George Lawrence’s Shorts – Herbie goes bananas

Henry’s hoover

Oxford United are giving themselves the best possible chance of promotion after a James Henry hat-trick beat MApp’s Lincoln City 3-1 on Saturday before they focussed onknocked out of the Papa John’s Trophy as early as possible. Former Yellows loanee Sam Smith, now at Cambridge, took sixty seconds to score two-thirds of the goals he managed for us in six months as the hosts cruised to a 4-1 victory. Gutted not gutted.

Regular movements

KRob was relieved to see the transfer window close after he thought Cameron Brannagan was Brannagone when Blackpool put in a cheeky final day bid. In the end he Brannastayed, which obviously doesn’t work. 

Having frantically tried to address the leftbacksituation, KRob suddenly remembered he had more cover than he’d ever need with injured right-back Sam Long, injured midfielder Jamie Hanson, Derek Fazackerley and club historian Martin Brodetsky all able to cover if necessary. So, that’s OK then.

It was proper name-scenes elsewhere as Herbert ‘Herbie’ Kane signed on loan from Barnsley. Kane is just twenty-two, but has a serious ‘indeterminate Eastern European with a law degree who runs an oven cleaning service for rich Brexiteers’ vibe about him. We also signed ‘youngster’ (aka future Woking loanee) Ben Davies from Fulham.

Meanwhile, we bade a final ‘Hey Yaw’ to Derek Osei Yaw who got on his Osei and left town. The departure was by mutual consent; KRob didn’t know who he was and Derek agreed.

Whyte back where he belongs

Gavin Whyte has been talking about his return to Oxford while on international duty with Northern Ireland. He revealed that he’s settling in nicely. “I’m back living in Bicester and Mark Sykes lives just a few doors away so that helps as well.” Now reunited with his old Jeward twin, it’ll be back to the neon winkle pickers and silver drainpipe trousers before you know it. 

Fos-silised

The stepover kid, Tariqe Fosu’s proposed move to Swansea City collapsed after Swans captain Matt Grimes stayed at the (now, this can’t be right can it?) Swansea.com Stadium. We know that Joey Barton is used to punching down, but you can’t punch much further down than signing Junior Brown for Bristol Rovers.

Chaptain fantastic

When he wasn’t burning his nipples on breast milk, Adam Chapman was amongst the best there was. He scored a thirty yard screamer for Grantham Town against Basford United. Chapman was ‘talismanic’ for, wait for it, The Gingerbreadmen who he joined from Gainsborough this summer.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Lincoln City 1

It’s not been much of a summer, but do I sense that there’s already a slight chill in the air? I was out for a walk the other day and noticed a few golden leaves had fallen from the trees. It’s still August, but already it’s starting to feel like the early onset of Autumn. 

I find the turning of the seasons a bit of a relief; if I could choose between excessive heat and excessive cold, I’d always choose the latter. Football fans are the people of the gloaming; we don’t bask in an endless sunshine, we huddle. While others hibernate, we come out to forage through the harshness of the winter months.

I’m a functioning adult, but I don’t feel I have the emotional maturity to make independent decisions about whether to wear a coat during August. What to wear to football is a source of underlying anxiety in the early weeks. It can be positively balmy at home but baltic in the South Stand Upper; which could be a psychosomatic reaction to Jerome Sale’s assertion that the Kassam Stadium has its own microclimate. For me, any chill in the air signals a much welcomed opportunity to wrap up; working my way through from a light jacket in September through to my ‘big coat’ for the darkest months.

And although I’ve started to look longingly at the coat cupboard and even the box in which the hats and scarves are bundled, it’s easy to forget that it’s still August. I was reminded yesterday as I couldn’t go to Lincoln due to one of those family commitments that gets arranged before the fixtures come out. Asking to defer your decision to attend seems disingenuous, so you accept through gritted teeth knowing you’re playing roulette with home games. 

The discernable autumnal chill means that things are getting serious – perhaps it’s significant that this seems to have come earlier this year. Convention says that you shouldn’t look at the table until you’ve played ten games (unless you’re top, even after two games, in which case you can stare at it constantly).

After ten games, we’ll have seen enough to work out who had a good summer and who is in crisis. Any short term form or favourable fixture sequence that artificially puts a team at the top of the division will have dissipated into the ether and the real picture will start to emerge. 

None-the-less, Lincoln provided, perhaps, the first early test of our longer term prospects. In some ways, they’re hard to judge – they had injuries and their fans will be wondering if they can replicate the heights of last year but Michael Appleton will always bring a competitive team. For us, with two defeats in a week under our belt, the potential for things to become awkward was quite high. A third consecutive loss, and the first at home, may have raised more questions about the strength of the squad and our inability to start seasons well.

Instead, we seemed to cruise, as we always do when James Henry is fit and in form. He quietly gets on with things – I’ve never considered him an out and out goalscorer, but it’s quite conceivable he’ll creep into our top 10 all-time goalscorers this season. Where Karl Robinson injects a boundless enthusiasm into our play channelled via players like Gavin Whyte, Henry regulates us, ensuring we have the intensity and penetration to get the results without snatching and lurching at opportunities.  

The table, that we don’t look at, already looks like you might imagine it will at the end of the season. This year, more than most, the division seems to split quite starkly between the haves and have-nots with it more difficult for dark horses to creep into contention. The question for us is which side of the divide do we fall? We might be getting more used to the idea of being a have, but we’re not Sheffield Wednesday or Sunderland, and yet, that’s who we sit with at the moment. 

Having navigated one, and not taking Wimbledon next week for granted, there’s another early-season marker in a fortnight when Wycombe come to the Kassam. September will be here and awkward family commitments will be in the past, it’s likely to be a day for coats. The end of the beginning of the season; if we can win that, then by the time the big coats come out, we could be in a very interesting position indeed.

George Lawrence’s Shorts – Big Dickie energy

Hoopless

It’s not been a great week for KRob; on Saturday we went down 2-1 to Bolton Wanderers – our first defeat of the season. That was followed up with a 2-0 defeat to QPR in the Type 2 Diabetes Cup with sulky sixth former Rob Dickie handing in his homework past sensible Simon Eastwood from twenty-five yards to open the scoring.

Bread-based QPR manager Mark Warburton has clearly been reading too much GLS, “[Dickie will] keep on improving. He’s taken those lessons on board. This season for Rob is a really big one – to keep on that education and keep on learning.” Alright, you brioche bonced boss, we’ll do the school-based Rob Dickie jokes around here, thanks.

Tariqe Tofu

Oxford United Gastronomes were in raptures when the club announced that it had wrestled control of the snack bars from creepy Uncle Firoz. The Taliban-like advance, means the club has strategic control over the homity pies. Officials are now setting out to refresh the offering to fans. Future dishes include the healthy Houmousinho, Spotted Dickie and Dunkley’s Donuts and, for the traditionalists, a quarter-pounder cheese Burgess.

Little Liam

We thought we’d lost him down the back of the sofa, but it turns out that playmaker-in-your-pocket, Liam Kelly, will be playing a small role for Rochdale this season. That’s quite a climb down from when he was unveiled getting out of a helicopter at Feyenoord, which for a player of Kelly’s size, was quite a climb down in itself. Meanwhile loanee Elliot Lee has joined up with his dad Rob by signing for Charlton Athletic on loan from Luton.

Muscles memory

It’s Lincoln on Saturday and Mr Big Guns, MApp, has got a lot on his plate; and we’re not just talking protein shakes and raw eggs. “The best way I can describe it is that we have 13 senior outfield players to choose from, not many at all”. It’s a familiar feeling for MApp who remembers last season’s visit when his team was “full of Covid and injuries as well.” Nice, we’ll just slather on another layer of hand sanitiser if you don’t mind.

Match wrap: Queen’s Park Rangers 2 Oxford United 0

I’ll be honest, this is not likely to be my finest literary work. I’ve tried to find an angle for last night’s defeat to QPR, but nothing has come to the fore. The reality is, the result is most likely to be filed alongside such honourable League Cup exits as the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in 2016 and the penalty loss to Watford last year. You may remember them, or, more likely, not.

Given our history, you’d think that a League Cup game against QPR might stir some kind of emotion, but as much as the 1986 final marked our pinnacle, the 2021 re-rub, maybe just reminded us only of the competition’s increasing irrelevance in modern domestic football.

Playing a weakened side in the League Cup is an affectation of the modern game. It’s almost unprofessional to take it seriously. If you’re not the bigger team protecting your assets for greater challenges, you’re the smaller team protecting your assets because you don’t expect to win anyway. Any game in which everyone is happy to lose is not in a healthy state. In a post-pandemic world, where we’ve been forced to re-consider our priorities and what we believe to be important, we have to question what role the League Cup now plays.

Generally speaking I’m a traditionalist; in my head I’ve developed a blueprint to revitalise the FA Cup, which one day I’ll release to the world. But, plot spoiler, it’s draws heavily from my FA Cup experiences in the 1980s. I’d like to say that I feel similarly compelled towards the League Cup, it is, after all ‘ours’. Truth be known, I’m beginning to concede that it’s becoming a lost cause.

Did we need to be reminded of Rob Dickie’s quality? Of the chasm between the Championship and League 1? Did we need to stretch our squad, which is already looking a bit threadbare? Did we even need to mush together 2000 Oxford fans in the midst of a pandemic? What did we gain?

Ultimately, it’s like playing a pre-season friendly three weeks after the season’s started. A leg stretcher of which the result is of secondary importance. There have been notable recent exceptions, of course, playing Manchester City twice and beating West Ham, but things have to fall your way for those nights to happen; often they don’t.

Maybe that’s the answer; maybe the draw should be loaded so that the lower team always plays at home, something to destabilise the status quo. I don’t know that I have the energy to develop the pros and cons of that idea.

Whatever, ultimately August is a card sorting month, the equivalent of checking you’ve got your keys and wallet before you head out. It can propel you forward, it can be a wake up call, but it’s just something to negotiate before things get serious. Perhaps the good news is that things are about to get serious; we weren’t expecting to win the League Cup, few had ambitions to go beyond the first couple of rounds. The season will be defined by the league and we have some key fixtures on the horizon. With Lincoln and Wycombe coming up and the need to get points on the board paramount, perhaps the best thing about last night’s game is that we didn’t win it.

Match wrap: Bolton Wanderers 2 Oxford United 1

I recently read Economist Tim Harford’s book; How To Make The World Add Up. It’s about interpreting statistics; less about the maths and more about the philosophy. For example, being aware of our internal bias. I follow a daily covid reporting Twitter account – every day’s post attract the same responses; some read the reports as high, rising and worrying, others think the pandemic is over because cases are below the 100,000 a day some predicted. Our preconceived biases drive our interpretation.

Harford presents the idea of slow data; news websites report in real-time and are likely to be full of extreme, often bad, things. Imagine if that information came at us more slowly and there was only a newspaper every ten or 100 years; what would make the headlines? It would report improving health and increasing prosperity (alongside increasing environmental problems). Ultimately, it would be more measured and positive than a daily paper.

Football has its own units of time; a goal is probably the smallest and brings the most extreme response, but Matt Taylor’s goal against Bolton was irrelevant in the context of the outcome of the game. By a similar token, one defeat is not likely to be significant in the context of the season. Going further, the season’s outcome may be irrelevant in the context of the decade. While they both had their ups and downs, it’s fair to say the 2000s were pretty bad and the 2010s pretty good.

I’m not too worried about losing an individual game; in fact, it’s quite good to get the first one out the way. The longer any unbeaten streak goes on the bigger the potential whiplash we’ll suffer from an inevitable defeat. 

Back in 2006, immediately after our relegation to the Conference, we went nineteen games unbeaten and there was talk about stretching that run throughout the season. Defeat to Wycombe in the FA Cup shouldn’t have been a disgrace in the circumstances but the impact was grim; we lost to Ebbsfleet the following week and won one of the next twelve. We thought we were invincible but let our guard down and it killed us. An early defeat can serve to give you a useful early reminder of your own mortality, a reminder not to get too complacent. 

This period can play a role in shaping the season; think back to 2009 and Mark Creighton’s winner against York or the victory over Luton or 2015, Pat Hoban’s last minute equaliser at Luton and the blistering win over Brentford. Both set a tone that ignited a promotion charge. 

We’ve yet to see how this season might be characterised, look at the table and we’re pretty much where we’re predicted to end up, though we’re also significantly ahead of where we’ve been previously at this stage. We haven’t seen the spark of previous promotion seasons but we’ve been reassuringly solid. I imagine, under Karl Robinson, being top in August would be the equivalent of being winched to the top of particularly big rollercoaster.

Eventually, the season will grab us and we’ll become a small fishing boat in an angry sea. Injuries, fatigue and confidence can carry you to glory or sink you, and there’s very little you can do about it. You just hope that you’re built well enough to withstand the inevitable storms; success is not about individual moments, but something deeper and systemic. 

And while our start has been on a par with where we might have expected to be, there is a subtext not to be ignored. We’re already being pulled out of shape even without the storms to come. Against Crewe and Charlton Ryan Williams played right-back because Anthony Forde and Sam Long were both injured. Our centre-backs – McNally and Thornily are both unfamiliar to the club – because Moore is injured and Mousinho can’t play ninety minutes. Apparently Sam Winnall’s inclusion up front against Charlton was partly to cover Moore’s defensive strength at set pieces. Yesterday we played in a new shape – not my area of expertise – partly out of necessity. While this sort of thing does happen (think Josh Ruffels playing out of position in place of Joe Skarz in 2016) it’s very early in the season for these juggling acts. 

Worrying? Maybe, and best not to be ignored, particularly as the transfer window is still open, if we’re able to benefit from that. But, perhaps not, maybe we just need to let things settle and wait for the longer term trends to emerge, head towards the angry sea and see if the wind catches our sails.