Milton Keynes wrap – MK Dons 0 Oxford United 0

This week I saw a photo of the 1980/81 squad. Although my first ever Oxford game was five years earlier, the 1980 squad is the first I consciously remember. In the picture were Malcolm Shotton, Gary Briggs, Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas who in six short years would be part of our greatest ever triumph.
It was a reminder that our success wasn’t just about Robert Maxwell’s money or Jim Smith’s genius. Among those unassuming legends-in-waiting were also some of my early heroes; Roy Burton, whose shorts fell down when he took a goal kick, John Doyle, who enthralled me with his ability to reach the half way line his clearances and Joe Cooke, who I remember being impressed by because he was black. I was very young at the time.
On Saturday we headed for MK Dons, a club who are younger than Facebook and who didn’t exist when we last lost to Swindon. Oxford fans, like many fans, sneered at the Stadium MK experience. But this was really just retro-fitting their experience to match their pre-conceived prejudices.
In fact, the stewards were friendly, the traffic was well managed, the stadium facilities are top class; it is a very nice place to watch football. One person said that it was a great stadium, but not for football. So what was it great for? Powerboating? It might be a templated modern stadium bowl, but people who think football should only be played in a Victorian goliath are the same people who think our modern rail system should be steam powered.
I don’t like MK Dons’ history any more than anyone else, no club should be able to buy its way into the Football League. But they are not the only football club to be born out of controversy. Take Liverpool; they were formed by the owner of Anfield after he evicted Everton from his ground and set up his own club, also called Everton (later renamed Liverpool). Nobody thinks of Liverpool as the ‘real’ Everton in the way that people think that Wimbledon are the rightful owners of MK Dons’ place in the league. The MK Dons controversy just happened in a time when people were particularly focussed on protecting the game’s perceived heritage.
Blinded by the moral issues, people conveniently ignore that when Peter Winkelman took over the club, Wimbledon were £30m in debt, falling to the bottom of the league and without a stadium of their own. Merton council were disinterested in helping save their local club as it plummeted into the abyss. Their fanbase weren’t that much more interested. Relocating to somewhere with better market conditions was a logical, if uncomfortable, option.
The Dons will always carry a stigma, there was a time when people wouldn’t even enter the ground, and even now When Saturday Comes magazine will not talk about them, but in the main they are a pantomime villain rather than a moral travesty.
But, it is difficult to imagine how they will realise whatever vision they have for their future. When they’re winning games and playing big teams, I imagine that going regularly to the stadium is an enjoyable experience for locals. But do the roots go deeply enough into the city to keep the club going when times are tough?
It seems not, you don’t get much sense that Dons fans are urging their team to glory given how few were in the stadium on Saturday. The official attendance was over 12,000, but that would mean the stadium was nearly half full, which seems very generous. You get no sense of a rich history binding the club together, a sense of purpose, a real desire to survive and thrive. Probably because there is no rich history to protect.
Karl Robinson’s approach to football is as one dimensional as his club. It reminded me of a good second division side. He maintained a rigid shape which gave little away and tried to knock the ball beyond our back-four for Agard to chase, a tactic that never really worked, but which he religiously stuck to none-the-less.
Of course, we know George Baldock, and it was telling just how shackled he is in Robinson’s system. Maybe he was simply pinned back by Marvin Johnson, but there were opportunities for him to bomb forward like he did for us last season, but instead he skulked around on the halfway line while another attack broke down.
We went through periods of not being much better, and looked dead on our feet in the closing minutes. But, by-and-large, I thought we’re looking increasingly comfortable at this level and we can start feeling optimistic about the season.

Karl Robinson laughably claimed his team were the better side, ignoring that his goalkeeper had won man of the match and only one of the four or five action replays shown on the big video screens featured a Dons attack. But then, this is the Karl Robinson who reneged on a season-long loan deal for Baldock before being apparently aghast when Rob Hall walked out on the club to sign for us. He’s a funny chap, just like his club.      

Swindon wrap – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0

The derby football can’t be arsed with. Oxford and Swindon have now played six times since 2011, all to near full houses, all good games, all with meaning, incident, narrative and purpose. Yet TV; so desperate to saturate schedules with live football, barely gives it a nod of attention. Even the police couldn’t be bothered to move the fixture this year presumably for fear of disrupting early morning showings of Sausage Party at Vue or the Kassam’s car boot sale on Sunday.
Apparently, this week perma-tanned transfer junky and Sky Sport ‘babe’ worrier Jim White said the game wasn’t a derby. White is so obsessively on-message at Sky, when BT launched its sports channels he fronted a spoiling telethon that visited every ground in the country to eulogise Sky’s imperious ability to undertake acts of grandiose buffoonery. White treated it like he was avenging the public flaying of Rupert Murdoch’s carcass. It’s fair to say that if White doesn’t think this is a derby, then he’s pretty much quoting Sky’s editorial policy.
Admittedly, there was something more underwhelming about the build-up this year even though it was still only the second home league fixture between the clubs in 15 years. The joy of the classic double-header in 2011/12 was perhaps deadened slightly by two no-less thrilling but distinctly less glamorous JPT games. Like having unforgettably acrobatic mind-blowing sex followed by two sessions of perfunctory rutting. The mess was the same, in the moment it was just as fun, but the memories were less vivid.
There was something particularly perfect about the 2011/12 derbies, a tinder box of contempt which had grown over a decade exploding into life. The evil Italian fascist against the doughty Englishman. A racist chicken arrabiata against a Yorkshire pudding. And, against all odds, good won out.
But, with Brexit, Donald Trump and the success of Mrs Brown’s Boys, the world is now a more confusing place. We have a professorial coach whose mean scowl and tattooed tree-trunk arms make him look like he’s been released from a state penitentiary. I mean, this is what intelligent, functioning adults look like nowadays but it still challenges the stereotypes we draw comfort from.
Swindon are historically schizophrenic, ludicrous highs followed by preposterous lows, but the 2016 vintage seems to be almost neither. I had to look up who their manager was such is the depth they’ve slipped to since the glamour and attention gained by DiCanio’s capture. It appears Luke Williams’ greatest triumph in football was developing Yaser Kasim and Raphael Rossi Branco. Me neither, but if you ever need a name for a character in a game of Grand Theft Auto, then any combination of Yaser, Kasim, Raphael, Rossi and Branco will work.
Unlike recent encounters, the day broke with rain sleeting down. A planned display, painstakingly laid out by dedicated Oxford ultras had been vandalised by people using the act as a proxy for having a girlfriend or being happy. But, despite the setbacks, there was a calmness; the rain would come; the display would be fixed, the game would be played.
And the display was fixed; last year’s giant flag was a truly breathtaking spectacle, this was at least on a par. I’ve said several times that I want Oxford players to be able to look back on their time at the club as the best of their career. As the players came out, I saw Wes Thomas, a journeyman of the lower leagues looking up at the sea of flags. Is it possible that he’s seen anything like it? Is there a club the size of Oxford, or some considerable size larger, that can put on such a fan-driven display in the UK? The Swindon fans threw a few streamers and looked defeated by comparison.
For the first time this season we started with purpose, Lundstram snapped away in a midfield Swindon tried to flood. Rothwell looked more focussed and Sercombe is getting the freedom he needs to do what he does. This three-tiered midfield worked like a dream. By comparison the Swindon midfield wilted almost immediately.
Ultimately though, this was Chris Maguire’s show; he has the arrogance and ability to make this sort of game his own. There were times when it looked like the whole game had been scripted just to showcase his ability; enraging the Swindon fans, taunting their players with his passing and then scoring the goals that made the difference.
Yes, the penalty looked soft and there were some questionable decisions which went our way. MacDonald probably should have been sent off for his unnecessary challenge on Vigouroux. But, what got lost in the noise is that this was our best performance of the season and the first time things really clicked into place.  

Maguire’s second goal was no fluke; the pitch was wet and slippery and a well-timed challenge was always going to offer a chance. OK, Vigouroux with a bit of composure might have chosen to drag the ball back allowing Maguire to slide past harmlessly rather than attempting to launch it under pressure, but if Maguire’s connection had been a goal-saving block at the other end of the pitch, it would have been viewed a moment of true class.  Just because this was a goal scored, rather than a goal saved, doesn’t make it any less good.
And it was typical of Maguire, a demonstration of his class mixed with his ability to humiliate and demoralise the opposition. As we go higher up the league, this kind of savvy will be increasingly important.
Swindon by comparison look dead behind the eyes, not the vibrant seething beast of the Di Canio years, just a stagnating pool of ooze. They weren’t as bad as last year, but not far off. In the past, wins have felt like we were defeating a looming evil, but now it feels like defeating the common cold – once lethal, now moribund and benign.
Maybe they don’t feel the sense of occasion like we do, but if your opponents have a little extra purpose, you’ve got to find something to match it whatever the game. This isn’t us overstating the importance of the game, it’s just us enjoying the occasions that get presented to us in a way they clearly don’t. When they give up on games like this, you wonder how far their standards might drop.

By comparison, this was another calm execution of a well-planned process, dismantling their midfield and disrupting any game plan they might have had. 2012 may have been a high-energy rush of adrenalin, this was a demonstration of calm domination. For those of us who have watched these games for decades it feels odd to be in that position, but it’s no less satisfying because of it.  

Rochdale wrap – Oxford United 1 Rochdale 0

All living things are basically commonly found elements organised in an unfathomably complicated way. If you were to try to create something living in a laboratory from its core elements the closest you might get to creating something that actually lives is a smelly sludge. Scientists know much more than you, but compared to the totality of knowledge, they don’t know very much.
Following a successful transfer window in which the promotion squad from last year was radically re-modelled, it feels like we have the core elements we need to be a pretty decent League 1 side, but it doesn’t yet feel like it has wholly combined to create the living, breathing side Michael Appleton envisages.
Kemar Roofe’s return as guest of honour at half-time against Rochdale was a telling reminder of what might be missing. The first 45 minutes seemed typical of all our home games this season; we matched our opponents but they looked more threatening.
The difference was pace, our lack of it concentrated the midfield meaning that balls went astray because there was no time to pick a pass and when there was, it had to be absolutely perfect to weave its way through crowds of players. What Rochdale did, and we didn’t do, was break with speed at a moment’s notice. This ability to shift gears is the most significant difference between League 2 and 1 so far.
Marvin Johnson might just be the key component, the DNA, we need to bring the everything together and fire us into life. He has pace, which is essential, although he really only showed it in the last minutes, but his presence was, in some ways, more important.
The by-product is that opposing defenders sit just slightly deeper to try and cope with his threat. That gives a fraction more space in midfield which should help Lundstram’s passing, allow Sercombe to run from deep and give the likes of Rothwell, as well as Roberts and Crowley, the space to move the ball. Rothwell was keen to make an impact, but he had to attack from deep in the first half and just ended up in traffic, second half he had space to dribble into putting Rochdale more not the back foot.
The new rules around loans mean that there is much more pressure on teams to get themselves together in the summer transfer window – there’s no more tweaking now until January. So all the components are now in place, time to bring them to life. We can ease into that over the next few weeks. Who’s next?


Sheffield United wrap – Sheffield United 2 Oxford United 1

In a bike race like the Tour de France there are basically three types of stages – flat, mountain and time trial. To win the overall yellow jersey, you need to be good at climbing mountains and time trialling, but to win stages, you have to be good at sprinting on flat stages.
Sprinters will never win the overall Tour de France. Mark Cavendish, for example, has won 30 Tour de France stages knowing that he’ll never win the overall race. Sprinters will win stages looking like they own the world and then climb mountains like they’ve never ridden a bike. It all comes down to physiology; how you’re built – sprinters are muscular and bulky, climbers are thin and willowy. There is almost nothing you can do about it.
On tough mountain stages, sprinters and their domestiques will ignore the main race and establish a ‘gruppetto’, a group which will climb the mountains at their own pace. It makes it slightly easier and reduces the risk of disqualification for being too slow.
Those who expected us to storm League 1 will be disappointed by our start to the season. Those who look at the relative finances of the teams in League 1 are probably less surprised. The division is still establishing its relative physiologies; those who will push for promotion and those who will fight relegation.
Already there seems to be a split – Bolton to MK Dons (in 12th), and Oldham (13th) to Wimbledon. Big teams and smaller teams. Things will change, of course, but the bottom gruppetto contains all four teams that came up last year, plus a number which we have played in recent years, the top half features a lot of teams who have been in the Championship in recent times.
The defeat to Sheffield United was a kick in the teeth but despite the Blades’ bad start to the season, they are still a much larger club than us and, though many Oxford United fans will not admit it, they have a manager who has spent his entire career improving teams year-on-year. It may be dour and graceless, but it is an irrefutable fact. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them comfortably in the top half at the end of the season.

It is similarly irrefutable that we don’t have a steady back-four and that it the root of our current closer. Hopefully Curtis Nelson is getting closer to a return, which will bring us back to more of a steady state. Once that happens, then we can get back to the job at hand which starts with competing, at least within our sub-group, and only then, maybe, beyond. But for now, we need to accept our physiology, not beat ourselves up too much and try to win the right battles.

Peterborough wrap – Oxford United 2 Peterborough United 1

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.

Weekly wrap – Chesterfield, Birmingham City, Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town

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.