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.

Cambridge wrap – Cambridge United 0 Oxford United 0

Easter was supposed to be telling, but it’s turned out to be as confusing as ever. Bristol Rovers, who looked like they were on a charge faltered at Carlisle, Plymouth, who looked like they were on the slide took maximum points from their two games, and Accrington have returned to the promotion fold like a bad smell.

We had the worst Easter of all the key teams, which was down to the Stevenage result more than the draw with Cambridge. Cambridge retain a remote outside chance of the play-offs, so they were no pushover. The point was fine, it’s just that we really could have done with all three.
Ultimately the picture remains as it has done for months; Northampton continue to run away with it, while Plymouth and ourselves sit in the promotion spots. The others dance around threatening to catch us and then failing to do so. If we were to be scientific and objective, evidence suggests this is how it will remain, it just doesn’t feel much like that.
The run-ins for the key protagonists tells us little, apart from Bristol Rovers’ away game at Northampton on the 9th April, there are few fixtures which would describe as either walk-overs or banana skins. Everyone is involved in a League 2 shitfight from here on in.
The good news is we should return from Wembley in a promotion slot with O’Dowda and Kenny back and Lundstram serving only one more game of his suspension. Plus, Wembley will be behind us and then only thing we’ll have to worry about is getting over the line.

Lundstram (the return, or not, in fact)

So, Lundstram misses Wembley joining Billy Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Adam Murray in the Oxford United Wembley Heartache Hall of Fame.
The key defence was that Lundstram got the ball, but I suspect that’s the least important thing in the argument. The priority is probably the safety of the player and the question of whether Lundstram was in control of his tackle. Key to that, then, is not the foot that made connection with the ball, but the foot that should have been controlling his movement. The replay is inconclusive as whether Lundstram could have controlled his movement to prevent serious injury if he needed to. The referee thought not and I guess the FA couldn’t see sufficient evidence to say otherwise.
It does still seem unfair for Lundstram to miss the JPT for a misdemeanor in the league. If it had been done at any other time during the season it wouldn’t have had an impact on his Wembley appearance. He just seems to be a victim of timing.

Wilder (the return)

Chris Wilder is obsessed with our failure, it seems. Key evidence for this was an extract in the Football League Paper tweeted by Radio Oxford’s own charity mugger; Selfy.

“Some other teams in this division can play fantastic football but they might win one week and get beat the next and they’ll be playing League 2 football next year. Or they’ll be in the play-offs at best. We’ll be champions and we’ll be in League One.”

The implication was that he’s referring to us, which seems unlikely given that we’re not a team hoping for the play-offs ‘at best’. I think it’s a more general point that winning the title is the definitive statement of ‘success’ not whether it’s done in the right way or not is irrelevant.
That’s not to say Wilder wouldn’t be happy seeing us fail. There’s a perverse pleasure in seeing your former employer struggle because it shows important you were to their success.
But, that assumes Wilder, had he chosen to stay at Oxford, would still be the manager now and therefore ‘doing a Northampton’. Even if he had survived the Eales takeover – which is unlikely – I suspect his results last season would have been little better than they were under Michael Appleton. In all likelihood Wilder would have produced another ‘nearly’ season, which he probably wouldn’t have survived.
Obsession is a emotive, but I suspect once Northampton have got promotion his next favourite thing would be for us not to be promoted. Which is all very disingenuous because without his success at Oxford, he wouldn’t have the Northampton job in the first place.
So Wilder is comparing Oxford United as it is today, barely a reflection on the club he left, against an Oxford United that might have existed in the very unlikely event that he’d have been allowed to continue managing the club. Which, ultimately, is Wilder creating an argument with a himself, something he seems prone to do.

Stevenage wrap – Oxford United 1 Stevenage 1

One thing psychologists increasingly believe is that punishment doesn’t work. John Lundstram’s red card against Stevenage will see him miss Wembley, but that doesn’t teach him to tackle properly. In fact, it just breeds contempt and anxiety, his frustrations at missing the game could outlast the punishment, the fear of consequences from producing another bad tackle at a crucial time could leave him a lesser player.
But surely a bad tackle can’t be left unpunished? Well, no, but look at the consequences of the challenge. He was sent off and we struggled to scrape together a point, where we could and should have comfortably gained three. Everyone around us won putting pressure on future games.
So there were consequences of Lundstram’s challenge, but to keep punishing him, and particularly ban him from a trip to Wembley, seems pointlessly harsh.
His replacement next week is likely to be Josh Ruffels, which has its advantages. For one, Barnsley won’t know him, but also Ruffels’ game is more compact. Wembley offers Lundstram a perfect opportunity to use the full range of his passing, but if that’s stopped, we’d struggle. Ruffels playing percentages may force a more counter-attacking style which could work well with the pace of Roofe, power of Bowery and unpredictability of Hylton.  
The Stevenage game felt like going to work without a belt on. Slightly awkward and uncomfortable, but not in a way that anyone outside would really notice.
Lundstram’s challenge looked very suspect on first viewing although with the benefit of slow motion it doesn’t look quite as bad. Any appeal is likely to hinge on whether the referee is considered to have made a reasonable judgement; which he did, or whether he made precisely the correct decision, which, maybe, he didn’t.
In addition, it was a lot to ask Mullins at right-back to bomb up and down the flank as Baldock or Kenny might. It all left us a bit toothless upfront rather than vulnerable at the back.
In addition, the foul for the penalty was so ludicrous, it was like the referee couldn’t bring himself to issue a red card for risk of devaluing the whole idea of sending someone off. It was, however, clearly a goalscoring opportunity and a should have been a straight red.

Once again, Roofe got into a spat with another player. Previously it was Chris Maguire against Orient, on Saturday it was Sercombe for the penalty. What’s driving this? It can’t have helped Sercombe’s preparation for the penalty. Perhaps Roofe has got an eye on John Aldridge’s goalscoring record and has lost a little bit of focus on the bigger picture, maybe he’s become a little bit too starry, maybe he knew that with 10 men, playing with one up front, his chances would be at a premium. Whatever the reason, it’s got to stop if it’s not going to cause wider problems.

Barnet wrap – Barnet 0 Oxford United 3

A family trip to the theatre meant that not only did I miss Barnet – one of my usual away days – I was also completely out of touch with the progress of the game from start to finish. The theatre was an  internet blackspot so I had no updates at all. I came out to see a tweet featuring a ‘third wicog’, so I knew things had gone well.

Barnet away was always going to be tricky, they have good home form and Martin Allen is just the kind of manager Michael Appleton struggles to contain. A point would have been good, three excellent, 3-0 out of this world. The euphoria was understandable, even though seeing only the result is still disorientating when you don’t know how the points were won – were there sendings off? Did we actually get battered? Did Kemar Roofe get career-ending knee injury in the last minute?

The table also has a slightly disconcerting look to it. I saw that Plymouth lost and we were six points clear of third, but it was Bristol Rovers and not the Pigrims sitting behind us. Rovers, unusually for a form team in this division, have managed to penetrate the top three. A few times this year we’ve seen teams move threateningly up the table only to fall away; Portsmouth, Mansfield and Accrington. As a result, we are six points from third, which is great, but also six points off fourth which is as it was before Barnet. While the win against Barnet was a good one, looking at the table you could say that because both teams behind us have a game in hand, there are two threats to our automatic promotion place rather than one.

The question, I suppose, is whether Plymouth and Rovers’ current trajectories permanent or temporary. Have Plymouth blown a gasket which they can’t recover from? Are Rovers going to do a Northampton and barely drop another point for the rest of the season? We know both are good teams; both very capable of going up automatically, but what we don’t know is whether there are two teams charging after us or one… or indeed, none. Easter will be telling.

Any other business

On Saturday morning I woke to a minor Twitter storm, Firoz Kassam had made a rare public appearance to talk about building a fourth stand. It opened old wounds – was Kassam a slum landlord and asset stripper or someone who just wasn’t very good at running a football club?

My view is that it’s was a bit of both. I think he started with intentions of making Oxford a successful club, look at the managers he brought in – Joe Kinnear, Ray Harford, Ramon Diaz, even Ian Atkins and Brian Talbot had lower league pedigree. And then there are some of his player purchases – Tommy Mooney, Andy Scott, Paul Moody – not wild successes with hindsight, but they were established players who cost money to bring in.

While he won major battles off the pitch, winning a war that had lasted decades to move the club, Kassam couldn’t make it work on the pitch. Backed into a corner, he simply gave up and went back to what he knew best; making money from desperate people with few choices.

Anyway, now he’s back talking about completing the stadium in his name. I’m fairly certain he would like to complete the stadium if he could make it viable, which I think is the key. Making it viable requires approval for his plan to build houses near the ground. Rather than returning like a benevolent uncle, I think he’s using the current good vibes around the club to stimulate interest in his house building project. To be honest, if it does end up with a fourth stand, then the methods he uses to get it done doesn’t both me at all.

Dagenham wrap – Oxford United 4 Dagenham and Redbridge 0

In another world, Michael Appleton steps forward for his post-match interview following the win over Dagenham and Nathan Cooper asks one of those questions, like he does, which contains the answer.

“So Michael, a comfortable night and a professional job, you can only play what’s in front of you, I guess?”

In this other world, rather than Appleton parroting back that it was a professional job and you can only play what’s in front of you, he says…

“To be honest, it was a piece of piss.”

And it was, if there was going to be an easy game, it was this one. Pretty much the only thing that remains of Dagenham’s League status is the font on the back of their shirts. This was a game against a Conference team, and not a good one either. If you want more proof, watch our final goal, we turned into the Harlem Globetrotters.

So it’s kind of difficult to know if we’ve turned the corner at home. The wins over Dagenham and York have as much a distorting effect on our form as the quick-fire defeats by Northampton and Accrington did last month.

We do seem to be seeing the benefits of having more direct players in the team; Chey Dunkley is a proper no-nonsense defender, Alex MacDonald is an intuitive firebrand, despite his manager’s preference for him to calm down a bit, and George Waring is a player who seems to know his role in life is not to do sophisticated round-the-corner flicks.

For a team that has a habit of over-playing things, the structure offered by Dunkley, MacDonald and Waring allows the likes of Roofe to run amok; it worked last night and I can see it working again.

But, whether this is the solution to take us through to promotion, it’s almost impossible to say from this game alone. Tuesday was about turning up and banking the points, the club recognised this with their email just to say thank you for making the effort; in another world it might have said ‘Frankly it was a pretty crap night to have to come out, but thanks anyway’ which would have pretty much summed it all up.

Orient wrap – Oxford United 0 Leyton Orient 1

For a promotion clash, our loss to Orient on Saturday started so slowly I thought it was a deliberate tactic from Michael Appleton. I thought he’d adopted the old ‘Rope-A-Dope‘ approach of wearing your opponent out by absorbing their energy and hitting them at pace late on. Afterwards Johnny Mullins put that one to bed saying that they had planned to start brightly, something Appleton confirmed. Maybe it was Orient playing the same game with us, in which case it really seemed to work.

Whatever the reason for our slow start, there’s no doubt that our home form is not up to much.

Last week When Saturday Comes celebrated its 30th birthday; a journey through hooliganism and European bans to the Premier League and billion pound TV deals. One piece of editorial tracks the game from its origins as a test of raw physical ability to what it is today; a statistics driven TV orientated sport based on technique and tactics. We might think of strong arm tactics of ‘anti-football’, but it was the English who thought the Scottish idea of passing the ball was effete anti-football in the early 1900s. Now passing is considered the only way to play the game.

It’s interesting then, that while we have an endless capacity to accept changes in the game, we still linger on the idea that home form is sacred.

Making your stadium a fortress is an old cliche, but increasingly the idea of home advantage is being eroded. Eleven teams in League 2 have equal or better away form than home.  Four more are one away win from joining that club.

Pitches are better, stadiums less intimidating, preparation has improved, travel and accommodation is better and cheaper, plus players are perfectly used to the idea of travelling; Kemar Roofe and Joe Skarz live miles from Oxford, so even our players are playing away to some extent. All the things that might once have provided an advantage to the home team no longer exist.

When Jim Smith was manager his formula for a title was win at home, draw away, but increasingly managers, like Michael Appleton, look at the season in blocks ignoring where the games are played.

But fans still stick to the idea that home form is important – understandable given that’s where they spend most of their money and time, but panics about our home results shouldn’t have the same impact that they used to. One Orient blogger applauded their win on Saturday, signing off that all Kevin Nolan needed to do was work out how to win at home. Sounds familiar?

Maybe we need to look at games as a series of two-legged ties. Averaging four points from each pair of games would give you the title in most years. We’ve taken four or more points  from eight ‘ties’  so far. We’ve taken less than four on four occasions. In addition, there are two more games – Barnet and Wycombe – where we can’t pick up four points. That leaves us with eight fixtures in which we can pick up the magical four half of which just need a point. Northampton’s freakish form might be distorting things, but we are still in an excellent position.