Match wrap: Gillingham 1 Oxford United 1

I went viral last week. In Rotherham. My match wrap said enough nice things about them going top that lots of Rotherham fans picked up on it. As a result I got hooked into a sidebar conversation about their Championship potential.

Something similar came up in the Five Minute Fan Forum on Radio Oxford; could Oxford compete if they were promoted given the average wage bill in the Championship is five times that of League 1?

In the hullabaloo of the last few weeks it’s not something I’d really thought about. I was in the moment, I hadn’t given much thought to what it means.

The draw with Gillingham brought up some concerns that our season was becoming derailed. We haven’t won in four, we’ve got injuries to key players. The worry is that having got into this position, we’re about to blow it.

Back in 2015/16 we played Hartlepool three games from the end of the season. Joe Skarz climbed off the treatment table, ran himself into the ground to help give us three critical points. Quoting from that match wrap; “The week started with MacDonald on a drip in hospital, O’Dowda on his sick bed, Skarz out for the season, Lundstram breaking down in training and Roofe nursing an injury.” We were in bits, praying that we could claw our way to the end of the season.

Then, like now saw November through to January as the ultimate stress test on a squad, by the time we got to the end of the season we were nearing collapse and it was only the heroism of people like Joe Skarz and the adrenalin from what we might achieve that got us over the line.

We were promoted by a point, winning our last three games to do that. That’s 46 games of almost unrelenting success and still just 1 point in it. Seasons have to be long and challenging to really decide who’s best.

You can see similar pressure on the current squad now; injuries to Matty Taylor, James Henry, Ben Woodburn, Cameron Brannagan and others, the form of Tariqe Fosu and Simon Eastwood. There are challenges everywhere.

But, it’s something we should expect. The club can’t insulate itself from these challenges by signing a bottomless pit of perfect replacements. As much as we’d like certainty, we have to expect the squad to be battered, it’s a necessary part of the process.

We’re far from alone; most of the teams competing with us will be in a similar position. They also don’t have the resources to simply spend their way out of difficulties.

Gillingham are 14th and on a reasonable run; they’re just ahead of Blackpool and behind Fleetwood, Bristol Rovers, Peterborough and Doncaster, all teams that have had their moments this season. If we are having a dip in form, then to do that and still be fifth is good news.

We’d face exactly the same challenges if we were at the other end of the table. Once January is out of the way the objectives of the season become crystal clear; last year it was about avoiding relegation, this year it’s about potentially going up. I’ll take that.

So rather than worrying about injuries and fearing dips in our form, or even concerning ourselves with what we might achieve if we did get promoted, we should simply embrace that we’re here. There’s no guarantee that should we not get promoted or make the play-offs this year that we will simply kick on next. As they say in mortgage adverts; past performance is no indicator of future performance.

The truth is that we probably aren’t ready for the Championship; but we do have an opportunity to have a crack at it. It’s not likely to be pretty, but that’s sort of the point.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Ipswich Town 0

As much as we may not want to believe it, football is increasingly predictable. Players and managers come from the same vast academies and are taught to similar FIFA approved standards. Money is the main differentiator between success and failure. Even then, the minimum stake in the game has been pushed so high it’s only the multi-billionaires that can disrupt the status quo. 

I have a soft spot for Ipswich Town having supported them briefly in my unenlightened pre-Oxford days. I liked their kit and when they started winning trophies it was good being the only Ipswich fan in school. Bobby Robson and his meticulously crafted team brought success to an unfashionable club, I liked being part of that. 

It’s unlikely that’ll ever happen again. At the top of the game, modern football seems to act as a data provider for other pursuits; betting, fantasy football, FIFA and Football Manager, this is where the fun is, the games themselves are entertainment products with mostly predictable outcomes.

When the rain battered Tuesday’s game, we witnessed a rare moment of unpredictability in an increasingly predictable sport. When the referee suspended play, Ipswich players stayed on the pitch to stay warm, Oxford players went off to the dressing room to stay warm, there was no precedent or protocol to follow.

The referee’s decision was understandable, considered and ultimately correct; we earnestly talk about player safety and it was true that Marcus Browne, Sam Long and Josh Ruffels all ended up sliding into tackles which were dangerously out of control. It was also clear the ball wasn’t running true but if you want evidence of the increasingly mechanistic nature of the game, just look at the pass Alex Gorrin played directly into the middle of the boggiest part of the pitch creating panic in our back line. Even the physical evidence in front of him couldn’t override the training that was ingrained into his muscle memory. 

But it was more than that, the physics of the game changed; a referee’s judgement is based on a range of visual clues; how a challenge is made, how a player responds, the direction of the ball before and after the challenge. All those norms were washed away with the rain. The main talking point was John Mousinho’s challenge on James Norwood, it looked untidy, though Norwood took an age to go down. Could the referee definitively say that the mess was created by Mousinho, by Norwood or by the conditions?

Tactically there was no provision for the conditions. On Saturday against Rotherham there were clear tactical patterns and intent, on Tuesday it was impossible to know what each team was trying to do or whether there was any attempt to adapt their plans to suit.

On paper, the game was a key promotion match-up, with both teams’ season on a knife edge. In normal conditions, the fixture could have given some signals about the direction both teams were heading. Ipswich had just ended a run of 12 games without a win, we’d suffered two defeats on the bounce. Was their performance a sign of recovery? No idea. Was our performance a sign of decline? No idea. Did Nathan Holland seem quiet? No idea. Was Simon Eastwood rusty? No idea.

The conditions removed any capacity for informed decision making and the game descended into park football. Afterwards, Nick Harris claimed we eventually got ‘a decent game of football’. A game of football? Yes. Decent? Less so.

With the conditions dictating more than any individual could, once the game became playable, the first half became a long meaningless meander. In the second-half, we emerged with half a plan – with the swirling wind and wet pitch, the idea to shoot at every opportunity was a sensible one, but eventually even that petered out as the players were battered by the conditions. What could have been a significant and entertaining game simply descended from farce to non-event, by the time the final whistle came everyone just seemed happy for it to be over.

Karl Robinson came to terms with what was going on much faster than Paul Lambert. At one point there was a disputed throw-in, Lambert was apoplectic – a default for him – Robinson walked over smiling, grabbing him as if to remind him to stop applying normal rules to abnormal conditions. Robinson, the hyperbolic gobshite calming the cosmopolitan sophisticat, Champions League winner and former Premier League manager Lambert? It was that kind of night.   

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Rotherham United 3

It’s funny how a pair of slim fitting trousers and a nice new stadium can influence your perception of a club. I always had Paul Warne and Rotherham down as a progressive bolthole, someone for us to aspire to being like. As is patently obvious, I don’t follow the fortunes of other teams that closely, I’d read about our clash of styles and their reliance on set plays but I was still surprised at their sheer physical presence on Saturday. I had to look it up; on average we conceded nearly 4cm in height per player.

Matt Crooks, their number 17, was case in point. Officially standing at 6 ft 3 inches (but looking bigger) you’d expect him to be in the centre of defence, or attack, or in goal, not in the centre of midfield towering over Cameron Brannagan. It was like a stunt you see in the Conference, where physical freaks are played in unusual positions to flummox the opposition.

This wasn’t anti-football though, Crooks can play as could the others, it was a souped-up version what we have seen previously from promotion winning teams at this level – physical, direct, organised. Unusually physical, but not a total abomination. It wasn’t complicated, but it was overwhelmingly efficient. There was a lot of talk about our failings, but much less about how good they were, it was as close as we’ve seen to a title winning side as anyone this season.

They double-teamed constantly, attacked with pace and aggression and when they didn’t have the ball, they expanded to make it impossible to get around them. Conceding early was only part of the story, the physical mismatch meant we were playing two teams – the actual team and the team that was in our heads. That’s what happens with bullying; it goes beyond the physical.

As a result, we were less committed in the tackle, less assured in the passing, less vociferous with the referee. Generally, the confidence drained out of us and there was nobody able to take control of the situation.

It was all done and dusted by half-time, so the post-mortem was a long one. Did Karl Robinson make the wrong selections? I could see the logic of keeping the same core side as we’ve had all season. Jamie Mackie was the more obvious selection in a physical match-up. Simon Eastwood looked understandably rusty and Cameron Brannagan was out of sorts, but the thinking was sound and that’s all I ask.

3-0 down at half-time, Karl Robinson did exactly the right thing, rather than trying to play them at their game, we played them at a completely different one. Mark Sykes was the only player in the first half that looked like he was getting any joy, so pace was clearly something that they would struggle with. We doused them with it with the introduction of Browne and Holland and suddenly they looked a little more human. The result was a reassuring display which occasionally teetered on a comeback. Had Matty Taylor put away his one-on-one and the referee been a fractionally less inconsistent we may even have scraped an unlikely point. In Rotherham we may actually be watching the title winners, but we’re not done yet for promotion or the play-offs.  

The other positive is that it’s out of the way and that future threats we face are more obvious. When the Rotherham fans were singing about being top of the league, I had to look it up; they’ve arrived at the top by stealth. Like League 1 is a Trojan horse; Wycombe were supposed to be the physical industrial unit that were streaking to the title, suddenly they collapse and there’s a new threat. We just happen to be the first team to properly face it. We knew they were good; I think we were surprised at just how good. 

What comes next is no less straight forward, but at least we know that. Our League Cup run benefitted from players like Sam Long and Elliot Moore, straight forward percentage players who wouldn’t leave us vulnerable when faced with quality. Games against Ipswich, Sunderland and Portsmouth may be more like League Cup ties than some of our more swashbuckling League displays of earlier in the season, but, let’s face it, that served us OK.

Match wrap: Doncaster Rovers 1 Oxford United 0

According to WordPress, this is my 1,000th blog post. That’s quite a lot. I thought about doing something special to mark the milestone, but like most of my plans, it came to nothing.

I didn’t plan this, when I originally set it up in 2006 it was simply to give me a place to rant about things which were going wrong at the club. I couldn’t keep up with the reductive arguments on Yellows Forum, so wanted somewhere that wouldn’t answer back.

Over the years it’s built up a fairly small but dedicated readership and attracted lots of nice comments. I’m not particularly driven, dedication is not something I have in abundance. There was no real plan or commitment to make it ‘a thing’. The moderate success it enjoys simply came from writing one post at a time. Maybe that’s the best way.

It probably wasn’t wise to hand the fate of my 1,000th post to a match wrap as a defeat is always a possibility.

But, I don’t feel particularly negative about the loss to Doncaster, in fact I think it might help us. The original purpose of this blog was to track a journey, to capture long meandering threads of thoughts and ideas and see where it takes us. So far it’s taken us from the edge of the Conference North to the edge of The Championship. I’ve seen us play higher, my dad has seen us play lower.

Some clubs are imperialists – they feel they have a right to dominate, Manchester United being the classic example. Other teams exist to exist, they serve their local community, they don’t have too many highs and they don’t have too many lows.

We’re adventurers and bounty hunters, we’ve never really settled anywhere for long. When things are bad, we still harbour ambitions to rise. There’s always been a responsibility to keep going. We’re never really content or comfortable when we stand still or are unnecessarily expectant.

Moving into the promotion places was a real bonus, an important message to send out to everyone that we can be serious about promotion. But, I’m more comfortable with us chasing than being chased. Historically we’ve been at our best when we’ve been in that position, building momentum, a head of steam so that come Spring there’s a sense of undying belief.

Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth was interviewed after their draw with Ipswich. They’ve had a torrid Christmas, Ainsworth made out that there was nothing to worry about, but you could see that that he was feeling the pressure of being top. Of course, he should be happy about being in their position, but with Christmas passing, the next stop is May and the final reckonings. That’s when history judge will judge them. When you’re feeling chased and a bit jaded, May is going to feel like a long way away.

January may only see us play two league games, so the focus is on what happens off the pitch. By the end of the month we’ll know which players we have at our disposal and we should have games in hand – all three at home (Accrington, Ipswich and possibly Wimbledon). Then the chase will be on. With home games against Sunderland and Portsmouth to come, our current position probably suits us better than sitting in the automatic positions waiting to be shot at.

Whatever, it’s the adventure that drives us, defeats are body blows and flesh wounds, they’re not fatal. That instinct to keep going – part duty, part hope, part insanity; one game at a time, one post at a time, is key to our long term success.

Match wrap: AFC Wimbledon 1 Oxford United 2

There’s a scene in the new Star Wars film in which the Millennium Falcon engages in the previous unheard-of act of ‘light speed skipping’. With the saga coming to an end, it feels like an excuse for the film makers to show off off-cuts of ideas they don’t have time to show you properly.

The rest of the film is a mad dash to bring the story to some kind of conclusion. In a story whose appeal is that the possibilities feel infinite, suddenly everything feels very finite.

In real life, of course, stories don’t have a convenient beginning, middle and end, they meander infinitely. A decade is a convenient timespan to review a story arc but it doesn’t conclude the story. We end the 2010s in second following the 2-1 win over Wimbledon to go second in League 1, we started with a 1-0 defeat to Tamworth in the Conference, while that shows great progress, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

In 2009 we weren’t at our lowest ebb. That defeat to Tamworth was our only home loss that season; we were already gunning for promotion, Chris Wilder’s revolution was well under way. Likewise, our current league position is merely a brief snapshot; the story continues.

There’s more to do this season, but the win may be more significant than most. We started Christmas as a play-off hopeful, we finish it as genuine promotion contenders.

One of the biggest risks to promotion is the loss of key players in the transfer window. Our new status has strengthened our bargaining position considerably.

For the owners, the prospect of the Championship promises an uptick in revenue, even if they were thinking of cashing in or tightening our belts financially, it should bolster their resolve to support Karl Robinson at least in the short-term.

For the players too, the opportunity to add a promotion to their CV should encourage them to stick with the club at least until the summer. The most likely suitors are going to be from the Championship, but look at Ryan Ledson, Curtis Nelson and Marvin Johnson; all have struggled to secure a game-time since stepping up. Unless clubs are prepared to pay big money and salaries, from a footballing perspective, moving now makes a little less sense.

If you’re a club looking for players, we have to be a club of interest, but we’re niche; we don’t have players guaranteed to get promotion to the Premier League or save a team from relegation. We have players who will strengthen squads and may be a good investment for the future. Our players are longer term prospects whereas January tends to be about short term investments.

With promotion a real prospect, the only scenarios I can see where we might lose players is if a team decides to offer a super-premium we can’t ignore. Alternatively, if, somehow, a bidding war breaks out we might see clubs moving more quickly than they’d normally want to. Neither seems likely to me.

Moving into an automatic promotion spot doesn’t conclude any stories, but with the January transfer window widely considered to be a significant factor in our prospects, the win over Wimbledon might just be the platform we need to conclude this phase of the story in the way we want.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Lincoln City 0

Growing up, we had an unwritten family rule on Christmas Day; you didn’t leave the house. Leaving the house would be a waste. It would be dedicated to wholesome family pursuits of present opening (about 12 minutes) and TV (about 12 hours). Boxing Day was all about blowing away the thin film of dust that caked us as we sat around in our centrally heated house eating chocolate, staring at our presents and generally stagnating.

If we could, we’d go to the football. Before we moved to the area, we’d visit my grandparents in Abingdon and my dad would take me to The Manor. That novelty alone made it special. Afterwards, I’d thaw out with whatever Subbuteo accessories I’d been given, reenacting the day’s game as best I could with teams in Celtic and Motherwell colours, using my programme as a reference.

When I got older, I started to play football in the morning so Oxford games in the afternoon were associated with aching legs. I remember going to Molineux in 1996 with my dad to watch us lose to Wolves; a proper dads and sons day out. Going to football with dad pretty much ended five years later in 2001 when he moaned his way through our 2-1 defeat to Luton at the Kassam.

Most recently, Boxing Day games have been with friends, in 2003 I tore ankle ligaments playing in the morning, but decided to run it off. About ten of us managed to see Julian Allsop’s last minute winner against Leyton Orient which kept us top of the table. Sitting for two hours with the pain in my foot growing, I hobbled out of the stadium, but couldn’t make it back to the car. I couldn’t walk on it for over a week and still feel the pain now.

In 2015, I showed off our promotion winning team with pride as we swept past Exeter, the friend I was with asking eagerly who each player was, in awe at what he was watching.

But Boxing Day games have lost their attraction in the last few years. I enjoy the big crowd and its weird mix; whole families with excitable, but perplexed girlfriends and distant relatives bolted on. People sharing their left over Quality Street around during a lull in play. On Saturday I saw a bloke order a coffee go to the end of the counter to pick it up as though he was in Starbucks. There was a couple innocently drinking beer in the stand, something that’s been illegal for 35 years. But, knowing that results haven’t gone for us in recent years, the anticipation left me flat.

We’ve had three big crowds in the last week, so that novelty was gone, and a bit like Christmas Day, I now realise in my mind Boxing Day football is basically an amalgam of all the best previous Boxing Day experiences. No one game will ever surpass it.

Shandon Baptiste’s howitzer aside, the game felt flat. At times it played like an extended set of training drills with both sides playing good quality possession football. We know Michael Appleton is a great coach, but he can be too much of a purist. Karl Robinson has added that edge to our game, which is what allows us to compete against teams like Wycombe. Baptiste’s strike, Mousinho’s cynical, but necessary, foul and a Jamie Mackie cameo were the only signs of it. Otherwise we looked a bit tired.

There was a large group of non-regulars behind me during the game, groaning and shouting to ‘get it in there’ whenever we got close to the final third of the pitch. It was unusual to hear that kind of frustration as more frequent visitors are getting used to the idea of being patient in possession looking for the angles and the moments that make all the difference.

I guess if you haven’t seen us play often, accepting that the goalkeeper will roll the ball out to centre backs stood barely outside the six yard box is part of the challenge. Only with time can you be assured that this is all part of the plan.

I would miss Boxing Day football if it didn’t exist, I like the novelty and it’s place in the Christmas holiday period. I like the new faces. But, where us regulars are having to learn what good football at this level looks like, the day-trippers’ impatience for entertainment can be disruptive. It’s good to bag the three points and move on; to get back to something a little more normal. The three big crowds have been great, but we’re now at a point where performing in a one-off occasion isn’t our goal, our goals are more long term.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Wycombe Wanderers 0

“We’ve sold out our allocation” said a Wycombe supporting work colleague last week. Beyond work stuff, Oxford and Wycombe is the only axis on which we talk. I asked what the secret was of their success this season – he said, quite frankly, he had no idea.

I was none the wiser after our win on Saturday. Among the favourites to go down, they’re still seven points clear at the top. But, they haven’t unearthed some Premier League loanee who is banging in the goals, and it’s not like they’ve had a big cash injection.

Certainly their defence has been key – the best in the division, while upfront they’re only the joint seventh top scorers; equal with Accrington in 17th. Their long-ball, anti-football reputation is slightly unfair but they reminded me of Ian Atkins’ time at Oxford. Atkins was also capable of taking teams on long unbeaten runs, but he was always found out eventually.

So, what we were up against was a rigid unit. It reminded me of the FA Cup tie against Walsall; from a pure football perspective, it was obvious who was better. The question was whether we could find an angle they hadn’t covered to make the breakthrough.

The key to the goal, and therefore the game, was Shandon Baptiste’s spectacular cross field pass to Tariqe Fosu. There was still much to do before James Henry forced it home, but Baptiste found the magic angle that changed the dynamic and unpicked the lock.

Through the crowd’s roar, you could hear Wycombe’s fans singing about being top of the league, as they did throughout; it’s almost as if they’ve got to convince themselves of the fact. Amidst all the noise, there’s an insecurity, imposter syndrome, if you like.

Ade Akinfenwa’s sending off three minutes later was critical; he’s as big a curiosity as his team. It’s not just his self-styled strongest player in the world, he’s thirty-seven and in previous seasons only really seen coming off the bench. Now he’s starting regularly.

Rob Dickie had him under control before the incident, which may have been why he was chuntering in that, ‘pity the fool’ Mr T way he does, immediately after Gorrin’s tackle which caused the fuss. John Mousinho arrived as peacemaker, though I’m against the daft rules about what constitutes violent conduct nowadays, as soon as he raised his hands, there was only one outcome. It’s not exactly playing nice, but it was another new angle that undid them – the dark arts is in our vocabulary this year.

There were moments during the rest of the game which reminded me of Manchester City when they played us last year. We dominated possession edging forward with each pass, backing Wycombe into their box. It was never a foregone conclusion, but when you consider the characteristics of the teams that have got promoted in previous years; we looked more closely matched to those teams than the league leaders.

The mystery of Wycombe’s success seems to be their dedication to a disciplined, rigid system. As their fans sing, they’re top of the league and they might be able to keep it up. But, take Akinfenwa out of the equation, and their striker looked lost. If you neutralise that threat, they look impotent – set up more to avoid relegation than to get promoted.

With Ipswich running out of steam like Sunderland did last year, it looks to me that as we reach the mid-point of the season, there are two teams with the full tool kit to get promoted this season; one is Peterborough, the other is us.