Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Coventry City 3

The half-time guest on Saturday was legendary goalkeeper Roy Burton. Burton was the quintessential lower-league footballer with a great mop of hair, a droopy moustache, and a paunch. The London Road would stare mesmerised as his shorts would drop revealing the top of his bum crack whenever he took a goal kick.

He played in the 3rd Division mostly; the same level as the players today. If Burton reached the half-way line with a goal kick he was considered a marvel. In the modern age a lower-league player – a lean product of sports science – is expected to routinely spray forty-yard passes onto the toe of a fast-moving winger without a murmur of appreciation.

But, what yesterday’s draw showed was the joy of lower league football and all its glorious flaws. We can argue about a lack of cutting edge up front or the alarming number of goals we’re conceding, but as a spectacle it couldn’t be better.

League 1 football is a riot, most clubs are pretty evenly matched so games involve two teams hammering seven bells out of each other until the referee tells them to stop. On the sidelines, two managers explode as all their hard work crumbles in front of them.

It’s a ninety minute exhibition of the wonderful imperfections of the human experience. Jamie Mackie’s story arc involved missing an absolute sitter in the first half before spending most of the game vainly chasing shadows like a toddler playing piggy in the middle with two NBA basketball players. Then, when all seemed lost, he somehow organised himself to spark a revival with a spectacular goal. Afterwards he babbled on about hard work and scoring goals and hard work and other things.

James Henry was absolutely majestic throughout, but was left after the game splayed on the floor, exhausted and frustrated that his efforts had come to nothing. Where Mackie’s day was one of failings which turned to triumph, Henry’s was a triumph which ended in failure. And then there’s Fantaky Dabo, who calmly gifted us two own-goals giving him nightmares for days to come.

There was the 30 seconds of madness from Ben Woodburn’s shot hitting the post to Coventry going 2-0 up. Then, as if that wasn’t drama enough, us doing the same to them to pull it back to 3-3. The bloke next to me asked how many minutes of injury time I thought were left. I said I didn’t know, what I wanted to say is that I didn’t care.

All the while there was the ludicrous vignette of fans confronting each other in the North Stand while all over the pitch players picked and niggled each other with unchecked off the ball fouls. Stories within stories within stories.

I looked at the Premier League results after the game; Manchester City had thrashed another also-ran, later Liverpool would do the same. We are in awe of the passing, the shooting, the achievement of near-perfection. And, just in case, if the results are in some way anomalistic, we can correct them in real time with the use of technology scrubbing away the drama to create a gleaming globalised media product and all the marvellous money it creates.

Whether it’s in films, music or sport perfection is always the goal for those involved, but perfection is predictable and boring. In League 1 it’s the failings where all the value is. At 2-2, the game opened up as the teams were stuck between the desire to win and the fear of losing. Balls would over-run, passes would deflect off players for corners and throw-ins, nobody was in control, but in life, we never are. It was one team against another team against physics.

In League 1, it’s the joy of overcoming our innate human failings, the despair of succumbing to them, the immense and unrelenting frustration that makes it the happy riot it is.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Parker, Pens

Saturday 24 August 2019

Like your gran after she’s eaten her bodyweight in Turkish Delight, there was some pretty obnoxious Gas around on Saturday. The club put on extra security for Matty Taylor’s return to his former club, Bristol Rovers. Fantasies around Taylor’s return turned out to be just that as he limped off after half-an-hour and we went down 3-1

Monday 26 August 2019

Like a railway announcer during autumn leaf fall; KRob has pinpointed why we’ve gone 3 games without a win – the wrong kind of goals. Our problem is that we’re scoring great goals, not scruffy ones, ‘if you take away the goals, we dominated’ he said possibly ignoring a key aspect of professional football.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Oxford entertained East London millennial snowflakes Mi’Woh in the Type 2 Diabetes Cup on Tuesday. After going 2-0 down, two super-late goals from Jedward orphan Mark Sykes and James Henry forced the game to penalties which were won by Jose’s son John Mousinho who broke the net to settle the tie. They didn’t like that, but they don’t care, though they really do, because they’re actually very sensitive.  

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Dean Saunders is a former Oxford United goal machine turned TalkSport shock jock – the shock being how little he knows about football. On Wednesday Deano followed a well trodden path for Oxford goalscoring legends like Steve Anthrobus and John Durnin by being sent to prison, this time after refusing to take a breath test when stopped by the police. Saunders is appealing the decision on the grounds of diminished intelligence. 

In less incarcerated news, The Type 2 Diabetes Cup draw had an extra shot of insulin in it when we drew bubble-based buffoons We’stam at home in the next round

Thursday 29 August 2019

Former Leicester City player and Kidlington local Garry Parker, has been appointed Head of Setting Up The Reserves To Play Like The Opposition. The new role will be a blessed relief to Parker, who – if his club photo is anything to go by – got lost on a holiday trek through the jungle wearing just shorts and a pair of flip flops this summer only to be found looking tired and bewildered by local tribesmen.

This year’s Tsun Dai Remind Me Why We Signed Him has been announced as Kash Siddiqi. Siddiqi is a 33-year-old Pakistani international who will instantly be sent out on loan and forgotten. A sub-continental Tony McMahon. 

Friday 30 August 29

Tomorrow sees the visit of Coventry City in which Oxford are hoping to break a losing league streak longer than Jimmy Hill’s chin. Meanwhile in last night’s Six Minute 29 Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford it was Tiger who came to tea. On the stadiumsituation nothing has changed since the club were asked about the stadiumsituation last week, but Mr Chairman did imply another signing might be on his way.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Millwall 2 (Pens: 4-2)

Despite the group behind me and their Sunday League tropes of ‘Travel!’, ‘Drop!’ and ‘Whose tracking?’ last night’s Carabao Cup game was a benchmarking exercise. As such, it revealed something curious about our squad.

The test was not just playing a better team but also a referee applying some kind of subconscious ‘Championship tariff’ – where decisions are based on a presumption that lower league players are more likely to mistime tackles and make fouls, more likely to fall over through their own incompetence than through someone pulling their shirt. We shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve seen it all before. 

I went to the game feeling neutral; I wanted us to win, but wasn’t that bothered if we didn’t. On the other hand a defeat – the fourth in a row – would create tensions we didn’t need. You can say a game doesn’t mean anything, but it always does.

The result was encouraging because we were more conservative. This may have been deliberate; Sam Long knows his role, Elliot Moore could focus on his job of being physical and blocking things. Nobody expected Kevin Berkoe to bomb on and make chances, so he had time to check his positioning and get used to the pace of the game.

We were calmer and more patient; less eager to please. We didn’t want to concede, there was no attempt to win the game in the first 10 minutes. We weren’t scintillating going forward, but we had chances, as did they. They could have scored, we should have had a penalty. There was the odd cat call for a thirty yard cross-field ball out of defence or for Jamie Mackie to somehow gain an extra yard of pace, but overall we actually benefited from being a little slower and a little weaker.

In the league we’ve started at a frantic pace and have fallen away, last night we started more moderately and accelerated. Just after half-time they simply accelerated more quickly – as better teams do – just as you think you’re matching them, they apply greater pressure. 

By the second-half they were better but not by an unexpected margin; had we left going down 2-0 in the League Cup 2nd Round to a Championship team, it would have been disappointing but expected and forgettable.

When they accelerated, they were faster to the ball, attacking with pace; strong and direct. We want to aspire to being like that. In midfield Shandon Baptiste, was in control early on, but started to feel the pace as the game progressed. We weren’t quite chasing shadows, just finding it harder to get a foothold and a way back into the game. We battled valiantly, which is all we could ask, but at 2-0 it was all over.

Or so we all thought; an injection of quality in James Henry and Ben Woodburn brought more pace and craft, and gradually we reclaimed parity. First in quality, then in goals. On paper, two-goals in the last three minutes sounds thrillingly exciting, over 90 minutes, it was just about what we deserved. 

The penalties aren’t a lottery; the better team always tends to win. Perhaps it was their shock and our elation, but our four kicks showed focus and composure; a discipline that’s been missing in recent weeks.

Whether the patience was deliberate or enforced is hard to tell. But, it worked better than our all action first-choice style. It feels like we have better strength in depth than last year, but without Gavin Whyte, Marcus Browne, Curtis Nelson or (latter season) Luke Garbutt our first choice seems weaker. We don’t have the control or the game changers, at least not yet. As a benchmark, that’s where we seem to be today.

It gives Karl Robinson a dilemma; should he sacrifice style and flair for results? Keep Sam Long and his discipline, but lose Chris Cadden and his pace? For me, to get some traction into our season, we need these results more than we need the style, but can Robinson curb his urge to please?

Match wrap: Bristol Rovers 3 Oxford United 1

For all the brouhaha around Matty Taylor’s return to Bristol Rovers with the personal security and amnesty bins, the real issue for Oxford United was probably nearly two hundred miles away.

Curtis Nelson hasn’t started a game at Cardiff City, he’s been sat on the bench waiting his chance. Meanwhile, after an encouraging start, we’re shipping goals like there’s no tomorrow – nine in a week. It’s possible his greatest impact this season is our defensive problems.

Although we can’t really hope to replace Nelson like-for-like, his departure was no surprise. It was nearly a year ago that Karl Robinson took the captaincy off him because of his reluctance to sign a new contract. Even before then, it was difficult to see him; given that it’s the most important contract decision of his career, choosing us over a chance to play in a higher division.

John Mousinho’s age is similarly predictable, age is like that. He was brought in principally as an emergency cover for Nelson when he damaged knee ligaments in 2017 – a leader without doubt – it’s clear he would have physical limitations. Also, let’s not forget that Robinson didn’t really have him in his plans, offering him a coaching role during the summer.

Rob Dickie is at the other end of the spectrum; an excellent prospect and developing well, but with some way to go before becoming the commanding presence of his defensive partner from last year.

In fact, after nearly 18 months in charge, Elliot Moore is the first centre-back Karl Robinson has signed. And that was days before the start of the season. Moore may become the towering defensive unit we’re looking for. He’s certainly got the physicality, but there’s more to being a top class centre-back than being called Elliot and having a Leicester and Oxford connection.

The issue goes further; our first choice full-backs are Josh Ruffels and Chris Cadden. Ruffels is a converted midfielder and, although I haven’t seen much of Cadden, I can see what Radio Oxford match summariser Steve Kinniburgh means when he says he prefers Cadden’s attacking threat to his defensive capabilities. Few will want a return to the days of Hunt and Newey, but something a little more defensively minded – think Ford and Robinson – might give more confidence. Or perhaps the Baldock and Skarz approach of one bombing forward while the other provides cover.

Whereas in midfield we’ve built a bit of a dynasty from Lundstram to Ledson to Brannagan, in defence we seem to have ignored all the signs that we were always likely to run into difficulties. It’s a far cry from 2016 when we released Jake Wright because we had too many central defenders.

Perhaps Karl Robinson has been too eager to please, bringing in exciting talent like Gavin Whyte or Tariqe Fosu, and trying to fulfil the endless bleating about needing a ‘twenty goals a season striker’, while ignoring the more mundane realities of our defensive capabilities.

There’s more to come from Dickie and Moore, but there’s little cover if that goes wrong. Mousinho can’t play every game and it isn’t his best position anyway. I still think we’ll surprise the good teams with our attacking threat and overwhelm the poorer ones. However, beating teams like us, like Bristol Rovers and Burton, are going to need more balance between our attacking threat and defensive ability. Everyone is so similar, the wins will come in the margins.

There’s still a week to go until the transfer window closes but those who are available are likely to be in the mould of Moore or Mousinho – youngsters looking for game-time, or older players who are moving to the margins of their squad. It looks like we’ll have to deal with what we have. It’s time to get organised.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Lip up Matty

Saturday 17 August 2019

A hatful of easy opportunities, too much wood, then a return home full of regret. That’s always been GLS’ experience of a weekend in Blackpool. It was much the same on Saturday as Oxford went down 2-1 to The Seasiders, whose winner was scored by  Armand Gnandulliet, a player so unplayable even he doesn’t know what his legs are going to do next.

Sunday 18 August 2019

Cosmopolitan sophisticat Čhrïßtòphė Ŵîłdê’s Oxford United skipper fiddling fetish peaked on Sunday as former Oxford captain John Lundstram gave Sheffield United a 1-0 over Crystal Palace, in what was their first, and probably only win of the season.

Meanwhile the Daily Mirror, a tabloid so highly principled it allows page 3 girls to wear a bra, did a takedown of teenage loanee wunderkind Ben Woodburn. They report Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer has been ‘reduced’ to playing as a substitute in front of 3,000 fans. The paper neglects to mention that it was a League Cup game he was being rested for, or that he started in front of 33,000 fans 10 days earlier – two thousand more fans than his parent team did on Sunday.

Monday 19 August 2019

Matty Taylor, who you’ll remember from two Setanta Shield campaigns in the late 2000s, has signed from Bristol City on loan. Taylor will wear the number nine shirt previously worn by the man who put the ‘meh’ in Sam S-meh-th. Taylor joins a long line of illustrious Oxford number 9’s, begging the question; he’s good, but is he Tim Sills good?

*knock knock*
Hello?
Hello mate, can I help you?
I’m George Thorne, on loan from Derby.
Right, OK, suppose you’d better come in.
*Shuffles in forlornly*
Oh, George.
*hopefully* Yes?
We’ve just signed Matty Taylor.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

No Carol, Fairy Liquid isn’t a good alternative to screenwash, it doesn’t have the necessary antifreeze or biocides. KRob’s fully operational battleship proved to have a few teething troubles on Tuesday night as Oxford went down 2-4 to Burton. Matty Taylor was the photon beam designed to destroy all-comers, but it needs a good dousing of WD40 as he was left frustrated.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

The Mirror’s favourite failed footballing teenager, Ben Woodburn has been called up to keep a welcome in the hillside with the Welsh national side. It means he’ll miss the opportunity to be rested for the EFL Trophy game against Norwich Juniors as well as the league game against Fleetwood Town.

Thursday 22 August 2019

Wearing silver drainpipes and doing peace signs has clearly become intolerable to John Mousinho and James Henry as they discuss the intricacies of the Irish backstop over a cup of herbal tea. Recently orphaned half of the Oxford United Jedward, Mark Sykes, has been made available for loan. Fans on Twitter were calling for Rob Hall to go on loan, which wouldn’t achieve the stated opportunity of giving Mark Sykes more game time.

Friday 23 August 2019

A packet of Twiglets, the half-tub of ice cream I left in the freezer for pudding that SOMEONE HAS EATEN and Piers Morgan will all have a place to go before tomorrow’s game against Bristol City. Bristol police announced that it would be supplying an amnesty bin for anything likely to incite hatred or abuse before Saturday’s game.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Burton Albion 4

I have to confess I’m not bought into the Matty Taylor narrative, at least not the romance of his homecoming. There are two reasons for this; the first is that once a player leaves our orbit I tend to lose track of them. I don’t remember Taylor’s initial stint at the club and I’m only vaguely aware of his movements since. I sometimes think I should be more aware of the comings and goings of clubs and players, but I think, in reality, everyone knows a little bit which when thrown into the social media melting pot, makes it feels like everyone knows everything. 

The second is that I remember the return of Joey Beauchamp, as far as I can remember the last genuine Oxford boy returning home. I expected the streets to be lined with well-wishers and the stands to be packed to the rafters. And then for Beauchamp to sweep all before him. In truth, his first game back was a workaday league fixture and his performance was muted. That’s because he’s human and not a cartoon character. 

I wonder to what extent Karl Robinson bought into the story. He gets the sentimentality in football clubs – but is it a rational or emotional understanding? He said before the defeat to Burton he’d planned to use Taylor from the bench – a more conventional approach with new signings – but the striker insisted he wanted to play; the emotional response. The story arc was Taylor’s triumphant return which would be capped with, obviously, with a thrilling winner.

But, this isn’t Taylor slotting into familiar surroundings; he left the club ten years ago, everything has changed. To expect him to suddenly transform us was always asking too much.

On Tuesday we started at a blistering pace with balls pinging about from one player to another. I saw a statistic recently that we have made more passes than any other team in the division by some distance. It’s a hallmark of the way Robinson wants us to play.

This approach may surprise good teams and should overwhelm limited ones, but Burton are a diesel – sometimes they fall behind, sometimes they creep ahead, but the pace of progress is steady. In essence, they allowed us to make mistakes and picked up the scraps and turn them, with greater efficiency, into chances. 

We improved after conceding the first goal; which was probably down to the fact there had to be a lull after the high energy opening. The urgency to move the ball and ultimately give Taylor the chances he wanted receded, but as a result, the passing was more accurate and purposeful and the chances, converted by Cameron Brannagan and Anthony Forde.

But it didn’t last; it struck me how short passing was, five or six exchanges would only gain a few metres. Burton could cover great swathes of the pitch in three or four. It wasn’t long-ball, it was just that their passes meant things more often. Only Brannagan really passed with any efficiency; continuing his phenomenal early season form.

Had we started with Mackie perhaps we’d have been less eager to fulfil the prophecy of Taylor’s triumphant return. I’ve no doubt that Karl Robinson is right when he says that Taylor improves the squad, and his experience should ensure he doesn’t dwell too much on the result or where his first goal will come from. But he won’t transform the team, he needs to grow into it and the team into him.

Match wrap: Blackpool 2 Oxford United 1

Predictably enough, the reaction to our first defeat of the season on Radio Oxford was apoplectic. According to some, the loss scraped away the veneer of a good start, exposing the inadequacies at the club from Board level down.

There isn’t a lot to support that, of course. We were playing the team currently top of the table (albeit after just two games), away from home, we dominated and lost, in part, to a soft penalty.

In a sense, the defeat serves us well. It gets it out the way; had we come away from a sequence of Sunderland, Peterborough (twice) and Blackpool unbeaten we’d have been delighted; which might have caused a problem.

Alternatively, had we come out of it with perhaps a point or none – which would have been far from unrealistic – then the pressure would be bordering on intolerable, and it’s still only the middle of August.

The prospect of us going up automatically remains remote, in the Absolute State of Oxford United survey, it was clear that the expectation was a finish anywhere from 8th-10th, higher than that would be considered over-performance, but it will also be a play-off place.

Maybe we have got a team capable of achieving more than was expected, but blasting out from the front and expecting to maintain that kind of form throughout the year is ambitious to say the least.

Three games in and we’re not panicking about where our first points are coming from, nor are we anxious about what our first defeat will do to us. We’re up and running, with a solid base to work from.

The true picture is unlikely to reveal itself before the clocks go back. In the interim, this period is about completing any transfer business, and setting our stall out and finding a rhythm. Getting a win and a defeat out of the way are both pretty healthy in my view. The nature of the defeat is like the one against Blackpool, far better than a tanking – as we did against Barnsley last year, or a defeat which should have been eminently winnable – as in 2017 against Cheltenham. In fact, this is the latest first defeat we’ve had since promotion in 2016 (defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup) and the latest in the League since 2013.

That said, we now enter a sequence of games against decent teams we should probably expect to compete with – Burton, Bristol Rovers, Coventry and Fleetwood all represent benchmarks for us in this division. In fact, in the survey, fans predicted they would occupy the four positions between 11th-15th. A positive set of results and maybe we should be recalibrating our expectations upwards a little; poor results and there may be grounds to worry.