Yellows 2 Histon 0

It was a symbolic act parading Sam Deering around at shoulder height after his goal. Aside from looking like the player of the season trophy for a Sunday League team, his presence on the field may be a defining factor this season, although not for the reasons most people think.

Deering is revered in the stands, and Chris Wilder was once on record as saying that he was the most talented player in the squad. Yet, he hasn’t proved much of a goalscorer, nor a goal provider. Statistically, he’s not been much of a player. That said, he does put defences under constant pressure – a characteristic of yesterday’s win against Histon.

But, Deering’s role transcends his position on the pitch. He represents the man in the stands – if he’s alright, we’re alright. He’s (sort of) homegrown. He’s young and small and nippy. He’s a cheeky, chirpy, (sometimes racist), chappy. He proved that the God of Flukey Dead-ball Goals that so cruelly smited us on Tuesday, is an even handed overlord.

He gives the fans a focal point through which to channel their energy, and because he’s so charismatic, the energy is typically positive. It meant that the likes of Hargreaves, who was sensational yesterday, and Midson were able to grind away and establish a foothold in the game which others – Tonkin in particular, were able to exploit.

The Oxford crowd is notoriously edgy and with the scores level at half-time it would have been easy for the post-Luton panic to seep onto the pitch. But Deering’s presence kept the baying crowd back until we regained our step. We are the best squad in the league and the title has been in our hands all along, the fans can draw us away from that fact. Every game from here on in is ‘crucial’, but there is no need to fear any one of them. Deering is the regulator of our expectation.

Yellows 2 York 1, Kettering 1 Yellows 1, Histon 3 Yellows 4

There is no greater sporting spectacle than the Tour de France. This year Mark Cavendish won six stages finishing 131st, whilst fellow Brit Bradley Wiggins won none and finished fourth. It was a great British performance but also illustrates the key to our season.

To finish well in the overall race (General Classification or GC) you need to know when to attack. If you compete in the sprints, as Cavendish does brilliantly, you’ll get a lot of glory but no time benefits because everyone finishes together.

However, it is in the mountains and during time trials where time and the GC is won or lost. This year was no exception; early on Cavendish took stage after stage, while the main contenders remained pretty anonymous choosing to stay out of trouble, away from crashes and not use too much energy.

On the stage 15 to Verbier the true race for the GC, began to emerge. A group of riders hit the final climb of the stage; the elevation and speed began to tell and the also-rans fell away (including Cavendish who smiled knowingly as he let the others ride away). Eventually, the only riders left were the giants of the tour – Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, the Frank and Andy Schleck and Bradley Wiggins. They weren’t mucking around at the back of the field; when others cracked; they were ready to capitalise.

On the penultimate stage to Mont Ventoux, the pretenders and also-rans again fell away leaving the big five to fly up its slopes. Contador was mercurial in his victory, Wiggins immense. These two stages, plus two time trials, decided the whole race. The rest was about being sensible and strategic and not losing focus of the overall goal.

The Tour teaches us a good lesson about our season. Storming into an early lead sets expectations, grubbing around with also-rans brings about doubt and pressure. Early on we should be happy to stay amongst those who will eventually compete for the title. Us, Luton and the re-constructed Cambridge look like the ones to keep an eye on for now, Altrincham would appear to be doing a Cavendish, basking in some short term glory, but they should fall away eventually.

Following a home and away win (two potential demons out of the way) bookending the 1-1 draw at Kettering and we are ‘in-play’. We don’t want to be leading from the front too early even though it’s conceivable we will be before the end of the week. This will bring its own expectations and pressures and we’d do well to remember that conceding the lead this early in the season will do us little harm.

Our Verbier and Ventoux is likely to be between the Cambridge game on 19th December and AFC Wimbledon on the 23rd February. That’s when the title race should be decided (or at least, our role in it). If we can be top in February, the title should be ours. The trick for now is to stay out of trouble; which is precisely what we’ve been doing for the first week. Good work.

Yellows 2 Histon 1

For the opening quarter of an hour yesterday we were like an angsty teenager with a persecution complex. There was lots of niggly arguing with the ref, anger at innocuous challenges. It was as though we were pre-empting failure, assuming that some greater force had decided our destiny. We’ve failed so many times in these must-win games our demeanor was all about built up frustration and anger.

Like the teenager, every minor set back is laden with the failures of the past. A bad decision is the decision, plus our capitulation a couple of years ago, plus relegation from the league, plus Firoz Kassam, plus Steve Anthrobus and every other disaster bestowed on us in the last decade. We don’t have a bedrock of confidence to work from. So, Histon’s goal was offside, or was it? It was marginal. But this is Oxford and marginals work against us.

Then Billy Turley, the ultimate fatalist professional footballer, with confidence entwined into his DNA, collapses under a challenge. Brilliantly hammed up, it was laughable. Silly Billy, he should have been booked. But Turley works differently; if you don’t ask you don’t get. And we got. Red card. Billy’s ‘recovery’ marked with a backward roll. See what happens when you have a bit of confidence, you go out on a limb and get what you want.

It acted like a defibrillator injecting confidence through the team, and at once we realized that we are good and we just had to let the quality flow and not force it. That said, a goal up with 10 men, the Histon game plan was clear. Defend. The game turned into defence versus attack and for long periods it was getting a bit formulaic. Exciting, but it was beginning to look like Histon would hold out, if not for a win, at least for a draw.

But, if Wilder’s team has anything, it’s patience. I, like many, were waiting for the introduction of Yemi. Desperate times lead to desperate measures and we needed Yemi to produce another 10 minutes of, decidedly un-formulaic magic, like he did ”against Dagenham a couple of years ago. But Wilder trusts his instincts, and so he should. The breakthrough came. We actually won a must-win game and that is just not the Oxford way. The end was an odd anti-climax – 3 minutes of injury time was reasonable, we played it out. The whistle went – some of us old lags were still waiting for Histon to lash in an equalizer from 40 yards.

If this season does end successfully and its legacy is buried with ‘96, ‘86, ‘85, ‘84 and other great seasons, then it will be sealed with a label entitled “The curious ‘death’ of Billy Turley”.

Dorchester 1 Yellows 3 (aet), Histon 5 Yellows 2, Yellows 1 Kidderminster 0

Boo! We won.

Have we become drunk on failure? We know it’s bad for us, but we’ve consumed so much in the last decade, we can’t live without it. The penalty on Tuesday was greeted with apoplexy, the final whistle with boos. We don’t know how to enjoy our football.

But we won, against a team in 4th, and rarely looked like surrendering the lead. Kidderminster were prettier, but it was all a bit ineffective.

Of course, most of the booing was an echo from Saturday’s hammering at Histon. First, however, some perspective. As unfashionable as Histon is, they are the best team in the division. Take the names and reputations out of the equation and a defeat to the best team in the division is not quite the shame it might be.

But that’s too simple; of course, we have our pride built from our glorious history. We don’t get beaten by teams like Histon. So while Darren Patterson grapples with creating a squad that can compete with next to no money, his biggest challenging is taming the beast that is The Club and all it stands for.

It’s not Patterson’s team that’s failing; it’s his ability to exert authority over the club. His repeated use of the phrase “I’ve got to be honest with you.” opens him to ridicule, his use of the transfer list as a ‘naughty step’ seems cack-handed.

A manager needs to demand the respect of not just his players, but the media and the fans. In this respect he seems a dead man walking; every home game is one to save his job, and when that happens it’s only a matter of time before he goes. After all, we will, inevitably, lose at home at some point – which is likely to be the tipping point.

Still, I say keep him, we’re in the cup following the win against Dorchester – where, again, we obsessed over the manner of the win rather than the win itself. This is Patterson’s lifeline at the moment.

Us 3 Histon 0, Us 1 Droylsden 0

As I was concentrating a month’s worth of drinking into a single glass of Absinthe at a stag do in Belgium, the Us were concentrating a season’s worth of excitement into 90 minutes against Histon. Lets face it, the season has been so devoid of excitement; it had to be hiding somewhere.

Like one of those children expressing their feelings of being unloved by trashing their room behind their parents’ backs and blaming it on ghosts. I returned to the Kassam for yesterday’s win over Droylsden to find little to justify the obvious sense that things had turned the corner.

That’s not to say things haven’t improved. The new signings are all plainly better (or at least, less tainted) than those they’ve replaced. But we remain pretty flabby down the right.

A lot of this was blamed on Anaclet’s performance, fitness may have been a factor, but he’s previously stated his unease in playing on the wing, and with the patchy Day sitting behind him, it’s unlikely he’ll turn on the style with that configuration. Personally, I’d play Anaclet at right-back with Yemi on the wing; although Yemi is more an agitator than a winger. Someone on the right is still needed; Yemi’s position looks destined to be as super-sub.

So, my brief fears of an unlikely relegation have been extinguished, but a blistering charge to the play-offs is surely out of the question. It has been the most awful of seasons, but at least there is some light appearing. We should be grateful for small mercies.

Histon 1 Us 0

So what now for The Special One? Our Special One.

Let us not forget what Jim Smith achieved for the club; from lower league humdrum to the top division in three years. The Milk Cup win was the pinnacle, but Smith also put in place a foundation which kept the club in the top two divisions for fifteen years. This legacy must be kept in tact. He is, and always will be, our special one.

Right back at the start of Smith’s reign in the early 80s, when it became clear that Keith Cassells wasn’t going to make it at Southampton, speculation grew that he might come back to Oxford. Smith dismissed the rumour saying that a player should never go back to a club where he was successful.

This is not advice Jim has taken himself, of course, though may be should have. Defeat to Histon, who are not only practically a village team, but are a village team whose preparation for Thursday’s game was to play on Tuesday. That’s just plain and simple failure.

Stuttering form has turned into bad form, and with everything going so flat it’s difficult to see where the impetus from any improvement is going to come from.

So now what? Wait until the Twigglet and Willmott return to give us goals and a defence? Perhaps. But does a team at this level need a manager or do they really need a coach? Smith is a manager through and through. Managers motivate, through praise and criticism, they persuade players to join, they provide an environment in which players can play. Coaches, however, teach players to play. We may think that we’re beyond all that, but maybe we need to get back to basics.

This would lend itself to the conclusion that Smith should move upstairs with Darren Patterson moving into his place. Jim’s relationship with Nick Merry may see him stay, but anything other than a positive result against Salisbury next Tuesday will surely see his position become untenable.