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.
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?
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 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.
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.