Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Wycombe Wanderers 0

I was in a three-hour meeting this week; half the people were in a room together, others, including me, were logged in via Microsoft Teams. As often happens, the people in the room forgot those at the other end of the fibre. Someone shared their screen to show a spreadsheet, then clicked it shut so my face was in full view. I was watching their screen on my screen with my face on their screen on my screen. I had to spend an hour watching myself trying desperately to look engaged while quietly critiquing every tiny movement I made, which was all the more disconcerting because it happened a split second after I did it.

Last season, following via iFollow, football was the disrupter from the monotony of the lockdown. For the first time this season, I went into Saturday’s game, looking forward to it ironing me out from a working week which had crumpled me like a piece of paper. 

My son started secondary school too, in a blazer and tie for the first time, friends and family, who haven’t seen him much over the last 18 months commented on how much he’d grown. He thinks so too; now he gets to go on the bus and eat paninis from the canteen. The last time we saw Wycombe in the flesh they were grubby over-achievers, back at the Kassam, they too seemed to have grown.

I’ve a grudging admiration for Wycombe, they’ve achieved stability and reasonable success over the last 25 years, but they’ve always reminded me of us at The Manor; small and over-achieving, a bit retro. Now returning from the Championship; they look like they’ve finally reached puberty.

“2-1 on your big day out” sang their fans, referring to a game held when a big day out was legally determined as an hour’s recreation within walking distance of your home. It’s good to see that if they have grown, they’ve reached a point where they’ve been able to embrace the breathtakingly stupid factions that infect all bigger clubs. Mind you, us mocking them for their season in the Championship, which had been achieved at our painful expense, was hardly the sickest burn. Score draw in the stands.

In the intervening months, Gareth Ainsworth’s Cuban heels seem to be higher, his hair longer and his clothes tighter. He’s become such a caricature of himself, he’s about eighteen months away from becoming just a pair of cowboy boots with hair. The periodic national media coverage he receives, which usually centres on the fact he’s in a band, is having an effect. We have people working for us who introduce themselves as musicians or actors, even though their only paid work is in the call centre. Does Ainsworth think secretly he’s a rockstar who’s temping as a football manager?

And then, of course, there’s Ade Akinfenwa, whose arrival late in the game put everything into perspective; that is; everything looks smaller when he’s lolloping around the place. After being treated for a blood injury, he received a replacement shirt with his number and name on the back. Clearly the club need to keep a few general spares for such occasions – Wycombe seem to need small, medium, large and Akinfenwa sizes. I get that some people like that big-muscle aesthetic, but you have to question how it helps his professional career; it’s like having a vicar with a face tattoo.

But, in truth, as a team, I like them, big and robust with a couple of pantomime villains who know their role. They’re not as crafted as Blackpool last year or Rotherham two seasons ago, but similar. They’ve got that refined power that usually brings success in League 1 and what we’ve often struggled to match in the past.

We would do well to drop the patronising dismissal of them and embrace these modern realities. I get the frustrations around their gamesmanship, but stylistically, it’s not the anti-football (whatever that is) that many claim. They protected what they had late on, but when the game was fresh, they attacked with power and made things very difficult. They’ve spent a year defending in the Championship; they’re likely to be quite adept at this. It’s the formula that most likely brings success at this level, we either have to match it or find a way to outfox it, dismissing it as somehow unfair will allow another season to slip by while we wait for teams to turn up and play in a more gentlemanly fashion.

We were competitive in that context though, we’re not pushovers, you can see the hardening of our resolve to compete. The players have embraced it in a way the fans haven’t. We shouldn’t expect to have the freedoms we’ll get from other teams, just because we didn’t create a bucketload of chances doesn’t mean we didn’t play well.

I enjoyed the grinding competitiveness, we were out of our comfort zone but competed aggressively, even if it’s not quite who we are. Karl Robinson was incomprehensible in his post-match interview – like he’s answering questions using William S Burroughs’ writing technique of cutting up words to find new meanings – he simply didn’t make any sense, like he doesn’t have the vocabulary for this kind of game. He did say we showed another side, which I think is right, it’s not a better side to the one that swept past Lincoln, but we’ve got another mode if we need it.  

It was a proper match day, the atmosphere moved on from the dewy-eyed ‘we’re all back together’ vibe into the more familiar sense of agony, frustration, anger and relief. The Wycombe fixture is not the Swindon derby – nobody is asking us to make that claim – but it’s a modern rivalry with a local team with enough history and antagonism for us to embrace it a bit more. It’s exactly what I needed after a week of being crumpled. 

Match wrap: AFC Wimbledon 3 Oxford United 1

In September 2018, before we played Manchester City in the League Cup, the Guardian interviewed Cameron Norman, tracking his redemption story from rejection at Norwich to Oxford United via King’s Lynn in the seventh tier. That evening, Norman didn’t make the bench and only played one more league game before being shipped out on loan to Walsall the following January.

This isn’t an unusual September media story; devoid of much else to talk about, they’ll find a club, manager or player who has appeared to rise like a phoenix over the course of the opening games of the season. Accrington top of the table? Yes please.

If you track those stories over the longer-term, their subjects invariably sink back to obscurity as the natural order takes over. These stories fill gaps in the schedules while the real narratives figure themselves itself out.

Everyone is trying to find a signal in the noise; to find the thread, it’s like trying to work out whether a 600 page novel is worth the investment from the opening paragraphs. This season has been our best start under Karl Robinson, our second best at this level for 27 years and yet we’ve one point from nine on the road despite leading in each of the three games.

It’s very easy to draw a grand conclusion from the capitulation against Wimbledon; to question the substitutions which seemed to turn the game on its head, but whether this is the story of the season or of the moment is still to be understood. 

There are lessons to learn and adjustments to make. The most obvious is addressing our ability to give away leads. We’ve lost two and drawn one from winning positions; add the late equaliser by Burton in the League Cup and even the late pre-season defeat to Bristol Rovers and you’ve got yourself a trend. 

Our four centre-backs have an average age of twenty-six, which sounds OK until you consider that without John Mousinho – who’s unlikely to play much – the average drops to twenty-three. Jordan Thornily is the most experienced centre-back Karl Robinson has ever signed and he’s only 24 with less than 100 games experience. Robinson’s strategy (gamble?) seems to rely on finding stability over experience at the back, something he got with Rob Atkinson and Elliott Moore last season and John Mousinho and Rob Dickie the year before. In 2018/19, when we struggled, we switched around Dickie, Mousinho and Curtis Nelson, who all three played over 30 games. Ever-present Thornily has partnered Moore and Luke McNally for three games each so far. Add into the mix our new full-back combinations and we’ve got a new and unstable back-four. 

Is this a new story? The risk has been there for a couple of seasons. What isn’t clear is whether this is a blind spot or deliberate strategy, a club of our size can’t cover all its risks; some things you just go with, but we’ve flooded the squad in midfield and have experience in Gorrin and Henry to steady the ship if we need it, upfront we have Matty Taylor and Sam Winnall, who are both over-30. We’ve never really sought to add experience at the back, relying on the ageing Mousinho.

Earlier this year, when covid restrictions were lifted and we were registering 65,000 cases a day, there were predictions that they would sky rocket past 100,000 within weeks. Then cases actually went down to about 30,000, one epidemiologist suggested that the 65,000 could contain two waves; a short-term one based on unusual behaviours during the Euros and a longer-term wave reflecting more ‘typical’ behaviour and therefore transmissibility. Only close analysis will tell which is the equivalent of the short-term ‘September media story’ and which is the longer-term narrative. 

Likewise, for all we know, even though its the best start under Karl Robinson, this might be the slow start we’ve seen in previous years while the team get to know each other. Perhaps these wrinkles will iron themselves out and we’ll see momentum build, but it looks like, this time, we’ll be doing it from a higher base. This the shape we’ve seen in previous seasons; start slow and build. It might be that this is just a short-term ‘September story’; it’s worked in the past and has, broadly, worked so far this season, tactical errors but a strategic success? Perhaps.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Lincoln City 1

It’s not been much of a summer, but do I sense that there’s already a slight chill in the air? I was out for a walk the other day and noticed a few golden leaves had fallen from the trees. It’s still August, but already it’s starting to feel like the early onset of Autumn. 

I find the turning of the seasons a bit of a relief; if I could choose between excessive heat and excessive cold, I’d always choose the latter. Football fans are the people of the gloaming; we don’t bask in an endless sunshine, we huddle. While others hibernate, we come out to forage through the harshness of the winter months.

I’m a functioning adult, but I don’t feel I have the emotional maturity to make independent decisions about whether to wear a coat during August. What to wear to football is a source of underlying anxiety in the early weeks. It can be positively balmy at home but baltic in the South Stand Upper; which could be a psychosomatic reaction to Jerome Sale’s assertion that the Kassam Stadium has its own microclimate. For me, any chill in the air signals a much welcomed opportunity to wrap up; working my way through from a light jacket in September through to my ‘big coat’ for the darkest months.

And although I’ve started to look longingly at the coat cupboard and even the box in which the hats and scarves are bundled, it’s easy to forget that it’s still August. I was reminded yesterday as I couldn’t go to Lincoln due to one of those family commitments that gets arranged before the fixtures come out. Asking to defer your decision to attend seems disingenuous, so you accept through gritted teeth knowing you’re playing roulette with home games. 

The discernable autumnal chill means that things are getting serious – perhaps it’s significant that this seems to have come earlier this year. Convention says that you shouldn’t look at the table until you’ve played ten games (unless you’re top, even after two games, in which case you can stare at it constantly).

After ten games, we’ll have seen enough to work out who had a good summer and who is in crisis. Any short term form or favourable fixture sequence that artificially puts a team at the top of the division will have dissipated into the ether and the real picture will start to emerge. 

None-the-less, Lincoln provided, perhaps, the first early test of our longer term prospects. In some ways, they’re hard to judge – they had injuries and their fans will be wondering if they can replicate the heights of last year but Michael Appleton will always bring a competitive team. For us, with two defeats in a week under our belt, the potential for things to become awkward was quite high. A third consecutive loss, and the first at home, may have raised more questions about the strength of the squad and our inability to start seasons well.

Instead, we seemed to cruise, as we always do when James Henry is fit and in form. He quietly gets on with things – I’ve never considered him an out and out goalscorer, but it’s quite conceivable he’ll creep into our top 10 all-time goalscorers this season. Where Karl Robinson injects a boundless enthusiasm into our play channelled via players like Gavin Whyte, Henry regulates us, ensuring we have the intensity and penetration to get the results without snatching and lurching at opportunities.  

The table, that we don’t look at, already looks like you might imagine it will at the end of the season. This year, more than most, the division seems to split quite starkly between the haves and have-nots with it more difficult for dark horses to creep into contention. The question for us is which side of the divide do we fall? We might be getting more used to the idea of being a have, but we’re not Sheffield Wednesday or Sunderland, and yet, that’s who we sit with at the moment. 

Having navigated one, and not taking Wimbledon next week for granted, there’s another early-season marker in a fortnight when Wycombe come to the Kassam. September will be here and awkward family commitments will be in the past, it’s likely to be a day for coats. The end of the beginning of the season; if we can win that, then by the time the big coats come out, we could be in a very interesting position indeed.

Match wrap: Bolton Wanderers 2 Oxford United 1

I recently read Economist Tim Harford’s book; How To Make The World Add Up. It’s about interpreting statistics; less about the maths and more about the philosophy. For example, being aware of our internal bias. I follow a daily covid reporting Twitter account – every day’s post attract the same responses; some read the reports as high, rising and worrying, others think the pandemic is over because cases are below the 100,000 a day some predicted. Our preconceived biases drive our interpretation.

Harford presents the idea of slow data; news websites report in real-time and are likely to be full of extreme, often bad, things. Imagine if that information came at us more slowly and there was only a newspaper every ten or 100 years; what would make the headlines? It would report improving health and increasing prosperity (alongside increasing environmental problems). Ultimately, it would be more measured and positive than a daily paper.

Football has its own units of time; a goal is probably the smallest and brings the most extreme response, but Matt Taylor’s goal against Bolton was irrelevant in the context of the outcome of the game. By a similar token, one defeat is not likely to be significant in the context of the season. Going further, the season’s outcome may be irrelevant in the context of the decade. While they both had their ups and downs, it’s fair to say the 2000s were pretty bad and the 2010s pretty good.

I’m not too worried about losing an individual game; in fact, it’s quite good to get the first one out the way. The longer any unbeaten streak goes on the bigger the potential whiplash we’ll suffer from an inevitable defeat. 

Back in 2006, immediately after our relegation to the Conference, we went nineteen games unbeaten and there was talk about stretching that run throughout the season. Defeat to Wycombe in the FA Cup shouldn’t have been a disgrace in the circumstances but the impact was grim; we lost to Ebbsfleet the following week and won one of the next twelve. We thought we were invincible but let our guard down and it killed us. An early defeat can serve to give you a useful early reminder of your own mortality, a reminder not to get too complacent. 

This period can play a role in shaping the season; think back to 2009 and Mark Creighton’s winner against York or the victory over Luton or 2015, Pat Hoban’s last minute equaliser at Luton and the blistering win over Brentford. Both set a tone that ignited a promotion charge. 

We’ve yet to see how this season might be characterised, look at the table and we’re pretty much where we’re predicted to end up, though we’re also significantly ahead of where we’ve been previously at this stage. We haven’t seen the spark of previous promotion seasons but we’ve been reassuringly solid. I imagine, under Karl Robinson, being top in August would be the equivalent of being winched to the top of particularly big rollercoaster.

Eventually, the season will grab us and we’ll become a small fishing boat in an angry sea. Injuries, fatigue and confidence can carry you to glory or sink you, and there’s very little you can do about it. You just hope that you’re built well enough to withstand the inevitable storms; success is not about individual moments, but something deeper and systemic. 

And while our start has been on a par with where we might have expected to be, there is a subtext not to be ignored. We’re already being pulled out of shape even without the storms to come. Against Crewe and Charlton Ryan Williams played right-back because Anthony Forde and Sam Long were both injured. Our centre-backs – McNally and Thornily are both unfamiliar to the club – because Moore is injured and Mousinho can’t play ninety minutes. Apparently Sam Winnall’s inclusion up front against Charlton was partly to cover Moore’s defensive strength at set pieces. Yesterday we played in a new shape – not my area of expertise – partly out of necessity. While this sort of thing does happen (think Josh Ruffels playing out of position in place of Joe Skarz in 2016) it’s very early in the season for these juggling acts. 

Worrying? Maybe, and best not to be ignored, particularly as the transfer window is still open, if we’re able to benefit from that. But, perhaps not, maybe we just need to let things settle and wait for the longer term trends to emerge, head towards the angry sea and see if the wind catches our sails.

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.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Charlton Athletic 1

For seventeen months we’ve looked forward to the great return. Our collective fantasy painted a picture akin to the VE Day celebrations; it would all be over and normality would return on a great wave of emotion and relief; gap toothed squaddies would be kissing pretty land girls in the streets. Yesterday was that day, but not because it’s over and the war is won, but because we’ve reached a level of infection and death which we collectively believe to be acceptable, for now, at least.

From the outset I realised that I was out of match practice – where to park, when to leave, what to wear; the symbolic but clinical returns of last winter and in May were carefully orchestrated, a proper match requires you to plot your own path through the chaos.

Did it feel normal? Social distancing was impossible as people collected under the stand and few were wearing masks. A mistake, in my view, it’s hard to imagine that games won’t create a soup of infections which could push things to intolerable levels. Whether we’ll be locked out completely, I’m less sure, but I can see mandatory mask wearing and limited capacities returning. I felt my psychosomatic Covid symptoms return – my chest tightened slightly as people brushed against each other.

None-the-less, the stands bubbled expectantly. I’m not the best at small talk and did wonder what I might say to those around me whose only common reference is the games we watch. Given the age profile of the South Stand Upper I thought saying something like ‘you survived, then’, could be viewed literally rather than figuratively. In the end, the first rejoinder was emotional and shakespearean.  

‘Alright?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Good to be back.’

‘Yeah.’

It was one for the ages. Just before kick-off Karl Robinson strode onto the pitch to applaud the fans. For over a year, he’s been team manager, media spokesperson, community champion and fan representative inside the club’s biosecure bubble. It must have been exhausting, but it has allowed him the opportunity to mould the club further into his vision. When he joined, one of the attractions was that he could address his work/life balance. He looks like he’s achieving that; healthier, calmer and more content. 

As we waited for kick-off, someone in front had a programme open at a page that introduced our new signings; Williams, McGuane, Holland, Whyte. New, and at the same time, not so much. In the past, new signings have needed time to settle and that’s been reflected in poor early season results. Our new players know the club and most know Robinson and his ways. Simon Eastwood, a real clubman, warmed in goal knowing that his services were not required. If nothing else, he reinforces Robinson’s culture; others respond.

Charlton come with a reputation; you expect them to be competitive at this level, but they’re hard to judge. A large and noisy following enhanced the sense of occasion, but, like many similar clubs in the division, they teeter on the edge of disaster. Whether we were competing against one of the best or picking apart a struggling club was hard to tell. 

The game seemed to pass slowly, the opening quarter felt more like the opening half. A lack of match practice on my behalf, I guess. Suddenly, from deep inside our own half the trap was sprung; Ryan Williams picking up a loose ball, feeding Gavin Whyte via Cameron Brannagan. Whyte’s blistering run and shot shredded the Charlton defence and Williams was there to mop up for the opening goal. 2014’s outstanding player latching onto the rapid counter attack of 2019’s outstanding player. Both new and yet also familiar.

Minutes later, Brannagan is there again to make it 2-0. His friend was involved in an accident this week, and with his difficulties last year, the relief of just being able to play was palpable. Karl Robinson’s strength is that he looks after the whole player, on and off the pitch, Brannagan responds. 

It didn’t feel like a 2-0 game, but then, it didn’t feel like Charlton deserved to get back into it with their penalty. Defensively, as is often the case, we look thin on the ground in terms of personnel, but Charlton had layers to cut through and didn’t look capable of finding a path. 

In recent seasons, we’ve looked to James Henry to pull the strings to get us through games; sometimes he’s had to yank them with all he’s got, but now the machine seems more coherent and solid, the burden of responsibility has reduced and he’s able to keep things ticking over, he can sit and wait for opportunities rather than go looking for them. Maybe it wasn’t so much that Charlton couldn’t find a way through, it was just a risk knowing they’d likely be caught at the other end. 

The game became attritional in the second-half, but we had players like Taylor and Mousinho able to manage things when they got fractious. We stretched it where we could without taking unnecessary risks. There were no last minute panics, no heartstopping dramas. The leadership we missed at times last year, the ability to manage games as a robust unit, seem to be there this season. 

The club we were annexed from seventeen months ago has matured in our absence. Karl Robinson seems calmer and more content, trusting his squad, whether it’s the firebrand pace of Williams and Whyte or the assuredness of Mousinho and Taylor. The benefits are clear, allowing him space to make cogent decisions, like responding to the late injury to Anthony Forde. In the months to come, that extra mental capacity may be enough to get us to where we want to be.