Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Doncaster Rovers 0

I was getting some shopping on the way back from the game on Saturday. Someone, recognising my top, asked ‘did they win?’. This occasionally happens outside the ground, usually by kids menacingly riding their bikes, but I was 15 miles away and it was the second time it had happened in a few minutes.

I won’t describe the person for risk of unfairly stereotyping, but I wouldn’t normally associate them with having an interest in the club’s fortunes. They wanted to know who scored, hoping I’d say Tariqe Fosu.

‘Tariqe Fosu lives next door to me’ they said by way of explanation. I said he’d been great and I got the sense they took some residual pride in the fact their neighbour was getting such praise. I once told Perry Groves he was great when I randomly phoned him up to do a market research survey. I didn’t mean it, but with Fosu I genuinely did.

I wasn’t sat in my normal seat at the game; with a new angle I saw the work he put in. When I see players like that, it genuinely fills my heart with joy. He’s a jobbing footballer working his socks off for my club. ‘He’s such a lovely bloke’ the person said.

A few minutes earlier, Karl Robinson had broken off his live post-match radio interview to sort out a dispute between the Doncaster subs and the club’s ground staff.

This was typical Robinson; easy to mock, but impulsive and authentic. He talks about the importance of the whole club, he takes time out for kids, older fans, he supports the staff from the groundsmen to the ticket office. Last year it threatened to overwhelm him, with his core responsibility being the team, but he seems to have found a sweet spot.

Exactly halfway through the second-half, after a dominant display against a team we should aspire to match this season, we seemed to run out of energy and started to get pushed back. It wasn’t a surprise, we’d been so good that maintaining it for 90 minutes was always unlikely. Robinson whistled for Shandon Baptiste to come on and instantly the balance was redressed. He was in total control.

Fosu is his protege, he has the attacking qualities to simply focus on that and – let’s face it – get away with it, but yesterday it was his willingness to track back and cover Josh Ruffels, to block crosses like a seasoned full-back which was so impressive.

Robinson made the point in his post-match interview of the example Jamie Mackie offers to other players, he could have mentioned John Mousinho and James Henry. None are at the peak of their careers, Oxford isn’t their perfect destination, but they play like it is, never letting up. All over the pitch there are examples of the value of working hard and buying into and contributing to a culture.

Every season has its narrative; the 1995/96 promotion was a redemptive story about a remarkable late season run, 2009/10 was a rebirth born out of sheer bloody mindedness, 2015/16 was a marvel of science and planning.

What is emerging this year is a one-club culture; it permeates from Robinson through the players to the backroom staff and to the fans.

People often talk about the fans being the heart of a club and in one sense they are, they’re the only constant. But as the crowds show, they’re also the first to walk away when things aren’t great.

Josh Widdecombe once wrote that football wasn’t a great subject for comedy because it isn’t universal. It’s massively popular, of course, but not as all-encompassing as the general challenges of life. Getting a club to permeate beyond its core set of followers is a massive challenge. Results help, of course, but so does someone like Tariqe Fosu being a great neighbour. When random people talk to you in supermarkets about the result, you know the ripples are being felt. Perhaps they’ll buy a ticket soon, just to see him play.

Where that takes us, I don’t know. I took a bit of criticism last week saying I didn’t know whether our style could be sustained. It was genuine; it’s not a question of doubting it; I don’t know whether it can.

But, it is working, the product is great, an Oxford top is the stimulus for a discussion about the club, we can be proud that we’re part of a movement not some marginal obsession. I can talk about Tariqe Fosu’s performances with a stranger in a way I could never do about Carl Pettefer or Tim Sills. The challenge now is for it to permeate more widely, Robinson is an ambassador, but so is Fosu and so are we. Nobody knows how long this will last, but there’s something good happening here, let’s broadcast it.

Match wrap: Accrington Stanley 2 Oxford United 2

It wasn’t a question of if, it was always a question of when. When would we concede and when would we drop points? The longer our run of results went on, the closer they were to ending. We knew that, we just hoped it wasn’t true.

Another nagging question that hangs in the air is; what now? We’re the life and soul of the party; entertaining, dynamic and fun at our best; but can we keep it going or will we end up sobbing uncontrollably in the corner when the lights go on?

It is still difficult to fully trust this team; even when I talk about ‘team’ I’m not sure who I’m talking about. The squad clearly has plenty of ability and it rattles along at such a pace that the potential for the wheels to fall off remains very real.

After the Accrington game Cameron Brannagan was talking about the Portsmouth game on Tuesday as though it were a league match. ‘I’m a machine’ he said. It’s a machine whose throttle is permanently pressed to the floor.

But there is no better illustration of the risk than the substitution of Ben Woodburn for Anthony Forde and then Forde for Alex Gorrin in the first half. Gorrin had been rested because he’s been one booking from a ban since the opening weeks of the season.

Those injuries to Woodburn and Forde, along with Thorne and Hanson seem to be the collateral damage of the way we play. Two others are a booking away from a ban and we’ve had more bookings than anyone else in the division.

Karl Robinson creates so much heat and light through his boundless energy that for every last minute win, giant killing and breakneck run of results, there’s another player risking ban or six-week spell on the sidelines due to injury. No wonder he’s still looking to bring in more players in, he burns through them at such a rate.

For Robinson, this is probably how he’s lived his whole career – it’s probably normal to him. Powering on, hoovering up experiences, never looking back at the consequences. But, can we sustain this for the next eight months? Eight weeks? Even the next eight days?

There’s a notable chill in the air, which means things are getting serious. We’re about to go into a period of about four months where everything gets disrupted; cup games – with the addition of the League Cup – and international breaks are shoehorned in between the League.

I’m torn between enjoying the moments and building a sustainable club one block at a time. We’re ninth in the table, if we have a top 10 budget, then we’re exactly where we should be. Sometimes I feel we need to be more conservative because our peers are teams like Accrington, Wycombe, Burton and Wimbledon – conservative, sustainable and pragmatic.

We have Doncaster, Rotherham, Sunderland (in the League Cup), Ipswich and Portsmouth coming up. It’s a group of clubs which we would aspire to being part of. Perhaps we already are and this is the way we need to play to maintain our position or go higher.

Maybe the problem isn’t the team or Karl Robinson, perhaps it’s just me.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Gillingham 0

Steve Evans’ comment that our win over Lincoln last week was the result of two lucky goals was either an act of gross complacency or a bungled attempt at spooky mind games.

Either way it showed Evans up to be spent force he is. Once upon a time he was an intimidating character capable of squeezing out results from average teams and gaining an edge by unsettling officials and opposition managers. 

Now he’s just a slightly daft, dangerously overweight, old man ranting to no great effect on the sidelines. He reminds me of those fans you see at away games acting like testosterone fuelled teenagers even though they’re on the wrong side of fifty. Just a bit silly, really.  

The lucky goals comment was so obviously wrong, it was impossible for anyone to be derailed by it. As long as we focussed on the same things that brought us the wins over Lincoln and West Ham, we were good enough to win comfortably.

But keeping it simple has not always been Karl Robinson’s strong suit. You could have predicted Mark Sykes dropping out of the squad despite a near man of the match performance on Wednesday. For some managers, resting players seems to be a way of showing fans that you’re operating on a higher plane. It seems there are Premier League managers would only be happy if their best players were permanently rested, as if there are no games important enough for them to be risked.

Unless you’re Manchester City, where you can make eleven changes and still field a title winning side, changing players always risks derailing a winning team. But, some managers can’t resist the temptation of making destabilising adjustments to prove a point about how it is them, not the players, who are winning games.

So when Karl Robinson made the changes he did; it felt like rather than focus on simply beating Gillingham, he was setting out to prove how astute a manager he was. How he didn’t need to rely on lucky goals.

In some ways Gillingham was a tougher test than West Ham. Against a Premier League club there’s no expectations, you can lose and retain respect as long as you’ve put in maximum effort. In the league effort accounts for nothing, results are everything.

But, we have a core of experience – Eastwood, Ruffels, Mousinho, Henry and Taylor (or Mackie) which anchors the squad. These players are less susceptible to the ups and downs of a season and know that for all the highs of Lincoln and West Ham, they count for little against the likes of Gillingham. As a result, we were calm and purposeful and it gave us openings; we took them early and suddenly everything was comfortable.  

Apart from James Henry trying to complete his half hat-trick when better options were available, and Simon Eastwood getting in a muddle on the edge of his box at the start of the second half, it was the most straight forward and well-managed win we’ve had at home for a long time. The calm heads after the thrill ride of the last week was particularly encouraging.

I’ve been thinking recently about our 1996 promotion season and the last 17 games were we lost one and drew two. There was an avalanche of goals then as well. It felt like flying down hill on a bike; it was exhilarating but there was the nagging knowledge that the slightest wobble could see us mangled up at the side of the road. It feels like that at the moment; we won’t keep scoring bucketloads of goals for the rest of the season; so the real questions are – how long can we keep it going and more importantly, how well will we manage it when we don’t?

Match wrap: Lincoln City 0 Oxford United 6

It’s fair to say that Karl Robinson splits opinions; even within individual opinions, there are split opinions. It’s not uncommon to hear things like ‘I can’t stand the man, but I don’t think he should be sacked’ or ‘I respect what he does, but he can’t go on like this’.

Whether it’s the start of a season, game or interview, it’s difficult to figure out Robinson’s modus operandi. There seems to be a common theme of there being a blizzard of confusion followed by some kind of clarity or success. Is that deliberate? Is it luck? Is the assumption that if you throw enough Karl Robinson at a wall, some of it will stick? Is there a science to all this that we can’t see?

It’s almost, and I use this comparison advisedly, Trump-esque; it is near on impossible to figure out whether Robinson is a stable genius, or wanton lunatic.

The result is similar to Chris Wilder’s time at the club; Jamie Cook once described him as a polarising figure; ‘a great coach but a terrible man’. The result was streaks of poor form, followed by unlikely wins and unbeaten runs. Whether Karl Robinson can be defined in quite such a binary way, I don’t know, but he’s consistently inconsistent.

On Saturday, Michael Appleton was in the stand preparing to take over our opponents Lincoln. Appleton is a methodical theoretician, a scientist of the game. He’s a good fit for Lincoln who seem to have learnt through the appointment of the Cowley brothers about the power of building.

It was Robinson’s worst nightmare; following the debacle against Bolton, he not only had to get us back on track, but do it with one of Oxford’s greatest managers glaring down on him.

And then he goes out and does this. Seven shots, six goals, all of the highest quality. A record breaking win, the win we thought we might get on Tuesday, and a moment of utter razor sharp clarity in a sea of confusion.

Tariqe Fosu, as we’re regularly reminded, has known Robinson for years. You could argue that not only does he understand Robinson’s methods, he’s a product of them. Perhaps it’s of no surprise that he seems to have settled so quickly in a way that others haven’t. Where Luke Garbutt, Sam Smith and perhaps Ben Woodburn made slower starts, Fosu is flying because he knew what to expect and what was expected.

The Lincoln result is no more an indicator of our prospects for the season than the Bolton result was, finding the new normal under Robinson feels like an endless quest.

While doing a little side project on the best players of the 1990s, I found a surprising fact. Between 1990-1999 Oxford United fielded 107 players, between 2000-2009 that number doubled with a similar number for 2010-2019. If Robinson is to succeed, he needs players to understand his methods, and if you’re new to that, it can take time. Without that, you’re always playing catch up.

The challenge is that modern football doesn’t offer stability. The turnover of players is so great, the onus is on the manager to be clear about his intentions and for them to respond. Last season it took months to get the message over and while this season it seems to have settled more quickly, the contrasts between Bolton and Lincoln show, it’s still not clear which Oxford United we are.

Match wrap: Bolton Wanderers 0 Oxford United 0

I was looking forward to the novelty of watching us play Bolton on iFollow. I was never going to travel north on a Tuesday night, so the opportunity to see the game with one eye on The Bake-Off was a little bit of joy to break up the tedium of the week. 

The result was a faded facsimile of anything we might consider as being football; the limited production values meant that it wasn’t TV football as you know it, and it’s not even close to a replacement for being there.

Despite Bolton’s evident problems and the fact they’d conceded 21 goals in the previous four games, I shared the view that we definitely had it in us to make the game more difficult than it should have been.

Perhaps that’s just natural pessimism and fear – nobody wants to be the first team that gets beaten by such a beleaguered club. Dig a little deeper, though, and it was clear that they weren’t to be under-estimated. They’ve taken a point from Coventry at home and took the lead on Saturday against Rotherham, most of the goals they’ve conceded have been later in games when they got tired and lost shape. 

The presence of Jake Wright in their starting line-up should remind us that they are not the team of juniors they were at the start of the season, plus, by the law of averages, they will pick off points here and there. They’re like a non-league team in the cup – most of the time they’ll lose to more established opposition, but that doesn’t prevent them from winning once in a while.

The onus was on us to control the game; but in fact we were the ones who showed immaturity. Their shortcomings were evident but we were still overrun by youthful exuberance for the opening 20 minutes. Afterwards, Karl Robinson wanted us to acknowledge their performance, but we looked woefully under-prepared.

A more disciplined and organised side would have absorbed the pressure. Extinguished the enthusiasm. Strangled the life out of their rawness. Watching it on an iPad, it looked like a game of FIFA on the Playstation; two teams attacking without any obvious plan. For them, there was little to lose for us, it was unforgivable.

As the game progressed, thankfully, things seemed to balance out a bit and we started to edge back into it. But at no point did we look more than an average threat. 

There was no craft, no calm and little shape. Professionally, it was little short of pathetic. There are things I like about Robinson; he gets football clubs at an emotional level, he has time for people. He serves his club in a way managers rarely do. But, he’s not there to think like a fan; he’s there to plan, establish structure and instil discipline. Quite simply, we should have won comfortably. We’re facing teams that are set up not to lose first and foremost and yet we simply hammer away thoughtlessly and expect to cut through them. I’m a long way from calling for his head, but his approach, like his touchline persona, is childlike; you have to question how far it can take us. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Tranmere Rovers 0

There were two people behind me for the win over Tranmere on Saturday. Irregular visitors to the Kassam, they talked knew how we were getting on but still referred to each player by number. One of them had already seen us this season. “It was much better than this” he said. We’d played four minutes.

It surprises me that people still assume football to be easy. That combining the activity of eleven people at speed, while another eleven try to stop them should effortlessly flow. “What do they do in training all day?” one said. Oh, I suspect they sit around talking about how brilliant they’ll be on Saturday.

Mackie was ‘too slow’ and Fosu ‘too lightweight’. In fact, Mackie is not quick, it’s different – too slow implies that he has speed he not using. Fosu is slight, so he won’t hold the ball against a defender the size of Manny Monthe but it means defenders have to be more careful, which weakens their game. Fosu won a lot of position simply by using this perceived weakness.

There were moments on Saturday when the combinations faltered at the final hurdle. On two occasions, Jamie Mackie made runs to the near post, only for the ball to go behind him and roll harmlessly across the goal. There were groans of frustration at the inaccuracy of the cross and Mackie’s poor positioning. In fact, both had been perfect; what was needed was someone at the back post to put the ball away.

In the first half, twice we broke from defence, while Mackie battled for the loose ball, there was a great thick defensive line of yellow leaving the box at an unremarkable speed. On the third occasion, James Henry put in a spirt of effort to burst out of the line giving Mackie an outlet and us an attacking shape. Those moments can be decisive, and they’re not there yet.

It was the emergence of experience that gave us the win; Fosu’s moment of petulance in wanting to take the first penalty was understandable, but the experience of Henry and Mousinho to go with logic ensured the goal. Mackie always plays the referee as well as the game he used his strengths well. Henry’s calmness from the spot to follow the process and get the job done tipped the balance.

What’s missing are the finishing touches; Ben Woodburn almost doesn’t want to score enough. Those Mackie runs gave openings that could have given him simple tap-ins. It’s a desire that gave Liam Sercombe a hatful in 2015/16 and is giving Cameron Brannagan his goals this year.

Tranmere looked like a team that have been promoted too quickly. They don’t seem to have the bank of players to perform at this level. They had gaps as well, particularly up front, but our gaps were smaller, which was the difference.

The table still looks a bit of a muddle, Wycombe are third, Lincoln have lost four out of five. It’s possible others are suffering similarly, it makes for an interesting and exciting league, but the quicker we can link everything up, the faster we’ll climb the table.

Match wrap: Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 1

Let’s face it, a 2-1 defeat away to Fleetwood is not, in isolation, an unexpected result, but it means just one win in seven and 20th place in the division. It’s opened all the old debates about Karl Robinson’s suitability and our prospects for the season.

It’s not a simple question of Robinson’s competence, or if he’s likeable or not. I can see both sides of those arguments. For me it’s about the compitablity between his approach, and the club more broadly.

Robinson wants to play a fast, all action style, but with late summer signings and the loss of Gavin Whyte, we currently have a squad trying to bed in while travelling at a thousand miles an hour.

Had we been in League 2, I think he could deliver a season in the vein of 2015/2016; fast, exciting, full of goals; sweeping all before us including a few higher league scalps in the cup. To ape an old Viz comic strip; we’d be all special weapons and no tactics.

But, League 1 is more savvy and we’re being undone by solid, streetwise teams – Fleetwood, Burton and Bristol Rovers. It reminds me of the scene in Indiana Jones where faced by the swashbuckling swordsman skilfully wielding his weapon, Jones simply pulls a gun out and shoots him dead.

We don’t yet have the cohesion to wield our sword skilfully and execute the kill. Worse, we don’t have the bedrock of Curtis Nelson at the back and even Simon Eastwood seems shakier, particularly with shots from distance.

All this against a backdrop of a ownership which, tentatively, seems to be finding its feet. The emergence of Zaki Nuseibeh as a calming voice of reason – talking about building sustainably and responsibly has replaced the eery silences of last year. In addition, we have enjoyed some good PR with the squad numbers, the symbolic signing of Kash Siddiqi and Zaki himself talking about the regulation of clubs in the light of what has happened to Bury.

But despite that steadying hand, Robinson pursues his campaign to please with a maddening thrill-ride of entertaining, but ultimately unproductive football.

Based on last year, the results should come. With Bury’s demise and Bolton’s points deduction, the trapdoor is significantly smaller. But, if we are to do more than simply survive then we seem to have gone the wrong way about it. Wycombe are currently top; a team who specialise in working within their limitations and not over-stretching. The fantasists may have one eye on the Championship at the moment, but I suspect internally they see each point now as a step towards survival from relegation in May. If they’re in a similar position at Christmas, perhaps they’ll readjust their expectations.

At the moment we’re not recognising our limitations – cohesion, fitness, a shaky defence – as a result, we’re over-stretching and being picked off. Stopping the rot should be the focus, even if it means abandoning some of our principles.