Match wrap – Sheffield Wednesday 1 Oxford United 2

In the years immediately after our promotion back to the Football League, when I chanced upon a Conference game on TV, I’d look for an Oxford connection. There was always a Carl Pettefer, Kevin Sandwidth, Craig McCallister or Phil Trainer plying their trade in some non-league toilet. These players were part of a rotating pool which might, at some point, gel in such a way to bring success. For players, a Conference football career was like a hall of mirrors where every turn is another dead-end. Success wasn’t so much about the individuals, but about the stability that could be offered by the clubs.

We now fish in a different pond; in the lead up to Cameron Brannagan’s opening goal against Sheffield Wednesday, Herbie Kane robbed Marvin Johnson, who gave the ball to Brannagan who beat Chey Dunkley to score. In ten years time, I’ll be writing that sentence to describe a goal in Sam Long’s testimonial game. 

The loss of Johnson and Dunkley along with John Lundstram in 2017 skittled Pep Clotet’s prospects before he’d started. Along with Chris Maguire and Curtis Nelson, who was injured early in that season, they represented the core of Michael Appleton’s League 1 squad. The world turned, everything changed, and we didn’t have the resilience to cope. These were players we relied on and had acquired through ingenuity rather than something systematic. 

One of the criticisms I’ve had this year is just how content we seem to be, lacking an edge to sneak a point from a defeat or a win from a draw. I can’t fault the club, they posted a video of Karl Robinson playing with our Down’s Syndrome team this week and he talked about reimagining what a football club should be. This lightened my mood after a turbulent week personally with the lack of fuel and food culminating in a positive test for Covid. But, in the ugly world of the first team, is it enough to be nice?

The season has been set against the backdrop of a mild September and the return of fans to games. It’s been very pleasant, but yesterday was different; football as we remember it; made edgier by the weather, the setting and the opponents. Would we cope?

Sheffield Wednesday are a classic of their genre; a huge club with momentum going in the wrong direction. At their core, they’re rotten and it will take time to weed that out, they need calm, stability and time to do it. In the immediate aftermath of the result, their fans were calling for Darren Moore’s head; he’s too nice, apparently. That sort of pressure builds until the owners wilt and another poor sucker is brought in to try and revolutionise the club in a six month window. They’ll get there eventually, it’s a question of how many false dawns they’ll need to see before it happens.

With Dunkley, Johnson and Shodipo – three players who we know can change games – you would think that promotion would be assured, but if they’re not in a stable environment, they risk losing the edge that made them different. For me, this was the key test of the opening phase of the season. A double-header away from home against Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland could have put us on the back foot with ground to make up, we’ve done it before, but it still creates pressure. With three points and Sunderland postponed, October – with only one more away game – suddenly looks like the month to drive forward. November gets harder, but then it always does.

That opportunity comes from deep within the club; One thing that is evident from Karl Robinson’s approach is that players love it; Cameron Brannagan could play at a bigger club, even if it wasn’t a higher level, James Henry would grace any side as his sublime and timely finish showed. It’s the stability that gives you the edge to push into the 93rd minute and snatch a winner. Watch Henry’s run for the goal (it’s better on the videos shared by fans on Twitter), it’s an extraordinary illustration of his determination to have an impact. First, he swings out wide to the left before drifting into the middle and then to the front post to execute a world class finish. Any discontent, any moment of frustration borne out of a training ground argument or a casual disregard of his wellbeing could have been enough for him to give up and accept a point. Yet, he found the edge, he did the extra, he wanted to win. Cue biblical scenes in the stands, that loss of sense that gives you hope in a cruel world, righteous justification for the effort and risk of travelling to the other end of the country in a fuel crisis. Logically, there is no logic, but at that moment, it all makes sense. This was a win which found an edge from within a contented club; it gives you hope on many fronts.

Match wrap – Oxford United 5 Accrington Stanley 1

From the London Road, you wouldn’t have known The Manor was there. Like all old grounds, it was woven into the fabric of Headington life, nestled amongst the people who built and sustained it. It was only in the evening when the lights of the regular world dimmed and the floodlights came on that it glowed like a beacon in the darkness.

The idea that games under the lights are special has been transposed to the Kassam. In truth, most Tuesday games are muted occasions, people scuttle back from work to make the kick off, others are unwilling or unable to venture into the night, there is little build up or preamble, it is often a practical, pragmatic affair. Unless the opposition are sufficiently enticing to pump the atmosphere up, the crowd is usually more sparse and often groggier.

Last night the rain pummelled down unrelentingly, it was cold and the opposition was underwhelming; The Bake Off, Champions’ League and central heating seemed seductive alternatives, these factors, and the petrol crisis, thinned the crowd to only the most hardy and/or insane, it’s hard to imagine anyone chose to attend because they fancied a bit of fresh air or play chicken with their fuel gauge.

The concourse looked like an air raid shelter as people left it until the last minute to venture into the stand, once there, with the roof protecting us from the worst of the weather, it was rather calming and bucolic. It’s hard to dislike Accrington or their fans with their Corinthian aesthetic, apart from their obvious limitations, like they’ll only ever look like an over-achieving Conference North team, they’re the club you’d like to be – stable, authentic and rooted in their community. In many ways it played to our our advantage as we’re very content in our own skin at the moment.

Let’s be honest, Accrington were poor, they’re shipping goals left, right and centre, and offered virtually nothing up front. The polite, gentile atmosphere was a catharsis Nathan Holland, who needed game time, a good pitch and an accommodating opposition to stretch his legs and show what he can do. His goals will give him the confidence the needs to make more of an impression this season. Likewise, Matty Taylor and Mark Sykes both buried demons that seemed to be hanging over them while Herbie Kane showed he might be the spark of difference we’re looking for this year. In such a likeable squad, we need a cult hero, Kane could be that man.

With points dropped in recent weeks and Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, we needed the points to stave off any lingering fears or panic. With the Sunderland game likely to be postponed, October is suddenly looking eminently manageable, the relaxed Saturday to Saturday schedule should help manage injuries and fatigue setting us up nicely for the chaotic middle section of the season that will define where we end up.

Overall, a satisfying night, as comforting as a bowl of pasta in front of a re-run of Location Location Location. It was good to feel the chill of winter and to pull the zip of my jacket up to my chin. Not quite a magical night under the lights, but wholesomely satisfying none-the-less.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Gillingham 1

I have a relative who is, let’s say, not that keen on the EU even though she’s lived an abundantly comfortable life in its apparent shackles. She’s never explained what she hoped to gain from being released from its constraints, and seemed entirely blind to the comforts it has given her. Now her fuel bills are spiralling, she can’t put petrol in her car and some of the food she used to take for granted isn’t there. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge the relative luxury she lives in, taking for granted the continuous flow of essential goods and services as if they arrived by magic. She remains blissfully unaware of how comfortable she is.

I noticed the other day that I’ve barely tweeted this month, there hasn’t been much to say about the club beyond the games themselves. Even walking to the stadium on Saturday it was so quiet, there was a moment when I wondered if the game had been postponed. Around the stadium, people milled around rather than buzzed. 

Once inside, it struck me how good the stadium is starting to look with the new perimeter fencing and the immaculate pitch. On the pitch was a hive of activity as players warmed up watched by a phalanx of coaches. Not only did it feel very professional, it also gave a sense of occasion even though there were relatively few people there to see it. After the game, there were gushing plaudits on the radio about the performance, which, let us not forget, was a 1-1 home draw against 19th placed Gillingham. 

In many ways it was a very good performance, we made plenty of chances and looked solid enough at the back. We’re very entertaining to watch and it’s difficult to identify a single player who you’d want to criticise or take issue with.

But, it was a 1-1 home draw against 19th placed Gillingham. The issue might be the relative comfort with where we’re at as a club. Matty Taylor’s early goal seemed to be greeted with the kind of response you’d hear given to a batsman reaching his half-century at county cricket. Granted it was early, but it was still more polite applause than frenzied excitement. The opening period threatened to bring a flood of goals, but we got a bit sleepy and Alex MacDonald fired in the equaliser after being given about three minutes to set himself for his shot. Nobody seemed to criticise the lack of closing down or vent their frustration, many were too busy gently applauding MacDonald’s strike. It was a good strike from a nice man, perhaps we needed him to knee slide while kissing his badge in front of the East Stand.

Afterwards, many people talked about how we needed to be more clinical. This means taking responsibility and doing something beyond what you’ve been asked to do. Yes, there will be goals that come direct from a training ground routine, but more often than not, goals result from players doing something nobody unexpected, breaking the rules. Moments after Mark Sykes came on, he nearly converted a chance by not being in the place he was supposed to be, but there was precious little of that. 

We lack an edge, all good teams have them, they often manifest in people that go against the culture of the team, perhaps even of the notions of professional football. In 2016 we had Danny Hylton, a player who was the polar opposite of Michael Appleton’s clinicalism, Wycombe have Akinfenwa, Gillingham have Steve Evans. Jamie Mackie used to play that role, a slightly absurd character for whom the plan is torn up the moment the game starts. Everything we did on Saturday we did well, but it followed a template. 

Ironically, in previous seasons both Gavin Whyte and Ryan Williams have had that wild card role, an ability to play their own game and find runs and angles that don’t exist on a tactics board. It throws the opposition off; obviously if you play enough balls into Matty Taylor he will score simply because he’s very good at that, but think about last season’s game against Gillingham and Sam Long’s last minute winner, nobody had that on their plan. James Henry has his moments, but he’s less influential when pushed out wide. Currently everyone is sticking to the plan and it’s the plan rather than the result which is of precedent. Herbie Kane showed glimpses that he may offer something in that vein, with confidence and fitness he could be the one who can offer something different. 

It flows into the stands; we haven’t won a league title for 36 years, nobody talks about wanting to do that anymore. Automatic promotion is rarely mentioned, our goals focus on reaching the play-offs. But there are clubs around us who are more anxious, more edgy, less patient to see success. While we wait for the jigsaw puzzle pieces to fall into place, others are picking up the gnarly, ugly points that make a difference at the end of the season.

Off the pitch too, there’s a sense of working to a template. Long gone are the days of the club’s Twitter alter-ego ‘Clive’ or the authenticity of Sarah Gooding, when she was at the helm. The club’s communication has become more anodyne; competent, informative but a little bit dull, too polished. I’m not pretending that Twitter defines the club, but, I suppose, it does maintain the dialogue in between games. Its like that the club’s Twitter character used to be one of the fans now it’s firmly within the club’s corporate structure.  

This has all made us very comfortable and maybe rather too accepting of a 1-1 draw with 19th place Gillingham. This is Karl Robinson’s club now, there’s so much to admire; the style we play, the progress we’re making off the pitch, the likeable squad and Robinson’s genuine appreciation of the fans. All is well in the House of Robinson, but that might be part of the problem.

Match wrap – Cheltenham Town 1 Oxford United 0

When you have a baby, your early concerns are fairly binary – you define the baby’s wellbeing by whether it’s sleeping or not. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security because as the days, weeks, months and years pass, the things you have to worry about grow exponentially; are they feeding? Responsive? Physically developing? Emotionally content? It’s like a cell of physiological and psychological wellbeing constantly doubling until you’ve totally lost control.

In the end, every child has a thing; you have a thing, maybe you don’t know it, but you’ll definitely have one. Anxiety, depression, compulsiveness, obsessiveness, fastidiousness, or perhaps the opposite of these things. The dad of a friend of mine once had a mental health episode where he became optimistic and generous. Sounds great, but he gave away thousands of pounds and went missing on a trip to the shops because he compulsively decided to visit his daughter hundreds of miles away instead. There’s a thing in us all.

These things shape our world; with a child, it’s not so much worrying about if they have a thing, they do, it’s knowing when to act. Too soon and you’re being neurotic, too late is neglectful.

It’s still early in the season and as we all know from experience, how we’re doing at the moment is not necessarily a reflection on where we’ll be in May. But, there does seem to be a pattern emerging; a ‘thing’; most obviously manifesting in our away form as illustrated by our defeat to Cheltenham. 

There’s a belief that you shouldn’t look at the league table until at least the tenth game. We’re a couple of games from that point, but as some of the other digits click from single to double figures, a pattern begins to emerge. We’ve scored and conceded nine goals; twelve teams have scored more, nine have conceded less. We’re ahead of Portsmouth and Ipswich, level pegging with Sheffield Wednesday, behind Sunderland and Wigan. We’re bang average; a lack of defensive steel is being coupled with a degree of attacking impotence, it’s not a great combination. 

In a sense, that’s OK, we’re well ahead of where we’ve been in the past, but we’re behind where we want to be. But, similarly, it’s not been the hardest opening to the season and we haven’t capitalised. Teething problems? Maybe. 

Mark Sykes almost represents the issue; he’s not lacking in ability, but he’s not a goal threat, goal provider or midfield disruptor. He needs to carve out a role, a reason to stay in the team. It’s not his form or effort, it’s about his contribution and unique selling point. That said, I thought he spoke well after the defeat and took time to talk to fans.

Sykes’ role aside, Steve Kinniburgh was right not to leap on the performances of Herbie Kane and Sam Long, both are easing their way into the season and now is not time to judge whether they’ve a role to play.

But, how long do you wait? When does a thing, become A THING? As a neurotic parent, an experienced doctor would probably provide assurances that every season develops at a different pace and that there’s little to worry about.

But, they might also know that the real tests are just around the corner. There are no more chances to find a way of playing away from home as we travel to Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday at the beginning of October. Before that, we have a homestand against Gillingham and Accrington which, if nothing else, is an opportunity to bank some points as an insurance against that future challenge. While these games still won’t fully define our season, they’ll provide the best indicator as to whether these are just developmental issues, or a thing. Navigate the next four games, then we should be able to relax a little, if we don’t, then perhaps we’ll need to act.

George Lawrence’s Shorts – Stand by your Dan

MApp reading

MApp took his Lincoln City side to Cambridge United last week, the scene of a catastrophic 5-1 defeat in his first season at Oxford. What happened off the pitch really shook Mr Big Guns. “We lost heavily. I asked a question [of the players] after the game that I probably shouldn’t have asked” he said “When I got the answer, it scared the life out of me.” We cannot confirm that the question MApp asked was ‘Who’s the guy wearing one flipflop and a rubber glove on his head?’ to be told chillingly “That’s Danny Hylton, boss”.

Hylting the high notes

Talking of the former Oxford hat-stand, Hylton scored his first goal in two years for Luton Town against Bristol City last week. The last minute equalising tap-in vindicated Hylton’s desire to stick with the Hatters despite a lack of gametime and interest from other clubs. “My relationship with the fans has always been great” he said “Even when I’ve been stupid and I’ve been applauded off the pitch.” Doctors report an epidemic of sore hands in the Luton area.

Atkinson’s diet

Hylton’s equaliser was against a Bristol City side featuring Rob Atkinson whose rollercoaster career, he feels, is on the up now he’s a feature in the Robins’ back-four. “Football is such an up and down game” said Rob reflectively “Losing a game is a down, getting injured is a down, the Blackpool game [at the start of the season] – that’s a down.” Rob’s endless optimism has been a real boon for City since his move in the summer.

Charles Dickiens

No such downs for Atkinson’s predecessor, sulky sixth former Rob Dickie, now he’s at university with Queen’s Park Rangers. Dickie ‘took to Instagram’ to hand in his latest essay after a dramatic 3-3 draw with Reading. In a thoughtful, well researched, study, Dickie received a C+ from his tutor after he said “Great character!! Still unbeaten, travelling fans were amazing.”

Sheriff of Nottingham

Once the darling of the media elite, Chris Wilder has now taken to exposing his dainty ankles and coquettishly fluttering his handkerchief at any job that comes available. Wilder has let it be known that he’d be interested in narrowly missing out on the vacant job at rock-bottom Nottingham Forest after it was vacated by Chris Hughton this week. 

Behind bars or twelve-bars?

Oxford United reformed hooligan, Jamal Wilson-Perry, avoided jail time for breaching the community order imposed last March for his part in some fisticuffs at the Kassam Stadium two years ago. Wilson-Perry recently lost his job as a fork lift truck driver, but the judge commended him for readying himself for a return to the job market with some Open University courses “As he’s done the ‘Discovering music: the blues’ course he’s well prepared.” said the judge mindful of the perfect storm Brexit has brought forth with a national shortage of both HGV drivers and woeful melancholic songs from the Deep South.

Cooking on Gaz

Talking of fanciful music careers, divorced-dad at a PTA fundraiser, Gareth Ainsworth was full of praise for Wycombe fans after his side escaped Kassam with a 0-0 draw. “To hear them sing was great and we’ve got a great following.” he said as a painful segue to remind everyone that he’s a singer, in a rock band, with guitars and everything, before launching into a journalist scattering rendition of Mustang Sally.

Oxblogger TV – Episode 3 – The Guiness Soccer Six 1986 – Never mind the Swannacks

Back in 1986, Oxford United were on top of the world; buckling under the weight of the silverware we’d accumulated over the previous three years. But, could we do it in a renovated railway station on a wet Wednesday night in Manchester? We’re about to find out; the country’s finest indoor small-sided footballers gathered to compete for the Guinness Soccer Six. Improbably, it became the most dramatic of nights which pivoted around a man names Swannack. Watch along with us and we dissect the glory years, question the wisdom of John Trewick’s moustache and try to avoid inappropriate jokes about Graham Rix.

If you’re more aurally inclined, you can also listen to the podcast of the vlogcast (or something) on Amazon, Apple, Google and Spotify.