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

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

2009 Jamie Cook versus Luton

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

2012 Peter Leven versus Port Vale

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

2013 Alfie Potter versus Portsmouth

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

2014 Nicky Rowe versus Wycombe Wanderers

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

2016 Liam Sercombe versus Carlisle

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

2017 Toni Martinez versus Middlesborough

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

2018 Ryan Ledson versus Charlton

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

2019 Jamie Mackie versus Bradford

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

Carlisle wrap – Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2

This is like a big three-dart checkout. Hartlepool was the first throw; it just needed to be as big as possible. The second throw, at Carlisle, needed something similar but also confirmed what was needed for the third and final throw. Each one step closer, each ratcheting up the pressure a little more.
And this is it, there is almost no margin for error; three points at home to Wycombe and the previous 67.5 hours of league football this year will have all been worthwhile, anything less and, well…
We haven’t beaten Carlisle in Cumbria for 20 years when Matt Elliot smashed that goal in. With that kind of record, fans might have been forgiven for forgoing the 500+ mile round trip in favour of chewing their nails in front of the radio. Instead, more than 2,200 made the trip north, a demonstration of unflinching support and belief; the club is a bit like that nowadays.
That last win at Carlisle was part of a run that took us to promotion, an omen that the gods are smiling on us? The momentum is definitely with us. Wycombe’s season is all played out, their form is reassuringly abject. There’s an idea that the debatable local rivalry will fuel their desire but I’m not so sure that will transfer to the players who will be worrying about contracts and the beach. We’ve been nursing players through games and worrying about the future, but on Saturday we can leave everything on the pitch and pick up the pieces over the summer.
But, I’m always reminded of what Tony Adams said before the 1998 World Cup. The consensus view was that England were certain to reach the quarter-final with semi-finals or final place a possibility.
Adams, however, stressed that even meeting the minimum expectation required effort and application, relying on theoretical superiority is not enough.
We need to be absolutely focussed on the task at hand, to do all the right things, everything we’ve been doing all season, just one more time. Thankfully, we have big-game experience invested in this squad. Our runs in the FA Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy have battered us this year but, ironically, the very thing that has made this more uncomfortable than we’d have wanted, could be the very thing that sees us over the line.

The battle is joined. See you Saturday.  

Carlisle wrap – Oxford United 1 Carlisle United 1

Team selection for the Carlisle game was the conclusion of a three-part logic puzzle. Michael Appleton didn’t want too many players playing all three games we had last week. It was difficult to know which game was key to solving the riddle. Was it the Carlisle game itself? Comfortably the most important of the three. Or was it the Yeovil game because of the JPT’s complex and bizarre selection rules?

Whichever it was, by the time we got to Saturday’s game the team largely picked itself; only O’Dowda and Dunkley started all three games. Dunkley, the best player across the three games, might have made way for Jake Wright on Saturday, but otherwise the team was self-selected.

The disruption couldn’t have been easy to handle and it’s admirable that we’ve come out of it with two wins and a draw, but for Saturday’s game there was one nagging issue. Did we actually have a game plan?

What I mean by that is did we have a clearly defined method by which we were trying to win the game? It feels like we have the fastest Formula 1 racing car, but sometimes not the skills to overtake someone. A logic based on the idea that if you have the fastest car, why would you need to know how to pass someone?

Yes, we play really nice football, but there’s still a lack of goals at home and when we concede, as we calamitously did, that makes us vulnerable. For example, we frequently get the ball at the corner of the opposition’s penalty box. Unless the game is stretched we seem to get stuck. Typically, whoever has the ball cuts inside or tries to dance through an ocean of defenders or passes backwards. It doesn’t seem to work very often in producing a goal.

It’s difficult to know what the team are trying to do in that final third. Go for the byline and cut back? Ball to the back post? Ball in to pressure the keeper with someone like Liam Sercombe marauding in to pick up the pieces? If pure skill and technique doesn’t work there doesn’t seem to be a method backing it up.

When we played West Brom last year, I was struck by their reliance on their ‘quality’; they would keep the ball, pass it around and, it seems, hope for an opening. There was no obvious game plan. When we started to disrupt their flow, we found ourselves in the odd situation of outplaying them at their place.

Carlisle did that to us; while we tried to out-quality them, they had a very clear plan, get balls into the box, be organised when defending. And we struggled throughout. In short, you could say we got League Two’ed. Maybe it’s no surprise that our two defeats this season have come against two of the most League 2 managers in the business.

Much like the reality that a team like West Brom would beat us nine times out of ten just because they have the quality, I guess we’re built to be better than most teams most of the time. Sometimes we’ll be unpicked, but generally, it should be fine. I’m generally happy to concede the lead at the top of the table, let someone else deal with the headwind of being league leaders. We’ve got two more teams to play and then we’re in the second half of the season, so far it’s been very good but a lack of tactical cunning appears to be a weakness. Perhaps most of the time that’s not going to be an issue; you would hope.

Coming up: Carlisle United

The drop

Bogsnorkling Cumbrians Carlisle come to the Kassam on Saturday. It should be the biggest test we’ve faced in quite a while. They specialise in soaring and capitulating with alarming regularity, at the moment they seem to be on the up, but just as they begin to find their feet, they’ve found themselves under 8 feet of rainwater. Bloody typical.

Apparently they’ve been able to train this week, but with Brunton Park under water, the wider infrastructure around the team must have been effected. And that, surely, should be to our advantage.

On the other hand, they’ve been helping in the local community and it might be that they will be galvanised by a Dunkirk spirit and come to the Kassam determined to bring three points back to their stricken community. Wellies and buckets might be more effective.

So, who knows? I think we need a test; January is measuring up to be an absolute doozy; Swansea, Millwall, Bristol Rovers, Northampton and Portsmouth are all in the New Year. It may go as far as deciding our season, we need a decent warm up to hit that period as hard as we can.

Old game of the day

Although Sky have tried letting fans commentate on games, all it really produced was a sanitised version of what people thought football fans do when they go to games. Authentic fan commentary, should involve mostly muttering and swearing. And then, when the ball rolls out to your centre-back it should go something like “MATT ELLIOT HOLLLLLYYYYYY CCCRRAAAAPPPP”.

Conscious uncoupling

When Patrick Hoban finally popped up to grab his first goal against Carlisle on Saturday the bloke next to me turned around and said ‘He didn’t have time to think about that one’.

He was right, everything about it forced Hoban to draw from his instincts. Sure, he had to make a conscious effort to move to the front post but from there on he didn’t have time to think. The pace and height of the cross and the fact he was at the near post meant that all he could do was make contact and guide it somewhere towards the top corner; which was the only place the ball was going to go in.

It wasn’t lucky, he just didn’t have to think about whether to pass or shoot, or to put the ball left, right or down the middle. Everything had to be done in his sub-conscious; a deep seated learnt behaviour which helped him score a hat full of goals in Ireland. It’s the proverbial ball going in off the backside of a striker; not something he is able to think about, he just does it.

Hoban must have been starting to wonder what he had to do to score, strikers never claim to be affected but this sort of thing, but it must have been nagging away. Football is a callous business, if you don’t perform, you’re out of a job. With each chance another doubt sneaks into your head; then you start to over-think; trying to consciously do the right things when all you really should be doing is letting it flow.

Hoban isn’t the only one who has arrived at the club to find themselves struggling to do the things they’ve done naturally all their lives. Do we, as a club, have something about us that drags players off form?

Perhaps, we’re one of a tiny number of teams who have managed to enjoy both success at the top of the English game and demotion from the league altogether. Only Luton and Wimbledon can say something similar and both of them will argue there were mitigating factors in their failings. For us, failure seems to have been almost wholly self inflicted through our own complacency.

We’re unusual in that there are people in the crowd who have seen us win a major trophy at Wembley and lose to Tonbridge Angels (or whatever you might consider our ‘low’ to have been in the last decade). Amongst us walks people looking for a sign that we’re about to head off back towards the top of the game and those who are looking for signs another pending disaster.

There is a theory that America suffers far greater social tension than other countries because it promotes the full breadth of what is possible in life. Self-made multi-millionaires from poor backgrounds – like rappers and sportsmen – are celebrated as living the American Dream, even if the reality is that for almost everyone living in a ghetto in the US, that’s exactly where they will stay for their whole lives. That sense of failure that most people experience, and perhaps the sense of being deprived or cheated out of their birthright, drives social tension and unrest.

In a class-based system there is ‘comfort’ that you are amongst your own and a degree of certainty about where your future lies. Although you might want more money and opportunities in life, the angst resulting from not being able to achieve it is far worse. It’s part of life’s moral maze as to which is more right; a restrictive system which has the benefit of certainty, or the open system in which most are likely to feel the pain of failure.

So, we are neither a superpower where success is a Champions League win and a failure is an FA Cup win, nor are we a no ranking lower league stalwart whose purpose in life is to provide little more than a mild diversion in life. Because we have experienced the breadth of what is possible, are we like America, ridden with above average amounts of angst?

If we have a culture prone to angst then perhaps, this could affect new players in a way they might not elsewhere. When players are beginning to suffer angst, that’s when doubt creeps in and the subconscious skills and abilities are forced into the conscious mind. If players have to consciously think how to play, then they are far less likely to be able to perform. It may be something deep in our DNA.