Midweek Fixture: Your Oxford United predictions from last year

OK, I know it’s the Euros and the government is collapsing, but we’re less than a month from the start of the season and everything still feels a little bit sleepy. So, to ease ourselves into pre-season, I thought we’d do some general stretches by looking at your predictions for last season, and how accurate they were.

This is all in preparation for the results of this year’s survey, which I’ll start rolling out as we build up to the new season. If you haven’t taken part, then it’s all here for you to give your rating and predictions.

But now the dust has settled, how did we really do last season?

The league

We finished 8th last season, which given that we spent long periods in the play-off zone felt a bit underwhelming. Eighth is always a popular placing in your pre-season predictions, with 12.4% of you accurately predicting our finishing position. But, generally speaking there was an expectation that we’d finish higher. In total we finished lower than 73.8% expected.

PositionTeamPredictionDifference
1Wigan Athletic16+15
2Rotherham4+2
3MK Dons17+14
4Sheffield Wednesday1-3
5Sunderland3-2
Wycombe Wanderers21+15
7Plymouth Argyle15+8
8Oxford United80
Bolton Wanderers7-2
10Portsmouth9-1
11 Ipswich Town2-9
12Accrington Stanley10-2
13 Charlton Athletic5-8
14 Cambridge United22+8
15Cheltenham Town23+8
16Burton Albion13-3
17 Lincoln City6-11
18Shrewsbury Town12-6
19Morecambe24+5
20Fleetwood Town14-6
21 Gillingham18-3
22Doncaster Rovers11-11
23Wimbledon20-3
24Crewe Alexandra19-5

When asked who were going to win the title and who would finish bottom, you accurately predicted an eighth place finish. Wigan won the title, even though you thought they’d finish 16th, Rotherham were runner’s up; you had them finishing fourth. 

The four play-off contenders were Sheffield Wednesday (predicted: 1st), Sunderland (3rd), MK Dons (17th) and Wycombe (21st). So the two northern clubs broadly finished where you thought they might, the two southern clubs way above expectations.

You predicted Ipswich would get automatic promotion and that Charlton and Lincoln would make the play-offs. All finished well below expectations.

At the bottom, Crewe (predicted: 19th), Wimbledon (20th), Doncaster (11th), Gillingham (18th), so Doncaster’s capitulation was the big surprise.

You expected Morecambe, Cheltenham (15th) and Cambridge (14th) to go down, but both had decent season’s and respectable finishes.

Over-performers were the ever-unpredictable Wigan who finished 15 places higher than you were expecting and Wycombe, who you spitefully had down as relegation candidates. The biggest under-performers were Lincoln and Doncaster who both finished eleven places lower than you predicted.

The only club whose position you accurately predicted? Oxford United.

FA Cup

In the FA Cup, you predicted that we’d make it to the third round, but we were knocked out by Bristol Rovers in the first, as a result we underwhelmed 88.5% of supporters.

League Cup

Most of you predicted we’d make it to the second round of the League Cup, which we did before falling to QPR. We met the expectations of 19.7% of people and exceeded 6.6%. It still means we underwhelmed just under three-quarters of people’s expectations.

Hopes for the season

Your biggest hope for the season was simply getting back to games, and we did enjoy a full programme with no breaks. It’s hard to imagine the state of play this time last year, but we were still longing for some very simple pleasures. You’ve got to love the NHS haven’t you? 

More specifically we wanted full stadiums and away days, exciting prospects back then. We enjoyed both of those with six home games having attendances over 10,000. So in terms of hopes, though they seem moderate, they were all fulfilled.

Predictions

You predicted that the stadium situation would be resolved, and while we haven’t quite gone that far, it’s certainly moved further forward than at any point in the last 20 years. The Kassam hasn’t been renamed Tiger’s Den. You thought we’d have new owners, and yet a year down the line, rumoured takeovers have still not been formally agreed. One of you predicted a UK based Euromillions winner would take over and, well, no.

You expected a change of manager during the season with Karl Robinson going to a club in a higher division, well, he’s still here. Steve Kinniburgh didn’t become a coach. Did he play four wingers? Well, against Shrewsbury in March we did start with Williams, Sykes, Holland and Whyte. They were also on the pitch against Ipswich and Plymouth.

Elliott Moore did sign a new contract, so the prediction he wouldn’t was wrong. Sean Clare wasn’t our best player, Shandon Baptiste didn’t come back, Rob Atkinson did leave, but Mide Shodipo wasn’t the predicted returning hero (Gavin Whyte and Nathan Holland were, perhaps?). Dan Agyei didn’t quite score twenty goals, but Sam Winnall was injured. All. The. Time.

Some of you predicted a good start to the season and being unbeaten in the first four games wasn’t too bad, certainly better than in the past under Karl Robinson. We didn’t give Wycombe a good thrashing, so let’s not go there. Trevor Kettle didn’t send of three players or give away three penalties.

There was no dog on the pitch, Wycombe didn’t get promoted via the play-offs, but got darned close.

Conclusions

Personally, I enjoyed last season as much as any for years. League One is a great division with plenty of big teams to play and lots of competition. But, objectively, we did seem to fall a bit short. Maybe we’re just a spoilt and, let’s face it you lot are terrible at predictions, so none of us are perfect.

So, there you go, the results of this year’s survey will be out over the coming weeks; your hopes, predictions and ratings. If you haven’t taken part, why not do it now

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Doncaster Rovers 1

It’s been 1099 days since we last went to the Kassam Stadium for a genuinely mathematically meaningless game. Three days short of three years, when we played, well, Doncaster Rovers and, well, drew. We had a seventeen-year-old, Nico Jones, making his full debut in defence who marked the occasion with a good performance and an own goal. We were 11th with 60 points with a game to go (which we lost).

I don’t remember it, and I guess in time I won’t remember yesterday’s re-run which, of course, had James Golding in the role of defensive debutante. Only Jack Stevens’ athleticism prevented Golding from matching Jones’ feat of putting the ball into his own net.  

Still, it was quite refreshing to take a breath, throw away the league table and see what’s what. Karl Robinson described it as a pre-season friendly, but it wasn’t even that, there were no weighted expectations, no anxiously looking for signs of what’s to come in the coming season. It was an opportunity to take stock.

Almost literally, Robinson purged the squad of players who wouldn’t be at the club next season, Mark Sykes being the most obvious persona non-grata, ending a curious relationship in which he teetered on the edge of leaving for League 2 before turning himself into a player who is expected to play in the Championship or Scottish Premiership next season.

It’s part of Robinson’s style; if he loves you, he really loves you, if not, then you’re designated other, an outsider. Think of his on-off-on love affair with Rob Hall, his cynical recall of George Baldock in 2016, his loyalty to Marcus Browne and Nathan Holland. You can see it in how others view him, Robinson can be despised by fans outside the club he’s at, but once inside your club, he’s perceived very differently.

It’s very deliberate, I suspect, one of Alex Ferguson’s qualities was his ability to convince his squads that everyone hated them. That’s absurd, of course, Manchester United were the biggest club in the world, loved by millions, admired by more. Ferguson convinced his players that beyond the club’s boundaries was a hostile land, they had to perform and stay inside the camp because there was no future outside it.

Robinson’s treatment of Sykes may as much be a message to the squad – a kind of blood sacrifice – as it is a swipe at Sykes himself. Don’t be surprised if he reappears at some point a la Gavin Whyte. But for now, the message is; do you want to be alone out there? Really?

Maybe there’s good reason to stay; the sun shone which gave a rare opportunity for fans to truly show their colours. You’ve got to be pretty fashion-forward to wear a bright yellow coat, so during the brutal winter months, the yellow army rarely shows more than a glimpse of its signature colour. Yesterday we looked vibrant, there were a lot of vintage shirts on show, a sign of our heritage. We turned up in good numbers. I suspect a proportion bought tickets a few weeks ago in anticipation of it being critical to securing a play-off spot or better, but still they came. We looked like a club.

We warmly applauded Golding and O’Donkor’s every touch, a habitual over-compensation to give them encouragement. Golding had an excellent game despite the momentary panic of nearly putting the ball in his own net. O’Donkor was enthusiastic, which is all you can ask for when you’re making your debut from the bench. There was a freshness about seeing them play, a freedom that we could be without fear of what it might do to the league table.

The central debate seems to be whether we’re moving forward. Measuring progress is hard, it’s not a specific data point – though many will point at a single thing that will ‘prove’ their personal view. Success is a basket of measures from which you deduce scenarios. The points total is better, the performances are better, but relative to others we’re worse, the club is more robust, but stability of the squad and the number of senior players at the end of their contract is worse than a year ago. It’s hard, but for me, at worst we’ve broadly ended up in the same place, with signs of improvement. I’m happy with the season and I’m happy with being in League 1. But that’s only for now, of course.

Nietzche says ‘Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.” What he’s saying is that problems or solutions can rarely be found in individuals, they exist in the collective whole – in the connections between individuals. We don’t have any truly ‘bad’ players, one signing or loss of a player won’t materially change who we are. It hasn’t always been the case, when we’ve been less cohesive, it’s been easier to single out problems.

And this takes me back to a theme I wanted to touch on at the start of the season, but never got round to. I think of Marcus Rashford and his work feeding hungry children, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson promoting the work of nurses, Tyrone Mings calling out the hypocrisy of the Home Secretary, Karl Robinson during the pandemic, John Mousinho and his work on dementia through the PFA. I think of taking the knee before games to highlight the cancerous impact of racism, a cause the players won’t back down from despite criticism. All of that without the fact they are highly skilled professionals and amongst the healthiest humans in the world. Have we reached a stage where the football profession holds itself to higher standards than wider society? It’s not just about profile, these people don’t have to do it, they’ve got money and difficult jobs, there has to be a will to do it.

And that makes me think that the club will only move forward if everyone takes part and raises their standards, that’s not always by doing the big things. Perhaps it’s going to an extra game on a cold Tuesday when you’d rather be at home, shouting a bit louder, going to an extra away game, being friendly and funny to opposition fans when you’re there, buying a bit of merchandise, bringing a friend to a game, going to a women’s game, writing a blog (no, don’t do that). Success is not in the individuals, it’s in the whole.

So to the players, management, staff, owners, fans, media, podcasters, bloggers, mysterious Rage On maintainers, Oxford Kits illustrators, Yellows Forum arguers, the planners and politicians trying to secure our long term future, we should be happy and proud of what we’ve achieved. We started the season emerging from a pandemic, negotiated a scary re-emergence of the virus, the death of a legend, stepped forward in gaining a new stadium and had some thrills along the way. There’s work to do, but for now the summer is here, let’s not judge ourselves by whether we’ve gone backwards or forwards, but instead let’s simply enjoy what we’ve achieved.

Match wrap – Rotherham United 2 Oxford United 1

One of my favourite books is Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, which tells the complex history of the CIA, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden right up to the day before 9/11 and the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who represented the final line of resistance against The Taliban. At the time, his death seemed like an end in itself in a long struggle, twenty-four hours later it had been forgotten.

The book is full of missed opportunities, well intentioned decisions with unintended consequences and pivotal moments that could have taken the world in a different direction. You wince as tribal Afghans are stuck in the mountains listening to stories of a utopian Muslim nation that never existed, of the US funding of Afghan resistance against the Soviets, of Osama bin Laden’s uncharacteristic heroism that gave him a legendary status he barely deserved as a military general, of his misinterpretation of the Afghan victory as an act of god rather than the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Even the moment Massoud is assassinated by people claiming to be journalists visiting for an interview, you’re screaming ‘don’t let them in’.

What emerges are multiple strands of stories interweaving to create an unstoppable momentum towards oblivion. Wind the clock on and that combines with other factors to generate what we see today – 9/11 legitimised overt islamophobia in mainstream political discourse, which allowed for the creation of Guantanamo Bay, which created Isis and a reactive and acceptable breed of nationalism which created Brexit, Trump and Russia. 

We want stories to be linear, a simple progression from A to B – with B being a better place than A – books and films have to simplify their narrative to be understood and we often seek to see the world through similarly simple arcs.

Imagine if Oxford United’s lottery hadn’t collapsed in the early eighties, which plunged them into debt, which attracted Robert Maxwell, whose demise sent the club into its own death spiral. Imagine if that hadn’t attracted a series of well-intentioned saviours who tried to build a stadium they couldn’t afford and needed Firoz Kassam to bail them out, meaning the club didn’t benefit from the sale of its own land, leaving it with an unloved three-sided stadium and starved of playing resources, which resulted in relegation to the Conference. Imagine if that previous forty years hadn’t happened and we hadn’t had to spend the last twelve slowly returning to some kind of parity. How you judge end-point B, is all about where start point A is.

The defeat to Rotherham has brought the season to a premature end with a not unfamiliar problem of scoring early, before conceding. It’s the tenth time we’ve dropped points having scored the first goal. We’ve again been undone by defensive frailties coupled with an attacking joie de vivre; a familiar pattern we hoped would take us to glory, but feared would leave us just short.

But is that the story? Is it that we’ve failed because we haven’t reached the play-offs for the first time in three seasons? Is it that we’ve won only two in the last six? Or is it that we’re attracting our highest crowds for thirty-four years, our highest points total at this level for twenty-six and our highest goals scored for thirty-eight? Or is it that the Premier League being funded by sovereign states and oligarchs, has distorted competition in club football forcing clubs to over-stretch to keep up, causing them to plummet to a level below where they expect to be, but which makes them super competitive at the level they’re at? 

It’s all those things, of course. Compare us to last season and we’ve materially gone backwards, compared to ten years ago and we’re significantly further forwards. Look at the numbers and we’ve stepped forwards compared to last season in a division which has leapt ahead. If I think about when I started following the club and we were at the same level as we are now, you can’t compare the two divisions in terms of quality of play, entertainment or the experience itself. This is the best team not to have achieved anything – which is like being the world’s tallest dwarf or having the best house in the worst street. Is that a good thing?

I’ve long felt that promotion and even the play-offs are a by-product of playing well and competing, rather than an objective in itself. We would take promotion and the likely struggle the following season, of course, but doing that with boring pragmatic football would be a missed opportunity. We’re not Wigan, Rotherham or several other clubs that are happier to sacrifice style for points. It’s not that their football is wrong or worse, it’s just not as fun. They have the infrastructure and business model we don’t yet have to compete at a higher level so maybe entertaining in League 1 is just wasting time for them.

There will be a time when that will change and the objective, the necessity, for us will be to get promotion because that’s how you fill a new stadium and pay for further growth. For now, this version of Oxford United, which feels like a fresh spring day in comparison to the grey drizzle of ten to fifteen years ago, needs to build on what it has rather than tack into a new direction.

You can’t wish your life away, it’s too easy to always be in year one of a five year plan. For me, we need to be looking to a fixed point when the Kassam Stadium lease is up and our long term plans are more certain. That gets closer with every passing season. If promotion needs to be some point in that timeframe, what does progress mean in the short term? Defensive stability and a more solid and experienced core who can avoid throwing away those early advantages which have lost us points this year. That’s the difference I’d like to see. I’d like to see players coming off the bench to close games down, not light them up.

It’s too easy to be insular and fret about your own failings, perhaps it’s better to judge yourself by the company you keep. If you look at the League 1 table and draw a line under Charlton in 12th, it could easily be a Championship table of the recent past. Only ourselves and Plymouth haven’t played at that level in the last ten years and nine teams have been there in the last six. Twelve years ago we were competing in a division with Rushden, Kettering, Salisbury, Tamworth and Histon. Maybe it doesn’t feel like it now, but we’re doing OK.

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 MK Dons 0

For months, MK Dons have lurked around the top of League One with the threatening menace of one of those robotic dogs that look a little too real for comfort. 

They are, in every sense, an anomaly, a synthetic approximation amongst the booze-addled ‘proper clubs’ of the division. As a result, they’ve always looked slightly ridiculous with their Premier League stadium occupied by a smattering of fans. An unthreatening failed experiment, a benign cyst.

While they remain reassuringly unreal, there’s always been a nagging fear they could become sentient, learn how to be a successful club, realise their potential and destroy us all. That was the original objective – to reinvent the concept of a football club, free from the shackles of history that many clubs endure like a pair of concrete boots. 

In recent weeks they’ve moved closer to their apocalyptic goal than at any time since the fresh faced Karl Robinson led them to the Championship in 2015. A few weeks ago, League One had looked sewn up for Wigan and Rotherham, then MK stomped into view losing one game in 21.

Weeks ago I’d targeted the game as the one that would confirm our play-off place. I imagined a balmy spring day and a full and expectant stadium. Since then we’ve slipped into a zone of uncertainty. Last night’s crowd didn’t really know whether it was a meaningful must-win game or end of season admin.

By contrast, MK traveled in large numbers, buoyed by their form and the prospect of promotion. They started singing more than half-an-hour before kick-off. ‘They’ll never keep that up’ I scoffed. Over an hour later, they were still going like Galatasaray fans at the Istanbul derby.

Our uncertainty seeped onto the pitch, it rendered us immobile, frozen with fear. Our lack of movement allowed them to encircle us, throttling our routes out, suffocating any attacking threat. Gavin Whyte and Nathan Holland couldn’t break free to stretch the play, Cameron Brannagan and Herbie Kane kept passes short and risk free, Matty Taylor dropped back to help out. We became ensnared. 

It was like we weren’t quite sure what we were trying to do; hold our position or go for a win. With the play-offs apparently out of reach and maybe as many as eight of the starting eleven potentially leaving in the next few weeks, were there any risks worth taking? Why would anyone want to feel the white hot heat of derision if we failed? Not losing was more important than winning.

Halfway through the first half, Karl Robinson had seen enough. A break in play gave the players an opportunity to have a drink. The manager was slow to react at first, but he warmed to his theme and a rage enveloped him. These weren’t nuanced tactical adjustments, this was a full-on nuclear assault designed to blast the players out of the stupor.

Like a rolled up hedgehog being sniffed by an inquisitive dog, we made it to half-time intact. People busied themselves doing half-time things, but on the pitch there were no substitutes idly playing head tennis. When MK reappeared after the break, there was no sign of their opposition. Where were they? Was Robinson incoherently screaming in tongues, beating the blooded carcass of Jamie Hanson with a broken snooker cue for emphasis? Were the players sat frozen to the spot while Robinson’s spittle rained down on them? Eventually they were released, emerging in twos and threes as if to reassure each other. 

We instantly looked more animated with an extra burst of energy and a bit more intent in each challenge. Suddenly the MK machine no longer looked like an occupying force awaiting our surrender. When we pushed back, they looked human and fallible. They started to buckle.

The fans responded, the away end no longer providing the dominant noise. For all the improved attitude, chances were limited. Into the last ten minutes, we could at least be content that we’d tamed the beast even if we couldn’t secure the breakthrough. For most, the season was drawing to a close, but as Robinson introduced Marcus Browne and Ryan Williams, he signalled he wasn’t going to give up that easily. 

Now, the robot dog might look like a dog and act like a dog, but, crucially, it’s not a dog. Truth is, MK desperately want to be a real grown up club that does things properly. If the textbook says play from the back, that’s what you do. 

With five minutes to go, keeper Jamie Cumming follows the rules by rolling the ball to Dean Lewington. Ryan Williams is alert, panicking the veteran into playing a hurried ball into midfield. Billie Bodin nicks posession, exchanging passes with Matty Taylor and is suddenly he’s through. He shoots. Even a shot seems out of kilter in this orgy of midfield possession puratism. The speed of the move is so fast, the crowd can’t recalibrate. The robots flounder, tripping over themselves, reality bites, the ball disappears from view for a split second, it’s gone beyond the keeper. The net ripples reassuringly to confirm the goal.

There’s a disbelieving eruption, we don’t know what we’ve seen, but as fans, we need to respond. To compete is one thing, but to win? To find the weak spot and beat the machine, the only person who believed that was possible seemed to be the manager.

In recent weeks we’ve been consumed by doubt, about our purpose for the rest of the season, about our ability to beat the better teams. But give us a chance to rage against the machine and we ignite a spirit from deep within. Our ultimate fate may still be in the hands of others, but at least the flame of hope burns brightly.

Match wrap – Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 3

I’ve been thinking about death a bit recently. This week the album Dig Your Own Hole by the Chemical Brothers was 25 years old. I remember it coming out and our post-pub game of trying to keep up with the lyric from Electrobank as it pumped out of the speakers at a friend’s flat; grand old days on the Cowley Road which feel like they happened about five minutes ago.

If I cast forward 25 years, I’ll be my parents’ age. My mum recently asked me to come over to fix a flat tyre on her car. When I got there, everything seemed fine. Eventually she explained she’d seen someone apparently looking at her tyres in Waitrose car park and convinced herself that they must have been thinking it looked flat.

That’s life; from vibrant to befuddled in the blink of an eye. 

I’m reaching an age where, when bad things happen to people, I start to calibrate it against my own age thinking; that could be me in a few years. Bob Mortimer had open-heart surgery at 56, which no longer feels old to me. I could have five more years or thirty, I’m in a permanent sense of wanting to take my time while feeling that time is simultaneously running out.

With results going against us, yesterday’s win still looks like it’ll have little impact on our stalling quest for the play-offs. Even though those at the top still have to play each other, we can have little impact over the fate of the teams that matter – beating Rotherham or MK Dons won’t have any impact on the lower end of the play-off places, they’re just very difficult games. 

Still, it’s nice to break run of three defeats as well as our duck at Fleetwood and to keep our season alive for a few more days. It’s not inconceivable, given those next two games, that we could have been looking at quite an extended run of poor form taking us into the summer, which may have created a jitteriness that we don’t need in the new season.

As is often the case, the performance was analogous of the season; the opening twenty minutes were – according to Karl Robinson – perfect. Their penalty looked like a blip, the second goal had us looking down the barrel, they had a third cleared off the line as we looked in imminent danger of collapse. The closing minutes had us running on empty, there was even a grim looking injury to James Henry to represent the loss of key players this year. It was a year in ninety minutes, judging by Robinson’s post-match interview, it sounds like he felt it.

Recent form has even encouraged some chat at the margins about the manager’s future. People point to us ‘going backwards’ – play-off final, play-off semi-final, miss out on the play-offs. There’s no sacking imminent and it’s hardly a mainstream view, but if it were to happen it would surely be a firing in anger rather than a strategic move to see us progress. You want to see decline? Two seasons ago Fleetwood, like us, were in the play-offs – now they’re fighting relegation. Lincoln were in last season’s play-off final and are nowhere have been looking down more than up this year. It’s a competitive division with at least half the teams thinking that they’re playing below their natural level and we’re holding our own.

Which draws us back to the original theme. Should you judge things in short bursts or try to spread it out over a long period of time? Personally, if we are going to miss out on the play-offs, I’m not too bothered. I think League One is a brilliant division to be in; it’s entertaining, competitive and accessible. Play-off places and promotion are added bonuses, by-products. 

If I were the owners, I would be thinking about a strategic goal of being in a new stadium as a sustainable and competitive Championship side. That’s still a minimum of four years away and the question they need to ask themselves is whether we are on that course. I would say that given we’re still in with a shout of the play-offs with three games to go, we’re filling the stadium and playing entertaining football, as well as developing players to sell on; we’re absolutely in the right place to capitalise if the stadium can be delivered.

But equally, how long do you wait? For some people, they won’t see promotion in five years or a full stadium at Stratfield Brake. People like me probably will, but maybe won’t. Should I be demanding success or complacently let another season pass? Should I be angrily lashing out at the manager at the passing of time? What if we are at the crest of a downward curve? What is this is a trajectory towards the bottom of the table next year? There’s always next year, or is there?

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Sunderland 2

According to the dashboard of my car, I need to fill up with something called Adblue. I’ve no idea what Adblue is, but it’s sufficiently important for the car to tell me that it’ll ‘stop’ in about 1400 miles if I don’t act. Given everything else that’s going on in the world, I think that’s a bit selfish. Would it kill it to just keep going for a bit longer? There’s a bloody war on.

Dashboard warnings are designed to make you anxious, so this added to a low-level anxiety about a seemingly localised fuel shortage, which I’d not been aware of until Friday night. I had plenty of fuel to get to the game, but my brain evidently likes me to have extra in the tank in case I need to take a spontaneous 200-mile round trip somewhere. What would happen if I suddenly needed to buy a loaf of bread or a pair of slippers in Warwick? I simply wouldn’t make it.

On top of all this, of course, was parking anxiety, something I’ve basically come to realise is just a manifestation of big match nerves. TV would have you believe big games are preceded by excitable fans, punching the air and hugging with anticipatory fervour. For me it’s wondering if I’ll need to reverse park into a tight space on a corner going up a hill.

I’ve been to hundreds of games of football all over the country and never failed to park at any of them. I haven’t had to drive to a game, then return home sobbing with exhaustion, having not stopped. None-the-less, the prospect of not parking looms larger as a big game approaches. Someone tweeted me to say the Abingdon Road was looking bad. I’ve never driven down the Abingdon Road, let alone parked on it, but I still brought my leaving time forward by 15 minutes.

I eventually arrived at a time which felt like some time just after dawn, and found my usual place had ample space. The Grenoble Road was full and the club had tweeted that the car parks were no longer accessible, but my normal spot was reassuringly accommodating. 

We meandered around the ground for a bit, went to the shop to see if there was a bargain to have, before realising that nobody needs to see me in an 8XL third choice goalkeeping shirt while reading a copy of Brian Horton’s autobiography. Inside the ground, as kick-off approached, there seemed little urgency to proceedings. Both sets of fans were quiet, a tifo of Karl Robinson with arms aloft was held up making the East Stand seem like a particularly odd episode of Sesame Street.

At kick-off, there were still a notable number of spaces all around the stadium, perhaps there were a few season ticket holders on holiday or maybe it’s an illustration of just how rampant covid is at the moment, but hundreds seemed unable to attend. Superficially, it was a sell out against a big team, but it felt more like Burton at home on a couple of cans of Red Bull.

The game seemed to succumb to the subdued atmosphere. It’s hard to judge where Sunderland are in their journey. Have they realised yet that they are a lower league club, despite the big stadium and Netflix series? Have they recalibrated to understand that size and history alone will not gain them promotion? They didn’t feel like a team totally lost, but neither did they look like they had momentum. There will be a point where they’ll hoover up the best League 1 players rather than the worst Championship players and storm the league, how close they are to that is hard to tell.

For us, did we know in our heart of hearts that the season is beyond us? The return of Elliott Moore and Cameron Brannagan certainly made us look more robust and we weren’t darting around like busy fools, but nor were we particularly explosive out of the blocks, ready to right the wrongs of the last week.

Or, was the game so high in quality that both teams played themselves into some kind of neutrality? It can happen whatever the level, the more obvious excitement of goals and chances gives way to an ever-increasing tension as both teams try to figure out a way to break the deadlock without breaking themselves.

After a decent start for us, their breakthrough came from a characteristic bit of dopey defending. There seemed to be an age after the ball dropped to the feet of Corry Evans, almost like the whole Oxford team were engaged in some kind of telepathic post-mortem.

‘This is a dangerous place for them to have the ball.’ ‘Yes, we should be more alert to these situations.’ ‘There are lots of us, who do you think should close him down?’… goal.

With inevitability staring us in the face and momentum apparently with them, there was a chance to euthanise the game. You suspect it wouldn’t have taken much to batter us into a fug of our own frustration. Despite the lead, Sunderland fans were eerily quiet, far more subdued than the other big dogs who have come to the Kassam this season. For a full stadium with two teams in a last chance dog fight for the play-offs, it was a polite affair.

A lot of the rest of the game centred around Billy Bodin’s left foot. When he got the ball on it – particularly the set piece that led to the equaliser and another which clipped the bar – it produced magic, when the ball dropped to his right foot, you could almost hear the left screaming with despair at its ineptitude. Every set piece brought a chance, but hope seemed to remain a distant relative on a gap year with little access to a decent 4G connection.

With injury-time approaching, like a Scooby Doo villain, the season finally reveal its identity. It’s baffled me that despite the results we’ve had and the general consistency, we’re talking about missing out on the play-offs with games to spare. So, why are we in the situation we’re in?

They broke forward, Mark Sykes – a ball of energy throughout – seemed to finally run out of steam. Rather than tracking back or harry the attacker into a safer position, he tried a half-hearted ankle tap. He had nothing left to give, apart from the fact he hadn’t been booked and could live with a yellow card.

It didn’t work, the attacker advanced into a gaping hole left by Herbie Kane sitting so deep and Brannagan so advanced. By the time he’d reached the box, we were in trouble. Sam Long was drawn inside leaving space for Embleton at the back post. We’ve seen these moments before, sometimes they skew wide, other times the ball hits the net with gut wrenching inevitability. This time it was the latter.

The mask was pulled off and the mystery was solved. The season isn’t about performances, some see missing out on the play-offs as going backwards, but currently we have a higher points per game than last year and are five points from last season’s total. It’s about attrition and who can survive to the end. A caller to Radio Oxford talked about the ‘pace’ of League 1; a relentlessness designed to break teams. We weren’t outplayed and haven’t been all season, we’ve just finally been broken under the pressure.

It might be fun to be a disruptor in the division for a bit, it might even get us closer to the play-offs than we’re anticipating, but League 1 isn’t going to change much next season and that’s where we’re likely to be playing. There’s work to do on the squad over the summer, but if we do want to continue to progress, an ability to last to the bitter end has to be a priority.