It was a momentous day on Saturday as fans were finally allowed back into the stadium for the visit of Hull City. The fans were buoyed by a decent performance against the top of the table Tigers, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Plenty of precautions were taken to ensure supporters were safe, they were asked to take their own food and drink, wear masks and maintain at least two metres distance or ‘touch tight’ as our defence call it.
Monday 7 December 2020
Vegan sandal wearing Extinction Rebels Forest Green Rovers visit the Kassam on Tuesday for a lactose free Veggie Supreme Papa John Pizza Trophy game. History is set to be made with a local Oxford schoolboy added to the home squad. GLS asked Big Janet from the papershop to the game on a date. Unfortunately when he said, with a knowing smile, ‘You never know, Gatlin O’Donkor could make his debut’ she looked alarmed, called him a pervert and kneed him in the groin.
It was the Six Minute Fifty-Seven Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford with Niall, don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. And. It. Kicked. Off. McWilliams confirmed rumours that corporate sponsors and members of the 1893 Club will get tickets for all three upcoming games in recognition for their premium priced season ticket. Fans didn’t like it, calling it favouritism. That’s not fair, the 1896 Club show admirable dedication to the club by paying £600 to listen to Peter Rhodes-Brown interviewing returning legends like Jon Ashton and Ricky Sappleton while drinking weak tea and eating garibaldi biscuits.
Friday 11 December 2020
There’ll be no Kiss Me Quick hats, donkey rides or itchy rashes for Oxford fans this year as the team travel to the Chlamydia Capital Blackpool on Saturday. Goalkeeper Chris Maxwell is a lazy sod; “I take pride in doing nothing in the game. If I do nothing in a game, I’m happier than when I save 10 shots and still keep a clean sheet.” Now that’s one Christmas present, we’re sure we can help with.
We all know stories should have a beginning, middle and an end, but they also follow a common pattern of symmetry/asymmetry/symmetry. A great story will begin with a period of stability; of normality, a sense of what is about to be lost by what’s to come. There will then be asymmetry or instability, a disruption, something ultimately to be resolved. The characters then work to re-find symmetry or stability before the story closes.
It’s such a compelling structure, we seek it in real life. Take the pandemic, we’re looking for something to switch it off, to re-establish stability. There’s a fantasy that a vaccine will be discovered and in no time at all people would be returning to their normal, perhaps better, lives. That’s what would happen in a film, there’d be no ongoing post-trauma, no gradual resolution, no long term repercussions or rebuilding.
Our own stability was ended on the 13th March when professional football effectively enforced the government into action against the growing threat of coronavirus by postponing all fixtures. You know when something as attention seeking as football seeks to hide away that something is up. I remember The Fence End Podcast talking about focussing on that feeling when things would be resolved and we’d all be back in the stadium. I thought that too, when the pandemic’s over, the doors would be flung open and we’d flood in. Imagine what that day might feel like.
But, pandemics don’t work like that, we won’t have our coronavirus VE-Day celebration. It won’t end just like that – even the war didn’t end just like that, though that’s how it’s characterised, it took three months between VE Day and the surrender of the Japanese. Then there were decades of rebuilding. We’re still dealing with the aftermath now, for some English national football and Brexit is just a continuation of the war effort.
So, in real life, any return to symmetry would be messy and gradual but the first step was the announcement of fans returning to the stadium after the second lockdown. My reaction was… ‘Oh, so soon?’.
Is it Stockholm Syndrome? Have I fallen in love with my captors? My world has shrunk, I’ve done 60% less mileage than last year. Football used to be the thing that straightened me out after the week had messed me up. I valued the routine and singularity of purpose against the discord of a working week. A week ago I had a day off, it made me more anxious than a routine day working from home. My symmetry, returning to football, seemed to have become my asymmetry.
I hadn’t planned to watch the Hull game anyway, I’ve seen every league game this season, it’s chained me to my settee. Weekend routines became moulded around kick-off times, but the experience was sanitised and underwhelming. Only by consciously doing something different would I be able to break that sequence. In normal times, I would have been away during this weekend, so it seemed to make sense.
But, following the announcement, I could have re-arranged, I could have argued how important it was to go to the game. But I simply didn’t feel it. I knew that demand would outstrip supply and financially it wouldn’t make any difference, I was inconsequential and decided not to join the scramble for tickets.
I imagine if I’d been alive on VE Day, I wouldn’t have been in the streets sexually assaulting any passing filly, I’d have stayed in and watched whatever the 1945 equivalent of Come Dine With Me was.
I had flashbacks to the opening of the Kassam Stadium, that feeling of a new dawn, then getting to the ground to see it unfinished and covered in dust, my seat so low in the East Stand I could barely see what was happening. I thought we’d sell it out, but it was just over half full. The weather wasn’t even great. Then we lost because the new surroundings didn’t give us the new stability we craved, it was the same old chaos we’d left behind the previous May.
I feared going back to the stadium, buoyed by the sense of renewal and enduring a miserable defeat. It was always possible, particularly against the League leaders, and my first trip back to the stadium when it happens will still suffer that jeopardy. But, I didn’t need it, not at the moment.
I wasn’t sure I could join the chorus about what a spiritual experience it was to get back to a game. How 1,000 fans would sound like 100,000. Like telling a bride at a wedding they’re the most beautiful you’ve ever seen and that the day has been perfect, when that’s probably, objectively, not true. I mean, that’s not a time for personal critiques, it’s not about your opinion, of course you just go with it for the greater good. The person on the radio who complained that wearing a mask would steam up his glasses was the kind of person who thought the bride’s dress made he look a bit hippy.
Perhaps you went and had that very feeling of renewal and redemption, perhaps you even wanted to read something which tried to articulate that feeling. This is probably not what you were expecting.
Of course as the game approached kick-off it was nice to see the pictures being posted on Twitter of people in the ground, I felt a little bit jealous, a little bit out of the loop. Like those times when I passed up an away day only to regret not putting in the effort. I was pleased there was a goal and a good performance and the day worked out well.
But, this was something for the whole, not the individual. I will apply for tickets to our next games, my diary is clear and I want to get back. I’m just not sure I wanted that first experience to be ruined by teething problems or an abject performance. The Hull game was symbolic of a move to something else, a chapter in a much bigger story. It didn’t switch off the asymmetry and bring us to resolution. And it didn’t need me telling people that.
In the end, the point was a very good one, the logistics seemed to work well and everyone seemed happy. It should open the door to a bigger crowd next time, which is good. Our league position remains grim, but the re-connection of fans and club will hopefully act as a reminder that there is a reason to do this. This, along with a clean sheet, acts as a balm on the wounds inflicted last Saturday. The return to symmetry will be gradual, and will likely be different to the one we left behind, we may never realise when we achieve it, but that’s how real stories work.
A gross misjudgement, a calamitous last minute mistake, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. Those were just some of the comments aimed as sWInD0N tOwN who issued a commemorative t-shirt and mug on Saturday night for no apparent reason.
Meanwhile, spellcheck’s worst nightmare and former Oxford no man, Fiarce Kelleher, has been opening up about his increasingly bizarre career. After being accidentally signed while delivering pizza to Oxford United, he went to Macclesfield and was promptly made redundant. Now he finds himself at Wrexham under the charge of Hollywood superstar chancers Ryan Renolds and Rob McElhenney. The duo plan to make the Wrexham story into a redemptive Netflix tearjerker. We’re looking forward to the spin off series – ‘Kelleher’ – which critics are expecting to be like The Littlest Hobo in shin pads.
It was bitterly cold on Tuesday for the game against Ipswich Town, sensible Simon Eastwood’s mum phoned to tell him to put on his big coat and let junior Jack Stevens take over between the sticks. A new defensive unit, alongside an Ipswich attack who found it morally and ethically abhorrent to shoot, resulted in a 0-0 draw and the most welcome clean sheet since GLS’s first dry night after he got his new adult diapers.
Meanwhile, pre-season wonder Jamie Guy has lifted the lid on his so-called career. This includes how he amassed no less than three whole goals in a mere 34 games one season at Colchester and how Premier League sophisticate Čhrîßtøphë Wįłdė and Jim Smith both accidentally managed him at Oxford. Guy reckons Wįłdė could see his potential ‘I look forward to working with you.’ he said a week before letting him go back to Colchester.
I was The Nine Minute Twenty-Nine Second Fan Forum on Radio Oxford with KRob and Niall, don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. With the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of people dying every day from coronavirus related illness, one fan really got to the nub of the global crisis we’re currently engulfed in. If he has to wear a face mask at the game his glasses will steam up. McWilliams promised to look into changing the laws of thermodynamics for future games.
Then it was over to KRob, who really set about showing how much he cared and got ‘it’ after the sWiNDoN tOwN defeat with a series of short, terse, caring and getting it answers. Did he regret singling out Mark Sykes? No. Are we too good to go down? No. Will Gavin Whyte come back on loan? Let’s see. So, also no.
Football kits can speak volumes about a club’s state of mind. Block colours and classic designs suggest confidence and stability, outlandish combinations scream of a club wanting everyone to believe they’re OK, when probably they’re not. This season Ipswich Town have gone for a beautifully classic Adidas home strip and a grotesque away kit which looks like it’s been washed with a tissue in the pocket. It seems to characterise them well.
It’s clearly a climbdown from the team of the early 1980s which I supported before being seduced into the world of Oxford United. At that impressionable age, I thought all clubs won the FA Cup and conquered Europe before their manager and captain headed off to lead England. It was a heady few years, until Oxford turned my head and nearly did the same in the latter part of the decade.
I suppose most League 1 clubs are on the brink of one disaster or another, it’s why they’re in the division they are. They live beyond their means and operate on short horizons, they fear League 2 or worse, but crave The Championship or better. Volatility is baked in. But, there’s something about Ipswich which always suggested a certain stability. Unlike Sunderland, Wigan or Bolton, who plummeted into League 1 like falling from a sixth floor window, Ipswich seemed to glide in by parachute destined to dust themselves off and glide back up again.
Oddly, our own position is much better, although our league position suggests otherwise. We seem to have a stable base and a proactive and ambitious board which is quite the opposite of the ghost club that fell asleep on the job, as the Guardian puts it.
We are, however, going through something akin to a period of mourning after the defeat to Swindon on Saturday. It’s understandable, to some point, the end of a near-twenty-year unbeaten run is a shock. The specific nature of the collapse makes it all the more galling.
Another way of looking at it, of course, is that we were also seconds from extending that unbeaten run, though there’s little comfort in saying that now. Like saying a dead loved one had a good innings.
There’s been a lot of over-reaction to the defeat, accusations of people not caring or not getting ‘it’. Suddenly everything is wrong and someone has to be to blame. Inevitably there has to be a scapegoat and a lot of that anger has been directed at Simon Eastwood.
Yesterday, almost everything Jack Stevens did was, according to someone or other on Twitter, something Eastwood could never do. Peter Rhodes-Brown described a routine clearance by Stevens as though Eastwood had never successfully kicked a ball in his life. Granted, his form has been sluggish, but his miskick against Swindon was a freak, not a sign of universal incompetence.
I feel for Eastwood, a recent interview suggested that he had a healthy attitude to the game and that football was a job to him. His family are based in the north, it seems likely they’ll be in, or close to, a Tier 3 region. With the current frequency of games, it must be hard to see his family, recover from games and get his head right mentally. It’s harder to perform when you’re not happy. The temptation is to demonise him to satisfy our own frustrations, perhaps we need to think about what he needs.
Jack Stevens was largely untested on Tuesday and the game felt like an EFL Trophy tie at times. Ultimately, both teams needed a result to stem the tide of defeats they’ve suffered recently. On paper a clean sheet against a top six side looks like a good result, but looking below the surface, at all Ipswich’s problems, we might have expected more. Ultimately, it represented a symbolic victory over our inner demons, in another circumstance we might have demanded more, but at the moment, it’ll do.
There were opportunities to win the game in the first half. On Saturday we took a chance, on Tuesday we hit a post. That’s the way it is sometimes. In the second half we did what we should have done against Swindon and strangled the life out of the game, Ipswich too seemed to be of a similar mind, and understandably so. Neither team needed the win more than they needed to avoid defeat.
It wasn’t a great spectacle, but it met our immediate need. I, for one, will take that given the circumstances. Sometimes you can reignite a season with a jolt, as we did last year with a blistering win at Lincoln, other times you need to turn the corner more gently. These are strange times, and people are facing all sorts of struggles, perhaps we need to ease our way to recovery.
It started weeks ago; do the players know how important the Swindon derby is? Let’s hope the local lads tell the newer players of its history and significance. It was like an anxious parent talking to their teenager before a party – “You know how important it is to stay safe, you’re not going to take drugs and get raped are you?”.
Of course, all they needed to do was achieve what they set out to do every week – win the game. The 19 year run is the accumulation of seven individual wins. The biggest challenge of that streak is that with every passing game it was more likely end. Like stacking another Jenga block onto an increasingly rickety tower, the higher it got, the more likely it was to fall and more spectacular the collapse. If you’re not careful, you anticipate the fall before it happens, your hand begins to shake and the tower tumbles.
With no emotional outlet at the game itself, fans wanted to project the anxieties that result from near 20 years of bravado onto those who could influence it. A few years ago I treated myself to a Lego Millennium Falcon and spent the holidays building it. It was an absolute joy, when it was finished I looked at it admiringly and set it aside. The following day my then three year old niece filled it with Duplo characters who treated Chewbacca as their puppy. We’d built the Millennium Falcon over the seven game streak and were anxious we were going to hand it over to a toddler to ruin.
The aim shouldn’t have been to inflate that expectation, but to deaden it. Of all the previous derby games over the last 20 years, this was the most straight forward; there weren’t the variables of fans and atmosphere. We just needed to go out and keep our heads, the rest should have looked after itself.
But we’re a team built on emotion, in the image of its manager. It flows through us; sometimes it’s a torrent, sometimes a trickle, sometimes we surf on the crest of its wave, sometimes we’re dragged under by its force. We are desperate to please and are ready to sacrifice discipline and focus to achieve that.
It’s why Karl Robinson admires players like Liam Kelly and Marcus Browne, they please us, they make us excited, even if they sometimes struggle to do it for 90 minutes.
Think back to the home derby in 2012, perhaps the most astonishing game in the seven game sequence. We only had half our first team and lost our star striker after 20 minutes. They were on a 10 game unbeaten streak. They were a team built on the raw energy and emotion of Paolo DiCanio and that should have destroyed us. But Chris Wilder was a pragmatist, his career has been about getting more out of constrained resources. We frustrated them and battled to hold the torrent, Scott Rendell put in a shift like I’ve never seen before, playing up front he didn’t get a glimpse of the goal, but he never stopped working. When we got our chances, we took them and with it a famous win.
The tables turned yesterday; John Sheridan, Swindon’s manager, played the game down, where we hyped it up. Their expectations were low, we were cockahoop. I was definitely of a similar mind, not because I think we have a permanent hex over Swindon, but because I thought we were in a false position in the league and that anyone below us were fair game. With none of the normal bells and whistles of a derby game to disrupt the flow we should have eased to a win.
Injected with the adrenalin of ‘the occasion’, we came out like a steam train, an emotional wave that threatened to swamp them. It nearly worked, Matty Taylor could have had three when he only had one.
‘It feels like a derby’ said Jerome Sale, but it shouldn’t have done, it should have felt like a game as cold and clinical as the rest of the season has been. Like all great teams – Manchester United in the 90s, Chicago Bulls, Australian cricket, The All Blacks – winning becomes boring, clinical and procedural.
So what happened? We blew up, ran out of steam, we burnt off our reserves in a blistering 45 minutes. Rob Atkinson had been majestic, but then started getting caught in midfield, Liam Kelly ran the game, but was in pieces after the break. As bodies and minds tired, we became overwhelmed by the expectation.
Where was the leadership? The cool heads instilling the discipline we needed to slow the game down. Nathan Cooper remarked that Karl Robinson’s voice became more panicky. Who was offering the cool calculation? We’re so fragile, as the game progressed and the enormity of what we were about to achieve grew, we started to withdraw and panic, the shaky hand at the Jenga tower. We weren’t about to win a game, we were about to achieve #eightinarow. But we overshot it.
In Matty Taylor, James Henry, Alex Gorrin and Simon Eastwood we should have a leadership spine that will help us see these games out. But that commanding voice, the John Mousinho, Jamie Mackie, Jake Wright, Michael Duberry, Andy Whing, Andy Crosby, where are they?
This isn’t new, it’s not a shock; a 22 year old with a season under their belt isn’t going to demand calm and focus. After the game a lot of people were picking it apart, but the issue is systemic, it’s been brewing for a while. We simply don’t sign experience, we don’t sign the players who will look objectively at the last ten minutes of a derby and think; it’s just another game, let’s see it out.
Mark Sykes was singled out, I don’t think Karl Robinson meant quite what came out when he said ‘everyone tells me he’s a good player’ as if he doesn’t. I’m sure he sees what he can bring, but it’s true that you can’t rely on him for a goal or to create chances. On the other hand, he’s 23, we’re asking a lot for him to influence a whole game.
It’s not like we were outplayed, the failure was spectacular and self-inflicted. I’ve watched their second goal several times and can’t quite understand what Simon Eastwood did. I don’t have an answer for the Eastwood dilemma; I don’t think we need to drop him as a punishment. He knows he made a mistake. Do you replace him with another inexperienced player as we face some of the better teams in the division? That doesn’t feel right either.
So, the streak is over, the expectation is gone, I guess the good thing is that we weren’t in the stadium to see it. Like these things, the fear of defeat is worse than the real thing, life goes on, unless you choose for it not to, unless you dwell and ruminate, self-flagellate in an attempt to gain a pardon. Are you feeling the pain? But are you really feeling the pain? My worry is that Karl Robinson will do that, will disappear into his own well of self-pity. He feels it, I’ve no doubt, he doesn’t need to prove it to us.
What big games can do is put into relief things which are already evident. What we saw yesterday was the hopes and fears of the fans being amplified through Robinson and into a squad of developing players. It worked for a while, but went spectacularly wrong. Somewhere there needs to be a regulation; either from Robinson or within the squad. If we don’t get that right soon we’ll start to drown.
It’s sad to see a club hopelessly limping from one near-catastrophe to another, lost in a wilderness of bewilderment, wondering where the next point will come from. But, enough about Oxford, let’s talk about Wigan. Oxford felt right at home when they travelled north on Saturday. Taking heart that there’s always someone worse off than you, Matty Taylor and James Henry goals ensured a 2-1 win over the hapless Latics.
Sunday 22 November 2020
Leader, Legend, Adulterer; John Terry has shared a picture of the Chelsea 1996-97 youth team. We assume that Terry wasn’t actually part of the team, he just jumped into the picture in full kit anyway. The photo illustrated the perils of professional football; not all of those featured reached the giddy heights of becoming Britain’s most maligned racist as it included former Oxford legend Courtney ‘shit shit shit’ Pitt and Jamie Brooks’ favourite player; Rob Wooleaston.
It’s Portsmouth on Tuesday night in a re-match of last season’s play-off semi-final. Pompey assistant manager Kevin Gallen doesn’t see it as a revenge match. ‘You just have to look at what’s next” he said “The past has gone.” he said “it’s looking forward” he said “we expect a really tough game.” he said “we have to look forward.” he said (again) ‘we are in good form,” he said, looking back.
Tuesday 24 November 2020
Matty Taylor could be in trouble after grabbing rat-faced Portsmouth midfielder Ronan Curtis by the testicles after Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw. The game ended with players squaring up to each other for reasons nobody can quite establish. It looked bad, but Taylor was just rummaging to complete the draw for the quarter-finals of the Oxfordshire Senior Cup – ball number one – North Leigh will play ball number two – Woodstock Town.
It was the Six Minute Thirty-Seven Second Fans’ Forum on Radio Oxford with Niall, don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. With Boris Johnson announcing the return of fans to football there were lots of questions about what comes next. Can we go to Hull? (YEAH!), And the Papa John’s Pizza Trophy thing? (NO!), And the under-18s? (NONCE!), And Swindon’s changing rooms? (ARE YOU RONAN CURTIS’ MUM OR SOMETHING?).