Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Morecambe 1

I’m reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography at the moment. It’s quite a shocking read; from the first page Agassi is unequivocal about how much he hates tennis. It’s not just that after a long and successful career he’s done with the pressure and injuries, he’s hated it since the first time he picked up a racket. 

His father decided that he wanted his children to be professional tennis players and set up a tennis court in his back garden. He re-engineered a serving machine to fire balls more quickly and at a difficult angle for Agassi to return. As a young boy, he was hitting a million balls a year and hated every single one of them.

It also made him very good, of course, and it’s clear that as he got older he had the beating of anyone he played. Even if he went a set down, he knew when he would win barring injury or something freakish happening, because he had absolute control over his ability.

The book illustrates the divide between how sport is portrayed as a mythical endeavour full of talent and passion, and the technical aspect which really determines whether you’re good or not. Agassi was never that interested in the mythical aspects – he never dreamed of winning Wimbledon, it didn’t drive his desire to improve; that came from his over-bearing father.

As fans, we buy into sport for its drama and passion – the romance – even though it’s technique that determines how that manifests itself. It’s like watching a film or a play, you become absorbed in the story, but you wouldn’t be able to do that unless the actors knew where to stand and what to say when.

There was a familiar vibe during the win over Morecambe yesterday; a warm appreciative atmosphere and a fluid and attacking display. There’s been a lot of talk about the atmosphere this season and how it lacks a certain passion. But, I think what we’re seeing is the team and fans in absolute equilibrium. It’s not arrogance, but the team know what they need to do to beat a team like Morecambe and we, the fans, have absolute confidence they’ll do it.

It’s not always been like this; in fact, it’s rarely like this. During the promotion season in 2016, there was an asymmetry between what was happening at the club and what was happening in the stands. We were almost shocked to see an Oxford team playing with such style and panache. I remember after the win over Swansea, feeling immense pride at how grown up we seemed to be, how un-Oxford.

Most of the time, it’s been the other way around; we sing that ‘we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ while being taken to the cleaners by Rochdale or Scunthorpe. The asymmetric relationship between what we think we are and what we actually are creates the tension that creates the atmosphere – which could be misery and frustration or elated shock and relief.

If you watch the very best teams playing at home, the fans trust the players to do their job and the players trust their ability to deliver. If it goes wrong, that trust extends to allowing the team to fix the problem. Yesterday, we got a bit sleepy in the second half, Alex Gorrin’s ability to break play up wasn’t needed as much as someone to control the midfield and create some forward momentum. We missed the penalty and then conceded, but Marcus McGuane came on and we regained control of midfield and got back on the front foot to complete the job. Nobody was screaming at Karl Robinson to ‘sort it out’ or for the team to ‘wake up’; we kind of knew he would.

Afterwards Robinson spoke about preparations for the January transfer window and how he wasn’t particularly looking for another striker because it’s unusual for mid-season signings to score lots of goals. There’s usually a call from fans for multiple signings, usually including a striker, and Robinson himself has been prone to having an unreasonably long wish list. It’s borne out of an anxiety that the squad won’t be able to cope, it takes confidence to say that he’s largely content with what he has.

How long we can maintain this blissful equilibrium is, of course, another question, but it’s not a flash in the pan – Robinson looks visibly healthier than he did when he started at the club, the ground and pitch looks smarter, even if it is a bit of a ‘lipstick on a pig’, the squad looks deep and lush. If Brannagan isn’t available, Gorrin can come in, if that isn’t working, McGuane is available – we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul when we make adjustments to the side.

We could, of course, slip into becoming arrogant and entitled, forgetting the technical application or getting frustrated when teams don’t comply with what we want. It’s something you see at Manchester United at the moment where there’s an expectation that they’ll compete at the highest level because, well, they’re Manchester United.

They say it’s harder to regain a title than win one, but in the lower leagues it’s even hard to maintain stability for a whole season. Teams capitulate quickly with a couple of bad results, fans aren’t used to the feeling of success or how to regulate their expectations. We’re like a lottery millionaire unable to handle their new-found riches, quickly squandering what we have. 

This is particularly hard for us, a club which has had instability built into it for years, one that hasn’t seen a season-long period of superiority over a division for thirty-six years. We’re not yet title contenders, but we could be starting to readjust our expectations given the start to the season we’ve had. The trick is to not chase too hard, not adjust our expectations too much, to chug away picking up points and not getting too carried away with where it’s taking us.

The clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in, the weather is getting worse, Christmas and the January transfer window is looming and the FA Cup starts next week to disrupt the fixture flow. Mission accomplished for the opening period of the season but this is where the real test begins. 

Midweek fixture – Jamie Guy’s summer of love

Football can leave an indelible mark on the consciousness of fans. Stories of great seasons, games and moments are told and re-told, embellished and changed until they blend into the folklore of your club. The stories that endure are played out in great theatres in front of thousands of people but there is one story Oxford fans still tell that was played out in front of sparse crowds for no real purpose. How can that be? How did Jamie Guy’s 2007 pre-season goalscoring spree become the stuff of legend? 

Guy’s arrival from Colchester United in July 2007 was supposed to help refocus his career, a teenage sensation at Colchester with a couple of Championship goals to his name, things had started to go ary. He was struggling to get a starting berth at Layer Road and had just been convicted of a number of driving offences, a fresh start was just what he needed.

To a club like Oxford, Guy’s shortcomings were easy to overlook. No player in the fifth tier is flawless, but a goalscorer can be the key to promotion. Manager Darren Patterson had set about building an exciting, attacking side to release the club from the mire which had been decades in the making. He brought in Lewis Haldane, James Constable, Rob Davies, Chris Carruthers and Joe Burnell, but Guy was his marquee signing.

In the Conference, looks count, an asymmetric haircut and neat line in free-kicks could win you a contract just because you looked a bit like David Beckham. Guy was strong and bullish, quick with a low centre of gravity, squint and his style could have been mistaken for Wayne Rooney.

His Oxford debut was in the first pre-season game against Brackley Town. Despite a 2-1 reverse to the Southern League side, Guy, though not fully match fit, was only denied a debut goal by a fine save from ex-Oxford keeper Richard Knight. His assist in Lewis Haldane’s consolation goal was a promising start.

Days later, the squad headed to Banbury United, after quarter of an hour, Guy burst from his own half to set up James Constable for the opening goal, seconds into the second half he smashed home his first goal for the club. Later, he netted his second, showing his class by rounding the Banbury goalkeeper to make it three in a 4-0 rout.

Another goal in a 3-1 win over Maidenhead United solidified Darren Patterson’s thinking, Guy and Constable were his first choice strike partnership, a decision he sealed by giving Constable the number 9 shirt for the season and Guy number 10. 

With things looking promising, attention turned to the first home friendly of the summer against a Manchester United XI. Two years previously Jim Smith’s friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson had secured a pre-season game against a full strength United including Cristiano Ronaldo. The rassible Scot was less benevolent this time sending Ole Gunnar Solskjær down with a team of junior players including future England international Danny Drinkwater. 

None-the-less the lure of the Red Devils persuaded a crowd of 6,000 to brave the blistering heat of mid-summer. Patterson, playing his strongest eleven, saw his side race into the lead with Yemi Odubade scoring the opener. After 52 minutes Guy picked up an Odubade pass, drove forward, cut inside the fullback and took aim, his first shot was blocked on the line but instinctively he followed up to fire home the rebound. Although Manchester United fought back to 2-2 the result, and Guy’s performance, was making waves. 

The goal spree continued a few days later as James Constable back-heeled a lost cause to set Guy up to blast the ball past Wycombe keeper Scott Shearer in a 1-1 draw. With five goals in five games, Guy was the one-to-watch with his pace and power. If he could do this to League teams and the best youngsters in the country what might he do to Conference defenders? 

Next up was more League opposition as Cheltenham Town visited the Kassam. It was a humbling experience to welcome a team that many Oxford fans considered beneath them, but they were sure to be another stern test.

The newly gelling side were more than a match for the League 1 side. Just before half-time, Guy sprinted 40 yards to convert an Adam Murray pass for the opening goal. A quick Cheltenham equaliser didn’t deter the Yellows as Guy drove home from inside the box to restor the lead before half-time.

The opening day of the season and a long trip to Barrow was looming, but for fans, it couldn’t come quickly enough. Patterson had built a side with real attacking potency able to frighten teams way above the Conference. Guy had converted seven goals in six games – a tally that would have made him the previous season’s third top scorer.

A prestige friendly completed pre-season as Harry Redknapp brought FA Cup holders Portsmouth to the Kassam. Pompey were showcasing their new £11m striker, England international Peter Crouch, who’d signed over the summer. For Oxford, securing the friendly was a coup, showing that we still mixed in the right circles, plus we had our own striking revelation to show off. The mood was celebratory, a final farewell to the summer before an assault on promotion.

Patterson fielded his strongest team with Guy and Constable once again up front. The opening minutes saw Guy, now full of confidence, showing his class against his illustrious opponents. The crowd buzzed contentedly.

Suddenly there was a deathly hush, the buoyant mood evaporated. Guy was gesturing to the bench and clearly limping. Darren Patterson hurriedly prepared Michael Husbands as Guy disappeared down the tunnel, nobody was ready to make a substitution after just eight minutes. The team battled to a creditable 2-1 defeat but all the talk was of the striker’s injury, the start to the season and how Oxford’s promotion plans were in tatters.

The hamstring injury initially ruled him out for a month, days later the team made the long trip to Barrow for the opening game of the season. Live on TV, Oxford were ominously swept aside 3-0. Guy didn’t return until the fifth game of the season by which time Oxford had won one game and failed to score in four. He returned for the August Bank Holiday draw against Woking looking a shadow of the wrecking ball striker the fans had seen over the summer. 

His first goal came against Cambridge United in a 3-1 win at the end of September, but the writing was already on the wall. He showed moments of what had been, scoring in the FA Trophy and FA Cup, but mostly he seemed slow and unfit. Oxford were third from bottom and floundering. He’d get back in the side, but then slip out again with another niggling injury, more importantly he wasn’t scoring. 

By early December it was all over for Darren Patterson, his promising attacking, entertaining side couldn’t pull themselves from the tractor beam of the relegation zone. Jim Smith took over as caretaker manager and Guy scored his final league goal in a 3-1 win over Mansfield, his first since the Cambridge game. But the writing was on the wall, whispers were that he was surplus to requirements. 

Guy’s last game came on New Year’s Day away at Salisbury as new manager Chris Wilder took charge. Colchester cancelled his loan deal but that suited everyone just fine, a glorious summer romance had turned sour.

Guy lasted at Colchester for another year before slipping into the whirlpool of non-league, each new club hoped to reignite the promise he’d shown during that summer in Oxford. In 2011 he shattered his leg while playing for Braintree Town and was never the same again. While working as a hod carrier, in 2016 he received a suspended sentence for attacking his girlfriend during a row. Things seem to have stabilised since then, last year, aged 33, he could be found plying his trade in the Chelmsford Sunday League for Priory Sports.

There are a million footballers with Guy’s story; bad luck and bad decisions blighting the potential of a rare talent. Their stories are frequently lost in the noise, although for Oxford fans, they’ll always have that glorious summer.

Match wrap – Burton Albion 1 Oxford United 3

When the teams are announced an hour before kick-off there are only two positions I look for – who is in goal and who is up front. Others analyse the details of the rest of the team trying to unpick the mysteries of formation and strategy. For me, apart from the keeper and striker, the rest is just a blancmange of players, there could be eight changes and I’d struggle to know who they are.

When the team was announced for the Burton game, seeing the name Simon Eastwood at the top of the list came with a bit of a jolt. 

I like Eastwood a lot; I like his loyalty, I like that he’s self-effacing, I love that he prefers to watch Downton Abbey rather than football. A couple of years ago, he won the Oxford United World Cup of Goalkeepers on Twitter. That result was a travesty, he’s not the greatest, but he’s one of the best. 

Then there was THAT mistake in THAT game. As mistakes go it doesn’t get bigger – breaking a near twenty year unbeaten run in the last minute with a howling air-shot – that’s a good one. It’s up there with Rob Duffy rolling the ball into the Exeter City’s ‘keeper’s hands in the 2007 play-off semi-final and Ryan Clarke’s clanger against York at Wembley. 

Most footballers are like wild animals – they’ll never let on that they’re wounded for fear of being attacked by a predator. We’ll probably never know the real impact that moment had on Eastwood emotionally, but it must have lurked in every dark corner for some time, particularly as it resulted in him being dropped to the bench. I wonder if it was worse that it happened in the deathly silence of an empty stadium, the only place for the primal maelstrom of despair to manifest is inside your head. At least with a full stadium the experience can be shared around a bit. 

For fans, that moment is likely to haunt their thoughts, not just their nervousness about Eastwood’s decision making in one-on-ones, there’ll be doubts about every aspect of his game resulting from that one moment. He himself said that it could come to define him, much more than the countless times he’s saved us. 

His new three-year contract last year came as a complete surprise, Jack Stevens is young, fresh and playing well, a new breed of goalkeeper who looks like he could easily play outfield. Above all, he seemed unfazed by his new elevation; there was talk of a move to Aston Villa, but beyond a big money move elsewhere, it’s hard to see how Stevens would give way to Eastwood; goalkeepers rarely get injured, they just slowly wear themselves out and Stevens is too young for that.

It was always going to take something unusual to re-instate Eastwood. The news that Stevens has glandular fever is just that. It can be a debilitating and lingering condition, the fortnight of rest that Craig Short said he needed seems optimistic. Suddenly, the decision to retain Eastwood is looking like a master stroke. 

We could have released him, saved some money and gone with a junior back-up knowing it would be necessary to dip into the loan market if we lost Stevens. We could have brought in a keeper like Scott Shearer, super-senior and dependable, and broadly happy to simply have a contract. To retain a player who would get into a lot of lower league sides seemed like a folly.

In 2016, the Welsh national team made it to the semi-final of the Euros, the unlikely run was based on a simple formula. They had the superstars in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but they also had a squad of ‘good blokes’. People like Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams who both play in the lower leagues. Lots of players in tournaments don’t get much game time, it’s easy to get bored and frustrated. You need players who enjoy being part of the squad, who are positive and set an example. Gareth Southgate has successfully employed a similar principle with England, people like Jordan Henderson and Conor Coady know they might not play much, but they have a bigger role to play.

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that footballers, who are often maligned, tend have higher standards than many of the fans, politicians and media who criticise them. They’re certainly physically healthier, but they also work harder, are more supportive of their fellow professionals and, in recent years, have become more socially aware. 

Simon Eastwood is a very good goalkeeper, of course, but he’s also a thoroughly decent human being, prepared to keep working, be ready and not be disruptive. Confidence, if it has taken a hit, will build and we can be assured that Stevens’ absence, if it does stretch on, is not as destabilising as it could have been.

Eastwood slotted in comfortably to a team which is in a very healthy groove. The performance against Burton showed that we’re found a rhythm; the early season jitters of the past are gone, we are well set for the mid-season chaos that comes with the FA Cup and Christmas.

This is because the foundations of the squad are deep and stable. On the pitch, the highs are not as high, but more importantly, the lows are not as low. Results depend on players like Taylor and Henry performing, but their job is made much easier by the good people like Simon Eastwood that form the bedrock of the squad.

Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Shrewsbury Town 0

At one point during a break in the second half against Plymouth on Saturday, Karl Robinson animatedly delivered some coaching points to whoever was standing closest to him.

I say coaching point, it may have been a demonstration of the latest move he’d learnt at his online Tai Chi class. He then brought another player into the discussion, then another. By the time he called over Steve Seddon, who was idly supping on his water bottle waiting for the re-start, five players were involved. 

Was he trying to make a simple point applicable to half the team, an elaborate tactical adjustment involving five players? Or, was it simply an overspill of nervous energy cascading out of him as the game progressed?

Robinson’s hard to judge; his understanding of football is clearly no fluke, he articulates what a football club is like no other manager I’ve seen, in interviews he can ramble incoherently and barely contain his emotions. It’s hard to know just which of his theatrics are pre-meditated; are the elaborate shrugs and pedantic arguments about his toe being on or over the white line of his technical area a deliberate ploy? 

There is a view that the manager’s job is done once the players take to the field, but maybe there’s more to it than that, extending to cajoling players, strategising against opponents and destabilising the officials as the game progresses. Or maybe it’s just shouting your frustration into the night’s sky until someone does something you intended for them to do.

After it was revealed that he was waiting for the results of a PCR test, he was conspicuous by his absence against Shrewsbury Town. Evening league games are often sedate affairs anyway, so generating an atmosphere or sense of urgency can be difficult, harder still without the manager chiding his team like the owner of a racing tortoise that’s going off course.  

I was hoping to see him patrolling the touchline via an iPad strapped to a broom handle taped to a remote controlled car. Instead we got Craig Short and John Mousinho studiously observing the proceedings like junior chess champions. It was like the rhythm section of a band without a front man; there was a pleasant groove but we really needed someone in gold lurex hot pants doing the splits.

The performance matched the politeness on the touchline. Shrewsbury didn’t seem in any rush to take the points and neither were we. There have been complaints about the atmosphere at the stadium this season and this was unlikely to stir anyone’s loins.

Apparently Robinson had his say at half time via FaceTime, presumably throwing tea cups around his kitchen as his wife dived to protect their best monographed crockery. However he did it, it seemed to work, we came out with a renewed sense of urgency and a desire to take a few risks.

Where we’ve turned to people like James Henry or Marcus Browne to change games in the past, it was surprising to see Mark Sykes breaking lines and making the difference. There was a great tweet on Saturday describing him as a great footballer who can’t play football; a little harsh but I get the sentiment, he can flatter to deceive. This season he seems to be maturing, whether it’s talking to frustrated fans at Wimbledon or as he did last night, helping to fill the void of enthusiasm left by Robinson.

Sykes’ goal was the classic example of the value of having a punt, his strange skiddy daisy cutter was like a Bake Off contestant adding turmeric to a cheese flan – it could have been a disaster, but actually made all the difference. In what was an insipid atmosphere, we needed someone to give us a spark. Cameron Brannagan, a ball of energy that can be hard to channel, added a second to seal what was ultimately a poorer display than Saturday, but with a better outcome. Go figure.

There are many people who get frustrated by Robinson’s clowning, but as he’s likely to be absent from the training ground and touchline for the next 10 days at least, we may need to dig a little deeper to find the reserves of creative energy that will keep the momentum going over the next couple of weeks.

Oxblogger TV – Episode 5 – Oxford United v Swindon Town 2002 – One in a row

In this episode, we’re heading back to 2002 and a second round of the FA Cup against Swindon Town. Ian Atkins was at the control and the club were in the grip of his footballing revolution. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s probably a ball launched long by Matt Bound for Steve Basham and Jefferson Louis to chase.

Also available in podcast via Spotify, Google, Amazon and Apple.

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Plymouth Argyle 3

One of the lasting memories of the 1996 promotion season was the bounty of goals we achieved from corners. Joey Beauchamp would swing a ball into the near post; Matt Elliott would flick on and Paul Moody would mop up from the resulting chaos by heading home. Occasionally the players would change, but the system never did.

We all get excited by the award of a corner; in terms of crowd response, it’s the next best thing to a goal. And yet, just 8% of corners result in a goal; a figure I suspect is dropping as teams get better at defending set pieces. But still, when a corner is awarded, an anticipatory frisson spontaneously surges through the fans.

We were reflecting on the terrace bon mot ‘you’re shit ahhhh’ during yesterday’s game against Plymouth. Like the fans’ response to a corner, it’s an integral part of every goal kick. Its origins were a genuine attempt to put the goalkeeper off by making as much noise as possible. I suppose in those days goalkeepers often looked like some of the fans on the terrace and it was reasonable to assume they would respond as a fan might to any unexpected noise by shanking a kick into touch.

It’s increasingly obvious that it has no effect on the keeper’s concentration or the quality of the resulting kick. Sometime during the 1990s the ‘you’re shit, ahhh’ appendage was added. It was almost a recognition that the chant was absurd and pointless; the terrace equivalent of Baddiel and Newman’s History Today sketch which ended with two ageing academics trading playground insults; ‘that’s your mum, that is’. 

Now it’s just part of the ambient noise of a game and happens out of some deep cultural obligation, a ceremony to keep the memory of our fallen brothers alive. 

“OOOOHHHH AAAAHHHHH YOU’RE SHIT AAAAAHHHHH”

“Why do you do that dad?” 

“Because it’s what your grandad and great grandad did on this very spot right up to the day they died. I will not let their memory fade to dust.” 

Perhaps, if the genuine aim is to put the goalkeeper off, the crowd should remain completely silent and murmur in inaudible sarcastic tones as the ball sails through the air. The psychological damage that could do to an insecure ‘keeper could prove fruitful, after all, nobody likes people talking behind their backs.  

Football is a visceral experience, we live every near miss with spontaneous abandon. We thoughtlessly respond to what’s in front of us; the bloke in front of me yesterday responded to each chance with variations on ‘bloody useless’ or ‘just stick it in the net’ as if James Henry was consciously preferring to see if he could hit the Chaokoh ethically sourced coconuts advert and had absent mindedly overlooked the fact he could do with popping a couple of shots in the goal before the clock runs out.

Professional sports people often talk about controlling the controllables; focus on the process and the outcomes will take care of themselves. Those who can do that are the ones who succeed, the outcome – a near miss or an exasperated noise from the fans – needs to be set aside because the process is where success lies.

The irredeemable divide is that fans tend to focus on outcomes. The result alone determines the effectiveness of the tactics, selection or any given move. We ramp up the pressure and force our way into the consciousness of the players because there’s no such thing as a good move with a bad outcome.

Oddly, what we seemed to be watching on Saturday was two entirely separate games; one was all about the inputs. We created a host of chances, particularly in the second half, carved them open time and again, we just didn’t convert them. There was one move where the ball skimmed across the goal, the intended target, Matty Taylor, was a long way behind the play having helped carve out the chance. It was greeted with frustration, but really it just illustrated how difficult football is to play.

Then there was the other game; the one which was all about the outputs – they exploited our weaknesses and efficiently took the opportunities for a comfortable win. Unlike teams who’ve out muscled us in the past, I thought they looked like a parallel of us – they were us on a good day, we were them on a bad day. It’s rare to see a game so stark; strangely enough, their biggest challenge may be to be aware enough to realise that this kind of result flattered them a little and that the tables could turn very quickly.

For us, there was some debate about whether you lock up our defence with Alex Gorrin or galvanise our attack with James Henry. One person on the phone-in wanted to drop Henry for Gorrin, but only after Steve Kinniburgh reminded him that he could only have eleven players on the field.

For me, despite the result, the combination of Brannagan, Henry and Herbie Kane seems an obvious first choice. Gavin Whyte looked a bit lost playing in a central role, but became more threatening when he switched with Henry; which came just as he ran out of steam.

Whyte’s just recovered from Covid, and I wonder whether that’s another factor that we overlook too easily. Sam Long also looked just off the pace and has also recently recovered from the virus. We ask a lot of players physically, perhaps the effects of the illness linger longer than we realise. Still, few fans will factor these things into their analysis. 

Not so much a game of two halves, but a game of two layers of football; when simply looking at the result and even the nature of their goals, our visceral response may be to criticise and howl with derision. But, when moving from the subconscious to the conscious, from the visceral to the analytical, we’re not far away at all.