Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Doncaster Rovers 1

It’s been 1099 days since we last went to the Kassam Stadium for a genuinely mathematically meaningless game. Three days short of three years, when we played, well, Doncaster Rovers and, well, drew. We had a seventeen-year-old, Nico Jones, making his full debut in defence who marked the occasion with a good performance and an own goal. We were 11th with 60 points with a game to go (which we lost).

I don’t remember it, and I guess in time I won’t remember yesterday’s re-run which, of course, had James Golding in the role of defensive debutante. Only Jack Stevens’ athleticism prevented Golding from matching Jones’ feat of putting the ball into his own net.  

Still, it was quite refreshing to take a breath, throw away the league table and see what’s what. Karl Robinson described it as a pre-season friendly, but it wasn’t even that, there were no weighted expectations, no anxiously looking for signs of what’s to come in the coming season. It was an opportunity to take stock.

Almost literally, Robinson purged the squad of players who wouldn’t be at the club next season, Mark Sykes being the most obvious persona non-grata, ending a curious relationship in which he teetered on the edge of leaving for League 2 before turning himself into a player who is expected to play in the Championship or Scottish Premiership next season.

It’s part of Robinson’s style; if he loves you, he really loves you, if not, then you’re designated other, an outsider. Think of his on-off-on love affair with Rob Hall, his cynical recall of George Baldock in 2016, his loyalty to Marcus Browne and Nathan Holland. You can see it in how others view him, Robinson can be despised by fans outside the club he’s at, but once inside your club, he’s perceived very differently.

It’s very deliberate, I suspect, one of Alex Ferguson’s qualities was his ability to convince his squads that everyone hated them. That’s absurd, of course, Manchester United were the biggest club in the world, loved by millions, admired by more. Ferguson convinced his players that beyond the club’s boundaries was a hostile land, they had to perform and stay inside the camp because there was no future outside it.

Robinson’s treatment of Sykes may as much be a message to the squad – a kind of blood sacrifice – as it is a swipe at Sykes himself. Don’t be surprised if he reappears at some point a la Gavin Whyte. But for now, the message is; do you want to be alone out there? Really?

Maybe there’s good reason to stay; the sun shone which gave a rare opportunity for fans to truly show their colours. You’ve got to be pretty fashion-forward to wear a bright yellow coat, so during the brutal winter months, the yellow army rarely shows more than a glimpse of its signature colour. Yesterday we looked vibrant, there were a lot of vintage shirts on show, a sign of our heritage. We turned up in good numbers. I suspect a proportion bought tickets a few weeks ago in anticipation of it being critical to securing a play-off spot or better, but still they came. We looked like a club.

We warmly applauded Golding and O’Donkor’s every touch, a habitual over-compensation to give them encouragement. Golding had an excellent game despite the momentary panic of nearly putting the ball in his own net. O’Donkor was enthusiastic, which is all you can ask for when you’re making your debut from the bench. There was a freshness about seeing them play, a freedom that we could be without fear of what it might do to the league table.

The central debate seems to be whether we’re moving forward. Measuring progress is hard, it’s not a specific data point – though many will point at a single thing that will ‘prove’ their personal view. Success is a basket of measures from which you deduce scenarios. The points total is better, the performances are better, but relative to others we’re worse, the club is more robust, but stability of the squad and the number of senior players at the end of their contract is worse than a year ago. It’s hard, but for me, at worst we’ve broadly ended up in the same place, with signs of improvement. I’m happy with the season and I’m happy with being in League 1. But that’s only for now, of course.

Nietzche says ‘Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.” What he’s saying is that problems or solutions can rarely be found in individuals, they exist in the collective whole – in the connections between individuals. We don’t have any truly ‘bad’ players, one signing or loss of a player won’t materially change who we are. It hasn’t always been the case, when we’ve been less cohesive, it’s been easier to single out problems.

And this takes me back to a theme I wanted to touch on at the start of the season, but never got round to. I think of Marcus Rashford and his work feeding hungry children, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson promoting the work of nurses, Tyrone Mings calling out the hypocrisy of the Home Secretary, Karl Robinson during the pandemic, John Mousinho and his work on dementia through the PFA. I think of taking the knee before games to highlight the cancerous impact of racism, a cause the players won’t back down from despite criticism. All of that without the fact they are highly skilled professionals and amongst the healthiest humans in the world. Have we reached a stage where the football profession holds itself to higher standards than wider society? It’s not just about profile, these people don’t have to do it, they’ve got money and difficult jobs, there has to be a will to do it.

And that makes me think that the club will only move forward if everyone takes part and raises their standards, that’s not always by doing the big things. Perhaps it’s going to an extra game on a cold Tuesday when you’d rather be at home, shouting a bit louder, going to an extra away game, being friendly and funny to opposition fans when you’re there, buying a bit of merchandise, bringing a friend to a game, going to a women’s game, writing a blog (no, don’t do that). Success is not in the individuals, it’s in the whole.

So to the players, management, staff, owners, fans, media, podcasters, bloggers, mysterious Rage On maintainers, Oxford Kits illustrators, Yellows Forum arguers, the planners and politicians trying to secure our long term future, we should be happy and proud of what we’ve achieved. We started the season emerging from a pandemic, negotiated a scary re-emergence of the virus, the death of a legend, stepped forward in gaining a new stadium and had some thrills along the way. There’s work to do, but for now the summer is here, let’s not judge ourselves by whether we’ve gone backwards or forwards, but instead let’s simply enjoy what we’ve achieved.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Jakarta Stevens

Saturday 13 March

Oxford were meticulously dismantled 2-0 on Saturday by Hull City. It reminded GLS of his childhood catching flies and slowly dismantling them limb by limb and wing by wing. Do Hull City also keep rusted car parts in the front garden and eat cold beans from a tin?

Sunday 14 March 2021

Hull manager Grant McCann was impressed by his team’s performance yesterday. “We’ve shown a real calmness and maturity … they play in a certain way, which is difficult to play against at times” said McCann. That ‘certain way’ being the equivalent of a mad scramble when you put your foot on something wet in a children’s ball pool. Hull look in good shape for promotion; if anyone can, Grant McCann can.

Monday 15 March 2021

KRob has confirmed he doesn’t plan to commit career suicide by taking on the vacant position at Birmingham City. He still has ambition to make Oxford United one of the top 30 teams in the country – a vibe which could be described as ‘headliners on Quest, last on Match of the Day’. 

Tuesday 16 March 2021

KRob said he wants to take the handbrake off for the rest of the season, begging the question why we’ve had the handbrake on for most of this season’s journey. Surprisingly, the new philosophy didn’t plunge us into a ravine as we ran Doncaster ragged with a three goal mauling at The Kassam.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

The Doncaster press have set upon their team after their woeful performance last night. Superlatives include “reckless passes out from the back”, “gave the ball away a lot”, “really sloppy with possession” “shut out too easily [and] slow to find space”. We think this was an unfair assessment, they weren’t that good.

Thursday 18 March 2021

The appliance of sports science, that’s the KRob way. Rotating his squad has been the key to a return to form in recent weeks. “Something we did on Saturday might not impact the team until next weekend.” said KRob sounding like your gran when she’s trying to describe her last proper bowel movement “Something we did two weeks ago might have had an impact on Tuesday.”

Friday 19 March 2021

Rumours are swirling around that the club is about to be taken over by an Indonesian consortium. Any foreign ownership brings fears of reputation washing, money laundering and illicit betting scams, but Oxford are big news in Indonesia. People still talk of the Rob Duffy Riots in Jarkarta after the 2007 Conference Play-Off failure and it’s a little known fact that Tom Newey and David Hunt are now the Indonesian equivalent of Ant and Dec. “Saya seorang selebriti, keluarkan saya dari sini!!!” as they say.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Doncaster Rovers 0

I get a lot of unsolicited LinkedIn requests from people claiming to be ‘wealth maximisation specialists’ or ‘innovation entrepreneurs’. They’re usually President of something like ‘Feelin’ Awesome Inc’ based in Sacramento California. LinkedIn is a world class performance centre for boasting charlatans.

Not if you’re ex-Oxford manager Ian Atkins, he’s toned down his profile over the years as his CV has grown, but he’s not going to tug at your basic instincts; the successes he lists are dry as dust, but real, pragmatic and tangible. No more, no less. His achievements at Oxford include reducing the wage bill by £1m and selling two players ‘for profit’. That’s not a one-off; at both Carlisle and Bristol Rovers he lists his main successes as ‘selling players for profit’.

When we drew Arsenal in the FA Cup in 2003, Atkins’ immediate reaction to the draw was something like ‘Oh I feel a midfield five coming on’. It was a light hearted response to the prospect of facing Arsenal’s potent attacking force, but the interviewer couldn’t be absolutely sure whether it was a joke or not. It wasn’t like it was an obvious comical over-exaggeration like ‘I think we’ll need four goalkeepers for this one’, even Atkins’ gags had a pragmatic realism about them.

Before last night’s win, Karl Robinson was in a philosophical mood about the rest of the season. The remaining games, he said, would be all out effort to see where we end up. There’s no process anymore, he said. Some might question if there’s ever any process with Robinson, his teams seem so driven by emotion and culture his Atkins-like methodicalness seems to be encased in concrete and anchored to the bed of a particularly deep river.

But, he’s right. We’re not going down, so nothing to fear there, we’re still in touch with the play-off spots, even if it looks like it’s two places being chased by seven teams. Between now and the end of the season, why not throw everything at it rather than being boring and cautious and waiting until next year? As he said, your mind gets tired quicker than your body, if you can keep your brain focussed, the body will follow. Carpe diem.

I did a double-take when I looked at the table at half-time with us 3-0 up to see we were in seventh and a point off the play-offs. Only a late winner at Charlton saw drop a place. How did that happen? It was only our second win in seven and we’re still up there.

It’s difficult to tell whether we were particularly good in the first half or if Doncaster were particularly bad. They seemed to invent lots of new ways of playing themselves into trouble. We were bright but not so ferocious that we forced them into errors, although it was clear that once a weakness had been identified we would continue to work on it whether it was their keeper’s poor kicking, their centre-back’s terrible passes or the woes of their full-back trying to contain Brandon Barker. 

A more swashbuckling, disruptive style is a fun way to play our football when the biggest risk is a mid-table finish. Listening to the Ox Files podcast the club put out about the 1995/96 promotion season, it’s something that drove the final phases of that season. Mike Ford said that a pivotal win over Carlisle taught them that being brave and messing with the status quo was more enjoyable than scratching out draws and sneaking intricate tactical wins for a mid-table finish. We got a similar sense of abandon after Jamie Mackie’s goal against Bradford City which fired off a searing run in 2018/19. Whether this result will spark us into life remains to be seen, but there are plenty of parties to mess with between now and the end of May, should we choose.

I’ve written us off about twelve times this season and still think we’re a hundred miles away from being ready for the Championship, but that’s the Ian Atkins in me, dwelling on the mistakes of the past and plotting not to make those mistakes again. Perhaps the reason that, despite our form, we’re still in the play-off fight is because there are lots of teams around us going processing the same problem. Paralysis through analysis, fearing failure. Maybe, just maybe, Karl Robinson is right to take the handbrake off and see where it takes us. We’ve just about earned the right to have a shot; the thing is, with Karl Robinson at the helm, you wouldn’t bet against us prevailing on a tidal wave of emotional energy.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: The lunar-tics taking over the asylum

Saturday 6 February 2021

GLS hasn’t had an unfamiliar sensation like this since the doctor told him she needed to use the extra long lance. Apparently we suffered what’s known as ‘a loss’ on Saturday against Doncaster Rovers. This is an Old English term historians believe was last used in the Oxford area around the birth of Christ, or ‘Sam Long’ as he’s more conventionally known. An approximate translation is something along the lines of ‘WHAT THE FUDGING HECK WERE YOU DOING REF? HOW IS THAT NOT A PENALTY?’. 

Sunday 7 February 2021

Last year, the country was in thrall as Coleen Rooney took to Twitter to call out Rebekah Vardy for leaking stories to the tabloids. The affair was dubbed ‘Wagatha Christie’. Well, season two just dropped, it’s… A Touch of Fost. 

Ex-Oxford United central defender Luke Foster, spoke to The Mirror about his relationship with Vardy back in the early-2000s. He couldn’t cope with her relentless demands for the fame and glamour associated with dating one of the Conference’s most sought-after mid-table central defenders. Foster was left penniless when she traveled to games with him, sometimes blowing as much as £19 in Droylsden’s exclusive charity boutiques. 

Monday 8 February 2021

There’s more to Bristol Rovers Peaky Blinder Paul Tisdale than turn-ups and a pair of vintage Adidas Spezials, he’s also got a distressed t-shirt of a band he’s never heard of with the sleeves torn off. Tomorrow we head for Bristol Rovers just two weeks after beating them 2-0 at home.  “I think we’ve made some progress in terms of players” he said “and maybe some pattern that has improved since then.” Nothing barks improvement like no wins in nine, and two goals and two points out of twelve since our last game.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

*coquettishly puts fingers on lips and looks innocent*

What’s that? Oh, I’ve dropped something? This little thing? Another win? Oh silly me, let me bend down and pick it up. Gosh, I hope this skirt isn’t too short?

Yes, Oxford collect the wins like binmen collect the bins – almost every week, except for in inclement weather and with times adjusted to accommodate Bank Holidays. Goals from loanees Elliot Lee and Brandon Barker saw us cruise to a 2-0 win on Tuesday night

Wednesday 10 February 2021

After last night’s result Paul Tisdale has been told to pack his faux-vintage leather satchel (Primark, £7.99) and hit the high road. It’s been a torrid time for Tisdale who has only been in charge for 19 games, Matty Taylor has been on the phone to recruit him for Gas Hating Club and to ask him where he got that cashmere scarf from.  

Elsewhere, having received his Covid vaccine for being old and vulnerable, man-bun Ricky Holmes is currently limping around unconvincingly at Southend United’s training ground after leaving Northampton Town’s physio bench.

Thursday 11 February 2021

The Mirror have taken to wildly speculating who will take over as manager at Bournemouth. It’s a veritable racist paradise with both Jonathan Woodgate and John Terry in the running. One surprise name, though, is plucky non-racist KRob, whose been turning a few heads with his endeavours at Oxford. There’s a lot going for KRob; his results record, his record developing players and especially that the compo will be cheap when they fire him after six games and get Eddie Howe back again.

Friday 12 February 2021

KRob missed out on becoming manager of the month to Hull’s Grant McCann on Friday. Despite his perfect record in January, nobody can deny that Hull’s plummet down the form table to 11th hasn’t been eye-catching. Nothing could separate Josh Ruffels from Matty Lund of Rochdale for player of the month apart from their defensive records, goals per game, head-to-head record, league position and points accumulated; so the judges had to rely on the complicated football algorithm; alphabetical order, to make the decision. 

The club went and done a complete ‘normal’ again, announcing that it was introducing a new logo and planning a series of events to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year, which is the Year of the Ox. The first of which was to postpone the game against Wigan on Saturday by 24 hours due to a frozen pitch – a Chinese dragon is on its way to help thaw the pitch out. Future events include trying to encourage Nick Harris to avoid calling his local takeaway the ‘Chinky’.

Meanwhile, the Sheffield Star have spun the wheel of random punditry to reveal that John Lundstram has been tipped to join Leeds United in the summer by former Aston Villa full-back Alan Hutton who has no obvious connection to any of the parties involved. Next month, Joe Skarz tipped for Borussia Mönchengladbach by Julian Joachim.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Postponed Malone

Saturday 17 January 2021

Oxford have had five games called off due to CoVid pestilence this season, so it was a novelty when news filtered through that our game against Northampton Town on Saturday was called off due to flood. ‘We’ve tested the pitch, and the ball isn’t running true’ said a spokesman for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Sunday 18 January 2021

Jedward orphan, Mark Sykes has been given clearance to play for the Republic of Ireland after turning his back on the Northern Ireland faster than a braying tax-avoiding Brexit billionaire. “Clearance came through a month ago.” he said. Sykes is looking forward to pulling on the famous emerald green shirt just as soon as Sports Direct in Botley is back open so he can go and buy one.

Monday 19 January 2021

It was revealed on Monday that the Kassam Stadium is set to become a Covid vaccine centre. For most, being vaccinated will be a straightforward process of having a painless injection in their upper arm. However, Oxford United fans will also be offered The David Kemp Special, which is for those who prefer to stick needles in their eyes.

Tuesday 20 January 2021

It’s been announced that the twice postponed game against Doncaster Rovers, has been rescheduled to be postponed on the 16th March while the trip to Northampton, postponed on Saturday, will be postponed a week later on the 23rd March.

Wednesday 21 January 2021

Loan strangers Dan Crowley and Ben Woodburn are refocusing their careers as brief paragraphs in ‘Whatever happened to…’ internet articles. Crowley, signed by PClot for Birmingham City, is set for a loan spell at Hull City, while wunderkind Woodburn has returned to Liverpool, for his thirty-fourth last chance to revive his flagging career, after his loan spell at Blackpool ended.

Thursday 22 January 2021

KRob is bamboozled by the format of the Papa Johns Trophy; there are unconfirmed reports that we’re now in the quarter-finals and could face trips to Hull City, Tranmere Rovers or Sunderland. The draw is on Saturday live on Babestation or something. “It doesn’t make sense” said KRob salivating over his takeaway menu; “Even I wouldn’t go to Sunderland for a Chilli Freak pizza with a side order of Marmite and cheese scrolls and a large diet coke.”

Friday 23 January 2021

Former football club and now internet heritage brand Oxford United are alleged to be coming out of retirement for a game against Bristol Rovers. Rovers are managed by rejected Peaky Blinders character Paul Tisdale who is expecting the game to be ‘fluid’. Matty Taylor returns to his old club. Tisdale, an out-of-the-box thinker, is planning to stop Taylor by waiting until after the game to look back to see if he stopped him. “He is a threat.” he said adjusting his baker boy cap and straightening his cravat “how we quantify that, let’s talk about that in hindsight once we’ve done a job to stop him being a threat.” Smart.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Wam! Bam! Thank you, Sam

Saturday 26 December 2020

Like GLS’ approach to sharing a tub of Celebrations, Oxford left with the bounty against Wimbledon after a 2-0 win on Boxing Day. Despite goals from Matty Taylor and Jordan Obita, star of the show was goalkeeper Jack Stevens who made a string of saves to prevent The Dons from getting back into the game. We haven’t seen reactions like that since the time GLS’ mum opened a crotchless pearl thong from his dad in front of nan one Christmas. 

Sunday 27 December 2020

Poor old Glyn Hodges is bemused by his team’s inability to score against Oxford yesterday. After creating a host of chances, they left with nothing. Hodges is looking on the bright side; “we created a lot of chances against a side, for me, that were the best in this division by a country mile…” he said causing us to beam with pride “…last season.” he added. Oh.

Monday 28 December 2020

GLS has found his best gold lame jacket and slicked down his combover with half a tub of brylcreem because it’s time to announce… CoVid Postponement Of The Week. Yes, our game against Doncaster Rovers has been postponed on 5th January. The game is expected to be rescheduled for 63rd Jantembuary 2028. 

Meanwhile Cowboy Chris Cadden could be about to mount his trusty steed and head back to the old country after it was revealed Columbus Crew may seek to off load him. Both Oxford and Hibs are said to be interested.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Headington United’s Sam Long was the star of the show on Tuesday night scoring a wonder goal at Plymouth Argyle in a 3-2 win. Long burst out of his own half, exchanged passes with Daryl Clare and slotted home having run some 60 yards to score. Some didn’t think Long had it in his legs, but he’s been doing double shifts down at the Headington quarry in between games. 

Wednesday 30 December 2020

If Boris Johnson styles himself as the pandemic’s Winston Churchill, then KRob is becoming its Vera Lynn. The nation’s sweetheart has been on Radio 4’s Today Programme (woo! Get you) complaining that the lower leagues have got sloppy with their CoVid testing regimes. He then prepared himself to sing a rousing chorus of The White Cliffs of Dover, but there suddenly wasn’t time.

Elsewhere, it’s been revealed that Oxford were the 8th best team in League 1 in 2020, GLS has been pouring over the stats trying to glean some meaning from that fact, to which there’s none.

Thursday 31 December 2020

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard’s quest to create McOxford at Ibrox could be about to take a step closer. John Lundstram may be set for a move after turning down a new contract at Sheffield United. No less an authority on all things John Lundstram-related – yes, Gabi Agbonlahor – has said he’d jump at the chance. Next week: why George Waring holds the key to Auld Firm dominance by Lee Cattemole.

Friday 1 January 2021

Oxford visit Burton Albion tomorrow looking to make it four wins in a row. The Brewers haven’t had a permanent manager since the departure of Nigel Clough in the summer. Burton’s taste in managers is like a two-year old fussy eater who will only eat pasta or chips for tea as Jimmy Flloyd Hasselbaink returns for his 227th stint in charge.