The club posted a short video on Twitter immediately after the Sunderland game of the players walking towards the away end applauding the Oxford fans. In front of them were banks of red seats vacated by the home support.
It struck me how well they’d coped in such surroundings. Or had they? Chris Cadden and Alex Gorrin regularly played at Ibrox and Celtic Park, Tariqe Fosu played at The Valley; a Premier League quality stadium. I’m sure there’s an accumulative pressure from playing your home games in large stadiums; but as a one-off, with perfect conditions and no expectations, is it really that difficult to perform?
Which is not to say that the result wasn’t a good one, it was. But my mind turned to our own home and Peterborough. How will our new signings cope with the curiosity of the Kassam Stadium? Its weird open end and ability to zap atmosphere is one thing, but the fact we’re limited as to what time we can get into our own stadium and that the wind can blow in four different directions at the same time is something unique to us.
Saturday’s game, then, was a good test in more ways than one. Howling wind, torrential rain, pretty much all the nonsense the Kassam can conjure up was thrown at them. And, of course, they coped admirably.
Tiger stated that his ambition this season is promotion; more a vision than an expectation, I suspect. His philosophy seems to be to aim ambitiously high as a way of achieving more modest goals. That’s fair enough, although when the vision isn’t realised, he’s open to criticism.
Four points from two tough opening fixtures is really encouraging when simply taking a point from the two games would probably have been acceptable. There’s also a greater sense of calm around the place; the owners are more open, the signings have finally been made and appear to be performing. But, it’s easy to think things are fixed and that promotion is achievable after all.
Every season, with little else to write about, the national press will pick up on a team in the lower leagues with good early form and try to make a story out of it. They never follow up if (and often when) it goes wrong and the club returns to its natural level. I hope that we don’t see an interview with Karl Robinson about how the club has transformed and is driving for promotion, because we need to remember that promotion would be a surprise.
To keep everyone’s feet on the ground; we shouldn’t look at the four points we’ve accumulated, where we might have expected only a couple, as part of a promotion push. We need to takes things steadily; enough points to avoid relegation, then to improve on last year, then, well, maybe we can look further ahead.
I make no secret of not particularly liking the start of the season. I used to love it, I’d really feel the gap between the end of one season and the beginning of another. I loved the new kits and players and, above all, the renewed sense of hope and anticipation. Now, football is everywhere, all the time, so a new season is not really anything new. It’s just, well, the continuation of football.
What I’ve learned to enjoy more is the rolling narrative as the year progresses, the sense of emerging drama, the battle through the winter and the mad dash, exhausted and battered, to some kind of conclusion in May. In that sense, I prefer my football more Scandi-drama than The Fast and the Furious.
I was a bit split about what would make a good result on Saturday. We’ve had a good final week of the summer and there are signs of optimism. A win, while capping it off nicely, might also have tipped expectations too far. Beating anyone on the opening game of the season is positive, beating Sunderland away could have created a sense that we were fixed, when we are anything but. Anyone who remembers the 4-1 win over Portsmouth, or going back 20 years, a 2-1 win at Stoke where Steve Anthrobus scored the winner on his debut will know these results are meaningless.
Even when we took the lead, you could sense the immediate optimism; Rob Dickie had become an able replacement for Curtis Nelson, Ben Woodburn was a cut above in quality. Yes, perhaps, but judge them in 15-20 games, not on the basis of the opening twenty-five minutes when minds and bodies are sharp and the weather is good. The mark of a good team is not whether you can perform, but for how long you can sustain it.
Equally, a defeat could have popped our fragile ego, if it had been mid-season, we might have shrugged it off, but seeing ourselves sitting dead last in the table, as we did last year, could have sent us into a deep depression. A defeat also would have put greater pressure on the games coming up. Last year’s opening fixtures were tricky, this year is no different.
Of course, in the moment, during the ninety minutes I desperately wanted us to win, but in the grander scheme a draw is almost a better result. We’ve taken a point in one of the most difficult fixtures of the season, we only conceded because of a penalty and one of our new signings got the goal.
In a game of cricket, it’s a bit like opening an innings with a solid forward defensive rather than slogging the ball out of the ground for six. Now, we have to build.
In other ways, it’s heartening to see Luton succeed, it gives us a glimmer of hope. In truth, if you look at all our ups and downs over the decades, mid-table in third tier is probably our natural place, despite ambitions stating otherwise. The biggest challenge is that the increments needed to navigate beyond where we are grow by the year. A team can spend £4m on a striker and finish fifth in the third division now.
Luton’s promotion means that three of the four teams you’d think have Championship infrastructures – Sunderland, Portsmouth, Charlton and Doncaster – will still be with us next year. Of those coming down, Ipswich, Bolton (if they survive the summer) and Rotherham are all similarly capable of competing for promotion despite their woes.
For us, bridging the gap and breaking into the top six has to be our target. This season reminds me of Eric Morecambe’s famous line to Andre Previn – we played all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order. If we want to progress, then we have to be more organised; our season was killed by our form in the opening weeks, which was preceded by a chaotic summer.
The last few weeks have been as entertaining as anything we’ve seen in the last decade or more, even the promotion seasons, which have been laced with anxiety. We’ve been swashbuckling and daring, sparking life back into the club just as it seemed to be on a downward spiral. Even narrowly avoiding relegation in our 125th year would have been a grim way to celebrate.
Any sign the problems that caused us to fail so badly are sorting themselves out may come in the next couple of weeks. Our previous two promotions were characterised by high quality early signings. Fans will always get jittery during May and early-June because signings aren’t flowing in. In the main, that’s not justified because football slows down during those months as people take a well-earned break. However, if our results on the pitch in the last couple of months are a reflection of us getting our act together off it, then maybe we’ll see some signs of that in the coming days.
It took a double take for me to realise that we’d made eight changes for the draw against Doncaster. At first glance, it looked like a fairly predictable starting eleven. That’s probably because there were only four from the starting eleven that played against Charlton just over a week ago.
With Kashi serving a customary ban, Hanson’s inclusion was no shock. Whyte and Browne for Garbutt and Sykes didn’t feel particularly experimental given both have featured regularly throughout the year. Only Nico Jones coming in for Rob Dickie was any real surprise.
Karl Robinson was back to his babbling best, if that’s what you can call it. Beforehand he said he wanted Jones to make mistakes – because that’s how you learn – and said afterwards that he ‘loved’ his own goal. Thankfully Nathan Cooper gave him an outball on that by suggesting that it was because of Jones’ reaction. Yes, said Robbo, moving incomprehensibly into a detailed description of some ‘diag’ Jones made shortly afterwards.
For all his nonsense, what I will say about Robinson is that he’s got a nice tone when talking about prospects, although referring to every young player as the future of the club does wear a little thin.
It’s a fine line though, there is undoubted benefit in giving young players the opportunity to experience the pace of first team football and the feeling of playing in front of a crowd. But, asking him to play the full 90 minutes against a decent team whose season is still very alive was a big challenge.
I thought it was a step too far, if I’m honest. It wasn’t a bad display in the context of his age and experience. The own goal and a couple of critical slips can be written off as unfortunate, but, more experienced players’ have the deep muscle memory to adopt starting positions that mean they’re less likely to get into similar muddles. Giving Jones the full 90 minutes asked a lot physically and mentally, and gave him a lot to process afterwards. Apparently Robinson took time to talk to Jones afterwards, perhaps he knew he had work to do to maintain his confidence after a challenging afternoon.
Will it make him a better player, or damage his confidence? Time will tell, but it was a gamble that, perhaps, wasn’t needed. I’d have preferred Mousinho for an hour – assuming he was fit – perhaps giving Jones half an hour.
Whatever, against a club whose season isn’t over, we were the better team. It was heartening to see that for once, we showed a bit of savvy with the wind. You could see Browne’s long-distance daisy cutter just after half-time which led to Sinclair’s wrongly disallowed goal was pre-planned. For his failings, Karl Robinson will use every tool he’s got to win, we haven’t seen since the days of Chris Wilder.
People have said that they don’t want the season to end, but I think it’s coming at just the right time. There’s no guarantee that we could keep up our current pace and a couple of defeats could have knocked us back to where we were. Instead, we can head into the summer on a big positive, which should help with season ticket sales and general positivity towards the club in general. Meanwhile, the owners and management get a break to sort out the messy backdrop against which the season has been played out. Then perhaps, just perhaps, we can come back in August and achieve something closer to what we expected to achieve this season.
My evolving theory about League 1 this season is that the division mostly consists of fairly average teams, of which we are one. There is a small group of marginally more competent teams who will fight for promotion. But, no one is really capable of competing in the Championship for any length of time. Is it better to know your level or fight to get into a division you’re not equipped to compete in?
Our recent run has been slightly tinged with the concern we’ve merely hit a good run of opponents at the right time – Walsall, Bradford, Wycombe and Wimbledon all look like relegation candidates and we played them one after the other, drawing with with one and sneaking past two in the last minute.
Charlton offered a different proposition; not only are they in that group of teams looking to go up, there were times in the opening minutes where they blew my theory out of the water. Perhaps they could sustain themselves at a higher level. I thought they were much better than Sunderland or Portsmouth. The fact they were unbeaten in eleven supporting that view.
Their penalty was soft, I thought, but may have done us a favour given the chaos later. It made it much harder for the referee to make big decisions on marginal calls without the game descending into a farce that would have been of his making.
There was something about the sunshine, the meaninglessness of the game from our perspective, the buoyancy of the Charlton fans and the early goal which gave that foreboding sense that we were going to collapse in the theatre of it all.
Then it all turned around. Just when we could have switched off, we resolved to show we weren’t just a makeweights in someone else’s end of season adventure. Curtis Nelson, perhaps playing his penultimate game at the Kassam, had plenty of time to watch the ball drop, but caught his volley perfectly. And then Garbutt slammed home his brilliant second.
Garbutt’s resurrection may be the story of our revival. He could easily have crumbled under the criticism of earlier in the season, he’s well paid and is not from round here so he could have just given up. Instead, he’s dragged himself back into the team, changed position and transformed. He’s now the one gee’ing up the crowd and, at Walsall, disappearing into it. Karl Robinson’s role in turning his season around can’t be ignored, either.
The second half was entertaining but barking mad – Simon Eastwood was rightly sent off although it was clearly a miscalculation rather than a deliberate attempt to cheat. His one-match ban implies that the FA agree, so it does make you wonder whether red is too harsh a punishment for a momentary mistake.
Incidentally, I’m not a fan of a team being allowed to make an immediate substitution when a goalkeeper gets sent off. Clearly it would have disadvantaged us, but I think you should have to wait until the next available stoppage before making any changes.
There was half-an-hour to hold out. I remember looking at the clock and realising that Eastwood had only been off the field for six minutes; it felt like hours had passed. They had territory and possession, and won a lot of corners, but we didn’t cave.
Eastwood’s dismissal should have signalled the end of our hopes of taking the points, but in reality, we had the better chances. In many ways it was reminiscent of our fabled win at home to Swindon in 2012 when James Constable was sent off.
Solly’s sending off was as much about Jamie Mackie’s fall as it was about a dangerous challenge. Perhaps that was more deserving of a yellow, although I thought Lapslie should have been sent off for tripping Jerome Sinclair when he was clean through. It could easily have been a goal from Garbutt, who benefitted from the advantage, with Lapslie then being sent off for the foul. Practically every decision and incident could have gone the other way; it was that good a game.
Leaving the game with adrenalin coursing through my veins once again got me thinking; in terms of sheer thrills, spills and drama; is there a team offering better value for money in the country than us right now?
Through all the mayhem, though, was a refreshing level of gamesmanship and guile. We would have been overwhelmed with less maturity. It’s something we have frequently lacked in the past. Michael Appleton prided himself on developing players, Pep Clotet on his tactical acumen, Karl Robinson’s thing is winning games at all cost. He’s more a Chris Wilder, with all the baggage that comes with that.
It was Robinson who introduced Mackie and Hanson because he knew they’d dig in. He removed Kashi to protect him from a second yellow, god help him if Josh Ruffels’ last minute chance had gone in. For all Robinson’s streams of consciousness when interviewed, he kept his head when all those around him lost theirs.
It goes without saying that Jamie Mackie led the charge with a masterful performance of pushing, being pushed and being outraged at being pushed. Cameron Brannagan showed his growing maturity being tidy and combative at the same time. The back-four protected Jack Stevens admirably, with Josh Ruffels and Sam Long both offering outlets when the chance was offered. Not that Stevens was a passenger, his scooped save being as good as anything Simon Eastwood has produced this year, in fact I’m not sure Eastwood would have the athleticism.
Every Charlton shot was met with two or three players falling over themselves to block the ball. Total commitment and discipline.
With the younger players learning from the older players, what emerges is an increasingly competent and effective unit, one capable of performing against the best in the division.
And this is what turns a team from being a League One also-ran into potential play-off or promotion candidates. It’s come too late for this season and large chunks of the squad will disappear over the summer, but if a DNA is emerging and some off-the-field stability can be established, then we can, perhaps look forward to next season with a degree of optimism.
They say drowning is pleasurable. Perhaps it’s the sense of helplessness; that your destiny is secured and you are no longer faced with the competing forces of life in general.
There was a similar beatific calm about our draw with Wimbledon, we’re pretty much safe, we can’t go up, we couldn’t even change our league position as both 11th and 13th were mathematically out of reach.
I kind of like it, I mean, like when you’re drowning – you may enjoy while but you know you’d miss being alive – I’d ultimately miss the lack of competition and purpose, but for now, in sitting in stasis, I quite enjoy the moments of peace.
I sat with Brinyhoof, chatting about life and his success as one of the world’s leading fantasy football league managers (Bundesliga edition). In front of us, we played well, made chances and scored none of them. Afterwards – with the players still leaving the pitch – I summarised the game as ‘full of entertainment, though I can’t remember a single moment of it’.
They, of course, have no such luxuries, with a very real relegation battle on their hands, and you can tell why. Like Walsall and Bradford, both of whom we’ve beaten recently, they’re just not very good. Wally Downes, a veteran of the Crazy Gang; the grimly romanticised Wimbledon team of the eighties, is turning the club from a fan-driven metrosexual cosmopolitan snowflake liberal wet dream into an unpleasant unit in the image of his own playing career. It’s probably out of necessity rather than anything else, they were always in for a battle to stay up, though perhaps they’ve taken the term battle a little too literally.
That said, it didn’t really affect us, only Aaron Ramsdale’s heroics in their goal prevented it from being a comfortable win. At any other stage of the season, we’d have been apoplectic, but there was a general shrug of the shoulders. You play well and don’t win; it happens.
In the 69th minute, Karl Robinson introduced Jamie Mackie, Jordan Graham and James Henry in a triple substitution. It was a slightly odd move; an unnecessary act of aggression – we were in control of a game that ultimately met little. But he felt it necessary to make a triple substitution by bringing on senior players, which is usually a sign that the game must be won at all costs.
Maybe it was a reminder that cruising through the last few games of the season is not acceptable. You get a sense that Jamie Mackie, in particular, is unlikely to let the intensity of his game drop whatever it is he’s playing for.
But, this does raise the question about how you approach the final games of the season – in 2015, Michael Appleton’s first year, it became an opportunity to build momentum, pre-season before the pre-season. It could be an opportunity for fringe players to prove themselves, in the context of new contracts; although I think most of those decisions make themselves. Perhaps it’s a chance to blood some young players.
We need to be thankful that the form we’ve had came at the time it did; our run-in – Charlton, Shrewsbury, Doncaster, Luton is pretty tough, if there was much hanging on them, we might fear for ourselves. But, they offer a good opportunity to see just how good we are (or aren’t).
I don’t think this is about cruising to the end of the season as tempting as that is, it’s about seeing who has the appetite to play at an intensity needed to mount a decent challenge next year. After all, if you can motivate yourself when there’s nothing riding on it, you should be able to motivate yourself when there’s all to play for.
The Bescot Stadium was a new one for me. I’d often seen the sign off the M6, and the main stand poking above the flyover and thought it an obvious one to tick off the list. The problem was that though we are, in many ways, similar clubs, we haven’t met that frequently. Yes, three times in the last three years, but before that there had been a sixteen year gap.
I was looking forward to it; the stadium is complete and compact in a classic lower league style. The relatively short journey, plus our good form, was sure to draw a decent following. Plus, there was a little less tension now we were sitting loftily in 12th.
In fact, the ground a curiosity, apparently designed by an architect who missed his lecture on cantilever structures. Rather than clean sight lines, socking great girders prop up the roof, obstructing the view. I’ve been to old grounds and sat in areas with poor views, but that’s more because seats had been installed where they were never intended to be, the problem at the Bescot seems to be obviously avoidable.
I’d known about this beforehand, but underestimated how bad it was. To top it off, their main stand, more modern and offering unobstructed views and corporate hospitality – their equivalent of our South Stand – is behind the goal rather than down the side, the whole stadium does its best to stop people from watching the game.
This season, that’s probably not a bad thing if you’re a Walsall fan, they’re a poor team and are surely set to go down. It was only our gift of Curtis Nelson’s dithering, then Marcus Browne’s lunging tackle, resulting in his red card, that made it competitive.
Browne’s sending off could mean we don’t get to see him again. He’ll have a three match ban, which will bring us perilously close to the end of the season, and I wonder whether Karl Robinson will be bothered about giving him game time before he heads back to West Ham.
In reality, Browne’s sending off probably made the game harder for them. Fitness no longer seems to be a major factor when you lose a player, and it probably forced us to be more tactical. They didn’t have the ability to breakdown a team whose first instinct was to defend what they had.
There weren’t many chances, it wasn’t a great game, but we were prepared to attack when we could. Sam Long drove into the box to cross for Luke Garbutt who set himself to bury it. It reminded me of Trevor Hebberd’s goal in the Milk Cup, it seemed to take an age to get his feet right and shoot. I didn’t see it hit the back of the net – those obstructed views again – but there was little doubt from the sea of bodies and the cacophony of noise around me.
Garbutt, the release from a torrid season evident, headed directly to where we were, fists clenched, eyes bulging. Around us were a large number of latecomers from the pub who hadn’t been able to barge their way to the back of the stand. There seemed to be a moment when Garbutt realised what he was heading into – a seething mass of Adidas trainers, Stone Island jumpers and coats with goggles in their hoods. There was fear in his eyes, but he was fully committed and piled in anyway, disappearing into the morass. The unlikeliest player to bond the team with the fans.
Jerome Sinclair’s celebration for his clincher was more controlled; perhaps he’d learned from Garbutt. Cameron Brannagan didn’t hold back though, he’d been fiercely competitive throughout, and ended in the melee, arguing with stewards. In any other world, I’d have been appalled by it all – and there is a post somewhere about the toxicity of patriarchy at football – I’ll save that for a defeat – but in the moment, this was glorious.
Rob Dickie seemed to do some sterling work calming things down. He’s coming of age on and off the pitch. His goal was fairly routine, but his overall game is hopefully showing that we may not miss Curtis Nelson, when he inevitably leaves, as much as we thought we might. The benches cleared, leading to Ahmed Kashi also being sent off, which I found out 3 hours later. He’ll serve a one-match ban, but I hoe we see him again next season; nobody else is as efficient with the ball.
We’re pretty much safe and with no chance of the play-offs we can start to reflect. We may not yet be fixed – particularly as we continue to be dogged off the field – but this run is rebuilding some faith and, more importantly, a bond between the team and those who follow it.