George Lawrence’s Shorts – A yabba Dabo doo

Saturday 31 August 2019

There was a right old ding dong at The Kassam on Saturday. Coventry were first to ding going 1-0 up, then donged along to double their lead. Jamie Mackie dinged a 20 yarder just after the hour before Fantaky Dabo donged one into his own net for 2-1. In the last minute they danged in what looked like the winner before Dabo dinged into his own net again for 3-3, four minutes into injury time.  

Monday 2 September 2019

KRob’s wife went mad when he turned up at home with another midfielder to add to his gargantuan collection. ‘THAT’ she said pointing an accusatory finger, ‘IS NOT STAYING IN MY HOUSE’. Oussama Zamouri is a Moroccan who has joined until Christmas. ‘I think I’m quite a technical player’ said Zamouri with a surprising lack of self-awareness. KRob’s has yet to tell his wife that he’ll be going to MidfielderCon in the summer to hang out with all the other midfield nerds dressed as Simon Clist.

The top man’s top man, Jakey Wright, Wright, Wright has signed for Bolton Wanderers on loan from Çhrîßtøphē Ŵîłdę’s Sheffield United. He’ll go right, right, right into the squad to face Oxford on the 17th.

Tuesday 3 September 2019

It’s an ill-conceived battle no one cares about fought by grown men acting like toddlers in which nobody ultimately wins. The Brexit of football tournaments, the Trophy, vomited into action with a 2-1 over Premier League Muppet babies; The Norwichlets. After going a goal down, Oxford’s equaliser came from Cameron Branagain-again with the winner coming from Shandon Baptiste, who KRob has labelled the best player in the whole damn universe.

Meanwhile, Tony McMahon has left the club by mutual disinterest.

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Jedward orphan, Mark Sykes will be donning his neon orange winkle pickers and making self-conscious peace signs to every available camera when he joins up with Northern Ireland to miss their games against Luxembourg and Germany. As a result he’ll miss the game against Fleetwood that he was never going to play in.

Thursday 5 September 2019

It was the Six Minute Thirteen Seconds Fans’ Forum on Radio Oxford with Zaki Nuseibeh on Thursday. There was a question about the stadiumsituation which was good because we hadn’t heard anything about the stadiumsituation since it was mentioned four and a half minutes ago. ‘It’s key to our sustainability’ claims AlanOUFC738472 #FPBE  in Wantage, who has really been thinking about it.

Reluctant commuter and former Oxford United assistant shoutsman Shaun Derry has resurfaced as Head of Isotonic drink distribution at Crystal Palace. Twinkletoed turncoat Gavin Whyte twinkled his toes in Northern Ireland’s 1-0 win over Luxembourg while Mark Sykes watched longingly from the bench.

Friday 6 September 2019

Tomorrow Oxford head north to play Fleetwood Town, who are managed by misunderstood nasty piece of work Joey Barton, a thoughtful thug who has read books without pictures in.

Oxford are looking for their second league win of the season, and first ever over Fleetwood, but KRob’s not worried. If we maintain our performances , he said, we’ll climb the league, thus demonstrating an alarming misunderstanding of the fundamentals of how league tables work. We just need to stick to our principles, he said; one of which appears to be to concede a goal roughly every half-an-hour.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Coventry City 3

The half-time guest on Saturday was legendary goalkeeper Roy Burton. Burton was the quintessential lower-league footballer with a great mop of hair, a droopy moustache, and a paunch. The London Road would stare mesmerised as his shorts would drop revealing the top of his bum crack whenever he took a goal kick.

He played in the 3rd Division mostly; the same level as the players today. If Burton reached the half-way line with a goal kick he was considered a marvel. In the modern age a lower-league player – a lean product of sports science – is expected to routinely spray forty-yard passes onto the toe of a fast-moving winger without a murmur of appreciation.

But, what yesterday’s draw showed was the joy of lower league football and all its glorious flaws. We can argue about a lack of cutting edge up front or the alarming number of goals we’re conceding, but as a spectacle it couldn’t be better.

League 1 football is a riot, most clubs are pretty evenly matched so games involve two teams hammering seven bells out of each other until the referee tells them to stop. On the sidelines, two managers explode as all their hard work crumbles in front of them.

It’s a ninety minute exhibition of the wonderful imperfections of the human experience. Jamie Mackie’s story arc involved missing an absolute sitter in the first half before spending most of the game vainly chasing shadows like a toddler playing piggy in the middle with two NBA basketball players. Then, when all seemed lost, he somehow organised himself to spark a revival with a spectacular goal. Afterwards he babbled on about hard work and scoring goals and hard work and other things.

James Henry was absolutely majestic throughout, but was left after the game splayed on the floor, exhausted and frustrated that his efforts had come to nothing. Where Mackie’s day was one of failings which turned to triumph, Henry’s was a triumph which ended in failure. And then there’s Fantaky Dabo, who calmly gifted us two own-goals giving him nightmares for days to come.

There was the 30 seconds of madness from Ben Woodburn’s shot hitting the post to Coventry going 2-0 up. Then, as if that wasn’t drama enough, us doing the same to them to pull it back to 3-3. The bloke next to me asked how many minutes of injury time I thought were left. I said I didn’t know, what I wanted to say is that I didn’t care.

All the while there was the ludicrous vignette of fans confronting each other in the North Stand while all over the pitch players picked and niggled each other with unchecked off the ball fouls. Stories within stories within stories.

I looked at the Premier League results after the game; Manchester City had thrashed another also-ran, later Liverpool would do the same. We are in awe of the passing, the shooting, the achievement of near-perfection. And, just in case, if the results are in some way anomalistic, we can correct them in real time with the use of technology scrubbing away the drama to create a gleaming globalised media product and all the marvellous money it creates.

Whether it’s in films, music or sport perfection is always the goal for those involved, but perfection is predictable and boring. In League 1 it’s the failings where all the value is. At 2-2, the game opened up as the teams were stuck between the desire to win and the fear of losing. Balls would over-run, passes would deflect off players for corners and throw-ins, nobody was in control, but in life, we never are. It was one team against another team against physics.

In League 1, it’s the joy of overcoming our innate human failings, the despair of succumbing to them, the immense and unrelenting frustration that makes it the happy riot it is.

The wrap: Coventry City 0 Oxford United 1

Cameron Brannagan sends over good quality deep corner, it somehow lands, via Sam Long, at the feet of Curtis Nelson, who bludgeons away at the ball with every part of his body until it stops coming back and stays in the net.

This is a season for the hackers and battlers, not the lovers and dreamers. In a mirror image of last week – the madness of the last minute aside – they were us; the better side but not good enough to win. We were overwhelmed in the opening minutes and it looked like we were in for a torrid afternoon, but they ran out of ideas and the threat subsided, as it often does with teams in this division.

On our part, we were wasteful, tried to get it forward too quickly, meaning the strikers couldn’t support the defensive effort by holding the ball. We were there for a point, surely. We simply had to wait for the ball to come back and hope that we’d stand firm, which we did, by and large. We were resolute and took the opportunity when it came. There were lots of good news stories; Sam Long was excellent, Ahmed Kashi is calm and efficient with the ball in a way that no others are, a gem hidden in full sight.

Walking back to the car, Coventry fans were complaining about their lack of ideas and how their limitations were being exposed. They could have been us trudging away from the Kassam, and they’re two points off the play-offs. The Ricoh is a lovely stadium, but they only open three sides, we have more in common than divides us, it seems.

This week Karl Robinson ‘celebrated’ his first year in charge with a retrospective in the Oxford Mail. He reflected on the problems he’s had – ‘reasons’ for failure if you’re generous, ‘excuses’ if you’re not. The training ground, the stadium issue, injuries, winding up orders and his best signing shaming himself on Twitter. If management is the art of removing the excuses for failure; then he’s got a few in his locker. Whether they are reasons or excuses is open to endless debate, but it’s hard to argue that he’s been given the ingredients for success on a plate. In a tight division, these are the margins which have tipped us onto the wrong side of the edge, regardless of the millstone of having a ‘top-eight budget’.

Coventry, of course, have their own off-field problems, many clubs in League 1 do. Either a systemic lack of money or things which are darker and more venal. Virtually nobody is truly equipped for The Championship. The now fabled thirteen team relegation battle illustrates how most teams are negotiating the season on a high wire with no safety net.

Normally, being thirteenth with seven games to go would have you reaching for a spreadsheet to place fancifully optimistic predictions that allow us to sneak into play-offs. Nobody ever writes off their season until it’s mathematically impossible. This year, we’re still looking down, at the four point gap, even though in terms of our position, we’re now closer to the play-offs than we are to the relegation zone.

As we turn for home this season, there’s very little fun to be had, it’s all about hacking and bludgeoning our way to safety. It seems unlikely that things will be fully decided until the last knockings of the year. But with everyone seemingly susceptible to the same failings, yesterday’s result was a big step towards staying in League 1 next season.

The wrap – Oxford United 1 Coventry City 2

On the touchline before the Coventry game stood Michael Appleton working for TV, dressed in a suit which looked both immaculately cut and a fraction too small. It was a timely reminder of what once was.

Famously, Appleton, along with Darryl Eales and Mark Ashton focussed their attention on installing an uncompromising DNA into the club. If Plan A didn’t work, there was no Plan B. They were mocked for it at first, but they were right ultimately.

The DNA of our current incarnation remains something of a mystery. With an hour of unremarkable football gone against Coventry, the game was drifting into a stupefying spectacle. Was that deliberate? The fact that Karl Robinson appeared content to allow our substitutes remain on the bench suggested it was. We barely threatened their goal and that seemed to be OK.

It didn’t help that Robinson was absent from the touchline; his normal animated mania was confined to the gantry at the back of the South Stand. But, having reached the final third of the game with the score still 0-0 and little prospect of a breakthrough, it seemed he was happy with what he was seeing.

Of course, if you stand still, you risk others overtaking you; either by moments of uncharacteristic skill, or unpredictable freakishness; which is what happened when John Mousinho deflected a meek shot into his own net. Then Jonathan Mitchell got himself into a muddle, conceded a pointless penalty and we were 2-0 down. By that point, it was too late to take action.

What was the plan? Just to hold them? It hadn’t been the plan against Accrington or Burton. Robinson kept with the team that played so well against Sunderland. But, that was a team built to contain as much as win; very typical for an away game. Jamie Mackie works hard, but he’s not built to terrify defenders with his pace.

Perhaps the idea was that Marcus Browne was intended as the attacking threat, but Browne is raw so his delivery and dribbling can be erratic. You can’t rely on him to deliver consistently. Ricky Holmes is the other threat, but we seemed reluctant to bring him into the game. James Henry, only really spluttered into life on occasions. But, despite this, we chose not to change anything.

It turns out Karl Robinson wasn’t content with how we were playing. He fumed through his post-match interview. It’s unfair to be too definitive based on a single interview, but he babbled on about the players not doing what they were told, something about their emotional state, he was like an articulated lorry trying to u-turn in a small neighbourhood cul-de-sac as he failed to answer some around some basic questions about individual players.

If there are problems that he struggles to articulate, how does he start finding a solution?

Does Robinson have a plan? Is there an intended DNA? Plenty of people rely on intuition and deal with the next problem in front of them. Flexibility is a virtue, but, if you lack a vision, then how do you know you’re going in the right direction? How do you know you’re solving your problems and not being overwhelmed by them?

The wrap – Barnsley 4 Oxford United 0, Oxford United 0 Fleetwood Town 2, Oxford United 2 Coventry City 0

I have to confess, I don’t get a buzz from the new season. It disrupts my summer and messes with commitments I had to make before I knew the fixtures. Football in the summer, without a coat, is not football. I want to leave the ground when it’s dark, desperate to get back to the car to put the heating on and thaw my fingers out. Football is my ‘silence’; a routine that allows me to escape from everyday life, I prefer football when we’re deeper into the season.

It wasn’t always like this; when I was young we seemed to always be coming back from holiday when the season started. I remember sitting in the car as we gradually came into range of English radio as games were kicking off. The holiday had ended, but something much better was in its place.

Over the years things have changed. Clubs don’t add a couple of players to their squad anymore; post-Bosman, teams are overhauled, so you have to get used to a load of new players. I keep up with our signings during the summer, but when they turn out for the first game of the season and can barely tell one player from another. Even the kit changes every year now, so each new season can feel like watching a completely different club. As I say, it’s the routine and the constant of the fans that makes football fun, not the novelty of the new season.

Not everyone feels like this, of course, Twitter was buzzing with people who were buzzing about the new season. For them the season burst into life at Oakwell and the heavy defeat to Barnsley. This was followed by the defeat to Fleetwood. Not just Fleetwood, Joey Barton’s Fleetwood. Suddenly we’re bottom of the league and doom was settling in.

The reaction was like we were 15-20 games into the season. Bottom after two games is far from ideal, but nor is it terminal. Nobody wants to lose two games in a row, but it does happen – it just happens to be that these two games are the first two games.

I do think that we didn’t have a great summer; it came together eventually with late signings and Karl Robinson has more than hinted of the upheaval surrounding the new training ground, but the process of gelling the team together starts now, where you’d prefer it to have started on the first day of pre-season training.

The win against Coventry in the League Cup has gave us some rest bite, but as with all cup competitions nowadays, you can’t really judge anything because it’s impossible to know how any team view cup competitions. Under Michael Appleton, every game was treated equally so cup and league games were approached with the same vigour, and mostly the same team. Judging by the number of changes made by Karl Robinson, he’s perhaps taking a more strategic view. It’s not exactly what the fans want to see, but one of the issues Appleton had was his teams running out of steam towards the end of the season – essentially as a result of being too successful in the cups. I’m not convinced the physical tiredness is that big an issue, but the mental fatigue takes its toll. If the objective is promotion or the play-offs, then discounting the cups maybe the best option.

We have a tough start to the season, which is perhaps being overlooked. We play all three teams that came down from the Championship, two away, inside the first month. The season doesn’t really settle down until the middle of September when we face Wycombe, Walsall, Luton and Southend, we can only start to judge the team in October, by which point the squad will be more settled.

Wembley wrap – Coventry City 2 Oxford United 1

Apparently, drowning is a pleasurable experience. Something to do with the deprivation of oxygen and the feeling of euphoria that results. It’s a paradox, a bit like the idea that a trip to Wembley to see your favourite football team should be a miserable one.

I’m not just talking about the result. In fact, I’m not even talking about the result. The run up to the EFL Trophy final was full of soul searching and hand ringing. Tears (metaphorical or real) were shed, non-boycotters sent messages to boycotters like they were talking a depressive down from the window ledge of a tall building. Boycotters wrestled their consciences as they reconciled their split loyalties to their team and their principles.

Everything was so serious; this wasn’t the giddy mayhem of the past, the club and fan groups slogged away trying to sell tickets; the line that this might be the last trip to Wembley for a generation sounded like a threat; come to this because you might be dead next time. The sense of delirious fun of previous years was absent. This was about doing a job, winning the game and getting out before we could crack a smile.

Coventry fans seemed less distracted by the side-show; they have bigger problems to deal with, I suppose. Their 1987 Cup Final win aside, they haven’t finished in the top six of any division for 44 years. Even the perverse pleasures of relegation – that drowning feeling – have been largely absent given they’ve only gone down twice. They are, in effect, the saddest team in England; this was a rare chink of joy in the bleakness of their current and past experience.

But their troubles run deeper still; 85% of their matchday profit goes to Wasps Rugby Club, they have, effectively, no income. They want Sisu out, but Sisu aren’t going anywhere. They might try to escape to Coventry Rugby Club and their 4,000 capacity stadium, in short, they are stuck, suffocating in a vacuum.

So they gobble up as many tickets as they can get their hands on. Around the stadium there’s a distinctly retro feel about the shirts their fans are wearing – every era is represented, like a celebration of their past. Barely anyone seems to be in this year’s designs, none of them go to games anyway, I suppose. John Sillett is introduced to the crowd beforehand to raucous cheers.

Inside, the atmosphere amongst Oxford fans is rather less excitable, it’s almost complacent, the Coventry players appear to a deafening roar, we appear to warm applause. But surely once the game gets going, the difference in class will show?

We start slowly, which at first appears deliberate. Last year we started like a train, but ran out of steam at a key time. They scuff in an opener and we need to find another gear. But, it doesn’t come; we’re the better team but look less likely to win. Loads of possession but nothing is working, what’s going on?

Our game changers aren’t firing; this is our tenth game since the semi-final against Luton just a month ago. Marvin Johnson, who has started eight of them, looks lethargic and leggy. Chris Maguire is just back from injury, Ryan Ledson returning from international duty, Rob Hall is playing his seventh in eight and seems strangely blunted. We’re knackered and Wembley is draining any remaining energy we have.

Joe Rothwell, who has played just three games since Luton, is bright enough, dancing through challenges and threatening a break through, but he can’t do it on his own. Like against Bristol Rovers, where Michael Appleton made one substitution despite being 0-2 down at half time, the manager resists making changes. He knows he doesn’t have anything on the bench. The second smallest squad in the division, without Martinez, McAlney, Thomas or Martin and with MacDonald and Taylor long gone are blowing fumes.

Appleton’s only option is Liam Sercombe who has started just four times since Luton. As he warms up, they slot in a second and it looks to be all over. Sercombe comes out like he’s been fired from a rocket launcher. He doesn’t look like the type to get angry, but he’s like a snarling animal. Afterwards he retweets all the supportive messages he received, is he trying to make a point?

Coventry are tiring, it’s not been a defensive rear-guard, but they have been resolute. Cramping becomes endemic, suddenly they’re tiring more quickly than we are and the game evens up. Sercombe, inevitably, drills home for 2-1 and the game becomes ludicrously open. All discipline out the way, the last 15 minutes involve Curtis Nelson playing centre-forward and Simon Eastwood abandoning his goal. Rob Hall and Kane Hemmings break the Coventry defensive line but look unconvincing as they advance towards goal. Nobody is playing in their designated position anymore; Michael Appleton must be scratching his tattoos off at the sight of the chaos. There will be a chance, you feel and it comes in the 94th minute. Mayhem on the goal line, but nobody can put their foot through it and bring the equaliser. I’m not sure we’d have deserved it had it gone in or at least Coventry didn’t deserve to lose. They came to enjoy it, and we’d have spoilt their fun. That just didn’t seem right.

The aftermath is grim; fans who questioned whether they would attend at all vent forth at players for ‘not turning up’. Few players avoid the vitriol; some should never wear the shirt again. Oh my goodness. We’ve played 115 games in less than two seasons; won promotion, been to Wembley twice, won derbies and beaten teams in each of the top five divisions. The players and manager don’t get to pick and choose when and where they go to games, they don’t get to boycott things on points of principle, they turn up, home and away, capacity crowd or empty stadium and they have performed far more often than not. They didn’t today and that’s just the way it is, it’ll hurt them more than us in the long run. If it is another 20 years before we get to Wembley again, at least we’ll get to go. The players have the tiniest window to experience glory and it’s closing quickly.

Wembley is a rare treat, as is the team that has taken us there twice in a year. We’ve treated it like we’re dealing with a mundane chore. It’s time to get a grip.