The wrap: Walsall 1 Oxford United 3

The Bescot Stadium was a new one for me. I’d often seen the sign off the M6, and the main stand poking above the flyover and thought it an obvious one to tick off the list. The problem was that though we are, in many ways, similar clubs, we haven’t met that frequently. Yes, three times in the last three years, but before that there had been a sixteen year gap.

I was looking forward to it; the stadium is complete and compact in a classic lower league style. The relatively short journey, plus our good form, was sure to draw a decent following. Plus, there was a little less tension now we were sitting loftily in 12th.

In fact, the ground a curiosity, apparently designed by an architect who missed his lecture on cantilever structures. Rather than clean sight lines, socking great girders prop up the roof, obstructing the view. I’ve been to old grounds and sat in areas with poor views, but that’s more because seats had been installed where they were never intended to be, the problem at the Bescot seems to be obviously avoidable.

I’d known about this beforehand, but underestimated how bad it was. To top it off, their main stand, more modern and offering unobstructed views and corporate hospitality – their equivalent of our South Stand – is behind the goal rather than down the side, the whole stadium does its best to stop people from watching the game.

This season, that’s probably not a bad thing if you’re a Walsall fan, they’re a poor team and are surely set to go down. It was only our gift of Curtis Nelson’s dithering, then Marcus Browne’s lunging tackle, resulting in his red card, that made it competitive.

Browne’s sending off could mean we don’t get to see him again. He’ll have a three match ban, which will bring us perilously close to the end of the season, and I wonder whether Karl Robinson will be bothered about giving him game time before he heads back to West Ham.

In reality, Browne’s sending off probably made the game harder for them. Fitness no longer seems to be a major factor when you lose a player, and it probably forced us to be more tactical. They didn’t have the ability to breakdown a team whose first instinct was to defend what they had.

There weren’t many chances, it wasn’t a great game, but we were prepared to attack when we could. Sam Long drove into the box to cross for Luke Garbutt who set himself to bury it. It reminded me of Trevor Hebberd’s goal in the Milk Cup, it seemed to take an age to get his feet right and shoot. I didn’t see it hit the back of the net – those obstructed views again – but there was little doubt from the sea of bodies and the cacophony of noise around me.

Garbutt, the release from a torrid season evident, headed directly to where we were, fists clenched, eyes bulging. Around us were a large number of latecomers from the pub who hadn’t been able to barge their way to the back of the stand. There seemed to be a moment when Garbutt realised what he was heading into – a seething mass of Adidas trainers, Stone Island jumpers and coats with goggles in their hoods. There was fear in his eyes, but he was fully committed and piled in anyway, disappearing into the morass. The unlikeliest player to bond the team with the fans.

Jerome Sinclair’s celebration for his clincher was more controlled; perhaps he’d learned from Garbutt. Cameron Brannagan didn’t hold back though, he’d been fiercely competitive throughout, and ended in the melee, arguing with stewards. In any other world, I’d have been appalled by it all – and there is a post somewhere about the toxicity of patriarchy at football – I’ll save that for a defeat – but in the moment, this was glorious.

Rob Dickie seemed to do some sterling work calming things down. He’s coming of age on and off the pitch. His goal was fairly routine, but his overall game is hopefully showing that we may not miss Curtis Nelson, when he inevitably leaves, as much as we thought we might. The benches cleared, leading to Ahmed Kashi also being sent off, which I found out 3 hours later. He’ll serve a one-match ban, but I hoe we see him again next season; nobody else is as efficient with the ball.

We’re pretty much safe and with no chance of the play-offs we can start to reflect. We may not yet be fixed – particularly as we continue to be dogged off the field – but this run is rebuilding some faith and, more importantly, a bond between the team and those who follow it.

Midweek Fixture: The 2016 JPT Final team – where are they now?

Before it was infested by Under 23 Premier League teams, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was a half decent tournament. At least when you got to the final. The last to maintain its integrity was 2016 where we faced Barnsley in the final. It was a joyous affair, despite the 3-2 defeat. Where are those brave men now?

Benji Büchel

Likeable weak link in an otherwise relentlessly effective team. Shared glove-based responsibilities with Sam Slocombe for most of the season. Replaced by Simon Eastwood once promotion was confirmed. Eventually went to Barnet on loan where he was briefly announced as playing for their ladies team. Now at FC Vaduz, he’s been capped by Lichenstein over 20 times and recently played against Italy.

Jonjoe Kenny

More than capable right-back signed on loan from Everton filling a not inconsiderable hole left by George Baldock. Slotted seamlessly into the team under the tutelage of Alex MacDonald. Headed back to Everton, playing the final game of the 2015/16 season. He was part of the England team which won the Under 20 World Cup in 2017. Has spent most of his time since in and out of their starting eleven at The Toffees.

Johnny Mullins (captain)

Started the season as a first choice centre-back before falling down the pecking order. Captained the side due to Jake Wright not being fully fit. Headed for Luton at the end of the promotion season where he won promotion, before joining Cheltenham.

Chey Dunkley

Cheyenne Amarni Keanu Roma Dunkley cemented a place in Oxford United folklore at Wembley by doing a Cruyff turn in his own box. Also managed to score Barnsley’s first goal. Spent most of the season overcoming Johnny Mullins in the centre of defence. Scored a decisive goal against Wycombe to seal promotion, dominant in our first year in League 1 before signing for Wigan Athletic. Won promotion to The Championship the following season.

Jordan Evans

Signed on loan from Fulham in January 2016, played only nine games before heading back. Started due to an injury to Joe Skarz. A Welsh Under-21 international, his professional career petered out, playing for Wrexham and Bala Town before ending up at Cefn Druids, A man with hidden talents, Evans is a qualified hairdresser and plays in the band Faded Strangers.

Alex MacDonald

Lovable tireless winger signed from Burton at Michael Appleton’s lowest ebb. Boundless enthusiasm for the game dragged us out of the fug and into the 2015/16 season. A regular through the promotion year before being unceremoniously sold to Mansfield Town.

Josh Ruffels

Oxford United survivor originally signed by Chris Wilder from Coventry City. Made the starting eleven due to a lunging John Lundstram tackle which gained a red card and a ban. Players came and went, as did managers, but Ruffels stayed. Mostly played in midfield, but converted to full-back under Karl Robinson, became a specialist in spectacular last minute goals.

Liam Sercombe

Wide shouldered marauding midfielder whose goals from midfield were critical to pretty much everything we did well that season. Scored a decisive goal at Carlisle at the end of the season. The following season in League One he continued his good form until he fell out with Michael Appleton, possibly over his reaction to only being a substitute in the JPT Final against Coventry the following season, where he also scored. Signed for Bristol Rovers in the summer.

Callum O’Dowda

Career-minded local boy flitted in and out of the team throughout the promotion season. Scored the opener in the final to wild celebration. Also scored the last goal of the season against Wycombe before flouncing off to Bristol City in the summer. A Republic of Ireland international.

Kemar Roofe

Ethereal goal machine who initially joined on loan from West Brom. Heralded a new era when he was announced as a permanent signing the following summer, smashed in over 20 goals before joining Leeds United for £4m.

Danny Hylton

Precise, analytical, focussed – everything that Michael Appleton was, Danny Hylton wasn’t. Signed by Gary Waddock weeks before the Darryl Eales revolution took hold. Stuck to the first team like chewing gum on your shoe. Scored the second goal which briefly raised hopes of a revival. At the end of the season, he headed for Luton Town where he won promotion. More recently spent most of his time cheerleading from the sidelines as Luton head for the Championship.

Substitutes:

Sam Slocombe

Initially signed to replace Ryan Clarke, Slocombe’s patchy form saw him chopping and changing with Benji Buchel throughout the season. Missed out on Wembley, but played in our 3-2 giant killing over Swansea. The signing of Simon Eastwood pushed him out the door to Blackpool. Lasted a year before going to Bristol Rovers. Loaned to Lincoln in 2019.

Jake Wright

A leader of men who was signed by Chris Wilder in 2010. Won promotion to the Football League at the end of that year. Injury meant he missed out on being the first Oxford United player to play at Wembley twice. Led the team to promotion, but re-joined Chris Wilder at Sheffield United in a defensive re-shuffle when Curtis Nelson arrived. Won promotion with the Blades where he still is, albeit now sidelined by injury.

Sam Long

A player who seemed to be so frequently injured, successive managers didn’t have the heart to release him. Survived Michael Appleton, Pep Clotet and became a regular in Karl Robinson’s starting eleven.

Josh Ashby

Once heralded as the future of the football club; Ashby achieved just seven appearances before being released. Signed for Oxford City.

George Waring (replaced Callum O’Dowda)

A proper unit signed on loan from Stoke City, flitted in and out of the team scoring once. Following a series of loan moves he headed for Tranmere before joining Chester in 2019.

Chris Maguire (replaced Alex MacDonald)

Enigmatic magician signed on loan from Rotherham. Sulked from one club to another, disgusted by the mediocrity around him. At Oxford, however, he bloomed and signed permanently in 2016. Scored twice in a derby win over Swindon and generally oozed genius. Appleton’s departure scuppered chances of a renewed contract where he made a disasterous move to Bury. Following their relegation he was signed by Sunderland where he initially regained form. Slipped out of the reckoning as the season progressed.

Jordan Bowery (replaced Danny Hylton)

One of numerous target men that Michael Appleton signed. Unlike most of the others, he weighed in with seven goals during his time with the club including a critical winner at Portsmouth. Dropped to the Conference with Leyton Orient where he failed to find any form. Signed on loan with Crewe before being made permanent, scoring twenty goals for the club.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Wycombe Wanderers 1

Saturday’s game was preceded by the news that the club’s stuttering administration had failed to pay its non-playing staff on time. The reasons given by Karl Robinson was, once again, the flow of cash coming from Thailand, presumably via Singapore, where the club is registered.

Incidentally, if you’re questioning why players get priority, my understanding is that because they are unionised via the PFA, there is a standard invalidation clause in player contracts for non-payment of salary. The club has to protect their assets.

This is a reason, but no excuse, many companies push money around the world to pay people, so why are we so different?

League 1 is a wasteland between smaller, well run teams in League 2 and the Conference, and the escalating scrap in the Championship to get to the Premier League. We have to spend more than we’re able to generate organically through ticket sales and merchandise just to maintain our status.

So, we’re reliant on our owners and the loan system. We’re often critical of loanees because the lack of control we have and the perception they might lack commitment.

In reality, a loans give us access to players we can’t otherwise afford. The division is awash with players from the Premier League academy system. But, academy football is all about creating rounded, technically capable professionals more than players brave enough to scrap for points. Ability takes you so far in a first team game, but winning games takes something else.

It’s a big factor in the division this season; lots of capable teams; few who can win matches on a regular basis. Our last three wins have all been punctuated by inspired moments that have broken the deadlock. Josh Ruffels’ crossfield ball against Bradford, Rob Dickie’s pass that led to Jerome Sinclair’s opener yesterday, Jordan Graham’s switch to Ruffels in the last minute, and, of course, Ruffels’ spectacular finish to win it. Earlier in the season, we didn’t have that, now we do and it’s making all the difference.

Wycombe’s ambition is largely to stay in League 1, Gareth Ainsworth has engineered them accordingly. They’re physical and difficult to play against, Ade Akinfenwa is the antithesis of a technical academy player. I can’t quite work out what the strategy is with him, standing still seems to be a big part of it, but he’s very effective with the limitations he has. It looked like we might get overawed by their gritty desire for points, and their noisy following, until Ruffels – who admitted he needs to learn to step up – took control of the situation.

We are starting to see players emerge from the constraints of their academy hothouses and turn into players that can win games. Luke Garbutt has had an unremarkable year, but he showed much more bravery going forward, Rob Dickie often looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he’s growing with every game, Jerome Sinclair is a very solid player, but you can see he needs more time to turn into the selfish goalscorer he needs to be. Jordan Graham is sometimes criticised for over-playing, but he’s one of the few capable of doing something different.

Coming into form now should be enough to see us safe, which has largely been the objective since the opening weeks of the season which wrecked our prospects. In the context of a division that struggles to win games consistently and a club that has done its best to disrupt any modicum of stability, Karl Robinson has to take credit for the relatively comfortable position we now find ourselves in. He’s been manager, coach and club spokesman on a range of topics that are out of his control, if you blame him for failure you should have the good grace to praise him for success.

Games of Note: Wycombe Wanderers

It’s not a derby, but Wycombe v Oxford is frequently entertaining, and often momentus.

7 May 2016 – 3-0

45 games gone, 1 to go, three points for promotion.

8 April 1996 – 3-0

It’s Easter Saturday and we’re on the mother of all promotion charges. We’d never beaten Wycombe in the league before, but that’s all about to change. Stuart Massey on the crossbar, Paul Moody doing a handstand, iconic.

18 January 2014 – 1-0

In many ways, just another fixture, until Nicky Wroe unleashes the most perfect strike you’ve ever seen.

4 April 2015 – 3-2

A pretty grim season, but then West Brom loanee, Kemar Roofe takes the stage.

27 October 2012 – 3-1

If Tom Craddock’s goal, seconds into the second half tells you one thing, it’s that you should always sacrifice you half-time Mars bar in favour of watching the game.



Midweek fixture: Michael Appleton’s Forty-Two

Michael Appleton’s time in charge at Oxford will be remembered as nothing but glorious. It didn’t start that way though. He lost his first four league games in front of an increasingly suspicious home crowd, flirted with relegation and chugged along to finish 13th in his first season. During that time he played no less than 42 different players, performing what he now calls ‘major surgery’ on the squad as the season progressed. Have you ever wondered what happened to them all?

Josh Ashby

Once so much the future of the club (yes, another one) Chris Wilder named him on the bench of a Conference game just so ensure we could maximise any transfer fees we might get for him. Made a total of seven appearances before being released. Now at Oxford City.

Jamie Ashdown

An old mate of Michael Appleton’s from Portsmouth and former FA Cup winner. Ashdown came in late in the season to replace Ryan Clarke. Made a decent fist of it as we started to turn the corner. Now retired.

George Baldock

Gorgeous George was brought in with the help of Dave Jones from Sky Sports from MK Dons. Signed for another year on loan in 2015, but only lasted until January when one Karl Robinson dragged him back to help out with their relegation fight from the Championship. Bought by Sheffield United in 2017 by Chris Wilder.

Tyrone Barnett

For a short while Barnett was the answer to all our problems. The big strong target man that Michael Appleton had been looking for. At the end of his loan period, despite efforts to sign him permanently, he moved to Shrewsbury. Now at Cheltenham.

Richard Brindley

Sometimes there are players who play for minutes before disappearing, and for some reason you remember them when everyone else forgets. Richard Brindley is one of those players for me. Made 3 appearances on loan from Scunthorpe, now plays for Bromley.

Junior Brown

Part of an original batch of signings at the start of the Appleton era. Showed precious little, lasted eleven games, including a half decent performance against West Brom in the league cup before being shipped out to Mansfield. Moved to Shrewsbury and was part of the team that nearly won promotion in 2018. Moved to Coventry City at the end of that season. Great hair.

Wes Burns

A little glimmer of hope when signed from Bristol City showing plenty of pace down the flank. Lasted nine games before heading back to his parent club. After a series of loan moves, he eventually settled with Fleetwood.

John Campbell

Perhaps the weirdest of all the signings that season. Rumoured to have joined from Jarrow Roofing, it was announced that he’d gone on loan to Torquay before anyone had confirmed he had signed. Lasted three games before heading back north. Now at Whitby Town.

Ryan Clarke

A club legend in the twilight of his Oxford career. Appleton stuck with him for most of the season before passing the gloves to Jamie Ashdown. Clarke joined Northampton Town the following year, but despite winning promotion, didn’t play a single game. He joined Wimbledon and Eastleigh before settling with Torquay and then Bath City.

Michael Collins

One of the inherited players having been signed in 2014. Saw his contract out and left at the end of the season in 2016. Headed out to India for while before returning to play for Halifax and Leyton Orient. Eventually ended up coaching at Bradford and was somewhat thrown under a bus when he became head coach briefly in 2018

Max Crocombe

Perpetual understudy to Ryan Clarke, Crocombe was a New Zealand international whose highlight at Oxford was keeping goal in a heroic League Cup defeat to West Brom at the start of Appleton’s reign. Moved to Carlisle after being released, then ended up at noveau riche Salford in the National League.

Chey Dunkley

Came from Kidderminster but spent much of his early career on the bench. He described himself on his Twitter account as the club mascot. Eventually overhauled Johnny Mullins for a first team spot, did a Cruyff turn at Wembley, scored a goal that clinched promotion, played his part in everything we did that was good for two years before going on to play for Wigan in the Championship.

Armand Gnanduillet

A player with legs like out of control fire hoses. Seemed to specialise in finding new and interesting ways of not connecting with crosses or misreading through-balls. Went back to Chesterfield where he joined Blackpool.

Aidan Hawtin

Most famous for being the ball boy who got in an altercation with a Swindon player during the 2012 derby win. Played just 1 game before moving to Norway. Retired due to injury in 2017 aged just 21 and became a personal trainer.

Patrick Hoban

A battering ram of a striker who came from Dundalk with a decent goalscoring reputation. Never really got going at Oxford, although scored a critical equaliser in a draw at Luton in the promotion season. Went to Mansfield before heading back to Dundalk where he’s started banging in the goals again. Very much found his level.

Tareiq Holmes-Dennis

Yet another bright young thing signed on loan from Charlton. Holmes-Dennis started with a man of the match performance against Tranmere, but in his subsequent 14 games ran out of steam. Headed back to Charlton before going to Huddersfield. Managed a handful of games before heading to Bristol Rovers.

Will Hoskins

Arrived from Brighton with a decent reputation but only managed four games before being released at the end of the season. Played for Exeter City, Hemel Hempstead and is now at Northcote City.

Brian Howard

Signed on a short term contract after leaving Birmingham City, expected to be the player who would run the team. Only made seven appearances before disappearing off to Eastleigh. Last heard of at Whitehawk.

Sam Humphreys

One of many youth team products who rotated through the first team. Made one first team substitution before having his contract cancelled so he could move to Norway. Returned to Hayes and Yeading, then Banbury.

David Hunt

When Michael Appleton talks about doing major surgery on the squad David Hunt frequently springs to mind (also see: Tom Newey). A tediously dependable full-back in a slowly decaying squad, he was eventually shipped out to Barnet and slipped into non-league with Margate and Wealdstone.

Danny Hylton

A strange bearded wizard, signed by Gary Waddock and adopted by Michael Appleton. Appleton described him as not very bright, but he carried him through the early months with an prodigious work ethic. Joined the glory train in 2016, winning promotion before joining Luton to everyone’s dismay that summer. I love Danny Hylton.

Alex Jakubiak

A too-much-too-soon loan signing from Watford teenager Jakubiak made nine games before being recalled by his parent club. The Hornets have persisted with him loaning him to a variety of teams, most recently to Bristol Rovers where he’s scored two goals. Both against us.

George Long

Goalkeeper who signed on loan from Sheffield United to cover Ryan Clarke’s injury. Played 10 games before returning to Yorkshire. Played a season at AFC Wimbledon on loan before being signed by Hull City.

Sam Long

A true survivor, despite crippling injuries and changes of management, Long is still with the club in 2019 despite only ever making very occasional appearances.

Alex MacDonald

A little bowling ball of a winger from Burton and an early sign that things were going to improve. Became integral to the team that clinched promotion in 2016. Inexplicably moved on the following season to Mansfield.

Jonathan Meades

Adopted by Michael Appleton having been signed in 2013 by Chris Wilder. Crippled with injuries meant he was limited to just seven appearances before being released. Played nearly 100 games for Wimbledon, winning promotion to League 1 in 2016, but retired in 2018 following a persistent injury.

Carlton Morris

The first of many big strong target men Michael Appleton tried. Signed on loan from Norwich, the job of leading the line in a formative team was too much for the teenager. Scored in an early League Cup success over Bristol City, he returned to Norwich after seven games. Still at Norwich now and has had a range of loans, most significantly at Shrewsbury in 2017/18 when he nearly got promoted to the Championship.

John Mullins

A dependable leader and a rare beacon of consistency. Mullins partnered Jake Wright for a majority the season and a good chunk of the promotion season in 2015/16 before being slowly overhauled by Chey Dunkley. Ended the year on the bench, was released in 2016 where he signed for Luton Town. Won promotion in 2016/17 before slowly falling out of favour. Signed for Cheltenham in 2018.

Tom Newey

An icon of Chris Wilder’s latter years at Oxford, a soul-destroyingly dependable full-back. Followed Wilder to Northampton Town making no more than a dozen appearances over two years. Retired due to injury and turned to coaching. Currently back with his first club Leeds as Under 16 coach.

Callum O’Dowda

One of many juniors rising through the club’s ranks at the time. Looked lightweight in 2014/15, but bulked up considerably the following season. A marginal rather than key player of the promotion squad, he was signed by Bristol City in 2016 and capped by the Republic of Ireland.

Alfie Potter

Lovable, jinky winger, Alfie Potter is the boy who never grew up. Signed by Chris Wilder, he seemed to have a knack of scoring memorable goals including the winner at Wembley in 2010, one in the opening game of the season against Portsmouth and a JPT winner over Swindon. Lost his way under Michael Appleton. Moved to Wimbledon, then Northampton Town back with Wilder. Now at Billericay Town. If you want to feel old; he’s thirty.

Giorgio Rasulo

Signed from MK Dons, played one game and leaves a legacy of being one of those players fans reference when trying to make an ironic point. Chugged along with MK Dons until 2018 when he joined Bracknell Town.

Michael Raynes

Perpetual bridesmaid centre-back, but one who put his heart and soul into everything he did. A graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University and brother of England Cerebral Palsy Goalkeeper Jordan, Raynes left for Mansfield, had a good couple of years at Carlisle before moving to Crewe. Currently on loan at Hartlepool.

Joe Riley

A full-back signed on loan from Bolton, played over 30 games before joining Bury just as we thought we’d found a decent player. Signed for Shrewsbury in 2016, one of a number of players who became important to their unlikely promotion push in 2018. Left for Plymouth in the summer of 2018.

James Roberts

Perpetually the answer to all club’s goalscoring problems for three years, Roberts scored a couple of top class goals in about 30 games. His brother was tragically killed in a car accident in 2017, Roberts’ career slowed and stalled following a series of loans. Left in 2018 for Hereford.

Kemar Roofe

Arrived from West Browm almost undercover in a blizzard of loan signings, initially Roofe looked like he was just another lightweight destined to disappear. Then scored two in a win over Wycombe and couldn’t stop scoring. Signed permanently in 2015/16 scoring over 25 goals as we were promoted to League 1, scored against Swindon and Swansea in the FA Cup. Bought by Leeds United for over £4m in 2016. After a bit of a slow start, grew to become an integral part of Leeds’ push for promotion to the Premier League.

Danny Rose

Originally joined as a teenager in our first season in the Conference from Manchester United. Enjoyed promotion to the Football League with Newport and Aldershot before returning to Oxford in 2013. Chalked up over 80 games, but never really enjoyed a consistent run in the team. Briefly followed Chris Wilder to Northampton before moving to Portsmouth. Played a marginal role in their promotion to League 1. Went to Swindon on loan in January 2019. Urgh.

Josh Ruffels

Signed from Coventry City as part of a policy of solving the club’s financing problems by nurturing youth. Ruffels became one of the squads most dependable players, winning promotion with the squad in 2016 and playing at Wembley twice. Still with the club where he’s enjoying an extended period in the team at a full-back.

Joe Skarz

The best defender in the land was signed in 2015 from Rotherham. Became an integral part of the promotion winning back-four, heroically playing through injury to get us over the line in 2016. Slowly fell out of favour and left to join Bury, his previous club, in 2017. Dogged by injury, he’s yet to play a dozen games in the in the two years he’s been at the club.

Kyle Vassell

Played a mostly forgettable six games towards the end of the season, his only goal being a critical winner against Carlisle which was a great stride towards safety. Enjoyed a productive two years at Blackpool where he won promotion from League 2, joined Rotherham in 2018.

Andrew Whing

A grizzled old pro signed by Chris Wilder, all we wanted was a team of Andy Whings. Injuries and age slowly crept up on him, and he announced his retirement to take up a coaching role with the club in 2015. Left the club in 2017 to coach Kidderminster Harriers. Last year joined Coventry City as an academy coach.

Jake Wright

Surly, mercurial centre-back Jake Wright joined in 2010, won promotion to the Football League. Led the team through Chris Wilder’s reign and the chaos that followed. Was Michael Appleton’s captain during the 2015/16 promotion season, voted best player of the first 10 years of Oxblogger that year. Left for Sheffield United in what looked like a reshuffle that had gone wrong. Enjoyed promotion to the Championship before injury limited his game time with the Blades.

The wrap: Coventry City 0 Oxford United 1

Cameron Brannagan sends over good quality deep corner, it somehow lands, via Sam Long, at the feet of Curtis Nelson, who bludgeons away at the ball with every part of his body until it stops coming back and stays in the net.

This is a season for the hackers and battlers, not the lovers and dreamers. In a mirror image of last week – the madness of the last minute aside – they were us; the better side but not good enough to win. We were overwhelmed in the opening minutes and it looked like we were in for a torrid afternoon, but they ran out of ideas and the threat subsided, as it often does with teams in this division.

On our part, we were wasteful, tried to get it forward too quickly, meaning the strikers couldn’t support the defensive effort by holding the ball. We were there for a point, surely. We simply had to wait for the ball to come back and hope that we’d stand firm, which we did, by and large. We were resolute and took the opportunity when it came. There were lots of good news stories; Sam Long was excellent, Ahmed Kashi is calm and efficient with the ball in a way that no others are, a gem hidden in full sight.

Walking back to the car, Coventry fans were complaining about their lack of ideas and how their limitations were being exposed. They could have been us trudging away from the Kassam, and they’re two points off the play-offs. The Ricoh is a lovely stadium, but they only open three sides, we have more in common than divides us, it seems.

This week Karl Robinson ‘celebrated’ his first year in charge with a retrospective in the Oxford Mail. He reflected on the problems he’s had – ‘reasons’ for failure if you’re generous, ‘excuses’ if you’re not. The training ground, the stadium issue, injuries, winding up orders and his best signing shaming himself on Twitter. If management is the art of removing the excuses for failure; then he’s got a few in his locker. Whether they are reasons or excuses is open to endless debate, but it’s hard to argue that he’s been given the ingredients for success on a plate. In a tight division, these are the margins which have tipped us onto the wrong side of the edge, regardless of the millstone of having a ‘top-eight budget’.

Coventry, of course, have their own off-field problems, many clubs in League 1 do. Either a systemic lack of money or things which are darker and more venal. Virtually nobody is truly equipped for The Championship. The now fabled thirteen team relegation battle illustrates how most teams are negotiating the season on a high wire with no safety net.

Normally, being thirteenth with seven games to go would have you reaching for a spreadsheet to place fancifully optimistic predictions that allow us to sneak into play-offs. Nobody ever writes off their season until it’s mathematically impossible. This year, we’re still looking down, at the four point gap, even though in terms of our position, we’re now closer to the play-offs than we are to the relegation zone.

As we turn for home this season, there’s very little fun to be had, it’s all about hacking and bludgeoning our way to safety. It seems unlikely that things will be fully decided until the last knockings of the year. But with everyone seemingly susceptible to the same failings, yesterday’s result was a big step towards staying in League 1 next season.

Midweek fixture: Eight moments that remind us why we support Oxford United

Most of the time supporting Oxford United is a miserable experience. Then, every now and then, there’s a moment which reminds you why you do it. Here are eight moments which make it all worthwhile.

2009 Jamie Cook versus Luton

The aim for the season is promotion back to the Football League. The division’s other fallen giant, Luton Town, are in town. Over 10,000 turn up for this clash of the titans, we take the lead, then Jamie Cook sells the stadium a dummy and goes for goal.

2012 Peter Leven versus Port Vale

A so-so game against a so-so team in a so-so season. Mercurial playmaker Peter Leven breaks down a Port Vale attack in his own half, nudges the ball forward, then looks up. He hasn’t, has he? Yes, I think he has.

2013 Alfie Potter versus Portsmouth

Relegated but rejuvenated, Portsmouth sell out the opening game of the season; billed as a celebration of their club’s re-awakening. We’re the stooges for the occasion, there to be sacrificed for the entertainment of the locals. The script says they take the lead which they do, then Alfie Potter tears the script up and throws it in a bin fire.

2014 Nicky Rowe versus Wycombe Wanderers

Despite dominating our game against Wycombe at Adams Park, we can’t make the breakthrough. Then, with two minutes to go, Nicky Rowe picks the ball up just outside the box and lets fly with the sweetest strike you’ll ever see.

2016 Liam Sercombe versus Carlisle

Despite a season of highlights, with three games to go we need three wins to secure promotion. Hundreds make the journey north for the last game of the season against Carlisle. We take the lead early, but the signature moment of the game, of the season, of the decade, is Liam Sercombe’s marauding second. Absolute limbs.

2017 Toni Martinez versus Middlesborough

Limbs (part 2). An enjoyable run in the FA Cup is all set to end as Middlesborough take a two goal lead. It’s all over. Or is it?

2018 Ryan Ledson versus Charlton

Nothing seems to be going right; we’ve lost our manager and seem unable to get a new one. We head to Charlton, managed by Karl Robinson, who are threatening the play-offs and lose our only recognised striker to injury. With two minutes to go, we’re 1-2 down. Seconds later, we’re all square and heading for a decent, and important point. That’s never enough for Ryan Ledson.

2019 Jamie Mackie versus Bradford

We’re in the 94th minute of a relegation six pointer and Bradford are just about to score the winner to tear our hearts out and potentially send us down. They miss, we take the goal-kick, and seven seconds later, the ball drops for Jamie Mackie for a goal for the ages. Then things get really weird.

The wrap: Oxford United 1 Bradford City 0

Let’s get to it.

It’s 0-0 in a relegation six-pointer, we’ve been the better team, just not good enough to beat them. The board goes up, four minutes of injury time. Some people have left, accepting the point, but our pressure is showing encouraging signs that we could still get something from the game. There are 57 seconds of injury-time to play.

Let’s start with Bradford manager, Gary Bowyer who wound the whole hullabaloo back to a challenge by Curtis Nelson on Eoin Doyle in the build up to their chance. Bowyer described the tackle as ‘wiping out’ Doyle, for which Nelson should have been booked.

Nelson’s challenge is robust, Doyle’s run is checked in the process, but the referee waves play on; Bowyer describes this is as ‘fair enough’. As a result of the challenge, Nelson is out of position and Doyle is able to regain his balance and drive on. He’s the one who squares the ball with Nelson scrambling to recover. He’s clearly got the advantage; wiped out, he isn’t.

The ball is squared to Lewis O’Brien at the back post, he has an open goal; Cameron Brannagan slides in to make a challenge. O’Brien misses. The referee, Andy Davies, who has good sight of it, if a little behind the play, awards a goal kick. On Twitter, a Bradford fan said it was a corner, but the immediate reaction of the Bradford fans is that it was a miss not a block. Bowyer also claims O’Brien said it came off Brannagan, but he doesn’t seem to make a big play for that argument.

Given the velocity and direction of the ball from the shot, it doesn’t look like Brannagan made any contact. That’s not to say it doesn’t take a nick, but there are four Bradford players in the attack, none appear to protest at the decision. Doyle seems to gesture at something, maybe Nelson’s challenge, but he’s not the best sighted Bradford player. O’Brien holds his hand up at something as the play moves on, but spends more time mourning his miss than claiming a corner.

Simon Eastwood retrieves the ball from a quick-thinking ballboy, firmly places it in the six yard box and passes it to Josh Ruffels who is already on his way down the flank. There are three conditions for a legitimate goal kick; the ball must be played from the six yard box; which is fine.

It must leave the penalty box before it is touched. Nathan Cooper claims there’s some question as to whether the ball leaves the box before Josh Ruffels touches it. Gary Bowyer doesn’t make any reference to this, showing that everyone is looking for something different. Curiously, according to the rules, the ball isn’t ‘in-play’ until it leaves the box. So, from the moment Simon Eastwood touches it to the moment it leaves the box, the ball is in an existential crisis, stuck somewhere between being a football and not being a football.

Anyway. The official footage is inconclusive. This video on YouTube shows it from the North Stand; the incident is at about 8 minutes 55 seconds. It shows the ball from Eastwood to Ruffels, someone’s arm gets in the way at the moment he first touches the ball. There’s a still on Twitter which looks like he may have touched it inside the box, but on the video, he seems to be outside and allowing the ball to come across him. He’s predominantly left footed, so it would make sense that he would allow it to come over to his more natural side. It’s not conclusive either way.

There’s nothing in the rules to say why the ball should leave the box. If it’s to protect the defending team, then it’s fairly immaterial. If it’s to protect the attacking team, then it should be retaken because, somehow, they’re disadvantaged. The rules, and that rule particularly, tend to err on the former, not the latter.

There are four Bradford players left behind in the box. Technically, the kick shouldn’t be taken until the box is clear of attacking players; which is the third condition. However, the FA state the reason for this “… is to prevent the attacking player gaining an advantage from being in the penalty area which is not permitted by Law 16.”

With the onus on protecting the defending team’s right to take the kick unimpeded, you have to look at the context. O’Brien is sitting on the floor, two have their back to play and Jack Payne is talking to the ref. None are preventing Eastwood from taking the kick. Bowyer and Karl Robinson didn’t know the rule, nor anyone else, it seems. Nobody protests until the linesman makes a big deal about it.

We are 17 seconds into the incident.

Ruffels sets off, the linesman appears to stop, but the camera pans past him. He doesn’t seem to flag, the fan video doesn’t make any reference to him doing it, the referee doesn’t stop or signal anything, he’s watching Ruffels and would probably be able to see the linesman in his peripheral vision. There doesn’t seem to be a flag, I don’t remember there being one. The incident is over and the play has continued. Any errors made in the previous phase are no longer relevant.

Ruffels launches a glorious cross-field ball to Gavin Whyte. It reminds me of Bobby Moore’s ball to Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup for the fourth goal; massively over-looked in the wider context.

Whyte darts inside, but his shot balloons up, possibly off Jerome Sinclair. When Ruffels makes his pass from inside our half, Jamie Mackie is the closest player to him. When the ball drops from Sinclair’s ricochet, seven seconds later, it’s Mackie arriving to pick it up in the box.

In those seven seconds, Mackie has covered nearly 35 metres at an average speed of 11 miles an hour. His anticipation and desire to get in the box is remarkable. He controls the ball at hip height, and in a single movement, takes a couple of steps to balance himself, then slams the ball home on the volley. It’s a brilliant counter-attacking goal and a sensational finish; in the context of the season, and everything that’s happened in the previous 30 seconds, it’s a goal for the ages.

Pandemonium. The Oxford bench clears, last time we saw that was against Wycombe when we were promoted. There’s some suggestion that Mackie, who had already been booked, might get another card for his celebration. It’s difficult to know what he’s supposed to have done; he’s grandstanding, but it’s everyone else going bananas.

With the dejected Bradford players preparing to kick-off, the referee consults his linesman and appears to disallow the goal. Mackie falls to his knees. Quite why the goal has been chalked off is hard to fathom. A Bradford player picks the ball up and heads for the penalty spot. That’s wishful thinking, there’s no suggestion it’s a penalty, but it creates more consternation. On the advice of the linesman, the referee appears to be pulling the play back to re-take the goal-kick, presumably because of the players in the box.

Players and officials start pushing and shoving on the touchline; Curtis Nelson calls for non-existent VAR, Karl Robinson suggests afterwards he watches too much Premier League football (which doesn’t have VAR). He ignores that he also gestured to the video team at the back of the stand to see if they can help. We can see you Karl. Hmm.

Afterwards Jamie Mackie claims he asked the referee to take some time to reconsider. If he did, it’s good advice because if he disallows the goal, he’s got a major crisis on his hands. The ref consults his other linesman. Presumably that’s not because he’s seen something different, perhaps to get a second opinion. If he’s done that because of Jamie Mackie, then Mackie is a god twice over.

The goal is given, it’s a horrible way to lose a game and a great way to win one, but it’s the right decision. Law 5 states: “Decisions will be made to the best of the referee`s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the spirit of the game”. In the spirit of the game, the goal-kick issue is trivial and the goal should stand.

There are only 17 laws in football; the rest is process and interpretation. There were Bradford players in the box when the free-kick is taken, which is the only bone of contention, but the law says that a re-take ‘may’ be taken (not ‘must’) if the process isn’t followed. It’s not considered a foul, it’s a process issue. Nobody should be punished.

The interpretations of that law puts the onus on protecting the defending team (us). There was no reason for the referee to get the kick re-taken. If the Bradford players were protesting at anything, it was that the referee hadn’t punished them for getting out of the box for the kick. It’s a funny world.

The referee’s error in handling the situation was probably two-fold. The game had long moved on by the time the issue was highlighted. He should have decided that the incident was in the past – the game had restarted, in which case the incident is no longer up for discussion (Law 5) – and trivial in context.

The second thing is that he should have taken both his linesmen to the side and decided in a single decision. Moving from one side of the pitch to the other meant players followed him around creating more mayhem. If anything, the linesman’s pedantry was at fault as it put doubt in the referee’s mind. In a world where VAR is considered the answer to everything, maybe the ref needs to be praised for taking the time to figure it out, or for listening to Jamie Mackie.

The wrap: Rochdale 0 Oxford United 0

That Brexit’s a funny thing; the most likely way of leaving the European Union by the 29 March in a way that minimises damage to the economy has been killed by the people who wanted that to happen.

It’s almost as if those who want Brexit are using it as a political tool to damage members of their own party. Or perhaps they know they’ve got it wrong and are working to grind it into the floor without losing face. Or perhaps they are just fantasists and don’t really know what they want. In short, it looks like those who said they wanted Brexit, don’t actually want Brexit.

Two hundred and twenty miles north of this debacle another was unfolding. Well, not quite; I was quite relieved with the 0-0 draw against Rochdale given what happened at Gillingham on Saturday. The difference between scoring and not scoring, though, was pretty significant. We’re still in the relegation zone, a goal would have put us 18th.

I’ve been pretty calm about the prospect of us going down; we had a tough January and negotiated it reasonably well. Some solid form between then and the end of the season would see us safe. It’s not where we want to be, but I thought we could get to May and restock.

Then I look at the table and see Rochdale are below us, Gillingham were just above us, on Saturday we’ve got Bradford who are also in the relegation zone. Then look further down our fixtures list we’ve got Luton, Doncaster and Charlton. Suddenly we’re running out of the free hits we assumed would get us out of trouble. When are we planning to run into the form which would see us safe? Like a Brexiteer not wanting Brexit, are we’re in a relegation fight but we’re not fighting.

The table gives us a sense of security; everyone else is missing the same opportunities we are. But it’s like a game of reverse chicken. Who is going to take the opportunity to blink and put in the shift needed to get out of trouble?

And this is where I’m beginning to pivot. Our players may not be as good as we’d like to believe, but they’re good enough to sit in a pack of teams with the chance to staying up. Many of our toughest fixtures are behind us and yet, we still seem incapable of creating a run to get us out of trouble. Like Han Solo trying to get to lightspeed and finding the Millennium Falcon failing him at the key moment, why can’t Karl Robinson find the edge that turns draws into wins?

I can’t answer that, but nor can he. I agree he’s been given a raw deal with the off-the-field problems, but he does seem to have been given just about the right tools and time to at least finish higher than 21st.

Robinson simply staring at his team and telling us that it was all supposed to work, there’s a point where you’ve got to get under the bonnet and find out why it isn’t. He may have the ability to deliver results in the right environment; I’m doubting it’s this is the right environment for him.

The wrap: Gillingham 1 Oxford United 0

Conceding in the 89th minute on Saturday caused us to slip into the relegation zone but had we scored in the 89th minute we’d have been 15th.

We are in a division of the finest margins, where the difference between 13th and 21st is four points. We can take a crumb of comfort from this; although it feels like we’re constantly missing the mark, everyone else is in the same boat and we remain very much in the dogfight to stay up. The hope is that we’re sitting at the back of the pack, Mo Farah style, and will surge towards safety just in time for the end of the season.

Certainly stats website Experimental 361 seems to think we’ll be OK, and some analysis from the Oxford Mail pointed towards our comparatively easy run-in as an indicator of hope. But, a bit like the assumption that someone will come to their senses about Brexit and come up with something that will avoid food and medical shortages; who genuinely knows?

The difference between success and failure is hard to fathom in the division; the top five are mostly teams that wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship. But, Luton Town, a historically a benchmark for us, are top. Size alone doesn’t guarantee success.

The next group are looking at mid-table safety – while most have had their successes at this level or above, Wycombe are there. It also features Coventry and Blackpool, who are not exactly known for their stability.

So, what is the key? Despite their off-the-field problems, Coventry have Mark Robins, who is a very capable manager, Wycombe and Luton have established a solid, stable business model. Nobody can argue we’ve enjoyed stability off-the-field and there are many who will argue that Karl Robinson is not a capable manager.

I don’t subscribe to that view wholly, but it is difficult to fathom the logic behind current team selections. Robinson described his bench yesterday as ‘unbelievable’, but didn’t play them. He’ll argue about not changing a winning team, although that ignores how genuinely terrible the first half against Scunthorpe was last week.

That became the Jerome Sinclair show, but it was Gavin Whyte who animated the game coming off the bench.

I don’t think Luke Garbutt is as bad as some suggest, but it is difficult to argue that he has a significant influence over games, yet from somewhere in recent weeks, he’s become a first choice player. With Whyte appearing to be fit, it is hard to see why Garbutt is the preferred option. Someone suggested that Everton may be putting pressure on the club to play him, I don’t know if that happens, but it’s more logical than playing him because of his performances.

All season Marcus Browne has been presented as a finely tuned thoroughbred, constantly on the verge of injury, but he made the bench ahead of Carruthers, so we might assume he was fit to play some part. He remained on the bench.

Mark Sykes has had a reasonable start to his Oxford career, but by his own admission he’s benefitted from John Mousinho’s mentoring. Nick Harris raves about him in away games, but last week he was patchy. Cameron Brannagan is not exactly an old hand, but he was fit and available and didn’t get a sniff.

I could also make arguments for Jamie Hanson over Sam Long or Jamie Mackie over Jerome Sinclair. Although both are less obvious. I understand players carry injuries and that fatigue needs to be managed, but it is hard to see why the more marginal players – Long, Sykes and Garbutt and being consistently preferred to more established players. One or two, I get. More than that, less so.

Robinson can argue that we’ve just come off the back to two wins, and that the defeat to Gillingham was in the last minute. He argues we should have had a penalty, but ignores the fact that without Simon Eastwood’s save, that would have been immaterial. Plus, he’s got Rochdale on Tuesday to think about. It’s always more complicated than fans assume it to be. But, in a division of the finest margins, it feels like we’re marginalising those who give us the edge.