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.

Midweek Fixture: Why the Manchester City fixture isn’t ‘the one’

Last week, I wrote about our 1983/4 League Cup run, inspired by this season’s run to the quarter finals. On one level, it’s very similar but in many more ways it’s very different. Admittedly, I was considerably younger, but back then I was very accepting of our wins over Newcastle and Leeds, as though they were both normal. When we drew Manchester United in the fourth round took us to another level of excitement and anticipation.

By comparison, the draw for the quarter-final of this year’s competition has seen us paired against Manchester City. The reaction was, shall we say, more muted.

If you’d ranked the remaining teams in the competition in terms of preference, City would have come far down the list. But, this is a giant of European football, the dominant team in the domestic game, some of the best players in the world. Are we being reasonable treating it with such disdain?

Possibly, having played City last year, it’s difficult to get excited by a re-run particularly as it’s likely to end in a similar result. But, there are few teams in League 1 that have entertained such illustrious hosts and fewer still that have done so this deep into the competition. So, it’s a big team in a big game and let’s face it, we’ve sold out in double quick time, so despite the sniffiness from some quarters, it’s not lacking in interest.

But, even then, it’s not comparable to the thrill of Manchester United in 1983, or Arsenal the following year.

The problem is not so much about the draw or the opponents, but more a reflection of the modern game as it evolves.

The first thing is that the growth of the Premier League and Champions League has resulted in the League Cup becoming so devalued that it struggles for high value sponsors and media interest. Sponsors and TV companies want as much bang for their buck as possible, and with the tournament on the wane, the Football League are not in a strong bargaining position.

The quarter-final draw almost certainly guarantees a semi-final, and final with big teams in it, which in turn ensures big TV audiences. This year’s competition has seen an abnormally high number of tasty match ups – the fourth round had Chelsea v Manchester United, Arsenal v Liverpool and Wolves v Villa. Prior to that there was Nottingham Forest v Derby, Southampton v Portsmouth, Salford v Leeds and MK Dons v Wimbledon. Is the draw fixed? I think there’s every chance that it’s ‘organised’ to ensure that it retains sufficient interest with sponsors and TV.

So, where in the past we’ve been excited by the fate of the draw – which is why we watch two middle aged ex-footballers pulling balls out of a bag on prime time TV – this year it feels a more contrived; as if we’ve been paired with a big team in order to swat us out of the way.

But also, whereas back in 1983 there was a sense that we might win the tie against Manchester United I don’t think anyone realistically thinks this is possible against City. They’re almost unbeatable, and certainly by the likes of us. The chasm is so big that it is no longer a sporting spectacle, but an entertainment product. Like watching WWE wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters; the result is effectively decided, as consumers, we’re just expected to sit back and enjoy the ride.

I want to be wrong; and if we do find ourselves still in it with twenty minutes to go, I fully expect to be heavily invested in the game. But, as I’m sat here today, would I be disappointed with a defeat? No. Am I looking forward to the game? Not as much as I’m looking forward to a tasty, competitive, top of the table clash with Wycombe Wanderers three days later.

In the past, even the biggest teams could be beaten by lower league teams. Against Premier League teams outside the top six that’s still true as we proved against Swansea and West Ham, but Manchester City, and similarly Liverpool, are now transcending that, we’re all just bit part players in their play. 

For sponsors and TV this is all fine; having big unbeatable teams guarantees slick and beautifully produced ‘product’. It satisfies whatever motivation the owners have for their club as well. But it’s not a sporting competition. Teams like us get in the way, we might produce an upset that stirs the loins, but the chances are we won’t and TV can no longer afford to have a product with that kind of uncertainty.

So what we are now facing is our own infallibility; against West Ham, Millwall and even Sunderland we had a chance, we enjoyed the challenge and celebrated the success. Had we drawn, say, Aston Villa, then we would have been overjoyed because of the prospect of it being a sporting contest. In reality, we’re probably facing a routine elimination, and possibly by a large margin, which is no way to end a story.   

I don’t think any of this is deliberately corrupt; the arranging of the draw or the dominance of Manchester City, but it is corrosive. It’s like casual sexism or using single use plastics – people aren’t doing it to be deliberately damaging – it’s just how things have evolved and it’s not helpful.

There will be those who argue I should just sit back and enjoy it, even if the result is fairly predictable. But, the new Star Wars film opens the following day, and predictable enjoyment is what I expect from that. Perhaps it’s an outdated concept, one lost to the 80s, but with football, I want a sense of raw competition.

Midweek fixture: The 1983/4 Milk Cup run

While Jim Smith and Robert Maxwell were trying to affect a revolution at Oxford United, by 1983 progress towards a new dawn was still fairly slow. The previous season had seen the club finish a creditable 5th in the 3rd Division and, while hopes were growing, Jim Smith’s only addition to the squad had been Paul Hinshelwood, an elegant full-back from Crystal Palace. What nobody anticipated was the epic Milk Cup run that would help define the season and propel the club to a level never previously imagined.

Round 1 – Oxford United 1 Bristol City 1, Bristol City 0 Oxford United 1 (Agg: 2-1)

The Milk Cup was a more bloated affair in the 1980s with the early rounds played over two legs. Oxford opened their account in August with a 1-1 draw over 4th Division Bristol City at The Manor, Kevin Brock getting the goal. The second leg was nearly two weeks later, a 1-0 win with Andy Thomas scoring at Ashton Gate. Both had played in Jim Smith’s first game in March 1982, three years later, both would be in the squad at Wembley for the Milk Cup Final.

Round 2 – Newcastle United 1 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 2 Newcastle United 1 (Agg: 3-2)

Though we were top of Division 3, Round 2 was a major step up. We drew Second Division promotion seekers Newcastle United. There’s was a star-studded team, captained by England skipper Kevin Keegan and featuring Terry McDermott, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley in their ranks. 

Steve Biggins helped himself to a goal in a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park in the first leg. Back at The Manor, a ferocious attacking display saw a 2-1 win with goals from Neil Whatmore and Andy Thomas while Gary Briggs was sent off late on for a challenge on Keegan.

Round 3 – Leeds United 1 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 4 Leeds United 1

Second tier Leeds United at Elland Road was another huge draw featuring internationals Peter Barnes, Kenny Burns and Frank Gray. Buoyed by the Newcastle result, a Mick Vinter goal earned the draw which brought the Yorkshire team back to a freezing Manor ground where goals from Brock, Thomas, Vinter and Bobby MacDonald destroyed them 4-1. Jim Smith described the display as one of the best he’d ever seen.

Round 4 – Oxford United 1 Manchester United 1, Manchester United 1 Oxford United 1 (aet), Oxford United 2 Manchester United 1 (aet)

Round 4 was epic; Manchester United were FA Cup holders and second in Division 1. To add spice, they were managed by former Oxford United legend Ron Atkinson, an old friend of Jim Smith’s and the one who had helped get him the Oxford job in the first place.

An hour before kick-off, The Manor was already full. Mark Hughes scored his first professional goal for Manchester United in his first ever start, but Bobby MacDonald stabbed home for a 1-1 draw and a trip back to Old Trafford. Listen to The Manor roar.

Over 3,000 Oxford fans travelled north for the replay. Assuming the tie was a foregone conclusion; there was only minimal TV news coverage present to see Kevin Brock put us ahead at Old Trafford with 20 minutes to go. An equaliser by Frank Stapleton a minute later saw the game heading for extra-time and then a second replay.

Manchester United offered to host the tie, citing the financial benefits, but Robert Maxwell refused. There was talk about it being held at the neutral Villa Park. In the end, the venue was decided by the toss of a coin, Maxwell called it right and everyone headed back to The Manor. 

Six days before Christmas, Arthur Graham gave Manchester United the lead after 38 minutes but George Lawrence stabbed home to drag us back into it. The tie, again, went into extra-time, when Steve Biggins’ looped a header over the head of ‘keeper Jeff Wealands for the winner and one of the most famous wins in the club’s history.

Quarter-Final – Oxford United 1 Everton 1, Everton 4 Oxford United 1

Having slayed the biggest of giants over an epic three games, the draw against Everton seemed entirely winnable. With Aston Villa waiting in the semi-final – the team we’d face at that stage in 1986 – Wembley was actually in sight.

The Manor heaved with anticipation, exploding into life when Bobby MacDonald put us a goal up. Oxford threatened to extend their lead and looked comfortable as the game ticked into its final stages. Then Kevin Brock picked the ball up in midfield, under hit his back pass to Steve Hardwick allowing Adrian Heath to nip in and secure an equaliser. Steve Biggins missed an open goal in the last minute, meaning a replay at Goodison Park.

Jim Smith admitted that he got over-confident for the replay, underestimating his opponents. Brock’s backless seemed to pop our bubble, and in the replay, played in a blizzard, we succumbed 4-1 with Paul Hinshelwood getting the goal.

The result saved Everton manager Howard Kendell’s job and sparked them into a life which led to an FA Cup win, Cup Winners’ Cup and League title win. We went onto win the 3rd Division title at the end of the season, but as an adventure – eleven games, five months and three huge giant killings – few runs were bettered.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Sunderland 1 (won 4-2 on pens)

I’m in Devon so I’m missing tonight’s game. It’s just one of those things; nobody planned for us to be playing for a quarter-final place in the League Cup in October. The weather is wild, so it’s just me, a wood burner and my thoughts.

Pre-match

I reckon this is the biggest home game I’ve missed since we played Leeds United in the FA Cup in 1994. I was at university and couldn’t get through to the ticket line on the phone before it sold out. I came home anyway so I could hear the commentary on the radio. I had cheese and bacon sandwiches sitting in a flat that my parents were staying in following a house fire. We led 2-0 before being pegged back to 2-2, then beat them in an epic replay at Elland Road.

On Twitter, the club have announced the car park is full; that would usually give me anxiety attacks, now I’m kind of missing that feeling.

Kick-off

I was brought up following games remotely; I remember listening to the 1981 UEFA Cup Final between Ipswich Town and PSV Eindhoven on the radio, there was an exotic other worldliness to it, the static on the commentary as though it were transmitting from the moon. I remember Nick Harris’ gravely tones reporting our League Cup replay at Old Trafford in 1983 and our quarter-final draw with Everton at The Manor. I loved those times, who wouldn’t?

That 83/84 run was legendary; but it’s easy to forget the players who were involved – Vinter, Biggins, Whatmore, Ray Train. All largely forgotten now given what came next, but they laid the foundations. Does this run feel the same?

0-15 Minutes

Five changes to our starting eleven, but I feel strangely calm about it. I’m not sure if it’s confidence or that I’m not actually that bothered about the result. If this is the start of something big then people like Mark Sykes and Sam Long will be the Ray Trains and Neil Whatmores of the story. No headlines, but dependable and essential.

15-30 minutes

I don’t know if having those squad players starting is right for this game. It worked against West Ham and Millwall because it encouraged a more disciplined display. Perhaps against a fellow League 1 team we should be sticking to the formula that’s been working.

Um, no. 1-0. What a player Rob Hall is. It’s a nightmare for someone who relies on pace when injury and age starts to catch up with them; you’ve got to completely remodel your game. So many players can’t, Rob Hall is making a great fist of it.

30-45 minutes

Is this League Cup run the story of resurrection? The story of modern day Mick Vinters and Steve Biggins’? Mark Sykes was due to go out on loan just before he was man of the match against West Ham, Shandon Baptiste has shone after serious injury, Rob Hall – out for nearly two years – scores against Sunderland. Now Sam Long’s just put in a great block – don’t forget his story either.

I fear what Max Power might do, but I think that’s just nominative determinism.

Half-time

1-0. The weather here is foul and we’ve sprung a leak. The heat from the wood burner has moved from warm and cosy to oppressively hot. I don’t want to lose the flame, but if I put another log on the fire, I think I might die.

45-60 minutes

If you normally consume your football only via social media and TV, you’re mad. It’s like eating vitamin pills; functional and pragmatic, but stripped of all its joy and magic. Don’t let people trick you into thinking football is better when you watch it on TV or when you’re betting on it. I’m missing that sensation in the pit of my stomach where you want to leave but you’re compelled to stay.

I think it’s the feeling of supporting the players as people that makes watching your club in real life so much better. Footballers are often painted as automatons; assets to be bought and sold, critiqued and deified. But, when you’re on the journey with them, that’s what makes is special. Is your support enough to ensure success? Probably not, but what else have we got?

60-75 minutes

Oh god, we’re into that phase when you start to dream of glory, but fear a collapse. Great blocks by defenders are so edifying, but why are we having to block so much? Now I am invested; now I need for us to win.

Looking at the other scores tonight, apart from Colchester, who are beating Crawley (Dannie Bulman has scored and he’s 62 next birthday) there won’t be a duff draw in the next round. I bet we get Colchester. OH GOD STOP THINKING ABOUT THE NEXT ROUND.

75-90 minutes

I’m in that regressive state; doing nothing more than refreshing Twitter. They’re going to score aren’t they? A goal’s coming.

It’s come. 1-1. In a strange way, I’m relieved. But now what? Jamie Mackie, that’s what. There’s something about this squad; every one has a story. Mackie has no pace, little craft, and yet through pure effort, he gets results.

But, this is what I hate; Long, Sykes, Hall, Mackie, they’ve all got stories, I don’t want our club to let them down.

This is going all the way.

Penalties

Now I’m lost in purgatory; I hate penalties when I’m there, but watching them via Twitter is the pits. I follow three accounts that live tweet games, that’s 30 tweets just for the spot kicks, all slightly out of sequence. I can’t keep up.

The good news is that it’s just about kicking the ball now. I reckon playing those marginal players has back-fired a bit. It makes a great story, just not tactically. Now, though, it’s just a question of who can kick it the best.

Oh god, here they come, we’re going to miss every one.

Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal.

They’re showing it on Sky Sports now, I can watch it on my iPad; but the tweets, the feed, it’s all out of sequence.

THEY’VE MISSED.

McNulty steps up to take their decisive fourth. On the video he’s running up to the ball; before he gets to it, I get a notification we’re through. Then I watch Eastwood save it. What a mess. But that’s it. We’re through. We’re bloody through.

Final whistle

This is a redemptive story; from Karl Robinson to Rob Hall to Sam Long to Shandon Baptiste to Mark Sykes. And for John Mousinho who was being encouraged to quit during the summer. I don’t quite know how we’ve done it, but this is a redemptive club; this is like 1983/4; whatever happens now in this competition, we’ve had an adventure and that’s all we’re asking for. Only, for the next part of the adventure, I’m bloody going to be there.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Millwall 2 (Pens: 4-2)

Despite the group behind me and their Sunday League tropes of ‘Travel!’, ‘Drop!’ and ‘Whose tracking?’ last night’s Carabao Cup game was a benchmarking exercise. As such, it revealed something curious about our squad.

The test was not just playing a better team but also a referee applying some kind of subconscious ‘Championship tariff’ – where decisions are based on a presumption that lower league players are more likely to mistime tackles and make fouls, more likely to fall over through their own incompetence than through someone pulling their shirt. We shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve seen it all before. 

I went to the game feeling neutral; I wanted us to win, but wasn’t that bothered if we didn’t. On the other hand a defeat – the fourth in a row – would create tensions we didn’t need. You can say a game doesn’t mean anything, but it always does.

The result was encouraging because we were more conservative. This may have been deliberate; Sam Long knows his role, Elliot Moore could focus on his job of being physical and blocking things. Nobody expected Kevin Berkoe to bomb on and make chances, so he had time to check his positioning and get used to the pace of the game.

We were calmer and more patient; less eager to please. We didn’t want to concede, there was no attempt to win the game in the first 10 minutes. We weren’t scintillating going forward, but we had chances, as did they. They could have scored, we should have had a penalty. There was the odd cat call for a thirty yard cross-field ball out of defence or for Jamie Mackie to somehow gain an extra yard of pace, but overall we actually benefited from being a little slower and a little weaker.

In the league we’ve started at a frantic pace and have fallen away, last night we started more moderately and accelerated. Just after half-time they simply accelerated more quickly – as better teams do – just as you think you’re matching them, they apply greater pressure. 

By the second-half they were better but not by an unexpected margin; had we left going down 2-0 in the League Cup 2nd Round to a Championship team, it would have been disappointing but expected and forgettable.

When they accelerated, they were faster to the ball, attacking with pace; strong and direct. We want to aspire to being like that. In midfield Shandon Baptiste, was in control early on, but started to feel the pace as the game progressed. We weren’t quite chasing shadows, just finding it harder to get a foothold and a way back into the game. We battled valiantly, which is all we could ask, but at 2-0 it was all over.

Or so we all thought; an injection of quality in James Henry and Ben Woodburn brought more pace and craft, and gradually we reclaimed parity. First in quality, then in goals. On paper, two-goals in the last three minutes sounds thrillingly exciting, over 90 minutes, it was just about what we deserved. 

The penalties aren’t a lottery; the better team always tends to win. Perhaps it was their shock and our elation, but our four kicks showed focus and composure; a discipline that’s been missing in recent weeks.

Whether the patience was deliberate or enforced is hard to tell. But, it worked better than our all action first-choice style. It feels like we have better strength in depth than last year, but without Gavin Whyte, Marcus Browne, Curtis Nelson or (latter season) Luke Garbutt our first choice seems weaker. We don’t have the control or the game changers, at least not yet. As a benchmark, that’s where we seem to be today.

It gives Karl Robinson a dilemma; should he sacrifice style and flair for results? Keep Sam Long and his discipline, but lose Chris Cadden and his pace? For me, to get some traction into our season, we need these results more than we need the style, but can Robinson curb his urge to please?

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 0

It should go without saying that you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from games in August. But, without the fatigue and injuries that will come later in the season, and a lack of context and pressure, it is possible to get a feel for the general health of the squad.

Tuesday’s League Cup win over Peterborough was my first game of the season, having missed Saturday’s game. Last year, my first game was our 2-3 defeat to Accrington where it was obvious we were trying to play a high energy game, which was exciting but ultimately chaotic. The season before was our 3-4 defeat to Cheltenham in the League Cup where it felt like the players were doing a physics A-Level exam having only been taught half the syllabus.

Tuesday’s game was similar to last year in that we’re clearly trying to play at a very high tempo. There were moments in the first half that were bewildering in their pace and accuracy. Peterborough’s physicality was driven less out of malice and more out of the fact they couldn’t lay a glove on us. The lunging tackles, which injured Malachi Napa and should have resulted in a red card for Frankie Kent for his challenge on Mark Sykes, were the result of not being able to keep up.

But, unlike last year, everyone seems in tune with the philosophy. Cameron Brannagan and Rob Dickie are maturing into leaders on the pitch, Jamie Hanson’s work-rate was excellent and his temperament more measured. Ben Woodburn and Elliot Moore need a bit more time, but they didn’t look out of place. Given how tough our opening fixtures have been on paper, this could have been a must-win game. In fact, our start has been good, so we could relax a little and make changes. That didn’t seem to effect the cohesiveness of the team as a unit, which suggests everyone is buying into the style Karl Robinson wants to play. Although Peterborough had better quality chances, as a unit we looked strong, given that the changes could have been disruptive, it suggests good strength in depth.

What’s still missing is the end product; people mocked Peterborough striker Ivan Toney, but we’d kill for his strength and mobility. Perhaps Dan Ageyi will be that missing piece of the puzzle, but it sounds like we’re still looking for another striker (the still vacant number nine shirt suggests that’s the case). Despite that, with three games without conceding a goal in open play, frankly we couldn’t have wished for a better start to the season.