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.

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.