Match wrap: Oxford United 4 Hartlepool United 1

I tend to park in a little side road about 10 minutes from the ground. Apart from the busiest games, there’s always space. Not many people know about it and there’s a small group of us who do know how to make the most out of the space available.

I was looking forward to getting back to normal after three 10,000+ attendances. I left the house at my usual time and arrived at my usual spot. Someone had parked on the wrong side of the road creating a chicane, limiting the space available. There wasn’t space for me, so I had to park in my ‘big-game’ spot instead.

The ticketing strategy for the FA Cup win over Hartlepool undoubtedly worked, but it did create a lot of irregular behaviour. There seemed to be a lot of newbies; kids in brand new merchandise, queues outside the South Stand, which is unheard of. It was a real success.

I happened to be sitting in my regular seat thanks to Brinyhoof, but nobody else was. The unallocated seats seemed to change the dynamic of the crowd, making it a much more passive, expectant experience. At times it felt like we’d turned up to watch a training session or friendly. People were here to be entertained.

The pre-match gathering to recognise mental health and/or John Shuker and/or everyone who died last year was confusing. They were all important things to mark, but all at the same time made the atmosphere even stranger. Thankfully, nothing touched the farce of the Armistice ceremony at Portsmouth. But then, nothing could.

On the pitch, we stroked the ball around reassuringly, Karl Robinson, usually a hyperactive lunatic on the touchline, spent much of the first half rolling his eyes in a professorial way at the incompetence around him. Nobody seemed that bothered about turning it into a competitive, must-win game.

Then, in a moment reminiscent of San Marino’s goal against England in 1993, Rob Dickie scuffed a back pass and they darted in to score. It created an even more peculiar atmosphere; there was an expectation in the stands that this would be put right, like taking back an over-ripe pack of peaches to Waitrose.

But initially there seemed to be no reaction. They didn’t look threatening, but then neither did we. What was needed, and is needed in all games, is someone to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. Usually we rely on Cameron Brannagan or James Henry, but neither were available.

It was possible that we’d simply let the game slip by, compressing the time available to get the equaliser, then a winner. They never looked particularly threatening and they seemed to have vulnerabilities we could exploit. This was no better illustrated by Michael Raynes; a great guy who had a solid game, but let’s not forget he was a second string League 2 central defender for us. Five years ago. They were nothing special. It could have been the strangest giantkilling in history; driven by apathy with the risk staring us in the face.

Shandon Baptiste can cut an insouciant character, he doesn’t dart about finding spaces, driving people on, he’s rarely stretching for balls, he can look like he’s waiting for the game to come to him. Without Henry or Brannagan we needed someone to change the patterns of the match. Their role was to put bodies behind the ball, ours was to find a way through. Baptiste is the one with the tools to do it, but whether he had the will was another question.

Then, suddenly he was finding a breathtaking range of passing with new angles that cut out lines of Hartlepool’s defence and stretched them in ways they didn’t know they could be stretched. One ball out to Sam Long was simply breathtaking. He has such presence of mind, that there was one foul on the half-way line where he fell while staying on his feet until he was sure the referee had given it. He was in complete control.

His goal, of course, was the culmination of it all. Barrelling through players with step-overs, dummy’s and a dropped shoulder. Like an extended remix of his goal against West Ham.

In the end, it was all quite comfortable and hopefully some of the day-trippers enjoyed their time enough to come to games which aren’t determined by the size of the opponents or the price of the tickets. That has to be the aim; with Rotherham, Ipswich, Sunderland and Portsmouth to come, as well as the next round of the Cup, there’s plenty of entertainment on offer in the coming weeks.

We have a number of flight-risks this transfer window – Dickie, Brannagan, Baptiste. But, where Dickie and Brannagan are most likely to be targeted by teams in the Championship, teams we could be playing next year, you sense with Baptiste that he has the potential to go higher. My hope is that whatever path he does take, its developmental and he doesn’t find himself stuck in a Championship squad keeping their head above water, his home should be at the very top of the game.

George Lawrences Shorts: Exiter Pity

Saturday 30 November 2019

A master of his craft, even at 35 James Constable still knows where the goal is. He was stood right behind it for our 1-0 annihilation of Walsall in the FA Cup on Saturday. Beano was welcomed into the away end with open arms, but wouldn’t be drawn on his rebuffing of an Italian former Swindon Town manager with right wing peccadillos.

Sunday 1 December 2019

Walsall manager Darryl Clarke is a barrel of laughs isn’t he? He had nothing but uplifting and positive comments for his charges following their exit from the FA Cup “My players aren’t at their level, anywhere near it to be honest at the minute.” said ray of sunshine Clarke.

Alongside the bearded lady and the pushmepullyou, Sheffield United are turning into one of history’s great freakshows. The Telegraph – who always look at outsiders with suspicion – did their 426th profile of Christophe Wilde on Sunday and how he dragged himself up by the bootstraps. The story has acquired magical legend now featuring a magical sprite, pocket racist, Sam Deering; ‘his best player’ when he joined Oxford in 2008.

Monday 2 December 2019

If it’s Monday, then it must be another reference to rummaging in a velvet ball bag. Oxford have been drawn to play either Our Friends in the North – Hartlepool or our friends in the South – Exeter City

Tuesday 3 December 2019

To the Championship, all the way. Stat virgins FiveThirtyEight have crunched the numbers on our current form and predicted that we’ll finish second in League 1 this season.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Oopsy. Oxford missed out on a trip to Wembley for a game against Bournemouth’s Walking Football Team in the MySpace.com Trophy on Wednesday. The 0-0 draw meant there were only marginally less goals than supporters. We trolled the competition by missing three penalties in a row in the shoot out. That’ll show them.

Before the game KRob said he’d secured the services of a stand-in ‘keeper after Simon Eastwood picked up a boo boo on his knee against Walsall. As an early for Christmas parlour games, KRob mimed some clues as to his identity; four syllables, promoted from League 1, full international. This rules out Alan Judge, which is a shame as he was ironing his goalie gloves in preparation for a recall at the time.

Thursday 5 December 2019

It was the Seven Minute Six Second Fans Forum on the radio on Thursday with charisma hoover Niall don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. Mrs Don’t Call Me Niall McWilliams will be pleased to hear that he mostly plans to do his Christmas shopping in the club shop, so she’ll be stealing herself to smile thankfully when she unwraps her novelty Jamie Hanson thong and bra set on the big day.

Friday 6 December 2019

It’s everyone back to the Kassam on Saturday to watch eager families heading into Vue to watch Frozen 2. The visitors are Shrewsbury who are led by angle faced ex-Oxford full-back Sam Ricketts.

Oxford’s glovesman will be Jordan Archer who has been signed to cover Simon Eastwood. Archer was released by Millwall in the summer and appears to have been scratching a living as a Kane Hemming’s impersonator. The job involves turning up to things which have long been decided and taking credit for its success by making a last-minute meaningless contribution.

Match wrap: Walsall 0 Oxford United 1

My first proper away game, where I was undeniably part of the away following, was an FA Cup game against Coventry City in 1982. Everything about it felt epic; the M40 wasn’t complete, so we went cross country and it seemed to take hours, we took a huge following having beaten Brighton in the previous round, there was trouble throughout the game which was so bad it was referenced in the Hillsborough report. While we lost 4-0, I loved it.

Standing in a queue for a coffee at Warwick services on Saturday, I became conscious of someone talking behind me. I turned to see a little boy, probably about three, and his dad. The boy was wearing the same Oxford shirt as my daughter and was commenting on it. There’s something I love about services on a Saturday lunchtime, the mix of fans criss-crossing the country to see their team. The little boy was joining the movement, perhaps for the first time. I hope that for him, this all was feeling as epic as my trip to Coventry.

On arriving we found ourselves nestled among the hoodlums and vagabonds of Oxford regulars. Hoods up, glaring menacingly, part excitement and tension, part toxic masculinity.

The world is split into two – those who sit in their allocated seat at an away game, and those who don’t. Behind me was an older couple, South Stand Upper regulars, for sure. They were the former, but that’s what makes an away following; that weird mix of people who wouldn’t normally spend time together.

Then as the warmth of a couple of hours in the car was seeping out and the cold creeping in, I could see the club’s SLO Kath Faulkner purposefully making her way into the stand as a song about James Constable struck up from behind. Eventually I spotted him, Oxford’s number nine. She weaved her way through the fans and deposited one of Oxford greatest players in amongst us; a genuine Oxford legend, about three seats away.

The faces of the regulars behind me, all grim and serious, beamed in awe; they may only have been in single figures when Constable was in his pomp, blasting us back to the Football League. His presence seemed to rekindle the child in them.

There we were; club legends, first timers, old timers, regulars and, well, we’re all irregulars when you stick with a club like ours.

How to judge the current incarnation of the team we’re here to follow? We’re in uncharted water to compare them to most norms of the club. The pace at which we play is bewildering, the results unprecedented, Walsall’s response was to pack everyone together in the hope of withstanding the storm. Despite the crowds of players in the middle of the park, Chris Cadden seemed to hide on the touchline, time and again, he was played down the flank, seemingly unnoticed by the Walsall defence.

Clearly the better team; what was needed was a moment to unlock their massed defence. One wedged pass by James Henry had me yelping at the audacity of it all, there were other moments of trickery which drew gasps.

The minutes ticked on, and though the result wasn’t in doubt, it seemed a question of whether it would be achieved over 90 or 180 minutes. It’s genuinely difficult to see where we’re weak at the moment, the biggest challenge could be our success and the volume of games we face because of it.

Then, in a flash, Chris Cadden finally found a new angle, one that Walsall hadn’t covered, James Henry flashed across and guided the ball into a tiny space between the ‘keeper and post. Like one of those drawings where a new image emerges if you stare at it long enough. Nobody had seen that pattern. 1-0.

The place erupted; it happened so quickly, I didn’t see who’d scored, I turned to see the regulars falling over themselves, and the couple in front of them becoming buried in the melee. The elderly chap was trying to protect his wife who appeared to have fallen over. There was no malice; while some were celebrating wildly, others were trying to give her space to recover.

Momentarily you worry; she could be hurt or even have collapsed, and then she popped up; her hood covering her face. She adjusted it so she could see, revealing a broad grin. She seemed to have enjoyed every moment; that sort of thing doesn’t happen in the South Stand, perhaps it’s why she chose to come in the first place.

And that was that; another win in a tournament whose value is built on its tradition. Old, young, legendary and anonymous all coming together for one purpose. In a world of division, the unifying power of a football club is truly a force for good.

Midweek fixture: FA Cup 2nd Round memories

There’s no such thing as a good FA Cup 2nd Round game; it doesn’t have the anticipation of the 1st Round, nor the prospective glory of the 3rd Round. Although sometimes it’s OK.

2018 Plymouth Argyle 2-1

2018/19 was a difficult season, particularly on the road; we couldn’t buy a win until late in the season. There was a grim inevitability about our trip to Plymouth in November. Or was there?

2013 – Wrexham 2-1

After a delayed 1st Round game at Gateshead, we faced Wrexham just four days later. It looked like we might end up on the end of a giant killing until James Constable sparked a revival.

2012 – Accrington Stanley 3-3

So much more than a game. After it was announced that former Oxford player Mitchell Cole had died from the heart condition, we headed to Accrington Stanley for a tie which just wouldn’t let up. 2-1 down with four minutes to go, 3-2 down 2 minutes into injury time, then Michael Raynes popped up at the back post. A game of pure spirit. Afterwards Chris Wilder was absolutely magnificent.

2002 – Swindon Town 1-0

OK, sometimes the second round can serve up something special. Swindon Town visited the Kassam for the first time in 2003. It was Jefferson Louis who stole the show glancing home the winner. Then he immortalised himself in Oxford folk lore being filmed naked live on TV while celebrating our third round draw with Arsenal.

1995 – Northampton Town 2-0

A couple of weeks after beating Dorchester 9-1 in the first round, Northampton came to The Manor. The win catapulted us forward to a memorable cup run and, in the league, promotion.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Hally’s Crawley bally

Sunday 10 November 2019

The bragging rights were all ours on Sunday, as well as breezing to a comfortable 2-0 win over Hayes and Yeading in the FA Cup, it was the first time in nearly 20 years that Oxford United have played a first class game against a team with less stands in their stadium. Many Oxford fans sang ‘You’ve only got one side’ while secretly admiring the stadium’s fencework.

Goals came from Headington United’s Sam Long and the Aylesbury Ashley Young; Rob Hall.

Monday 11 November 2019

GLS was a student last time he spent a Monday night watching a part-time landlord caressing his velvet ball-bag expectantly. A quick dash to the cash machine to pay three months of rent arrears and the problem was solved. This time it was Dion Dublin who drew our name out of the bag for the FA Cup 2nd Round away to Walsall or Darlington

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Like wondering what it will take for people to realise that Nigel Farage is a self-serving narcissist, it is difficult to know what would dissuade some people from attending a dead rubber MySpace.com Trophy game against Crawley Town on a freezing Tuesday night.

But attend they did, 412 (FOUR HUNDRED AND LITERALLY TWELVE) of them, KRob fielded a team of such marginal players, Ross Weatherstone and Rob Folland were hoping for a game. The Aylesbury Ashley Young Rob Hall bagged a hat-trick in a 4-1 win.

Wednesday 11 November 2019

The press continue to look at hipster’s favourites John Lundstram and George Baldock with all the puzzled curiosity of a Massai tribesman returning a burgundy corduroy skirt at a moderately sized branch of FatFace. The Yorkshire Post can’t quite figure out how players who have played at lower levels are able to cut it in the Premier League – hard work and talent, perhaps?

Thursday 12 November 2019

Confidence is the habitual voyeur of what is known as Sports Park Life! The club have announced that they will be ensuring there’s no heavy petting or bombing, after they took over the lease of the Oxford Sports Park. As well as being the permanent training ground for the club, it’ll also host community activities. Grandma GLS has already signed up to Jamie Mackie’s over-60s badminton league.

There was a grrreat the Six Minute Thirty Seven Second Fans Forum with Tiger on Thursday. Brenda from Eynsham phoned up to ask whether pilates was on tonight before asking about the stadiumsituation (has never been asked about it before? We can’t remember).

Friday 13 November 2019

No game for Oxford this weekend, but that doesn’t mean the Oxford’s alumni have got a rest. Pocket racist Sam Deering is on the comeback trail, having signed for Dagenham & Redbridge following a period navigating the wastelands of the lower-leagues. Elsewhere, goal machine Sam Smith is enjoying his time at Oxford’s local rivals Cambridge having scored seven goals this season. 

Match wrap: Hayes and Yeading 0 Oxford United 2

TV companies probably need to stop looking quite so hard for the ‘magic of the Cup’. There are investments to repay and advertisers to satisfy, but constantly chasing the magic doesn’t really work.

I hadn’t realised before the Hayes and Yeading game that the tie represented the biggest gap between two sides in the draw. It’s almost as if it were selected on the basis that it was where the most magic was likely to be. Had there been an upset, it might have been but it was also the tie most likely to return a predictable result; which is ultimately what it did.

In reality, with five divisions between us, we would have had to drop our performance quite considerably, while they played at their very best to make it remotely competitive. The application of anything approaching a par performance on either side and the result was a foregone conclusion.

There was a degree of snottiness that we put out a strong team. There was concern about potential injuries and fatigue; as if fielding a strong team against weak opposition is belittling of your status.

Although Karl Robinson talked about respecting the competition; his selection was made easier with next week’s international break. With no game next Saturday; and a meaningless EFL Trophy game against Crawley in midweek, we could play a strong team in the cup with fringe players getting a leg stretcher on Tuesday. That still leaves time for players to rest and recover before things get meaningful again in a couple of weeks. It doesn’t happen often, but the fixtures are falling our way at the moment.

The first 45 minutes couldn’t have been more straight forward though we were a bit sloppy with the chances we had. The main culprits were those we have probably enjoyed most this season; with Henry, Fosu and Taylor all missing chances they should have put away.

The second-half was more competitive; we were a bit slow out of the blocks and they seemed to realise that they’d nothing to lose by taking some risks. But, despite Simon Eastwood doing some decent Simon Eastwood things, the biggest concern was just about the relative embarrassment of conceding, rather than the result going the wrong way.

In the end it was perhaps fitting that the goals came from Sam Long and Rob Hall. Both have had to keep things professional and play percentages in recent years; Rob Hall has to manage his effort carefully because of his injury record while Sam Long has learned his core value is his consistent reliability. In simple terms, it keeps him in a job.

It’s the Halls and Longs of the world that get you through these games. The ones who will always deliver a near par performance. In this great search for the magic of the cup; sometimes simple professionalism will do.

Midweek fixture: FA Cup 1st Round memories

On Sunday we head off on another FA Cup adventure with the trip to Hayes and Yeading. Previous 1st Round ties have conjured up a range of emotions from record highs to record lows. Here are seven of the best, and worst, from the last 24 years.

2016 – Merstham 5-0

Six months after promotion, we were the epitome of a team in a good place. A draw away to unknown commuter town Merstham was a great opportunity to try out our new status. TV cameras were there baying for an upset, but even with key players rested, we strolled to a classy win.

2013 – Gateshead 1-0

By 2013, our post-promotion glow had worn off and further progress up the divisions seemed just out of reach. The malaise tested the loyalty of the biggest fans. Following a desperate 2-2 draw with Gateshead at the Kassam, we travelled very very north for the replay. A postponement minutes before kick-off left fans stranded hundreds of miles from home. Still, two weeks later a Dean Smalley penalty sealed a workaday win.

2009 – Yeovil Town 1-0

An often forgotten and somewhat insignificant game in the context of the rest of that season, but important for other reasons. We were on a roll in the League, regaining confidence lost over a 10 year period. We were raucous off the pitch and aggressive on it. It was only the 1st Round, and it was only Yeovil, but it was also our first win over any league team for four years. We were on the way back.

2006 – Wycombe Wanderers 1-2

The significance of this game was the fact it happened at all. Relegated from the Football League we’d started the season well. For the first time in a generation we were required to qualify to the FA Cup. We did, with a win over Dagenham and Redbridge, drawing Wycombe Wanderers in the first round. A solid display and narrow defeat wasn’t as satisfying as the knowledge we registered our existence in the competition for another year. 

2005 – Eastbourne Borough 3-0

Labouring to a 1-0 lead at little Eastbourne Borough in the FA Cup, they introduced, to the obvious excitement of the locals, a whippet quick van driver from Nigeria. Yemi Odubade ran our lumbering centre-backs ragged, winning them a last minute penalty and earning a replay. In the replay, Odubade ran amok, but somehow a Steve Basham hat-trick saw us triumph. The result was a travesty. Days later Brian Talbot brought Yemi to the club, where he became a rare bright spot in a bleak time.

1995 – Dorchester Town 9-1

God we needed this; having failed to gain promotion the previous season, the 95/96 campaign was faltering. When Dorchester Town arrived in November some were doubting our credentials. The avalanche of goals was cathartic, keeping the baying hordes at bay, a major stepping stone towards finding our feet and heading for promotion.

1994 – Marlow Town 0-2

Perhaps the grimmest day in the club’s history. We were top of League 1 and looked to be heading for promotion. We drew the architects and IT consultants of Marlow Town, which featured Les Phillips and Peter Rhodes-Brown in their number. On a potato patch pitch we put on the most fancy-dan performance and were out battled. It popped any bubble of positivity.