Maths of the Day – September

You might want to look at this through your fingers; no three game losing streak is ever going to look good when you pick through the stats. Or does it? Not in the short term, but longer term, things might not be so bleak. It’s Maths of the Day for September.

Five game form

It probably won’t come as much of a shock to anyone that our form in September has plummeted from an all-time high of 15 points in five games to just four points from a possible 15. Only Michael Appleton’s first weeks in charge were worse. Even the win over Peterborough didn’t allow a bounce back, just replacing the 3 points won against Gillingham. 

46 game tracker

Looking longer term, however, shows a little kick-up from the Peterborough win. Michael Appleton had a pretty good September last year with two wins and two draws, so the three defeats against Blackpool, Walsall and Bury this year did take their toll. Those claiming terminal decline, though, might be being a bit premature; we finished last season on 72 points, and in the 46 games to Peterborough we picked up exactly the same number. The dip in form isn’t comfortable, but what it’s actually done is take us to where we were on the last day of last season, when confidence and optimism was high. Just shows how easily distracted we can be by short term form.

Run rate

To re-inforce the point, looking at the run-rate, we finish September on exactly the same number of points we finished with this time last year. Not as good as our promotion season, not as bad as Michael Appleton’s first year; bang in the middle. What’s more, if you cast forward you’ll see a flatline from last season (6 points out of a possible 18). Even moderate form during October should see us improving on last year. If we consider that we finished the season just 4 points short of the play-offs, it shows that despite everything, we are still in a good position.

Northampton wrap – Oxford United 0 Northampton Town 1

Christmas is a great roosting of families. People gathering to spend a day in an enclosed space veiled in an unnaturally consistent, artificially heated, climate. At first, there’s the gathering of the flock, a sense of togetherness, a sense of fellowship and well-being. But then, there is a point, usually signalled by the first sprouty burp of Christmas dinner, where you crave for the fug to be blown away by a chill wind, the increasing need to re-engage with the world beyond your living room, away from the constant call of food and drink. That release, for many, comes through football on Boxing Day.

As a result, the crowd at Boxing Day football is an unusual one; young women in those wooly hats with oversized fluffy bobbles neutrally coloured with matching gloves, the older brother back from London comparing the Kassam to when he watched a game from a box at Stamford Bridge, visiting friends in wonder at the novelty of it all, over-excited children suffering separation anxiety from their new X-Boxes. It is the only day of the season where you will see middle-aged women handing round a pocketful of Celebrations swiped from the bowl in the living room before leaving.

For season ticket regulars, we host the party. When I’ve taken friends to a game on Boxing Day, I become the font of all knowledge. Can I get tickets? What time to leave? Where might we park? Do we have time for a drink before the game? In return, I display Jedi-like knowledge of every movement and twitch around the ground – “There’s Martin Brodetsky” I’ll say with a flamboyant wave in his general direction. My guests respond with a deferential nod as though I have accurately identified a rare sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

I wouldn’t swap it for anything, but football without context is just a really erratic sub-genre of the entertainment industry. The families who come as much for the fresh air as anything expect a win. But football doesn’t work like that; it’s like watching an over of a test match and expecting it to decide the result of all five-days’ play.

Last year I came with a friend who purred at what he was watching; Baldock, Roofe, Lundstram, Sercombe and an Exeter team in abject form being thrashed around like a whale killing a seal. This year’s game against Northampton was never going to be like that, no team in League 1 is going to be turned over like that, at least not by us, not at the moment.

As the minutes ticked on and the game petered out, people began to drift away. Even at half-time there seemed to be a glut of vacant blue seats that weren’t there in the first 45 minutes. It was clear the ‘show’ wasn’t delivering what was expected. But, this isn’t pantomime, you can’t guarantee that the Aladdin with marry a princess. When they scuffed in their last minute winner, it signalled a cue for a great exit and within seconds the stadium looked like it did at a mundane fixture during the barren League 2 years. Only the regulars remained.

Inevitably, some conflated the rumblings about stewarding and flags and Darryl Eales’ ‘hard-hitting’ programme notes with an evident downturn in form. In truth, they were pretty average but got a lucky break. None of this was helped by the fact it was Northampton; the target of Michael Appleton’s hilariously indefensible statements on us being ‘statistically’ the best team in the division last year. He’s wrong, of course, not that I would trade anything we achieved last year for what they achieved. It just made it a more galling defeat, but it was no more signal of our imminent collapse as the previous eight games undefeated was a signal we were going up.

Boxing Day football blows away the cobwebs of a Christmas party hangover. It feels like 2016 has been one long party at the club. Everyone has got a bit tired and emotional and the hangovers are kicking in; perhaps we just need 2017 to come to start afresh.

Promotion wrap – Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0


We’ve had promotions before, we’ve had derby wins, we’ve had trips to Wembley, we’ve had giant killings. We’ve never had all four in one season. And that should tell you all you need to know about this year.
Before the Wycombe game, someone on Twitter worked out the various permutations of the final day; we would be promoted in all but a handful of them. Success was not quite inevitable, but failure seemed inconceivable. It wasn’t arrogance, it’s just that it was impossible to think that after months in the automatic places, after everything we’ve been through, that it might actually end up in a big wet play-off shaped fart.
The situation was almost identical 20 years ago when we went into the game against Peterborough needing a win at home to get promoted. We did it comfortably and joyously and I couldn’t imagine it being any different this time. But, as an evidence base and reference point, this was somewhat outdated.
Like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, there was still a theoretical, undefinable, inconceivable threat. Wycombe could frustrate us; motivated to spoil the party. We could freeze. This is, after all, Oxford United.
In response, the club did what the club does these days; it ignored the what-ifs, and defused the tension with a bar-b-que for the fans at the Oxford Academy. The philosophy was to behave like where you want to be, not where you’re at; not eaten by anxiety, but already, effectively, promoted.
The sun shone, and the fans came, and the club delivered another PR masterstroke in a season of masterstrokes.
At the Kassam, people buzzed around the stadium not quite knowing what to do. People sat in their cars reading newspapers having secured their usual spot hours earlier. Their routines disrupted by the size of the crowd and the prospects of what was in store. In the South Stand Upper there was near-silence as people fixated on the TV showing the Middlesbrough v Brighton game trying to avoid talking about what might happen after-3pm.
Earlier, I’d met Brinyhoof in the bar, he was talking with some people from the FOUL days and the old Oxford indie scene who now have management jobs, raise children and pay into pension schemes while running social media accounts for bands that were once wan, willowy and pretty and now portly, raising children and paying into pension schemes. “He used to play in Hurricane No. 1”, he tells me afterwards.
We go in early and do a quick tour of the South Stand, spotting faces from the old days. They work for the club nowadays, or volunteer, or run blogs and podcasts or just hang around social media sites living out the despair and occasional triumphs.
We have the ’86 generation and the ’96 generation. A generation that fund, arrange and make the displays that have transformed the soulless Kassam Stadium into the broiling hive it’s been this year.
At the heart of the revolution is Darryl Eales and Michael Appleton, of course, and the players. But at the heart of the club are the same people who have seen us through relegations and false dawns and disappointments and non-league football and near-liquidation. These people, so attuned to failure, were also confident and calm, more excited than worried.  
Wycombe didn’t roll over though. An early goal may have broken their spirit, but it didn’t come and they went about their business disrupting our rhythm. With the sun beating down and nervous tension things threatened to overheat; it wasn’t pleasant.
And then the rain came, a biblical downpour that hammered down on the roof of the stadium making a cacophonous noise like I’ve never heard before. If this was a rock concert, it was the equivalent of getting a couple of acoustic guitars out and playing some ballads to give the crowd a rest.
Cooled by the rain, Wycombe’s initial burst of energy subsided and the elastic began to stretch, but we still needed something to make it snap. In 1996 it was Giuliano Grazioli’s misplaced header from a Joey Beauchamp corner. Twenty years on; Chris Maguire delivered another corner into the box and careering through a crowd of bodies thundered Chey Dunkley to make a connection. Snap. 1-0.
In many ways Dunkley is the archetype of the Appleton-era. I thought he’d been brought from non-league football as a cheap wage but over the last year he’s developed physically and technically. He is a player who wants to learn and work and the kind that will respond to Appleton’s developmental approach to coaching.
Maguire makes it two from the spot. More the finished article, he seems the type that would respond to Appleton’s desire for players to think for themselves rather than play to a rigid system. For all the talk of Roofe, Hylton, Sercombe and Lundstram, it’s Maguire and Dunkley more than anyone else who have carried us over the line.
There’s a sign in the back of the East Stand ‘A Time For Heroes’, a few weeks ago it looked like ours were injured or exhausted, but the void was filled by Dunkley and Maguire along with Josh Ruffels; a forgotten man who turned out performances whenever and wherever needed. A special-team to close out a special season.
The tension from the ground evaporated. Lundstram’s passing became more expansive, Roofe looked more mobile, at one point Jake Wright majestically picked up a ball from the edge of the box and waltzed out into midfield like Bobby Moore.
Then the coronations, MacDonald jogs off; a player who gave up a promotion push with Burton to join the revolution and never once let his enthusiasm drop. He was the first, the vanguard. When George Baldock went back to MK Dons and Jonjoe Kenny came in there was a worry that it might be enough to burst the bubble, but MacDonald mentored Kenny, protected and supported him and helped him develop into another asset. Did we miss Baldock? Yes. But nowhere near as much as was feared.
Hylton and Roofe are replaced to deserved standing ovations. Roofe almost transcends the club now, which is why I think Hylton won the fans’ player of the year. It’s the mix of ability and application, plus eccentricity and triumph over adversity that makes Danny Hylton and the club he plays for a little bit different.
And in the final seconds; a moment to file alongside THAT goal by Alfie Potter. O’Dowda, picks the ball up, rides a few half-hearted challenges and wrong foots the keeper to make it three. An Oxford boy confirming an Oxford triumph. There’s are shades of Joey Beauchamp’s last goal before he went to West Ham; cutting in from the right in front of the home end. That was Beauchamp’s farewell… And O’Dowda?
There are two things that have dawned on me about promotions. Firstly, I know that players rarely support their club, but I want their time with us to be the best of their career, and, the reason I want promotion is not really for me, but for them, to reward them for their effort throughout the season.
Were we the best team in the division? That’s an argument that will never end, the table tells you one thing, but look more broadly and it’s closer than you’d think. We scored more goals and conceded less than Northampton, if you factor in our cup games, we only won one game less. If you consider the physical and mental challenge of our season compared to theirs, then there’s a reasonable argument to say that we have been at least on par. Experimental 361 did some analysis that showed how effective we’d been and Chris Wilder himself once admitted that we were the best footballing team. Were we the best? Yeah, why not?

It’s difficult to overstate how close I was to giving up on Oxford last year. I was bored of the false dawns and wasted Saturdays. I was no longer bound by a blind youthful loyalty, maybe I could pick and choose my games like a casual fan. This season was a last chance saloon, I had visions of signing off this blog and actually walking away from the club, going to find something better to do with my limited spare time. And then this season happened, and it has reignited everything I love about the club; success and excitement, tension, camaraderie, but also effort and hard work and reward. Oxford United, how did I ever doubt you?  

Carlisle wrap – Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2


This is like a big three-dart checkout. Hartlepool was the first throw; it just needed to be as big as possible. The second throw, at Carlisle, needed something similar but also confirmed what was needed for the third and final throw. Each one step closer, each ratcheting up the pressure a little more.
And this is it, there is almost no margin for error; three points at home to Wycombe and the previous 67.5 hours of league football this year will have all been worthwhile, anything less and, well…
We haven’t beaten Carlisle in Cumbria for 20 years when Matt Elliot smashed that goal in. With that kind of record, fans might have been forgiven for forgoing the 500+ mile round trip in favour of chewing their nails in front of the radio. Instead, more than 2,200 made the trip north, a demonstration of unflinching support and belief; the club is a bit like that nowadays.
That last win at Carlisle was part of a run that took us to promotion, an omen that the gods are smiling on us? The momentum is definitely with us. Wycombe’s season is all played out, their form is reassuringly abject. There’s an idea that the debatable local rivalry will fuel their desire but I’m not so sure that will transfer to the players who will be worrying about contracts and the beach. We’ve been nursing players through games and worrying about the future, but on Saturday we can leave everything on the pitch and pick up the pieces over the summer.
But, I’m always reminded of what Tony Adams said before the 1998 World Cup. The consensus view was that England were certain to reach the quarter-final with semi-finals or final place a possibility.
Adams, however, stressed that even meeting the minimum expectation required effort and application, relying on theoretical superiority is not enough.
We need to be absolutely focussed on the task at hand, to do all the right things, everything we’ve been doing all season, just one more time. Thankfully, we have big-game experience invested in this squad. Our runs in the FA Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy have battered us this year but, ironically, the very thing that has made this more uncomfortable than we’d have wanted, could be the very thing that sees us over the line.

The battle is joined. See you Saturday.  

Newport and Hartlepool wraps

Newport County 1 Oxford United 1

On the eve of the anniversary of our best day, the Newport game felt like this year’s worst day. With question marks over the goalkeeper and illness and injury throughout the the team, it felt like all the hard work of the season was suddenly in jeopardy. It feels like we’re a middle distance runner going out hard in the hope we can hang on in the final stretch. It wasn’t so much our position or even the result against Newport, it was the overall direction of travel that was of concern.

And with good reason, we’ve not had form like this since we suffered back-to-back defeats to Hartlepool and Shrewsbury last season. At the final whistle we’d taken just six points from five games meaning we were left with four contenders fighting for two places with just a point between them all.

The following day the club gallantly knife and forked the Milk Cup celebrations; everyone smiled bravely while calculating the what-ifs for the rest of the season. It was like the gentry were celebrating the Queen’s birthday while a desperate war raged around them.

Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

The need for a Dunkirk spirit is one which can make or break you.

The week started with MacDonald on a drip in hospital, O’Dowda on his sick bed, Skarz out for the season, Lundstram breaking down in training and Roofe nursing an injury.

But the spirit can galvanize you also and all ultimately played their part. Joe Skarz typified the spirit; where he could easily have written off his season, instead he got his head down and worked to drag himself back into the team. Just when we need experience and he comes to our rescue.

Earlier in the season, when we were flying, we benefitted from at least one player driving things forward, Roofe, Hylton, Lundstram and Sercombe all had periods of running the team. Skarz was always there, but he was never the star of the show. We’ve been lacking a star recently, maybe he’s going to be the unlikely hero of the final push.

In truth, ignoring the context, we were excellent and pretty comfortable throughout the game against Hartlepool. We benefitted from Ruffels and Maguire’s more compact game, we benefited from the tension and the need not to take risks. We were happy with the need to win rather than entertain. It drove a discipline with no silly lapses like against Luton. And at the same time we entertained in an uncomfortable, gnawing kind of way.

At the end our two enfant terribles; Maguire, who sometimes struggles to switch on and Hylton who struggles ever to switch off, held the ball at the corner flag balancing pragmatism and professionalism with impishness and creativity. It was a microcosm of the performance.

By god it’s tense, but the truth is that we’re not throwing away promotion, we’re thriving heroically in the face of growing adversity.

Luton wrap – Oxford United 2 Luton Town 3

Luton Town is a horrible club. I mean they are a horrible club, but I also mean that they are a horrible club to face at this stage of the season. They are rarely terrible, but if you look at the table, neither are they wildly successful. This is a dangerous thing to encounter; a banana skin duly slipped up on.

Their first goal was a mess, but these things happen, a catalogue of errors. The second one, though technically the best of their three, was truly criminal. Having conceded so horribly and so close to half-time, it was time to slow everything down, retain the ball and re-group over the break. But, we flapped and floundered and they scored again.

What is needed now is cool heads, we have bags of ability, but minds are tired and we’ve got to think a bit more about managing games. We’re lacking the steadying presence of Joe Skarz, Ryan Taylor, Alex MacDonald and Jake Wright. These are the players that provide the platform for others to play.

Only Jake Wright is fit, of course, which presents a problem; where to play him. There was some debate about changing the system to accommodate Wright – either in a back three with Dunkley and Mullins, or with Mullins, or Wright, playing as a full-back – a role both have played, without ever looking entirely comfortable.

Changing the system seems to be a risk though. Let’s remind ourselves that we are still the second best team in this division, in the main the system works. But, I think it’s time to get experience into the team by whatever means possible; and that means finding space for Wright in the starting line-up. But, who does he replace?

Chey Dunkley has been excellent, rightly voted player of the month, and he offers something at set-pieces that we’ve missed for years. But Wright is a settling influence who alongside Mullins provides a solid foundation for the rest of the team. This is harsh on Dunkley, and no reflection on him or his performances, but I think we gain more than we lose by bringing in Wright. We need to bring in experience wherever we can get it.

Saturday was a blow, although our form is better than people perceive – this is partly down to the distorting impact of our less than stellar home form. We need to remember we’re still second and that we were never likely to secure promotion before the last couple of games of the season anyway.

Cool heads is what we need, on and off the pitch.

Crawley wrap – Crawley Town 1 Oxford United 5

Winning is about two competing mind-sets – the first is the sense of being unbeatable. If you don’t believe you can win, then any set-back will crush you. The second mind-set is about recognising that you are not, in fact, unbeatable. More specifically, winning comes only from the application of effort and not a god given invincibility. If you don’t put effort in, you get beaten.

Get the balance between the two mind-sets right and you’ve got the winning formula. Following the mauling of Crawley, you get a sense we’re right in that sweet spot.

Six days after Wembley, three teams breathing down our neck, several key players out and a goal down; that could have punctured anyone’s confidence. Instead, a belief in our ability added to the rigorous application of a tried and trusted system resulted in a spectacular second half display. And with it emphatic confirmation of our promotion credentials.

The net result is that, from a position where we looked like we were being dragged into a dogfight, we’ve once again stretched the gap between us and fourth.

All of this was achieved without Roofe, Lundstram, Skarz, Taylor or Wright – certain starters before Christmas. There’s a moment after Maguire’s opener where he celebrates with Josh Ruffels and Jordan Evans – three players who weren’t on the scene pre-Christmas now playing a key part in getting us up.

All of which points to the durability of the squad; the players change, the system doesn’t, the results are the same. If we can go into a game without these players and still win, you’ve got to be confident about the future both short term and long term.

Wembley, which could have been a destructive experience, may have had the galvanising effect we need. We are good enough to get promoted as long as we rigorously apply the process we’ve followed all season. We’re top of a four horse race, we’re four points clear; sometimes it feels like those horses are gaining on us, but none are showing a run of form to worry about. With Wembley out of the way and promotion within our grasp, it’s difficult to see what will stop us now.