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 – Chesterfield, Birmingham City, Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town

Oxford United 1 Chesterfield 1

If this makes any sense, I remember our first game of the last season we had in League 1. The last season at The Manor, Denis Smith had a close season to forget; his attempts at re-signing many of the previous year’s crocks had failed and so, in their place, he signed an even bigger pile of crud. Things weren’t looking good.

In a season which would see finish bottom, concede 100 goals and, of course, get relegated, we opened against Peterborough at home. We dutifully applauding so many new signings that my hands hurt when we finished, though I barely knew any of them.

Though the mood and quality is somewhat different this time around, we have similarly replaced a whole team this summer. The consensus in the car was that Michael Appleton had a good summer with each new signing offering something new and exciting to the squad. The big question that hadn’t been answered in pre-season was whether he could make them gel.

Appleton kept most of his new toys hidden as Saturday’s selection smelt of, if not stability, then experience. It reminded me of our first home game back after the Conference against Bury. We’d expected to storm the division, but we got caught out by a team with more sophistication than we’d anticipated. We didn’t want the same thing to happen here and the focus on experience seemed to suggest that was at the forefront of Appleton’s mind too.

We looked solid enough, Wes Thomas is a kind of Danny Hylton character; he doesn’t make sense context of the squad in general, but looks reliable. Ribiero’s injury was a blow, but Sam Long seems to have had a growth spurt and looked completely settled in his place. The loss of Dunkley was a worry, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll be out for long.

Difficult to know whether we looked at home in League 1. Chesterfield were certainly better than most of League 2, and Swindon from last year, but not a patch on Millwall or Barnsley. With Ched Evans’ signing causing consternation and a laughable crisis involving a fake raffle to deal with, they presumably, like us, will look on mid-table security as success. If they are the benchmark for mid-table, then we should be fine and maybe should hope for more from the season.

Nobody is really expecting promotion, though it would be nice, so ticking off the points rather than storming the division is perfectly acceptable. With three away games coming up, a point is OK. Nobody wants to get to September with people pining anxiously for Hylton, Roofe, Wright, Mullins and O’Dowda.

Birmingham City 0 Oxford United 1

So, for the third year running, we delivered a League Cup giantkilling barely worth of its name. Nobody really knows what Birmingham City are; Premier League pretenders? Relegation certainties? Neither? Can we truly benchmark the result in terms of its achievement? Can we really call this a giantkilling?

City made nine changes from their opening game against Cardiff, such is the sniffiness of Championship managers towards the League Cup. They will talk about the league being a priority as if that sort of pragmatism is supposed to impress us. There are typically three trophies to play for per season (League, FA Cup and League Cup) and on average each team will win a significantly less than one of them. For most teams a couple of memorable wins is what leaves a season in the memory and the cups should offer those moments. But, the idea of glory being is lost on most managers who choose to effectively ignored the cup in order to concentrate on standing still.

I like the Appleton mentality that every game is there to be won, it plays to both the romantic notion of a football team wanting to win every game they play, but, more importantly, it creates a template in which the team learns how to win games. There are precious few players, if any, who can decide when to perform and when not so developing a habit of winning has to be an advantage. Whatever the benefits of resting players are they have to be balanced against the lost opportunity to practice winning games.

Honorable mention has to go to Liam Sercombe. The departure of Jake Wright in the summer brought an era at the club to a close. It wasn’t immediately obvious who might take the captain’s armband when the likes of Sam Long and Josh Ruffels are the longest serving members of the squad. Sercombe must have been in the running for the job.

It’s not so much that he leads by example; he just does what comes naturally with seemingly endless energy. If he’s like that at home, it must drive his fiancé mad, but it must also be completely infectious for young players at the club. If they plan to model themselves on anyone, it’s not the superstar pretentions of the Premier League, it’s the boundless enthusiasm of Liam Sercombe where they should look.

Sercombe has been in the middle of everything that’s been good about the club over year or so, his goal against Birmingham was another chapter in a stellar Oxford career.

Bristol Rovers 2 Oxford United 1

… And just as Sam Long and Liam Sercombe emerge as heroes of the first week, they conspire to make a significant contribution to our first defeat of the season. Brilliant.

The response has been, as you might expect, completely binary. From the innate confidence of promotion to the abject failure of defeat. We are in trouble, or perhaps not.

Frankly, who knows at this stage? I don’t, and nor do you.

Rovers are a bit of a benchmark for us, we’ve always competed at roughly the same level, so a defeat probably feels like we’re falling below a perceived watermark. However, they held onto their core squad and star striker, and we didn’t. So they’ve started the season a bit more established, whereas we’re likely to evolve into it.

Talking of strikers, the good news is that Kane Hemmings got off the mark, which is important despite the result. The figures may be moderate in wider footballing terms, but transfer fees are an unequivocal measure of perceived quality. Goals are an unequivocal measure of the return on that investment. As a striker that brings a pressure that other players won’t feel. If the goals don’t come, then everyone gets restless and the pressure builds. Dealing with that pressure takes a special mindset.

If the goals do come then the pressure goes away. A few more goals in the coming weeks and another jigsaw puzzle will be slotting into place.

It’s been an OK week, and not one that should have been wholly unexpected. One win, one draw, one defeat; fairly predictable. It could have been any order. We were always likely to start more slowly than last year and it was always likely to be a bit harder. This is no time to jump to any conclusions.

Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0  

Some people seem to suggest that our defeat to Fleetwood is a sign of impending crisis. That’s two defeats in a row, meaning we’ve taken only a point from three games, time to panic.

But, in every sense, it is too early to tell whether this is how our season will pan out. It is only our third league game, we’ve only had one game at home, and, lest we forget, we are playing in a higher league. This seems to be one of our problems; we’re ‘only’ playing Fleetwood, a team that we ‘should’ be beating. But we forget that while they don’t have any heritage at this level, the team is there on merit and by definition they, like everyone else in the division, are going to be harder to defeat than  the teams we faced last year.

When will we know our direction of travel? Looking at the fixtures, I don’t think we’ll have a clear picture until October at the earliest. The early season is fraught with difficulties,  MK Dons, Sheffield United and Bolton away, Swindon at home. Things look more settled into October, but it’s not until January that we start to play batches of teams more like us. We might need to be patient, while the team find their feet.

Perspective and cool heads are needed right now, as Michael Appleton says, it’s time to focus on the basics. That said, with Brighton next Tuesday and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United away the following Saturday, a nerve settling result over Peterborough will do everyone the power of good this weekend.

The blame game

On the pitch, off the pitch, in the stand or in the board room; apportioning blame when things go wrong seems to be a natural instinct. Just how much further forward does that ever get us?

Recently, Matt Murphy came to the Kassam as a returning legend. I can’t have been the only long-standing fan to suffer some cognisant dissonance resulting from the idea of Murphy being a labelled a legend, a confusion which was compounded by his interview on Yellow Player; where he came across as a genuinely lovely bloke.

The thing is, during the mid-90s Matt Murphy was the London Road’s boo-boy. Every team needs one, they’re a counter balance to the ‘star player’, serving an equal and opposite purpose. With the inevitable fluctuations in team performances, you need someone to constantly love – a star player. This justifies your otherwise illogical devotion to something which is more likely to fail than succeed. Similarly, you need someone to constantly dislike to give you someone to vent your frustrations at. You need his constant because most players are good sometimes and awful at others; you don’t want to appear like a reactionary nut job or undermine any previous absolute statements you’ve previously made about players.

The boo-boy is a constant, a punchbag. It acts like a pressure valve. In the immediate aftermath of our promotion from the Conference, and we were hidebound by that success. A moderate start to life back in the Football League left us in a position of seeking the root of our problem without being afforded the luxury of being able to criticise any of the players who had only a few weeks earlier performed heroically in our name.

It happens at every team; even at Manchester United during periods where silverware was almost guaranteed every year (I’m not kidding, ask your parents, kids). Ryan Giggs became a focus for criticism for those at Old Trafford. To everyone else the greatest player of his generation and one of the all-time greatest British players was a United boo boy because he didn’t tackle like Keane, pass like Scholes, cross like Beckham or score goals like Gary Neville. It wasn’t Giggs they were criticising, it was the collective need to have someone to beat up when things didn’t go well.

Most people will agree the Murphy was very much like Giggs in so many ways. He is the club’s 5th top scorer and played during a period of comparative success. But at the time he was the focus of almost constant criticism.

Deane Smalley is the Matt Murphy for the current age; it seems we have risen as one and decreed him to be useless. Rather like Murphy, the facts tend not to back up the perception. It ignores that Smalley is our most prolific goalscorer this season. It ignores that this is precisely what Smalley is; a goalscorer. It ignores that Smalley, the most prolific goalscorer in the team is being played woefully out of position or at least being slotted in wherever there happens to be a gap.

It beggars belief that Lewis and Melville worked alongside Chris Wilder for over five years and yet seemed to have learnt precisely nothing of their squad or how best to deploy them. Instead, we’ve been treated to Smalley and James Constable playing on the wing with no apparent game plan as to how their particular strengths might be used from that position. Constable, of course, enjoys the immunity that Smalley doesn’t.

Standing amongst the bodies in the immediate aftermath of the 0-3 defeat to Chesterfield, Nick Harris joined the chorus of those claiming that it was no longer acceptable to wait to get the right man in, now was time to get anyone in. Even Jerome Sale, who is usually a rare voice of reason tabled the idea that the only solution now was to get someone like Martin Allen. Now amidst the shock and desolation of a three goal defeat with two men sent off and your best player stretchered off, perhaps rationality was in short supply, but this is the equivalent of deploying ground to air missiles to frighten off the cat that’s been crapping on your flowerbeds.

Yes, there is no doubt that the appointment of the new manager has taken too long. However, panic is not the option right now. It is easy to blame Ian Lenagan, and without doubt the longer it goes on the greater the pressure to make the right decision. But blame is such a destructive quality; blame is something you assign to something or someone at the end of something. But like many things – particularly running football clubs – nothing has come to an end; so if you blame Ian Lenagan, how much further forward has that taken you? Has it put an effective manager in place? No.

The reality is that Lenagan was left in a bind; the mood of the fans was against Chris Wilder and our post-Christmas form was patchy, had he offered him a contract extension then there would hardly have been universal approval. However, sacking him didn’t make sense given that we were in the automatic promotion places. Perhaps he shouldn’t have given him the extension at the beginning of the season; but then what would this season have looked like?

So in a sense Lenagan was in no-mans land and when Wilder eventually found the exit door. It might have been reasonable to assume that Lewis and Melville along with a squad of experienced players might have kept themselves going for a bit. But, instead they have failed Lenagan miserably by simply falling apart. But even with that established, what is the point of laying blame and panicking? The problem, after Chesterfield is the same problem as before it.

History, they say, is a constant process of people clearing up their mistakes. So, wherever the club has got to, there’s no point in kicking through the ashes of recent weeks in order to find out where it all went wrong. Whatever state we find ourselves in, we’ve still got the same players we had before this mess occurred. We don’t need wholsale change or destructive revolution, but we do need a manager. Someone able to provide some structure and discipline to the squad; once that’s been established, then the players should still be able to see us through to the play-offs.

From a field in Chester to Chesterfield

It’s not often I wake up on the morning of a game not knowing whether I was going or not. On Saturday I was 175 miles from the Kassam Stadium; the race against time that followed made me consider a rarely discussed element of the game; being late and missing games.

 I can easily get poetic about motorways and football. Football is the heartbeat of the country, fans are its lifeblood and motorways are the arteries. At risk of descending into Partridge-like parody, there’s an expectant thrill about motorway service stations at lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon.

There is something special about seeing a procession of overweight men in claret and blue shirts filing their way into the gents. As they pass, you focus on the badge nestling on the crest of their right moob. West Ham? Burnley? No… it’s… Scunthorpe! Then you have to scramble to find where they’re off to that afternoon. You check their result at full-time and then they dissolve back into being just another club that isn’t yours.

On Saturday, I was in Chester with work. A field in Chester before Chesterfield, I quipped. I’d known about this clash the day the fixtures came out in June. You often hear about people who can’t make particular games, but this doesn’t reveal the personal crisis that comes with the realisation that you’re missing a game. It’s not so much the fear of missing something brilliant, more the anxiety related to breaking a routine.

Usually, if I’m missing a game, I’m missing it. If I’m going, then I’m going. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to handle this one. The time at which I left was only partly in my control. But I have some emotional intelligence and that told me that jetting too early wasn’t going to pay dividends with my colleagues.

In the end I took a risk based approach, the most likely scenarios were that I left on time and missed the game, or I wriggled out early, pissed a few people off, and still missed the game. Given that the most likely scenarios involved missing the game; I figured I was better leaving at a time that minimised any discord with my colleagues.

I’ve missed games before; in 2004 I sat in traffic on the edge of Milton Keynes at 2.15pm knowing that I wasn’t going make our opening day fixture at Boston. Nine years earlier I went to St Andrews with my mate Pete for a potential title decider against Birmingham. We got stuck in traffic and couldn’t park. In a rush I got out of the car pushed the button on the door to lock it and slammed it shut. Just as I heard Pete slam the door on the other side I realised that I hadn’t taken the keys out of the ignition. We were locked out. For a moment I contemplated taking a risk and just head for the ground; the key issue could wait. We were passed by some kids who asked if we wanted them to ‘look after’ the car. We were naive, but not lobotomised, so we declined. We found a rough local pub, full, but silent apart from the radio blaring out the game (we conceded while I borrowed their phone).

By the time the RAC got the key out it was getting beyond half time and David Rush missed a penalty. Into the second half we were circumnavigating the ground trying to get in. We’d sold out our end so we had to get in somewhere else. The only tickets available we’re getting ridiculously expensive; especially for less than half a game that we were losing. I’d lost all sense of perspective, it was like I was trying fruitlessly to revitalise a dying dog while Pete tugged at my arm trying to persuade me it was over and that I should ‘just leave it’.

We drove home listening to the final moments of the game, which doubled up as their promotion party.

As well as missing games I’ve also travelled long distances for games. I was in Boston, Massachusetts 12 hours before our 2-1 win over Bury at the Manor in 2002. In 1998 I drove down from the west coast of Scotland for a game with Wolves.

On Saturday, I got away on time and plugged OX4 into the Sat Nav. It predicted my arrival as 3.30pm. I could eat into that, I thought, if I didn’t stop. But I did consider what is the latest time that it’s reasonable to turn up to a game?

I’d turned up late to games before, of course, who hasn’t? In 1994, coming back from university, I arrived late for our cup game against Chelsea. I arrived at the top of steps on the London Road terrace only to find myself tumbling down to the front as Joey Beauchamp poked the ball home to give us a 1-0 lead.

But that was a terrace, and you can merge your way anonymously into the stand at almost any time. With seating its different, people need to get out of the way. I was late for our relegation decider against Leyton Orient in 2006. My daughter was born at 9am that morning. Having spent the night weaning myself off the idea that I was going to go, we eventually realised at about 11am that there was little form me to do but to go. By time time I got out of the hospital (smashing a wing mirror off a parked car in the process), and got across Oxford it was gone 3pm. Nobody noticed and I didn’t care, everyone was preoccupied by events on the pitch.

Back in Chester, things weren’t going well. I’d been on the road for nearly an hour and had shaved off about 2 minutes from my ETA. The Worksop Town supporters’ trust coach went passed (3-2 win away at Nantwich). Football was starting to happen. Rationality was beginning to take hold of the situation. I was getting hungry, I couldn’t stop if I wanted to get back to Oxford. That meant missing out on lunch. On expenses. Which was not so much a luxury as a missed opportunity. I passed a service station and decided that if I hadn’t brought the ETA down significantly by the next services (12 miles away) I was giving up.

Reader, I failed.

I stopped, bought food, and set off again. I still hadn’t mentally discharged the idea of making the game. I was still calculating the average speed I’d need to make it, I was in Stafford and I was due to arrive at 4pm.

Birmingham killed me, of course. I passed Walsall (1-1 v Rotherham), you can see the the top of the main stand at the  Bescott just off the M42. It was reassuringly sparsely populated. Then I slowed at the alter of traffic congestion; the RAC building. My next goal was to get into Radio Oxford’s range, it became bearable to listen to around 64 miles out. Not before Radio 5 Live described our game as the ‘hottest ticket in League 2’. Deaf to the withering qualifier ‘in League 2’ I felt a pang of jealousy. I was amongst normal people, counting down the miles to get home.

I’ve now missed two home games; I’ve only seen two of our eight matches this season. Both were underwhelming draws, meanwhile we’ve had our best start for years. Is this a season in which I’m simply destined to chase, and ultimately fail, our successes? Is this an analogy?

Entering an age of darkness

The defeat to Chesterfield felt so typical of this season. The moment that you think we’re about to break out of the fug and grab an unlikely play-off spot, we meekly throw away three points to a team with a terrible away record. Is this familiar cycle a sign that we’re entering a dark age?

Before Saturday’s game against Chesterfield, I found myself in a conversation about the state of modern football. One of those discussions where the game’s rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. That there are too many foreign owners ploughing money into teams that skew the competition. One said that teams could no longer make it through the divisions into the top flight like Watford, Oxford and Wimbledon did back in the 1980s. The words ‘Swansea City’ or even ‘Stoke City’ popped into my head, but I suppressed my urge to correct him and nodded in agreement.

We do that. Agree with things that we don’t actually agree with. We conform to norms and patterns. It’s a survival technique, it prevents us from being outcasts. Take the incident with Nathan Smith on Saturday, for example. He was barely able to run when Damian Batt was powering down the line readying himself for a cross into the box. Somehow Smith managed to get into a position where the ball cannoned off him for a corner. Finally, he goes down and Oxford fans are apoplectic. The collective view was that he grounded himself pretending to be hurt by the ball hitting him.

After treatment, he hobbled back to the halfway line before dropping, again, to the floor. More boos. Deane Smalley tries to roll him off the pitch and a scuffle ensued. Smith goes off, genuinely injured. And yet, Oxford fans can’t bring themselves to give him the benefit of the doubt, or to criticise Smalley’s ill-advised actions. All along I sit in silence, accepting the views of the masses.

That ‘do what we want’ song rang out when Chesterfield scored. It’s a horrible song, but it’s sung every week. It’s just part of the pattern of a matchday. It’s rare to hear an original club song or something which is genuinely funny or original. The pattern of the game, the day, stays the same from week to week. The routine of an Oxford matchday clicks by. Those who come for excitement and thrills have given up, others will inevitably do so soon, it’s not a protest against the current owners or managers, it’s just the product of the boredom of the current routine.

So much of this season reminds me of the club that I started seeing in the early 80s. It was a complete anathema to what I’d come to understand as what football was. Football on TV, in Roy of the Rovers and on my subbuteo pitch was full of glory and cups and goals. Seething crowds banked on terraces, tumbling down with unbridled joy when you star striker scored. In reality Oxford United in the early 80s was full of people moaning. The stands were sparse, the routines set in stone. The club never really got into relegation trouble, nor troubled the promotion places. The sense of helplessness at the endless drift was palpable.

Nowadays, James Constable is Peter Foley, Jake Wright is early 80s Malcolm Shotton. Good players, players who we can be fond of, but no John Aldridge or Matt Elliot. They’re players who are likely to jettison us forward. The others are Tim Smithers, or Mark Jones, or John Doyle. Never heard of them? Exactly.

Those who think that firing Chris Wilder is the solution to this misunderstands the problem. I’m fairly certain that Wilder is not about to take us to the Premier League and firing him might freshen things up a bit but I think most people agree that the immediate future is all but mapped out with or without him. We’re set to miss out on the play-offs, season ticket sales will fall and lots and lots of players will leave. Next season will probably be the same as this. And the season after that, and the season after that.

These are football’s hard miles, unrewarding drudgery, and it could go on for a while without either us finding a genius manager who can outperform within the constraints around us, or new and significant investment which will make good managers great. Granted, that’s always a possibility, but the chances remain remote.

A small core of fans may remain to tough it out; and one of these days we’ll be at Wembley, or a title clinching home game, or one of the country’s biggest grounds and we’ll have a sesnse of something we can’t quite put our fingers on that others won’t be able to feel. We’ll have games like Chesterfield, forgotten over the passing of time, deep in our muscle memory.

But, time has run out, the post-promotion glow has wained, Ian Lenegan’s ability to fund rapid growth is coming to an end. There are some signs in the youth set up, that a golden age of Oxford-based youngsters could be the solution, but that’s what they said about Darren Patterson’s youth team of the early 2000s.We may even be seeing a slight tilt towards the ladies game; it’s not unheard of, for a period the best football team in Doncaster were the fabled Doncaster Belles, not the broken Rovers.

But, there is nothing glorious about supporting us through these grey days. It’s self-harm, a cry for help, but help never comes, nobody cares. There is no one person or thing that has caused it. We were going to stall sooner or later; there’s only so much forward momentum we can muster from our promotion from the Conference, or from us as ‘the great’ Oxford United.

Perhaps the only people we can look at to change is us; bring back the flags, bring back the songs, bring back the unbridled positive support. Who knows, it may drag us out of the darkness quicker than waiting for a knight in shining armour to do it for us. 

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.

Yellows 0 Chesterfield 0, Barnet 2 Yellows 2

There’s a point in every season when I find myself building short-term allegiances to teams all over the country. As games become more like shoot-outs, I become a passive consumer rather than a fan. Like one of those people who believe that football means more when there’s money on it.

I’m becoming more interested in Schalke, for example. I’d like to see Uncle Avram save West Ham (although I’d also like to see Wolves stay up and I’m not going to get both). Anyone who prevents Manchester City or Chelsea from winning things gets my vote as they are the devil incarnet. Should either win the Champions League then football will end because it will finally prove the hypothesis that you can buy success.

The noise that greeted Notts County’s winner against Swindon towards the end of our draw with Chesterfield proved I’m not alone. It helps, of course, that our season is over, and that our interests can move elsewhere. The Chesterfield game was an attractive spectacle, but if they had a bit more to play for, if we did too, if it was a little less hot, if it wasn’t at the arse-end of a long season, then it would have been a more memorable and meaningful fixture. As entertaining as it was, in an ‘if’ season, this was the ultimate ‘if’ fixture, League 2 football described through the medium of dance.

I’m a sucker for the underdog, and love a good “miracle escape” so Monday’s Barnet fixture left me in a bit of a quandary. Barnet, I’d generally consider to be a rather meaningless club, but now they are in the crap I’d quite like them to survive especially with the Deering/Midson connection. 3 points for them would have been gold dust, 3 for us would have no value at all. A small piece of me didn’t have a problem with them winning. Perhaps we could have written it off as a charitable donation. In the end, I suppose a draw was about right.