Dagenham and Redbrige 0 Oxford United 1

Football, at its very best, demands that you use a broad range of emotions. Happiness alone is not enough. In fact, the more guaranteed your happiness is, the less attractive football becomes.  The early rounds of the FA Cup tell you that. A home tie against a non-league side – and the promise of a festival of goals – will not generate big crowds. However, games against bigger teams, when you’re not likely to win can be a sell out.
On Tuesday night, following the 1-0 win over Dagenham and Redbridge, Chris Wilder got sniffy when his interviewer asked about a Ryan Clarke save in the closing minutes. He considered the question to be negative, resented the implication that we’d rode our luck.
But we need those moments of harum-scarum; it puts the good times into stark relief.  That’s a reason that away wins tend to be more satisfying than a home one.
There was quite a bit of fall out following the draw with Burton. Someone commented that Jake Wright’s position should be under threat, albeit with a caveat that he’s still ‘a legend’. When JP Pitman was loaned out to Crawley – a surprise to everyone, I think – somebody commented that it would have been nice to see more of Pitman – good or bad. These were strangely guarded criticisms.
For nearly 3 years, it’s been good to be an Oxford fan. But have we got too nice? We seem to have an almost endless capacity for goodwill. Even the likes of Midson, Deering, Creighton and Green were brought up as people who would never have got us into the ‘parlous’ state we’d found ourselves in (i.e. 1 defeat in 5). The endless niceness ignored Deering’s inability to reach the penalty box from a corner, or Green’s patchy finishing. Effective though they were at the time; are they potential saviours now? No.
Perhaps we need someone to boo. Our boo reflex is all flabby and unexercised, we can’t discharge the range of emotions needed to enjoy football. We need a Matt Murphy, when the good times were rolling in 1996, we could always channel our frustrations towards Murphy. It satisfied our need to criticise.

Because we need to be frustrated at football, and because we don’t have anyone to be frustrated with, it means when negativity comes, it does so as one big overreaction, as we saw against Burton, followed by one big overreaction of positivity, as we’ve seen against Dagenham. We need to be more on the level.

We could have been a contender

This was supposed to be a title decider, but that particular issue was decided some time ago. When the race was on, the date was firmly in the diary; I’d imagined it would be played on a balmy spring evening with a expectant crowd in shirt sleeves. With the title race gone cold, although it was balmy, appropriately, there was a nip in the air.

From the off, it was evident that whatever the differences between the teams this season, Oxford fans were determined to demonstrate a gulf between the clubs. The singing was loud and tight, not like the Orient game where the crowd were fractious, angry and twitchy; this was a hark back to better times, it even felt a bit like the London Road. The Daggers brought a good load with them, but they could barely be heard. Makes a change from being out-sung by 9 men and a dog from a Lancastrian seaside town.

Then their goal came; and it revealed how damaged we are as a club. Like Apollo Creed fighting the giant automaton Ivan Drago in Rocky IV; no amount of fancy shorts, baby oil and showboating can disguise the fact that underneath the bonnet there’s a damaged engine. One decent shot from the healthier foe and we were reeling. Each set back is like opening a gaping wound. It caused a typically Pavlovian response; berating Andy Burgess, booing at half-time, both were barely deserved, but it’s a habit we’ve got into.

There are shoots of recovery; the improving crowds, the togetherness, and the emerging flag culture, but this is a club that is has taken quite a beating for a long time. Much as we try to put on a brave face, we’re tired of failure, of fighting the sickness that stricken us for so long. I’m not talking about the players, I’m talking about the fans.

Then, for ten minutes we were brilliant. Swarming forward with abandon, everything was gelling, everyone was on their toes. Yemi was playing the game of his life marauding down the right whilst Eddie Anaclet ran shotgun behind him. Yemi’s second goal, in particular, triggered an eruption of sheer joy. Suddenly, it was fun to be an Oxford fan, in fact it was the most fun we’d had in nearly a decade.

The current team is a vanguard for a new Oxford; like all vanguards, mistakes are made, lessons need to be learnt. Twelve months ago we were a ragged, farce of a club with factions and fractures everywhere. Something had to change, a new club was needed; this isn’t the club of Chicken George Lawrence and John Aldridge; it’s Oxford 2.0, the next generation. Last night there was the slightest glimmer of what might be.

The Daggers were efficiently effective, The Us were superior, but in patches and, crucially, we were profligate in front of goal; which pretty much sums up the season. There’s no doubting that these are the two best teams in the division and both deserve league football. The play-offs are a lottery, I just hope that despite the last minute equaliser, we, the players, the fans, realise how much stronger we are, remembering how we battered the league champions and how much we still deserve to, and should, go up in May.

Dogfight

The awkward form continues and the title is turning into a dogfight. Whilst Weymouth et al may harbour ambitions of the title; in reality the chances of them overhauling the 14 points that would be needed to overturn the top two are limited.

We should not beat ourselves up about this. Walsall have had a similar run of form to us in League 2 and have a 7 point lead. It’s Dagenham‘s quality, not our dip in form, that means the title is still so open. It’s true our form isn’t good but Dagenham themselves have hit a rough couple of games.

It looks like we’ll go to the turn of the season on top and there are reasons to be cheerful; we’ve played two more away games than we have home, Dagenham’s fixtures have worked out the other way around. We’ve played all but three of the top 10 away, and meet two of the other three before Valentine’s Day, and taken points from all but one. The Daggers are set to lose a couple of key players in the transfer window, which is set to put considerable strain on their already small squad. I maintain that March is the key month for the season.

Nobody would complain about an upturn in away form, which strengthens the argument for taking the Lewes game seriously. We might as well take the Trophy seriously; arrogantly fielding a weakened team misses the opportunity to rediscover our rhythm and there is no point in limping along from round to round until we meekly slip out. I think we need to go out to win the trophy, even if it isn’t our primary objective.