Match wrap: Queen’s Park Rangers 2 Oxford United 0

I’ll be honest, this is not likely to be my finest literary work. I’ve tried to find an angle for last night’s defeat to QPR, but nothing has come to the fore. The reality is, the result is most likely to be filed alongside such honourable League Cup exits as the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in 2016 and the penalty loss to Watford last year. You may remember them, or, more likely, not.

Given our history, you’d think that a League Cup game against QPR might stir some kind of emotion, but as much as the 1986 final marked our pinnacle, the 2021 re-rub, maybe just reminded us only of the competition’s increasing irrelevance in modern domestic football.

Playing a weakened side in the League Cup is an affectation of the modern game. It’s almost unprofessional to take it seriously. If you’re not the bigger team protecting your assets for greater challenges, you’re the smaller team protecting your assets because you don’t expect to win anyway. Any game in which everyone is happy to lose is not in a healthy state. In a post-pandemic world, where we’ve been forced to re-consider our priorities and what we believe to be important, we have to question what role the League Cup now plays.

Generally speaking I’m a traditionalist; in my head I’ve developed a blueprint to revitalise the FA Cup, which one day I’ll release to the world. But, plot spoiler, it’s draws heavily from my FA Cup experiences in the 1980s. I’d like to say that I feel similarly compelled towards the League Cup, it is, after all ‘ours’. Truth be known, I’m beginning to concede that it’s becoming a lost cause.

Did we need to be reminded of Rob Dickie’s quality? Of the chasm between the Championship and League 1? Did we need to stretch our squad, which is already looking a bit threadbare? Did we even need to mush together 2000 Oxford fans in the midst of a pandemic? What did we gain?

Ultimately, it’s like playing a pre-season friendly three weeks after the season’s started. A leg stretcher of which the result is of secondary importance. There have been notable recent exceptions, of course, playing Manchester City twice and beating West Ham, but things have to fall your way for those nights to happen; often they don’t.

Maybe that’s the answer; maybe the draw should be loaded so that the lower team always plays at home, something to destabilise the status quo. I don’t know that I have the energy to develop the pros and cons of that idea.

Whatever, ultimately August is a card sorting month, the equivalent of checking you’ve got your keys and wallet before you head out. It can propel you forward, it can be a wake up call, but it’s just something to negotiate before things get serious. Perhaps the good news is that things are about to get serious; we weren’t expecting to win the League Cup, few had ambitions to go beyond the first couple of rounds. The season will be defined by the league and we have some key fixtures on the horizon. With Lincoln and Wycombe coming up and the need to get points on the board paramount, perhaps the best thing about last night’s game is that we didn’t win it.

Match wrap: Burton Albion 1 Oxford United 1 (2-4 on penalties)

Years ago I damaged ligaments in my ankle playing football. As I went over, I felt an obvious pain and a strange feeling, which may have been a tear or rupture. One of my teammates gave me their sage medical advice and said I should just ‘run it off’. I tried, and even went to see Oxford that afternoon; it’s amazing how a last minute Julian Allsop goal can act as a soothing balm.

A physiotherapist friend checked it over and gave me some advice, but I didn’t do any proper rehabilitation. Months later, apparently fit and recovered, I was fetching a ball back during another game and went over again. The advice I got was that, essentially, the damage done initially had taught my ankle how it could behave – which was completely at odds with how if should behave – although the pain had gone the injury remained.

It’s an odd time being a fan at the moment; the messaging, both by the club and more broadly, is about a great return to normality. And yet, every time I try to engage, I can’t find any purchase. Last night’s game involved a last minute equaliser and a penalty shoot out win but it didn’t stir much emotion in me sitting at home.

It’s early days and it was only Burton and it was only the League Cup, but it feels like the damage done when the physical bonds with the club were severed still remain and may take more time to heal than we thought. 

With eight changes to the starting line-up, it was hard to gauge anything from the team selection – as fans we don’t particularly know where our strengths and weaknesses are, watching on iFollow gives you a two-dimensional view of the game, not the rich experience of being there. It’s difficult to know how under-powered we were.

If you consider that Tyler Goodrham wasn’t seventeen when the first lockdown happened, Joshua Johnson was fifteen; these are names fans might vaguely recognise from the website or the odd EFL Trophy game, but their recent development has been largely hidden from sight; we didn’t see them coming, we don’t know how good they are. Are they on the bench because the club is struggling for depth or is this a golden harvest of rich young talent? All the threads and narratives have been lost, somehow we need to re-engage and recap the story. Where are we strong? Where are we weak? Who are the duds? Who is the golden child?  

Readjusting might be a similar issue for the players; playing in front of fans will always be their preference, but it comes with new pressures; not least the unique pressure at the moment to be the centrepiece of a barnstorming ‘return to matches’ party. It’s in the very nature of football that at some point someone will lose or have a stinker. At some point the party will be pooped, nobody wants to that guy.

All this may explain the reasons for so many changes, the reluctance to throw first choice players back into the mix after periods out – to do too much too soon. The temptation might be to lurch back to normality – or even reach beyond and grab at every opportunity to celebrate and entertain. It’s one of Karl Robinson’s more obvious instincts; he’ll be desperate to play his best team and give someone a pasting to reward the fans, it’s how he’s built. He’s not Ian Atkins or Chris Wilder with their dour philosophy of winning the battle before winning the game and only entertaining when it’s absolutely necessary. We’re told that we all want this riotous return to action, but is that what everyone wants or needs right now? Do we need a full-on party or just a toe in the water? I don’t suppose a club would market any game as ‘come along, it might be OK’ but maybe a solid away draw and a solid Carabao Cup win is just what the doctor ordered to help with our rehabilitation and recovery. There are risks of burning ourselves out before things get serious or disappointing people and falling into a rut, realising that the one thing we all thought we were missing is, in reality, a bit rubbish. Whether it’s by accident or design, a cautious, solid start to the season to reconnect and ease people back may be the best option in the long term.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Watford 1 (0-3 on penalties)

Steve Kinniburgh talks with the attack and authority, he’s not quite the pantomime villain of a Graham Souness or Roy Keane, but he carries the air of a man who has earned his right to an opinion. 

I much prefer Kinniburgh to Peter Rhodes-Brown whose radio analysis rarely gravitates beyond ‘the lads knocking the ball around well’ and ‘wanting to grab an early goal’. But, if you’d challenged me to describe Kinniburgh’s Oxford career I would have said it amounted to a handful of games on loan from Rangers alongside another player (who, it turns out, was Ross Perry). The reality is that he started as many games as Alfie Potter did in our 2009/10 promotion season, as well as another ten in our first season back in the Football League.

I have much clearer memories of the details of our 2015/16 season, but was still surprised to see that Jordan Bowery scored seven goals in nine starts, ahead of his more storied colleagues Chris Maguire, Alex MacDonald and John Lundstram. Going back a bit further, not many people talk about Mark Jones’ 28 game contribution to the glory years of 1983-86.

If successful sides are built on a solid defence then fringe players are the grout that holds them together. England’s World Cup winners are chiselled into the national consciousness and there are stories of people with tattoos of famous cup winning teams, but the dream of a fixed, first-choice eleven that carries you through a whole season is a myth.  History might condense promotion squads into a ‘classic starting XI’ but it’s a trick of the light that your best seasons had the same players trotting out every week. 

For example, if, like me, your classic promotion team from 2010 is Clarke, Tonkin, Wright, Creighton, Batt, Bulman, Clist, Chapman, Midson, Constable, Green, then you might be surprised to hear that the only time that group ever played together was against York at Wembley. This was due, in no small measure, to Rhys Day’s 15 games and Kevin Sandwith who contributed 16, only three fewer than Anthony Tonkin. 

If this season is to be a success, then it’s these fringe player contributions will be critical. The Watford game saw eight changes from the defeat to Lincoln so provided an opportunity to test the capability of our extended squad. 

It’s too early to tell which of those players are easing their way into a more regular spot and who is settling into a season at the margins, but the signs were encouraging. I’m not sure if Derick Osei Yaw is a raw impact player or a genius, both he and Dan Agyei looked exciting and mobile up front. Rob Hall, you suspect, is settling into his role as a dependable back-up. In goal, Jack Stevens’ performance should ensure that the sharp intake of breath resulting from Simon Eastwood taking a knock is a little less sharp in the future.

I normally enjoy this stage of the League Cup – the weather is nice, the pressure is off, the crowd is good natured and there are a few nuggets of interest that comes from playing teams from a different division. But, at the same time it’s nearly impossible to evaluate your opponents – we could have been playing ex-Premier League Watford, or run-of-the-mill Championship Watford or a Watford side on the precipice of falling through the divisions, or the backup Watford of all these incarnations. In terms of quality, any one of their players could be playing anywhere from the Premier League to the Conference in a year’s time. So, we still don’t really know whether taking them to penalties represents a real triumph or a disappointing under-performance. On balance, I think it was a good solid test of the extended squad which is precisely what we were looking for.

They allowed us the space to attack them in a way that Lincoln didn’t – as a result we were able to show there’s strength and ability throughout the squad. The biggest concern remains in defence, John Mousinho’s injury adding to Josh Ruffels’ highlighting that in that department we are vulnerable.

In a sense Mousinho’s injury could have a dose of fortune; for all the goodwill and good signings, it appears to have forced Karl Robinson to think about his defensive cover for the season. Now he has to decide if he thinks Mousinho can play 30 games this season, or the same for Rob Atkinson. As harsh as Atkinson’s red card may have been, the fact it was rescinded was such a rarity, we should look on the fact we currently have two functioning centre-backs for Sunderland, Accrington and Crewe as a matter of freakish good fortune.

The result in the end was by-the-by, even if we had managed to score any of our penalties, after Hall, McGuane and Forde, it was genuinely difficult to think where the fourth and fifth spot kicks would come from. From the moment the final whistle went, it was clear our chances were ebbing away.

All in all a positive evening, although there is an uncomfortable truth that we haven’t won in normal time for six games, a sequence we could really do with breaking before it begins to lodge in peoples’ heads. The enigma that is Sunderland are next, and it’s hard to say if they’ll present a big problem or a potential three points. Given the recent results between the clubs, it would seem their strengths and weaknesses complement ours and a draw would seem the most likely outcome. After that, Accrington and Crewe look like a good opportunity to finally break the sequence. 

Despite the sequence, while there’s no real prospect of the season becoming a struggle, the margins in a promotion charge are narrow. Even at this ludicrously early stage, we don’t want to fall too far behind because getting back on terms will take time and effort. Sticking to the process will be key, maintaining the culture that seems to exist throughout the squad. Karl Robinson has plenty in the bank and his players believe in the system, so you would think it’s going to come good sooner rather than later.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 AFC Wimbledon 1 (4-3 on penalties)

We’re back, or are we?

I watched the brilliant Netflix documentary series, Hip Hop Evolution, a few weeks ago and specifically the story of the ‘cyphers’ which sprung up around Washington Park in New York in the late 1990s. Cyphers were sessions where kids would congregate and try to outdo each other with their rhymes and wordplay in freestyle rap battles. 

Cyphers were an organic reaction to the money-motivated populism of Puff Daddy, which in turn was a reaction to the grim gun violence which led to the killing of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. 

Where Puff Daddy sampled great chunks of familiar million-selling songs and ran reductive raps over the top with the sole aim of selling bucket loads of records, the cyphers re-connected kids with the origins of hip hop. Rather than instant gratification from pop samples which played to a worldwide audience, DJs went back to finding obscure records to sample to create new sounds and beats while MCs outdid each other with the complexity of their rhymes and rhythm. What resulted was a generation of skilled lyricists like Talib Kweli, Common and Eminem.

One commentator explained, it was a reconnection of the output with its context. With the likes of Puff Daddy, hip hop had become solely about money, playing to the lowest common denominator, this new wave was about its community, building their reputation by being more skilful and clever than the others.

The link between football and its context is currently being tested, watching via an internet stream remains a mostly soulless experience. It’s necessary, and in some ways helpful, to be reminded that we remain in the midst of a crisis, and that things are not normal. It’s therefore right that Karl Robinson treated the Wimbledon game as an extension of our pre-season friendly programme. Entertaining the crowd wasn’t necessarily a priority. Even when league games start next week, it will still feel like we’re treading water until we can reconnect the games with their context and have fans back in the ground.

The re-structured season may play to our advantage. There is a built-in stability this season; only Marcus McGuane, Rob Atkinson and Derick Osei Yaw (briefly) made their debuts compared to five players last season and six the year before. Both those seasons started unevenly with just two wins out of our first eight last year, one less than the year before. 

But aside from the settled squad, our difficulties at the start of a season is down to the style we play, lots of passing and possession accompanied with blistering attacks in numbers. The movement needs to be second nature if it’s to be effective and, while that’s bedding in, we can look like a group of busy fools getting picked off by more conservative opposition. Take, for example, last season’s 4-2 defeat to Burton, there were times when we looked brilliant, but then we were unpicked by a team whose idea of cutting loose is to undo the top button of a Marks and Spencer shirt. In both previous seasons it took some time to find our flow. 

The stability we’ve managed to achieve over the summer means that most of the DNA remains intact. Osei Yaw aside, whose appearance was too brief to judge, Atkinson looked comfortable in place of Rob Dickie, while McGuane was industrious throughout. There was one brilliant pass which nearly put Matty Taylor through, but otherwise you could see he was still trying to figure out where the angles were with an extra touch which often lost him the opportunity. You get the sense, given time, he’ll be more confident of where his team mates are making his play more incisive. The lack of crowds – with their ability to erode as well as build confidence – may be an advantage.

It was also good to see Cameron Brannagan back in form. While few were prepared to admit it, least of all Brannagan himself, he didn’t quite seem the player he was post-injury last year, which may be why he’s still at the club, but it looks like we’ll benefit as a result. Also, Simon Eastwood continues to come back into form after a rusty play-off campaign. 

So the Wimbledon game, along with the EFL Trophy game against Chelsea Under 21s on Tuesday acts as an extended opportunity to bed new players in without the pressure of the fans complaining at a missed pass or opportunity. In addition, there isn’t the carrot of a big Premier League payday to play for which can tempt managers into looking for short term results over long term benefit. Whatever the second round brings, its advantage is in the minutes the players have on the pitch together, over the glories of the result. The lack of urgency in the early stages of the season should allow new players to settle and existing players to find their feet.

Pretty much every year I say that the season starts with all idealism and no facts and ends with all facts and no idealism. No single game defines the outcome of a season, least of all the first, so drawing significant conclusions to the draw with Wimbledon; our frailties at set pieces or the lack of clear chances up front is a fool’s game. While we seek answers to open questions, football is all a process of evolution. It’s why we, as fans, live with it constantly questioning and concluding only to find that the game has changed and the context moved on. 

Last year we’d won only three games of our opening ten, something that’s forgotten given what came later. That period could have been the difference between the play-offs and promotion. The year before it was just four wins. The front loading of League Cup and Trophy games this season affords us more opportunity to try, and fail, before the season gets into gear and, hopefully, the context; the reason for doing this in the first place, begins to return.  

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Hey Yaw!

Sunday 16 August 2020

The 92 Club is where overweight middle-aged men with Status Quo patches on their denim jackets try to visit every ground in the country. The 92 refers to the number of social media interactions they have every day with young girls in short skirts that claim to be both real and Ipswich Town fans. Sulky sixth-former Rob Dickie is closing in on his own 92 club landmark as Newcastle became the 88th club this summer interested in signing him.

Monday 17 August 2020

The draw for the world’s oldest socially distanced football tournament – the EFL Trophy – was made on Monday, or at least part of it. The draw was held in the middle of a desolate forest in the dead of the night by two druids and a mountain goat. Probably, but frankly who cares? In it, we drew Walsall and Bristol Rovers. Early games are likely to be played without fans, so no change there then. 

Tuesday 18 August 2020

Oxford announced that its new sponsor was the Thai tourist authority Amazing Thailand. Tourism sponsors are very much on trend in League 1 – as well as the sun drenched paradise of Thailand, Blackpool will be promoting their own town as the country’s chlamydia capital while Swindon are sponsored ‘Imagine Cruising’ or as they’re properly known ‘Imagine cruising on a coronavirus incubator’.

In the Type 2 Diabetes Cup, Oxford have been drawn against Fash The Bash and co – Wimbledon – while the Chelsea Muppet Babies have been added to our EFL Trophy group.   

Wednesday 19 August 2020

The club caused mega-ROFLs by ostentaciously announcing the new club socks before revealing their new yellow t-shirt for the season. The story of absolute bantz caused total scenes and was picked up by the Daily Mail whose reader Dandada14 lambasted the story for its poor journalism. Blimey, wait until he hears about the Brexit lies and racebating of Meghan Markle. 

Squad numbers were announced on Wednesday causing amateur numerologists everywhere to pour over the mystical meaning of each proclamation. Jedward orphan Mark Sykes has been elevated to the number 10 shirt, where he hopes to follow in the footsteps of previous Oxford number 10s Craig Farrel, Andy Thomson and Courtney Pitt by becoming a regular punchline to a weakly structured GLS gag.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Jack Midson, who increasingly looks like the local fitness instructor working his way around all the Year 2 mums at the local primary school, has signed for Sheppey United. Meanwhile in Preston, Ryan Ledson has put pen to paper and a late two footed knee-high lunge on a new contract extension

Friday 21 August 2020

Fixture release day is the day that football fans up and down the country excitedly plan the games they’re going to miss due to a catastrophic coronavirus second wave. Oxford’s season opens against one of the big guns; MApp’s Lincoln. The home derby against Swindon is scheduled for October 24th. For once Oxford United fans and Boris Johnson speak with one voice when they say they’d rather their gran died a slow painful death on her own of a respiratory illness than see that one played behind closed doors.

Elsewhere, Liam Kelly, who looks like the kid whose dad paid a substantial donation to the PTA so he could play the lead in the end of year rendition of Bugsy Malone, is back for a season’s loan. In a surprise move, Oxford also signed Frenchman Derick Osei Yaw; in terms of French Oxford United players, we don’t know whether he’ll be a gem-ey like Christophe Remy or as dead as a Doudou. 

Saturday 22 August 2020

On Monday Brian Horton publishes his autobiography; ‘Horton Out’. It’s not called that, of course, but we’re excited to read the true stories of the times he took teams like Oxford to lower mid-table finishes, along with the thrilling run to a Full Member’s Cup Semi-Final with Hull.

In a lengthy interview with Hull Live, Horton talks about the time Cesc Fabregas allegedly spat at him. He says of the spit “He denied it and got away with it … but it’s all covered in the book.” Readers are advised to give the book a good wipe before reading.

Elsewhere, Oxford beat Banbury 5-0 in a friendly with a scrabble score of goalscorers in Agyei, Osei Yaw and another new signing, Dylan Asonganyi. Nick Harris is expected to announce his retirement within days.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Manchester City 3

Somehow, in the post-match reporting of our defeat to Manchester City, we achieved third billing in a two-horse race. On Radio Oxford people gushed about their pride in our performance as nationally Mikel Arteta’s move to coach Arsenal and Manchester City’s march towards the final pushed our contribution into the margins. 

I got to the ground early due to social media driven parking anxiety. I’ve never failed to park at the Kassam, but when messages filter through about how busy it is around the ground I find myself praying that I can squeeze in.

I headed, unecessarily, straight into the stadium. There was a smattering of people milling about; the East stand with its new mural and display cards looked resplendent, new animated advertising boards twinkled. There was a buzz of media, security and cameras. It was a little glimpse behind a curtain to see what we could become. 

Once the cameras were turned on and the nation, subject to a subscription, tuned in, the advertising boards promoted hair loss clinics, erectile dysfunction, beer and betting; jimmying away at male pre-occupations. You can buy the Manchester City kit via Amazon we were told, the modern world is a hellspace. 

In truth, I quite like Manchester City; at least I admire their dedication to perfection. But they seem like a lottery winner racked with guilt and anxiety at the status they’ve gained; trapped in their own world. Each goal was greeted with muted celebration; seconds after the ball had hit the net, their fans were still and quiet. These were the celebrations of an IT sales team after securing the renewal of a moderate contract. Winning is just business as usual. Their transformation over the last decade is like someone knocking down a ramshackle thatched cottage and building a boxy modern three bed house in its place. As they creep towards perfection, they become less interesting, perhaps less interested. 

The Carabao Cup has become such an odd competition; three games from Wembley and it’s still not about playing your best team. The aim is to play the weakest winning team you can get away with. The media talk about how the Premier League weaken their teams, ignoring our own starting eleven features several players who only feature sporadically in the league.

We’d had a fun ride; beating Peterborough, the late rally against Millwall, the annihilation of West Ham and edging past Sunderland while wondering how many wake up calls they need to realise and own their failings.

The quarter-final took the adventure to a new level, like a hang glider caught on a freak thermal edging towards the stratosphere. Exhilarating though it was, as the air thinned, we tipped from a thrilling risk to an inevitable death.

Beforehand, a tribute to Jim Smith. So often a minute’s silence, or its modern affectation, the minute’s applause can feel like it’s a forced duty. This felt necessary and authentic; declaring Jim Smith for ourselves, imbibing his spirit into the club where he can rest.

The template was set early; they were faster and more progressive, they didn’t stretch for over hit passes or fumble with the ball as though it were alive. It was all simple and incisive; the early goal looked ominous.

Time ticked by slowly; dragged by a creeping dread that we were going to get mauled. The conditions helped and hindered in equal measure. Crosses billowed out beyond the corner flag. Chances wafted away in the wind.

Half time was a relief; a 1-0 thrashing. A potential, though unlikely opportunity to re-group and address the imbalances, or at least contain the damage.

The tourists, the half-and-half scarves, the irregulars, the place was crawling with them, with the result settled, half-time was an opportunity for an extended midweek beer, they thought; the second half could wait.

Seconds into the half though, back on the pitch Daniel Agyei fell theatrically. Shandon Baptiste took a rolling free-kick that should have been called back, Matty Taylor cut across his marker, youthful talent beaten by streetwise experience. A swing at their glass jaw and a connection. 1-1.

Mayhem. Jubilation. Fear? We’d tapped the hornets nest. We were back in it and at the same time, we were also toast.

It wouldn’t last and didn’t. Sterling twice gets on the end of those precise, incisive moves which make us look like a park team. Then they lose focus, or perhaps we lose inhibitions. Encouraging forays forward merge into half chances, which merge into full chances, which merge into 20 minutes of attacking dominance.

If it were a tighter game, we probably wouldn’t have been given the opportunity, but after two flat performances, our swagger was back. And against the champions of England.

A second goal might have changed things, but it didn’t come, the window of opportunity closed. All told, no injuries, a competitive performance and an injection of confidence. The best defeat since losing the Middlesborough in 2017. Can it propel us through Christmas, the transfer window and our injury crisis? Could it catapult us through to promotion? Midst the talk of Arteta and City, maybe we walk away with nothing, perhaps, everything.