Match wrap: Burton Albion 2 Oxford United 2

Back in 2009 I watched our game at Burton on some dodgy internet feed. It was a famous night; Burton were expecting to confirm their ascent to the Football League before Adam Chapman’s zinger of a free-kick ruined it all.

The picture was glitchy and blurred and surrounded by adverts of exotic looking large breasted women, sat in expensive sports cars who apparently were available for sex right now in a village two miles down the road from me. Last time I drove through there, the only thing available right now are some tulip bulbs which can be bought with a donation to an honesty box.

It was a novel immersive experience with a small community of Twitter early adopters sharing the feed around and Twittering inanely throughout the game.

Fast forward 11 years and we were back at virtual-Burton; the stream via iFollow is legitimate and paid-for, the large breasted distractions have gone, the Twitter community is bigger. The production is better but it’s still pretty poor; even paying £10 for the privilege, I like its raw appeal.

The experience opens you up to the real-time opinions and emotions of hundreds of people simultaneously. It’s an odd feeling, even at a live game amongst thousands, the number of people you talk or listen to is relatively small and most will share similar views to you, that’s why you hang out with them.

In a ding dong draw there was a huge range of emotions; from despair to frustration to anger, to disengagement, elation, acceptance and more. At least with a heavy defeat or rousing win it’s relatively easy to find a consensus, but a draw with mid-table Burton opens up a wider debate.

Personally, in the context of the season, I think the point is acceptable. Burton are a solid and robust team, Nigel Clough is the epitome of steadiness; they’re slap bang in the middle of the table and in their last five games they have drawn four times. You could argue that these are teams we should be beating, you can equally argue that Burton are a tough side and any away point against them is a point gained. On balance, not forgetting who we are – a team punching slightly above our weight – for me it’s a point gained.

Encouragingly I didn’t feel the result was down to fatigue or injuries, I thought we showed good energy throughout. Players like Cameron Brannagan, James Henry and Matty Taylor all looked like they were coming back to form and fitness. The failing was tactical, our fast moving possession passing game is prone to errors, and we’re particularly vulnerable early in games when our opponents are fresh. We’ve been caught several times now early in games conceding possession and giving away goals. What gives me grounds for hope is that this is more fixable than bringing injured players back to fitness.

The final argument is that will always be trotted out in the event of a defeat; any failing is the fault of the board, no better illustrated than through their decision to sell Tariqe Fosu and Shandon Baptiste. This is a convenient argument, but seems over-stated; Baptiste, for all his potential, only started nine league games this season, winning three. Brannagan, Henry, Gorrin, Forde and Thorne have all been as influential. Fosu also had his moments, but looked tired in the final weeks of his time at the club and, in my view, has been more than compensated with the arrival Holland and Browne. The only justifiable criticism is that the club haven’t replaced Chris Cadden.

Back in the summer we predicted a finish between 8th and 10th, we currently sit 10th. This is a division full of teams susceptible to extreme runs of form. For all the challenges that this month offers, the priority for me is as much about limiting losses as it is about making gains.

Match wrap: Peterborough United 4 Oxford United 0

If you know anything about the NASA Apollo Space Program, it’s probably about Apollo 13. An explosion in an oxygen tank resulted from a thermostat working at 28 volts when the rest of the system was working at 65. The system effectively pumped too much power through a narrow space, it’s failure meant the craft’s oxygen tanks were allowed to heat up to 1000 degrees when they were supposed to regulate at 80. Back at Mission Control, nobody noticed because their gauge only went up to 85.

There was always a chance that we’d take a pasting at Peterborough. They have the most potent attacking force in the division, we’ve just come off the back of a 120 minute marathon against a Premier League team with a raft of players just coming back from injury.

Like the oxygen tanks on Apollo 13, we’ve been overheating for some time now. You can analyse on-field stats to look at why, but also look at crowd sizes; ten 10,000+ crowds this season with at least two more to come. If that’s an indication of the mental challenge of constantly performing, it’s likely to have taken its toll.

The criticism of the team for the Peterborough performance and the outcry at Baptiste and Fosu’s sale is the equivalent of staring at the gauge which only goes up to 85 without realising the temperature has reached 1000 degrees.

There was a question on the Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday asking how you persuade a child to follow Oxford rather than Liverpool when we keep selling our best players.

The over-rationalisation of football; first with money, now with technology like VAR, aims to iron out the imperfections in the game. It teaches you that you can get perfection where the fairest and most desirable result is the best team winning every time.

But football has never been like that; it’s always been about the balance of risk and reward. Of heating up enough to perform without destroying everything. If you’re a Liverpool fan, then with enough money and technology you can win every time. But these become Pyrrhic victories because they barely represent anything resembling a normal struggle to succeed.

Life is also not like that, most people cannot spend their way to a perfect life. If you want to live in a fantasy bubble where you can operate at 1000 degrees without consequences, then support Liverpool. If you want to enjoy a genuine struggle against the elements, then clubs like Oxford offer that experience. Being inside that experience, with everything that goes with it, will always be better than watching perfection from outside the bubble.

As a club we’re not far from operating at the outer reaches of what we can naturally achieve. We’re a 28 volt club amongst teams operating at 56 volts. Sure, we could have bought more reinforcements, or tried to hang on to Baptiste and Fosu, but would it have been worth the financial risk? Would it have been worth unbalancing the evident spirit within the club? That’s the eternal question; when cyclist Chris Boardman was asked how you gauge effort in a time trial his answer was ‘If you don’t think you can sustain the effort, slow down, if you think you can do more, speed up. The perfect answer to the question ‘can I keep going at this speed?’ is ‘I don’t know’.

And that’s the point; are our results due to a lack of effort? No. Are we going too fast? Maybe. Can we make it to the end? I don’t know.

In 2015/16 between the middle of January and the middle of February we won two, drew one and lost five games. We’d come off the back of an FA Cup and JPT run as well as a busy Christmas period and we were overheating. We recovered to gain promotion in what history remembers as a glorious year of unstoppable success. It wasn’t, but the thrill of achieving what we did was all the better for the difficulties we faced.

There were twelve Apollo Space missions, you might know two of them. Apollo 11 was an unbridled success that put a man on the moon. Apollo 13 was an unmitigated disaster saved by endeavour, ingenuity and human spirit. That’s the one they made the film about.

Stick with it, it’s what it’s all about.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Blackpool 1

Over Christmas someone posted a tweet about how quickly the feeling of returning to the warm bosom of the family home on Christmas Eve can turn to an overwhelming urge to throw acid over your family just for them wanting to watch Holby City two days later.

If last Saturday’s game against Newcastle was a loving family Christmas Eve and Friday’s transfer shenanigans was a fractious Boxing Day argument, then Blackpool was the first Sunday lunch together a few weeks later.

The Oxford United family returned to the dinner table where we’d laughed and loved, then argued about calling a Chinese takeaway a ‘Chinky’ and if Uncle Alan was ‘shoving it in everyone’s faces’ posting pictures of his new boyfriend on Facebook.

Gathered together at the Kassam, everyone was torn between the need grin and bear it and the urge to address unresolved arguments; about Fosu and Baptiste, about our failure to sign a right-back or our reliance on loans. Do we address the elephants as they sit quietly in the room? Should we get it all out in the open? Or do we just get on with it and leave the elephants be?

As a result, the atmosphere was as subdued as the family lunch; the gentle clanking of knives and forks, the chinking of glasses. The loudest noise of all was the aching silences as everyone trod carefully to avoid a mistake that would destabilise the precarious status quo.

Then, almost as if we were trying too hard to avoid one, there was a mistake, like your dad quietly muttering it was good to have some ‘proper British food’ and everyone thinking it was a reference to an old Brexit argument. John Mousinho and Josh Ruffels clatter into each other, giving Gary Madine a free run at goal. He takes an age, but slots home to put Blackpool 1-0 up.

A goal down could have ignited a barrage of arguments and recriminations, turning the air blue and the atmosphere toxic. People held their breath, bit their lips and hoped it might pass.

It did, then there’s a moment of levity that unites everyone, like mum bringing in a plate of Yorkshire puddings. The ball is worked to Sam Long whose cross drops to Marcus Browne to blast in the equaliser off Mark Sykes. Suddenly and briefly, it’s like the good old days again.

Everything is holding together. Just. We haven’t descended into a mass argument, nobody has stormed out. Perhaps it will be OK.

It gets better, dad cracks a joke that’s a bit close to the bone, but there’s a flicker of a knowing, unifying smile on his face. He knows his prejudices and his cantankerousness. Marcus Browne picks up the ball and curls it round a crowd of players into the top corner. The moment of pure quality brings us all together, momentarily.

But, now this new state of equilibrium has been reached, the second-half is slow and awkward; we’re pensive and don’t threaten much. We don’t want to lose what we’ve gained. It’s a slog as the conditions neutralise any scope for craft or ability. There’s a tension in the air, it could get better, it could get worse, nobody is really prepared to risk anything just in case.

Time ticks by, nearly there. An unnecessarily heavy pudding is served to the over-stuffed guests. Custard? Yes, why not? The injury time board goes up. The family are putting their coats on and saying their goodbyes. Soon, you’ll be in the car and be able to release the tension, free to dissect everyone’s behaviour on your way home.

Then, just as you think you’re alone and got away with it, while putting a bag in the boot of your car, you quietly say to yourself that your dad is ‘a stupid old twat’. You turn around and he’s standing behind you with a Christmas present you’d forgotten, closer than you’d thought. Would he know it was a reference to him? Did he hear? If he did, he’s not saying. After all this, are you going to pay for your error at the death?

Deep into injury time Josh Ruffels woefully under-hits a back pass putting Madine clean through. Oh, god, this is it isn’t it? At the very death, this is the moment it all collapses in a heap. Improbably, his shot skims the outside of the post. We breathe again, let’s get out of here.

The final whistle goes, we’ve made it through. Mum turns to you quietly in the bustle of everyone leaving and says ‘You’ll be coming to us at Christmas won’t you? Your dad really likes you coming, you know.’ You smile a reassuring smile, it may not be always be happy and harmonious, but yes, we’ll be there next time and ultimately everything will be OK. Probably.

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.