Match wrap: Oxford United 4 West Ham United 0

The League Cup is our competition; we’ve beaten some of the biggest clubs in the country in it; Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds, Everton. We’ve even won it, of course; it agrees with us in a way that the FA Cup doesn’t.

But, it’s mutated into a curious beast; a trophy that’s still worth winning but that clubs dismiss with weakened teams. It’s like the EFL Trophy, but where its esoteric rules are applied to each position – the left-back is an Academy player, the right-back a first choice international, the playmaker is someone you vaguely remember from another club and another time. If you’re a lower league team, playing weakened Premier League opponents devalues your achievements, but in the League Cup, are they genuinely weakened? It’s hard to know.

The difference between us and West Ham is best illustrated by our stadiums. Ours, a three-sided concrete mess in the vice-like grip of its cruel landlord. Theirs, a world class facility acquired for a fraction of its value due to the bungled negotiations of Boris Johnson. Their team, weakened or not, was bought for £157 million, ours wasn’t.

Like last season’s game against Manchester City, the match was approached as an enjoyable diversion. The atmosphere was a contented buzz, the crowd bigger than normal, but not, you know, big big.  

After two minutes of unremarkable posturing, there was an audible groan as a combination of passes down the left cut us to pieces. The noise was familiar; from a hum of hopefulness, there was a sudden collective recognition of our inferiority. It suggested a template typical of this kind of tie; we’d play well, we’d be brave, but we’d lose. Or so it seemed.

Then after a few more minutes of harmless jousting, their back-four were pushing the ball between themselves. I looked into our half – there it was, like a murmuration; the perfect form of two banks of four. They couldn’t go round us, they couldn’t go through us, and Premier League lore says you mustn’t go over us.

We were enveloped by a moment absolute clarity; a perfect defensive formation, not the confusing nine-dimensional chess Karl Robinson tries to employ to beat likes of Rochdale or Burton. It was the old Ian Atkins adage of winning the right to play. Our conservatism was aided by our selection; Sam Long will never be a quantum full-back, Elliot Moore likes nothing more than to defend. Passes are straight and short, deliberate and moderate; we weren’t just resisting West Ham, we were throttling the life out of them.

Their £157 million team was supposedly weakened with nine changes from Saturday. But, we made six including Rob Hall fresh from a year out injured and Mark Sykes, who a few weeks ago was being mooted for a League 2 loan deal. And then there was Jamie Mackie, who can count on one hand how many more chances he’ll have for games like this.

Minutes tick by and we look increasingly comfortable, but comfort means nothing; a narrow plucky defeat would be quickly forgotten, even a narrow win would be put down to their complacency, if we want to win, and for it to mean something, we needed to win properly.

Cameron Brannagan finds himself in front of goal but scuffs the ball badly wide. Rob Hall clips the top of the bar from a free-kick. We break their defensive line on a couple of occasions; Forde has a chance which rolls harmlessly wide.

Half-time comes, it’s 0-0 and we’re the better side; but half time is always critical in these games; it’s when the adrenalin drains from the legs, concentration seeps from the mind. You’re suddenly faced at the re-start with leadened limbs and slowed reactions. Like the JPT Final against Barnsley – we were brilliant for 45 minutes, but the break broke us.

Not this time; Elliot Moore spins in a crowded box to slot in the first. It’s a tight turn and the finish is threaded through the only narrow channel available to him. The nimble manoeuvring of his hulking body is reminiscent of the craft of Matt Elliot. 1-0.

Then, Jimenez saves miraculously from Mackie. Sykes passes a ball to the back post finding Matty Taylor for number two. Everyone chases Taylor down to celebrate in front of the fans; Sykes trots across the pitch to join them, but realises he’ll never get there and turns back. To think, he might have been turning out for Mansfield or Cheltenham and here he is drilling a world class cross for 2-0 and nobody’s there to congratulate him.

West Ham are woeful, you can tell from the movement amongst their fans they’re incandescent with rage. The humiliation illustrates the gap between the Premier League players and their fans – for the players this is a distraction from their millionaire lifestyles. To the fans, it’s an afternoon off work, an expensive train journey, a decent chunk out of a weekly wage. Their sacrifice is being rewarded with a performance utterly lacking in imagination and effort.

We, on the other hand, are fully committed. For Jamie Mackie, there will be few nights like this between now and retirement, for Sam Long and Josh Ruffels, this is their calling, for Cameron Brannagan and Shandon Baptiste it’s another step towards greater things. Together, we are all in.

The commitment drives a rare perfection. Every passing play becomes more pure. We’ve won the right to play; it gives Tariqe Fosu a platform to pounce on a mistake to sprint half the length of the pitch, round the keeper and slot home for number three.

And then, as the game drifts into its final moments; the result is beyond doubt; the score illustrates the dominance, the ‘weakened team’ caveat is fully extinguished – this is not just a simple anomaly.

The ball works its way to Shandon Baptiste; the future of Oxford or of football or some other absurd Karl Robinson platitude. Above all, it’s a boy with a talent that has been blighted by a year of injury. He clips the ball over the first defender and drives into the box, feints to go past the second and rolls the ball deftly into the far post for a conclusive fourth.

It’s the bluest sky, the perfect silence, the purest diamond; Baptiste wheels away. It’s unfettered perfection. These are moments of rare fleeting beauty. Eventually a cloud will spoil the perfect sky, a noise will break the perfect silence, but right there and then in that very moment, it’s magical. These gifts, in our hard and unpleasant times, are rare and so fleeting, you owe it to yourself to simply drink it in.

Match wrap: Bristol Rovers 3 Oxford United 1

For all the brouhaha around Matty Taylor’s return to Bristol Rovers with the personal security and amnesty bins, the real issue for Oxford United was probably nearly two hundred miles away.

Curtis Nelson hasn’t started a game at Cardiff City, he’s been sat on the bench waiting his chance. Meanwhile, after an encouraging start, we’re shipping goals like there’s no tomorrow – nine in a week. It’s possible his greatest impact this season is our defensive problems.

Although we can’t really hope to replace Nelson like-for-like, his departure was no surprise. It was nearly a year ago that Karl Robinson took the captaincy off him because of his reluctance to sign a new contract. Even before then, it was difficult to see him; given that it’s the most important contract decision of his career, choosing us over a chance to play in a higher division.

John Mousinho’s age is similarly predictable, age is like that. He was brought in principally as an emergency cover for Nelson when he damaged knee ligaments in 2017 – a leader without doubt – it’s clear he would have physical limitations. Also, let’s not forget that Robinson didn’t really have him in his plans, offering him a coaching role during the summer.

Rob Dickie is at the other end of the spectrum; an excellent prospect and developing well, but with some way to go before becoming the commanding presence of his defensive partner from last year.

In fact, after nearly 18 months in charge, Elliot Moore is the first centre-back Karl Robinson has signed. And that was days before the start of the season. Moore may become the towering defensive unit we’re looking for. He’s certainly got the physicality, but there’s more to being a top class centre-back than being called Elliot and having a Leicester and Oxford connection.

The issue goes further; our first choice full-backs are Josh Ruffels and Chris Cadden. Ruffels is a converted midfielder and, although I haven’t seen much of Cadden, I can see what Radio Oxford match summariser Steve Kinniburgh means when he says he prefers Cadden’s attacking threat to his defensive capabilities. Few will want a return to the days of Hunt and Newey, but something a little more defensively minded – think Ford and Robinson – might give more confidence. Or perhaps the Baldock and Skarz approach of one bombing forward while the other provides cover.

Whereas in midfield we’ve built a bit of a dynasty from Lundstram to Ledson to Brannagan, in defence we seem to have ignored all the signs that we were always likely to run into difficulties. It’s a far cry from 2016 when we released Jake Wright because we had too many central defenders.

Perhaps Karl Robinson has been too eager to please, bringing in exciting talent like Gavin Whyte or Tariqe Fosu, and trying to fulfil the endless bleating about needing a ‘twenty goals a season striker’, while ignoring the more mundane realities of our defensive capabilities.

There’s more to come from Dickie and Moore, but there’s little cover if that goes wrong. Mousinho can’t play every game and it isn’t his best position anyway. I still think we’ll surprise the good teams with our attacking threat and overwhelm the poorer ones. However, beating teams like us, like Bristol Rovers and Burton, are going to need more balance between our attacking threat and defensive ability. Everyone is so similar, the wins will come in the margins.

There’s still a week to go until the transfer window closes but those who are available are likely to be in the mould of Moore or Mousinho – youngsters looking for game-time, or older players who are moving to the margins of their squad. It looks like we’ll have to deal with what we have. It’s time to get organised.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Karlma chameleon

Monday 29 July 2019

Like a religious leader in an inner-city riot, KRob has appealed for calm as the season opener against Sunderland approaches. “It’s a little bit dark right now.” said the man appealing for calm. “We know we need a striker, I don’t need people telling me that. We know we need a centre back and two wingers.” he added rubbing a soothing balm into our collective temples, “People will be shouting when they read this, saying ‘the season starts on Saturday’. We know, we’re not stupid.”

Just like a scented candle flickering by a bubble bath.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

*ching*

We live in an oasis of calm. Ah man, the news that Gavin Whyte has signed for Cardiff is, like, whatever man. The fee described as ‘north of £2m’ is, we assume, one of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s old-fangled imperial measures. Some say Whyte will be out of his depth, but we have video evidence that he can hold his own. 

Just as the sweat dried on Whyte’s number ten shirt, Ben Woodburn signed on a season long loan from Liverpool. The Welsh wunderkind has lost his way a bit at Anfield and so a year at Oxford will act as a form of immersion therapy to propel him out of his stupor. 

Elsewhere, there could be a new opportunity for the Us to go steaming into the Kassam on a matchday if plans to build a station near the stadium go ahead. It’ll be situated on the Science Park, who will no doubt lobby for it to close on a Saturday.

Wednesday 31 July 2019

KRob donned his headphones and hopped in a helicopter as he turned all Anneka Rice attempting to solve a world of riddles and problems in the space of an hour. The boilersuited beauty managed to end the day signing Anthony Forde, formerly of Rotherham, Rob Dickie on a longer term contract before picking up a new contract for himself

Across town The Britannia Inn in Oxford will soon have a blue plaque on the wall recognising it as the site of Oxford United’s founding 125 years ago. The plaque will act as a timely reminder that nothing good ever comes from a pub dream.

Thursday 1 August 2019

Good god, is there nothing KRob won’t ruin? The sludge pit of naysaying has dried up leaving the doomgoblins picking crust from between their toes. Following yesterday’s sickening cavalcade of good news, he’s now signed the millennial Jon Ashton; Elliot Moore from Leicester City. We are rapidly approaching that point where there is literally nothing to complain about.

But what news of Oxford United’s greatest ever Leichensteiner? We hear you ask. Benji Buchel kept a clean sheet as FC Vaduz turned around a 1-0 deficit to beat Hungarian’s Vidi 2-1 in the second leg of their Europa League tie. We have no idea what that means, but we’re pretty sure it’s good. They play Eintracht Frankfurt in the next round.

Friday 2 August 2019

KRob is strutting about like a management accountant whose wife has allowed him a rare foray into the martial bed for a fumble under her nightie. Having scored a couple of times this week, he wants more, two more strikers, in fact. We think we’ve got one of our headaches coming on.

Kemar Roofe has had his chips at Leeds, it seems, and plans to dip them in mayonnaise by signing for those unelected Brussels bureaucrats Anderlecht.

And with that, the summer is done; this is it; the Mark Angel derby awaits, football is back to ruin everything.