Match wrap: Plymouth Argyle 2 Oxford United 3

The Christmas holiday offers a rare opportunity to catch the odd film or two. I’m not a great cinema goer, so I’m often behind the curve with the latest releases. This is a bit of an understatement, the other day I found myself watching the 22-year-old Deep Impact, one of those generic turn-of-the-millenium disaster flicks built entirely around its special effects budget.

Between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, Hollywood struggled to find a palatable enemy to fight. Where it was once the Russians, and before that The Nazis, there was nobody. At least after 9/11 they could turn their institutionally racist attentions to anyone of generically Middle Eastern extraction. 

With no real enemy to fight, their was on meteorites, tornadoes and non-specific alien life-forms. Things that would bring about the end to humanity, but wouldn’t offend or exploit anyone. Apart from women, of course, they didn’t really count back then.

These films open innocently; a dorky, but undeniably handsome young male star – let’s call him Sam – has an unhealthy interest in a subject relevant to the plot – meteorology, astronomy, geology, that kind of thing. They find something that the entire established scientific community have failed to spot; a dot on the moon is an invading alien army, a shrub falling over in the garden is a sure-fire sign there’s a fault in the earth’s crust which is about to split it in two.

The opening scenes establish Sam’s position in the social strata of his local High School. While putting his books away in his locker, he’s bullied by a couple of ‘jocks’ one of whom is probably called Brad. Brad’s girlfriend is with them, she’s kind and homely and probably called Jess. Jess seems desperately uncomfortable with the bullying; the confrontation over, she’s apologetic and smiles with weak reassurance.

If the shitshow that is 2020 was a disaster flick, then Sam Long is its unassuming breakout star. Long is the high school Regular Joe (or Sam) who seems to take great joy in simply being who he is. His unhealthy interest is in the subject of Oxford United. He’s been surrounded by jocks throughout his career; a series of players brought in from the outside to bully him out of the first team. Though there have been countless attempts to replace him, he’s seen them all off with his quiet resilience.

The arc of the film involves Sam trying to convince those in positions of influence that he’s discovered evidence of an imminent extinction level event. The priority, though, is first to convince Jess. Consuming his convolutedly argument with a PhD level comprehension, her heart melts and they fall instantly in love. With the stirring in their loins now satisfied, the newly consummated couple must focus on getting to the top of the institutional forces of government to avert disaster.

Long’s career has spanned seven years, fighting the club’s own institutional forces; five managers and three owners have had his destiny in their hands. All have been impatient for success and set about revolutionising their playing staff. Long has survived every turn; every attempt to replace him or send him out on loan, he’s battled the seas of change, and countless injuries, which could have drowned him. Battered and bruised, his spirit and steely resolve shines through.  

The end of the film sees Sam and Jess scrambling to save the earth. Society, faced by its seemingly inevitable end, is descending into chaos and anarchy. The grotesque failures of the establishment has left just one person capable of averting disaster – an unassuming teenager from a small town High School, obviously. The solution inevitably involves sparking a chain of events which are so linear, you might argue that they’ve been oversimplified for a mass-audience. It’s a long shot, but it might just work.

The final act of 2020 was against Plymouth on Tuesday, Long picked up the ball deep inside his own half, abandoning his admirable conservatism, he set off his own improbable chain of events. Lurching forward, thrusting deep into the mouth of his faceless enemy, he exchanged a pass with Sean Clare – one of the jocks brought in to bully him out of the team – now an admiring comrade. Beyond the point of no return, Long has no choice but to continue his journey into the beast; it’s now death or glory. No longer is he the dependable high school nerd, he’s the action hero saving humanity. Everyone looks on aghast as he picks up Clare’s pass inside the box to slide the ball past the Plymouth keeper into the net. It was a Long shot, and it just worked.

Has 2020, with all its thrills and spills, been a fable of our times? Meaningless escapism? Calculated genius? When Disney released The Force Awakens, George Lucas, who conceived the franchise, was dismissive of its reductive, crowd-pleasing plot, saying that his own Phantom Menace – a critical catastrophe – was a triumph in the Star Wars canon because of its state of the art CGI. 

Lucas’ genius was his innovation, not his storytelling. He was an experimental filmmaker, the original Star Wars trilogy broke new ground in terms of technique and special effects, it was almost fortuitous it also had a coherent story. If it hadn’t, it would have been written off as an indulgent folly.

If Long has been the on-screen star of the show, Karl Robinson seems to be the George Lucas football management. Set aside the fact we had two right-backs combining for the second goal, or that it followed a goal from our left-back, at one point in the first half our attack seemed to be made up entirely of defenders. There was a passage of play where Elliott Moore, was lolloping around in the Plymouth box waiting for a ball to be delivered into him. Even when the initial attack broke down, rather than racing back to resume his defensive duties, he simply waited while another attack developed down the left hand side. Whether it was madness or genius is anyone’s guess.

It’s all very exciting and when it works it can be magical, but this season seems to constantly teeter on the absurd. Long getting two yellow cards but no red just seemed to be accepted as a fitting plot hole in the story. We’re still prone to the defensive muddles – both goals were avoidable – but hopefully there’s a story in there somewhere; one that is a bit more Han Solo and a little less Jah Jah Binks.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Wimbledon 0

Christmas Day wasn’t that different for us this year. Over the years we’ve negotiated the complex web of benign family politics and norms and settled on a well-paced, relatively quiet, day which wasn’t that different to the restrictions placed upon us by being in Tier 4. 

The perfect Christmas is a mashup of all your previous Christmases along with everyone else’s for the last 200 years. I still half expect to wake up to a snowy scene in a cozy log cabin, a roaring open fire, sugar canes and candles while playing computer games on my new Amiga computer, wearing my new football shirt as everyone is dressed in Victorian top hats and tailcoats singing carols.   

But, this year wasn’t much different to any other, we were gradually enveloped in the constant, dry heat of our central heating, we tried in vain to enjoy a hearty breakfast, lunch and dinner, with treats in between even as our digestive systems screamed for us to leave them be. We tried to watch a big Christmas film, but ran out of time and energy. 

Someone on Twitter posted a picture of some old Christmas annuals they’d been given as a present – Beano 1982, Roy of the Rovers 1985, that kind of thing. I thought it was a brilliant idea; the tradition of an annual is something I miss. Whether your present haul was good or bad, the annual was something to keep you going through the day. It’s the Simon Clist of Christmas presents, unspectacular but reliable. 

I used to get Roy of the Rovers, but as I got older my parents bought me books by Spitting Image and Viz. I don’t think they knew what Viz was, but they knew I bought the monthly comic. I think they assumed its title; ‘The Big Hard One’ described the book’s production values.

There was so much to enjoy in Viz, I remember one particular strip, SWANT – Special Weapons and No Tactics featuring a group of psychotic, square jawed American special police. Each story consisted of them massively overreacting to minor domestic issues. A queue for the ice-cream van? A hijack situation which required the use of a heavily armoured vehicle full of grenades, smoke bombs and sidewinding missiles. It made me laugh out loud as they annihilated small children eating a 99 with a flake.

The day I really missed was Boxing Day. An opportunity to break out from the stupor and get some cold fresh winter air back into your lungs. Boxing Day football also gives you the chance to enjoy the glow of everyone else’s Christmas – families together sharing Quality Street chocolates, dad’s flirting with their son’s new girlfriend by insisting on buying the coffees, children excitedly wrapped up in their new merchandise. I like showing us off to friends who don’t go to games, they bring a novel excitement that you sacrifice as a regular.

Boxing Day this year was different, there was no escaping the heat, no indulging in others’ Christmas joy. Instead, I sat on the settee unwrapping another chocolate from the Celebrations tin as we raced to a two goal lead. It was bittersweet, as much as I love Boxing Day games, it’s often been underwhelming – Plymouth and Northampton ended in defeats in recent years. This could have been one for the ages, like Exeter in 2015 when we purred to a 3-0 win and my friends looked at me admiringly at my foresight of investing half my life in the club’s failures.  

Maybe, had there been a big crowd, or any crowd, Wimbledon would have capitulated, but there was something familiar about how we seized up almost immediately after Matty Taylor’s goal. Despite them losing their captain to injury, being away from home and 2-0 down, they began to dominate. We allowed them a little glimpse of an opportunity to come back which they were happy to claw at. Like pulling at a thread on a cheap Christmas jumper, we quickly started to unravel.

It reminded me of the Swindon game; the bright start and the breakthrough, then something gives, we were second to each challenge, snatched at passes, chased shadows, everything seems rushed and overstretched. There was lots of admirable effort, but no control. 

The main difference this time was that we had Jack Stevens in goal. There’s no denying the impact Stevens is having – he’s conceded one goal in five and was absolutely brilliant throughout. There’s no joy in saying that Simon Eastwood seems to have lost that little bit of the agility which makes the difference between a goal and a save. Stevens’ development is a huge credit to goalkeeping coach Wayne Brown, it’s got to be more than forty years since we’ve developed a goalkeeper into a genuine first team regular.

But, goalkeepers in good teams still shouldn’t be making five or six world class saves, the opposition shouldn’t be getting that far. Good ‘keepers, in good teams, rarely have much to do, but are ready when called on. It wasn’t difficult for Stevens to remain on high alert as he was in almost constant action.

Yes, we were dogged and kept a clean sheet, yes we won, yes, that’s two wins on the bounce, but it was down to sheer bloody mindedness rather than a controlled domination – Special Weapons and No Tactics. There’s a lot of talent in the team, plenty of weapons at our disposal, but really good teams control games with their shape and tempo. They have time on the ball, slow the pace if the heat on, they stifle as well as stretch teams, attacking with venom when the opposition tires of chasing shadows. We are still a long way from that, but it’s what we need to aspire to if we want to be promotion contenders. 

Stage one of our recovery was recognising we have a problem. We’re now rapidly racing towards mid-season, so this is more than a post-Wembley hangover. Stage two is to stem the tide, which it looks like we’re doing. Now we’ve got to move forward; in January there’s an opportunity to address the leadership issues on the field which are undermining the team’s ability. We’ll soon enough be facing the teams we struggled against at the start of the season and who now occupy the play-off and promotion slots, if we can compete with them, then we might just pull ourselves into the reckoning. 

George Lawrence’s Shorts – Tariff Fosu

Saturday 19 December 2020

There was no game on Saturday after Bristol Rovers had an outbreak of Covid. Dan Agyei is pretty chill about it all ‘That’s football’ he said, of a situation which is objectively not football.

Monday 21 December 2020

KRob’s hoping he might get his broken toys back from the menders soon as Cameron Brannagain came through an in-house friendly this week. Sam Winnall, who got injured coming back from injury against Crewe, could be on the verge of a return to the subs bench soon.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

While the world’s leading epidemiologists, virologists, vaccinologists battle to gain control over a rampant deadly pandemic sometimes the world just has to stop and listen. Yes, no more weighty medical authority than Ipswich Town’s head physio is calling for a circuit breaker in the season.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Northampton Town are putting up a fight to stay in League 1 this season by hoping to extend the deal of bionic man-bun, and former Oxford alumnus, Ricky Holmes. Manager Keith Curle is hoping the mercurial midfielder can stay fit, discover his form and find a time machine to go back to when he was good.

Thursday 24 December 2020

Yay! We’re out of Europe! There’s nothing that says Christmas like loads and loads and loads of amazing customs forms and paperwork! Santa Boris even threw in the added bonus of giving UK fishermen an extended holiday, which will literally go on forever! Premier League sophisticat Čhrīštøphę Wïlłdê is feeling the thrill of the pinch, currently rock bottom of the Premier League, he’s set to lose John Lundstram at the end of the season, maybe even in January.

Friday 25 December 2020

It’s still dark, but KRob’s pulled on his fluffy reindeer onesie and dashed downstairs to see if Santa’s come. Will he get the Evel Kenievel Stunt Toy or the Stretch Armstrong he’s been wanting, like, forever? Maybe, just maybe, because he’s been really good and kept his bedroom tidy – we’ll get cowboy Chris Cadden, who is apparently a target for both Oxford and Hibs?

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Fans-tasy Football League

Saturday 12 December 2020

The Chlamydia Kids, Blackpool, spent ninety minutes fruitlessly banging their balls against the bar on Saturday. It was reminiscent of a character defining weekend GLS had in the Vegas of the North with notorious seafront B&B owner ‘Give me a whirl’ Shirl. The dogged 0-0 draw nearly turned into three points when Jose’s son, John Mousinho’s header was cleared off the line in the last minute

Sunday 13 December 2020

Cowboy Chris Cadden’s career ending decision to move to Columbus Crew a year ago has really come back to bite him. The full-back had the humiliation of lifting the MLS Cup after a 3-0 win over Seattle Sounders on Sunday. Cowboy Chris couldn’t even bring himself to mention the glory days at Oxford United as it was too painful to think about how he’s missed opportunity to play prestige games against the likes of Forest Green Rovers in the Papa John’s Pizza Cup.   

Monday 14 December 2020

Jedward third wheel Joel Cooper has agreed to pack up his orange drainpipes and silver winklepickers and sign for Linfield on loan for the rest of the season so he can sort out some Irish Troubles back home.

Tuesday 15 December

These are strange times indeed, Tuesday’s last minute 1-0 defeat to Northampton Town turned out to be a raucous 4-0 win in front of 2000 fans. Scientists are baffled at the second clean sheet in a row as well as the avalanche of goals. Everyone has been asked to self-isolate as there is a concern this might be the result of a new strain of score-onavirus.

Wednesday 16 December

Northampton boss, Keith Curle gave a physics-defying assessment of his team’s performance last night giving them a roasting after he said they ‘melted’. Curle then went all Oscar Wilde in overpriced branded sportswear by adding “I don’t ‘feel’ that players let me down” he said theatrically waving a handkerchief and giving a wry smile, “I know they did”.

Thursday 17 December 

GLS’ favourite statistical virgins FiveThirtyEight, named after the time their mum puts them down for a nap, have predicted where we’ll finish at the end of the season. They’re anticipating a thrilling 12th place finish for KRob’s Super Yellows; be still my throbbing broadband connection.

The transfer window opens in a few weeks, and we’ve been linked with Barnsley winger Luke Thomas. Some fans might question why we need another winger after signing nineteen in the summer. KRob is one step ahead of us as all the other available League 1 wingers are stuck in the back of a truck at customs in Calais.

Friday 18 December 2020

With no game on Saturday, we need a bit of fun to lighten the mood. The Football League World website are nothing if not rigorous in their research. They’ve listed six celebrities who support Oxford United including Timmy Mallett, Woody Harrelson, who once nursed a hangover through a game three years ago, and a cardboard cutout of Prince Harry. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 4 Northampton Town 0

During the Conference years I’d get a mild anxiety about us scoring in the first eight minutes of a home game. My routine was so established that 3.08pm was when I finished my pre-match coffee meaning holding a hot drink as Matt Green gave us early lead would have me at sixes and sevens. 

There were far fewer disruptions to the pre-match routine in those days; you could park in the same spot, rarely had to queue and there were fewer people to bump into. I could leave my house at 2pm confident in the knowledge that by 3.08pm I’d be draining the last of my cup.

Now the matchday routine is determined by a long list of Covid rules, so many that I was worried that I might miss some. I suspect Covid rules are like the old saying about advertising; we know that only some of it works, which just don’t know which bits. While face masks and social distancing are clearly effective, I suspect the benefits of not throwing a ball back to a player is marginal. All in all, now is not the time to quibble, let’s just do everything to sort this out and figure out the science later.

Returning to the Kassam on Tuesday night wasn’t quite the fantasy I’d imagined when the lockdown first happened. I’d pictured a jubilant, throbbing crowd full of dashing Brycreamed Tommys kissing unsuspecting landgirls in bright red lipstick in the street. Somewhere between VE Day and Rochdale at home.

Instead, the return is necessarily cautious and gradual, the virus won’t surrender, it needs to be killed off and that takes time. I was torn between wanting to get back to football and it shattering my illusions by being awkward and underwhelming. I figured I needed to lean into it, surrender myself to the rules which are there for a far greater good. 

It’s an undoubtedly a more sanitised experience, the pre-match hubbub is missing; the bubbling of conversation isn’t there, simply standing together is a risk so everything is geared towards funnelling you to and from your seat. Nathan Cooper takes to the PA to warn people against facing each other when going to the toilet creating a troubling mental image of people peeing on each others shoes in the gents.

Ultimately, compliance is absolute and not a burden. No liberties are being taken away although wearing a mask with glasses is a challenge. When I secure my mask tightly enough, it minimises the misting, but doesn’t stop it completely. For much of the game it feels like I’m watching through a thin fog, which is just preferable to following a number of vividly coloured blobs chasing a small white blob around a big green blob. 

The atmosphere, though, feels familiar and genuine, voices aren’t as muffled as you’d think so despite its size, it feels like a proper crowd. It helps that fans are spread across all three stands creating an illusion of being more than the permitted two thousand that are here. With people sat in their bubbles, there’s no artificial symmetry you see at some games with fans regimentally sat in vertical rows one behind another. It all helps.

It’s the gaps where you really notice the difference. There’s usually a continuous ambient hum from the crowd, but when the action lulls, the stadium falls into near silence. It does give you an opportunity to hear the players and managers going about their business. I’m struck by Elliott Moore barking instructions at Alex Gorrin by calling him ‘Alex’ rather than ‘Gorro’ or some culturally appropriated nickname, like ‘Manuel’.

At one point the Northampton keeper launches the mother of all Hail Mary goal kicks deep into the Oxford half. The Cobblers manager Keith Curle screams ‘GO! GO! GO!’ at his front four as they chase the ball, trying to locate it dropping from the sky like happy labradors in a park. Sophisticated, this is not.

Curiously, I found I can read a lot from the general noise of the crowd, not just the roar of a goal or chance, but the less obvious hum. Normally, you can sense a change in atmosphere towards half-time, the sound of thousands of people trying to organise who’s buying the Bovril and what flavour crisps you want – which is always ‘whatever they’ve got, but not prawn cocktail’. During the first half I realise without those audible signals, I lose track of where in the game we’re at.

At the start, the players dribble out onto the pitch without fanfare. The taking of the knee can look tokenistic on TV but feels real and necessary in real life. Mide Shodipo holds his fist in the air, a reminder to the almost exclusively white crowd that this stuff happens to him and people like him. Racism not some abstract notion invented to annoy white people, it’s very real. Taking the knee is a political statement, make no bones about it, its message is to force change, those claiming to misinterpret it are choosing that path. It’s not simpering left wing woke-ism, people are bored of this shit. Taking the knee reminds us to make good decisions.

Once the game gets going, you realise it’s the immersive wide screen 4k experience of being there that you’ve missed the most. Going to games allows you to appreciate the endeavour and effort, even in a strange way, the pettiness. At one point a Northampton player throws the ball away while the referee isn’t watching and we are appalled and outraged, someone behind me calls the referee a ‘prick’; it’s great.

At first the performance mirrors the atmosphere, it’s good but a little disjointed, like we’re still trying to get the glue to set on this team. Marcus McGuane is a bull in ballet shoes; he looks like he should be used as a battering ram, but there’s a cultured ball player trying to get out, he just seems to lack a decisiveness which will turn his good work into chances. It’s not just the new players, James Henry seems a bit lost in the margins and Matty Taylor is either isolated or disengaged. It’s all not quite happening.

On the touchline, though, Karl Robinson seems calm, his only animation is due to his exasperation towards the referee, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned. As with last season, it needs something, or someone, to bond all the good stuff together. 

It comes, perhaps surprisingly, from Sean Clare, John Mousinho’s half-time replacement. Mousinho, it’s reported, is walking a tight rope, with the prospect of season ending surgery should his knee give way. When he goes down holding it, some assume his career is over. Robinson afterwards says Mousinho feels he was letting the side down. His performance doesn’t come across like that, but perhaps his body is just not doing what he wants anymore. It reminds me of one of Wayne Brown’s last games where his playing career seemed to end in front of our eyes, we chastised him in frustration, but it must have been awful for him.

It takes bravery to get down the flanks when you’re a full-back, you need to trust your team mates to cover for you and not berate you if you mess up, Clare seems to be growing in confidence and glides down the flank looping a ball to the back post for Matty Taylor to nod home for the first goal. The squad head to Clare rather than Taylor to congratulate him, then everyone comes together, bringing Clare into the fold gives us cohesion.

From then on, it becomes comfortable, Shodipo seems to only score one type of goal; cutting in from the left and sending a bouncing bomb into the bottom right hand corner for 2-0. Dan Agyei comes on and crosses with his first touch for Matty Taylor to head home the third. The two crosses from Agyei and Clare are so good, Taylor almost seems embarrassed to take the glory of putting the ball in the net, though there’s plenty for him to do on both occasions.

By this point we’re totally outclassing our opponents, confidence and the fluidity of last season is back. Josh Ruffels seems to be playing the role of jazz full-back, a defender who is given licence too act as an improvised attacking force with a free reign.

Then, into injury time Agyei picks the ball up again, glides past two players and bends in the fourth. It’s reminiscent of the win against West Ham with the joy of a perfect finale, the best goal of the night. Altogether it’s a thoroughly satisfying and convincing win; it’s not West Ham, of course, it’s Northampton Town, and while, in many ways, this falls short of the glory of that night, in others, given the intervening 291 days since I was last here, it’s better.

Afterwards we’re funnelled back out of the ground, the players are clapping the fans, but the steward needs us out so I’m gone before they get to us. Once out of the stadium, out of the grips of The Rules, people remove their masks and trudge back to their cars, I’ve missed that trudge more than I could have imagined. We’re not quite back in the old routine yet, but just being back will do for now.

Match wrap: Blackpool 0 Oxford United 0

If Countdown teaches us anything, it’s that there’s more than one way to skin a maths problem. The allocation of tickets for the upcoming games appears relatively simple on the surface until you consider the complexities of bubbles, availability, capacity and logistics. There was a bit of surprise that only 60% of season ticket holders applied for tickets, but two games are midweek and the other is Boxing Day. If you’re in your seventies, midweeks may less appealing and Christmas could be the first opportunity to see family for months, it’s not the most attractive sequence. 

Everyone had an alternative solution, all of which had equal merit but none – as far as I could see – were objectively better. Each solution appeared moulded to the proposers circumstances, not to gain advantage, but because that’s the evidence base we all tend to work with. 

I’m pretty relaxed about the system, doing it in batches of three allows the club to allocate at least one game to all season ticket holders. Game-by-game would be a frantic process of opening the ballot, doing the draw with all its various complexities, and allocating the tickets. Doing it more than that would expect fans to cast too far forward. I suspect the club will work to help fans whose circumstances change, as they do for all-ticket games, but to guarantee that would be a mistake, you want most people to follow the process to give you capacity to deal with the outliers and exceptions. 

The issue I do take exception to is the guarantee that 1893 Club members will get tickets to all games. As far as I know, the members pay a premium to access a lounge pre and post match, but are otherwise regular season ticket holders. I also pay a premium to sit in the South Stand Upper, but don’t expect my opportunities to be any greater than those in the East Stand. The fact the club didn’t mention it is strange, like they’ve being held to ransom by octogenarian ultras.

The discord might be helping our gradual recovery, there’s been a cosy oneness about the club for the last few months, but it’s a bit like a deeply loving marriage where the sex is underwhelming. We’re endlessly forgiving and understanding and we know ‘that’ doesn’t happen all the time, but in the dead of night we lie awake wondering what we’re doing with our life.

Nobody wants open warfare, which is ultimately destructive, but a diversity of views is no bad thing. We’ve now negotiated a tricky batch of games with fairly limited damage, the one that mattered, against Swindon, weighs heavily towards the negative but that was a last minute and freakish defeat. Otherwise, there is evidence that we’re turning the corner.

The 0-0 draw with Blackpool may have been the best result of the whole batch given the form of the Seasiders and the clean sheet. After the game Karl Robinson claimed a degree of victory for the clean sheet, saying that he always said we’d get there. It reminds me of the joke about the magician whose trick was to be hit over the head with a hammer, then after six months in a coma he opens his eyes and exclaims ‘Ta-da!’. It’s not a real triumph to ‘get there’ by stringing together a series of draws 35% into the season, if we have ambition to get promoted, then we need to be better than that.

It does seem the season could be defined in the upcoming games, they appear winnable, the key now is to win them. It remains true that at this stage I’d be happy to tread water this season if access to games is limited. Of course that might change on Tuesday when I push through the turnstiles for the first time in nine months.