Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Portsmouth 1 (aet – Oxford win 5-4 on penalties)

Success is threaded through the eye of a needle which, in a cruel illusion, gets smaller as you get closer. Like walking a narrowing mountain path where each step is more precarious than the last, each drop more vertiginous and lethal.

Imagine Joey Beauchamp shanking his 35-yard screamer over the bar in ‘96 or Michael Rankine arrowing his shot into the net at Wembley in 2010. Imagine Chey Dunkley’s bulldozing run being blocked against Wycombe in 2016. Moments where success becomes failure, where memorable seasons are forgotten. This is the eye of the needle through which we must now thread.

By the time we faced Portsmouth, there were no grass verges left, no Southends or Tranmeres against whom we could find our feet after a stumble. The path had narrowed and each subsequent step could only be the right one.

Before the second leg, Fraser Webster on the Fence End Podcast said that the current squad was the best he’d seen, particularly among those without a promotion to their name. I had a similar thought; only history will decide a classic line-up for 2020, but would we even get that far? Is there another great Oxford team without a promotion or cup to its name? Or can a team only be elevated when there’s a successful conclusion to cement its legend?

After the first leg, despite an away draw, it didn’t feel like we had the momentum we needed to progress. The sterile world we’re now in wiped away any emotional thrust. We’d been dogged rather than fluid and, beyond a couple of moments, our buccaneering style seemed to have been left in the old world. Pompey’s simpler approach appeared easier to re-start so while the result had been solid; the jerk forward, the impetus, wasn’t there. Excited for the second leg? Yes. Tense? Yes. Expectant? No.

The empty ground played its part, the curious kick-off time and the low sun of a summer tea-time added to the surrealism – part pre-season friendly, part end-season drama. As the game started, the patterns of the first leg threatened to repeat themselves. We looked like we were playing football, it just didn’t feel like it. Like hostages performing for their captors, it was a dutiful, soulless charade. As the game progressed and the pressure grew, it felt like each player could sense the red dot of a sniper’s sight dancing on their forehead; perform and you’ll live, one mistake and you’ll die.

James Henry looked sharper but Marcus Browne quieter, Sam Long refound his form, but Mark Sykes – so often a secret weapon – couldn’t fully engage. As much as we tried to find our path, we never quite seemed to.

Then, the ground gave way as we planted a foot on what we thought was firm ground; a goal. Harness brought the ball down and swept it home with Eastwood slow to react. The rocks cascaded down the ravine, a sinister reminder of our fate should we fail. Just as we looked set to fall, minutes later James Henry swung in a deep corner which looked harmless; inexplicably Ellis Harrison cut across Alex Bass, nodding the ball through his keeper’s hands and, by millimetres, over the line. The grasp at a tuft of grass, deeply rooted, strong enough to hold us, long enough for us to recover. We scrambled and regained our footing.

As the second half progressed, the dread gripped tighter; part fear, part fatigue. At home, Twitter fell silent, each minute passed, narrowing the path further, deepening the terror – a film noir of epic brooding silences punctuated by occasional yelps from the sidelines.

Come extra-time, we were no longer following a path, but a precipitous ridge on which to teeter. Each step felt less secure, but by now, going back was more dangerous, giving up was fatal, we had to progress. Chests tightened, breaths shortened, the wind whistled. We were at the crucible of the battle and still the path narrowed. 

Fitness evaporated, muscles functioned on a vapour of memories. Browne, the matchwinner, replaced by Jamie Hanson, Sykes by Dan Agyei, Long by Woodburn, Gorrin by Mousinho. Each move lurching us deeper into the unknown, was there to be an unlikely hero or were we simply running out of bodies? The shadow of a season’s effort crept ominously over us. 

All sense of time was lost in that extra period, perhaps it was minutes long, maybe days, the club tweeted that we were 130 minutes into a 120 minute game. No time like the present or simply no time at all. The silence got quieter still. 

The referee blew; maybe it was time, maybe it was pity, our captors releasing us from the torture. Two deeply exhausted teams, lost in an eternal hell, throwing air-shots at each other for the benefit of no one until one or the other, or both, collapsed from exhaustion. Football couldn’t decide our fate.

The path ended at the edge of a chasm, on the other side, it restarted, meandering up to the summit and onwards to success. Below, was nothing but wispy clouds and circling birds of prey picking at the carcasses of those who’d tried and failed previously to leap across the ravine. It was time to jump.

Pompey’s spot kicks were metronomic, bottom right, bottom right, in between Ben Woodburn scored, his new crew cut giving the impression of a teenager wrongly incarcerated. His penalty offering a faint reminder of a former happiness, he smiles for the first time in months. Anthony Forde, marginalised, then integral, present, then invisible converts the second, Matty Taylor, slick and assured; the third. As each kick passes, we expend another player, Taylor’s kick rises all the way, the least decisive of the sequence. He styles it out, as strikers do, but we’re rocking. Where the game had been a physical test, penalties are a mental examination. Is this the edge? The hours Karl Robinson has dedicated to developing a mindset, a camaraderie, a football club. The psychoanalysts probing for insecurities and chasing down doubts, developing the thinking space to perform under pressure.

McGeeghan steps up, a great bush of bleached blonde hair, his run up is short, he strikes. Eastwood, who’s looked troubled throughout despite two good saves, throws himself to his right, the ball nestles in his midriff, he looks down at it; safe, secure, saved. We have the edge. Up steps John Mousinho, titanical and assured with a leg like a traction engine built for this time and place, his swing is true, the rattle of the net cracks through the silence and we’re creeping ever nearer. Hawkins’ goal saves the first match point before the ball is handed to Cameron Brannagan.

Brannagan places the ball on the spot; combative, aggressive, confident, a boy who has become a man with a future pre-written. He steps back and suddenly looks abandoned, a great unending universe surrounds him, his run up is long, there’s a gaping space between him and the ball, he waits dutifully for the referee. All around him is doubt and regret seeking a way in. The silence haunts every space. Keep it down, keep it straight. He runs up, a lifetime of dedication from the streets of Salford to the windswept fields of Horspath via the  cosseted football factory of Melwood coursing through him, he strikes low and firm, the keeper chooses right and grasps desperately for salvation, but all he feels is air. The ball sneaks through and the net ripples, Portsmouth plummet into the ravine as we land on the other side. 

We’ve lept, we’ve scrambled, we’re still alive, the path to the summit awaits. We ride at dawn. 

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

Like a first attempt at intimacy after infidelity, the first night out after the death of a close family member, the first football since March was always going to feel different. We had to try it, a tentative step back towards normality, but what would that moment feel like? Nobody knew.

For most of the week, I didn’t feel anything, I was briefly swamped by a wave of ennui, tired of the world we currently live in. The constant rumble of catastrophe just beyond the horizon, and for many, in plain sight. The football seemed both pointless and distant. As the wave washed through, I held my breath and swam, I got on with it, until I resurfaced, because that’s what you do; that or drown, I suppose.

Football has always been a constant; while life oscillates – and it oscillates more wildly than ever now, the prospect of a game has always soothed the volatility, calmed the waters. It’s just there, something to aim for each Saturday, a rock to cling to. Then it wasn’t there and we drifted on a great swell of grim statistics, predictions and opinions about death and money and human rights. Now it’s back. Would crowdless, inaccessible football have the same effect? Would it provide that soothing balm? I kind of needed it to; but wasn’t sure it would.     

I chose not to force it, I would lean into it, see what happened. As we edged towards the game, there was a stirring, a sense that something was happening. Even if it wasn’t going to be the same, it was going to mean something. By the time we got to Friday it was difficult to ignore; and, thankfully, it was genuine. For me, the Premier League is wallpaper, an entertainment medium, its return broke up endless re-runs of Come Dine With Me and Taskmaster. It was fine, but it didn’t help me in understanding how I would feel when it meant something more. 

Of course, it was weird. Necessarily weird, but the fact the club were there meant something. A welcome old friend, one which is stoic and strong and dependable, a brief moment of hope. Frankly, there have been times when someone returning from Asda with a carload of shopping has made me feel like this, but it was no less welcome. 

Tactically, strategically, operationally; there are no reference points as to how you handle this. The play-offs are notoriously hard to predict anyway, the science is poor. But with the fitness, the lack of crowds, the drinks breaks, increases in substitutions and the proximity of the games, how do you play it? Had the stands been full at Fratton Park, you’d expect to bed in, defend for your life, perhaps try to snatch a goal. But with two games effectively on neutral territory; do you stick to the script or go toe-to-toe? 

At first it felt like we were trying to play the tie like a 120-minute game. Ease in, don’t blow up too early let the quality come, but it was too slow; James Henry couldn’t quite get his feet to do what his brain wanted them to do, passes were under hit, then over hit, players who would normally be making runs didn’t seem to be there. What looked like a controlled start, evolved into a stodginess. What looked like absorbing pressure, became desperate defending.

But then, is football always like this? Scrappy and disjointed? Does a crowd create the illusion of fluidity? Were we doing OK? More in control than it appeared? After about quarter of an hour the ball finally made it out to Marcus Browne. Where Henry is a master of trigonometry, Browne is a master of cartography. Give him the ball and he’ll find the quickest route from A to B; he surged down the wing, stretching the Portsmouth defence and opening us up to move the ball around, suddenly we looked more comfortable.

But there was little doubt that Portsmouth had adapted better; later Wycombe would sweep aside Fleetwood in the other semi-final, the most physical and straight forward team in the league, just getting on with it. This is no time for complexity. The Portsmouth goal was a product of a simpler plan; drive forward, find gaps, when they appear, test the keeper; Simon Eastwood looked rusty at first, so any shot was worth it. After half an hour, having already been saved by the post, they scored.

But you can’t sustain that directness for a whole 90 minutes, if we could weather the storm, there’d be chances. The euphoria of the breakthrough seemed to release the rush of adrenaline that fuelled their intensity. Almost immediately we looked more comfortable, they looked like they needed a breather, but we were just getting going, we moved the ball around, and it started to feel normal again. 

This might offer some clues as to how to play these games – before the Premier League season resumed Pep Guardiola said his team were ready for their first game, it was after that they weren’t ready for. A physical, direct style is easier to prepare for, harder to sustain, unlocking the riddle of a high paced passing game needs game time to get right. As the games progress over the next week, the physical may naturally ebb away as tiredness creeps in, the influence of technique and tactics may grow as the muscle memory twitches, remembering what it has spent years learning. 

This should grow the influence of James Henry and Matty Taylor. That would play to our advantage; the second leg and a potential final against Wycombe looks, on paper, to be a physical test, but by the time we face them, will Portsmouth and Wycombe have the legs to last the distance? Perhaps you need to look at the longer game – if you can survive the physical battle, will technique make the difference? Wembley is a big pitch, it might suit us.

Browne always looked most likely to make the difference, quick feet and an uncluttered mind, he found a path through their midfield and terrifying their defence. His quality is in the clarity of his thinking, while others try to play politics with each other, he sees the gap, the obvious answer, and goes for it. 1-1.

I yelped and scared the cat; it meant something. Thank goodness.

Portsmouth claimed numerous penalties; but none were as clear cut as they later claimed. VAR would have given them, claimed Paul Warne in the studio. Yes, the endlessly maligned fussy mood killer would have given them. But is that what you want? A game decided by precision technology and a fastidious addiction to the rules? We’re trying to raise people’s spirits here, give them hope.

While we have to be happy with a draw, home advantage won’t make much difference, so the outcome is still up in the air. But, in a sense, that’s fine, I’m happy that there’s a story here as much as anything. Had we won, we might have been swept up in the joy of the win, creating an illusion of everything being fine. Had we lost heavily, I’d have been lost in the futility of getting to this point in the first place. We stirred, it meant something, it was fine, we will survive; the spirit lives on. There’s something worth fighting for, it’s going to be OK.

For a few more days, at least. 

Lockdown wrap: Analysis of League 1’s paralysis

I went to America a few years ago, flying into Boston Logan Airport we arrived around lunchtime. Feeling jaded, we headed over to pick up our hire car. In a tightly packed multi-story car park, we were shown to our new whip. It was a Qashqai, although the Americans feel the need to give it a bit of good ole’ American machismo by calling it a Rogue Sport. Grrr. 

Assuring the attendants that we were very experienced drivers we swerved their offer of a demonstration of the car. Inside, alone, we surveyed the cockpit; the car had no key, no gears and no handbrake. We turned the engine on with a button, then proceeded to push buttons and tug at levers in attempt to make the thing move. No matter what we did, it simply wouldn’t engage or move forward, so we had to sheepishly recall the attendants to show us round. 

“You can actually drive, sir?” one said. 

This is the fourth Lockdown Wrap and had been earmarked as one to look at what we might have learned from this period and how football might change in the longer term. I had assumed we’d be on some kind of glide path to resuming the season.

And yet, like sitting in that Rogue Sport, regardless of the buttons we press, the league seem incapable of moving forward. Is that in gear? No, it’s the windscreen wipers.

Let’s recap – last week the EFL issued their framework for resolution – quite simply, the league resumes or it will be curtailed with the retention of all relegation, promotion and the play-offs. To agree this, 51% of clubs would need to vote for it. So far, so late, so good.

Then on Friday, a week later, they resorted to type; the clubs had provided feedback on the proposals and now there would need to be a regulation change, which they would need to be agreed on the 8 June.

Into the void came yet another club with another ‘solution’. This time from Tranmere Rovers who are threatened with relegation. Their idea was, on top of a points-per-game system, a margin of error should be applied. if you sit outside that margin of error, you’re invited to take part in the play-offs regardless. That makes some sense, it starts to address Peterborough’s prime gripe, which is that their points haul to date is low because of how their fixtures have fallen. Crucially with the Tranmere, while they are all for applying this to promotion which doesn’t affect them, it shouldn’t apply to relegation, which does.

This looks like a brazen attempt to win votes from teams at the top with the specific objective of saving them from relegation. It also hides the fact that according to my rough calculations, historically teams are more likely to fall away towards the end of the season than they are to surge. So despite Peterborough’s assurances that the best is yet to come, they are statistically more likely to fall away.

You might assume that 10 weeks ago the EFL would have realised a regulations would need to be change. It wouldn’t be hard to insert a rule which allowed an alternative approach to resolving the season in the event of a significant problem.

You might also think that by now the EFL would realise beyond playing, there is no wholly accurate and fair resolution and what you’re looking for is the next best solution. Every option has a margin of error, but perfect solutions are not what we’re trying to find. A reasonable, if flawed, pathway forward is.

So, the earliest this is set to be resolved is the 8th June, which given the preparation time needed to get players back up to fitness, pushes any resumption deeper into the summer. 

Players are already being tested across the Football League for CoVid19 in preparation for some kind of resumption. Seventeen positive tests were returned across the Championship and League 2 last week, League 1 isn’t even involved. 

So, the bickering continues to kick the issue down the road, making the prospect of a full resumption increasingly unlikely. If the season does need to be curtailed, the EFL are backed into a corner, which will only increase the prospects of arguments. All the while, the EFL are sat in their hire car jabbing at the radio trying to turn on the headlights.

Originally, I thought I’d be writing about the longer-term prospects of us as a club and the league we play in or perhaps arguing the case for re-starting where there are doubts. Given the last few weeks it would seem that only government intervention can release the game from the grip of incompetence and self-interest. Given the bumbling administration currently in place at Westminster, you have to wonder if we’ll make it off the parking lot before the holiday is over.  

Lockdown wrap: The lunatics running the asylum

There’s a steam engine at the Science Museum where you can see the cogs and pistons working in mesmerising synchronicity. This week we’ve been exposed to the inner machinery of the Football League, it’s like someone has opened up the Flying Scotsman to find it powered by elastic bands, Sellotape and custard.

The centrepiece of the whole affair is, of course, what to do with the rest of the season since its suspension in March, and specifically, what to do with League 1. Agent provocateurs in the saga are Peterborough United who will lose most if the season is brought to a premature end. 

Peterborough are a two headed beast made up of owner Darragh MacAnthony and director of football Barry Fry. Fry, if you need reminding, once brought himself to near bankruptcy buying Peterborough before finding that he hadn’t bought them at all. In 2018 he was fined £35,000 and banned from football for betting irregularities. MacAnthony re-employed Fry, who would surely be unemployable in any other business, when the ban ended. MacAnthony himself was in court in 2012 accused of ‘theft by swindle and misappropriation of funds’ and was once forced by a court to pay an ex-employee nearly £160,000 in unpaid commission. 

The main thrust of Posh’s argument seems to be that because they’re going to win their remaining games, the season should be played out. Fry claims that teams are only ahead of them because of their results, which is obviously unfair. On Oxford specifically he argued that we were only third because ‘If Oxford hadn’t won [at Shrewsbury] they would be eighth and outside the play-offs’. The Peterborough press think this is a credible argument because we ‘only’ won after coming back from two goals down against ten men. Pfft, so not a proper win, then. Fry has more confidence in something that might happen in the future than something that objectively did happen in the past.

MacAnthony announced via Twitter that he was speaking on behalf of a number of teams, including Oxford, in saying they wanted to play. Oxford confirmed that this is their preference though they’ve yet to confirm whether they support some of MacAnthony’s other plans such as forcing teams to forfeit games or suing anyone who doesn’t agree with him. Let’s not forget that Oxford are largely unaffected by almost all scenarios being suggested, so a neutral position is probably more favourable than promoting one so obviously biased.

For example, Southend’s owner Ron Martin has called for the season to be voided for the purposes of ‘sporting integrity’. By extraordinary coincidence, voiding the season would save Southend from relegation. Southend are sixteen points from safety and may even be caught by Bolton who started with no players and minus-12 points. But, Martin argues, by not playing the remaining games we would never know if Southend could suddenly find title winning form, and that wouldn’t be fair, would it? 

OK, so let’s play, you might argue. On no, this isn’t possible either because we should only play ‘when it is safe to do so’, a phrase nobody understands. For Ron, there is no scenario by which we can complete the season safely, therefore VOID, VOID, VOID. 

Some players agree, a number are aghast that people are sick-minded enough to even talk about football when people are dying. This is one of those football humblebrags – acknowledging that people are dying while always using football as a central reference point. People are talking about lots of things happening while people are dying, in fact people die all the time while things are happening. The world is trying to find a way of functioning while minimising the risk. Football, it seems, cannot function without concrete certainty, including getting access to endless testing that’s not routinely available to most regular folks.

If only there were a central governing body in England to sort this mess out on behalf of the Football League, some kind of English Football League. The EFL have chosen to devolve responsibility for resolving their problem to the individual divisions. This is like the government devolving responsibility for managing the infection rate to each individual within the country. Yes, you can go to the beach, but use your common sense. Common sense, if it exists at all, is common to everyone, so if one person uses their common sense to go to the beach safely, so will thousands of others, it’s, well common sense. By devolving responsibility to resolving the issue to the clubs, the clubs are likely to use their common sense and back positions most favourable to them, that means there’ll be winners and losers which creates a schism.

Only in the last few days have the EFL finally provided a framework for resolution. But, if the Oxford Vaccine Group can start developing a vaccine for Disease X – an unknown virus which will cause a pandemic before it happens, you might think that the EFL could have come up with a democratic method for resolving ‘Critical Issue X’ – a massive unknown problem which would affect the entire league. It seems not, there appears no established decision-making protocol for proposing or choosing possible resolutions, it’s taken weeks to come up with one inviting the shysters and vagabonds into the vacuum.

Still, at least League 2 is all resolved and congratulations to Swindon Town for winning the title. Or have they? Court papers this week revealed that Swindon’s owner Steve Power has been less than honest with, well, everyone. Swindon are, in effect, owned by a company called Swinton Reds. Back in 2013 Power entered into an agreement with an anonymous investor to take a 50% stake Swinton Reds (and therefore Swindon Town). Michael Standing, who Oxford fans will remember for his seven-game stint in a yellow shirt including a 1-0 defeat at Histon claims he was the mysterious financial muscleman. Power, however, claims that he sold the interest to Standing’s friend and Premier League diesel Gareth Barry. Weirdly, this all happened in the same meeting and nobody took the time to clarify just who Power was talking to. In fact, seven years later, nobody has taken a moment to check who provided the money.

What’s more, Standing is Barry’s agent, and both are prohibited from having a financial interest in another football club. So, whoever is backing Swindon’s title appears to be doing so illegally. A fitting way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Swindon’s last demotion for financial irregularities, perhaps they’re planning to livestream a recording of the FA disciplinary panel meeting from 1990.

There are many challenges that have come out of this crisis, but also many opportunities. One can only hope that ridding the game of even a small percentage of these chancers would be a decent start.  

Match wrap: Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 3

I’ve had a funny week, before the Southend game I met with The Fence End podcast to talk about the possibility of taking part in an episode. When they tweeted this, the response came as a bit of a surprise. Someone said that they didn’t want this blog to be run by a person, more a mysterious ‘thing’.

I like the anonymity of Oxblogger; it’s partly intentional but mostly just evolved. It’s never really been tested before, it’s not like there’s much of a prize in unveiling me; I’m not the owner of a creepy theme park in Scooby Doo. I’ve never thought about the impact it has, but it turns out that some people quite like it as well.

So the reality that Oxblogger is written by someone real and normal, to the person who is actually writing it, and not a omnipotent super computer is quite a curious thing. I’m not equating myself to a superhero, unless I’m Benign and Mildly Diverting Man, but it made me think that it’s one thing buying himself a Lycra morph suit with a spider’s web on it, quite something else to step out into the street and demand people call you ‘Spiderman’. The difference between giving myself a name and that being a thing is quite big.

In 1998, Tony Adams, then England captain, said that the expectation of achieving a semi-final place in the World Cup was quite different to the reality of achieving it. When you’re a fan, you look at players with ability and think it’s just a simple process of switching it on at the right time. What Adams was pointing out was that the mental, physical, technical and tactical efforts required to achieve your goal are some way beyond simply just going out and expressing yourself.

The win over Shrewsbury, coming back from 2-0 down, and more broadly moving from 11th to 3rd in five games, underlines a similar principle. Some fans had given up on us a few weeks ago, and after 34 minutes many had given up yesterday. But, if we are to be a promotion chasing side, then we’ve actually got to be a promotion chasing side. The physical effort and the psychological application to want to turn the game around and not simply give up, is not to be under-estimated.

Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, talks about how an elite athlete has to strike the balance between the confidence to perform and enough doubt to want to put the effort in to be able to do that. If I’m going to run a marathon, I’ve got to believe I can, but I’ve also got have enough doubt in my fitness to train to do it. Too much doubt or too much confidence will lead to failure. In a football season, that balance has to be struck for ten months.

We seem to have found that sweet spot; the last five games and the comeback against Shrewsbury illustrating that we feel we have a right to be fighting for promotion. I can’t say I shared that view, I thought the play-offs could only be considered an unexpected by-product of an overall improvement at the club, I didn’t really see promotion as a goal in itself.

But now, in the same way I may need to accept that I am ‘Oxblogger’ – whatever that means, we need to accept that we’re a team on a promotion hunt. When Karl Robinson is asked about his future beyond May, he’s right to dismiss it because these opportunities are rare and don’t simply take care of themselves. When Robinson talked about being ‘a big club’ in the transfer market, it transfers to the rest of the show. Playing well, not accepting defeats, but also filling the stands home and away and supporting the team even when they’re 2-0 down after half-an-hour. We need to match the mental fortitude the team have shown.

Which is the final point – when we were in the doldrums in the Conference, Chris Wilder instilled an expectation that we would not only talk like a club too big for that level, but with Mark Creighton, Adam Murray, James Constable and others, we would act like it. When Michael Appleton instilled a dedication to technical professionalism akin to teams in higher divisions it paid dividends. Now Karl Robinson has implemented a mental toughness that deserves success, and given the challenges he faced when arrived and whatever happens now, he deserves to be recognised for that.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Southend United 1

In 1987 Terence Trent D’Arby released his debut album Introducing The Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. It was a tightly produced record borrowing heavily from the funk and soul classics of James Brown and Stevie Wonder. D’Arby himself was a phenomenal presence with a sensational voice; the tight rhythms gave him the platform to perform. It was an instant classic, selling 1 million copies in three days and winning a Grammy and Brit Award.

Two years later, emboldened by his success, D’Arby released his follow-up opus; Neither Fish Nor Flesh. He produced and wrote the record himself, unhindered by his previous production team. It was a sprawling mess of pretentious diarrhoea. To illustrate his indulgence; D’Arby appeared in three different guises – as himself, the Incredible E.G. O’Reilly and Ecneret Tnert Ybra’D, the latter accredited with providing ‘vocals and kazoo’. It bombed, and D’Arby’s career was largely over.

I was reminded of this sobering tale as we laboured to three points against Southend. In the past, having seen us fall apart against poor sides too many times, I would worry about our complacency in this kind of game. Now, I have such confidence in the side, I’m the one who risks being complacent. Such has been our desire to entertain and score goals, I expected us to sweep them aside.

From the get-go, something was up; but it wasn’t just our obvious fatigue or the fact we were playing into a headwind. We were untroubled by the clock with little sense of urgency. This isn’t that unusual, our patience at the start of games must be a deliberate tactic; we’ve come unstuck with it a few times this year when teams have started quickly.

But, then it started to feel like a cup game against a non-league side. Us, not quite able to muster the energy to really take the game to them, them providing a confusing mix of ability and ineptitude. As the game progressed, we got bundled up in their ball of confusion like a pair of trousers becoming entwined with a duvet cover in a tumble drier.

Terence Trent D’Arby openly declared his genius to anyone who’d listen, and many who wouldn’t. He surrounded himself with people who agreed with him, which provided no compulsion to compromise. He claimed (to some degree justifiably) the failure of Neither Fish Nor Flesh to be the result of institutional racism at his record company, when to most of the paying public, it was just a terrible record and he was an arrogant arse.

Did someone say Sol Campbell? Aside from the weather and the tiredness, what was particularly difficult to deal with on Saturday was the apparent lack of any tactical underpinning in the Southend team. They looked physically tiny; when fighting relegation its normal to at least establish a physical presence, but Campbell doesn’t seem concerned with that. Neither were they fast, nor did they press, but at the same time, they weren’t awful.

Where was the song? Amidst a mess of ideas and endeavours, there was no recognisable pattern. There was nothing for us to dance, sing or cry to, we seemed bemused, unable to engage. What resulted was a game of jazz noodling and meandering experimentation. Perhaps there was genius in there somewhere, but the nine minute kazoo solo ensured we couldn’t hear it.

In the end, it took Marcus Browne’s brutish physicality to break through the garbage, like a drummer hammering out a standard four-four beat to bring the other musicians into line. Like D’Arby’s original production team, sometimes you need someone to step in and drag everyone back to what you’re supposed to be achieving.

Browne chased across the field to rectify his own mistake and then swung the ball into the box for Matty Taylor to fire home. While others celebrated, Browne lay on the turf like a dying bumble bee having fulfilled its biological compulsion to protect its fellow bees after a sting. At that moment we needed that discipline and simplicity.

And that was all we needed, to get out of February with three points and a place in the play-offs. Sometimes it’s OK to have a staccato syncopated rhythms inspired North Africa, sometimes you just need a groove and a decent hook.