When we played Arsenal in 2003 at Highbury, apart from the barracking of Francis Jeffers, there is one moment I distinctly remember.
David Seaman had the ball in front of the mass ranks of Oxford fans. He rolled it out to Robert Pires standing in the right back position who passed it on. Arsenal efficiently worked the ball in two or three passes past our strikers, through our midfield and out to the left hand edge of our box where the ball was picked up by none other than Robert Pires. In a few seconds, he’d gone from one corner of the pitch to the diagonal opposite while our team stood rigidly in position.
It struck me that the great players are not just technically gifted, they work supremely hard for their right to play.
On Saturday, we seemed competent enough at League 1 but we lacked a certain bite that Peterborough showed. Overall, things were pretty even, but there were times where we were overrun by their movement up front and we were obviously frustrated by their willingness to fall to the floor at the slightest contact. In simple terms, they were willing to take risks and responsibility.
By contrast it was as if we were waiting for permission to get into the game, but permission never came and it probably never will. Like Pires taking responsibility to find space, we needed to take responsibility to win the game.
We came out in the second half with more aggression and snap, for which we were instantly rewarded. The change of attitude was typified by John Lundstram, who can be a bit of a slow starter at the best of times. He looked a yard behind the game in the first half, but in the second half he battled for the ball and earned the right to get his passing game going, when he did that he had real impact.
You can see parts of the team are starting to settle to League 1 and a plan and strategy is starting to emerge. Edwards looks comfortable at this level as well as Thomas, Hemmings needs to be a bit braver, and some of last year’s squad need to recognise that they do belong. The youngsters on the bench are there to stretch the game late on with pace and trickery. It won’t come together instantly, but something is there.
Chris Maguire looks most comfortable. He isn’t fazed by the level he’s playing at. Everything about his winner typified what it takes to succeed at this level. He was brave enough to attack the space behind Ryan Taylor to get onto his flick on, he had the awareness to put himself in front of the defender to draw the foul, he showed the calm and technique to put the penalty away, and he showed the arrogance to goad the goalkeeper who tried to put him off.
The celebration was two parts cynical gamesmanship, three parts improvised genius, it’s probably the formula to greater success this year.
Oxford United 1 Chesterfield 1
If this makes any sense, I remember our first game of the last season we had in League 1. The last season at The Manor, Denis Smith had a close season to forget; his attempts at re-signing many of the previous year’s crocks had failed and so, in their place, he signed an even bigger pile of crud. Things weren’t looking good.
In a season which would see finish bottom, concede 100 goals and, of course, get relegated, we opened against Peterborough at home. We dutifully applauding so many new signings that my hands hurt when we finished, though I barely knew any of them.
Though the mood and quality is somewhat different this time around, we have similarly replaced a whole team this summer. The consensus in the car was that Michael Appleton had a good summer with each new signing offering something new and exciting to the squad. The big question that hadn’t been answered in pre-season was whether he could make them gel.
Appleton kept most of his new toys hidden as Saturday’s selection smelt of, if not stability, then experience. It reminded me of our first home game back after the Conference against Bury. We’d expected to storm the division, but we got caught out by a team with more sophistication than we’d anticipated. We didn’t want the same thing to happen here and the focus on experience seemed to suggest that was at the forefront of Appleton’s mind too.
We looked solid enough, Wes Thomas is a kind of Danny Hylton character; he doesn’t make sense context of the squad in general, but looks reliable. Ribiero’s injury was a blow, but Sam Long seems to have had a growth spurt and looked completely settled in his place. The loss of Dunkley was a worry, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll be out for long.
Difficult to know whether we looked at home in League 1. Chesterfield were certainly better than most of League 2, and Swindon from last year, but not a patch on Millwall or Barnsley. With Ched Evans’ signing causing consternation and a laughable crisis involving a fake raffle to deal with, they presumably, like us, will look on mid-table security as success. If they are the benchmark for mid-table, then we should be fine and maybe should hope for more from the season.
Nobody is really expecting promotion, though it would be nice, so ticking off the points rather than storming the division is perfectly acceptable. With three away games coming up, a point is OK. Nobody wants to get to September with people pining anxiously for Hylton, Roofe, Wright, Mullins and O’Dowda.
Birmingham City 0 Oxford United 1
So, for the third year running, we delivered a League Cup giantkilling barely worth of its name. Nobody really knows what Birmingham City are; Premier League pretenders? Relegation certainties? Neither? Can we truly benchmark the result in terms of its achievement? Can we really call this a giantkilling?
City made nine changes from their opening game against Cardiff, such is the sniffiness of Championship managers towards the League Cup. They will talk about the league being a priority as if that sort of pragmatism is supposed to impress us. There are typically three trophies to play for per season (League, FA Cup and League Cup) and on average each team will win a significantly less than one of them. For most teams a couple of memorable wins is what leaves a season in the memory and the cups should offer those moments. But, the idea of glory being is lost on most managers who choose to effectively ignored the cup in order to concentrate on standing still.
I like the Appleton mentality that every game is there to be won, it plays to both the romantic notion of a football team wanting to win every game they play, but, more importantly, it creates a template in which the team learns how to win games. There are precious few players, if any, who can decide when to perform and when not so developing a habit of winning has to be an advantage. Whatever the benefits of resting players are they have to be balanced against the lost opportunity to practice winning games.
Honorable mention has to go to Liam Sercombe. The departure of Jake Wright in the summer brought an era at the club to a close. It wasn’t immediately obvious who might take the captain’s armband when the likes of Sam Long and Josh Ruffels are the longest serving members of the squad. Sercombe must have been in the running for the job.
It’s not so much that he leads by example; he just does what comes naturally with seemingly endless energy. If he’s like that at home, it must drive his fiancé mad, but it must also be completely infectious for young players at the club. If they plan to model themselves on anyone, it’s not the superstar pretentions of the Premier League, it’s the boundless enthusiasm of Liam Sercombe where they should look.
Sercombe has been in the middle of everything that’s been good about the club over year or so, his goal against Birmingham was another chapter in a stellar Oxford career.
Bristol Rovers 2 Oxford United 1
… And just as Sam Long and Liam Sercombe emerge as heroes of the first week, they conspire to make a significant contribution to our first defeat of the season. Brilliant.
The response has been, as you might expect, completely binary. From the innate confidence of promotion to the abject failure of defeat. We are in trouble, or perhaps not.
Frankly, who knows at this stage? I don’t, and nor do you.
Rovers are a bit of a benchmark for us, we’ve always competed at roughly the same level, so a defeat probably feels like we’re falling below a perceived watermark. However, they held onto their core squad and star striker, and we didn’t. So they’ve started the season a bit more established, whereas we’re likely to evolve into it.
Talking of strikers, the good news is that Kane Hemmings got off the mark, which is important despite the result. The figures may be moderate in wider footballing terms, but transfer fees are an unequivocal measure of perceived quality. Goals are an unequivocal measure of the return on that investment. As a striker that brings a pressure that other players won’t feel. If the goals don’t come, then everyone gets restless and the pressure builds. Dealing with that pressure takes a special mindset.
If the goals do come then the pressure goes away. A few more goals in the coming weeks and another jigsaw puzzle will be slotting into place.
It’s been an OK week, and not one that should have been wholly unexpected. One win, one draw, one defeat; fairly predictable. It could have been any order. We were always likely to start more slowly than last year and it was always likely to be a bit harder. This is no time to jump to any conclusions.
Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0
Some people seem to suggest that our defeat to Fleetwood is a sign of impending crisis. That’s two defeats in a row, meaning we’ve taken only a point from three games, time to panic.
But, in every sense, it is too early to tell whether this is how our season will pan out. It is only our third league game, we’ve only had one game at home, and, lest we forget, we are playing in a higher league. This seems to be one of our problems; we’re ‘only’ playing Fleetwood, a team that we ‘should’ be beating. But we forget that while they don’t have any heritage at this level, the team is there on merit and by definition they, like everyone else in the division, are going to be harder to defeat than the teams we faced last year.
When will we know our direction of travel? Looking at the fixtures, I don’t think we’ll have a clear picture until October at the earliest. The early season is fraught with difficulties, MK Dons, Sheffield United and Bolton away, Swindon at home. Things look more settled into October, but it’s not until January that we start to play batches of teams more like us. We might need to be patient, while the team find their feet.
Perspective and cool heads are needed right now, as Michael Appleton says, it’s time to focus on the basics. That said, with Brighton next Tuesday and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United away the following Saturday, a nerve settling result over Peterborough will do everyone the power of good this weekend.