Match wrap – Bristol Rovers 4 Oxford United 3 (after extra-time)

I didn’t really follow last night’s defeat to Bristol Rovers closely as I was watching Alex Horne in Wycombe. He was on stage, I wasn’t stalking him through the Sainsbury’s. The early kick-off meant that I could check-in just before he came on stage to see the game was goalless. As the first half closed of the show, I could see it was 1-1 and heading for extra-time. As the lights dimmed for the second-half, the two quick goals from Bodin and Seddon gave me with the assurance I needed that we would ease through while I enjoyed the rest of the performance.

The show closed and I opened my phone to confirm our progress into the second round. I located the result and couldn’t initially compute what I was seeing. As we shuffled out of the theatre, my brain kept trying to transpose the four and three because that’s what it expected to see. It didn’t seem possible that we could throw a 3-1 lead away in extra time.

For some reason, Twitter has started to helpfully deprioritise my Oxford United tweets, perhaps it’s making space for GBNews memes or something. Piecing together exactly what happened was tricky but, inevitably, there was plenty of catastrophising and claims that this was ‘typical Oxford’. 

The benefit of distance does allow for some perspective; extra-time isn’t normal; strange things can happen, though rarely stranger than what happened on Tuesday. We drew the match over 90 minutes, then lost the tie. It’s still not great, but had it been a league game, we’d have gone home with a point.

It also came three days after a dogged point away at Ipswich. There’s been a surprising reaction from Ipswich fans to our performance on Saturday. We are cheats, timewasters and – the ultimate diss at this level – ‘anti-football’. Alternatively, we battled for a point and chose wisely to protect it, rather than recklessly go for all three.

I recently came across the term ‘emotional architecture’, the idea of knowing how something works in reality rather than on paper. An ability to navigate the emotional structures of something; its relationships, strengths and weaknesses. People who have worked somewhere for a long time are particularly adept at it.

Ipswich Town fans are not totally unfamiliar with the third tier but it’s not their natural home. This summer was one of positive change for them and heavy investment in their squad suggested that promotion and the title was within their grasp. But, based on Saturday, they still haven’t come to terms with the emotional architecture of the lower leagues and are struggling because things aren’t how they want them to be. A big part of this is the recognition that every team at this level is, to some extent, flawed and limited.

We are no exception. On Saturday we showed guile and awareness of those limitations which helped manage that situation. Teams who succeed tend to be very good at dealing with what is in front of them. Those that fail are indignant the opponents don’t present themselves as they want to them to be. We have weaknesses which we need to manage if we’re going to accumulate the points we need for the play-offs and beyond. Ipswich didn’t like that and thought we should expose those weaknesses in the name of ‘proper foootball’.

In some sense, what we saw last night was an illustration of those weaknesses. We don’t have endless flexibility to change our system or the depth to provide cover in all areas. We could have managed the situation better – not least by not making three substitutions in the first game which totally destabilised us when leading – but the fact we have limitations should’t come as a surprise. Although most people try to ignore it, our failure to progress in the Papa John’s Trophy was an indication of the unavoidable weaknesses within the squad.

Is it something to complain about or part of the emotional architecture of this level of football? A reality we have to deal with best we can? I think it’s one of those things; you build your strength up best you can, accept your vulnerabilities and hope they don’t get found out too often. In a sense, that’s what the lower leagues are all about.

In a sense, the defeat might be a godsend. Back in 2016 we made progress in all competitions and by January were playing a blancmange of JPT, FA Cup and league games. By March, we were falling apart and hanging on with injuries to Joe Skarz, Ryan Taylor and Kemar Roofe, amongst others. We still had enough quality and hauled ourselves over the line for the ultimate goal of promotion, but I’m not convinced we could achieve that in League 1 if we also had to manage a good cup run. As difficult as last night proved to be, I’ll take it if it gives us a better chance of the play-offs or promotion.

Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Bristol Rovers 2

One of my favourite films is the 1983, ahem, ‘masterpiece’ War Games. In it, a teenage computer nerd (Matthew Broderick) hacks into a government computer thinking he’s accessing the latest computer games. The ‘game’ he plays turns out to be a simulation of global thermonuclear war which teaches a government supercomputer how to respond to a Russian nuclear attack.

Inadvertently, the game creates the perception that the US is under attack in real life putting the US military on red alert. As the prospect of World War 3 edges ever closer, the computer tries to calculate a strategy to counteract the imminent apocalyptic threat. With every scenario broadly advocating blowing everyone to kingdom come, to teach the computer about the futility of war, the nerd gets the computer to play an infinite number of unwinnable game of noughts and crosses.

I’m beginning to see a parallel here with the complex programming of our current squad. There’s a gaping weakness which everyone can see and nobody can fix. Matty Taylor’s opening goal against Bristol Rovers was the fifteenth time in nineteen games that we’ve taken the lead this season, the tenth time in the opening half-an-hour. Sam Finley’s response before half-time was the sixth time the second goal was an equaliser. As has been the common pattern this year, a strong start was followed by a period of collective narcolepsy, something we seem unable to combat.

It isn’t a terminal flaw; generally speaking we’ve been very good this season and are in a strong position. It’s a simple reminder that, at this level, as much as we want to believe our team is an all-conquering machine, the reality is that nobody playing at this level is close to being perfect. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this before any streak of arrogance skittles us.

Around the hour, we burst back into life, chances flowed, everything clicked, Marcus McGuane showed why teams like the biggest teams have taken him on in the past. The move that led to his goal was flawless in its execution. Then we were rampant, Matty Taylor hit the post and bar within a minute, at one point we broke clear with Williams, Sykes and Whyte marauding forward with menace before Cameron Brannagan nearly Peter Levened it into the top right-hand corner. The game became a full-throttle and very entertaining FA Cup tie. Then Brannagan tried from range again, then again. Each attempt was less effective and analogy to our whole performance. The purple patch began to pass, the little imperfections crept back in.

Everything that previously attracted McGuane to Barcelona, Taylor to Bristol City, Whyte to Cardiff and Williams to Fulham overwhelmed Rovers for a while but critically, the third goal didn’t come.

As the winded Rovers gulped in mouthfuls air trying to catch its breath from the onslaught, from the bench appeared Boden, Forde and Agyei to replace Whyte, Taylor and Sykes. Any triple substitution is a big statement, was Karl Robinson trying to get under the skin at the odious Joey Barton? Playing to the crowd by giving Matty Taylor his standing ovation? Or cocking a snook at what he oddly described last week as our ‘second derby’? Whatever it was, he seemed to overlook that the game wasn’t yet definitively won.

The grand gesture destabilised the team, momentum shifted from putting Rovers to the sword to focus on re-constituting the team mid-flow. All the while there was the prospect of someone making a silly mistake or Rovers pulling off something unlikely. The margin of error was too narrow for us to be showboating.

Karl Robinson focussed on Hanson after the game, but he was just the fall guy – when you make that many changes that quickly, the likelihood is that something will malfunction. It just happened to be Hanson at the centre of the penalty award, but it could have been anyone in that position. Had the changes been introduced more gradually, it would have been easier for the team to adjust and the more catastrophic mistakes would have been less likely.

Like every team at this level, we have inevitable and unavoidable weaknesses baked into who we are. It’s fine, and nothing to worry about, but we need to stay focussed and manage that risk. From the jaws of victory we seemed to forget who we are, and for that we paid the price.

Oxblogger TV – Episode 5 – Oxford United v Swindon Town 2002 – One in a row

In this episode, we’re heading back to 2002 and a second round of the FA Cup against Swindon Town. Ian Atkins was at the control and the club were in the grip of his footballing revolution. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s probably a ball launched long by Matt Bound for Steve Basham and Jefferson Louis to chase.

Also available in podcast via Spotify, Google, Amazon and Apple.

Oxblogger TV – Episode 4 – Oxford v Chelsea 1999 FA Cup – Bambi on Ice

With the club broke and on its knees, and with food parcels being delivered to the club, Oxford were handed a lifeline when they were drawn against Chelsea in the FA Cup 4th Round. It turned into a night of intense drama, the highest highs and the lowest lows. The last great night at the ramshackle Manor ground.

For those who can’t bare to watch, you can listen to this on Apple, Google, Spotify and Amazon or via your favourite podcast feed.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 2

I would have loved yesterday’s game, the FA Cup is Boba Fett’s backstory in the battle for the empire; a short sidebar story in the season’s great odyssey. The curios of football’s backwaters going toe-to-toe with more established names. It’s a rare moment of character in an often sanitised and rational world. 

But, yesterday was more than that, the setting was perfect; the sun shone brightly and the sky was blue, but there was a reassuring chill in the air. The weather is a big part of the season – the unbecoming warmth of the early weeks, going to evening games in short sleeves, gives way to a more familiar cooler temperature.

Once the clocks go back, the real business begins; the temperature drops, the big coat comes out. The occasionals who’ve been tempted to a game by the warm weather disappear. The real fans revel in the gloom as games finish in a half-light and then darkness. We are people of the gloaming, we live in the shadows. We revel while others hunker down seeking light and warmth.

Walking to a game, you might go to a shop for match supplies, you queue with people gathering treats for an afternoon in front of the TV. We buy the same things, but we know we’re bounty hunting, seeking out another three points to bring home.

I love that people don’t understand why we do this, why we sit for two hours on an uncomfortable plastic seat in the cold. Weekends are precious and there are so many better options out there. I love the fact it’s too complicated to explain.

The autumn gives way to Christmas and we’re re-joined by the occasionals; family members and extended hangers on returning home for the festive period. It’s nice to see them and the dark and cold is pushed back by the light and warmth of that communion. Christmas offers a brief celebration before the New Year comes and then we’re truly into the depth of winter and the grit of the season. Games are postponed, cup competitions disrupt the rhythm, injuries mount up, it’s a chaotic, ramshackle reckoning. The weather is grim; gloves, hats, coats, layers and layers and layers. 

When the players come out there’s not the same crispness of applause, more a whumping sound of gloved clapping. The most dedicated battle their way up and down motorways, we meet in service stations; not just our own fans, but that wider national network of people like us. There’s a sense of mutual respect as we queue for a coffee or a lunchtime KFC. At the game we endure a deepening discomfort as the cold grips the fibre of our bones. Respite only comes afterwards, when you’re back in the car; the heating finally kicks in and the radio picks through the bones of the day’s events. Your fingers thaw, you can feel your toes, your humanity returns. 

And then, as the games tick by, the sun appears again, order is restored, for most, their fate in the cups is decided and there’s a league position to secure. The maths simplifies, as you edge towards that pivotal game, the six-pointer that’ll decide, finally, whether the season will end in promotion, the play-offs, relegation or nothingness. As we get to May, the warmth returns and the tension is released. At least usually. The giants of the game resolve their differences in the FA Cup, Champions League and so forth. And that’s it, we go into a reverse hibernation, away from the sun and warmth, pleading for the new season and cold to return.

Except, not this season, of course, we aren’t getting to sense the seasonal shifts, the big coat doesn’t get its ceremonial debut, the temperature stays artificially constant. I was not the slightest bit concerned about yesterday’s game. It was unfortunate that we’d drawn the best team in the competition who we’re very familiar with anyway, but it feels like we’re trying to get this season out of the way as quickly as possible. Like clicking continue on a game of Football Manager without changing anything because you’ve lost enthusiasm for your team.

The usual defensive frailties aside, we seemed to play OK, but this must be what it’s like watching training; good movement, passing, plenty of effort, but the goals at either end are of little consequence. I’m quite glad we’re out; it just allows us to get on with picking our way through the league season without distractions or even the disappointment of a big name draw that we can’t go to.

Looking at the optics, the prospect of getting to a game this season feels pretty low. It’s hard to see cases dropping to a level where the government will confidently allow fans back in before the spring. The current lockdown seems principally to allow some kind of normal Christmas to happen, but surely caution will remain through January and February at least. 

Maybe by the spring we might edge towards something, part test event, part PR stunt, if cases are falling or the prospect of a vaccine becomes a reality maybe there will be a will to return. But, by that point, the season will be mostly spent. The warm weather at the end of season usually feels like a reward for our perseverance through the harsh winter months and the elation and despair, the wasted energy of an away defeat or the rare reward of a 96th minute winner. That moment where you want to tell your non-supporting friends and colleagues you were there, but they’re not interested, so it just lives inside you to be re-run in your head when things feel bleak.

The league, of course, will determine where we start next season when, maybe, things are closer to normal. The priority has to be not to be any lower than we were when this whole thing started. As dislocating as this season has been, we can’t lose sight of that necessity. The cups, on the other hand, with all their self-contained beauty are an irrelevance or a painful reminder of what we’ve lost. I’m kind of happy it’s already over.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Swind-off, Charlt-on

Saturday 24 October 2020

Saturday’s postponed derby against Swindon has created a serious backlog of fixtures. The compressed season means that games are backing up, so we’re unlikely to see the derby rearranged until Christmas when no games are ever played. Christmas Day is looking fairly blank for most people this year, so let’s Rocky IV this sucker and sort this cold war out once and for all. QUEUE: TRAINING MONTAGE.

Sunday 25 October 2020

Swindon boss Richie Wellens has named Toby Holland along with coaches Tommy Wright, Noel Hunt and Steve Mildenhall as those who tested positive last week. The club’s physio is also self-isolating because, according to Wellens’ bamboozling medical jargon ‘he looked really bad’. If you’ve been unable to attend your loved one’s funeral or lost your job, you really need to get your priorities right: “The goalkeeper needs someone to warm him up.” wailed Wellens by way of explanation. 

Monday 26 October 2020

It was the draw for the first round of the FA Cup on Monday with Grant Holt caressing his balls live on TV in front of Lindsey Hipgrave. A bit like a low rent version of that Peter Crouch thing that they had on in the summer. In these troubled times, the FA Cup offers a reminder of happier times of old. The smell of stale cigars, the stench of cheap aftershave, the whiff of vaguely criminal activity; yes, our home tie against Barry Fry’s Peterborough will come as a soothing balm on our furrowed brow.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Charlton had the good grace to turn up to face KRob’s plucky part-timers on, well, Loseday? Twosday? You pick. Despite a spirited opening, Oxford gifted two goals before half-time so everyone could switch off and catch the end of Bake Off. Following the 2-0 defeat, Oxford now have less clean sheets than Trainspotting’s Spud after a big night on the skag. 

Wednesday 28 October 2020

There are lots of reasons to be positive when you’re from Swindon. It’s not that far from Oxford and there’s always the knowledge that death will come to us all eventually. Swindon supporters club chairman and amateur virologist, Peter Norris has been looking on the bright side of his team’s failure to fulfil the derby fixture on Saturday. “If there’s one positive we can take from this though, it’s that – depending on when the game is rearranged for, hopefully the new year – fans may be able to go.” He didn’t elaborate on which new year.

Elsewhere, The Sheffield Star has revealed why John Lundstram is set to leave Sheffield United in January. The man whose fantasy football defensive credentials were so over-inflated last season KRob couldn’t actually see him has pushed cosmopolitan sophisticat Čhrįßtøphë Wïlłdē’s patience a little too far.

Thursday 29 October 2020

It was the Six Minute Nine Second Fans’ Forum on Radio Oxford with KRob on Thursday. Talk quickly turned to the man who’s been overdoing the hand sanitizer this year, Sensible Simon Eastwood. Is it possible the glovesman might be dropped? Asked one fan, ‘Everyone can be dropped’ said KRob with ice flowing through his veins. No one drops ‘em like KRob, apart from Sensible Simon, of course. 

Meanwhile the Dundalk Donkey Pat Hoban watched on as his team went down 3-0 to Arsenal in the Europa League.

Friday 30 October 2020

It’s a Halloween spooktacular tomorrow as Oxford face Fleetwood for a trick and a treat. Joey Barton has been talking about the game; ‘There’s no doubt about it, Oxford are a top ten side.’ he said about the team currently 23rd. GLS once went to a Halloween party as Joey Barton; we used to trick people into thinking we’re a reasonable human being by wearing glasses and talking about books, and then treat them to a choke hold to the throat and a punch in the face.