Midweek season: Oxford United mid-season review

It’s been a frantic and disrupted season, hard to believe that we’ve nearly burned our way through half of it. It feels like we’re in a sprint against the pandemic; surviving is more important than to thriving. In anticipation of the Absolute State of Oxford United Mid-Season Survey results – which you can still take part in – now is a good time to look back at what we were all thinking at the start of the season.

Back in September expectations were high; 23% of people thought we’d get automatic promotion with another 49% seeing us in the play-offs. Currently, we’re 12th – a position just 2% of you predicted – though things are looking up now, objectively it’s been a bit of a disappointment so far. 

Of all teams in the division, Wigan Athletic, currently in 22nd, were your favourites for promotion; though in mitigation, many of their problems were still emerging at the time and their slip into administration was viewed as a blip. You had Portsmouth, currently third, in second with Peterborough United, currently sixth.

Lincoln City are this season’s Wycombe Wanderers, and I don’t just mean they feature men with arms the size of a child’s waist. They’re currently top despite you having them down in 12th. That said, one soothsayer out there predicted they’d be the dark horse of the division. Hull City are in second where you had them in 4th.

The overwhelming view was that Swindon would finish bottom, despite our obvious bias, they’re making a good fist of it in 23rd and look in deep trouble. Rochdale, currently 21st, were also expected to struggle along with Wimbledon who are 20th. Nobody really saw Burton sitting at the bottom of the table, you saw them comfortably settling in 16th

Comparing us to others, you saw us finishing 8th, with games in hand and a bit of form, we certainly look better for that than we did a few weeks ago. 

PredictedActualTeam
123Wigan Athletic
23Portsmouth
35Peterborough
42Hull City
58Ipswich Town
610Sunderland
77Charlton Athletic
812Oxford United
911Fleetwood Town
1013Blackpool
1118Bristol Rovers
124Doncaster Rovers
131Lincoln City
1415Plymouth Argyle
1517Shrewsbury Town
1624Burton Albion
1714Gillingham
1816MK Dons
196Accrington
2019Northampton Town
219Crewe Alexandra
2221AFC Wimbledon
2320Rochdale
2422Swindon

We underperformed in both cups – in the FA Cup 49% you thought we’d make the 4th Round with another 44% the fifth, but there was no charge to Wembley as we tumbled out in the first round to Peterborough. Similarly, in the League Cup, 33% expected us to make the 3rd Round, but we fell to Watford in the second. A lot, of course, depends on the draw in the cups so in the circumstances, that wasn’t a terrible showing.   

Hopes for the season

In terms of hopes for the season, there were some common themes.

Promotion

The biggest theme was the hope that we’d gain promotion; that seems to be a long way off at the moment, though after our early season reality check and sudden return to form, we might still have an outside chance of making the play-offs. From there, who knows? 

Stadium

Resolution of the stadium situation was another big hope, but with everything that’s been going on, it’s barely been spoken about. 

General progress

More generally, people wanted to see us progress. But in a world which is going backwards, perhaps standing still or only going backwards a little bit, is success. It’s all relative. 

A return to normality

People also just wanted a return to normality and we’re nowhere near that. The opportunity to get back to games has been snatched away, though the good news, perhaps, is that so far, no league clubs have gone bust. There’s a long way to go, but we need to count every blessing.

Nine in a row

Sadly, the hope that we might enjoy ‘nine in a row’ was lost in a moment of madness back in November. I suppose it’s not that far from ‘none in a row’.

Predictions

Fans

The prediction that we might see a game in real life by October didn’t materialise, but for a lucky few it happened in December. One prediction was that no crowd would top 4000 all year and that away games would be out of the question, both of seem highly likely. Some predicted another interruption to the season, which seems to be hanging in the balance.

Players

There was plenty of expectation around our strikers – Matty Taylor was predicted to get 20-30 goals – he’s currently on nine, so he needs a bit of a run if he’s to catch up. Dan Agyei was expected to have a breakthrough season with 15-20 goals, so far it’s just two. Rob Atkinson was also predicted to emerge as a key talent; when he’s been fit, he’s shone.

Some predicted Cameron Brannagan would move in January which looks highly unlikely, as is the return of Marcus Browne, which some had hoped for. 

One person did predict that Simon Eastwood would be replaced as our first-choice keeper. At the time, that seemed extremely unlikely. Another thought he’d move back north before the season is out, which doesn’t seem out of the question now.

Off the field

Predictions of financial chaos across the divisions haven’t materialised, but clubs can’t live off fresh air forever. We seem to be pretty stable, so the prediction that we might suffer another winding up order is, as yet, unrealised. 

Quite a few people thought Karl Robinson would leave, but there’s much less management volatility this year, so a sacking seems unlikely nor the opportunity to go elsewhere.

Matches

When it came to individual games, the Swindon derby was in sharp focus; the large minority who expected us to falter had their fears realised. Someone predicted there would be a 1-1 draw with Sunderland and another game against Manchester City, but we’ve seen neither.

In the league more generally, most were predicting a rollercoaster season of ups and downs; it’s reasonable to say that has been the case. One person thought the final game of the season would feature 10 teams with a chance of the play-offs – as it stands, around eight teams could make the play-offs without too much effort but there were 12 points separating the top 10, not two and, as one thought it might. It also doesn’t look like relegation will be determined by point deductions.

Other

In other predictions, there was no red away kit, Jerome Sale is not yet an award winner no has he sworn on air, but there’s still time.

Once again, we see that when you predict everything, you’ll get something right. But, above all, we’ve learnt that fans are mostly terrible at predictions and that the mood can change very quickly. Next week, we’ll look at the state we’re in now and how that’s changed since September.

Midweek fixture: The top 50 players of the 2010s

On the 1st January 2010, Oxford United were a non-league club, their first game of the new decade a 1-0 defeat to Tamworth, ten years later, concluding with a 2-1 win over Wimbledon, they’d achieved two promotions, three trips to Wembley, countless giant killings and endless derby wins. But who were the best players from that decade of glory? Well, I asked and you answered. Here they are, the top 50 players of the 2010s.

50. Toni Martinez

Toni Martinez only started nine games on loan from West Ham in 2017, but in that time he scored five times including one of the most iconic goals of the decade away to Middlesborough in the FA Cup. This alone makes him one of the top fifty players of the decade.

49. Matt Green

Matt Green had a difficult start with Oxford, after a successful loan spell, he was nearly signed by Darren Patterson in 2008. But, just as the club were preparing to announce his arrival, he headed west and signed for Torquay United. Eventually, he joined in 2009 and became one spike in the trident that fired us to promotion in 2010. His key moment was the spectacular opening goal in the Conference play-off final.

48. Simon Clist

Every team needs its water carrier; the 2010 promotion side was driven by a simple principle in midfield – Dannie Bulman won the ball, which was mopped up by Simon Clist who gave it to Adam Murray or Adam Chapman to create something. While Bulman, Murray and Chapman were all more celebrated, none of it would have worked without Clist.

47. Jonjoe Kenny

When George Baldock was recalled to MK Dons by Karl Robinson in 2016, of all people, it threatened to blow the doors off our promotion chase. But Michael Appleton picked out a diamond in Jonjoe Kenny from Everton’s youth ranks who marshalled us to League 1, a year after that formative experience he won the Under 17 World Cup with England.

46. Joe Rothwell

Michael Appleton had a simple vision; pick up young players from the Premier League youth ranks, promise to develop them onto greater things, then let them soar. Joe Rothwell’s enigmatic Oxford career after joining from Manchester United, he had his moments, but the Championship hawks were circling before he truly flourished.

45. Michael Duberry

Michael Duberry was a big character with a big reputation. His signing in 2012 was coup as Chris Wilder turned to experienced players to try and fire us to promotion. Duberry was commanding in his first season. Fans loved his swagger, but age caught up with him in his second season bringing his time at the club to a close. His key moment was against Hereford United, when he managed to score two own-goals, including one in the last minute, plus an injury time equaliser at the other end.

44. Chris Cadden

Chris Cadden was Karl Robinson’s dream full-back; in the mould of George Baldock – who he had at MK Dons – Cadden was full of energy and pace. He was also beyond Robinson’s budget resulting in a peculiar arrangement where he signed on loan from Columbus Crew immediately after leaving Motherwell. Robinson made no bones about wanting to keep him, but Crew were insistent that he crossed the Atlantic.

43. Adam Murray

In reality, Adam Murray only played one game for us in the 2010s; the defeat to Tamworth. Up to that point he’d captained the side and set them on course for promotion. Injury struck him down and he never played for the club again, but his spirit burned through the squad all the way to Wembley.

42. Damian Batt

Damian Batt was a dynamo of a full-back who seemed to function in both boxes simultaneously. His drive and energy overwhelmed the Conference, he took the step up to the Football League in his stride, turning out for three more seasons. Released in 2013, his life then took a very strange turn.

41. Jack Midson

Matt Green offered pace, James Constable strength, Jack Midson gave our three pronged promotion attack finesse and craft. Sadly, Chris Wilder never seemed completely comfortable with gentleman Jack, but whoever he brought in couldn’t best him. Eventually Wilder took a ratchet to the promotion team and considered Midson too lightweight for the rigours of League football. He was eventually eased out – but not before scoring a memorable hat-trick at Torquay – with his reputation in tact.

40. Billy Turley

Most of Billy Turley’s Oxford career was in the 2000s; he played just three games in the 2010s as understudy to Ryan Clarke, but for someone who demanded attention his back-up role in the 2010 promotion charge was done with good grace. A key cheerleader in the main, he helped put right the wrongs of our relegation in 2006. His memorable moment may have been his last, a wondrous last minute save in his final home game for the club against Wrexham.

39. Tariq Fosu

Tariq Fosu was Karl Robinson’s protege who signed from Charlton in 2019. Like many of Robinson’s signings, Fosu stretched the club financially, so when he started the season on fire, he was always vulnerable to be plucked because of a paltry release clause which within easy reach of most Championship clubs. When Brentford came knocking at the start of 2020, the clause was triggered and he slipped from our grasp.

38. Dannie Bulman

Dannie Bulman drove the 2010 promotion from midfield, then, astonishingly was thrown to the dogs by Chris Wilder almost as soon as the following season started. Releasing Bulman was the biggest mistake Chris Wilder made at the club and it took months to recover. Bulman went on to defy Wilder’s view that he was washed up and is still in the Football League today.

37. Adam Chapman

It’s difficult to know whether trouble came looking for Adam Chapman or Adam Chapman went looking for trouble. After scoring one of the great goals in 2009 at Burton to spoilt their promotion party, he was Man of the Match in the Conference Play-Off Final a year laster. Days before it was announced he was set for a year in a Young Offenders Institute for causing death by reckless driving. He returned a more subdued character, but it didn’t stop him nearly missing a game burning his nipple on baby milk in 2012.

36. Jamie Mackie

No pace, no touch and he hardly ever scored; if Jamie Mackie hadn’t been Jamie Mackie, he’d have been boo’ed out of the club. But, whether it was his public health Tik Toks, endless complaints about fictitious elbows in the face or scoring a wonder goal in the 93rd minute against Bradford that changed absolutely everything and was his defining moment, there was so much to love about him.

35. Johnny Mullins

Fittingly, Johnny Mullins was known as Uncle Mulls; a player who knew his way around the lower leagues and provided the leadership and mentoring we needed when times got tough. His grafting dragged us through the end of the Wilder-years and the start of the Appleton reboot. Cruelly, and also fittingly, in that final season he went all Obiwan Kenobi; sacrificing himself to give way to his heir – Chey Dunkley. Dunkley is deferential to his mentor to this day.

34. Marvin Johnson

Marvin Johnson seemed to be so out of our league one fan said he’s have his name tattooed on his forehead if he signed. And then he did; he could do everything, he had pace, strength and fitness. He was almost too good, like a wild animal, trying to hold onto him seemed futile, he lasted just one season – with a defining moment scoring a last minute wonder goal against Luton in the Checkatrade Trophy semi-final – before signing for Middlesborough for a record £4m.

33. Gavin Whyte

Like the perfect golf swing, signing Gavin Whyte felt right from the moment it happened. Karl Robinson found a gap in the market that others couldn’t see. Whyte was plucked from the League of Ireland and was an instant hit with his direct running, close control and eye for goal. Even when we struggled he shone, though his defining moment may have been being caught filming his wanger on a night out. It was no surprise to see him sold to Cardiff after a season.

32. Peter Leven

When Chris Wilder turned to experience in 2012, Peter Leven was his genius in residence. When he was fit, Leven was the best in the division, with no greater illustration than his goal against Port Vale from the half-way line – his defining moment. Sadly, he wasn’t fit very often and so his talents rarely saw the light of day.

31. John Mousinho

When Curtis Nelson was injured in 2017, Pep Clotet signed John Mousinho from Burton Albion. Despite coming with a stellar reputation, after a few shaky performances he was written off as another of Clotet’s aged duds. A move into bolstering the midfield under Karl Robinson gave him the headspace to show his immense leadership qualities. His trademark rocket penalty, particularly the one which won the League Cup tie against Sunderland in 2019, was his key moment. Though his career is drawing to a close, under Karl Robinson Mousinho he’s grown to be an immense presence in the club.

30. Sam Long

Sam Long looked all set to be just another talented youth team player whose career would ultimately fizzle out. But while fighting some near career ending injuries, Chris Wilder, Michael Appleton, Pep Clotet and Karl Robinson all saw there was something worth persevering with. In the intervening years, he’s progressed from marginal player to reliable back-up to regular first teamer. He’s now teetering on becoming one of the stars of the show.

29. Marcus Browne

Like Marvin Johnson, Marcus Browne was an immense physical specimen, a golden eagle who soared higher than others. He was originally signed on loan from West Ham and powered through defences. It was no surprise that Karl Robinson scrambled to re-sign him, then from Middlesborough, to fire up his promotion challenge in 2020.

28. Rob Hall

The destiny of Oxford United and Rob Hall are intertwined. He was first signed as a teenager on loan from West Ham in 2011 and was an instant hit with a slew of goals. He returned permanently in 2016 and despite a series of injuries he’s become beacon in the club. His defining moment came at Swindon in 2017 when he thunderous drive from 25 yards won the seventh derby in a row.

27. Mark Creighton

Somehow, the word Creighton feels onomatopoetic, when you consider the monstrous contribution The Beast played in getting us out of the Conference. There was no greater moment than his last minute winner in his debut against York in 2009. In truth, his 2010s career was limited to little more than half a season, but the aftershocks of his impact on the club are felt even today.

26. Joe Skarz

Some players are camera-ready stars, others just deliver. Joe Skarz was a dependable and no nonsense full-back who understood the value of hard work. His fitness levels were second to none and his sense of resolve was formidable. This was no better illustrated than having announced the end of his season because of injury, with promotion in the balance, he lifted himself from the physios bench sacrificing himself in a critical 2-0 win over Hartlepool.

25. Callum O’Dowda

Callum O’Dowda had everything, he was physically strong, had a great touch and a heavy dose of ambition. He broke through in the 2016 promotion squad and may have sat among the homegrown greats. His key moment was the last minute promotion clincher against Wycombe in 2016 – pure poetry. But, as soon as Bristol City came sniffing, he engineered his way into the Championship, had he stuck it out with Oxford a little longer, he’d have comfortably made the top 10.

24. Andy Whing

There was a time when all we wanted was a team of Andy Whings. Effort, competitiveness, 90 minutes of pure commitment, is that too much to ask? Nobody out-competed Andy Whing whether it was Edgar Davids or Ade Akinfenwa. Then, just when we thought we’d seen it all, he scored a spectacular overhead kick against Rochdale which cemented him into Oxford folklore.

23. Shandon Baptiste

Shandon Baptise seemed to glide around a football pitch. Nothing seemed too much trouble – thirty yard drives, sixty yard passes, weaving runs. With the ball at his feet nobody could stop him. There was no better illustration than his mazy run in the closing minutes to score Oxford’s 4th against West Ham in 2019.

22. Curtis Nelson

In the giddiness of post-promotion 2016, Michael Appleton seemed to get himself in a muddle – he had Jake Wright and Chey Dunkley, then he signed Aaron Martin, and then he got a chance to sign Curtis Nelson which was too much to turn down. The Nelson opportunity was so great, Jake Wright was eased out to make space. These were big shoes to fill. Did he film them? Yes, several times over.

21. Ricardinho

Pep Clotet’s army of overseas veterans didn’t bring much joy, but then there was the Brazilian Ricardinho. A full-back whose zest for life, effervescence and joie de vivre brought rare joy to a post-Michael Appleton hangover. Even his defining moment, a barbaric two footed lunge resulting in a red card was done with panache.

20. Simon Eastwood

If there was a weakness in the 2016 promotion team it was in goal, when Michael Appleton signed one-time understudy to Ryan Clarke, Simon Eastwood, from Blackburn Rovers there were those who thought he’d lost his mind. But, it was soon clear he’d bought a diamond; Eastwood grew to become not only one of the best ‘keepers of the decade, but among the best the club has ever had. There was no greater illustration of this than by his penalty save against Newcastle in the FA Cup in 2018.

19. Alex Gorrin

If there’s one thing Karl Robinson loves, it’s a pacey winger. But Oxford United can only play with their attacking swagger because they have a beast in the middle keeping order. Alex Gorrin is both law and order in the Oxford midfield and we love him for it.

18. Liam Sercombe

Liam Sercombe had broad shoulders; literally and metaphorically – when you needed someone to take responsibility, he was your man. His marauding style bagged seventeen goals in our promotion season including an absolute banger at Carlisle on the penultimate weekend of the season – his pièce de résistance.

17. Ryan Clarke

Every team needs a Ryan Clarke, an unflinchingly dependable man between the sticks. Regardless of whether his defence was solid as a rock or porous as a sponge, when Clarke was in goal, you knew you had a chance.

16. Alex MacDonald

Even the fieriest of furnaces start with the strike of a match. When things were falling apart in Michael Appleton’s first season, it was the signing of MacDonald from Burton that signalled a change of fortune. He dragged the team around and pointed it in the right direction. The team that was built around him was full of heroes and MacDonald sat as an equal with all of them.

15. Alfie Potter

Alfie Potter didn’t always start games, he didn’t always influence games, but when it mattered, he was there. The last minute against York City in the play-off final, the 85th minute against Swindon Town in the JPT or the whole destruction of Portsmouth on the opening day of the season in 2013. For many, this was Alfie Potter’s decade.

14. Matty Taylor

The one that nearly got away; locally born Matty Taylor slipped away unnoticed in 2009, but grew into a goalscorer full of guile. In 2019 he returned home older, wiser and better, adding a new dimension to us as an attacking force.

13. Josh Ruffels

Some players fit a manager’s style, some players can simply adapt. Josh Ruffels made his debut under Chris Wilder before turning out for Gary Waddock, Michael Appleton, Pep Clotet and Karl Robinson. He moved from midfield to full-back and never missed a step. While others came and went, Ruffels kept developing, establishing himself as a key player and one of the best of the decade. His iconic moment was in 2019 and a looping last minute drive against Wycombe which was the hallmark of Lionel Messi.

12. Ryan Ledson

Ryan Ledson looked about fourteen but could tackle like a lion and pass like Glenn Hoddle. What really endeared him to Oxford fans was the way he just loved to play. Whether it was beating Swindon or smashing in a last minute winner at Charlton, Ryan Ledson brought us alive.

11. Rob Dickie

Sure, Rob Dickie arrived as a player with potential, he was dependable, studious and strong. But, nobody expected him to evolve into a modern-day Franz Beckenbaur. His key moment was a commanding performance against Manchester City where he kept Raheem Sterling quiet for 90 minutes.

10. Jake Wright

Jake Wright was many things; defender, leader, the epicentre of the club’s rise from the Conference and then from League 2. His calmness and quiet authority kept the heart of the club beating. Just one word encapsulates all of that: Skip.

9. James Henry

Sometimes James Henry seems to drift around the margins of a game, while others go to war, he sits back; calculating, pondering and strategising. Then, as others lose their heads, hearts and legs, he finds another gear, collects the ball and fires a rapier 60 yard pass that’ll win the game.

8. George Baldock

George Baldock could turn a man’s knees to jelly as quickly as he could turn defence into attack. He signed on loan from MK Dons, went away again, signed again and went away again. But we still love him.

7. Danny Hylton

Promotion in 2016 was built on Michael Appleton’s cold science; but no Big Blue computer would be able to figure out Danny Hylton. Gary Waddock’s only signing carried Appleton’s team through his first difficult season but even when the science started to work, Hylton couldn’t be contained. A remarkable career.

6. John Lundstram

John Lundstram is a master of cartography; he could find new angles and discover new routes to goal at will. No Oxford fan will forget the majesty of his distribution.

5. Cameron Brannagan

Signed from Liverpool Cameron Brannagan should have been too big for Oxford. Sign, develop, move, it was practically written on his forehead. But, that’s not what Cameron Brannagan is about; Cameron Brannagan gets it and gets us. And we get him, big time.

4. Chey Dunkley

There was no better story during the 2016 promotion season than Chey Dunkley’s; he started the season as third choice centre back behind John Mullins and Jake Wright, was nearly got sent off in his debut against Bristol Rovers. But then he grew and grew and grew. By the end of the season he was first on the teamsheet scoring the crucial breakthrough goal against Wycombe that took us to promotion. There truly ain’t nobody, like Chey Dunkley.

3. Chris Maguire

Oxford is a nice club, we do things the right way, we play by the rules, then Chris Maguire rode in on his Harley Davidson, smoking a roll-up, took off his Aviator sun glasses and taught us the joy of the dark side. Chris Maguire didn’t run games, he didn’t win them them, he Chris Maguired them.

2. James Constable

There are good players in this list, there are great players, but true legends are few and far between. James Constable is etched into Oxford folklore, talismanic, loyal, someone who loved the club as much as they loved him. After a decade of despondency and false hope, he didn’t so much get Oxford out of the Conference as raise us from the dead.

1. Kemar Roofe

In some ways, describing Kemar Roofe as the best player of the decade under-sells him. He didn’t just operate at a different level, but at in a different dimension. He drifted assuringly into the club with an army of other loanees, just another player with promise set to disappoint. Then, he scored a goal and another, and more. Fittingly, in the 2016 promotion season, he was a striker who wore the number 4, it didn’t make sense. But then, in many ways, Kemar Roofe didn’t make sense at Oxford at all, he was just too good, he transcended us, and that’s why he’s the player of the decade.

Midweek fixture: Oxford United’s biggest rivals… ranked

How do you measure a rivalry? Location? Envy? Superiority? Or is it just a feeling? A few weeks ago, I asked you who you thought were our biggest rivals. Well, here’s the top nineteen.

19. Peterborough United

Let’s not get carried away; it doesn’t take many votes to become our 19th biggest rival. This one is the result of a brooding dislike following the curtailing of last season and the antics of the Peterborough hierarchy.

18. Cambridge United

Really? I’m surprised so many lazy Sky Sports commentators voted. The tenuous varsity link between the two cities has never turned made it into the stands in terms of a rivalry.

17. Queen’s Park Rangers

While many of these lower rivals are based on a single issue, any rivalry with QPR is surely based on a single game, 34 years ago at Wembley.

16. Coventry City

Maybe a bit of a surprise to some, but if you live in the north of the county, you may be more familiar with Coventry fans than other parts.

15. Sunderland

The biggest team in our division probably attracts a few ‘pick me’ votes, but the added link of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Chris Maguire, mean that Sunderland make the list.

14. Stevenage

The team that denied us promotion from the Conference in 2010, but most likely, any rivalry is down to one man and his drinks break; Graham Westley.

13. Wimbledon

Familiarity breeds contempt, Oxford and Wimbledon have shared many seasons together over a very long time. Alongside Luton, they’re the only team we’ve played in both the top flight and the Conference.

12. Bristol City

I can’t fathom this one, we’ve played each other once in the last eighteen years.

11. Crewe Alexandra

In almost any other season, Crewe wouldn’t attract a vote, but the vitriol surrounding their double postponement earlier this season adds a bit of spice to an otherwise dormant relationship. The only rivalry based on not playing any games.

10. Cheltenham Town

Into the top ten and we’re beginning to touch on more sensible rivalries. Cheltenham Town’s relationship must be down to location.

9. Leyton Orient

Some will never let it go; some fourteen years ago Leyton Orient came to the Kassam looking for a win to secure promotion. They did it in the last minute, which sent us down to the Conference. They danced on our pitch, apparently, though I’d left by then. Some will never forget or forgive.

8. MK Dons

The newest rivalry in the list. It’s not exactly what you’d call white hot, but geographical location has always promised a good large following and made MK Dons a decent away day.

7. Portsmouth

Portsmouth sat on their own in terms of votes – some twenty ahead of MK Dons, and a similar number behind Northampton. We’ve shared many seasons with Portsmouth, I think secretly we’re a bit envious of their size and history, which makes beating them all the more sweet.

6. Northampton Town

Now we’re into the real rivalries. First up Northampton Town, another team whose path we’ve crossed countless times. Added spice came from Chris Wilder leaving us for them in 2014, then keeping them up. Then two years later, Wilder took them up as champions despite Michael Appleton’s assertion we were the better team.

5. Luton Town

There’s a genuinely visceral dislike for Luton Town, we’ve played them in the top division and the Conference, we’ve been promotion rivals and they’ve poached our manager. All of which adds up to a relationship with a bit of bite.

4. Bristol Rovers

A team we’ve played with almost monotonous regularity, any rivalry is spiced up by the fact we’re both very capable of winning away in the game. Matty Taylor helped turn the heat up a notch, he hates the Gas, pass it on.

3. Wycombe Wanderers

It’s not a derby, but of all the non-derbies out there, this is the biggest one for us. We won decisively in a key game on the way to promotion in 1996, they beat us in the FA Cup when we were on a roll in 2010, six years later we secured promotion against them, and last year they secured promotion against us at Wembley. It’s not a derby, but it’s getting there.

2. Reading

Perhaps at the expense of Reading? We haven’t played each other in 16 years and not as equals in 19. But, a rivalry still exists, apparently, though it’s kind of like the Korean War – it’s still technically happening, but in reality it’s made up of irritating each other on social media.

1. Swindon Town

The big one. But, this list wasn’t really about finding out who our biggest rival were.

Midweek fixture: Oxford United micro-stories

A pivotal moment on the London Road

At 3.45 on the 29th December 1979, my life is about to change forever. Oxford United were playing Hull City, it was half-time and my dad and I were on the London Road on one our occasional trips to The Manor. It was bitterly cold and the scorching hot Scotch Broth my Granny made before we headed off to the ground was long gone. I loved football and couldn’t get enough of it, but the score was 0-0, it was so terrible, even I knew it.

My dad, knowing that I was cold, asked whether I wanted to go home. I suspect this wasn’t much to do with my welfare, more that he didn’t want to be with a whining 7 year old. I pondered; the terrace was empty; the crowd was small and most had dipped behind the stand to stock up on Bovril and chips. I thought about his offer – go home and get warm; or stay and, well, stay?

I don’t know how long I thought about it, but I eventually concluded we would stay. It was uncharacteristically resolute of me. Oxford came out in the second half kicking down the slope towards the London Road. We roared to a 3-0 win, our performance in the second half was as good as the first half was bad. I’d made the right decision. Going to football was making the right decision, as was staying to the very end and not giving up on your team. My lingering memory is of the pride of sticking with it more than any of the goals. Going to football, not just watching it on TV, was my path.   

Richard’s dad

Richard’s dad was brilliant. He was big in sweets. Well, his job involved getting boxes of chocolates, which he stored in their larder. If my dad couldn’t take me to games, I’d go with Richard and his dad where he’d produce chocolate from various pockets in his coat like Willy Wonka. We’d flit around him like baby birds waiting to be fed. My dad once got his hands on a ZX81 computer and spent all night programming it to print a picture of Mickey Mouse. The printer broke down halfway through due to a bug in the programme. Working with sweets was the best.

We were resolutely Osler Road at the time, but Richard and I would occasionally venture to the wall on the corner with the London Road so we could pat Garry Barnett on the back when he took a corner. It was a sort of training ground for the London Road and for soft boys like us, it was a rough place to be. Occasionally we’d get a prime spot stood on the wall leaning against an advertising board, but mostly we’d end up being faced down by some kids from Barton or Blackbird Leys and would be chased away back to the safety of our dads. The next day we’d report back at school about being at the match and dealing with the ruffians. Nobody really believed us, but were probably quite impressed we were allowed to stay up after 9.30pm.

Nottingham Forest, 1996

It’s 1996, it’s the FA Cup and we’ve drawn Nottingham Forest. The game was postponed and then re-arranged. I fell out with a friend who claims he’s didn’t want to come after I got him a ticket. I’m irritated because of the money, but I don’t want to go alone. In the end, he feels guilty enough to come.

We get there and mill around under the stand; we’re chatting with a steward. Rather naively, my friend asks whether it’ll be a full house. He mouths ‘no’ while observing the Oxford fans suspiciously. He’s not wrong, it’s a cold night, but it’s almost as if someone forgot to tell the people of Nottingham that a game is on.

Forest are in the Premier League and have Brian Roy in their ranks. It’s like he floats, he drops his shoulder and sends the whole away end the wrong way. We’re not playing badly at all, but they’re a class above. It’s no surprise when they take the lead. It looks like we’re heading out, but nobody can be disappointed by the display. Into the last minute and we get a corner. Bobby Ford sweeps another elegant cross into the far post, Stuart Massey fearlessly crashes through a bank of players connects with the ball and grabs the equaliser. In an involuntary spasm, I leave my seat and run down the steps towards him, I’m engulfed by fans, players, stewards and policemen. A briefly make eye contact with Massey who screams in my face. I can’t stop myself, at that moment I’ve truly lost my mind.

Mickey Lewis tells a story

It’s 2004 and I’m at my sister’s wedding. Mickey Lewis is married to one of her old school friends. My mum and dad went to Lewis’ wedding, the bar was full of the great and the good of 1990s Oxford. Dave Penney was the best man. Lewis’ in-laws love him; his father-in-law came round to our house once and told a story about how when they go out to pick up a curry, Mickey would have a pint in the local pub and a bag of chips from the chippy while he waited for his takeaway. For cosseted local folk, this is an adventure beyond boundaries. 

At my sister’s wedding Lewis is at the bar for most of the night holding court with a number of Oxford and Derby fans. He breaks free just once as the opening bars of Baggy Trousers comes on the disco. He gently pushes me aside as he enters the fray so that he can put in a solid 3.34 seconds of skanking. 

As the evening’s celebrations draw to a close and the numbers dwindle, I’m one of a handful of stragglers left in the hotel bar. Mickey’s gravelly voice is getting worse with every passing story. One of our number is a Wycombe Wanderers fan, so I prime Mickey with a mention of our 1996 win over Wanderers at Adams Park. Suddenly, Mickey’s animated; ‘We SPANKED them, didn’t we?’ he says, ‘SPANKED THEM’. His voice echoes across the empty bar. Suddenly he’s on his feet, he grabs his chair and starts to hump it, a metaphor for the beating we gave them that day. His volume increases to the point where he wakes the wife of one of our number who comes out and puts a stop to the party – with Mickey mid-hump – dragging her husband to bed. 

Midweek fixture: The secrets of Oxford United squad numbers

Now, this blog isn’t afraid to tackle the tough issues; Brexit, coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, but I’m sure we can all agree, there are few more contentious issues in world football than squad numbers.

The announcement of squad numbers is part of any pre-season ritual. The allocation is often analysed to get an insight into who’s in favour and who isn’t. The graduation from a ho hum number 24, to the number seven is the sign that someone is coming of age. This year, there was a lot of focus on Mark Sykes’ graduation from 18 to number 10 and anyone who was paying attention will have realised that the initial announcement didn’t include an allocation for the number 11 shirt, a sure-fire sign something was going down, which turned out to be Sam Winnall.

But numerology around squad numbers is more art than science; there’s likely to be both more and less in the meaning behind squad number selection than we’d like to believe. Players may insist on a number because they perceive it to be lucky, others will take whatever is given to them.  

There’s no doubt that numbers become storied; laughably Birmingham City retired Jude Bellingham’s number 22 shirt last season after he signed for Borussia Dortmund, a mark of his indelible impact on the club in, um, less than a season. The Newcastle number 9 and Manchester United number 7 both carry a certain weight. Recently, Alan Shearer was on the radio talking about how Callum Wilson had phoned him about playing for Newcastle and the possibility of taking the number 9 shirt in the process. In the end he’s chosen not to, partly, perhaps, because that number at Newcastle puts you into a rich bloodline.

It’s easy to disappear down an internet wormhole when there’s nothing on TV, some people seek out hideous and monstrous things, me not so much. So, when I stumbled across the Football Squads website, I found myself poring over the history of Oxford United’s squad numbers. 

Allocated numbers have only been around since 1999 in the Football League. Before that teams would play in numbers 1 to 11, typically conforming to a designated position on the pitch. Squad numbers were reserved for international tournaments; presumably because of the practicalities of players retaining the same shirt during their weeks away. There was something very exotic about players in a number 16 or 18 shirt, now it’s barely worth a second mention. 

At the turn of the millennium that changed with players being given unique numbers for domestic campaigns. It was a nod to American sports, where numbers have become icons – not least the number 23 of Michael Jordan. The new system also offers a marketing opportunity, where you could sell the same shirt to the same person over and over, assuming they wanted more than one players’ name on their back. In the celebrity age, it became possible to sell the shirt of a player, even if you don’t care for the club. David Beckham’s value was often measured in the number of shirts he could sell for any club he signed for. This, incidentally, is a myth; players never justify their fees economically in shirt sales.

In reality, it’s not that unusual for numbers to be shared throughout a season. There are numerous occasions at Oxford where three players have turned out in the same number. In 2011/12 four players wore the number 31 – Lewis Guy, Andy Haworth, Conor Ripley and Emiliano Martinez. It surely goes without saying that none made a significant impact on the club.

Some players clearly have preferred numbers – for some reason Eddie Cavanagh was allocated the number 53 in 2014/15, by far the biggest number ever registered, ahead of Will Hoskins who chose to take the number 44, the nearest player to Hoskins that year was John Campbell at 37. Cavanagh’s number is even way ahead of the next biggest number – 47 worn by Kyran Lofthouse in 2018.

Sam Long’s squad number journey has curiosities hidden within – he spent two seasons in the number 30 shirt before spending four at 22. In 2018/19 he switched to 23 for a season before taking up the number 12 shirt. There’s clearly kudos in having one of the shirts from 1-11, but it’s hard to know why he hopped around so much. Perhaps, after a history of injury problems he felt like he could do with a change, though equally, it might be that he’s just happy to take whatever was available.

Holding onto the shirt is no mean feat; two players have been registered to their number for six consecutive seasons – James Constable took the number 9 shirt between 2008-2014 while Jake Wright made the number six his own between 2010-2016. Of the current squad, Simon Eastwood is currently on the longest run, this season will be his fifth in the number 1 shirt while James Henry has made the number 17 his own for four seasons. With his contract extension he should make the exclusive six season club.

For perhaps obvious reasons, the number 13 shirt wasn’t worn for ten years between 2003-2013. Three times it was taken up by foreign goalkeepers – Pal Lundin, Hubert Busby and Benji Buchel (for two seasons), presumably their cultural backgrounds meant they didn’t have the sense of foreboding about the number. Maybe there’s an interesting signal that the ancient hex of the number 13 is on the wane; Jack Stevens and Scott Shearer have been comfortable with the number 13 in recent seasons.

Unsurprisingly, the number one shirt is the most stable of them all, that’s never been swapped mid-season and only worn by eight players since 1999. The number two shirt is similar, but beware, in the last seven seasons only Christian Ribierio has managed to wear it for a whole campaign. Cameron Norman, Chris Cadden and George Baldock have had the shirt, but failed to make it to the end of the season. Sean Clare had better watch his back, or perhaps we should watch his back.

Some of the swaps feel highly symbolic – Mark Creighton was registered to the number 5 shirt in 2010/11, the season after promotion back from the Conference, in his place came Djoumin Sangare, which suggests a major misstep from Chris Wilder. In 2014/15 Joe Skarz took over the number three from Tom Newey; a true changing of the guard into the Appleton era.

Is there a cursed shirt? You’d do well to avoid number 24; in 21 seasons it’s been worn by thirty-one players including Alan Judge in 2003 who played as an emergency stand-in aged 44 and fabled one-game wonder Doudou in 2005. 

Does Oxford have a famous shirt? James Constable’s number nine is shared with Steve Anthrobus, Rob Duffy and Sam Smith, as well as Steve Basham and Matty Taylor. The number 6 of Jake Wright was worn by Matt Elliot and Mark Creighton but also Dave Woozley and Ian McGuckin. Was Joey Beauchamp’s number 11 enhanced by Mark Rawle and Lewis Haldane? What about the number 4 – a shirt worn by Kemar Roofe, Rob Dickie and John Lundstram, but also Peter Fear and Richard Brindley. Maybe the classic Oxford number is eight? John Aldridge, Liam Sercombe, Ryan Ledson and currently Cameron Brannagan have all carried that number.

None are as storied as the Manchester United number 7 or Newcastle number 9, but there’s a tale to tell in every one. In the coming months I’ll tell the story of different numbers and how they passed from legends to no-hopers and back again as the club’s fortunes ebbed and flowed.

Midweek fixture: 6 steps to surviving a pandemic as an Oxford fan

The government has paused its programme to return fans to stadiums pretty much wiping out the prospect of going to a game in October, and let’s face it, for some time beyond that. There are all sorts of implications for this, not least financial. But, in addition, it’s clearly a blow to the mental and social wellbeing of the club and those within it. Fans, players, owners and managers alike have been skittled by the news. While I can’t claim to have all this figured out, here are some ideas for dealing with the next few months as an Oxford fan.

Accept where you are 

When Chris Wilder criticised Oxford fans for romanticising the Milk Cup win in 1986 some thirty years earlier, he was slated by all who heard him. He was also right. We were a Conference team, our standards had slipped and the sooner we understood that, the sooner we’d sort the problem out. Epidemics are not unusual, nor pandemics; they’ve been less widespread – as with MERS, or more deadly as with Spanish flu, but they’re really quite common and most generations will have to deal with one. The faster you accept it and take action, the quicker it’s over. You can fight the reality by looking for data to prove what you want – that this is some kind of trivial seasonal flu or a government conspiracy. You can find research that proves masks are useless or damaging. But, this where we are, at nature’s behest until science comes to our rescue. A story as old as time. As an Oxford fan it means the prospect of empty stadiums and streaming services for months to come, it’s not like it was, it’s not like it will be, but it is like it is today. A friend of mine once taught me a trick about cycling up a steep hill – there is a point where you drop to your lowest gear and the bike can’t help anymore, for a while it’s going to be painful, but not forever. Accept it, then get pedalling.

Don’t beat yourself up about missing football

Football is often trivialised because of its omnipresence; the money, commercialism, the endless analysis and discussion. We are frequently reminded of times when football is ‘put into perspective’ as though it has got above its station. There are people dying and you’re sad about missing football? That’s gauche and distateful. But, football clubs are social institutions affecting thousands of people which are centuries old. Oxford United as an institution that has lived through Spanish Flu, two World Wars and countless local, national and global crises. It gives people purpose and structure, its resilience gives them hope. These are institutions that suffer glory and tragedy, riches and poverty, they ebb and flow and pulsate and they still survive. You’re part of that success, like generations of people before you. It’s fine to be proud of it and to miss it and to want to protect it. The reason it keeps going is because it means something; it is possible to simultaneously be concerned about people dying and the absence of football and to be no less a person because of it.  

Acknowledge what you have

The world is full of self-help books, a majority of them encourage you to ditch your past and create an often unattainable future. You change everything, transform your eating, ditch your bad habits and get increasingly miserable, so you take a break and all the things you were trying to rid yourself of come creeping back. You’re missing football, you’re missing the game, the routine, the little joys. You’re casting back to those memories, you cast forward to a time when it’s all over. And you want it to happen soon. But how are you now? Alive? Safe? Warm? Build from there. The club and social network that springs from it still exists. You still have the experiences that the club has given you – Nathan Holland’s last minute equaliser against Newcastle, Ryan Ledson slamming home at Charlton – indulge in that. If your mind wanders and your regrets and hopes and anxieties eat away, then stop and check. Are you OK now?

Find the next step

If there’s one overriding criticism I have of Boris Johnson it’s his endless hyperbole. Every financial pledge is ONE HUNDRED MILLION POUNDS, every initiative will be world beating, everything will be fixed by Christmas, if not next Tuesday. Not only does that simply serve to constantly disappoint, it fails to deal with the next step which is, in fact, the most important. You might want to be in the East Stand screaming yourself horse with your friends, or travelling 165 miles for a drab goalless draw on a Tuesday night, but that’s not the next step. The next step might be to indulge an hour or six in Oxford United’s kit history, listen to a podcast, watch the goals from the 95/96 season on YouTube, you might even re-read old posts from this blog. If it brings you joy, that’s your next step. If you can afford it, buy a match pass for a game, or a new shirt, or an old shirt, or some other old tat, or just listen to the commentary on Saturday on the radio. Keep taking the next step, then, one day someone will announce a test event, and you might get to go to that, then an increase in capacity and then, step by step towards something we call normality. And, my goodness, imagine what that’ll feel like. But, for now, just focus on taking the next step.

Act collectively

You see it all the time, the old blaming the young, the young blaming the old, the left blaming the right, the right blaming the left, even the healthy dismissing the sick as cannon fodder. Blame is often placed on a faceless, nameless, probably non-existent ‘other’ – they’re not using their common sense, they’re not waking up to the tyranny. So, rather than blaming other people or acting on your personal instincts, stick with the yellow army. Social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, limiting contact with others. Like you would turn up to a game for kick-off, sing in unison, contribute personally to a collective success. Do it for other fans and for the benefit of the club; because the club is made up of the young and old, the right and left, the sick and healthy. Do it for the people who retell stories of Joey Beauchamp, Jim Smith and Ron Atkinson, do it for the people who fill the stands with flags and banners to make the best atmosphere in the country. Do it for the joke on the train going to an away game which makes you laugh even though you know it shouldn’t. Do it for the old couple who find themselves at the bottom of a bundle from a last minute goal at Portsmouth. If you can’t bring yourself to do it for the people you blame; do it for the club.

Know it will get better

If there’s one thing that being an Oxford fan tells you it’s that you have to always believe that things will improve. I’ve sat in the Kassam car park staring through my windscreen at the those trudging through the turnstiles wondering why I bother. I’ve seen hundreds of games of football and, frequently, I’ve walked out of the ground having seen them lost. I know that I’ll be back the following week, looking forward to a win. Then imperceptibly, it does start to get better, a win becomes two, two become five, form becomes promotion. Then before you know it you find yourself in a full stadium watching Chris Maguire breaking from a corner sliding the ball to Kemar Roofe to chip home for a famous cup win, or Sam Deering and Alfie Potter exchanging passes on the way to redemptive glory at Wembley, or you catch yourself, eyes bulging, ashen faced, unburdened of your money, work and family stresses, gulping for air as a primordial guttural scream, the likes of which you could never muster voluntarily, cascades from your gaping mouth as down below Toni Martinez knee slides towards you and thousands of others who are hundreds of miles from home, pursued by his team mates in a moment of unified ecstasy. That’s the memory, that’s the moment. From Stafford and Merthyr to Swansea and Middlesborough. Remember, it will always get better.