The wrap – Brentford 1 Oxford United 0

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As FA Cup ties go, the defeat to Brentford followed a familiar script. We were the plucky underdogs toiling away to little real effect against an obviously superior side. Our fans were excited by the novelty, theirs frustrated by the distraction. Eventually we made a mistake and they made us pay.

The reality is that most FA Cup ties follow this pattern – we all hope for a Swansea or Newcastle, but in the main you get a Sheffield United or Blackburn.

Of course, all of this was over-shadowed by the injury to Shandon Baptiste. Nobody is going to deny what a blow it is to the player, the squad and even the fans looking for a sign that things are going our way. The nature of the injury – minutes after coming on following a long period out – somehow makes it feel even worse.

What is perhaps most concerning is Karl Robinson’s reaction, it was like he’d lost his faithful dog. He was, he claims, crying during the game, Baptiste had ‘given him everything’ and claimed that he’d be out for a year before any medical assessment had been done.

Robinson prides himself on his honesty and openness; he won’t get much criticism from fans for sympathising deeply with Baptiste, most people would feel the same. But, as a manager, is that quite what we need?

When Robinson arrived at the club he declared Malachi Napa the ‘future of the club’ before he was loaned out to Macclesfield. This season Baptiste took the mantle so much so he was given the captain’s armband against Manchester City and again (more bizarrely) against Luton.

These are huge, sweeping declarations of faith, deep investments in the abilities of young players. Great in some senses, but these players can only fail to meet such expectations. No player can carry a whole club. Similarly, as the emotional response to Baptiste’s injury illustrates, it’s like he believes there’s some greater uncontrollable power writing prophecies and tearing them up.

This is troubling; there’s still a game to complete in. If he was crying on the touchline he’s lost control of his emotions. When that happens, you can’t make clear decisions. That’s not just about winning a game, but also about controlling the emotions of his staff, players and Baptiste himself.

Catastrophising the injury before anyone truly knows its impact makes is worse for the players and Baptiste. Sure, the immediate assessment was that it didn’t look good. But thinking of Cameron Brannagan being carried off against Wycombe in a neck brace or even Joe Skarz returning from a ‘season-ending’ injury to help our promotion push in 2016 show that injuries are imprecise things and you shouldn’t make big claims before knowing all the details.

I’m not suggesting any of this is easy, but the point is that it is not Robinson’s job to represent the emotions of the fans. Nor it is job to be a proxy for a distressed player whose season, and maybe more, is suddenly in jeopardy. it is definitely not his job to spread panic amongst those he leads.

His job is to provide calming guidance; a direction through chaos. Baptiste’s injury looks bad, but let’s wait to see what the diagnosis is. Before that, let’s get the game completed with the best possible outcome. I don’t know whether his emotions on the sideline had anything to do with John Mousinho’s lunging tackle which led to the penalty, but it cannot help instil the discipline needed to hold out when your manager has lost his.

The bigger concern is whether Robinson is capable of leading us out of a relegation fight if he’s in a state of permanent emotional flux. I can see him being the kind of manager who gets a team hyped for a single game – a big six-pointer, but I would like to see us safe before we get to any of those.

Games of Note: FA Cup Third Round

2017 – 3-2 Rotherham

Rotherham were on their knees in the Championship, we were buoyant in League 1, but there was still a giant killing to be had. Despite the scoreline, we swept them aside with panache.

2016 – 3-2 Swansea City

Michael Appleton’s finest moment? A true coming-of-age win over Premier League Swansea City.

2003 – 0-2 Arsenal

It wasn’t really about the result, it was about having a great day out at one of England’s great stadiums. That and what came before – a 1-0 win over Swindon and Jefferson Louis’ naked backside live on TV.

1997 – 0-2 Watford

It was the worst of times. The beginning of the end of a great team. The original tie was postponed because of a frozen pitch minutes before kick-off. The team had already been announced, notably omitting Matt Elliot from the starting eleven. He’d never play for us again, moving to Leicester City. In the re-arranged tie – delayed by a floodlight failure – we went out with a whimper.

1996 – 3-3 Millwall

The most fun you can have in East London is drawing with Millwall in the FA Cup with a last minute goal direct from a corner.

The wrap – Oxford United 0 Forest Green Rovers 0, Oxford United 1 Gillingham 0

I used to have a Commodore 64 and the game Rambo II First Blood. The gameplay was even more primitive than the plot of the film it was based on. Essentially, a notably blocky and top heavy eight-bit Rambo runs headlong into a hail of bullets surviving as long as he can before getting shot to shit. I wasn’t very good at it and barely lasted more than a minute. I wasn’t alone; there’s a 10 minute clip on YouTube of which 6 and a half are the load screen and credits. The gameplay is a mere side issue. 

The tactics on Saturday reminded me of that game; give the ball to Ricky Holmes or Marcus Browne and let them run headlong at the defence in the hope of affecting some kind of breakthrough. Pretty much every raid resulted in a predictable, Rambo-style failure until eventually, Browne managed to draw the keeper into a moment of madness and the game was ours. It was hardly sophisticated, but we’ll take the points where we can get them.

It’s not particularly entertaining and it won’t work against better teams, it clearly didn’t work in the draw against Forest Green last week. But, with a newly stingy defence, it’s aiding a recovery of sorts.

Earlier in the season I was complaining about the sheer chaos of our gameplay – players running into each other, defensive errors and the like. The system we have now is disciplined, but obvious. It is suited to a team full of strong personalities brave enough to embark on kamikaze raids into the opposition defence, which is something we have plenty of.

This is where I think Sam Smith struggles, he’s only a few months older than Harvey Bradbury, who many is think of as a raw prospect. In this team, you only get to play if you’re prepared to bully your way into the game and Smith is not that kind of player. I suspect Kemar Roofe would have struggled in this team due to the lack of service and team play. Jamie Mackie will demand to be involved because of his personality and experience, Smith doesn’t seem to have the personality or game to bully his way into a game.

Bradbury, as Sam Long said afterwards, is a big lump. Karl Robinson’s observation was exactly right when he said that while not offering an obvious goal threat, getting centre-backs booked and putting them on the back foot played an important role in securing the three points. I’m not sure about Robinson’s view that we should start looking at the top 10, but between Bradbury and Mackie, and looking at our upcoming fixtures, it feels like we just have enough to get us to the January transfer window in a solid state.

Only Robinson knows what who has lined up in the New Year, but for me, I think our recent form should mean we rule out a move for Nile Ranger. The morals arguments aside, Ranger is an opportunity, and also a risk, but now we have established a precarious stability and I would rather we focused on planned development rather than speculative opportunities.

The wrap – Port Vale 2 Oxford United 0

So, for the first time in 17 years we’ve been the victim of a giant killing, the currency of the FA Cup and the ultimate humiliation. Yet, strangely, it doesn’t feel like it.

I love the FA Cup, but not because of us. I love the David and Goliath narrative, the journey into unknown territories for minnows and journeymen, the Wembley set-piece and its universal celebration of a season completed. But this is a football story, not an Oxford United one and I have come to realise that these are not necessarily the same things.

Only in the last couple of years is the Cup something I feel we’ve had much joy from. Swansea in 2016 was an epic triumph in a season of epic triumphs and Newcastle last year a joyous reprise. Before that, beating Swindon and facing Arsenal in 2003 was fun, as was beating Brighton and facing Coventry in 1982, but those highlights were 20 years apart. The story in-between offered very little.

The present never quite has the same effect as the past. In 20 years, we may look back at the Swansea game as part of our FA Cup heritage in the way my dad talks about The Blackburn Game in 1964. But, at the moment, it doesn’t quite have that sepia tinged feel about it.

On Friday, amidst the misery, the Oxford Mail asked Dave Langan what his favourite FA Cup memory was at Oxford; he could only think of his worst (0-3 v Aldershot in 1987). Even during our glory years, it was a competition where we never excelled.

The League Cup was always ours; the results and the significance of those results is what defines it – Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds, the heartbreak against Everton and, of course, QPR. Some of our biggest moments have happened in that competition, but not the FA Cup.

Perhaps it’s something about night games at The Manor, not only were the results better, but it was a better experience all round than the cold light of day that framed most FA Cup matches.

Plus, of course, nobody really wants to travel to Burslem on a Friday night, that’s enough to take the joy out of everything.

So, although the performance was desperately poor and half-hearted, the impact is somewhat less than it might have been. And, looking pragmatically, we won’t be having one of the chaotic Januarys which has threatened to derail our seasons in the last couple of years.

Middlesborough wrap – Middlesborough 3 Oxford United 2

The magic of the FA Cup sometimes feels like having a fire hose rammed into your mouth. You’re forced to consume it in massive overwhelming quantities until you’d rather be dead than have to take  any more.
Magic, like religion, is a convenient way of explaining things so complex and nuanced that you can’t come up with a rational explanation for it. The FA Cup offers the unique magic of possibility; that a non-league team can compete with a mega-giant of the game, but this is simply because it’s the only  competition that doesn’t stratify or seed teams so that the big teams have to mix with the riff raff. And then there are the magic of shocks, but if you think about the thousands of games that have been played in 145 years of the competition, by the law of averages some of those games will have unexpected outcomes. 
But what about that magical unerring belief anything can happen and that your name is on the cup? Yes, but every team starts every game in the FA Cup off the back of a win, it creates a sense of being unbeatable, that something is pre-destined. It is only when reality bites and you’re knocked out that the truth slams home.
All this ‘magic’ is what drives 3,500 people to travel 230 miles in the hope, against all the odds, that they will be witness to some kind of miraculous moment. It is a ludicrous, reckless gamble.
For forty-five minutes against Middlesborough it looked like normality was being stamped all over those hopes. The injustices of the Premier League, the dog muck of their excessive wealth rubbed into our faces. First through a clumsy penalty, then through a French Beninese reserve. The fact that a team like Middlesborough can sign a Beninese international to not play for them compared to our star player being imported from Motherwell illustrates the gulf that exists. 
And at 2-0 that was pretty much that, or so we thought. Were we going to take an embarrassing  beating? Maybe it was going to be even worse; maybe Middlesbrough would simply hold us while we huffed and puffed. A humiliation and humbling in front of our own fans, their fans and the TV audience.
But, Middlesbrough have the fourth worst form in the Premier League and Oxford the third best in League 1. If relegation and promotion were based on short term form – relevant in a one-off game like this – then we could easily be facing them as equals in the Championship. There may still be a gap, but the League 1/Premier League chasm can be reduced very quickly in the short term.
And with this secret still intact, plus a deepening muscle memory of belief, there lies an ember of hope. Chris Maguire ignites the fire when Guzan leaves a gap so large it might as well be a metaphor for his complacency. A little flick and it’s 2-1. 
And then sixty seconds in which all the investment is worth it; every trip to St Albans or Tonbridge, every false hope signing, watching jealously as Steve Basham registers a hat-trick against us for Hayes and Yeading. A mass of fans who have travelled a combined distance equivalent to circumventing the globe 50 times, fans that have come in blind faith just to watch the game. Oxford swarm forward in audacious belief, the ball sweeps left to Maguire whose shot drops to Martinez. Goal.
The limbs, as they say, the limbs and limbs and limbs; cascading down the stands. Proper, decent people; the rich who hide their anxieties, the poor who fear the rich, people who live in darkened times, who pay taxes and mortgages, who fret about their futures, who lie awake worrying about their families are pulsing with joyous disbelief.  As one, bonded through the decades, the shared experience that is often the trudge of defeat but occasionally the splatter of victory. This is the magic, right in this moment. 
At the very moment the magic surges it begins to subside. Finally the re-adjustment comes and Stuani prods home for 3-2. Does it matter? For that blissful sixty seconds has created a fusion, an unbreakable bond that makes this marvelous club what it is and will continue to be.

Newcastle wrap – Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0

If the build-up to Saturday’s Cup game was anything to go by, Newcastle fans think they exist in a Premier League bubble that, in reality, they don’t belong to. There was a general apathy towards the tie; we were just Oxford – insert blank look and indifferent shrug – generically from ‘the lower leagues’, a shadowy movement at the bottom of a pond. They knew little of us and cared even less, their team would cruise through to face someone more worthy of their attention.

Hopefully they’ll get back to where they occasionally belong before the bubble pops; it could be a devastating shock otherwise. Some appear to know there’s a ticking clock on this; one tweeter said it was a case of ‘no promotion, no Rafa’ as though the club owed the manager success, not the other way around. What a weirdly desperate world they live in.

The reality is that there is far less between most professional football clubs than the money gaps suggest. Those thinking we’d be a pushover miss the fact that Lundstram, Ledson, Martinez and Hall have all come from Premier League backgrounds while Maguire, Hemmings and Johnson have Scottish Premier experience. From a technical and temperament perspective, they are all capable of playing at a higher level. Others; Sercombe, Skarz, Dunkley have plenty of big game experience at the Kassam. To the outsider we might be ‘lower league’ but on any given day the differences between us and those above us are tiny.

Then there’s the Newcastle mind-set; the players that were picked know they’re not favoured by the manager. If Newcastle get promoted, it’s likely they’ll be shipped out to make way for better players. Also, it’s widely accepted that draws in the cup are the worst possible outcome. Defeats are surely unacceptable, but if the manager does nothing to suggest a win is desirable, how can a player know what the right mind-set is?

Michael Appleton overcomes this dissonance by simply playing to win regardless of whether it’s the league, FA Cup or Checkatrade. He rarely makes significant changes to personnel; the philosophy is that you try to win all games, not just the financially important ones.

If both teams applied its ‘quality’ consistently and in a linear way, then the difference between a Championship and League 1 team is so small, it would only show in the last few minutes of a game. It’s more complicated, of course, players’ physical, mental and technical abilities fluctuate throughout games and that’s when differences can be seen and, more importantly, when you have to take your chances.

Newcastle’s potential threat first emerged around the half-an-hour mark. Up to that point we’d been buoyant but disciplined, more than a match. A few concentration lapses and we were at sixes and sevens; but up steps Simon Eastwood to perform a formidable rear guard. Mitrovic, the main culprit, is surly from the first whistle, Nelson roughed him up and he didn’t seem to recover. It’s all very well being a Diego Costa-type, but if the trolling knocks your composure then it’s a waste of time.

Eastwood takes the glory but this is John Lundstram’s game. Lundstram is a central figure in this year’s team. Last year, he was one of many outlets we had to win games. This year we’re more of a single unit with Lundstram the central cog; if he’s off form then we become reliant on the moments of skill from Maguire or others. When he’s on it, everyone performs.

There are two Lundstrams, one is the diesel, where the game passes him buy for 20 minutes while he gets going. The other is tenacious from the first minute. He makes his own luck, puts people in their place and dictates the game from the off. On Saturday, he was the latter, an early challenge sets the tone, and he owns the game from thereon in.

Half time offers another threat. Against Barnsley in the JPT it killed us, legs became heavy, minds more tired as the adrenalin ebbed away. But we manage the break and they’re the ones looking lethargic. Maguire, Dunkley, Hemmings; a complete sucker punch. 1-0.

Mitrovic shows a glimpse of guile dragging Edwards 10 yards into the box before stumbling and falling to the floor. It was a penalty, albeit cynically won. The Serb grabs the ball but the game pivots on Eastwood’s brilliant save. Minutes later, Nelson rises to nod home and make it 2-0; he’s been slower to this year’s party, but he’s starting to fill the massive gap left by Jake Wright. Newcastle fans who have been noisy throughout head for the exits just like, well, just like Sunderland fans do.

Martinez comes on and plays like a new pair of shoes, he looks good but doesn’t quite fit with everything else. It reminded me of David Rush’s debut against Leyton Orient in 1995. He came on, looked lively but undisciplined, we conceded from a corner because he neglected his defensive duties, then a minute later went down the other end and scored the winner. Martinez is a like that, keen, frustrating and ultimately effective. 3-0.

Rarely are FA Cup wins so comfortable, was it a shock? Only in the way a tombola is; you know you can get something out of it, it’s just a pleasant surprise when it’s Bells’ Whiskey rather than a bottle of shampoo.

Rotherham wrap – Rotherham 2 Oxford United 3

Stuart Massey, Simon Clist, Scott Rendell; great moments have unsung heroes.

In 1996, with Chris Allen going all starry eyed at Nottingham Forest, Stuart Massey – his less thrilling more battle worn replacement – started demanding the ball on the ground so he could put quality crosses in. Suddenly we stopped lumping balls forward. It was decisive in us winning promotion even though history has largely forgotten him.

In 2010, Simon Clist did simple things well giving Adam Murphy and Adam Chapman licence to create things for James Constable, Jack Midson and Matt Green. It took us all the way to Wembley and all that.

Scott Rendell’s performance against Swindon in 2012 will also be forgotten by many, but his immense shift after James Constable had been sent off at the Kassam was key to a famous win.

In a squad that has many songs sung about it, Ryan Taylor is, quite literally, unsung. Since returning to the side as sub against Walsall, he has been integral to back-to-back away wins. A goal and much more against Rotherham on Saturday demonstrated what a key asset he can be.

Taylor is frequently overlooked when it comes to our successes. He isn’t irreplaceable or even a guaranteed starter, but he offers something others don’t; quality on the ball and a presence up front.

I’ve always felt that Michael Appleton’s preferred system is one which uses a big forward with a good touch to bring attacking midfielders into the game rather than one that necessarily scores 25 goals a year himself. Taylor, if he stays fit, could be that man.

Being an unsung hero requires a special kind of dedication. It’s a necessary job, but one that, by definition, is seldom recognised. There is a certain satisfaction in completing something successfully but Taylor plays a role that requires you to be battered around continuously and made to look like an oaf, he can be hauled off after an hour exhausted and not having had a shot on goal, but that’s not to say he hasn’t done his job. Watch what Kane Hemmings did for the last goal on Saturday – Taylor laid the groundwork for that.

Watch also, for example, Kemar Roofe’s first goal against Swansea last year. It’s Taylor who brings the ball down and lays it off to Roofe, but having laid it off he heads into the box pulling defenders with him giving Roofe the space to get his shot away. Look also at Taylor’s immediate reaction; while Roofe heads of in celebration, Taylor jogs on head down as if he knows he’s done a good job, but that he also knows nobody will remember his contribution.

Few fans really appreciate the work of people like Taylor when they’re at the club, it’s only when they leave and you truly see what’s missing do you start to pine. I guess it’s just the way of the unsung hero.