Match wrap – Crewe Alexandra 0 Oxford United 1

Before other events took over on Saturday, I was formulating an idea about how culture overrides tactics. Immediately before the win over Charlton, Karl Robinson’s selection was questioned by quite a few people. The received wisdom was that a lack of full-back cover coupled with Steve Seddon’s perceived lack of form had forced Robinson into adopting a tactic which might best be described as ‘so many wingers, so few wings’. His all-out entertainment plan looked a high risk way of facing a team like Charlton.

Which, of course, it wasn’t – there’s a culture instilled within the squad which pushes the team towards starting quickly. Eleven of our seventeen league wins this season have seen us score in the opening half-an-hour, six of our nine defeats have been in games where we’ve failed to make an early breakthrough. 

That culture compels us to play with high energy, regardless of the tactics we play. It has consequences, it’s hard to sustain so we can become vulnerable, but it generally works, so even when the tactics seem wanting, we’ve got a chance. With Charlton, the quick start paid such dividends it’s hard to say whether the tactical adjustments made a significant difference or not.

We were quick out of the blocks against Crewe as well. It made sense to get amongst them, you feel any team floundering at the bottom of the table would be susceptible to an early breakthrough and were likely to crumble under pressure.

After a couple of early chances, the pressure eased, the patterns of play settled. This is the point where we’ve been caught out before or lost our way a little. Crewe, like Accrington a couple of weeks ago, don’t really need to prove anything, a point against the team fourth in the table would be a solid result, if opportunities come, that’s a bonus. If not, then so be it. They’re happy to wait for us to make mistakes.

Despite the lack of breakthrough, half-time came and there was nothing to worry about; the law of averages suggested a goal would come. But it didn’t and the game edged into that anxious period where you wonder whether we might run out of ideas.

That’s the point when something needs to change, but all our obvious impact players – Sykes, Whyte, Williams – were already on the pitch. Others – Browne, Bodin and Henry – were at home. Nathan Holland was an option, but you might describe the rest of the bench as ‘closers’ – better at closing a game out than sparking it into life.

It was hard not to think we could do with a Joey Beauchamp-type, who scored a critical goal at Gresty Road in the penultimate game of the 1996 promotion season, we could have done with his ability to turn games on their head.

And then I thought, he’d have probably hated that, I’m sure he loved to play and score, but to perform on cue, to ‘turn it on’, to commoditise his talent, these were big contributing factors which made life so difficult at West Ham and then Swindon. He just wanted to play for his favourite team.

It may ultimately be a necessity for a player to be able to do that, a product of being a professional, but does any flair player wants to be an impact player? It’s difficult to turn something which is instinctive into something which is conscious and controllable, even if the best players are the ones who can find consistency.

So, even if the desire is always to turn to any available elfin sprite who happens to be wrapped up in a padded sports coat and fluorescent tabbard, perhaps on this particular night it’s fitting that we ended up turning to the most unlikely game changer – Ciaron Brown.

I had filed Brown’s signing in a big box labelled ‘Bodies in the building’ – it reminded me of those long-forgotten announcements of Johnny Giles, Sam Allardyce’s grandson and pretty much everyone Michael Appleton signed in the first half of the 2014/15 season. We needed some defensive cover and were running out of time, Brown fitted the bill.

It was difficult to switch from the emotional outpouring of Beauchamp’s passing to the regular grind of League 1, but it was refreshing that an anti-Joey, a counter-cultural member of the squad should be the one to break the deadlock and seal the three points. It reminds us that heroes can come in all shapes and sizes.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Crewe Alexandra 0

I recently saw an interview with athlete Dame Sarah Storey who is about to compete in her eighth Paralympics. Asked if she still felt any pressure after winning seventeen gold medals over such a long period she said no, she simply trusted the process that has worked in the past and she’ll see where it takes her.

Trusting the process is a common theme in elite sport; the process is the bit you control, not your opponents, context or even the ultimate outcome, even when they scream for your attention. When Luke Shaw scored after two minutes in the final of the Euros, the analysts were as lost in the emotion of the moment as the fans and players. England’s swashbuckling opening was praised, what was noticeable was not that Italy struck back immediately – they had to weather more of the storm – it was more that they didn’t. Their experience told them to trust the process and play the whole ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes. They were confident they would create chances, score goals and win the game.

Where England were anxious to get things over with quickly, putting it to bed before half-an-hour was up, Italy took their time, allowing their opponents to blow themselves out before overhauling them. The best teams do this; they’re not impatient to win, they trust their ability – the process – and don’t get distracted by the intended outcome. Ninety minutes is plenty of time to make a process work.

Last night’s win over Crewe showed signs in us of the patience you see in the better teams. After Saturday’s win, the temptation may have been to put on a proper show against a comparatively low-level side. Rather than trying to blast through their defences in an attempt to win the game before half-time, we seemed to take a more mature approach, trusting the process and turning the screw. 

It was clear that Crewe would offer little threat as long as we didn’t panic. In the main, it worked. We created chances and pegged them back even though the opening phase was peppered with frustrating micro-mistakes that fragmented the play. Maybe plans to keep turning the screw in the final half-an-hour were scuppered by the injuries to Holland, Williams and Bodin, which forced Agyei and Whyte into the play before we really wanted them. We were dealt a difficult hand, but we didn’t panic, we still handled it.

Years ago I saw Alex Ferguson-era Manchester United playing Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League at Old Trafford. Despite conceding early, it struck me how Manchester United fans were as patient as their players. The team’s performance was undoubtedly below-par but their experience of winning meant the panicky hollering, scapegoating and frustrations you see in other grounds were absent. Everyone trusted the processes that had brought success previously. Fittingly, Ryan Giggs came on and provided a masterclass cameo to set up an equaliser before a last minute Ronaldo free-kick overhauled the Portuguese.

Trust is, without doubt, the hardest thing to achieve in sport. It’s very easy for fans not to trust players’ effort or ability, players lose trust in their own ability, maintaining a sweet spot where fans, management and players are at peace with each other is a huge challenge, one that we’ve met so far this season.

The relationships are now as solid as they’ve been in years; we know the players can compete, they know we’re behind them, it might be that we’re ready for that push to the next level.

Perhaps it’s because the fans are a little less reactive at the moment, pacified by the 18 months away from games, content with just being back in the stadium. Maybe we’re not quite warmed up or on edge like we would be in normal circumstances. Whatever the reason for the newfound patience, it’s allowed us to build the solid start we all know we needed.  

It helps that, up front at least, there are always options – if one plan isn’t working another can be brought into play, the assuredness that comes from having a plan, and a backup is important. Our Achilles heel is at the back; last year Robinson relied on Atkinson, Moore, Ruffels and Long for most of the season, praying they stayed fit and on form, this season is already showing what a risk that was, we’re already looking a bit threadbare.

But this is the never-quite-finished feature of lower-league football, in fact any football with the exception of a handful of mega-clubs who can buy anyone they choose. Trust will ultimately bring success, a big part of which might have to be our trust in the risks we need to take along the way.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Crewe, Shrews, here is the news, Brandon, dribble, shot

Saturday 10 April 2021

OOOOOOHHHHHHH, OUR SIX WERE ON FIRE! Six different players scored as Oxford steamed through Crewe like a freight train on Saturday. The shock and awe included five goals in 13 minutes on their way to a record-equalling 6-0 win.

Sunday 11 April 2021

Former Oxford United CEO oil-slick Mark Ashton is set to take over the swirly leather big-boy’s chair at Ipswich Town. Ashton has spent the last four years at Bristol City, where his natural charm has seen fans really take him to their hearts. Tearful City fans have responded with comments like ‘Does he need a lift there?’ and ‘The best thing to happen this season’. 

Monday 12 April 2021

Arlesey Town have appointed Dave Kitson as their chairman. A surprising move that resulted from a recruitment company executive misreading the brief and finding someone who was ‘proper arsey’.

Meanwhile, Headington United’s Sam Long has signed a three-year contract extension. Long is having his best season at Oxford with fans Brazilifying his name to Longildinho. This is due to his widespread support of deforestation, the thong bikini he wears on the beach and the close shave he has in the pubic region.

Tuesday 13 April 2021

GLS is pretty big news in the bedroom department, but even he knows that hot rampant six should come after some sensual four-play. But it was the other way around on Tuesday as Oxford edged closer to the play-offs with a 4-1 win over Shrewsbury Town. Four different players scored meaning that Jedward orphan Mark Sykes is the only outfield player not to score in the last two games. He’s been asking himself what he’s got to do to get on the scoresheet; the answer being SHOOT GODAMMIT.

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Shrewsbury Town midfielder David Davis, so good, they nearly named him twice, has been reflecting on last night’s game. “Personally I don’t think it was a four-one scoreline’ he said of the four-one scoreline. The key, he said, was the advantage we gained by, checks notes, losing Brandon Barker to injury in the first half; “Their injury took the sting out of the game then we conceded two and made it hard for ourselves.” He’s smart that KRob, getting the upper hand by injuring one of his best players. 

Thursday 15 April 2021

It’ll be a family affair on Saturday when Oxford face fatberg Steve Evans’ Gillingham on Saturday. Ellie and Olly will pack their trunks and say goodbye to the circus as the brothers will each take a side in the big play-off shoot-out. Olly is quite the tactical whizz, knowing that Gills attending the game will give them a better chance of winning; “When we turn up, that is when we are at our best.” he said.

Friday 16 April 2021

It’s crunch time with everyone vying to promotion and play-off spots. Bettingexpert.com have taking a break from drawing young people into a life of misery and crippling debt by running their ‘super computer’, which has just been upgraded to Windows Vista, to predict how League 1 will turn out. According to their sophisticated algorithm, an Excel spreadsheet with specially coloured cells in team colours, we’re set to miss out of the play-offs and finish eighth.  

Match wrap: Crewe Alexandra 0 Oxford United 6

My parents had an emergency yesterday; they couldn’t get the dishwasher cap for the salt off. Dutifully, I raced over without a second thought to my own personal safety. My dad could try to get down on the floor to get a proper grip, but it’s unlikely he’d get back up without the help of an ambulance.  

My dad is a three-club-man – Oxford was his local club, Wolves his proper club and Hearts were from where he was born. He started watching Oxford as Headington United when Wolves were one of the biggest sides in Europe, they operated in parallel universes with little danger of the two mixing. Wolves satisfied the visceral thrill of the game, Oxford enriched his soul.

He’s quite excited by Wolves’ revival and is completely at ease with his club being owned by Chinese billionaires. Of course, it throws up divisive inequalities, but even if he’s with us for a couple more decades, life is definitely shorter for him than it used to be. 

Wolves won on Friday despite a controversial VAR decision, he told me. ‘Traore scored, but apparently he’s leaving’ he said. I feigned interest, but didn’t even know a game was on, let alone who Traore is. I cannot overstate how disinterested I am in Premier League football.

Last week after the Accrington defeat, I toyed with the idea that we might need a change of DNA if we’re to achieve promotion and move closer to that world. Wolves are no longer the club of Steve Bull or Derek Dougan; their DNA has been fundamentally altered in the name of success, perhaps we need something similar. 

But change for who? When rumours of our own takeover surfaced, my first reaction wasn’t about all the expensive players we could bring in, but a hope that they wouldn’t alter the club too much, detach it from its moorings as a club for the people of Oxford. Honestly, if they fixed the stadium, that’d be enough for me.

Yesterday’s destruction of Crewe was our season in microcosm – an average start, blistering mid-section, and an average end. It was a microcosm of Karl Robinson’s time at the club; average first season, blistering second, average third. Who knows what the fourth wave brings, but this is fundamentally our DNA, almost like we need a breather between intense efforts.

When it’s great, it’s truly great. This season we may come away with a below-par league finish, but we’ve also bagged two club records – longest winning streak and equal biggest away win. The mid-section of the Crewe win – five goals in thirteen minutes – was a riot. It’s absolutely the reason we invest so much time, money and effort in the club. It’s taking a lot to get me off my sofa this season, but Brandon Barker’s run and shot for the fourth had me jumping up and shouting ‘woh, woh, WOH’ with every player he passed. I’m attracted by the idea of relentless success, but fear a world where this is sort of thing is expected. I want to be shocked by what we achieve, to gaze in wonder when it all clicks. I want see players enjoying their success and hard work. To see Cameron Brannagan score months after nearly losing his sight; that’s the kind of story I want. 

Simon Eastwood’s signing earlier in the week was met on the social barometer of Twitter with a degree of both surprise and disappointment by those who seem to now define his contribution solely by the mistake he made against Swindon. I think it’s a great signing; all squads need two first team goalkeepers. We could keep a junior on the bench and hope they’re rarely needed, or we could get a veteran who is happy to have a contract; having two keepers who want to work together to push each other to be better is the ideal situation. We don’t need to go scrambling in the loan market if there’s an injury and we’re insulated if a bid does come in for Stevens, as is rumoured.

Eastwood is just the kind of player we need, he’s circumspect about the fact there are more goalkeepers than goalkeeping spots. Not getting a starting berth is not a failure, it’s just how his job works. Players are not always like that, they sulk and find new clubs, I like that Eastwood thinks. Like the extended contracts of James Henry and Cameron Brannagan in recent years, he’s showing that playing for Oxford doesn’t need to be just another contract defined by its salary or profile. We used to be a stepping stone, but now we’re becoming an end in ourselves, a good place to work, somewhere to stay and contribute to the development of the whole club. Eastwood doesn’t come across as a careerist, he needs more than that, something that works for him on a personal level as well as a professional one. He’s in a transitional phase; by the end of his contract he’ll be a veteran, but hopefully his example will have passed onto others with more players seeing Oxford as a place worth staying at. Everyone wins.

Despite flirting with the idea that our DNA should be more ruthless, less patient, more aggressive; I just don’t think that’s us. Naturally, I want us to win and to entertain, but I want to feel the players want to be at the club more, that there’s substance to who we are. Of course we need funding, but I want feel our successes are won more than they’re bought. Karl Robinson dedicated the win to the fans; it’s a rare commodity in the impatient world of football that people are more important than results, we should be wary of throwing it away. 

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Déjà Crewe

Saturday 14 November 2020

Might Oxford loanee Marcus McGuane be heading back to his parent club? Obviously, no, but it’s one of those weeks so let’s pretend he might and we care. Chris Hughton is currently the manager of Nottingham Forest, and, while it’s not certain that he’ll be manager of Nottingham Forest by the time you reach the end of this sentence, he’s currently assessing his options, including his loanees, in preparation for making some tweaks to his squad in January. 

Sunday 15 November 2020

Oxford head to crisis club Wigan Athletic on Saturday. It’s been a grim time for Wigan who are bottom of the table and are in such despair that manager John Sheridan recently decided that Swindon Town was a better place to work. Despite rumours of a takeover, first team coach Leam Richardson and academy manager Gregor Rioch will reside over their 2-0 win against us on Saturday. And if you’re thinking, this isn’t news, remember; it’s only Sunday.

Monday 16 November 2020

The Guardian have taken it upon themselves to list Britain’s 10 most unsuccessful stadium moves. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before; we’ve only got three sides and the wind blows in four different directions at the same time. Did you know you can see a cinema from inside the ground? We can take the banter, although we have to admit, it was a bit of a kick in the balls to find we’re featured alongside two stadiums that aren’t even being used as football grounds anymore and a third that doesn’t exist.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

‘We owe you Crewe, we’ll show ‘em, grrr’ KRob shook his fist theatrically to the sky. A sense of injustice really got the boys fired up on Tuesday as Crewe eventually turned up to the Kassam for their much postponed league fixture. And we really stuck it to them, really showed them who’s boss, yes, we lost 2-0, but we delayed their second goal until the final minute. Ha! Who’s laughing now? 

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Crewe’s manager Dave Artell has been reflecting on his success on Tuesday ‘We haven’t got any idiots’ said the man who drove his Covid-ridden team into the Kassam to tell KRob that he had a Covid-ridden team on the bus. We agree, none of the players are idiots. 

GLS was part of a legendary primary school team that once proudly limited their local rivals, St Hilda’s Preparatory School for Misanthropic Tories, to just fourteen goals without reply. It was on the back of this great achievement, that GLS stood at the end of the school year with the ‘Spirit and Effort Award’ – which was conceived by a kindly needlework teacher for kids who might eat dirt, but at least turn up to stuff. It’s similar to the shameful pride that Oxford felt when they found out they’re in the play-offs when it comes to fair-play league, currently sitting fifth

Thursday 19 November 2020

It was the Nine Minute Thirty-Eight Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford with KRob on Thursday. KRob came out in defence of his beleaguered squad, and we meant that metaphorically, not that he had a pass into midfield intercepted and found himself woefully out of position. Team issues would be kept internal, he said, before resolutely not revealing to everyone that Nico Jones was ‘miles away’ from the first team, Jose’s son, John Mousinho has a potentially season ending knee issue, Cameron Brannagain has a potentially sight ending eye issue and Jedward third wheel Joel Cooper is currently dealing with a crisis in Northern Ireland, though we feel he’s woefully under-qualified to address the threats to The Good Friday Agreement resulting from Brexit.

Friday 20 November 2020

Oxford travel to Wigan tomorrow with KRob reassessing the reasons for his team’s poor start to the season. On Tuesday it was a lack of pride. Now it’s too much. One issue is a lack of sleep with Alex Gorrin ‘rewinding the game’ throughout the night to analyse what went wrong, presumably on his Betamax video player (ask your dead grandad, kids).

In other news, Oxford have been drawn against sandal wearing, Guardian reading, woke vegans Forest Green Rovers in whatever the next round of the Papa Johns Trophy is. It’ll be a good game though, but like this week’s GLS, we doubt it’ll be a meat feast.

Midweek fixture: Oxford United’s biggest rivals… ranked

How do you measure a rivalry? Location? Envy? Superiority? Or is it just a feeling? A few weeks ago, I asked you who you thought were our biggest rivals. Well, here’s the top nineteen.

19. Peterborough United

Let’s not get carried away; it doesn’t take many votes to become our 19th biggest rival. This one is the result of a brooding dislike following the curtailing of last season and the antics of the Peterborough hierarchy.

18. Cambridge United

Really? I’m surprised so many lazy Sky Sports commentators voted. The tenuous varsity link between the two cities has never turned made it into the stands in terms of a rivalry.

17. Queen’s Park Rangers

While many of these lower rivals are based on a single issue, any rivalry with QPR is surely based on a single game, 34 years ago at Wembley.

16. Coventry City

Maybe a bit of a surprise to some, but if you live in the north of the county, you may be more familiar with Coventry fans than other parts.

15. Sunderland

The biggest team in our division probably attracts a few ‘pick me’ votes, but the added link of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Chris Maguire, mean that Sunderland make the list.

14. Stevenage

The team that denied us promotion from the Conference in 2010, but most likely, any rivalry is down to one man and his drinks break; Graham Westley.

13. Wimbledon

Familiarity breeds contempt, Oxford and Wimbledon have shared many seasons together over a very long time. Alongside Luton, they’re the only team we’ve played in both the top flight and the Conference.

12. Bristol City

I can’t fathom this one, we’ve played each other once in the last eighteen years.

11. Crewe Alexandra

In almost any other season, Crewe wouldn’t attract a vote, but the vitriol surrounding their double postponement earlier this season adds a bit of spice to an otherwise dormant relationship. The only rivalry based on not playing any games.

10. Cheltenham Town

Into the top ten and we’re beginning to touch on more sensible rivalries. Cheltenham Town’s relationship must be down to location.

9. Leyton Orient

Some will never let it go; some fourteen years ago Leyton Orient came to the Kassam looking for a win to secure promotion. They did it in the last minute, which sent us down to the Conference. They danced on our pitch, apparently, though I’d left by then. Some will never forget or forgive.

8. MK Dons

The newest rivalry in the list. It’s not exactly what you’d call white hot, but geographical location has always promised a good large following and made MK Dons a decent away day.

7. Portsmouth

Portsmouth sat on their own in terms of votes – some twenty ahead of MK Dons, and a similar number behind Northampton. We’ve shared many seasons with Portsmouth, I think secretly we’re a bit envious of their size and history, which makes beating them all the more sweet.

6. Northampton Town

Now we’re into the real rivalries. First up Northampton Town, another team whose path we’ve crossed countless times. Added spice came from Chris Wilder leaving us for them in 2014, then keeping them up. Then two years later, Wilder took them up as champions despite Michael Appleton’s assertion we were the better team.

5. Luton Town

There’s a genuinely visceral dislike for Luton Town, we’ve played them in the top division and the Conference, we’ve been promotion rivals and they’ve poached our manager. All of which adds up to a relationship with a bit of bite.

4. Bristol Rovers

A team we’ve played with almost monotonous regularity, any rivalry is spiced up by the fact we’re both very capable of winning away in the game. Matty Taylor helped turn the heat up a notch, he hates the Gas, pass it on.

3. Wycombe Wanderers

It’s not a derby, but of all the non-derbies out there, this is the biggest one for us. We won decisively in a key game on the way to promotion in 1996, they beat us in the FA Cup when we were on a roll in 2010, six years later we secured promotion against them, and last year they secured promotion against us at Wembley. It’s not a derby, but it’s getting there.

2. Reading

Perhaps at the expense of Reading? We haven’t played each other in 16 years and not as equals in 19. But, a rivalry still exists, apparently, though it’s kind of like the Korean War – it’s still technically happening, but in reality it’s made up of irritating each other on social media.

1. Swindon Town

The big one. But, this list wasn’t really about finding out who our biggest rival were.