A great hulk of a man with a reputation that echoes across the lower leagues. It’s a reputation that masks his limitations, but it keeps him at the forefront of our minds and, more importantly for him, it maintains a demand for his services.
In December 2019, Ade Akinfenwa approached John Mousinho in a melee – we were 25 minutes into a tense almost-promotion decider, almost-derby – Alex Gorrin had floored a Wycombe striker and it all kicked off. With Akinfenwa already on a booking, Mousinho knew that any contact with the self-styled Beast would put pressure on the referee to produce a second card and eject the Wycombe striker from the game. Mousinho stood firm, he didn’t retaliate, he didn’t step back, Akinfenwa was now committed, if his brand was to be upheld, he would have to see it through. He pushed Mousinho in the chest, the lightest shove, and the experienced defender crumpled on the floor. The referee had no option and Akinfenwa, and Wycombe’s chances of victory, were gone.
It was a rare moment of Oxford showing a mastery of the darker arts of football. Something we have missed this season at times. If you were to distill a good League 1 team into its component parts, somehow put it in a centrifuge to separate out it’s individual elements, you’d probably produce one lump of pure Oxford United and a lump of pure Gillingham.
There’s nothing sophisticated about a Steve Evans team, no working the ball from the back because that’s how it’s done nowadays. Goal kicks go long, throw-ins; longer, attack in numbers, defend in numbers. Like Wycombe last year, it has its limitations, but it’s effective enough. If you can get your noses ahead and shut up shop, then you can frustrate your opponents into paralysis.
You can see why clubs employ Steve Evans; he’ll never make you worse or cost you a lot of money; where other managers could force an owner into investing in a sophisticated system which has no material benefit, Evans will get a committed set of players together and work them into the ground.
We seemed surprised by it when we shouldn’t be; it’s probably the only club whose billing has the manager’s name preceding it; ‘we’ve got Steve Evans’ Gillingham on Saturday’.
In truth, I thought we coped better with the onslaught than we have previously. In the opening minutes it was a bombardment, but when we did get on the ball, we slowed things down, moved it around and tried to take the sting out of it. We needed to kill the game stone dead, keep possession, tire them out, but while the beast stirred, we were always vulnerable.
We were dragged into Steve Evans’ world of harassing and harrying, some call it anti-football; but it’s still part of the game and one we’re rarely keen to touch. An engineered drinks break immediately preceded their opening goal; go figure.
Their second was a sucker punch, Josh Ruffels limping in the box from a heavy challenge; a wounded gazelle showing a moment of vulnerability, the ball was worked out down his flank, allowing Jordan Graham to cross and Robbie Cundy slot home. We were being haunted by our 2016 promotion squad.
It was this season in microcosm; beaten by the darker arts, a lack of guile, experience and leadership. We didn’t do enough to slow the game down, to nullify their threat, even to take them on at their own game as Mousinho did with Akinfenwa last season. You can argue that it’s not right, but they’re the ones with the lead. Gillingham may lack grace and style, but does it really matter when the calculations are this simple; the winner stays on, the loser’s season is over.
A moment of class from Sam Winnall two minutes later reignited the game, but it still looked like a point was the best we might hope for, and that wasn’t really enough. But, it put Gillingham in a difficult position; continue to shut up shop and risk conceding again or follow the old game plan and go at our throats, potentially leaving them vulnerable – particularly with Dan Agyei offering a pace outlet. It was a lose/lose situation.
The game and season was concentrated into fifteen minutes; for us, it was simple, we needed another goal at least, it didn’t really matter if we lost 2-1 or 3-1 or 10-1. We needed something to get us back on terms.
But of course, it’s not just expensively constructed talent and cynical gamesmanship that makes a team great. A hail-Mary cross from Anthony Forde drops from the early evening sun to the back post and there’s Sam Long; the embedded spirit of the whole club powering through three Gillingham defenders to head in the equaliser. In the context of the game, it’s enough; a point, and a squint at the table, and we live to fight another day.
It’s not just that Sam Long is a local player whose been with the club since he was eight-years-old, he’s overcome near-career ending injuries at crucial stages of his life. As the club moved forward, he battled just to stand still, had the club decided the young injury prone defender was surplus to requirements, nobody would have batted an eyelid and there wouldn’t have been many clubs lining up to take him on. Even when he was back to fitness, there have been plenty of attempts to replace him; Ricardinho, Chris Cadden and Sean Clare have all been brought in; but he’s seen them all off. Sam Long knows that you can’t give up when there’s still a chance.
So, maybe those experiences have galvanised something in him, a need to persevere, right to the end. Never say die. In the context of the game, a point would have been enough, a poor performance that we battled back from. But in the context of the season, in the context of Sam Long’s club and career, it wouldn’t have been enough. It would have been a wasted opportunity. There’s still a glimmer of hope; and while hope remains…
And so, there we were, 94 minutes on the clock, the strange bright early evening sun bathing the eerily empty stadium. It’s a hue I’ve started to associate with the pandemic; the same, strange glow that bathed our play-off game against Portsmouth last year. Cameron Brannagan is given space to set himself. Gillingham, for all their gamesmanship are broken, from 2-0 up, even a draw is a defeat – they’ve got to sit in front of a purple-faced Steve Evans in a few minutes – a draw isn’t enough for their efforts, their manager or their season.
Brannagan’s long deep cross drops beyond its intended targets, perhaps the strange kick-off time made the flight of the ball harder to judge. But where others were waiting for it to drop in the middle of the box, at the back post one man is attacking it. Sam Long, the embodiment of that other crucial ingredient in a successful team, an undying spirit. It’s no easy chance, a deft, light, guided finish is needed to put it beyond the keeper. That’s 3-2 and that’s the game.
A position in the play-offs may still be a quirk of how the fixtures have fallen; but it’s a reminder that beyond tactics, style and gamesmanship, beyond the dark arts and the beautiful game, there’s always hope and while that’s alive, we keep fighting.