Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Newcastle United 3

The Kassam Stadium has been corralled by big trucks, small trucks, trucks with small satellite dishes, trucks with big satellite dishes, trucks whose only purpose, you imagine, is to transport other trucks. The BBC doesn’t do much football, but when it does, it stays done.

Pitchside, the FA Cup sits proudly on a plinth. There are blinding arc lights with three cameramen filming three people. One is undeniably Michael Appleton, his cheekbones defined in the bright light. There’s another bald pundit who turns out to be Alan Shearer. Master of Ceremonies is Gabby Logan looking part human rights lawyer, part stay-at-home mum; both an every-woman and no woman you’ve ever met.

In between short bursts of football chat she’s riffles through a clipboard straining to hold a mountain of paperwork. It’s difficult to imagine what it contains. A make-up artist jumps in enthusiastically to brush her hair, Logan doesn’t flinch, it’s all part of the job. Nobody gets the Mr Muscle out to buff Appleton or Shearer’s bald pates.

In between the rabble, the club’s SLO, Kath Faulkner weaves her way through a mountain of people busying herself uploading another vignette from the team’s warm up to social media. And there’s Chris Williams looking like a nightclub bouncer, who with Martin Brodetsky – Oxford United’s Waldorf and Statler – represent the very soul of the club.

Around the pitch the fancy flashing advertising boards are back promoting our game against Accrington Stanley, £20 replica shirts and prescription-free Viagra. We have a sleeve sponsor for the night that fixes scuffed trainers.

It’s clear the club is operating at the edges and perhaps beyond its current capacity. This is the fourth Premier League team we’ve faced this season, the second prime-time live TV game and the sixth 10,000-plus crowd. Emotionally, it feels like we’re at breaking point.

The mood is confident rather than arrogant or apprehensive. Ticketing and the close proximity to the first game means that most of the regulars around me are sat slightly out of position. It’s like when the binmen leave number seven’s wheelie-bin outside number nine and number nine’s food bin in number 22’s garden, everything is familiar but slightly confusing.

Three seats next to me are vacant until moments before kick-off. Normally they’re occupied by season ticket holders, but seconds before kick-off people I’ve never seen before turn up sporting half-and-half scarves.

I’ve made my peace with half-and-half scarves, they’re no different to souvenir programmes and if those attending get an ounce more enjoyment out of their experience from buying one, then that’s a small step closer to them coming back.

It becomes evident that the lady sat next to me is, in fact, a Newcastle fan. She sings quietly and un-self-consciously along with the Toon fans in the North Stand. It turns out she lived near Kevin Keegan back in the 80s, but I guess everyone from Newcastle says that.

The game starts and it’s clear that our confidence is well founded. We’re not overawed or being outplayed. They put pressure on Marcus Browne which limits his scope and press Josh Ruffels and Sam Long. While we struggle to break out as an attacking threat, if we are going to concede, you suspect, it’ll be because of a bad luck or a mistake.

The mistake comes on 15 minutes. Mark Sykes over-plays in midfield, loses the ball and Sam Longstaff races forward to fire home. It’s not a howling error and Longstaff has plenty more to do once in possession, but it’s enough to separate the sides. 15 minutes later, Marcus Browne loses the ball on the edge of their box, the referee is liberal in his appliance of the rules all night, but he’s right about this one; no foul. A long ball to Joelinto creates a one-on-one with Rob Dickie and it’s 2-0.

They’re efficiently good, though it’s closer to Rotherham than futuristic Manchester City space-football. Given that they’re a serviceable defensive unit, it looks like game over.

Quixotically we then find some fluidity; Jamie Mackie goes close, Sam Long has one headed off the line. It’s nice to see us play. What’s lacking is a driving force. Browne is squeezed out, Henry is injured and Baptiste has gone. Mark Sykes becomes an unlikely pivot around which good things happen.

There’s a quiet acceptance over half-time that we’re at journeys end. The main objective now is to avoid injuries and humiliation. The second half is scrappy; their early efficiency has deserted them but we’re stuck between attacking and conceding more on the break.

On the hour Browne goes down and Karl Robinson instantly replaces him; it feels like he’s conceding defeat. We’re not always perfect, but we’re still playing with a signature style. Some of their passing is indistinguishable from the Conference; four or five times the ball simply runs out of play. Still, they have the two goal buffer and we have little in response, so it matters not.

The game becomes painful, Newcastle fans sing songs at Alan Shearer who is holed up in a black box that makes for a studio in the corner – ‘They’re perpetually stuck in the 90s’ says someone near me. But, Shearer is the most glamorous thing about the game, if I was watching this on TV, I’d be channel surfing for Live At The Apollo on Dave, even if it featured Jason Manford.  

The clock ticks on, we’re tiring on and off the pitch. Nathan Holland is mainlining energy gels. With Matty Taylor just back from injury and Dan Agyei and Liam Kelly barely having 90 minutes of football between them this year, even our fresh legs don’t have fresh legs.

Five minutes to go, through all the scrappiness we draw a foul 25 yards out. Liam Kelly stands over the ball, he has the stature of Sam Deering, so the distance looks about three times what it is. Physically we’re drained, but this is a purely technical challenge so we have a chance. Kelly exquisitely lifts the ball over the wall and past the keeper for 2-1. He dutifully trots back to the centre-circle, but a smile on his face shows how pleased he is with it. It’s almost identical to Chris Maguire’s goal at Middlesborough three years ago. Look what happened then.

But that’s fanciful hope rather than expectation. As we tick into injury time, we win another free-kick in the centre circle. Suddenly everything is simple; equalise or lose heavily. Simon Eastwood abandons his goal to make a nuisance of himself up front. Kelly pitches the ball to the back post; Sam Long who’s put in an exhausting shift, pops it up, Eastwood stares into the sky trying to locate it like a village cricketer blinded by the sun. His bewilderment disrupts the Newcastle back line allowing Ruffels to win the second ball which drops to where Nathan Holland is loitering. Holland watches it fall from the night’s sky, swings a boot and connects.

Now we’re in the hands of destiny. The ball arrows its way through a narrow alleyway of opportunity. I’m right behind it; gravity brings the ball down, potential energy transfers into kinetic energy via biomechanics. A confluence of science, a moment of liquid poetry, the ball hits the net and the place implodes. If we’re going down, it’s going to be with grenades and flamethrowers. Holland celebrates like he’s from the 50s with both hands in the air. The stadium is carnage, like a coach crash in an ice storm; bodies are everywhere, shoes are lost, grannies thrown into the air. Even with its imperfections and gaping open end, sometimes The Kassam can feel like home. For moments, live on national TV, the world can see why we do what we do.

And then, the reality. As the final whistle goes, a person on my row nudges past and doesn’t come back, his cup of Horlicks beckons. We start extra-time brightly and threaten again with Dan Agyei. But it can’t be sustained and we run out of puff; only Sykes seems to maintain the intensity, growing more influential as the minutes tick by. Our only option now is to survive to penalties, even with precious few natural penalty takers on the pitch. George Thorne comes on looking like the banjo-tech from Mumford & Sons, it’s good to see him back, but he’s a long way from fit.

Conceding is, perhaps, inevitable and it comes eventually from Saint-Maximin, who is built like an American wrestling figurine. With five minutes to go and no energy to respond, hope slips away. They celebrate wildly; but given the preposterous financial gap between the two clubs, they should be beating us and it shouldn’t take three and a half hours to do it. Exhausted and heroic, the cup dream is over. It’s been a heck of a run.

There are times this season when it feels like we’ve been on loan to somewhere else – the Carabao Cup, Premier League, Sky Sports and the BBC. We depart in a blaze of glory in front of the nation; there’s no better way to fail. Tomorrow, it’s back to normality and the simple reality of seven games in 21 days. Perhaps the 5th Round wasn’t much of a prize after all.

Match wrap: Newcastle United 0 Oxford United 0

I’ve had a sense of foreboding and dread all week, a mild, manageable mental health wobble that occasionally creeps up on me. As it turns out, the week ended on a bad note, not directly for me, but for some people near me. It turned out to be a mentally challenging week that I was pleased to see end.

Saturday’s game rather got lost in the fuzz, at times like this I particularly appreciate the bubble that the club and its community provides; the familiarity of a game on Saturday, the simple consensus of our common cause, it provides welcome, necessary insulation from life’s less predictable challenges.  

But, what was Saturday’s game against Newcastle? People talked about it being a great occasion, making a day of it, on the Friday night the club had Karl Robinson, Matty Taylor and Cameron Brannagan do a meet and greet at a local hotel. There were a few who fetishised the dystopian presence of VAR, like we were going to a Premier League theme park with all its horrors. The whole thing could easily have been treated as a fantasy or a PR exercise, because in a sense, we couldn’t lose, even if we’d lost.

Would we remember there was a game to play? What kind of game? Newcastle are a curious club; in the same way we were defined by the Firoz Kassam business model; tenants to a slum landlord, Newcastle United are defined by Mike Ashley’s business ethos; take a premium brand past its sell-by date, strip it of its value and sell it cheaply back to any remaining customers.

So, after a sluggish week, Friday slipped into Saturday and the yellow caravan mobilised; by car, by train, by coach. The giddy excitement of the adventure. Into the bubble, moving north. But for what purpose? In hope? Simply because it was there to do?

St James’ Park looked great, a true cathedral of football; 52,000 fans, 3,700 of us packed into the seventh tier of their huge Leazes Stand. We even loved the indignity of being exiled to a spot closer to the moon than the pitch, like captives with Stockholm Syndrome. Apparently in awe, it could all have gone horribly wrong come 3pm.

As it turned out, with the battle finally joined, we were ready. Newcastle are on the right side of the financial chasm between the Championship and Premier League and are built for one thing, to stay there. Not the entertainers of the 1990s, they’re survivors of the 2020s. Like one of Ashley’s high street shops, chugging away doing whatever it takes to survive. Steve Bruce is the perfect manager; focussed and pragmatic, building his team around formidable physical units; Allan Saint-Maximin and Joellinton as much the front line of defence when faced with Manchester City and Liverpool as an attacking threat. 

They’re not built to win games, snatch them, yes, but there are few teams in the Premier League that Newcastle would simply try to outplay. Points in their last two games, causing an upswing in optimism, have come from last minute goals. A team of elite desparados.

Playing our third Premier League team of the year, our own well-disciplined conservatism is partly drawn from our surroundings, but also from our personnel. Sam Long and Elliot Moore are building careers on doing their job, not thrilling the crowd. We’re becoming accustomed to how this works now.

We allow Newcastle the ball, but they don’t know what to do with it. They’re simply not used to it. Set plays are a threat, sheer brutish physicality stretches us from time to time, but we’re not outclassed. Karl Robinson talks about exhausted bodies, we’ve played 11 more games than them this season, but our minds are fresh.

Their hope is that we might eventually wilt under the pressure, succumb to mental and physical tiredness, the occasion and the prize on offer. But, there’s no craft, Saint-Maximin burns himself out despite a couple of forays against Sam Long, Joellinton grows frustrated at his own short-comings. This is a player who might realistically hope to score no more than ten times a season, for a striker, it must be maddening; doubly so when your supporters expect double.

We don’t wilt, later on Alex Gorrin has the clarity of thought to draw a foul and a booking when caught out of position, Mark Sykes does the same a couple of minutes later. It’s a pivotal moment; when you’ve got 52,000 people howling at you in disgust it takes a brave, clear headed and mature man to accept the berating for the greater good. Sykes comes of age in that moment, Gorrin is his mentor. The fouls were cynical, but necessary, a reward for the discipline; any early bookings and those moments wouldn’t have been an option.    

Into the final moments and the game loosens up, it feels like we’re growing into our more natural game while they seem to be falling apart. Marcus Browne, who looks like he has the physical match of his highly paid opponents, sees a gap, but can’t quite re-organise his feet and shoots weakly. Nathan Holland, more slender and louche, nearly converts. Far away in the sky, the noise of 3,710 fans tumbles down the stands. 

And there you have it. Through all the hullabaloo, there was a match. We were ready. Physically and tactically ready, but more than that, we were mentally prepared in a way I hadn’t expected. In a week where I’ve lived mostly in my own head, it’s a joy to see the team using theirs; the clarity and maturity and the reward at the end. Saturdays are a gift for the difficulties that life can throw at you, players often praise the commitment of the fans, but sometimes we understate the importance of their efforts and the impact they have beyond the 90 minutes on the pitch. Saturday’s result and performance illustrated that perfectly.

Still in the Cup, always in the bubble.

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.