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.

The wrap – Bristol Rovers and Charlton

Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 1
You’ll often hear people talking about us having aspirations to reach the Championship. It’s where we belong, what we deserve. Looking objectively, most teams feel that their rightful level is slightly above that which they’re likely to achieve. Tottenham have aspirations of winning the Champions League, Nottingham Forest of being a Premier League club, Eastleigh of making the Football League. As an outsider to those clubs, most people will argue that they might want to bring it down a peg or two.

Typically in order to break out of your natural position, something extraordinary has to happen – for example, Salford’s investment by the Peter Lim or Manchester City’s takeover by Sheik Mansour. For most clubs, this will never happen, and so, in the main, your normal level is one below where you’d like to be.

Where you believe our natural level is may be defined by your age. If you’re an Oxford fan in your forties, for example, you’ll have seen us in the Championship and can envisage us being back there. Maybe if you’re in your 20s, your formative experiences have been of the Conference and League 2, and League 1 might represent us punching at a level above our natural weight.

But, if you want to benchmark our progress, then look to teams like Bristol Rovers. In the last 30 years we’ve been in the same division 18 times, and only two divisions apart on five occasions. Rovers represent a kind of parallel us, if we perform better than them, then we’re ahead of ‘normal’ us, perform worse then we’re behind where we should be. Like the football equivalent of a tracker mortgage.

So, the win on Saturday was another tick in the box of progress. We are outperforming our norm, not conclusively so, but as a one-off test. The result has us back among teams who genuinely might  aspire to be in the Championship next season. The next three games, against Charlton, Rotherham and Fleetwood should go a long way to confirm whether we’re slightly ahead of the norm, or genuinely pushing up to where we feel we deserve to be.

Oxford United 1 Charlton 1
When the news came through that Craig Shakespeare had been sacked by Leicester, I searched my soul for a reaction to the news that Michael Appleton’s job was suddenly under threat. The thing was I couldn’t find anything.

It’s not that I don’t feel sympathy for him, he’s found himself, once again, at the helm of a listless ship, one which has had three managers in three seasons, each has delivered a miracle of sorts (Nigel Pearson avoiding relegation, Claudio Ranieri winning the title and Craig Shakespeare taking them to the Champions League quarter final). Each has been sacked within months by unforgiving owners. You can’t not feel some sympathy for Appleton’s predicament given his experiences at Portsmouth, Blackburn and Blackpool.

And if I was forced to watch only one season for the rest of my life, it would be our promotion season in 2015/16. Chances are we will never experience the likes again. We should be eternally grateful for that and for Michael Appleton dragging us out of the dark ages.

But, could Michael Appleton sustain what he did at Oxford for much longer than he did? Finding players for a pittance and selling them on for millions, while still building the club and moving it forward? Last year did feel like we were reaching the peak of our potential, that had we been promoted to the Championship, that it would have been a step too far and that we were performing on the edges of what we could hope to achieve.

In truth, I doubt it we could have kept going in this way. Initially, I felt his departure was a significant blow, but while it was sad to see him go and bring to a close a particularly exciting era, now I’m not as sure. With hindsight, maybe Oxford didn’t need Appleton as much as Appleton needed Oxford.

Under Pep Clotet we’re beginning to look more robust, more at home against those we aspire to finish above. Charlton, like Bradford, looked a very good team and we comfortably competed with them. But, not only do we now have a settled team and clear options coming from the bench, there is more depth in the squad. Under Michael Appleton we relied heavily on youthful exuberance and talent, now we have John Mousinho, James Henry, Wes Thomas, Simon Eastwood and others; all have the experience to manage and think through games in a way we haven’t been able to previously.

We also have a steel that we haven’t seen before. Last season, and earlier this, we were being bullied out of games, but Tuesday was intense, blood and thunder with not an inch given, and yet we competed and beyond that, we thrived.

It is possible to want two competing things simultaneously; I would love to relive the Appleton era and by extension I hope that he does well, but I think we’ve moved on and, if we haven’t reached it yet, we are moving into a better place under the new management.
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Charlton and Chesterfield wraps – Charlton Athletic 0 Oxford United 1, Chesterfield 0 Oxford United 4

Hidden within the guts and glory of our FA Cup defeat was an uncomfortable truth; we were suddenly on a losing streak. Not only that, we were facing three more away games and, therefore, weren’t that far away from finding ourselves in a slump.

This wasn’t exactly new, last year between 10th January and 2nd February we played six games four of which were cup games. We beat Swansea and Millwall – both memorable results – but then lost to Millwall and then to Blackburn. In addition, we fell to a painful league defeat to Bristol Rovers. We then lost two home games on the bounce for the first time, both to promotion rivals. By the end of February we’d accumulated a giant-killing and booked a Wembley appearance but we were on the brink of physical and mental exhaustion that threatened to derail the whole season.

The year was stabilised by the most unlikely player – Jordan Bowery. Bowery scored in five consecutive league wins from late-January to the end of February. When the story of that promotion season is written Bowery will get little more than a few paragraphs, but he was crucial in helping set up the run-in and promotion.

The stakes aren’t quite as high this year – I don’t think anyone is expecting promotion – but we didn’t want the season to fizzle out. Wins against Charlton and Chesterfield leave us just four points from the play-offs. Conor McAnely, who has looked a little lost in his cameos at home, has suddenly changed the whole complexion of the season. It’s possible that McAnely will become this year’s Jordan Bowery scoring key stabilising goals at a crucial time. Maybe he’ll even become this year’s Kemar Roofe, who knows?

That said, it’s debatable as to whether a charge for the play-offs is truly desirable. With games in hand, the play-offs are in our hands, but it’s questionable just how ready we are as a club to play Championship football. Any run-in involving the play-offs – whether it ends in success or failure – will be hugely intense. It will mean the club will have played something like 120 games – including many many big ones – in two years. Great for the fans, exhausting for people like Liam Sercombe and John Lundstram and maybe even Michael Appleton. If we did manage to get promoted, we will suddenly be presented with a whole new world to deal with, are we really ready?

Another year and a lot of this year’s squad will be reaching their physical maturity and maybe even the stadium issue will be sorted out and so we will be much better position to deal with any new challenge. Dilemmas around a promotion charge are a nice problem to have but, perhaps, it’s a bridge too far at the moment?

Weekly wrap – Oxford United 1 Charlton Athletic 1, Southend United 2 Oxford United 1


Manchester is a curious place. As a result of its rebuilding following the bombing in 1996, the centre is typical of a modern, prosperous city full of cafes and bars and high end shops.
But, drive a short distance in any direction it appears to be surrounded by a ring of depravation. The roads become rutted, the houses look run down, there are shops clinging to dear life and people wandering around who look desperate. Less claustrophobic than London, you can see the stratification; the centre, the depravation, then places like Media City, Old Trafford, the Etihad and the Trafford Centre punctuating the skyline. Suddenly, you’re in the countryside and we’re back into prosperity again. As a result, it is very difficult to work out whether Manchester is thriving, struggling or whether it simply has a unique culture all of its own.
League 1 is much the same, last week we were at MK Dons, on Saturday it was Charlton, next is Bolton Wanderers. All teams with large stadiums and fans, and in the case of Charlton and Bolton, bigger reputations. But all three are on a downward trajectory.
And yet, League 1 remains ‘lower leagues’ like a big team graveyard. Next month we play Coventry, 1987 FA Cup winners playing in a stadium with over 32,500 seats, but they haven’t finished in the top six of any division for 46 years. It looks very likely they will be playing League 2 football next year; a big team with an abject history; very League 1.
In such a situation it is difficult to know quite where we fit. Before the game against Charlton, radio played a clip of the last time we beat them fourteen years ago. Jefferson Louis scored the decisive penalty in a League Cup shoot-out. Jerome Sale makes a comment about Louis having been in prison and earning £90 a week. Charlton, at the time, were the envy of most teams; successful, but grounded. The difference between us and them was obvious, now less so.
On Saturday we were pretty evenly matched. Their penalty looked far less controversial than the radio seemed to imply afterwards. The impact of Kane Hemmings was encouraging given that he has looked under-powered this season. I’m not sure, however, if people appreciate the role that Ryan Taylor made in softening up their defence to allow the game to open up a bit more when he went off. As usual, the phone-in simplified the issue – Hemmings should play in place of Taylor because he looked a goal threat and Taylor didn’t. It’s not a wholly unfair point, but I think Hemmings is a threat, in part, because Taylor did a lot of groundwork for him.
Tuesday, and Southend, came very suddenly and Edwards got grabby again. He must be a nightmare on a packed dancefloor – all hands. People have started talking about Southend being a bogey team and a curse, which is, of course, completely irrational. The main issue is that if you begin to believe it, then the likely response is not to re-focus and go again, but to believe that there is some sort of higher power at work and give up.

It all comes back to mind set – League 1, like Manchester, is probably best not compared to other places, but simply that it is a netherworld in itself. We will face a whole range of teams; big ones heading downwards, small ones heading up and others simply stuck in the division’s orbit. It is what it is, and we are what we are, the more we become comfortable with that idea, the more successful we’re likely to be.