Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Fleetwood Town 1

With ten players out, no goalkeepers and half the club isolating you can’t help but think that, on one level, Karl Robinson is absolutely loving this. This could be his Battle of Stalingrad, his Rorke’s Drift. The armouries and smelting factories would drain at the end of the day to fill the stands and defend the citadel, condemming ourselves to an inevitable, but glorious, death for a cause that’s bigger than any one of us. 

If Fleetwood were cutthroat Zulus, then they were Guardian-reading savages with an appreciation of nuance and an understanding of the art of compromise. For all the expectation that we’d have our backs against the wall and that they would jimmy away cruelly at our obvious weaknesses, they seemed particularly sympathetic of our situation, allowing us time to find our feet and rhythm. In fact, they were so desperately impotent, the game has cost manager Simon Grayson his job.

The headline of having only fourteen senior players available doesn’t account for those carrying other niggles and worries; the drink, money, gambling or family problems that can fuzzy anyone’s brain, if you were legally able to leave your house, then pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and play on. Our shoulders relaxed and we settled to a tempo which, even if it was determined by our resources, was at least one the players were comfortable with. 

From wondering how we’d cover the gaps in the squad, the players were able to express their own personalities. It was like the epic victory over Swindon in 2012 when an injury crisis was so deep it required a complete remodelling of the very character of our starting eleven. As a result, we were less predictable and harder to play against. Gavin Whyte up front didn’t need to be Matty Taylor, Jamie Hanson could be the rugged utility player he’s always been rather than try to emulate the more cultured Anthony Forde.

The early goals settled the game meaning we needed to be professional and disciplined rather than full of blood and guts. Fleetwood, so often a frustratingly competent side, were simply not very good, which was a relief. 

Midway through the first half, Luke McNally went to ground forcing into stark relief the precariousness of our situation. Darting from the bench was not the distinctive shock of blonde hair that is Amy Cranston but a couple of more anonymous physios extracted from central casting. 

Cranston is a distinctive presence on the bench with her being, you know, a woman. Her absence reinforced the extent of the challenge; there was also no Wayne Brown, no John Mousinho; we talked about the players, but the crisis ran deeper than that. The anonymity on the bench alongside Karl Robinson was like going to watch Oasis, only to later realise it’s actually Beady Eye.

McNally’s injury highlighted how little scope there was for change. Lose him and there was nobody remotely suitable to take his place. It seemed to heighten the sensitivity to the problem – from eminent comfort, there was a sense this could get bad, really bad. Moments later, Hansen crumpled under a challenge and while everyone catastrophised about whether he was literally dead or not, Fleetwood waltzed through to squeeze the ball past Trueman for 2-1.

We’ve had goalkeeping crises before, but not one that involved our most senior fit keeper being unavailable the game clashed with Cubs. Managers are like pigs snuffling truffles when it comes to unearthing goalkeepers, whether that’s Luke McCormick or Jordan Archer, they always seem capable of digging one out from the bowels of Football League. We were grateful to have his experience, even if it was less than fifty games in the last seven years. He had no way of understanding the nuances of back four in front of him, he had to busk it; take everything on face value and play along best he could.

The third goal from Nathan Holland was a reminder that despite everything, there’s still quality at the heart of the squad. Karl Robinson praised the owners for their investment, he’s right, Holland’s fine finish was most likely cast in the board room and the decision to invest in the squad’s resilience. Nobody could have predicted just how valuable that would be back in the summer.

The emphasis of the game then changed. This is a two-part drama and Robinson needed to be mindful of Rotherham on Saturday. If someone like Dan Agyei has an hour of full-gas performance in him, how do you best spread that across the two games knowing he’ll need to feature in both?

We needed to avoid unnecessary pressure; another goal may not have changed the ultimate result, but it could have encouraged Fleetwood to take a few more risks which is always going to increase the chance of a kick, pull or injury. We needed to keep them passive and compliant, the ease with which we did is testament to what has been built at the club.

It wasn’t backs against the wall, it wasn’t gritty and determined, it was professional and clinical. It wasn’t Rorke’s Drift, although that maybe yet to come before this drama is fully played out.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Fleetwood Town 0

These are unprecedented times, as they say, although, in a sense they’re not. There have been pandemics and epidemics before; lots of them. It’s just that most of us haven’t experienced them; although Derek Fazackerley experienced a polio lockdown in the 1960s, the only people old enough to have experienced the Spanish Flu pandemic probably can’t remember what they had for breakfast. A lack of collective experience is particularly damaging; one of the theories around China’s effective tackling of coronavirus is their experience of SARs, we on the other hand, were slow to realise that these things are real and tangible.  

Watching It’s A Sin, the Russell T Davies drama about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, you’re reminded of all the same issues. The dismissal of its impact and belief it couldn’t happen to you. There’s a sequence detailing the conspiracy theories surrounding it, it’s possible there’s some dramatic licence to illustrate a contemporary point, but I definitely remember the conspiracies about its origins in monkeys and that it only effected gay people. It was an effective defensive mechanism as most of us weren’t gay monkey shaggers. On the other hand, I remember once seeing a packet of condoms in the bathroom of my grandparents (I mean, ew!). My grandad was a scientist; logic was his stock-in-trade and he knew we were all at risk.

Reading about the QAnon theory; a wild conspiracy encompassing everything from coronavirus to a left-wing cabal of pedophiles which has gripped parts of America, there are similar issues. The world is complicated – particularly at the moment – and regardless of your financial position, life can be hard. Figuring it out is beyond any one of us. We think we find clues, add them to things which look like they make sense, construct a world that works for us. AIDS and gay people, coronavirus and mortality data, QAnon and American election conspiracies, even Brexit and who is to blame for what is just one big conspiracy. If you share it on the internet, and you get a like or a reply, it’s like scoring a point, if your theory is extreme but gains traction, you can become seduced by the power and status it gives you.    

It’s possible to construct and entire alternative reality, confirmed and expanded by people who are just like you. That confirmation turns nonsense theories into facts. Supporting a football club is a great example; most Oxford supporters nowadays never went to The Manor, but we share its mysticism and its part in slaying the giants of the game in the 1980s. We sing songs about being the by far greatest team in the world the world has ever seen, when we go to games, we go in expectation of a win every time. We confirm all these things even though we lost plenty of games at The Manor, are probably not the greatest team and will lose at least as many as we win.

We constructed a similar alternative reality around Fleetwood Town, after seven years of trying, they couldn’t be beaten. What’s more, there was no out-ball – at least the supposed Southend hoodoo had the distant memory of a Mark Rawle goal to act as a reminder that they could be beaten.

There’s little logic to hoodoos, perhaps Fleetwood’s geography makes it a slightly harder away trip on players and fans making a win more difficult, but that can’t explain all of it. Nobody who was involved in our first defeat to them is involved now, of course, so why would beating Fleetwood be so apparently impossible? The easiest answer is to build a conspiracy theory that they hold some kind of hex over us. 

As well as the fact we’ve never beaten them and that they’re over 200 miles away I think it’s partially to do with Fleetwood as a club. Their ascent through the leagues has been artificially accelerated by cash investment, but despite being one of the success stories of the modern age, their back story is fantastically dull. There’s no celebrity owner like Salford, no scandal like MK Dons, no big cup upsets that have put them on the map, they’ve just stealthily moved up the league. It’s like the mass murderer who kept himself to himself, they’re quite creepy. I think I was slightly scared of what they could do to us, in fact the sending off of Charlie Mulgrew was quite a shock because it revealed they had a vulnerability, even if it was just to the rules of the game.

But it’s over, this season’s weirdness has broken many hexes and hoodoos, perhaps the lack of a crowd and the collective conspiracy theory it carried around has helped. We didn’t lug that baggage into Saturday’s game, it didn’t seep into the dressing room, Fleetwood were what they are; just another struggling, beatable League 1 team. We could have made it easier for ourselves, but I never thought they looked a threat.

That’s eight wins in a row now and we are in uncharted waters. If we win on Tuesday, and that is entirely possible, as far as I can tell (and my stats radar has been a bit off recently) that’s an all-time club record going back to, at least, the war. We’re no longer looking at our own records for clues to navigate this period, but national records – it appears that the all-time record is 14, but the fourth longest streak is 11.

We’re not far away, but it would still be a gargantuan task to reach eleven – perhaps as difficult to pick up those final three wins, as accumulate the first eight. Winning three games on the bounce is hard enough, plus, no team will under-estimate us now and we’ll only need a couple of players to lose a bit of form or get lulled into a false sense of superiority to turn a win into a draw or defeat. 

Which means we are fairly close to having to manage the debunking of an entirely different conspiracy theory – the one that says we’re unbeatable. One pressure that isn’t there is the lack of a crowd; the sequence might have put a 1000 or more on the gate on Tuesday; the scramble for tickets against Doncaster and Bristol Rovers would have been huge. But, although the run crept up on us, this sequence will be quite a bubble to pop when it comes. The true test, and best indicator of whether this is a freakish sequence or indication of something more sustainable, will be how we respond when it ends. Are we the lunatic that sprints at the front of the London marathon for a few hundred yards just to get on TV or are we one of the elite runners? The next few games will tell us more.

Match wrap: Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0

One of my favourite facts recently is that even after our defeat to Charlton on Tuesday, this season had been our best start in the league under Karl Robinson. This wasn’t an attempt to excuse our form, it was simply a curiosity given our meagre points total and league position.

It’s difficult to say exactly when the hoodoo was broken in 2018 given that there was also an eight-game sequence in October in which we didn’t win. Last year, there was a very clear change of direction in a 3-0 win over Tranmere. That was followed by a draw with Bolton and then a remarkable sequence of thirteen goals in 3 games which was the catalyst to a successful season.

Fleetwood away was never a likely candidate for such a revival and really just served to deepen the disquiet, or is it just apathy? The structural issues remain evident – defensively we’re lacking, we need the kind of steadying influence and leadership provided by people like John Mousinho and Jamie Mackie and the pressure on our potent attacking force – which is surely the answer to our defensive issues – is starting to tell. Against a unit as robust as Fleetwood, it would have taken something very special to turn the tide.

While it’s frustrating to hear Karl Robinson bemoaning his injured players – injuring midfielders is one area he excels at – we do need a bit of luck. The two games we have in hand are both winnable and at home; that would take us into mid-table. The opening sequence of games have included teams currently at the top of the table – Sunderland, Charlton, Fleetwood, Lincoln. I’ve said before that if we’re to harbour aspirations of promotion, these are teams we should be competing with, but I’m also increasingly of the view that survival rather than promotion is the first priority while the world wrestles with the pandemic.

We’re not even likely to survive on current form and we need a Tranmere-type game to jump start the machine. That first opportunity should come on Tuesday with Rochdale offering an opportunity to get a solid win under our belt. More importantly perhaps, we need to break the sequence of conceding two goals a game; even if we do register a MK Dons-style high scoring narrow victory, that defensive frailty will continue to eat away at our confidence. You could see the it ebbing away after just 45 seconds on Saturday when Fleetwood scored. 

But if we do get that boost it won’t be supercharged by the fans as it has been previously. Fans provide advocacy to the players, an encouragement that a system is worth pursuing. Moves rarely turn into goals, passes are frequently misplaced or intercepted – the key to a successful team is that they believe in what they’re doing and are able to pick themselves up and try again. The fans can help overcome those doubts.

Football is evidently a low priority for the government, so it seems unlikely they’ll be rushing to find a way to get fans into grounds even after the latest lockdown is eased. It seems likely to me that we’ll need more than a month to get on top of it, and any easing will be very slow. I don’t see us being back in stadiums before the spring at the earliest when the season is nearly done. So, if the advocacy doesn’t come from the fans, the resolve will need to come from within. 

The club, led by Karl Robinson, has been an exemplar in recognising the issues of mental health which can range from mild stress to chronic depression. But, recognising the issue is only half the story, when faced with a mental challenge, finding resilience to control and overcome it also needs to be part of the equation. 

In a sense, the first lockdown was easy, everyone was doing the same thing, keeping communications open were important for those moments when it all became too much. This second lockdown is likely to be more challenging; for some it will mean a return to the stasis of the spring, for others no change at all, for some professions, like football, a heavily adapted norm. The reason players keep making runs, keep trying passes is because of the lure of the rush of scoring and winning, something which is made more potent by the existence of fans. They need to find a reason to want to do that again, even when the prospect of success seems beyond them.

We are neither scoring nor winning, but we still need to make the passes and the runs, that isn’t going to come from an external source, it has to come from within the squad. Character, I think they call it.  

Midweek fixture: League 1 Kitwatch 2020/2021

There’s nothing better than a new kit; so the summer is new kit Christmas. Nearly everyone have revealed their kit for the new season. I’ll keep updating this post with new designs as they’re revealed. Here’s what we have so far…

Accrington Stanley

Accrington are punching above their weight adopting Adidas as their kit manufacturer. Thankfully they’ve managed to bring the tone down a notch or two with an experimental dotty sleeve. It’s let Accrington down, it’s let Adidas down, but most of all, it’s let the lovely white shirt down.

Blackpool

We’re all shocked to our core with Blackpool’s new shirt; tangerine with white trim, like every Blackpool shirt in history. That said, it’s a nice enough design. Eagled eyed among you will see this template replicated elsewhere. In the least shocking news ever the away shirt is a simple reverse out of the home version.

Bristol Rovers

The key to any artistic process is to know when to stop. Bristol Rovers have an iconic kit and it shouldn’t be difficult to pull a decent shirt out of the bag. This version has funny cuffs, collar, stripe down the arm, what appears to be some kind of camo shadowing. The second kit goes some way to redeeming things, but not much.

Burton Albion

Burton Albion may be the most forgettable team in the division, and their new home shirt lives up to that reputation. One of this season’s trends is the re-introduction of the button collar, which we can all agree is a travesty. And yet, the away kit is so awful, apparently modelled on the faux medical uniform of a cosmetic surgery nurse, that the button may just improve it.

Charlton Athletic

Without doubt Charlton have bigger problems than providing a decent new kit. The home shirt looks like every Charlton kit ever released, while the away shirt is probably a reflection of the mood around the club.

Crewe Alexandra

Crewe’s return to League 1 is marked by a retro red and black number, but it’s the away kit which is of most note, appearing to take inspiration from their shirt sponsor Mornflake Mighty Oats.

Doncaster Rovers

Thankfully Doncaster Rovers’ new shirt is identical to every Doncaster Rovers home shirt of the last decade. The red and white hoops are a classic not to be messed with. The away kit is also pretty sweet; maybe the best combo in the division?

Fleetwood Town

To some people, the fact that Fleetwood Town exist and are managed by Joey Barton is confusing enough. This kit, which seems to adopt about nine different styles in one, is a proper head scrambler. The away kit, however, works really nicely – silver and mint, who knew?

Gillingham

Bit of an odd one this; Gillingham are perhaps the most meh team in League 1, and it appears that they’re sticking with the same kit as last season. It’s OK, Macron, the manufacturer, have a nice style about them. You could describe this as a bit meh, really.

Hull City

Like all the teams coming down from the Championship, Hull have been slow to release their new shirt. The result is an unremarkable number, saved largely by the fact that it’s Umbro, giving it a nice traditional feel. The third kit (no second kit that I can ascertain) is a bit of an oddity; when I first saw it, I really liked it and thought it was one of the nicest in the division, then I looked again and find it a bit boring.

Ipswich Town

A tale of two shirts for Ipswich Town. An absolute beauty for the home shirt reminiscent of their heyday in the 1980s under Bobby Robson. The away shirt looks like someone has washed it with a tissue in the pocket.

Lincoln City

Lincoln City play a classic card with their new shirt. There are few teams that wear red and white stripes who haven’t gone for the disruptive inverted colourway at some point. There will be Lincoln fans everywhere tearing up their season tickets at the abomination, but I like it. The away number is solid but unremarkable.

MK Dons

A solid home option for MK Dons, but you can’t deny they work hard to be the most despicable team in the league, the away shirt is black with gold trim? What are they? A Bond villain? Yes, yes they are.

Northampton Town

I’ve always felt that Hummel offer a hipster’s choice when it comes to shirt manufacturing; typically because of their excellent work on the Danish national shirts in the mid-80s. I’ve also always liked Northampton’s colours. So, put together should be a sure fire winner. the away kit is OK until you look more closely, the strange central dribble, the fading pin stripes. They get away with it, but only just.

Oxford United

Look closely, well not that closely, and you’ll see the new Oxford shirt is the same Puma template as Blackpool and Swindon. Rumour has it that in real life it adopts the geometric pattern of the Peterborough shirt. It’s OK, for a title winning shirt.

Peterborough United

Last season Puma made a big deal of their sublimated flux shirt designs, this year seems to have some kind of geometric update. There are randomised white flecks in there as well. A real nearly, but not quite design, a bit like Peterborough. The away shirt utilises the 437th Puma template of the division, and it’s a bit of a cracker, while nothing screams ‘Revenge season’ then a neon pink third kit.

Plymouth Argyle

Plymouth return to League 1 with a couple of scorchers. The home shirt is spoilt a bit with what appears to be a button collar, the away kit is absolutely magnificent. It’s difficult to imagine under what circumstances they would need a third kit, but it ticks some boxes.

Portsmouth

One of the big favourites for the League 1 title next season have opted for a pretty conservative upgrade. What the heck is with that collar though? I quite like the away shirt with its white shadow stripes, it reminds me of our own away kit from the mid-eighties. Was there a three for two offer at Sports Direct? The unnecessary third kit looks like a reboot of our 2013/14 Animalates shirt.

Rochdale

You might call it armageddon chic; there’s a theme in a lot of kits where they’ve taken their standard design and given it a twist. Quite often it’s such a twist it comes off completely. Rochdale are just about the right side of acceptable with the blurred lined and shredded but at the top.

Shrewsbury Town

Aficionados of League 1 kit launches will know that Shrewsbury specialise in producing terrible promotional photography. For evidence try this, this or even this.This year is no different. Still, they get bonus points for adopting Admiral as their kit manufacturer. The away shirt takes inspiration from Oxford’s purple years when we were sponsored by Isinglass.

Swindon Town

Our friends up the A420 have selected yet another Puma kit variation. How many templates does one manufacturer need? It’s a nice and simple design, ruined by the addition of a Swindon Town badge. The away shirt could not be less imaginative if it tried.

Sunderland

Let’s not kid ourselves; all teams use standard templates, but Sunderland’s new Nike shirt absolutely screams ‘park football’. The away shirt is Portsmouth’s home shirt in a different colour way, but that’s OK, I quite like it.

Wigan Athletic

I was genuinely sad when I saw this; Wigan’s kit feels like a club that’s fallen apart with the off-the-peg template and the ironed-on ‘sponsor’ (let’s assume the Supporters Club have not paid a penny for this).

AFC Wimbledon

Have Wimbledon given up? They seem so bored with life they can’t be bothered to feature a decent logo of their sponsor and what can you say about the diagonal shadow stripe? They seem to trump it with the away shirt, which is going some. A shirt that screams relegation.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: International bright young things

Saturday 7 September 2019

There was a right old punch in the guts on Saturday and for once it wasn’t administered by Joey Barton. A late goal against Barton’s Fleetwood Town saw Oxford go down 2-1.

Sunday 8 September 2019

Oxford’s greatest ever Lichensteiner, and hero of George Lawrence’s Summer Shorts, Benji Buchel returned to the white hot heat of international football on Sunday with a 1-1 draw against Greece in Athens. The 68,000 seater stadium was throbbing for the encounter being just 65,000 fans short of a sell-out.

Monday 9 September 2019

Having missed the opportunity to miss Saturday’s Fleetwood game, Jedward orphan Mark Sykes missed the opportunity to sit on the bench for Northern Ireland’s plucky 2-0 defeat to Germany in Belfast. Sykes sat in the stand while his fellow former Oxford Jedward, Gavin Whyte, came off the bench after the Irish back-stop had been breached.

Giving a new slant on the term ‘international break’, Ben Woodburn also didn’t play in Wales’ 1-0 win over Belarus. It’s a shame really, we think he’d have asked some searching questions of the opposition. Questions like: ‘Would you like me to introduce you to Gareth Bale?’

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Operation YellowCadden has revealed that Motherwell’s hopes of sunlit uplands is likely to end in a great pile of dung while venal rich fatcats make a financial killing. Cadden is, of course, on loan from Columbus Crew having left Motherwell in an entirely legitimate move which wasn’t in any way designed to avoid making a solidarity payment in lieu of Cadden’s development in Scotland. Motherwell’s boss has revealed he is in dispute with the Crew and is not expecting any resolution in the next couple of years.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

It was centre-back central on Wednesday as two former Oxford defenders opened up about their latest career moves. The top man’s top man Jakey Wright wright wright explained why moving to Bolton is the right right right move for him. In Leicester, Phil Gilchrist was chased down the street for an interview for their club website revealing that he nearly left Oxford at the same time as Matt Elliot, but wasn’t allowed to until they got in a suitable replacement. In the end, they didn’t get one, so they signed Brian Wiiiiiillllllsterman instead. 

Thursday 12 September 2019

KRob was in the hot seat for Radio Oxford’s Six Minute Eighteen Seconds Fans’ Forum, which ended up sounding like the lottery numbers being announced. The stadiumsituation played second fiddle as fans wanted their say on the club’s woeful form. Maureen from Witney thinks we should play 4-3-3 while Brian from Abingdon prefers 4-2-3-1, perhaps KRob should go with Beverly Hill’s 9-0-2-1-0, though Flavor Flav phoned to say that 9-1-1’s a joke in our town.

Friday 13 September 2019

The club said there was good news and bad news on the injury front. Matty Taylor who has had so many Oxford comebacks he might be Benedict Come-ber-back, could feature against Tranmere on Saturday while Jamie Hanson will be out for three and a half months. They didn’t say what the bad news was.

No, you’re a cheap shot, mate.

Match wrap: Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 1

Let’s face it, a 2-1 defeat away to Fleetwood is not, in isolation, an unexpected result, but it means just one win in seven and 20th place in the division. It’s opened all the old debates about Karl Robinson’s suitability and our prospects for the season.

It’s not a simple question of Robinson’s competence, or if he’s likeable or not. I can see both sides of those arguments. For me it’s about the compitablity between his approach, and the club more broadly.

Robinson wants to play a fast, all action style, but with late summer signings and the loss of Gavin Whyte, we currently have a squad trying to bed in while travelling at a thousand miles an hour.

Had we been in League 2, I think he could deliver a season in the vein of 2015/2016; fast, exciting, full of goals; sweeping all before us including a few higher league scalps in the cup. To ape an old Viz comic strip; we’d be all special weapons and no tactics.

But, League 1 is more savvy and we’re being undone by solid, streetwise teams – Fleetwood, Burton and Bristol Rovers. It reminds me of the scene in Indiana Jones where faced by the swashbuckling swordsman skilfully wielding his weapon, Jones simply pulls a gun out and shoots him dead.

We don’t yet have the cohesion to wield our sword skilfully and execute the kill. Worse, we don’t have the bedrock of Curtis Nelson at the back and even Simon Eastwood seems shakier, particularly with shots from distance.

All this against a backdrop of a ownership which, tentatively, seems to be finding its feet. The emergence of Zaki Nuseibeh as a calming voice of reason – talking about building sustainably and responsibly has replaced the eery silences of last year. In addition, we have enjoyed some good PR with the squad numbers, the symbolic signing of Kash Siddiqi and Zaki himself talking about the regulation of clubs in the light of what has happened to Bury.

But despite that steadying hand, Robinson pursues his campaign to please with a maddening thrill-ride of entertaining, but ultimately unproductive football.

Based on last year, the results should come. With Bury’s demise and Bolton’s points deduction, the trapdoor is significantly smaller. But, if we are to do more than simply survive then we seem to have gone the wrong way about it. Wycombe are currently top; a team who specialise in working within their limitations and not over-stretching. The fantasists may have one eye on the Championship at the moment, but I suspect internally they see each point now as a step towards survival from relegation in May. If they’re in a similar position at Christmas, perhaps they’ll readjust their expectations.

At the moment we’re not recognising our limitations – cohesion, fitness, a shaky defence – as a result, we’re over-stretching and being picked off. Stopping the rot should be the focus, even if it means abandoning some of our principles.