Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 2

It started weeks ago; do the players know how important the Swindon derby is? Let’s hope the local lads tell the newer players of its history and significance. It was like an anxious parent talking to their teenager before a party – “You know how important it is to stay safe, you’re not going to take drugs and get raped are you?”. 

Of course, all they needed to do was achieve what they set out to do every week – win the game. The 19 year run is the accumulation of seven individual wins. The biggest challenge of that streak is that with every passing game it was more likely end. Like stacking another Jenga block onto an increasingly rickety tower, the higher it got, the more likely it was to fall and more spectacular the collapse. If you’re not careful, you anticipate the fall before it happens, your hand begins to shake and the tower tumbles.

With no emotional outlet at the game itself, fans wanted to project the anxieties that result from near 20 years of bravado onto those who could influence it. A few years ago I treated myself to a Lego Millennium Falcon and spent the holidays building it. It was an absolute joy, when it was finished I looked at it admiringly and set it aside. The following day my then three year old niece filled it with Duplo characters who treated Chewbacca as their puppy. We’d built the Millennium Falcon over the seven game streak and were anxious we were going to hand it over to a toddler to ruin.  

The aim shouldn’t have been to inflate that expectation, but to deaden it. Of all the previous derby games over the last 20 years, this was the most straight forward; there weren’t the variables of fans and atmosphere. We just needed to go out and keep our heads, the rest should have looked after itself. 

But we’re a team built on emotion, in the image of its manager. It flows through us; sometimes it’s a torrent, sometimes a trickle, sometimes we surf on the crest of its wave, sometimes we’re dragged under by its force. We are desperate to please and are ready to sacrifice discipline and focus to achieve that.

It’s why Karl Robinson admires players like Liam Kelly and Marcus Browne, they please us, they make us excited, even if they sometimes struggle to do it for 90 minutes. 

Think back to the home derby in 2012, perhaps the most astonishing game in the seven game sequence. We only had half our first team and lost our star striker after 20 minutes. They were on a 10 game unbeaten streak. They were a team built on the raw energy and emotion of Paolo DiCanio and that should have destroyed us. But Chris Wilder was a pragmatist, his career has been about getting more out of constrained resources. We frustrated them and battled to hold the torrent, Scott Rendell put in a shift like I’ve never seen before, playing up front he didn’t get a glimpse of the goal, but he never stopped working. When we got our chances, we took them and with it a famous win.

The tables turned yesterday; John Sheridan, Swindon’s manager, played the game down, where we hyped it up. Their expectations were low, we were cockahoop. I was definitely of a similar mind, not because I think we have a permanent hex over Swindon, but because I thought we were in a false position in the league and that anyone below us were fair game. With none of the normal bells and whistles of a derby game to disrupt the flow we should have eased to a win.

Injected with the adrenalin of ‘the occasion’, we came out like a steam train, an emotional wave that threatened to swamp them. It nearly worked, Matty Taylor could have had three when he only had one. 

‘It feels like a derby’ said Jerome Sale, but it shouldn’t have done, it should have felt like a game as cold and clinical as the rest of the season has been. Like all great teams – Manchester United in the 90s, Chicago Bulls, Australian cricket, The All Blacks – winning becomes boring, clinical and procedural. 

So what happened? We blew up, ran out of steam, we burnt off our reserves in a blistering 45 minutes. Rob Atkinson had been majestic, but then started getting caught in midfield, Liam Kelly ran the game, but was in pieces after the break. As bodies and minds tired, we became overwhelmed by the expectation. 

Where was the leadership? The cool heads instilling the discipline we needed to slow the game down. Nathan Cooper remarked that Karl Robinson’s voice became more panicky. Who was offering the cool calculation? We’re so fragile, as the game progressed and the enormity of what we were about to achieve grew, we started to withdraw and panic, the shaky hand at the Jenga tower. We weren’t about to win a game, we were about to achieve #eightinarow. But we overshot it.

In Matty Taylor, James Henry, Alex Gorrin and Simon Eastwood we should have a leadership spine that will help us see these games out. But that commanding voice, the John Mousinho, Jamie Mackie, Jake Wright, Michael Duberry, Andy Whing, Andy Crosby, where are they? 

This isn’t new, it’s not a shock; a 22 year old with a season under their belt isn’t going to demand calm and focus. After the game a lot of people were picking it apart, but the issue is systemic, it’s been brewing for a while. We simply don’t sign experience, we don’t sign the players who will look objectively at the last ten minutes of a derby and think; it’s just another game, let’s see it out.

Mark Sykes was singled out, I don’t think Karl Robinson meant quite what came out when he said ‘everyone tells me he’s a good player’ as if he doesn’t. I’m sure he sees what he can bring, but it’s true that you can’t rely on him for a goal or to create chances. On the other hand, he’s 23, we’re asking a lot for him to influence a whole game.

It’s not like we were outplayed, the failure was spectacular and self-inflicted. I’ve watched their second goal several times and can’t quite understand what Simon Eastwood did. I don’t have an answer for the Eastwood dilemma; I don’t think we need to drop him as a punishment. He knows he made a mistake. Do you replace him with another inexperienced player as we face some of the better teams in the division? That doesn’t feel right either. 

So, the streak is over, the expectation is gone, I guess the good thing is that we weren’t in the stadium to see it. Like these things, the fear of defeat is worse than the real thing, life goes on, unless you choose for it not to, unless you dwell and ruminate, self-flagellate in an attempt to gain a pardon. Are you feeling the pain? But are you really feeling the pain? My worry is that Karl Robinson will do that, will disappear into his own well of self-pity. He feels it, I’ve no doubt, he doesn’t need to prove it to us. 

What big games can do is put into relief things which are already evident. What we saw yesterday was the hopes and fears of the fans being amplified through Robinson and into a squad of developing players. It worked for a while, but went spectacularly wrong. Somewhere there needs to be a regulation; either from Robinson or within the squad. If we don’t get that right soon we’ll start to drown. 

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

The Absolute State of Oxford United Survey in the summer was conducted at the height of our post-season optimism. When asked where people thought we’d finish this season, most went for second. But, when asked who would win the title, we only ranked eighth, outside the play-offs.

This showed that while we have a lot of faith in our squad, our biggest challenge is the competitiveness within the division. We’re good, but so are Hull, Ipswich, Charlton, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Peterborough, Doncaster, and well, the list goes on. 

This seems to have been more a shock to the players than the fans. It’s like we’ve been relegated from the Championship and expected an easier ride in a lower division. After four seasons in League One, it shouldn’t be a surprise that even the likes of Crewe and Lincoln have ability way beyond their brand might suggest.

That’s perhaps a little unfair, we’ve also had to cope with the unique combination of a short pre-season, the disappointment of a Wembley play-off defeat and the everyday mental challenges of the lockdown and pandemic. 

Either way, we’ve seemed bewildered and under-prepared, like we’ve been catapulted into this wasteland of a season not ready for the emotional and physical emptiness. As a result, we’ve seemed lost and listless, feeling a bit sorry for ourselves.

Before the game on Tuesday against Portsmouth, there was a shot of the players arriving stadium, the first player to walk through the gate was carrying a Sainsbury’s bag. It reminded me of the peculiarly casual nature of games nowadays with players getting changed in makeshift changing rooms and appearing on the pitch via a side gate rather like a park team might. 

The splendour of professional football, even at our level, has been stripped away. The intensity of gladiatorial combat, the ceremony, the baying crowds all gone. Motivation has to come from within. 

But then, last night that all seemed to change. Maybe the win over Wigan helped spark a little mental revival, a renewed love of the competition even without its trappings. Portsmouth may have been the best follow-up; they’re a club we’ve played more than any other in the Football League and, judging by my recent poll of the club’s biggest rivals, hold a unique place in our psyche – not a traditional derby, but not an inconsequential fixture. It’s almost a sibling rivalry, both friendly and edgy.

In some ways, it’s like Portsmouth are the club we want to be, something that was reflected in our performance. Although there were no crowds to please, there was something else driving us to a renewed intensity; an inner resolve to avoid defeat. The line-up helped, it reminded me of our League Cup games last season; the apparent weakness on paper helped to us to focus and be sharp from the get-go. 

With that sense of resolution, the game felt like a genuine away game; we needed to be aggressively competitive to avoid being swamped. The back-four were patient with the ball, something we haven’t seen enough of this season, the midfield were aggressive in the tackle and Dan Agyei up front knew his role was as much about stretching the play and occupying their defence as it was about scoring goals. Suddenly we looked both more solid and, at the same time, more threatening.

It was even satisfying to see the players squaring up to each other at the end of the game. In such a soulless environment; it is hard for passions to run riot like they might have done if there’d been a full stadium. The chest bumping and snarling, whatever caused it, helped conjure up an atmosphere and camaraderie, it was good to see Marcus McGuane squaring up to support Sam Long, the new and established combining as one. We’re not treading water until things get better, we’re working together.

The result helps to create the intensity that we’ll need if we’re to get out of the difficult position we’re in and perhaps even drive us to where we want to be. If we’re starting to acclimatise and enjoy this new world, then a derby on Saturday may be just what we need to come next.

Match wrap: Wigan Athletic 1 Oxford United 2

I used to work with someone who could fix things in an instant. A dispute in her team? They’d had a chat and it was sorted. A performance problem? They’d had a meeting and everything was back on track. As I got to know her, I found out her home life was much the same; an argument with her husband? A problem with her children? There’d been a problem, but everything was fine now.

She was very convincing and had a reputation as a bit of a fixer; if there was a problem, she could fix it permanently in an instant. But, the longer it went on, the more I became aware that the problems never went away for long. There was always another issue, argument or crisis that she moved to extinguish in the blink of an eye. But, as much as she assured everyone otherwise, the issues got gradually worse, she dealt with the effect, but not the cause. Eventually, she was firefighting on so many fronts people started to realise she was the constant when something went wrong.

She was convincing because it was how that’s how she assured herself that she was in control of her life when, in fact, it was gradually unravelling. She had practiced tirelessly to convince herself and others that she could fix the problems and achieve some kind of permanent stability. But, team issues became bullying accusations, arguments with her husband became divorce threats and one day, it was announced that she was leaving. 

As important as the result was, the idea that the win over Wigan fixes everything is a fantasy. With Portsmouth, Ipswich, Swindon and Hull coming up, it’s like successfully unlocking the door to a burning building. There are way bigger tests to come, even though it was welcome, and enjoyable, and necessary and expected. But, nothing is fixed.

And it never is. We all want things to be fixed in an instant, like the pandemic, we want to switch it off or to prove it’s not as bad as we’re being told. But that’s not how these things work, they’re a constant remoulding process, fixing something here, addressing something there, hopefully improving the overall direction of travel. James Acaster does a routine about the daily grind of ‘jobs and jobs and jobs and jobs’; an endless procession of trivial stuff that fills your time between periods of sleep.

I have a fundamental rule about managers; I’ve learnt that whether I agree with them or not is not a good measure of whether I can support them. Instead, I focus on whether I can accept their logic, the root of their decisions. I struggled to enjoy Ian Atkins, but understood what he was trying to do. Aesthetically, I could get on board Graham Rix’s football philosophy, but the logic of trying to turn Matt Bound and Andy Crosby into Iniesta and Xavi was beyond me.

Karl Robinson’s Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday helped to provide some assurances. One fan asked when the ‘right-back experiment’ would end. It was a veiled, even dehumanising criticism of Sean Clare. He’s not a player trying to find his form and settle into his new surroundings, he’s ‘an experiment’. If you take that metaphor to its logical conclusion, if the experiment doesn’t work, you throw it away. Given that other full-backs Josh Ruffels was a central midfielder and Sam Long was a central defender, when do their ‘experiments’ as full-backs end? 

Robinson went onto the front foot, Clare wasn’t an experiment and this kind of criticism was not going to help the player. Clare is a real person with his own strengths and weaknesses coming into a new system and a new team. He showed on Saturday (and has shown previously) he is a genuine threat as an attacking wing-back. Re-watching James Henry’s goal on Saturday you can see how much ground he makes up to pick up the ball that he crosses for the goal. A lack of effort is not a problem. It’s clear he’s not a Scott McNiven-type whose job is to defend the corner of his own penalty box nor is a Damian Batt player who seems to play in both boxes simultaneously.

Robinson also defended his use of the salary cap and keeping some in reserve and dealing with unknowns such as Cameron Brannagan’s eye issue. He’s right, football management is a constant work in progress, a process of moulding and reshaping. Working with what you have, managing the consequences of your decisions. It’s not a question of fixing a problem never for it to return. Given that Robinson is the root of the club’s culture, that’s encouraging to hear.

We’ve taken 72 points in the last 46 games, at one point last season we’d picked up 81 points in a 46 game sequence. Under Karl Robinson in any given 46 game sequence we’ve picked up on average 69 points. What we may be experiencing is not so much an evident failing, but more a readjustment from an over-performance from last season. Let’s not forget, had Josh Ruffels not scored in the last minute against Shrewsbury in March we wouldn’t have made the play-offs and all that came with it. The season will have been remembered as a much more moderate improvement.

On Saturday it was reassuring to see Henry and Taylor looking more threatening and I’m sure it will help with their confidence too. But, we were also reminded of our defensive frailties. We are neither wholly fixed nor wholly broken. Either way, the fact that Robinson remains on top of that brief suggests we’re still OK.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Rochdale 1

In 1996 we went six games without scoring, I remember the sense of growing desperation. We’d just enjoyed a thrilling, but narrow promotion the previous season and the fear was we’d been found out. The 10-hour barren run consisted of five away games, including a demoralising 1-0 defeat at Swindon. Catastrophising was rife as we advanced towards a point where we wondered if we’d ever score again; the path to goal seemed unnavigable.

We faced Stoke City, seventh in the table, at the Manor on a Tuesday night. In the first-half Martin Gray, a much maligned grafter in midfield, pounced on a Nigel Jemson knock back to score his first goal for the club. In Jemson, Martin Aldridge, Paul Moody and Joey Beauchamp, we had many more refined attacking options, but while their talents and magic had deserted them, Gray simply put in the work to find a way to break the duck. Nobody could predict that Gray would be the one to break the hoodoo. The goal opened the floodgates, we won 4-1 and followed up with another four wins in a sequence including 13 goals – most of which were from more refined talents than Gray.

Football is full of stories of hoodoos, luck and talent; a magical pantomime surrounding the realities of organisation, process and effort that really makes a team successful. I often wonder how genuine the pantomime is. When we say we hate another team, is we really hate the actual people who support that team, even though they’re likely to be just like you or I? It’s the same with players; do we genuinely believe they don’t care or don’t try when they make a mistake or lose a game?

I feel schizophrenic about it; on one level, I buy into the whole thing – football much is less fun if you’re fair, equitable and empathetic of players or opponents. However, I feel bad about the criticisms, and how I exact my frustrations at people who, in all likelihood, are just doing their best.

Last night’s win over Rochdale was a case in point. I’ve questioned Simon Eastwood’s form this season, but have no problem with his ability or commitment. He made a number of brilliant saves last night; each one made my heart sing because it signalled another step towards him being the player we know he can be. I desperately want to see him succeed, far more than wanting him dropped or punished when things don’t go well.

Likewise along the backline; there’s little doubt we have a deeper systemic issue at centre-back. It’s not a commentary on the individuals – Mousinho, Atkinson and Moore – it’s how we’ve struggled to plan effective succession in the wake of Rob Dickie and Curtis Nelson’s departures. 

At risk of an overstatement; Elliot Moore’s performance last night felt like a coming of age, it wasn’t just his goals – though his touch for the first and the domination in the air for the second was almost Matt Elliot-like. He was also commanding at the back and while we ended up defending more than we’d have liked, it was good to see the reward for his determination to keep Rochdale at bay. I hope, like Rob Dickie last season, this sort of success sees his confidence grow.

Likewise, our wobbliness at centre-back and the lack of protection in midfield without Gorrin or Brannagan – has put more pressure on Sean Clare to defend. As a result he’s been maligned in the opening weeks of the season, just at a time when you want him to settle into a rhythm. Last night he was able to show why he was brought to the club; he’s less of a Joe Skarz or Scott McNiven, more a Damian Batt; an attacking threat.

The only blot in the copybook was the penalty, which was again more about the pantomime of football than the realities. I hate these technical offences; like the offside law aiming to combat goalhanging but becoming a technical offence about putting your toe in the wrong place. The new handball rule is a departure from its original intentions – to stop a player gaining an advantage using their hands. The new interpretation means it’s in the interest of the attacker to direct the ball towards the midriff of the defender in the hope of it ricocheting off the hand.

So, in reality, this was as close to a clean sheet as you can get without actually having one, which is a massive step in the right direction. It was beginning to feel like conceding a couple of goals a game was embedding itself within our DNA.

Like the Martin Gray goal against Stoke, the product of effort over talent; this was the perfect way to win given the predicament we had find ourselves in. A timely reminder that with the application of a bit of graft we can achieve almost anything.

Match wrap: Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0

One of my favourite facts recently is that even after our defeat to Charlton on Tuesday, this season had been our best start in the league under Karl Robinson. This wasn’t an attempt to excuse our form, it was simply a curiosity given our meagre points total and league position.

It’s difficult to say exactly when the hoodoo was broken in 2018 given that there was also an eight-game sequence in October in which we didn’t win. Last year, there was a very clear change of direction in a 3-0 win over Tranmere. That was followed by a draw with Bolton and then a remarkable sequence of thirteen goals in 3 games which was the catalyst to a successful season.

Fleetwood away was never a likely candidate for such a revival and really just served to deepen the disquiet, or is it just apathy? The structural issues remain evident – defensively we’re lacking, we need the kind of steadying influence and leadership provided by people like John Mousinho and Jamie Mackie and the pressure on our potent attacking force – which is surely the answer to our defensive issues – is starting to tell. Against a unit as robust as Fleetwood, it would have taken something very special to turn the tide.

While it’s frustrating to hear Karl Robinson bemoaning his injured players – injuring midfielders is one area he excels at – we do need a bit of luck. The two games we have in hand are both winnable and at home; that would take us into mid-table. The opening sequence of games have included teams currently at the top of the table – Sunderland, Charlton, Fleetwood, Lincoln. I’ve said before that if we’re to harbour aspirations of promotion, these are teams we should be competing with, but I’m also increasingly of the view that survival rather than promotion is the first priority while the world wrestles with the pandemic.

We’re not even likely to survive on current form and we need a Tranmere-type game to jump start the machine. That first opportunity should come on Tuesday with Rochdale offering an opportunity to get a solid win under our belt. More importantly perhaps, we need to break the sequence of conceding two goals a game; even if we do register a MK Dons-style high scoring narrow victory, that defensive frailty will continue to eat away at our confidence. You could see the it ebbing away after just 45 seconds on Saturday when Fleetwood scored. 

But if we do get that boost it won’t be supercharged by the fans as it has been previously. Fans provide advocacy to the players, an encouragement that a system is worth pursuing. Moves rarely turn into goals, passes are frequently misplaced or intercepted – the key to a successful team is that they believe in what they’re doing and are able to pick themselves up and try again. The fans can help overcome those doubts.

Football is evidently a low priority for the government, so it seems unlikely they’ll be rushing to find a way to get fans into grounds even after the latest lockdown is eased. It seems likely to me that we’ll need more than a month to get on top of it, and any easing will be very slow. I don’t see us being back in stadiums before the spring at the earliest when the season is nearly done. So, if the advocacy doesn’t come from the fans, the resolve will need to come from within. 

The club, led by Karl Robinson, has been an exemplar in recognising the issues of mental health which can range from mild stress to chronic depression. But, recognising the issue is only half the story, when faced with a mental challenge, finding resilience to control and overcome it also needs to be part of the equation. 

In a sense, the first lockdown was easy, everyone was doing the same thing, keeping communications open were important for those moments when it all became too much. This second lockdown is likely to be more challenging; for some it will mean a return to the stasis of the spring, for others no change at all, for some professions, like football, a heavily adapted norm. The reason players keep making runs, keep trying passes is because of the lure of the rush of scoring and winning, something which is made more potent by the existence of fans. They need to find a reason to want to do that again, even when the prospect of success seems beyond them.

We are neither scoring nor winning, but we still need to make the passes and the runs, that isn’t going to come from an external source, it has to come from within the squad. Character, I think they call it.  

Match wrap: Charlton Athletic 2 Oxford United 0

The Great British Bake Off is a staple in our house. Tuesdays aren’t Tuesdays without someone eagerly mentioning it’s Tuesday. Ergo, Bake Off. And while it’s still a landmark event of our midweek, I’ve come to realise that while it’s definitely on my TV, it’s been months since I’ve actually watched it.

I know there’s the contestant we’re expected to marvel at because she knows about Victoria Sponges while wearing a hijab. There’s the camp late-middle aged man finding his metier after years of inner torment. There’s the thirty-something alpha male engineer – and what I wouldn’t do to be that dough being pummelled by those hands. Then there’s the one who may be sleeping with Paul Hollywood and the nice young people – one of each sex – who play the viola and read books and make your kids look even more vile than they already are. 

The list goes on. But I can’t remember their names, I can’t remember who left the tent or who was star baker. I remember being incredulous that in Japanese week one of the contestants used Indian spices. But, I can’t remember what they had to make, it was just an omnipresent thing that happened. In our house, this is pretty much how it’s been every week for every year it’s been on.

I was also watching our latest surrender to Charlton on my laptop, but it would be wrong to think that distraction was the reason I missed the details in Bake Off. The game was hardly an absorbing spectacle, despite playing well and dominating for the opening half-an-hour, all the old favourites played out, defensive and goalkeeping frailties, and we fell without much fight.

But, like the Bake-Off, I’ve come to realise although the football is on, I don’t really watch it in this format. Not when it’s stripped back like it has to be now. I’ve never been a great technician, I’ve no idea what a ‘high-press’ is or when ‘the overload is on’ and am even less likely to go looking for it via a live internet feed. Football, to me is about how it makes me feel, and watching on a laptop makes me feel a little underwhelmed.

I’m starting to surprise myself about how little I’m interested in football now the spectacle and physical experience has gone. I’m really only interested in my club, and currently that interest stretches little beyond surviving this period so that I can re-engage with the bits I like sometime in the future. 

As such I realised last night that another defeat doesn’t concern me too much. While avoiding relegation is important, I’m not that interested in promotion in these circumstances. Much like back in July and Wembley, I’d take promotion if it were offered, I wouldn’t weep if it didn’t happen. It would always be tainted; a sanitised version of the real thing. I’m not that bothered that we aren’t competing at that end of the table at the moment, though I recognise that might be different if we were actually winning games.

I suspect I’ll continue to log on and dutifully hand over my £10 for away games, but I’m less engrossed with every passing game. The problem is that I’m not normal, I have a higher than average interest in the club, if I’m losing interest, plenty of others will be in a similar position, if not beyond it already. 

The truth is that the internet is a supplementary connection to the real thing. There’s a generation of fans who might see football as an exclusively passive TV experience, but at our level, the joys of going to a game, living the ups and downs as a great amorphous whole remain as they’ve been for over a century. If you can see your club in real life, then you will. We tolerate the imposition of coronavirus at the moment, but even the most hardy will tire of it eventually; faster if form isn’t good.

This disengagement must be evident in the numbers logging into iFollow, unless they’ve hit upon an internet sensation, it still surprises me how passive the EFL, FA and Premier League are about getting fans back into stadiums. It’s perhaps the only facet of everyday life which hasn’t sought out a new normal. Of course, there’s an expense, but simply waiting for the virus to pass is surely not a sustainable option. Not just because of the short term impact, but the long term damage of an increasingly passive and disinterested audience which will be harder to win back when normal service is resumed.

We seem to be at a point football as a sport is satisfied with its plan; it’s always been a short termist sport, but the erosion of interest through their inaction, risks not only immediate financial hardships, but also pushing the sport to the margins of our consciousness. If this goes on much longer, the season could start to feel particularly isolating for everyone.