Match wrap – Sunderland 1 Oxford United 1

There’s a Big Issue seller in Winchester who is one of the funniest people I know. During the festive season, he dresses as a giant threadbare Christmas tree dealing out a series of well rehearsed deadpan one-liners about how rubbish the Big Issue is. I was there on Saturday, walking behind a group of women doing their Christmas shopping; ‘Ooh it’s a girl band’ he said ‘which one’s the gay one? There’s always a gay one.’ They all fell about laughing, it won him another sale.

It reminded me of Viz comic’s running joke about the boyband Bros; there was the twins Luke and Matt Goss, and the anonymous third wheel Craig Logan, who Viz cruelly referred to as ‘Ken’ due to his generic role as ‘other’.

Nathan Cooper could be seen as Radio Oxford’s Ken. He’s not Jerome Sale, with the in-joke about fans phoning to cast their opinion of games they haven’t been to and the fabled (and to my mind, slightly over rated) one-liner about being ‘back on the coupon’ from 2010. He’s not the omnipresent Nick Harris whose gravely voice has soundtracked the club’s progress for more than a generation. Cooper is ‘other’, he’s ‘Ken’.

The Sunderland game was his 1,000th consecutive game, a phenomenal run which is outstrips Sale and Harris who have missed games due to other commitments. The landmark gave him a brief opportunity to step out from the shadows, to recognise his permanent and essential presence. There was a clip on Twitter of Karl Robinson presenting him with a shirt to mark the occasion, he seemed uncomfortable about being the story.

He’s sharper and grittier than Harris, closer to the story than Sale, an essential cog in the Oxford United experience. During one of the lockdowns, the club ran an episode of their podcast with him talking about our relegation from the Football League in 2006, his storytelling is brilliant, it’s a grim, but essential listen.

Cooper’s skills is his relentless consistency; his post-match interviews are a platform for the players, managers and owners to tell their version of the story, not a vehicle for his own views. It’s clever in its understated-ness.

It’s a lesson that the team seem to have learned this season, our play-off push is quiet, savvy and consistent. In the past we’ve had the thrilling cup runs and miraculous play-off charges. This season is different, there was no great fanfare when the covid-hit players returned from their isolation last week, the Sunderland game, which is usually a stand out fixture in the calendar, was treated as just another game, rearranged for practicality and convenience. The draw would be good enough, there was no point to prove, just a point to win.

We’re entering the stage of the season where things get chaotic. Cup competitions, Christmas and the weather play havoc with the fixtures; Rotherham, Wigan, Plymouth, Sunderland, MK Dons and Portsmouth all have cup competitions still to negotiate on top of their league programme. It’s not just the additional games, it’s the tiring Tuesday night trips to the other end of the country they have to deal with. Any inherent weaknesses are easily exposed, causing dropped points and derailed promotion pushes.

We, on the other hand, have the most straight forward fixture run we’ve had in years. No distractions or cup competitions to muddy the waters and skew the focus. With the work done to date there’s no catch-up to do, we just have to continue our quiet, steady progress. We don’t have to push, over-reach for the points, keep the run going, stay solid, pick off the points and let others make the mistakes. One game at a time.

Match wrap – Oxford United 0 Rotherham United 0

When Luke Skywalker hits the ventilation shaft in the Death Star creating a chain reaction that ultimately results in its destruction, it’s celebrated as an unparalleled victory for the rebel alliance. They get a special medal for it and there are celebrations across the galaxy.

We later learn that the ventilation shaft had been deliberately designed to create a systemic and catastrophic weakness in the Death Star’s defences. We also know that Luke thinks hitting the target is no big deal, no harder that shooting Womp Rats in his T-16 back home. The destruction of the Death Star is, ultimately, a big old hoo haa about nothing, particularly given what was to come.

The win over Fleetwood on Tuesday, in many ways, was our destruction of the Death Star. Our experience of them historically was of an indestructible battle weapon who we’d taken just two points from over twelve meetings before last season’s home win. Even that was filtered through the lens of iFollow, up to Tuesday, fans had no real-life experience of beating them. 

Add to that the under-resourced ramshackle rebel alliance that was drawn from our covid decimated squad and the win was celebrated as an unparalleled victory. What we hadn’t fully accounted for was that Fleetwood were a brittle side with systemic weaknesses.

The real threat was just beyond the horizon.

As I drove in on Saturday, the chirpy presenter on Radio Oxford trailing the game presented the case – ‘Oxford face top of the table Rotherham, unbeaten in their last fourteen games.’ I laughed. I laughed at the fact we have, perhaps, the worst squad crisis in the history of the club and we’re about to face a team with no obvious ventilation shaft.

What’s more, I’m still haunted by their last visit, a chastening experience, a brutalisation of not just our team, but our whole worldview. They were fast, aggressive and efficient and swept us and our ideals away in the process.

Fittingly, their players and the whole bench were dressed in black, with a splattering of red – presumably the blood of previous victims. And, there were so many of them. At one point, one of their players went down and their bench emptied to protest at the challenge; there must have been eight or nine identikit black-clad backroom staff lined up to shout from the sidelines while we had Karl Robinson and Craig Short doing their best to fill the spaces left by our isolating backroom staff.

What’s more, Rotherham were huge, most of their players must have been touching six foot tall. Their corner strategy was to flood the six yard box and try to get on the end of looping inswinging crosses. To counter, we seemed to use players like Cameron Brannagan to gnaw away at his marker’s knees in order to create space for Luke McNally – our only player even remotely of a similar size – to head away.

It was a brutal onslaught, in hideous conditions. The wind sliced the skin and played havoc with the flight of the ball. We know the Kassam wind can blow in four directions at a time, but has it ever been so cutting? A Vader-style death grip to the throat.

In our previous encounter Rotherham made the chances count being two-up in half-an-hour. It could have been the same here; they hit the post twice and there were long periods where we couldn’t get out of our half. If we had a plan to win the game, it wasn’t obvious. Survival was the objective – planned or forced upon us, it was hard to tell.

There were moments when fans would yelp in frustration as an attempted breakaway broke down or a tackle missed, but this was quickly swallowed back down as we were reminded of what had got us to this point.

The goals didn’t come and their intensity waned, the tumbledown squad began to show its qualities – Jamie Hanson was brutally competitive, Nathan Holland impishly penetrating, Luke McNally an impenetrable shield. Difficult to make work as a whole-system long term, but as the game began to loosen, the individual qualities came to the fore neutering Rotherham’s machinery. Perhaps playing a team who weren’t as well drilled and complete made it harder for them.

We started to make inroads, Seddon and Brannagan had chances, their keeper flapped to create opportunities for Dan Agyei. It wasn’t a meticulously planned assault, but a fettling of their defences. 

As the time clicked over into injury time the ball went dead, we hadn’t reverted to feigning cramps or injuries to slow things down and they walked to collect the ball rather than raced to create a final chance. It was 0-0, but we’d won, they were tired and happy with their point. They’ve scored three goals or more on ten occasions this season and they couldn’t get through us, now they just wanted to go home with their what they’d gained.

A week ago, we didn’t think we’d even have a team to play these two games, let alone come out of them unbeaten with four points. As the isolating players return to the squad in the next few days, Hanson, Trueman and others will likely melt back to where they came. We shouldn’t forget their names, or what they achieved. Who knows, perhaps in the future, Oxfordshire primary school teachers will question the brief spike in kids called Connal.

In some ways an unremarkably satisfying week, but in so many others, an unprecedented triumph. 

Match wrap – Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 0

It’s often commented, this season in particular, how much better the atmosphere is away from home. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise; we’re on our best behaviour on the road. At home there’s no compulsion to put on a show, it’s the equivalent of sitting in front of the TV with your trousers unzipped scratching yourself. Everything about an away game is an event; the journey, the food, the ground, singing yourself hoarse. It’s different. 

I was last at Portman Road forty years ago; I was a home fan then, sat in the three tier main stand. The posh seats, or back in the early eighties, the safest. ‘We’ won 3-1 against Wolves, the team my dad supported. You could say the intersection of his old-gold (let’s call it yellow for this analogy) and my preference for blue, was the yellow and blue of Oxford who we watched as a secondary treat during Christmas visits to my grandparents.

Ipswich Town form some great memories of my childhood; the FA Cup win in 1978, the UEFA Cup of 1981. Bobby Robson, Paul Cooper, Paul Mariner, Arnold Muhren, Eric Gates and my personal favourite, winger Chris Woods.   

When we got to Portman Road yesterday, the memories flooded back. It was exactly as I remembered it, nestled in the town. Interwoven into the fabric of Ipswich life, Town and town to our town and gown. For us, football is something you go to, for Ipswich you can drop off your dry cleaning before walking to the stadium. 

On the side of the Cobbold Stand are giant pictures of Mick Mills and John Walk, their history and, to some extent mine, is writ large.

Most grounds of my childhood – Highbury, The Manor – are gone, but broadly speaking Portman Road is unchanged. This is one of the remaining legacies of my past, like meeting a first crush cutting through the weathering of age to see the beauty of their youth. We went into the club shop and saw the vintage replica shirts with the Pioneer sponsor, Adidas everywhere and a book celebrating the 40th anniversary of their UEFA Cup win. It’s the only opponents’ club shop where I could buy 85% of their merchandise.

It was like part of my childhood had broken off and was just floating there in front of me. I had my daughter with me, but couldn’t explain what I was feeling, it was all about mortality and futility. For a brief period, I was a ten-year-old Ipswich fan.

Inside the ground, the players’ tunnel is in the corner with a strange shed built on top. The stadium is the product of its history, complete and coherent and a hotchpotch at the same time. When the teams came out, there were chequerboard flags and their players wore tracksuit tops; these are literally things I obsessed over.

My life now is very different, so fittingly where so much about Ipswich is familiar, so much about Oxford has changed. We’re unrecognisable from the club of ten years ago, let alone forty. 

Before the game, there was a thankfully restrained Remembrance Day ceremony. It wasn’t the hideous over-engineered debacle of Portsmouth two years ago which had so many elements somebody forgot to bring the players out before it started. Even so, the fans’ hushed reverence began while the coin toss was still being completed, it meant it was one of the more tense decisions about which end to face that Elliott Moore will need to make.

We started well, controlling and probing with menace, there were fleeting moments where an opportunity seemed to open up before being shut down. The real chances fell to Ipswich who hit the post twice and drew good, if routine, saves from Simon Eastwood. 

After a solid first-half, the inevitable lull came early in the second. At home, we might think of it as that dopey period which seems to be a characteristic of this team. Away, we’re more forgiving, we chivvy, we don’t chide. The efforts of the first half were always going to catch up with them at some point. As we retreated, Ipswich threatened again and a goal seemed to be coming. But, they too would eventually pay for their efforts, it was just a question of whether we could hang on until they blew up and whether we had anything left in the tank.

On the hour, the storm seemed to have passed, leaving the final half-an-hour for a slug-fest. Subs warmed up with menace on the far flank, Marcus McGuane was our most obvious threat, but even he couldn’t affect enough change.

The final exchange of blows had winded both sides. As the clock ticked by, I predicted there would be one remaining big chance, but for whom, it was difficult to say. In fact, we were done, the engine, quite literally, went into limp mode. To the fury of the home support, we strangled the life out of the game with a series of stoppages. Anti-football, they call it, securing an away point is more accurate.

We left the stadium into the chilly autumnal darkness and that lovely buzz of a thousand post-match analyses before weaving our way through the shadows, away from my childhood and back to the car. We edged our way back to the road and caught one last glimpse of the floodlights as they beamed into the stadium. Happy memories of the past and of the present, that’s why we do away days.

There’s been one goal in five fixtures between these teams in the last three years. BBC cricket commentator and Oxford fan Henry Moeran described it as the most boring fixture in football. Personally, I loved it. 

Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Morecambe 1

I’m reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography at the moment. It’s quite a shocking read; from the first page Agassi is unequivocal about how much he hates tennis. It’s not just that after a long and successful career he’s done with the pressure and injuries, he’s hated it since the first time he picked up a racket. 

His father decided that he wanted his children to be professional tennis players and set up a tennis court in his back garden. He re-engineered a serving machine to fire balls more quickly and at a difficult angle for Agassi to return. As a young boy, he was hitting a million balls a year and hated every single one of them.

It also made him very good, of course, and it’s clear that as he got older he had the beating of anyone he played. Even if he went a set down, he knew when he would win barring injury or something freakish happening, because he had absolute control over his ability.

The book illustrates the divide between how sport is portrayed as a mythical endeavour full of talent and passion, and the technical aspect which really determines whether you’re good or not. Agassi was never that interested in the mythical aspects – he never dreamed of winning Wimbledon, it didn’t drive his desire to improve; that came from his over-bearing father.

As fans, we buy into sport for its drama and passion – the romance – even though it’s technique that determines how that manifests itself. It’s like watching a film or a play, you become absorbed in the story, but you wouldn’t be able to do that unless the actors knew where to stand and what to say when.

There was a familiar vibe during the win over Morecambe yesterday; a warm appreciative atmosphere and a fluid and attacking display. There’s been a lot of talk about the atmosphere this season and how it lacks a certain passion. But, I think what we’re seeing is the team and fans in absolute equilibrium. It’s not arrogance, but the team know what they need to do to beat a team like Morecambe and we, the fans, have absolute confidence they’ll do it.

It’s not always been like this; in fact, it’s rarely like this. During the promotion season in 2016, there was an asymmetry between what was happening at the club and what was happening in the stands. We were almost shocked to see an Oxford team playing with such style and panache. I remember after the win over Swansea, feeling immense pride at how grown up we seemed to be, how un-Oxford.

Most of the time, it’s been the other way around; we sing that ‘we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ while being taken to the cleaners by Rochdale or Scunthorpe. The asymmetric relationship between what we think we are and what we actually are creates the tension that creates the atmosphere – which could be misery and frustration or elated shock and relief.

If you watch the very best teams playing at home, the fans trust the players to do their job and the players trust their ability to deliver. If it goes wrong, that trust extends to allowing the team to fix the problem. Yesterday, we got a bit sleepy in the second half, Alex Gorrin’s ability to break play up wasn’t needed as much as someone to control the midfield and create some forward momentum. We missed the penalty and then conceded, but Marcus McGuane came on and we regained control of midfield and got back on the front foot to complete the job. Nobody was screaming at Karl Robinson to ‘sort it out’ or for the team to ‘wake up’; we kind of knew he would.

Afterwards Robinson spoke about preparations for the January transfer window and how he wasn’t particularly looking for another striker because it’s unusual for mid-season signings to score lots of goals. There’s usually a call from fans for multiple signings, usually including a striker, and Robinson himself has been prone to having an unreasonably long wish list. It’s borne out of an anxiety that the squad won’t be able to cope, it takes confidence to say that he’s largely content with what he has.

How long we can maintain this blissful equilibrium is, of course, another question, but it’s not a flash in the pan – Robinson looks visibly healthier than he did when he started at the club, the ground and pitch looks smarter, even if it is a bit of a ‘lipstick on a pig’, the squad looks deep and lush. If Brannagan isn’t available, Gorrin can come in, if that isn’t working, McGuane is available – we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul when we make adjustments to the side.

We could, of course, slip into becoming arrogant and entitled, forgetting the technical application or getting frustrated when teams don’t comply with what we want. It’s something you see at Manchester United at the moment where there’s an expectation that they’ll compete at the highest level because, well, they’re Manchester United.

They say it’s harder to regain a title than win one, but in the lower leagues it’s even hard to maintain stability for a whole season. Teams capitulate quickly with a couple of bad results, fans aren’t used to the feeling of success or how to regulate their expectations. We’re like a lottery millionaire unable to handle their new-found riches, quickly squandering what we have. 

This is particularly hard for us, a club which has had instability built into it for years, one that hasn’t seen a season-long period of superiority over a division for thirty-six years. We’re not yet title contenders, but we could be starting to readjust our expectations given the start to the season we’ve had. The trick is to not chase too hard, not adjust our expectations too much, to chug away picking up points and not getting too carried away with where it’s taking us.

The clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in, the weather is getting worse, Christmas and the January transfer window is looming and the FA Cup starts next week to disrupt the fixture flow. Mission accomplished for the opening period of the season but this is where the real test begins. 

Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Shrewsbury Town 0

At one point during a break in the second half against Plymouth on Saturday, Karl Robinson animatedly delivered some coaching points to whoever was standing closest to him.

I say coaching point, it may have been a demonstration of the latest move he’d learnt at his online Tai Chi class. He then brought another player into the discussion, then another. By the time he called over Steve Seddon, who was idly supping on his water bottle waiting for the re-start, five players were involved. 

Was he trying to make a simple point applicable to half the team, an elaborate tactical adjustment involving five players? Or, was it simply an overspill of nervous energy cascading out of him as the game progressed?

Robinson’s hard to judge; his understanding of football is clearly no fluke, he articulates what a football club is like no other manager I’ve seen, in interviews he can ramble incoherently and barely contain his emotions. It’s hard to know just which of his theatrics are pre-meditated; are the elaborate shrugs and pedantic arguments about his toe being on or over the white line of his technical area a deliberate ploy? 

There is a view that the manager’s job is done once the players take to the field, but maybe there’s more to it than that, extending to cajoling players, strategising against opponents and destabilising the officials as the game progresses. Or maybe it’s just shouting your frustration into the night’s sky until someone does something you intended for them to do.

After it was revealed that he was waiting for the results of a PCR test, he was conspicuous by his absence against Shrewsbury Town. Evening league games are often sedate affairs anyway, so generating an atmosphere or sense of urgency can be difficult, harder still without the manager chiding his team like the owner of a racing tortoise that’s going off course.  

I was hoping to see him patrolling the touchline via an iPad strapped to a broom handle taped to a remote controlled car. Instead we got Craig Short and John Mousinho studiously observing the proceedings like junior chess champions. It was like the rhythm section of a band without a front man; there was a pleasant groove but we really needed someone in gold lurex hot pants doing the splits.

The performance matched the politeness on the touchline. Shrewsbury didn’t seem in any rush to take the points and neither were we. There have been complaints about the atmosphere at the stadium this season and this was unlikely to stir anyone’s loins.

Apparently Robinson had his say at half time via FaceTime, presumably throwing tea cups around his kitchen as his wife dived to protect their best monographed crockery. However he did it, it seemed to work, we came out with a renewed sense of urgency and a desire to take a few risks.

Where we’ve turned to people like James Henry or Marcus Browne to change games in the past, it was surprising to see Mark Sykes breaking lines and making the difference. There was a great tweet on Saturday describing him as a great footballer who can’t play football; a little harsh but I get the sentiment, he can flatter to deceive. This season he seems to be maturing, whether it’s talking to frustrated fans at Wimbledon or as he did last night, helping to fill the void of enthusiasm left by Robinson.

Sykes’ goal was the classic example of the value of having a punt, his strange skiddy daisy cutter was like a Bake Off contestant adding turmeric to a cheese flan – it could have been a disaster, but actually made all the difference. In what was an insipid atmosphere, we needed someone to give us a spark. Cameron Brannagan, a ball of energy that can be hard to channel, added a second to seal what was ultimately a poorer display than Saturday, but with a better outcome. Go figure.

There are many people who get frustrated by Robinson’s clowning, but as he’s likely to be absent from the training ground and touchline for the next 10 days at least, we may need to dig a little deeper to find the reserves of creative energy that will keep the momentum going over the next couple of weeks.

Match wrap – Oxford United 1 Plymouth Argyle 3

One of the lasting memories of the 1996 promotion season was the bounty of goals we achieved from corners. Joey Beauchamp would swing a ball into the near post; Matt Elliott would flick on and Paul Moody would mop up from the resulting chaos by heading home. Occasionally the players would change, but the system never did.

We all get excited by the award of a corner; in terms of crowd response, it’s the next best thing to a goal. And yet, just 8% of corners result in a goal; a figure I suspect is dropping as teams get better at defending set pieces. But still, when a corner is awarded, an anticipatory frisson spontaneously surges through the fans.

We were reflecting on the terrace bon mot ‘you’re shit ahhhh’ during yesterday’s game against Plymouth. Like the fans’ response to a corner, it’s an integral part of every goal kick. Its origins were a genuine attempt to put the goalkeeper off by making as much noise as possible. I suppose in those days goalkeepers often looked like some of the fans on the terrace and it was reasonable to assume they would respond as a fan might to any unexpected noise by shanking a kick into touch.

It’s increasingly obvious that it has no effect on the keeper’s concentration or the quality of the resulting kick. Sometime during the 1990s the ‘you’re shit, ahhh’ appendage was added. It was almost a recognition that the chant was absurd and pointless; the terrace equivalent of Baddiel and Newman’s History Today sketch which ended with two ageing academics trading playground insults; ‘that’s your mum, that is’. 

Now it’s just part of the ambient noise of a game and happens out of some deep cultural obligation, a ceremony to keep the memory of our fallen brothers alive. 

“OOOOHHHH AAAAHHHHH YOU’RE SHIT AAAAAHHHHH”

“Why do you do that dad?” 

“Because it’s what your grandad and great grandad did on this very spot right up to the day they died. I will not let their memory fade to dust.” 

Perhaps, if the genuine aim is to put the goalkeeper off, the crowd should remain completely silent and murmur in inaudible sarcastic tones as the ball sails through the air. The psychological damage that could do to an insecure ‘keeper could prove fruitful, after all, nobody likes people talking behind their backs.  

Football is a visceral experience, we live every near miss with spontaneous abandon. We thoughtlessly respond to what’s in front of us; the bloke in front of me yesterday responded to each chance with variations on ‘bloody useless’ or ‘just stick it in the net’ as if James Henry was consciously preferring to see if he could hit the Chaokoh ethically sourced coconuts advert and had absent mindedly overlooked the fact he could do with popping a couple of shots in the goal before the clock runs out.

Professional sports people often talk about controlling the controllables; focus on the process and the outcomes will take care of themselves. Those who can do that are the ones who succeed, the outcome – a near miss or an exasperated noise from the fans – needs to be set aside because the process is where success lies.

The irredeemable divide is that fans tend to focus on outcomes. The result alone determines the effectiveness of the tactics, selection or any given move. We ramp up the pressure and force our way into the consciousness of the players because there’s no such thing as a good move with a bad outcome.

Oddly, what we seemed to be watching on Saturday was two entirely separate games; one was all about the inputs. We created a host of chances, particularly in the second half, carved them open time and again, we just didn’t convert them. There was one move where the ball skimmed across the goal, the intended target, Matty Taylor, was a long way behind the play having helped carve out the chance. It was greeted with frustration, but really it just illustrated how difficult football is to play.

Then there was the other game; the one which was all about the outputs – they exploited our weaknesses and efficiently took the opportunities for a comfortable win. Unlike teams who’ve out muscled us in the past, I thought they looked like a parallel of us – they were us on a good day, we were them on a bad day. It’s rare to see a game so stark; strangely enough, their biggest challenge may be to be aware enough to realise that this kind of result flattered them a little and that the tables could turn very quickly.

For us, there was some debate about whether you lock up our defence with Alex Gorrin or galvanise our attack with James Henry. One person on the phone-in wanted to drop Henry for Gorrin, but only after Steve Kinniburgh reminded him that he could only have eleven players on the field.

For me, despite the result, the combination of Brannagan, Henry and Herbie Kane seems an obvious first choice. Gavin Whyte looked a bit lost playing in a central role, but became more threatening when he switched with Henry; which came just as he ran out of steam.

Whyte’s just recovered from Covid, and I wonder whether that’s another factor that we overlook too easily. Sam Long also looked just off the pace and has also recently recovered from the virus. We ask a lot of players physically, perhaps the effects of the illness linger longer than we realise. Still, few fans will factor these things into their analysis. 

Not so much a game of two halves, but a game of two layers of football; when simply looking at the result and even the nature of their goals, our visceral response may be to criticise and howl with derision. But, when moving from the subconscious to the conscious, from the visceral to the analytical, we’re not far away at all.