Match wrap – Accrington Stanley 2 Oxford United 0

I used to follow Andy Holt, the Accrington Stanley owner, on Twitter right up to the point where I came to realise that what he seems to advocate is that everyone should be exactly like Accrington Stanley.

They’re an anachronism in League 1, they’re not one of the larger clubs aiming for the Championship, nor are they like the bunch of teams who are likely to yoyo between the divisions indefinitely. They’re well run and successful on a meagre budget, but if we were all to follow the same model, football would be poorer as a result. It’s perhaps fitting that they sit absolutely mid-table.

It also makes them harder to play against, they don’t have the limitations of smaller clubs that allow us to pull them apart as we’ve done on a few occasions this season, they’re not going to have the single-mindedness to muscle us into submission like the better teams in the division. They barely have any supporters, so it’s not like you can stoke the atmosphere and turn their fans on them.

It was hard to know quite what our gameplan was on Tuesday. We started as though we were still playing injury time against Portsmouth. The weather seemed to create a sense of uncontrolled urgency and desperation. It played into their hands, while we raced around trying to create openings, they seemed happy to keep tempo. They paced themselves in such a way that they could keep up while not extending themselves. It meant that we were likely to make mistakes and they were likely to retain the energy to exploit them. It didn’t so much play to their strengths as play to one of our weaknesses.

It was mentioned in commentary that conceding goals is, effectively, priced into our style. We’ve only kept six clean sheets this season and have conceded two goals in six of our last seven games. In three of those seven, we’ve won in a thrilling way, in three others we’ve lost. On Saturday, my dad texted having seen what he thought was the final score, saying we’re not consistent enough for promotion (we were 2-1 down at the time). Having just seen the Portsmouth win, I thought he was mad, but looking at the last month or so, he may have a point.

In terms of sheer entertainment, I wouldn’t trade the last few weeks for the three points on offer yesterday, but I’m less convinced by the argument that we should have a way of playing that accepts we’ll concede goals and simply score more.

That principle: ‘if they score three, we’ll score four’ sounds good and full of dashing joie de vivre, but it can become tedious in reality. I once worked with someone who called themselves a disruptor and a maverick. That seemed quite exciting until he set up an unauthorised business unit clearing leaves from train lines – pretty much the opposite of what his employer did. He was fired and the mopping up took months.

The origins of the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ philosophy came from Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team of the mid-nineties. They were, perhaps, the most entertaining team of the modern era, one that won precisely nothing and whose architect is now looked on as a bit of a naive buffoon.  

Karl Robinson has created, perhaps, one of the most entertaining squads we’ve ever had. It’s certainly the best Oxford team never to have won anything (so far). The best teams, whether it’s in the Premier League or in League 1 are intolerant to their weaknesses, even those that only occasionally materialise. Wigan are probably the best example in League 1 this season; they’re not willing to sacrifice points and promotion for style and principles.

Last night our usual fast paced, high possession game looked fragmented and disjointed. We only started to look like we were in control in the latter stages, by which point we were chasing the game and battling the worst of the conditions.

We’re effectively going into games knowing that we’ll concede, we might as well start games 1-0 down. That’s all priced-in and accepted, which is fine when you fire in two world class goals in the final moments, but less so when you’re sodden wet and chasing shadows.

Are we ready to adapt? I doubt it, and I’m not even sure if I want us to. We do serve up a very good product and I don’t know if I’m ready to give that up. But, if we do want to get promoted and, beyond that, survive at a higher level, any tolerance of weakness will ultimately cost us in the long term.

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.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Flat Stanley

Saturday 3 April 2021

It wasn’t such a good Friday on Good Friday, you could call it a… ‘Bad Friday’… hmm? You see, we’ve transposed the ‘Good’ with the word ‘Bad’ despite the etymological origins of Good in Good Friday being God and not good. The following day, after an alleged headbutting, sending-off and controversial winner the Sunderland Echo took time out to report on a briefly posted, then deleted, tweet from Cameron Brannagain.   

Sunday 4 April 2021

In news that sends shockwaves around the world, people are reeling to discover that KRob may have overreacted when he said the police would be called to investigate the alleged headbutt on Jack Stevens against Sunderland. ‘We won’t be proceeding with the complaint’, said the club’s official eye-roll emoji.  

Monday 5 April 2021

Accrington Stanley-knifed our play-off chances with a 2-1 win over the stuttering yellows on Monday. After a poor start and conceding an early goal, Oxford equalised through Eliot Lee before Stanley scored a 70th minute winner in a moment as bleak any time someone says ‘who are they?’ whenever the Lancashire club is mentioned.

Tuesday 6 April 2021

Jedward orphan Mark Sykes has put the record straight in the argument over whether he shouldn’t be picked for Republic of Ireland or shouldn’t be picked for Northern Ireland. ‘I’m an Irish person, I want to play for the Republic of Ireland. It’s that simple’, said the Belfast-born former Northern Ireland Under 21. Couldn’t be simpler.

Meanwhile, Oxford fans are grieving that Jack Stevens could be leaving because of what he’s achieving and Nottingham Forest fans are in pain that Marcus McGuane may begin an Oxford reign, ‘that’s insane’ was their refrain.

Wednesday 7 April 2021

Like a toddler taking himself off to the naughty step for filling his nappy, KRob’s decided that he’ll voluntarily take himself to stands next time Trevor Kettle refs a game. “Industrial language is used not just by me but by him” said KRob “Yet I’m the one who gets punished.” Which is a bit like the pot calling the Kettle ‘c**t’.

Thursday 8 April 2021

KRob was the selectah on the Radio Oxford 10 Minute 26 Second Fans Forum which, frankly, isn’t even trying anymore. He said he was more than happy to commit the time in the name of transparency. Questions were all about players. ‘Will Josh Ruffels sign a new contract?’ Maybe, said KRob transparently. ‘Are Joel Cooper and Sean Clare in his plan?’ Perhaps, he said translucently. ‘Can we sign Marcus McGuane and Brandon Barker?’ Clearly he can’t say. ‘Will Brannagain sign again? Or Jack Stevens be at the club next season?’ We’ll see, he concluded transpicuously.

Meanwhile, sensible Simon Eastwood has been reviewing his medium-risk diversified ethical ISA and decided to commit another three years to the club. Sensible Simon said it was a great deal for his family before checking his oil, rotating his tyres and driving off in his Kia Sportage.

Friday 9 April 2021

Jonjoe Kenny, who is currently on loan at Celtic, wants to end his nomadic career. The former Oxford loanee has played ten games for Celtic, losing one; or relegation form as over-indulged Bhoys fans call it. Still, after four loan spells Kenny is keen to settle. ‘Every stop I make, I make a new friend, can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again.’ said the Littlest Hobo. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Accrington Stanley 2

It’s the 25th anniversary of our 1996 promotion; presumably the club would’ve done something to mark the occasion in another year, but it seems to have passed quietly. I realise now that the nineties was similar to how my parents experienced the sixties. It was a cultural explosion and a time of happy abandon. 1996 was pretty much its peak – as well as our promotion in May, Euro 96 was in June and Oasis’ era-defining concert at Knebworth in August. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was a pretty special time.

Understandably, the ‘96 promotion is held up as a halcyon campaign, a benchmark of what can be achieved. It pivoted on a remarkable end of season run which took us from mid-table to second in a period of a few months. 

The defining moment was an Easter double-header against Blackpool on the Saturday and Wycombe on the following Monday. The contrast between the two games couldn’t have been more stark. The Blackpool game was tense and tight, cold and grey, at Wycombe, it was springlike, joyous and carefree. The two wins, with Joey Beauchamp’s 35 yard smasher and Stuart Massey hanging off the crossbar transformed the run from one of hope to one of expectation. 

After a 1-1 draw with Notts County we seemed to smash through every barrier put in front of us; 2-0 against Bristol City, 6-0 against Shrewsbury, 2-1 against Crewe and a promotion securing 4-0 win against Peterborough. Blackpool picked up two points in the same period – a story which is often forgotten – they contrived to lose the last three games of the season meaning we were promoted by a point.

You’ll often hear reference to this campaign when we’re hovering outside the play-offs with indifferent form. It’s like the 5-5 draw with Portsmouth in 1992 – there are fans who stay to the bitter end of games just because of that game. It doesn’t matter what mess you’re in, there’s always a chance. 

This season has felt like one of those that needs to be constantly referenced back to 1996; we just need a run like that one to give us the momentum to propel us in the play-offs. Then, you never know.

The only similarity with ‘96 is that this weekend’s Easter fixtures seem to have been pivotal in setting a final descent to where we’ll end up this year. Unlike in 96, it’s some way off where we want to be.

Yesterday’s defeat to Accrington, following Friday’s defeat to Sunderland, confirmed what’s been coming for a long time. We weren’t completely awful, we just weren’t quite firing. But, we’ve lived in hope of a 1996-style revival and dramatic run to success. For weeks we’ve been ‘only three points’ off the play-offs ignoring the fact that, at the top of the table, you need to win two to three games for every point you need to claw back.

The 1996 mindset, coupled with the 2010 play-off, another promotion secured at the last gasp, seems to have created a mindset that this is the way we, Oxford United, get promoted. Resulting from an extraordinary run, a pivotal moment, by the skin of our teeth. That seems to be the Oxford way.

But promotion don’t need to be like that, it doesn’t need to be against the odds, the best teams don’t sneak their way to success, they become an unrelenting winning machines. That focus, gives you the headroom in case something fails. At the moment, one mistake or a couple of injuries, and we’re out of it.

What does that mean in practice? We need to develop a nasty streak. We are incredibly easy to like; we play good football, we’re entertaining to watch, we treat our fans well. Our young players get their chance to develop, local players are regulars, there are few, if any, players that we don’t like.

Karl Robinson will often refer back to the all-conquering Liverpool team of the mid-eighties. In some ways he sees Oxford being the centre of a community in the way Liverpool were then. But, they were also a nasty team; physical, bullying, unrelentingly demanding. John Aldridge, no wall flower and very much a successful Liverpool player in that era found the atmosphere around the club intimidating. As a player, if you didn’t meet the squads exacting standards, you were rejected from the pack.

It’s a choice, ultimately, do we evolve slowly, sticking to our values, taking our chances when they come, or do we demand success and become intolerant to failure? If we choose that path, it’s going to be difficult and disruptive, players we like become assets that need to perform or leave. It makes me uncomfortable to be like that, there are few players I’d want to show the door because they’re not good enough, but the reality is that they’re demonstrably not good enough.

We don’t need to follow that path, of course, we can continue in our current vein and I’m torn. History tells us that there will be opportunities and successes down this path. While they’re great when they come, patience is everything. When you consider we haven’t won a league title for 36 years you have to think; how long do we tolerate the Oxford Way?

George Lawrence’s Shorts: True Bromance

Saturday 26 September 2020

Oxford United are writing their own jokes for GLS after the 4-1 win over Accrington Stanley on Saturday. Before the win, the team’s bus was disabled when the alcohol based spray got into the bus’ breathalyser system rendering it a useless immovable lump; the worst Oxford bus since Steve Anthrobus.

The Yorkshire Post have found the common link between cosmopolitan sophisticat Čhrįstoøphé Wīldę and man hanging around primary school with plastic bags, Marcelo Bielsa of Leeds. Surprisingly, it’s not that they’ve both spent the last two years being furiously masturbated over by the nation’s journalists. 

Sunday 27 September 2020

John Coleman has a hot take on the key to his team’s defeat on Saturday. In a game which had more turns than Bill Turnbull eating Turnips for the Turner Prize at Turnbury, the man who gives the air of a world weary regional road haulage manager, has identified the own goal ricochet which led Oxford retaking the lead. 

Monday 28 September 2020

As we are all aware, Oxford United has always been a hotbed of African goalkeeping talent. Goal.com have really pulled the stops out to identify the five, yes, five best keepers from that continent. At number one was Bruce Grobelaar, whose career highlight, after years in the wilderness at Liverpool, was a week’s training with Oxford. At number two was Andre Arendse who wasn’t even the second best keeper at Oxford at The Manor in the early 2000s falling someway short of both Pal Lundin and Mike Ford.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Asylum seeking Jedward orphan Mark Sykes hasn’t found the Republic of Ireland to be a land of milk and honey since he switched allegiance from the North. He had hoped to play in the Republic’s games against Slovakia, Wales and Finland. Like a lorry driver with a truck load of life saving medicines on the Kent border in January, he’s still waiting for the paperwork to go through.

Wednesday 30 September 2020

New bromantics, Matty Taylor and James Henry have revealed the complex tactical algorithm that proved so productive against Accrington on Saturday. Now, we’d recommend grabbing a pen and paper to get this down because it’s going to get a bit sciencey. “I said to him … ‘I need you to pass me the ball to score.” Taylor revealed giving an ‘I heart U’ sign to his bearded compatriot. Couple goals, amirite? 

Thursday 1 October 2020

It was the Five Minute Thirty Three Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford on Thursday with Cameron Brannagain. Now at the ripe age of twenty-four, the man John Mousinho calls grandad, said he felt for youngster Marcus McGuane as he finds his feet at the club. He also said he was looking forward to playing in the Swindon derby in a stadium packed to the gills with empty seats. Then mad dem Robbie Hall proved himself to be the real Archbishop of Banterbury by trolling up de Brannas bout his ping pong skillz, my bruddah. 

Friday 2 October 2020

Matty Taylor has moved to de-escalate the venomous anger of Bristol Rovers fans by talking about his reasons for moving to deadly rivals Bristol City in 2017. “I had to take away that emotion and the thoughts of fans and take it from the selfish point of view that this was going to be good for me and my family.” said Taylor. Discard the thoughts of the fans and be selfish you say? We’re pretty sure that’ll do the trick.

Elsewhere, scuttling Joe Rothwell is having an impact at Blackburn Rovers this season, but says has told the Lancashire Telegraph that he’s got to remove one last question about him; whether he’s half crab? No, he’s got to prove the manager Tony Mowbray that he’s got the defensive qualities to play in a central role (as well as prove he’s not half crab).

Worrying news from the North East, who have suffered great struggles in recent years; not only does it contain some of the most deprived areas in the country and is currently under strict lockdown, now we hear that Ian McGuckin is still in football, coaching at Bishop Auckland. Analysts say this could be the ponderous ex-Oxford defender that breaks the camel’s back.

Match wrap: Accrington Stanley 1 Oxford United 4

Perhaps it was always going to take the activation of a coach’s safety system with an anti-bacterial spray to break a sequence of defeats. It’s the 2020 version of a striker breaking a goalless streak with the ball going in off his backside. Which never happens, but probably will before the year’s out.

It was good to see the reconnection of the supply line between James Henry and Matty Taylor after a few games where it’s been faulty. It’s such a vital artery of our attack, so much so that for me it’s the only explanation for James Henry’s infamous decision not to shoot at Wembley, Taylor was lurking at the back post it was such a reliable option, he looked for it.

Players, like Marcus Browne and form, like Cameron Brannagan’s, come and go meaning the Henry/Taylor supply line is the Panama Canal of the Oxford attack. Has there been a better combination than Johnny Byrne and Paul Moody? And before that, Billy Hamilton and John Aldridge? We’ve had many excellent forwards, but reliable combinations are exceedingly rare. It’s reasonable to say that while that combination remains intact, so do our promotion chances.

Having said I wasn’t planning on watching the game, inevitably, perhaps, I found another £10 and two hours to weld myself to the settee. It’s a dirty affliction. Again, to create the fig leaf of an away experience I kept the local commentary rather than choosing Radio Oxford. Their summary was that while we were worthy winners, there were some curious decisions that influenced the outcome.

Not least the penalty decision. They felt it was nailed on, I’m conflicted by it. It’s hard to imagine that Simon Eastwood’s intention was to punch the player in the face, seven feet in the air, eighteen yards from goal, in the full view of the referee in order to prevent an obvious goalscoring opportunity. An accident, for sure, but a foul? The only logical explanation is that Eastwood was punished for not giving due regard to another player’s safety, but it’s hard to imagine what he should have done instead. The punishment seemed disproportionate to what seemed quite obviously an accident.

The commentary team at BBC Lancashire were sure that things would have been different had there been a crowd. They talked about ‘1500 Stanley fans roaring them on’. Fifteen-hundred? Roaring? Whatever, you do wander how the referee would have acted if he’d had the benefit of the home fans’ advice. Eastwood didn’t even get a booking and then minutes later Dion Charles was sent off for a push. Would that have happened with fans? They doubted it, me too.

Of course, this had been earmarked as a test event. I’m perplexed by the suspending of the programme to return fans to games. As I see it, there are four levels of controlling coronavirus; a vaccine solves the problem, effective treatments reduces it, modifying behaviours and an effective testing manages it and a lockdown hides from it.

A full lockdown is only viable when the virus is out of control because of the trade off with the economy and the length of time people will comply. It buys some time to get testing in place and to learn more about effective modifications. You can debate whether the government has used that time wisely. Despite an apparent resurgence in cases, the announcements this week amounted to a minor tweaking of the modification rules. It’s questionable as to whether we ever locked down in the first place when comparing our restraints to others both in speed and severity, and that seems to be reflected in the resulting fatalities, which were among the highest in Europe. 

I get that another full lockdown has severe consequences, and so we’re pretty much where we’ve been for the best part of four months – behaviour modification. Except in football.

This is not a Tim Martin babble about how nobody ever caught coronavirus in a Weatherspoons. There’s no way we should simply pretend the virus doesn’t exist. By general medical consensus, the passing of the virus between people is reduced significantly outdoors, so a football ground is theoretically far safer than plenty of other businesses which are currently open, not least pubs and cinemas.

They are also super-controlled environments – far more than any shop. One of the by-products of hooliganism in the 1980s and disasters like the Bradford fire, Hysel and Hillsborough is that stadiums are designed and managed to control people. All-seater areas ensure people are fixed in position, tickets are issued, databases maintained, entrances are well stewarded.

Developing a vaccine involves starting small and measuring the impact, if that’s successful then you move on to a larger and more varied sample, until such time that you can confidently predict what would happen if you made it available to all. 

Football matches seem a perfect environment to do the same thing. You limit admission to people with tickets, maybe even only to those who are in a low-risk category and who are prepared to stick to some clear rules – such as arriving at a certain time, not moving from their allocated seat and be contacted afterwards. If that’s successful, try it again with more people, until we find the highest safe number of people that can watch a game without it significantly impacting the spread of the virus. The beauty of football is that there are plenty of games and lots of people willing to take part.

One argument for the pubs being kept open is the political benefit. it’s a bit like fishing rights in Brexit talks – from an economic perspective it’s irrelevant, but for some reason pro-Brexit campaigners obsess with the nationality of the fish they eat. But, wouldn’t crowds at football have a similar impact? Just a few fans dotted around the stands would provide a degree of political capital, promoting the idea that we were winning the battle against the virus. Every empty stadium is a reminder of where we are, and of our failings, on TV every day.

Or, perhaps, it’s easy to be lulled into the idea that this is part of a masterplan, maybe it’s just the case that they’re making it up as they go along. The first I heard of the suspending of the programme was when Michael Gove was on Breakfast TV and was asked about it. It hadn’t been part of the initial announcement. Was it even on his radar? Did he simply make a snap decision there and then? Once that hole is dug, on the spur of a moment, is it possible to get out of it? 

Lockdown football is doing funny things to teams and games; Sunderland and Ipswich who have to live with the pressure of their under-performances, have started well without fans, Accrington, who benefit from being a small and contained unit – us against the world, greater than the sum of their parts – have struggled to find their feet now they’ve been reduced to simply being small. The longer the lockdown goes on, the more unpredictable this season will get, but you have to question whether it’s really necessary for it to last?