Match wrap: Oxford United v Crewe Alexandra (Postponed)

I once read that Twitter is at its best during the first few minutes of a breaking story, and at its worst over the next few days. And so it was on Saturday when it broke that Oxford’s game against Crewe had been called off. 

In typical Twitter style, the timeline of events was still being established when the accusations, recriminations and resolutions started swamping the facts. So, let’s try and establish what happened first…

As far as I can tell, Crewe midfielder Ryan Wintle felt unwell during an EFL Trophy game against Newcastle Under 21s on Tuesday and went for a CoVid test, which came back positive. Defender Omar Beckles, who wasn’t showing symptoms, also got a test privately because he has a baby, which Crewe didn’t know about (the test, not the baby).

On Friday, Wintle didn’t travel to Oxford but Beckles did. On Saturday morning, Beckles’ test result came back positive. Knowing this, Crewe travelled to the stadium with the intention of playing the game, told Oxford about the positive test, which had already filtered through to the Kassam. Oxford then raised their concerns. After a lengthy discussion, including perhaps who would take the blame and therefore possible sanctions, Crewe said they were unable to fulfil the fixture.

Let’s break it down, fair enough that Wintle and Beckles got tests, and I hope both recover well. Crewe knew about Wintle which should have put them on high alert. Even if they weren’t able to provide tests themselves, it’s surely sensible to tell the players to report any symptoms or tests they may get privately.

Then there’s the attitude towards Beckles’ test. A friend once had a cancer scare when they found a lump and went to the doctor. They were alarmed when it was referred to the hospital as ‘suspected cancer’. This wasn’t because they had cancer (they didn’t), but because they couldn’t rule it out. So, they were put on the first step in cancer treatment, which is to find out if you have cancer. I know of a similar process at a local primary school, any Covid symptoms are considered a suspected case, the child isolates and gets a test. The assumption is that they have the virus until proven otherwise.

Crewe seem to have taken the attitude that a test is a precaution, but not a possible case. Which is admirable positive thinking, but boneheaded. Beckles seemed to assume that the test would come back negative because he was asymptomatic. Which is the opposite of what he should think. 

I’ve got some sympathy for him; he has no symptoms, a job, a family and isn’t likely to be high risk. Being stuck in the house with a baby would be no fun and he’s only just arrived at Crewe, so will still be establishing himself. 

But more than this, there is plenty of noise out there trying to downplay the existence CoVid and its impact. There’s a significant but growing minority of people who choose to trivialise it. No scientist knows what a second wave might look like – it might be a fraction of the first wave, it might be ten times bigger. There are still so many unknowns about the first wave – there have been 467,000 cases in the UK and 42,000 deaths – a ratio of 1 in 11. But 70,000 more people have died this year than in the last five, if that’s not CoVid related, then what is it? There are likely to have been more cases, and you’re much less likely to die than the official ratio suggests. There’s the question of dying with and dying of CoVid and who is vulnerable – people with underlying health conditions are not necessarily people who would die anyway, as some might choose the believe. Plus there’s the fact dying is only one consequence, there are unknown long term impacts, there’s pressure on services in the event of large cases. The truth is that nobody really knows and now is not the time to speculate. Until we know, people should assume the worst and be cautious. Beckles and others shouldn’t feel the need to hide their concerns. In fact, they should be praised for going for the test. 

But it goes further, Crewe travelled with Beckles on the team bus and stayed in a hotel, then travelled to the stadium to tell Oxford what had happened. Crewe manager David Artell’s response was nothing short of staggering: 

“We were prepared to play, Oxford probably quite rightly said we don’t want to expose our players to that, which is fully understandable. Let’s be honest, it’s fully understandable because they don’t know how many are infected on our bus because the infected player came down with us last night. All stayed in separate rooms. We’ll be tested Monday, whenever the test kits come to us to ascertain the extent of the spread, if there is actually a spread.” 

There are three potential explanations for this; the first is that David Artell is an imbecile. He incriminates himself, shows casual disregard of the impact of what he’s done, implies that Oxford are unnecessarily cautious. He even goes on to try and take credit for revealing the case, saying that he could have kept it quiet, but didn’t want to weaken us, which is good of him.

The second is that Artell knows he’s made a grave error in travelling to the ground, is trying to play it down and is just doing it really badly.

And finally, it’s possible that Artell is fully aware of what has happened but is simply the victim of the culture he’s in – a lack of openness in his squad, a lack of transparency, trust and proper priorities in his club, a lack of testing, leadership and accountability from the EFL, government or PFA. He’s just a victim of the world around him, as we all are, but he’s the one who has to face the press.

There was a lot of talk about testing regimes immediately afterwards and how all players and staff should be tested regularly. While that’s the ideal and should be the aim, it’s costly and complicated. Even if it isn’t in place now, then we should be working towards it.

But, in the absence of testing, there’s another key element to all this. Karl Robinson described Oxford’s approach to CoVid and how several key players nearly didn’t play against Accrington because of concerns. Players like James Henry, Elliot Moore, Sam Long and Cameron Brannagan absented themselves from the club for a few days when they thought they might be a risk. 

You could take the view that the club are too cautious, they believe the negative hype, they are too soft. 

But actually, it’s the openness and trust that exists within the club that sings out. It costs nothing to build that culture but takes a lot of effort, Karl Robinson has invested himself heavily to create that culture ever since he arrived at the club. As a result their response to the pandemic has been nothing short of exemplary. To use a favourite Robinson phrase, we should be ‘hugely proud’ that those standards didn’t drop under pressure from a club whose standards fall some way short of that. It should reinforce the benefits of openness. It’s not just a lesson other clubs could learn, maintaining those standards and treating this thing more seriously is something we could all benefit from. 

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Captain Contagious

Saturday 19 September 2020

Oxford succumbed to their second defeat of the season on Saturday, this time to doe-eyed cash puppy Stewart Donald’s Premier League giants Sunderland. The mood was lifted by the presence of a transit van full of coronavirus spores peeking over the fence end of the stadium. Oxford gifted the Mackems two goals and three points, while they gifted us six weeks on a ventilator and a couple of dead grandparents.

Sunday 20 September 2020

It seems like Ryan Ledson is coming of age after he ditched choir practice and Scouts to focus on his football career. Preston fans have been reacting to his man of the match performance against Norwich on Saturday. Surprisingly reactions didn’t include ‘Ooh, that’s a bit late.’, ‘He’ll be lucky to get away with a yellow for that.’ and ‘There’s no need to lunge in there’. 

Monday 21 September 2020

We all know how careful and considered KRob is with his public comments. He’s adamant that he’s going to hold back from publicly criticising the players after Saturday’s defeat to Sunderland. “Some of the stuff in [the second half] was atrocious – that’s as bad a performance in the second half as I’ve seen.” he said, publicly, about the players, two days ago.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Failing to track and trace? Avoiding close contact with others? Getting paid for doing no work? Coronavirus is just a few under-hit back-passes away from being a parallel of Dwight Tiendelli’s Oxford United career. The crisis continues to cast a shadow over the game after a surge in cases in recent days. Thankfully, the country is ready to act and not do anything stupid like drive hundreds of miles to stand on a transit van. As a result, Boris Johnson has announced that he’s paused the programme to allow fans back into stadiums in October. It’s OK, Johnson is a big football fan, and a season ticket holder at Premier League London Park Rovers or something. He truly lives the wholesome values that has seen English football become the envy of the world; cheating their way to domination, cynically loading the cards in their favour and exploiting access to illicit foreign money from Russian oligarchs. 

Wednesday 23 September 2020

After a brief career as a viral social media meme, Luke Garbutt is back in football. The man that Carlo Ancelotti calls ‘who?’ is heading for the country’s chlamydia capital, Blackpool. The threat of catching a virus in Blackpool is much like any other town in the country these days, except in other towns it doesn’t involve a bucket of flaming sambuca and a candy floss seller called Doreen. 

Thursday 24 September 2020

It’s back! The Seven Minute Fans’ Forum was on the radio with Tiger. Speaking from his home in Thailand, Tiger assured fans that he’s able to fund the club as it hemorrhages money throughout the current crisis. Naturally, one fan thinks he’s got his priorities wrong and that attention should be focussed on the stadiumsituation and in particular building a fourth stand for nobody to sit in.

Friday 25 September 2020

Oxford revealed their new fancy third kit following the launch of their yellow home kit and the away kit whose official colour is known as Cynically Close to Yellow, Orange. The white shirt sees the return of the sublimated flux design that featured on last year’s home shirt. This was after there was a huge demand from fans wanting to know what a sublimated flux is. The new kit will debut on Saturday at Accrington due to the home side’s not in any way a clash with yellow, red home shirt.

Midweek fixture: 6 steps to surviving a pandemic as an Oxford fan

The government has paused its programme to return fans to stadiums pretty much wiping out the prospect of going to a game in October, and let’s face it, for some time beyond that. There are all sorts of implications for this, not least financial. But, in addition, it’s clearly a blow to the mental and social wellbeing of the club and those within it. Fans, players, owners and managers alike have been skittled by the news. While I can’t claim to have all this figured out, here are some ideas for dealing with the next few months as an Oxford fan.

Accept where you are 

When Chris Wilder criticised Oxford fans for romanticising the Milk Cup win in 1986 some thirty years earlier, he was slated by all who heard him. He was also right. We were a Conference team, our standards had slipped and the sooner we understood that, the sooner we’d sort the problem out. Epidemics are not unusual, nor pandemics; they’ve been less widespread – as with MERS, or more deadly as with Spanish flu, but they’re really quite common and most generations will have to deal with one. The faster you accept it and take action, the quicker it’s over. You can fight the reality by looking for data to prove what you want – that this is some kind of trivial seasonal flu or a government conspiracy. You can find research that proves masks are useless or damaging. But, this where we are, at nature’s behest until science comes to our rescue. A story as old as time. As an Oxford fan it means the prospect of empty stadiums and streaming services for months to come, it’s not like it was, it’s not like it will be, but it is like it is today. A friend of mine once taught me a trick about cycling up a steep hill – there is a point where you drop to your lowest gear and the bike can’t help anymore, for a while it’s going to be painful, but not forever. Accept it, then get pedalling.

Don’t beat yourself up about missing football

Football is often trivialised because of its omnipresence; the money, commercialism, the endless analysis and discussion. We are frequently reminded of times when football is ‘put into perspective’ as though it has got above its station. There are people dying and you’re sad about missing football? That’s gauche and distateful. But, football clubs are social institutions affecting thousands of people which are centuries old. Oxford United as an institution that has lived through Spanish Flu, two World Wars and countless local, national and global crises. It gives people purpose and structure, its resilience gives them hope. These are institutions that suffer glory and tragedy, riches and poverty, they ebb and flow and pulsate and they still survive. You’re part of that success, like generations of people before you. It’s fine to be proud of it and to miss it and to want to protect it. The reason it keeps going is because it means something; it is possible to simultaneously be concerned about people dying and the absence of football and to be no less a person because of it.  

Acknowledge what you have

The world is full of self-help books, a majority of them encourage you to ditch your past and create an often unattainable future. You change everything, transform your eating, ditch your bad habits and get increasingly miserable, so you take a break and all the things you were trying to rid yourself of come creeping back. You’re missing football, you’re missing the game, the routine, the little joys. You’re casting back to those memories, you cast forward to a time when it’s all over. And you want it to happen soon. But how are you now? Alive? Safe? Warm? Build from there. The club and social network that springs from it still exists. You still have the experiences that the club has given you – Nathan Holland’s last minute equaliser against Newcastle, Ryan Ledson slamming home at Charlton – indulge in that. If your mind wanders and your regrets and hopes and anxieties eat away, then stop and check. Are you OK now?

Find the next step

If there’s one overriding criticism I have of Boris Johnson it’s his endless hyperbole. Every financial pledge is ONE HUNDRED MILLION POUNDS, every initiative will be world beating, everything will be fixed by Christmas, if not next Tuesday. Not only does that simply serve to constantly disappoint, it fails to deal with the next step which is, in fact, the most important. You might want to be in the East Stand screaming yourself horse with your friends, or travelling 165 miles for a drab goalless draw on a Tuesday night, but that’s not the next step. The next step might be to indulge an hour or six in Oxford United’s kit history, listen to a podcast, watch the goals from the 95/96 season on YouTube, you might even re-read old posts from this blog. If it brings you joy, that’s your next step. If you can afford it, buy a match pass for a game, or a new shirt, or an old shirt, or some other old tat, or just listen to the commentary on Saturday on the radio. Keep taking the next step, then, one day someone will announce a test event, and you might get to go to that, then an increase in capacity and then, step by step towards something we call normality. And, my goodness, imagine what that’ll feel like. But, for now, just focus on taking the next step.

Act collectively

You see it all the time, the old blaming the young, the young blaming the old, the left blaming the right, the right blaming the left, even the healthy dismissing the sick as cannon fodder. Blame is often placed on a faceless, nameless, probably non-existent ‘other’ – they’re not using their common sense, they’re not waking up to the tyranny. So, rather than blaming other people or acting on your personal instincts, stick with the yellow army. Social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, limiting contact with others. Like you would turn up to a game for kick-off, sing in unison, contribute personally to a collective success. Do it for other fans and for the benefit of the club; because the club is made up of the young and old, the right and left, the sick and healthy. Do it for the people who retell stories of Joey Beauchamp, Jim Smith and Ron Atkinson, do it for the people who fill the stands with flags and banners to make the best atmosphere in the country. Do it for the joke on the train going to an away game which makes you laugh even though you know it shouldn’t. Do it for the old couple who find themselves at the bottom of a bundle from a last minute goal at Portsmouth. If you can’t bring yourself to do it for the people you blame; do it for the club.

Know it will get better

If there’s one thing that being an Oxford fan tells you it’s that you have to always believe that things will improve. I’ve sat in the Kassam car park staring through my windscreen at the those trudging through the turnstiles wondering why I bother. I’ve seen hundreds of games of football and, frequently, I’ve walked out of the ground having seen them lost. I know that I’ll be back the following week, looking forward to a win. Then imperceptibly, it does start to get better, a win becomes two, two become five, form becomes promotion. Then before you know it you find yourself in a full stadium watching Chris Maguire breaking from a corner sliding the ball to Kemar Roofe to chip home for a famous cup win, or Sam Deering and Alfie Potter exchanging passes on the way to redemptive glory at Wembley, or you catch yourself, eyes bulging, ashen faced, unburdened of your money, work and family stresses, gulping for air as a primordial guttural scream, the likes of which you could never muster voluntarily, cascades from your gaping mouth as down below Toni Martinez knee slides towards you and thousands of others who are hundreds of miles from home, pursued by his team mates in a moment of unified ecstasy. That’s the memory, that’s the moment. From Stafford and Merthyr to Swansea and Middlesborough. Remember, it will always get better.