Match wrap: Southend United 0 Oxford United 4

For a variety of circumstances, the Wycombe Wanderers game on the 21st December, will be my first home league game in 10 weeks. Although it only works out to be two home games and doesn’t include the Manchester City game, I can’t remember going that long without a visit to the Kassam or The Manor during the season.

To compensate, during that time I’ll have been to three away games; also something I haven’t done for some time either.

Our win on Saturday was 5,908 days since our last beat Southend at Roots Hall. And for the avoidance of doubt that it’s a difficult place to play, the last time we won – a 1-0 win in 2003 – was itself, the first league win at Roots Hall for 4,608 days.

The reason why I think we’ve struggled at Southend is because in many ways, they are similar to us. We’ve had a few higher highs and lower lows, but broadly speaking we’ve both made the lower leagues our home. When you add that Roots Hall is a horrible place to go, and Southend not easy to get to, it gives them the slight advantage that they’ve been able to capitalise on.

But, something has gone seriously wrong at Southend this season. If Bolton hadn’t had their points deduction The Shrimpers would have been eight points adrift at the bottom of the table. While we’re throwing stats around, that’s three points less than we had at the same point during our worst ever season in 2000/01.

You can’t blame it all on Sol Campbell; though his ludicrous arrogance is somehow fitting to the farce they find themselves in. Campbell believed the lower leagues weren’t that hard. I wonder how much more he needs to take to realise just how wrong he is.

We are also transformed – the four goals on Saturday took us to 37 for the season – just three behind the number we’d achieved at the same time during our two championship winning seasons under Jim Smith in 1983/4 and 1984/5. More recently; that’s seven more than at the same point in 2015/16. Don’t let anyone tell you that this isn’t a remarkable performance.

What’s more, I went into the game full of confidence that we’d get a comfortable win. Yes, they have been terrible this season, but when has that stopped us screwing up in the past? Yes, it had been 16 years since our last win there, but what have we got to fear now?

A few weeks ago I talked about not being able to reconcile our results with my perception of who we were as a club or even who Karl Robinson is as a manager, but I think I’m there now. It’s been a topsy turvy season in many ways; but I think we’ve found the new normal.

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

This season Portsmouth are best described by what happened before the game. Fratton Park is one of the larger traditional grounds in the division and I was looking forward to the crumbling steps and rusting corrugated iron that holds the place together. It’s the sort of football environment I was brought up in.

Beforehand, they ran two interviews over the PA; one with Kenny Jackett and the other with a player, both talked about their lowly league position how their form was good and bad at the same time. A bit like us last season; never completely terrible, but somehow unable to climb the table.

Then came a bloated Armistice ceremony; there’d be a reading, the last post and a minute’s silence. There were drummers, flag bearers and some children on the pitch, but no players. The crowd fell silent for three or four awkward minutes, nobody could ask if something had gone wrong because speaking is disrespectful.

Then kids in Portsmouth kits came on to make a guard of honour and the players started to appear. The endless silence broke. The players were applauded on, the captains laid wreaths and then they lined up a second time for the reading, last post and minute’s silence.

And that’s Portsmouth; trying to do the right thing and simply getting it wrong. A proper muddle.

The conditions, injuries and fatigue were always going to even things up. It was never going to be straight forward, you could see early on that the patches of sodden turf and the wind meant passes and clearances were easily miscued, overrun or under hit. It suited grafters like Alex Gorrin and John Mousinho much more than ballplayers like Tariqe Fosu.

After their penalty we looked spent and I was thinking that we’d take the narrow defeat; which was much better than our last two visits. Fratton Park had came to life, we were stuck between chasing the game and conceding more. The introduction of Anthony Forde gave us renewed energy and some quality in our delivery. James Henry suddenly started getting more of the ball; our experienced players took control, pushing Portsmouth further back.

It was this experience and confidence that jimmied away at their insecurities. It wasn’t just desire, it was the application of professional experience, knowing we could get something from the game, even when things were going against us. After a few close calls it came, James Henry to the back post; Matty Taylor heading back across the keeper; a training ground drill. It was no accident, no desperate lunge for survival, this is what experience gives you, the deep muscle memory to keep applying what you know until you’re rewarded.

It was such a treat to see us applying the screw, so often we’ve been the victims of teams which played on our weaknesses – teams like Portsmouth. Dare I say it, it’s the character you see in promotion teams.

But, there’s no getting around the fact injuries are building up and we looked tired. Next week we have a bit of a free hit in the FA Cup – we should have enough quality in the squad to get a result, even if it is a bit of a patched up team. Then, there’s a likely postponement the following week because of internationals. It gives us a bit of time to recover before we visit Southend on the 23rd – it couldn’t have come at a better time, it’s been quite a few weeks.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Rochdale 0

I’m in exile. I mean, I’m not a deposed opposition party leader in a despotic country, I mean I’m away.

It’s all Michael Appleton’s fault; in his first season I was so fed up with Oxford, I decided that I would no longer navigate my life around the fixture list. In fact, at the end of 2014/15, I decided the next season would be my last as a season ticket holder unless things started to look up.

Then they started to look up. Really up.

The legacy of that low remains today; October half-term is spent on holiday, this is the first year that I’m regretting it. Partly it’s because the way the fixtures have fallen, with Ipswich’s visit likely to be postponed, my next home game is probably Shrewsbury on 7 December. Mostly, I’m missing it because of what’s happening to us.

In 2014/15, I’d lost faith, the club was being passed from one owner to another, from one manager to another and while we were making material progress, it felt like I was waiting for the return of a buzz that was never likely to come. The club wasn’t delivering whatever it was I was looking for. First I was its lover, then it became decrepit and I became its carer. Now we were just tolerating each other. A relationship of duty.

I came to the conclusion I could simply pick and choose my games, be that glory supporter we all hate. But I’ve paid my dues, who would know or even care if I wasn’t there every damn week?

That season was my all-time low; I haven’t got close to it since, even during last year’s wobbles. That said, the Pep and Robinson years have risked dragging me back towards that position.

People had hoped that this summer would bring that explosion of positivity that we saw in 2015 and 2009. But it never came, if anything up until the last few weeks of the transfer window we seemed to be regressing.

But suddenly it’s clicking; the results, of course, but the club is gelling off the pitch. Friday’s announcement that James Henry has signed a two year contract is the equivalent of James Constable’s signing in 2009 or Kemar Roofe’s 2015. A major step-change, it’s as much a professional endorsement from Henry as it is a signing for us.

Suddenly we’re in a different place, the form which could have been seen as a freak set of results is turning into a new normal. We’re here, but where is that?

2016? Not really, there was something magical about that season; a reawakening of the club, a genuine shock. 2010? No. That was about recovery. What about 1996? No, it doesn’t feel like that.

So what does it feel like? Well, I struggle a little to say this because it almost feels like sacrilege to compare, but in terms of results, goals and entertainment, this is as dominant as we’ve been since Jim Smith’s double championship winning team in the eighties. I can’t remember an Oxford team being so impervious, nobody can lay a glove on us. We haven’t been like that since those glory years.

There’s still along way to go before we start properly comparing this team to that of Briggs and Aldridge, but the signs are there; if you’re not there to see it, you could be missing something really special. I know I am.

Match wrap: Rotherham 1 Oxford United 2

I’ve struggled with the idea of teams gaining momentum. Every game starts at the same point with its own unique set of challenges – injuries, suspensions, opponents, tactics. The idea that it’s possible to transfer something from one game into another, and for that to accumulate – thereby having momentum – doesn’t seem to make sense.

I can see that good results change things – slight injuries are more likely to ignored, players are more likely to commit to systems that appear to work, they believe in each others’ abilities; if I was a striker, I’d more likely get into the box knowing Cameron Brannagan was crossing it than, say, Courtney Pitt.

It seems, then, that momentum is fundamentally a product of trust. When you start to trust something, then you’re more likely to commit to it. If you commit to it, it’s more likely to be successful.

It’s taken time to trust the latest incarnation of the club. That’s not surprising; we spent a good proportion of last year near the relegation zone and went through four winding up orders. In addition, it’s easy to forget what Karl Robinson inherited; a few remnants of Michael Appleton’s years – many of whom were on the verge of leaving – and Pep Clotet’s legion of oddbods.

But, trust is coming and perhaps it’s here. The Rotherham result might be the most significant piece in the jigsaw puzzle yet. They are exactly the type of club we aspire to be; apparently well run off the field and a robust capable team on it. Without denigrating the West Ham win, strange results happen in cup competitions, and something like the 6-0 win over Lincoln can be viewed as once in a life time aberration. The game against Rotherham, like the Doncaster game last week, are the workaday league games which determine which end of the table we end up at.

The clocks go back next week, which is when the season really starts; the top eleven teams – with us in fifth – all look like they could threaten the play-offs. Of the others, Portsmouth are the only team you might think capable of joining the scrap.

This is not dissimilar to last year; where we were in a large batch of teams separated by a few points, only that was at the other end of the table. I might be alone in constantly looking down, but when I look at the National League table – which we were in only few years ago – I see teams like Woking, Solihull and Bromley. I can no longer imagine us being amongst them. Even looking at League 2, it no longer feels like a group of clubs like us. My latest breakthrough, and this has only been in the last few weeks, is that we are more naturally aligned to Doncaster and Rotherham than we are teams towards the bottom in League 1.

There’s a point where we have to trust we’re part of that group of genuine play-off and promotion contenders and not there by virtue of a set of short-term freak results. Whether you are ever actually ‘there’ is difficult to say, I suspect many fans of most clubs look down before they look up, we know more than most that past performance is no indicator of future performance.

The last few weeks and our resulting League position have bought Karl Robinson the space he’s needed. His system is working, the players are bought into it, the fans are being absorbed by it. The circle of trust grows – which is also what will grow crowds – and that’s where momentum starts to kick in. If we can settle into this new status; who know where that will take us?

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?