Midweek fixture: The 17 best games of Oxford United’s 2016 promotion season

A long time ago, I asked for your favourite games of the 2015/16 season, then the pandemic hit and everything went belly up. That season had everything – derby wins, giant killings, a Wembley visit and, of course, promotion. There was a lot to choose from, but vote you did. Here are the seventeen best games from that unforgettable year.

17. Morecambe 2 Oxford United 4

A hard won away win in a lovely kit, apart from that, it’s not obvious why this was such a significant game. But, if you’re in the pub, a job interview or hostage situation and someone asks what was the 17th most memorable game of the 2015/16 season; this is it.

Read the match wrap.

16. Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

Had it really come to this? After the derby, Wembley, giant killings and all the winning, we were faced with the prospect of three games and three wins for promotion. This was the first, Joe Skarz returned from what was thought to be a season ending injury to help drag us to three points against a stubborn Hartlepool side. One down, two to go.

Read the match wrap.

15. Oxford United 3 Exeter City 0

An absolute Boxing Day banger, in front of a near capacity crowd, we put on a breathtaking second half attacking display to sweep away Exeter City.

Read the match wrap

14. Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 1

All good teams need a magician to make them great; ours came in the form of Kemar Roofe. His early season wonder-strike at Bristol Rovers was just a sign of things to come. The Roofe was on fire.

Read the match wrap.

13. Stevenage 1 Oxford United 5

Sometimes, everything just clicks. When the club designated the game at Teddy Sheringham’s Stevenage a family away-day special, they couldn’t have hoped for a better game than this 5-1 annihilation. It was the first time in nine years we’d scored five away from home and was, at the time, a record equalling away victory. One for the record books, but more importantly, one for the kids.

Read the match wrap.

12. Oxford United 0 Millwall 1

Sometimes games are less about the performance and more about the result. The atmosphere was ugly, the game was tense for this JPT Semi-Final Second Leg against Millwall. All we needed to do was protect our 2-0 first leg advantage. A 1-0 defeat made things uncomfortable, but still meant we were heading for Wembley.

Read the match wrap.

11. Barnet 0 Oxford United 3

The season turned into a farewell tour of the clubs we’d considered equals for a decade or more. This dominant display at Barnet with two goals from Callum O’Dowda had a strong ‘we’ll never play you again’ vibe about it.

Read the match wrap.

10. Portsmouth 0 Oxford United 1

Roofe, Dunkley, Hylton, MacDonald, Wright, Baldock, Lundstram, Maguire – the list of great names from that season live long in the memory – Skarz. See? Was Jordan Bowery the great forgotten player from that season? Maybe. With JPT, FA Cup and league interests, things were getting hectic. A trip to Portsmouth looked daunting, but Bowery’s second half winner secured a memorable and crucial three points.

Read the match wrap.

9. Oxford United 2 Barnsley 3

Wembley; the JPT Final was a true game of two halves. In the first 45 minutes we were, by far, the better team and went in 1-0 up with a goal from Callum O’Dowda and a Cruyff turn from Chey Dunkley. In the second half we came out heavy legged and conceded three. A Danny Hylton goal pulled it back to 3-2, which wasn’t quite enough. But, what a day out.

Read the match wrap.

8. Crawley Town 1 Oxford United 5

We needed this; after two frustrating league draws and a defeat at Wembley, we just needed to give someone a good pummelling. It’d taken nine years for us to score five away from home and five months to do it again. Crawley, it was nothing personal.

Read the match wrap.

7. Millwall 0 Oxford United 2

Days after knocking Swansea City out of the FA Cup, we headed to The New Den for our JPT Semi-Final First Leg against Millwall. After the Lord Mayor’s Show? Not a chance. Two giant killings in four days? Yes please.

Read the match wrap.

6. Brentford 0 Oxford United 4

There may have been a good feeling around the place, but the obliteration of Championship Brentford in the League Cup ignited the season. The opening was rampant with Oxford three up inside 15 minutes, including a wonder strike from Kemar Roofe, Johnny Mullins’ second half goal saw us stroll to a 4-0 win.

Read the match wrap.

5. Notts County 2 Oxford United 4

New Year, New You. The first game of 2016 was at a grim Meadow Lane. What resulted was a titanic tussle with two breathtaking last minute goals.

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4. Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0

The Kassam Stadium can feel like a soulless concrete brick, but when Oxford’s Ultras unveiled a giant flag of an ox impaling a robin which stretched from the top of the stand to the bottom, it felt like the Curva Sud. We were absolutely dominant for this JPT derby; two Kemar Roofe goals swept Swindon aside in a true changing of the guard in the rivalry.

Read the match wrap.

3. Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2

Did someone order a Family Bucket of limbs? The penultimate game of the season saw us 270 miles to Carlisle and owner Daryl Eales dishing out free hot dogs. Chris Maguire’s early penalty was a settler, but it was Liam Sercombe’s trademark surge into the box which cemented this as the third best game of the season. Now, where have my shoes gone?

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2. Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

When you’ve got Premier League opponents; keep it tight, see if you can nick a goal. Right? Wrong. Despite conceding early, we put on a scintillating display of attacking joie de vivre to sweep away Swansea City in the FA Cup. If we didn’t know something special was happening before, we did now.

Read the match wrap.

1. Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0

The pinnacle, the denouement, the culmination of a wonderful season, the sun shone, the crowds came, promotion was won. Chey Dunkley physically, emotionally and psychologically broke the deadlock, Chris Maguire made it certain, then it was over to the local boy Callum O’Dowda to weave his way to an injury-time third. For O’Dowda, Jake Wright, Danny Hylton and Kemar Roofe, it was their last appearance in an Oxford shirt. A magical spell had been broken.

Read the match wrap.

Barnet wrap – Barnet 0 Oxford United 3

A family trip to the theatre meant that not only did I miss Barnet – one of my usual away days – I was also completely out of touch with the progress of the game from start to finish. The theatre was an  internet blackspot so I had no updates at all. I came out to see a tweet featuring a ‘third wicog’, so I knew things had gone well.

Barnet away was always going to be tricky, they have good home form and Martin Allen is just the kind of manager Michael Appleton struggles to contain. A point would have been good, three excellent, 3-0 out of this world. The euphoria was understandable, even though seeing only the result is still disorientating when you don’t know how the points were won – were there sendings off? Did we actually get battered? Did Kemar Roofe get career-ending knee injury in the last minute?

The table also has a slightly disconcerting look to it. I saw that Plymouth lost and we were six points clear of third, but it was Bristol Rovers and not the Pigrims sitting behind us. Rovers, unusually for a form team in this division, have managed to penetrate the top three. A few times this year we’ve seen teams move threateningly up the table only to fall away; Portsmouth, Mansfield and Accrington. As a result, we are six points from third, which is great, but also six points off fourth which is as it was before Barnet. While the win against Barnet was a good one, looking at the table you could say that because both teams behind us have a game in hand, there are two threats to our automatic promotion place rather than one.

The question, I suppose, is whether Plymouth and Rovers’ current trajectories permanent or temporary. Have Plymouth blown a gasket which they can’t recover from? Are Rovers going to do a Northampton and barely drop another point for the rest of the season? We know both are good teams; both very capable of going up automatically, but what we don’t know is whether there are two teams charging after us or one… or indeed, none. Easter will be telling.

Any other business

On Saturday morning I woke to a minor Twitter storm, Firoz Kassam had made a rare public appearance to talk about building a fourth stand. It opened old wounds – was Kassam a slum landlord and asset stripper or someone who just wasn’t very good at running a football club?

My view is that it’s was a bit of both. I think he started with intentions of making Oxford a successful club, look at the managers he brought in – Joe Kinnear, Ray Harford, Ramon Diaz, even Ian Atkins and Brian Talbot had lower league pedigree. And then there are some of his player purchases – Tommy Mooney, Andy Scott, Paul Moody – not wild successes with hindsight, but they were established players who cost money to bring in.

While he won major battles off the pitch, winning a war that had lasted decades to move the club, Kassam couldn’t make it work on the pitch. Backed into a corner, he simply gave up and went back to what he knew best; making money from desperate people with few choices.

Anyway, now he’s back talking about completing the stadium in his name. I’m fairly certain he would like to complete the stadium if he could make it viable, which I think is the key. Making it viable requires approval for his plan to build houses near the ground. Rather than returning like a benevolent uncle, I think he’s using the current good vibes around the club to stimulate interest in his house building project. To be honest, if it does end up with a fourth stand, then the methods he uses to get it done doesn’t both me at all.

Barnet wrap – Oxford United 2 Barnet 3

Absolutes hang round your neck like a noose. After the Plymouth game I said we were watching the best football we’d seen from an Oxford team in over 30 years. I stand by that, but even before Saturday’s 3-2 reverse to Barnet, I was thinking that a statement like that needed careful qualification.

Firstly, I’m comparing five divisions of English football over 30 years. This is never going to be an exact science. The Conference promotion season was more enjoyable than most of our Championship campaigns, but were our non-leaguers a better team? Probably not. Would the Milk Cup winning team have beaten today’s vintage? Well, yes. But, as memorable as the Milk Cup was, our time in Division 1 (i.e. the Premier League) was characterised by a lot of struggle and a large number of defeats.

I can’t remember a period in which we’ve been presented with so many promotion challengers including a derby and a top of the table clash, and not only coped with it home and away, but coped with it with such panache.

Football has become an enjoyable thing to do again, which is remarkable because last season was the most stultifying experience. I didn’t got to Barnet, partly because of last season. When we were planning some time away in October towards the end of last season, I knew I was flying blind in terms of fixtures. The chances were that I’d be missing a home game and it didn’t bother me at all. What’s worse is that I’ve never felt like that before, last year I missed a home game in order to casually meet up with friends for a coffee. I haven’t done that before, missing games used to be restricted only to weddings and annual holidays. So as good as it’s been this season, last year was as terrible as it ever was. We don’t really know, still, which is the real Appleton team.

And this is the rub, ‘the best football in 30 years’ is a period of just fourteen games of which I’ve seen just 7. Jim Smith’s double title winners of 1984 and 1985 kept that kind of form going for two years, losing just two games at The Manor in 24 months. Promotion is brutal; by definition everyone that matters picks up points every week. You have to win to stand still; when others slip up, you have to win to gain advantage. It’s relentless.

The Barnet result reminds us of that fact; that any lapse of concentration will prove costly no matter who the opposition are, both in the context of a game and the context of the season. As good as the opening 14 games have been, we’ve got to keep this going for more than 30 more if we’re to achieve anything. It may be good for the defeat to Barnet to happened now, rather than in the middle of this month because it’s an early wake up call that there’s no slacking. It also puts the pressure on to get something out of Stevenage and that might be just what we need to focus the mind. It’s a sobering reminder that the coming weeks aren’t going to be easier than the last few games, just a different kind of difficult.

Coming up: Barnet

The drop

This game feels like a ship returning to shore. After a turbulent, but ultimately successful few weeks, we now head into a series of games against also-rans and makeweights. Barnet were promoted last year back from the Conference last year as champions but rather than storming the division, like Conference champions frequently do they’re the same old Barnet bumbling around at the wrong end of the table.
Rich pickings, then, not just this week, but for the next month. But, this brings its own pressure, of course, we should go into the next month confident of taking maximum points from every game. The pressure to be perfect is one problem, but also because we won’t win every game, the pressure not to capitulate through disappointment is always there.
It never goes, this pressure lark.

Old game of the day

So, when was the last time Michael Duberry and Edgar Davids face up to each other? Leeds United v Juventus in the Champions League? No. Oxford v Barnet in the Football League. I’m strangely in love with this fixture. Aside from the Duberry/Davids trivia, I was at Underhill when we forgot our kit, I once turned up there an hour and a half before kick-off because, for some reason, the game kicked off at 8.15. My favourite ever moment was when Davids, who up to that point had been running the game, got an Andy Whing reducer in the middle of the pitch after which Davids skulked around like a wounded animal and we went on to win.

Fittingly, this from 2010 may be one of the greatest videos ever produced.

From the blog

“It was the agricultural intervention of Andy Whing that indirectly gave us the win. You can have all the quality in the world, but the last thing you need when you’re running on a pair of 40 year old legs is to have them clattered into.”

Read on

Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good

Winning is usually a minimum requirement when you’re playing Barnet. Even with a world class midfielder in their ranks. We laboured to the win on Tuesday, which seems about par for the current course. Perhaps we need to accept that?

I remember seasons where we were good; ’83, ’84. I remember seasons when we were good, then bad; under Ian Atkins. I remember seasons when we were bad and then good; such as the 1996 promotion season. I even remember the odd season when we were just all bad. I cannot remember a season where we were bad whilst being good.

Looking at our points total, we fell behind last year’s run rate during the six game losing streak back in September. After that we’ve pretty much kept pace with last year. Given our current form, and the poor form we showed towards the end of last season, we could easily end up with a better points total. By that purely objective measure; progress will have been made.

It doesn’t really feel like that, of course. Some of that is down to mindset. Take Tuesday, for example, you could say we missed a hatful of chances, or you could say that we battered them. Michael Raynes’ goal was either a lucky break, or a deserved, if very late, breakthrough.

Barnet aren’t a great side, but I was quite impressed with Edgar Davids. Admittedly, him joining Barnet is, for him, the equivalent of playing for my works’ six-a-side team; something to do to keep himself fit, but comes from a particularly diva-ish era of Dutch football and doesn’t have to do it. I’m sure there are clubs across Europe and the middle east willing to offer him managerial and coaching positions simply on the fact he’s one of the most recognisable faces in world football. Instead he’s taken on this ramshackle project; rather like my ambition to set up a fully Subbuteo stadium in my shed one day. It’s not as if he’s come in a Di Canio-esque way and demanded that the club bankrupt itself to satisfy his own personal ambitions.

The bloke next to me, whose considered assessment of Davids was that he was particularly small, claimed that he didn’t do much in the first half, but it was his crisp, simple and particularly efficient passing that gave Barnet their shape. While we did manage to crack the code to their game on several occasions, I suspect without Davids the chances would have been easier and more frequent and the goals would have come earlier. His quality was demonstrated through the odd sight of the attacking Alfie Potter struggling to take the ball off the the defensive Davids.

It was the agricultural intervention of Andy Whing that indirectly gave us the win. You can have all the quality in the world, but the last thing you need when you’re running on a pair of 40 year old legs is to have them clattered into.

Thereafter Barnet’s shape began to fall apart. Davids demonstrated admirable fitness throughout, both tracking back and supporting the odd Barnet attack. But the Whing challenge seemed to knock a lot of Davids’ vigour out of him. The Barnet manager readily admitted that his side switched off in injury time; which was illustrated by the sight of 8 of his team clustering around the front post when Liam Davis’ cross was clearly gong long.

The reaction wasn’t euphoric. With the goal breaking twice and over six minutes of injury time, many had decided to call it a night. Those of us left, perhaps, were the hardened few who have become largely anaesthetised to the vagaries of our form. We’ll be there whether we’re rubbish or brilliant.

For now, our form has the oddest quality; it is both poor, or perhaps that should be dour, whilst winning. Something that Chris Wilder alluded to being a necessity given the state of the pitch. Chris Wilder and Ian Lenagan are paid to win games, which was the general message in the programme criticising the boo-boys. In all likelihood this isn’t going to change any time soon due to our current circumstances. Perhaps, for now, we need to be happy being bad.

The next Peter Fear?

After quite a bit of searching, I finally found a fact I’ve been looking for. A statistic that judges the true performance of a referee.

Referees’ performances are typically judged on a self-selected sample of what the cabal of pundits, players and managers call ‘Crucial Decisions’. The hypothesis is that referees tend to get the Crucial Decisions wrong. This is useful rues for managers, after all, how can they be at fault when referees, tend to get Crucial Decisions so wrong?

But it’s easy to say that a referee gets all his decisions wrong, if you the sample you’re getting this from is both subjectively chosen and based on a bunch of marginal calls (which you think are going to be wrong in the first place).

What would happen if you measured every decision? Given that every decision has some baring on the outcome on the game, each is, in its own way, crucial. Obviously there’s a degree of subjectivity in what constitutes a right and wrong decision, but research suggests that on average referees get between 92% and 99% of all decisions right.

This stands to reason; football would have been hoisted by its own petard long ago if results were entirely at the mercy of random refereeing decisions. The skills of players, so central to the attractiveness of the game, would be an irrelevance. In the end, the good teams end up winning, the bad teams end up losing. The referee doesn’t have much influence on the outcome of the game, he keeps things from becoming a brawling mess and he’s a convenient target for frustration.

It is reliant, then, on teams to manage games to their own advantage rather than rely on referees to help them win by making the ‘right’ Crucial Decisions. It is this savvyness which is missing from our game at the moment. Parts of what we’re doing are fine; but at the same time we seem so brittle. We get biffed by Chesterfield in the last minute of the first and second halves. The first half we were beyond designated injury time, the second half they took a quick free kick while we dozed. It’s not the referee’s responsibility to protect us. The moments at which we seem to rely on the referee to help us survive are the moments when the players should be taking responsibility for the situations they find themselves in.

At Barnet on Tuesday, in horrible conditions, we should have had enough to shut the game up once Andy Whing had put us ahead. We never really seemed to be in control; we just seemed to hope we’d survive the remaining 44 minutes of the game. We always looked vulnerable throughout, particularly from corners and crosses. Not so much that we’re not very good at defending set-pieces, more ilke that we don’t actually believe we can defend set-pieces.

It’s easy to blame Chris Wilder; it makes us feel better when there’s someone to blame. But, the reality is rarely that simple. We have geared ourselves heavily towards experienced players able to take responsibility on the pitch. A Wilder decision, no doubt, but you buy experience to give you experience. If you are in your late 20’s or older and you’ve sustained a professional football career, you shouldn’t have to rely on the manager to tell you what to do.

The player most frustrating with this regard is Peter Leven. Apart from That Goal and a couple of neat flicks in the games around that, Leven is not acting like a senior pro.

Last night, when the game needed to be slowed, the weather suggested the ball needed to be kept on the floor. Leven could have been slowing the pace, playing keep-ball. But, for some reason, he and Chapman let them run at us, through us, putting pressure on the back-four. The frustration I have is not so much what he does when he’s on the ball, it’s what he does when he’s not on it.

Leven, of course, was quickly branded a genius by Oxford fans. He could do anything. But he’s been injury prone and drifted in and out of the team. His purple patch seemed to last only a few games last season, we keep expecting the genius to re-emerge. But could we be waiting a long time? Is he just another Peter Fear; a player with the reputation of mercurial talent that persistently fails to deliver.

He’s no more the single point of weakness than Wilder is, but it’s another fracture in the way we are at the moment. The brittleness extends into the stands; gallows humour on the terraces may be funny, but we don’t seem to have the heart for the fight. The Ultimate Support Saturday couldn’t come at a better time, as The Boys From Up The Hill exude in a recent post.

What to be done? You could fire the manager, but you’d have the same players. You could spend more money on players, but that puts us into a financial mess. For me, one thing that could be done is to look at one of the successes of Kelvin Thomas’ era. Thomas could have been a bit of a maverick, but he knew how to draw together club and fans. If I were Ian Lenagan, recognising the constraints that surrounds the club at the moment, I’d look towards some initiatives in the vein of the 12th Man which made fans a contributor to the solution, not a critical outsider picking away at everyone’s confidence. Cohesion between fans and club will help give the players strength, like at the end of the season in Wilder’s first year; where a bunch of moderately talented players suddenly felt invincible. That’s the missing ingredient at the moment.