George Lawrence’s Shorts: Swind-off, Charlt-on

Saturday 24 October 2020

Saturday’s postponed derby against Swindon has created a serious backlog of fixtures. The compressed season means that games are backing up, so we’re unlikely to see the derby rearranged until Christmas when no games are ever played. Christmas Day is looking fairly blank for most people this year, so let’s Rocky IV this sucker and sort this cold war out once and for all. QUEUE: TRAINING MONTAGE.

Sunday 25 October 2020

Swindon boss Richie Wellens has named Toby Holland along with coaches Tommy Wright, Noel Hunt and Steve Mildenhall as those who tested positive last week. The club’s physio is also self-isolating because, according to Wellens’ bamboozling medical jargon ‘he looked really bad’. If you’ve been unable to attend your loved one’s funeral or lost your job, you really need to get your priorities right: “The goalkeeper needs someone to warm him up.” wailed Wellens by way of explanation. 

Monday 26 October 2020

It was the draw for the first round of the FA Cup on Monday with Grant Holt caressing his balls live on TV in front of Lindsey Hipgrave. A bit like a low rent version of that Peter Crouch thing that they had on in the summer. In these troubled times, the FA Cup offers a reminder of happier times of old. The smell of stale cigars, the stench of cheap aftershave, the whiff of vaguely criminal activity; yes, our home tie against Barry Fry’s Peterborough will come as a soothing balm on our furrowed brow.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Charlton had the good grace to turn up to face KRob’s plucky part-timers on, well, Loseday? Twosday? You pick. Despite a spirited opening, Oxford gifted two goals before half-time so everyone could switch off and catch the end of Bake Off. Following the 2-0 defeat, Oxford now have less clean sheets than Trainspotting’s Spud after a big night on the skag. 

Wednesday 28 October 2020

There are lots of reasons to be positive when you’re from Swindon. It’s not that far from Oxford and there’s always the knowledge that death will come to us all eventually. Swindon supporters club chairman and amateur virologist, Peter Norris has been looking on the bright side of his team’s failure to fulfil the derby fixture on Saturday. “If there’s one positive we can take from this though, it’s that – depending on when the game is rearranged for, hopefully the new year – fans may be able to go.” He didn’t elaborate on which new year.

Elsewhere, The Sheffield Star has revealed why John Lundstram is set to leave Sheffield United in January. The man whose fantasy football defensive credentials were so over-inflated last season KRob couldn’t actually see him has pushed cosmopolitan sophisticat Čhrįßtøphë Wïlłdē’s patience a little too far.

Thursday 29 October 2020

It was the Six Minute Nine Second Fans’ Forum on Radio Oxford with KRob on Thursday. Talk quickly turned to the man who’s been overdoing the hand sanitizer this year, Sensible Simon Eastwood. Is it possible the glovesman might be dropped? Asked one fan, ‘Everyone can be dropped’ said KRob with ice flowing through his veins. No one drops ‘em like KRob, apart from Sensible Simon, of course. 

Meanwhile the Dundalk Donkey Pat Hoban watched on as his team went down 3-0 to Arsenal in the Europa League.

Friday 30 October 2020

It’s a Halloween spooktacular tomorrow as Oxford face Fleetwood for a trick and a treat. Joey Barton has been talking about the game; ‘There’s no doubt about it, Oxford are a top ten side.’ he said about the team currently 23rd. GLS once went to a Halloween party as Joey Barton; we used to trick people into thinking we’re a reasonable human being by wearing glasses and talking about books, and then treat them to a choke hold to the throat and a punch in the face. 

Match wrap: Charlton Athletic 2 Oxford United 0

The Great British Bake Off is a staple in our house. Tuesdays aren’t Tuesdays without someone eagerly mentioning it’s Tuesday. Ergo, Bake Off. And while it’s still a landmark event of our midweek, I’ve come to realise that while it’s definitely on my TV, it’s been months since I’ve actually watched it.

I know there’s the contestant we’re expected to marvel at because she knows about Victoria Sponges while wearing a hijab. There’s the camp late-middle aged man finding his metier after years of inner torment. There’s the thirty-something alpha male engineer – and what I wouldn’t do to be that dough being pummelled by those hands. Then there’s the one who may be sleeping with Paul Hollywood and the nice young people – one of each sex – who play the viola and read books and make your kids look even more vile than they already are. 

The list goes on. But I can’t remember their names, I can’t remember who left the tent or who was star baker. I remember being incredulous that in Japanese week one of the contestants used Indian spices. But, I can’t remember what they had to make, it was just an omnipresent thing that happened. In our house, this is pretty much how it’s been every week for every year it’s been on.

I was also watching our latest surrender to Charlton on my laptop, but it would be wrong to think that distraction was the reason I missed the details in Bake Off. The game was hardly an absorbing spectacle, despite playing well and dominating for the opening half-an-hour, all the old favourites played out, defensive and goalkeeping frailties, and we fell without much fight.

But, like the Bake-Off, I’ve come to realise although the football is on, I don’t really watch it in this format. Not when it’s stripped back like it has to be now. I’ve never been a great technician, I’ve no idea what a ‘high-press’ is or when ‘the overload is on’ and am even less likely to go looking for it via a live internet feed. Football, to me is about how it makes me feel, and watching on a laptop makes me feel a little underwhelmed.

I’m starting to surprise myself about how little I’m interested in football now the spectacle and physical experience has gone. I’m really only interested in my club, and currently that interest stretches little beyond surviving this period so that I can re-engage with the bits I like sometime in the future. 

As such I realised last night that another defeat doesn’t concern me too much. While avoiding relegation is important, I’m not that interested in promotion in these circumstances. Much like back in July and Wembley, I’d take promotion if it were offered, I wouldn’t weep if it didn’t happen. It would always be tainted; a sanitised version of the real thing. I’m not that bothered that we aren’t competing at that end of the table at the moment, though I recognise that might be different if we were actually winning games.

I suspect I’ll continue to log on and dutifully hand over my £10 for away games, but I’m less engrossed with every passing game. The problem is that I’m not normal, I have a higher than average interest in the club, if I’m losing interest, plenty of others will be in a similar position, if not beyond it already. 

The truth is that the internet is a supplementary connection to the real thing. There’s a generation of fans who might see football as an exclusively passive TV experience, but at our level, the joys of going to a game, living the ups and downs as a great amorphous whole remain as they’ve been for over a century. If you can see your club in real life, then you will. We tolerate the imposition of coronavirus at the moment, but even the most hardy will tire of it eventually; faster if form isn’t good.

This disengagement must be evident in the numbers logging into iFollow, unless they’ve hit upon an internet sensation, it still surprises me how passive the EFL, FA and Premier League are about getting fans back into stadiums. It’s perhaps the only facet of everyday life which hasn’t sought out a new normal. Of course, there’s an expense, but simply waiting for the virus to pass is surely not a sustainable option. Not just because of the short term impact, but the long term damage of an increasingly passive and disinterested audience which will be harder to win back when normal service is resumed.

We seem to be at a point football as a sport is satisfied with its plan; it’s always been a short termist sport, but the erosion of interest through their inaction, risks not only immediate financial hardships, but also pushing the sport to the margins of our consciousness. If this goes on much longer, the season could start to feel particularly isolating for everyone.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Charlton Athletic 1

My evolving theory about League 1 this season is that the division mostly consists of fairly average teams, of which we are one. There is a small group of marginally more competent teams who will fight for promotion. But, no one is really capable of competing in the Championship for any length of time. Is it better to know your level or fight to get into a division you’re not equipped to compete in?

Our recent run has been slightly tinged with the concern we’ve merely hit a good run of opponents at the right time – Walsall, Bradford, Wycombe and Wimbledon all look like relegation candidates and we played them one after the other, drawing with with one and sneaking past two in the last minute.

Charlton offered a different proposition; not only are they in that group of teams looking to go up, there were times in the opening minutes where they blew my theory out of the water. Perhaps they could sustain themselves at a higher level. I thought they were much better than Sunderland or Portsmouth. The fact they were unbeaten in eleven supporting that view.

Their penalty was soft, I thought, but may have done us a favour given the chaos later. It made it much harder for the referee to make big decisions on marginal calls without the game descending into a farce that would have been of his making.

There was something about the sunshine, the meaninglessness of the game from our perspective, the buoyancy of the Charlton fans and the early goal which gave that foreboding sense that we were going to collapse in the theatre of it all.

Then it all turned around. Just when we could have switched off, we resolved to show we weren’t just a makeweights in someone else’s end of season adventure. Curtis Nelson, perhaps playing his penultimate game at the Kassam, had plenty of time to watch the ball drop, but caught his volley perfectly. And then Garbutt slammed home his brilliant second.

Garbutt’s resurrection may be the story of our revival. He could easily have crumbled under the criticism of earlier in the season, he’s well paid and is not from round here so he could have just given up. Instead, he’s dragged himself back into the team, changed position and transformed. He’s now the one gee’ing up the crowd and, at Walsall, disappearing into it. Karl Robinson’s role in turning his season around can’t be ignored, either.

The second half was entertaining but barking mad – Simon Eastwood was rightly sent off although it was clearly a miscalculation rather than a deliberate attempt to cheat. His one-match ban implies that the FA agree, so it does make you wonder whether red is too harsh a punishment for a momentary mistake.

Incidentally, I’m not a fan of a team being allowed to make an immediate substitution when a goalkeeper gets sent off. Clearly it would have disadvantaged us, but I think you should have to wait until the next available stoppage before making any changes.

There was half-an-hour to hold out. I remember looking at the clock and realising that Eastwood had only been off the field for six minutes; it felt like hours had passed. They had territory and possession, and won a lot of corners, but we didn’t cave.

Eastwood’s dismissal should have signalled the end of our hopes of taking the points, but in reality, we had the better chances. In many ways it was reminiscent of our fabled win at home to Swindon in 2012 when James Constable was sent off.

Solly’s sending off was as much about Jamie Mackie’s fall as it was about a dangerous challenge. Perhaps that was more deserving of a yellow, although I thought Lapslie should have been sent off for tripping Jerome Sinclair when he was clean through. It could easily have been a goal from Garbutt, who benefitted from the advantage, with Lapslie then being sent off for the foul. Practically every decision and incident could have gone the other way; it was that good a game.

Leaving the game with adrenalin coursing through my veins once again got me thinking; in terms of sheer thrills, spills and drama; is there a team offering better value for money in the country than us right now?

Through all the mayhem, though, was a refreshing level of gamesmanship and guile. We would have been overwhelmed with less maturity. It’s something we have frequently lacked in the past. Michael Appleton prided himself on developing players, Pep Clotet on his tactical acumen, Karl Robinson’s thing is winning games at all cost. He’s more a Chris Wilder, with all the baggage that comes with that.

It was Robinson who introduced Mackie and Hanson because he knew they’d dig in. He removed Kashi to protect him from a second yellow, god help him if Josh Ruffels’ last minute chance had gone in. For all Robinson’s streams of consciousness when interviewed, he kept his head when all those around him lost theirs.

It goes without saying that Jamie Mackie led the charge with a masterful performance of pushing, being pushed and being outraged at being pushed. Cameron Brannagan showed his growing maturity being tidy and combative at the same time. The back-four protected Jack Stevens admirably, with Josh Ruffels and Sam Long both offering outlets when the chance was offered. Not that Stevens was a passenger, his scooped save being as good as anything Simon Eastwood has produced this year, in fact I’m not sure Eastwood would have the athleticism.

Every Charlton shot was met with two or three players falling over themselves to block the ball. Total commitment and discipline.

With the younger players learning from the older players, what emerges is an increasingly competent and effective unit, one capable of performing against the best in the division.

And this is what turns a team from being a League One also-ran into potential play-off or promotion candidates. It’s come too late for this season and large chunks of the squad will disappear over the summer, but if a DNA is emerging and some off-the-field stability can be established, then we can, perhaps look forward to next season with a degree of optimism.

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.

The wrap – Charlton Athletic 1 Oxford United 1

Spoiler: I’m not going to talk about Charlton or another decent point or Gavin Whyte’s wonder-strike.

Sometimes you just can’t win. The club have announced a one-off limited edition shirt for the 125th anniversary game against Shrewsbury which will retail for £75. Predictably enough, there’s been a bit of a backlash. It’s a numbered orange and black Puma shirt carrying the original Headington United badge. So far so good?

No, the shirt is from a standard template which makes it both ‘boring’ and ‘overpriced’, and therefore ‘a rip off’.

It’s one of life’s great disappointments to find that almost all football shirts are generic templates being used over and over again. What you think is yours is nothing of the sort. But, if you take a look at Oxford United’s kit history you’ll see there’s not much to work with.

If we’d had a replica of the original kit from 125 years ago, it would have been a yellow polo shirt, like you can get from Marks and Spencer and similar to our 2012/13 kit. After that, and for the best part of 30 years, we wore yellow and blue stripes, a style which sent many Oxford fans into apoplexy when it was re-introduced in 2010.

The chosen design is a nod to our late-Southern League, early-Football League days. Big Ron Atkinson and all that. What many would consider ‘olden days’, but not ‘ancient history’. For the best part of 20 years we stuck rigidly to this livery with only minor variations. Surprisingly enough we’ve never re-visited it. A plain orange shirt may appear boring, but it does represent an untapped part of our heritage.

A shirt doesn’t really mean anything until something significant happens while wearing it. Take the 1986 Milk Cup shirt – another significant design which couldn’t be replicated for the anniversary because it was rebooted in 2015. The yellow is washed out, it has a horizontal shadow stripe; and a sponsor which sounds a bit like a willy. But it was worn on our finest day, and then again in one of our finest seasons, it’s not a nice design, but it is a classic.

With no sponsor, another nod to our heritage, what is left is a plain orange shirt with an old badge on it. Exciting? Not when you distill it down like that, but that’s not really the point. The point is the club are trying to make Saturday a meaningful occasion, and something slightly different is part of it.

Which brings us to the second point – the cost. £75 is expensive for a t-shirt, no doubt. But, that’s not how pricing works. No club shirt is ever really worth it in the sense of cost versus utility (what you wear it for). You could buy a template of the Puma version for £8 and put a badge on it; in fact, someone has. But, that’s the hollow victory of a smart arse because as much as it looks like it, it’s still not the actual shirt. The shirt, plus the badge, plus the occasion, plus the limited availability gives it a value beyond its cost price. What that value is, is ultimately a bit of a punt but it still has the characteristics to be priced at a premium.

Are the club profiting unreasonably from the shirt? If they sell out the whole lot, they’ll make just under £10k. Knock off the cost of the shirts in the first place, the design of the badge and a bunch of tomfoolery around getting it produced, and you’re talking about a profit which pays the salary of a mid-ranking squad player for a month. It’s hardly profiteering.

For something to be collectable, it has to has to have ‘significance’, which is ultimately defined by the collector. If you think the shirt is over-priced and boring, then you’re probably not its target market. There are some people who absolutely love this stuff; others who are cold to it. I sit right in the middle. I could browse the Oxford United Kit History website for hours, but I can’t bring myself to spend hundreds on shirts I don’t have. I’m quite attracted by the novelty of a one-off shirt, regardless of its design. My first reaction was that I could take it or leave it, but I’m now thinking that if it’s in stock and I’ve got the money, I might get one. Am I being ripped off? Well, you could argue 40-odd years of watching mediocre football is a bigger rip-off, but that’s not really the point of supporting your club; I still do it, and so do you.

The Wrap – Charlton Athletic 2 Oxford United 3

In a round about way, I was talking to some friends about mortality on Saturday night. Specifically we were saying how we hope our children find something they can enjoy into adulthood. It’s easy to give up on things you do for no other reason than fun when life’s tedious priorities take over. We pondered whether the couple across the road, deep into their 80s, ever regret the time they’ve wasted on trivialities as they face the reality that every day could conceivably be their last. If we were more aware of our mortality, would we give up the things we love so easily?

My sister gave up singing for the best part of 30 years before joining a choir recently. Singing, which she had done at school, was trivial compared to her job, family and bills and so it simply fell off the radar. Someone suggested she might like to join a local group and it turned out that she loved it so much she realised that she’d grossly under-estimated the value of simple enjoyment.

Someone once described me as having an ‘impenetrable hobby’; she couldn’t fathom the appeal of following a football team, less so one whose normal state was best described as ‘failure’. She is entirely right on one level; supporting Oxford is an illogical nonsense, a waste of time and I should really focus on more doing more valuable things. On the other, it is the whole point of life itself.

Supporting Oxford is a golden thread, not only from childhood to adulthood, but also between different people who have chosen a similar path. We share a particularly esoteric collective consciousness built on layers of experience that means nothing to most, but everything to some. It is not life itself, but it does allow us to have a purpose, of sorts, to cling to.

To outsiders, our trip to Charlton was a meaningless Saturday afternoon fixture between two meaningless teams. But, for us there was a significance; this thing we are so invested in didn’t look good; no manager, debutants all over the pitch, three players who had been on the verge of leaving, poor form, one striker replaced by another striker who was replaced by a 18 year-old winger playing his third league game. Everything seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, which was confirmed by going first 0-1 down, and then 1-2 with a minute to go.

Then Todd Kane popped up with an equaliser and Ryan Ledson drove home his 94th minute winner,  etching himself permanently into our collective memory. Results like Saturday’s are what  bind us together. It reminded me of The Miracle of Plainmoor in 2011 when Chris Wilder made eight changes to his starting line-up and recalled Jack Midson from a loan deal days after he implied his time at the club was at an end. The result, a 4-3 away win, was little short of a miracle with Midson scoring a hat-trick. In the last minute Steve MacLean stood on the ball and saluted creating another one of those iconic moments.

I’m pleased that Ledson’s had an opportunity to make his mark on the club. Had he left for Preston, history would have judged him differently. As much as fans have warmed to him, until Saturday he didn’t a moment that defined him as an Oxford player, the 94th minute at The Valley gave him just that moment.

It seems that the club and Ledson have reached a mutually acceptable understanding of their relative roles and positions. Naturally, the club needs the player or the money, whichever it views as more valuable. Ledson will want to play at the highest level he can and earn as much as possible before he retires. It’s a precarious balance which can easily tip into one where the club are seen as enslaving the player or the player as a mercenary. Having missed out on a move, he could have skulked around until the summer, but it seems, for now, he accepts his role is to play as well as he can. Presumably, barring something hideous, he’ll leave over the summer with our best wishes.

It seems to be the case for Simon Eastwood as well, a move to Barnsley would have been ideal for him personally. However, it doesn’t seem to have troubled him that it didn’t happen. If the club can maintain stability when there is lots to destabilise it then it is in a healthier state than it appeared two weeks ago.

The contemporary model for a club is to have a robust infrastructure with a first team manager focussing on his specific first team role role. It brings more stability than when you have to transition from one Alex Ferguson all-encompassing style to another.

I hadn’t really seen it this way, but perhaps Pep Clotet tried too hard to change the ethos of the club by bringing in his own players and his own style. Team selection on Saturday suggests that Derek Fazackerley was bringing the club back to the core strategy which brought success under Michael Appleton. Personally, I’m not troubled by the speed at which we bring in a new manager given that Fazackerley is around to provide that steadying hand.