being established when the accusations, recriminations and resolutions started swamping the facts. So, let’s try and establish what happened first…

As far as I can tell, Crewe midfielder Ryan Wintle felt unwell during an EFL Trophy game against Newcastle Under 21s on Tuesday and went for a CoVid test, which came back positive. Defender Omar Beckles, who wasn’t showing symptoms, also got a test privately because he has a baby, which Crewe didn’t know about (the test, not the baby).

On Friday, Wintle didn’t travel to Oxford but Beckles did. On Saturday morning, Beckles’ test result came back positive. Knowing this, Crewe travelled to the stadium with the intention of playing the game, told Oxford about the positive test, which had already filtered through to the Kassam. Oxford then raised their concerns. After a lengthy discussion, including perhaps who would take the blame and therefore possible sanctions, Crewe said they were unable to fulfil the fixture.

Let’s break it down, fair enough that Wintle and Beckles got tests, and I hope both recover well. Crewe knew about Wintle which should have put them on high alert. Even if they weren’t able to provide tests themselves, it’s surely sensible to tell the players to report any symptoms or tests they may get privately.

Then there’s the attitude towards Beckles’ test. A friend once had a cancer scare when they found a lump and went to the doctor. They were alarmed when it was referred to the hospital as ‘suspected cancer’. This wasn’t because they had cancer (they didn’t), but because they couldn’t rule it out. So, they were put on the first step in cancer treatment, which is to find out if you have cancer. I know of a similar process at a local primary school, any Covid symptoms are considered a suspected case, the child isolates and gets a test. The assumption is that they have the virus until proven otherwise.

Crewe seem to have taken the attitude that a test is a precaution, but not a possible case. Which is admirable positive thinking, but boneheaded. Beckles seemed to assume that the test would come back negative because he was asymptomatic. Which is the opposite of what he should think. 

I’ve got some sympathy for him; he has no symptoms, a job, a family and isn’t likely to be high risk. Being stuck in the house with a baby would be no fun and he’s only just arrived at Crewe, so will still be establishing himself. 

But more than this, there is plenty of noise out there trying to downplay the existence CoVid and its impact. There’s a significant but growing minority of people who choose to trivialise it. No scientist knows what a second wave might look like – it might be a fraction of the first wave, it might be ten times bigger. There are still so many unknowns about the first wave – there have been 467,000 cases in the UK and 42,000 deaths – a ratio of 1 in 11. But 70,000 more people have died this year than in the last five, if that’s not CoVid related, then what is it? There are likely to have been more cases, and you’re much less likely to die than the official ratio suggests. There’s the question of dying with and dying of CoVid and who is vulnerable – people with underlying health conditions are not necessarily people who would die anyway, as some might choose the believe. Plus there’s the fact dying is only one consequence, there are unknown long term impacts, there’s pressure on services in the event of large cases. The truth is that nobody really knows and now is not the time to speculate. Until we know, people should assume the worst and be cautious. Beckles and others shouldn’t feel the need to hide their concerns. In fact, they should be praised for going for the test. 

But it goes further, Crewe travelled with Beckles on the team bus and stayed in a hotel, then travelled to the stadium to tell Oxford what had happened. Crewe manager David Artell’s response was nothing short of staggering: 

“We were prepared to play, Oxford probably quite rightly said we don’t want to expose our players to that, which is fully understandable. Let’s be honest, it’s fully understandable because they don’t know how many are infected on our bus because the infected player came down with us last night. All stayed in separate rooms. We’ll be tested Monday, whenever the test kits come to us to ascertain the extent of the spread, if there is actually a spread.” 

There are three potential explanations for this; the first is that David Artell is an imbecile. He incriminates himself, shows casual disregard of the impact of what he’s done, implies that Oxford are unnecessarily cautious. He even goes on to try and take credit for revealing the case, saying that he could have kept it quiet, but didn’t want to weaken us, which is good of him.

The second is that Artell knows he’s made a grave error in travelling to the ground, is trying to play it down and is just doing it really badly.

And finally, it’s possible that Artell is fully aware of what has happened but is simply the victim of the culture he’s in – a lack of openness in his squad, a lack of transparency, trust and proper priorities in his club, a lack of testing, leadership and accountability from the EFL, government or PFA. He’s just a victim of the world around him, as we all are, but he’s the one who has to face the press.

There was a lot of talk about testing regimes immediately afterwards and how all players and staff should be tested regularly. While that’s the ideal and should be the aim, it’s costly and complicated. Even if it isn’t in place now, then we should be working towards it.

But, in the absence of testing, there’s another key element to all this. Karl Robinson described Oxford’s approach to CoVid and how several key players nearly didn’t play against Accrington because of concerns. Players like James Henry, Elliot Moore, Sam Long and Cameron Brannagan absented themselves from the club for a few days when they thought they might be a risk. 

You could take the view that the club are too cautious, they believe the negative hype, they are too soft. 

But actually, it’s the openness and trust that exists within the club that sings out. It costs nothing to build that culture but takes a lot of effort, Karl Robinson has invested himself heavily to create that culture ever since he arrived at the club. As a result their response to the pandemic has been nothing short of exemplary. To use a favourite Robinson phrase, we should be ‘hugely proud’ that those standards didn’t drop under pressure from a club whose standards fall some way short of that. It should reinforce the benefits of openness. It’s not just a lesson other clubs could learn, maintaining those standards and treating this thing more seriously is something we could all benefit from. 

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.