Forest Green and Yeovil Town wraps

Oxford United 1 Forest Green Rovers 0 

Forest Green was much more routine than it perhaps looked. They looked physically bigger than us all over the pitch, which may actually have been due to their vile luminous green shirts. Perhaps they were just conforming to the cliche of the part-time pub player, but I guess it’s more that they’re specifically built to cope with Conference football in the deep winter.

We may have been more lithe, but we also had added sophistication and class. Their strategy was to use their bulk to unsettle us and maybe get something – a goal – they could defend when they tired. It worked, to a point; we couldn’t settle on the ball and the referee couldn’t distinguish between a genuine tackle and a foul. As a result, we couldn’t control the game in the first half and they threatened to snatch a goal.

We just needed to weather the storm, if we could avoid conceding and not tire from the battering, we could press home our quality advantage late in the game. The risk was that they wouldn’t tire (although the way they started, it always it seemed likely they would), that we would concede (we didn’t) and that we were effectively planning to find a winner in a 30 minutes game. Of course, when you have a magician in your side, you’ve always got a chance.

So they leave having given it a good go, we scrape through and avoid the humiliation of a giant killing; which pretty much fitted the template of this kind of game.

Oxford United 3 Yeovil Town 2

Yeovil was an altogether more pleasant and enjoyable experience. Partly because of the performance, but mainly because they were pretty awful and the result, ultimately, didn’t mean very much. There was very little angst in the tie; it was more a cosy night in the pub with friends than a raucous all-nighter.

Even now, just two positive results from Wembley, it is kind of difficult to get excited about the JPT, that said, I did go, which might suggest something is stirring.

Millwall in the next round offers something interesting; Nathan Cooper’s passionate pre-match denunciation of the tie made an interesting point. Promotion from League 2 will not see a significant improvement in crowds – there are few ‘glamour’ clubs. What’s more it’s a heavily ‘northern’ division, meaning very few big away followings. So really, promotion only really means something – in a business sense – if you’re aiming for the Championship, where things really will improve financially.

Survival in League 1 is not really enough to justify the investment currently being made by the owners, so, if we do get promoted this year, we’ve got to compete and beat the likes of Millwall next. The tie will be a really interesting test of how close we are to doing that.

The wrap: Dagenham and Redbridge 0 Oxford United 2

They say winning is a habit. Let’s assume you build a squad of players ready to step up whenever they’re needed rather than a squad of players made up of some you like and other you wouldn’t put out if they were on fire. A successful team drawn from that squad, even if technically ‘weakened’, should be motivated in the same way as your strongest XI. They all train together so the differences in attitude and approach should be fairly marginal.

In a successful squad, even a weakened team is likely to have all the attributes to be a successful one. Which means that unless you deliberately go out to lose, you’re likely to be competitive in every game.

This makes arguments about the relative importance of the JPT and FA Cup academic. Each game, regardless of the competition, is there to be won and if you’re a successful team, it’s very difficult to go out and try not to do that.

It’s an odd time of the season, and it’s going to carry on for the next few weeks with the replay against Braintree, a possible second round tie against Forest Green and another JPT tie. League games become a bit buried.

This has two effects; firstly switching teams on and off is very difficult so you might as well go for everything. Secondly, because of injuries and suspensions, which start to kick in over this period, it is almost impossible to distinguish between weakened and strong team. Take our back-four against Dagenham; on paper a ‘weakened’ defence, but with Johnny Mullins suspended and Jake Wright injured, even if that had been a league game the defence would have looked unfamiliar. Then, next week, with Mullins and Wright potentially back, they could get a run out against Braintree, a game they might otherwise have missed.

That’s the bind of being successful and the thing that successful managers complain about constantly. You get fixture congestion because you’re a decent side, so there’s no real point in prioritising one thing over another; just go for everything.

Coming up: Cambridge

The drop

I missed the Barnet game, so it feels like an age since we were last at home. In fact, my last home Saturday game was Wimbledon, and before that Morecambe. We continue our tour of the lower reaches of the division with Cambridge (18th). It’s still fill-your-boots points-wise, before the December challenge of a relentless cavalcade of fixtures.
We go in with confidence, of course, but a good performance and comfortable victory is important given that we lost last time out and the aforementioned games against Wimbledon and Morecambe were both uncomfortable. The Kassam holds less fear than it did, but Saturday afternoons down the Grenoble Road have yet to bring the best out of us.

Old game of the day

The derby. This is the fixture that all Oxford fans look for when the list comes out in June. The video I wanted to find was one of Phil Whelan trying a back-pass in a bog. I like the obscurity of this video, it’s only had 80-odd views and has little detail behind it. I spent most of it trying to identify our players, particularly who scored our goal, before working out that it was Cambridge, not us, in yellow. We’re in red. IN RED, I TELL YOU.

Swindon Town wrap – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0

The news that James Roberts’ brother Ben had been killed in a road accident last weekend inevitably drew the comment that this was something that really puts football into perspective. It’s as if it’s not possible to calibrate the devastation and heartbreak of something like that against an arbitrary benchmark like football without it actually happening.

The club have chosen to hold a minute’s silence for the game against Wimbledon on Saturday rather before Tuesday’s derby. Maybe they couldn’t be sure that Swindon fans, with their emotional distance from the tragedy, would be able to put it into perspective after all?

It was difficult to contextualise the game in a number of ways. It was Swindon, our arch rivals, and we wanted to win, but it’s the JPT, nowhere near as important as the League. Winning would be great, but was defeat that bad? How far do you take the ‘hatred’ on this occasion? Enough for the game to be meaningful, but not enough for it to become a burden. It’s only the JPT and we had work, college and school in the morning.

Missing the point

Not everyone could rationalise it, of course. When someone smashes up a pub, hurting and scaring people in the name of their football club, is there a point afterwards when they quietly realise how utterly ridiculous they are?

Four arrests were made before the game; three were men over 40. There would be children and partners in their lives. Do they look at those people and think about what they’ve done? Do they think ‘why am I such a cretin?’ or is it ‘I’m such a hero for defending the honour of my football club’? How distorted do you have to be to think that? Presumably there is an motivation behind this, but when has anyone ever been impressed by a wheezing middle aged man breaking beer glasses and swearing indiscriminately? Do they ever think of the futility of it all?

Then there’s the daft charade of social media trolling where each side accuses the other of taking it too seriously. A game of one-downsmanship, if you like. The whole thing is a pantomime, but at the same time it has to mean something in order to be worth anything. Where’s the balance?

The big fans’ showdown came as the teams came out; a truly spectacular display in the East Stand which genuinely stunned in terms of scale and ambition. Our Swindon counterparts, who tried to drum up support for their display via social media and threatened to engulf the city in, um, stickers, unfurled some red and white ribbons which seemed to get tangled in the empty seats. They disappeared before the two teams had completed their handshakes while Oxford held firm.

Chasing shadows
A derby is won in the head; play to form and the result goes to form. But, if the occasion gets the better of you then you’re on a hiding to nothing. Perhaps the display helped secure the victory; confident, dominant, calm; both off and on the field.

We already knew they had problems, but I don’t think anyone anticipated just how big those problems were. They started OK, like a decent League 2 side; like Portsmouth, or us. Passing was crisp, movement was good, but we matched them and they didn’t look a threat. Then Turnbull was sent off and they fell apart alarmingly.

There was bickering all over the pitch – a casual disinterest in the fact their defences were being breached time and time again. Vigouroux’s performance in goal was the most bizarre. The bloke is clearly slightly nuts, but his display seemed to reflect externally what was going on inside his team-mates’ heads.

Of course, a sending off is a blow, but plenty of other teams have adapted to playing us with ten men and done well; as we did with them when James Constable was sent off in 2012. Maybe it was a combination of that, and their current form, and the display, and their injuries and their record against us specifically. They were in chaos, an absolute shambles; at no point did they regain any composure.

Think of Di Canio’s Swindon, or McMahon’s; that was like defeating a caged animal. But last night they whimpered and we passed it around them. Perhaps we were just brilliant and we’re not used being just brilliant, but the lack of fight, plan or purpose after the sending off was startling. It’s not bravado to say that this was one of the worst teams, of any flavour, we’ve ever seen at the Kassam.

We, on the other hand, swept them aside. Passing was expansive, defensively we were robust. We looked a threat down both flanks. Jordan Graham looks a winger in the Beauchamp or Allen mould. Everything was slick and positive; I can’t remember us outclassing a team like that before and for it to be League 1 club, and Them, makes it more special.

Making sense

I don’t like Swindon, it would be odd to have a rival that you did. Ultimately, it’s the rivalry I like; it’s probably the best derby in the lower leagues. I love the feeling of tension and the relief of victory, that it feels meaningful even when, ultimately, it probably isn’t.

We spend our lives putting things into context. Pretty much every job involves a process of rationalising and contextualising; making chaos and irrationality logical and systematic. Everything is a process of distilling things which are complex and difficult into a series of processes and procedures.

To be able to indulge in something as absurd as a football rivalry, and the joy and despair that comes with that is a luxury. It makes no sense outside the bubble of the rivalry and nor should it. Football doesn’t exist to put the death of a young man into context; no thinking person needs football to remind them of that. Football exists because senseless, pointless and frankly depressing things happen and it gives us a glimmer of purpose and hope to prevent us all from going completely mad.

Coming up: Swindon Town

The drop

Most games need context, some can exist in a vacuum; Oxford v Swindon in the JPT is very much the latter. This is not about progression in the tournament, it’s not even about settling any scores, it’s just an opportunity to dook it out with an old friend. A bar brawl rather than an officially sanctioned prize-fight. That’s figuratively, not literally, if you’re a hoolie moron.
There are those who talk about this being a distraction. If it is, then you would have to question our mental capacity to get promoted in the first place. What’s more, it’s here, it’s happening, we’ve got to deal with it.

I’ve been watching Oxford for over 30 years, I’ve seen one Milk Cup and four promotions; that’s a paltry return. Nine derby victories improves that return on investment considerably. We don’t play each other very often; we might as well enjoy it.

Any other business

Let’s be honest, we’re not getting much work done over the next couple of days are we? Whatever it is that you do, and let’s face it, most of us do nothing of any particular value to mankind, can wait until tomorrow. Or, if we win, it can wait until the day after that. So, why not use up the spare time you’ve got to read the Oxblogger series: 30 years of the Swindon Derby.

Old game of the day

So many to choose from; Wilder’s trilogy of wins? the 3-0 Beauchamp-inspired triumph of 1996? Too easy. How about this one? The good old days were rapidly coming to an end in 1999, we’d bought Dean Windass with money we didn’t have, the Manor was falling apart and a saviour by the name of Firoz Kassam was on the horizon.

But, this was a whole heap of fun.

From the blog

This got 3,500 views and was picked up by the Guardian:

“It’s not a rivalry based on class or religion or economics, but on football, two teams that have grown to dislike each other on the football field and in the stands. Important only to those involved. Outsiders are not welcome. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the fixture, and the ambivalence of everyone else, that makes it so intense. When you’re stuck in a vacuum nobody hears you scream, so you might as well scream at each other.”

Read on

Is he the saviour or just another very naughty boy?

Tuesday’s defeat to Southend in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy saw the end of a surprisngly glorious run in a particularly inglorious competition. Where one thing ends, another starts as Tyrone Marsh marked his much anticipated debut with a goal and a pretty good shift. The start of something beautiful? Perhaps.  

When I was growing up, based on very limited information available to me, I assumed that certain things were given. I assumed that all teams were on a trajectory that would eventually lead them to glory in a Wembley final. I had three reference points for this; I supported Ipswich Town when Bobby Robson took them to the FA Cup and UEFA Cup, I supported Oxford United as Jim Smith took them to the top flight before handing the reigns to Maurice Evans and onto Wembley, and I read about Roy Race and Melchester Rovers, and their relentless pursuit of glory.

I also believed that every team had a star striker; Roy Race, Paul Mariner, John Aldridge, Dean Saunders. And I believed that every team had a homegrown hero.

First, there was Andy Thomas and Kevin Brock, then Joey Beauchamp, Chris Allen, Paul Powell, Chris Hackett, Sam Ricketts, Dean Whitehead; a procession of homegrown success stories spanning a couple of decades. But there was a barely perceptible trend; whilst not wholly linear, each batch of homegrown stars was slightly less able than the previous set. For every Joey Beauchamp, there was an increasing number of Mark Druce’s. As you get older, there’s the horrible moment you begin to realise that the conveyor belt of homegrown success is beginning to pump out a load of poop.

You begin to realise, these players are like fattening cattle, they’re really only being prepared for sale. But in a sense, that was OK because selling on players you’ve seen grow up has its own satisfaction. Especially when they’re being fattened at somewhere like Oxford, because its not so galling to see them disappear off to the top flight. Slowly, though, they’re not being picked up by top flight teams, but by teams at the same level as you, then teams lower than you, then local park teams.

There were people like Simon Weatherstone, who scored a hat-trick in the reserves against Arsenal, and Simon Marsh whose solid performances lead him to England Under-21 status and pretty much anyone Mike Ford decided to play when he was caretaker manager. As we entered the Conference, there were people like James Clarke and Alex Fisher. And Aaron Woodley, who for at least one Radio Oxford preview show was being rushed into first team action in order to boost his transfer price.

We love home grown stars; they are us. Fitter, faster, better looking, more skilful versions of ourselves. But most importantly, they live near us. OK, so they might actually be the sort of people in low cut t-shirts, earrings, Ugg boots and sculptured hair that you want to kick in the bollocks. But when they’ve been been defiled of all this frippery and put into a yellow shirt, they look like an innocent new born. We want them to succeed like they’re our children.

We like to believe their strengths are infinite, their weaknesses don’t exist. In recent weeks there has been a big call for Tyrone Marsh to start. Most people had never seen him play at all, and only the 118 that went to Plymouth in the JPT had seen him in the first team. But some simply knew he was the saviour.

The consensus seems to be that Wilder needed to play Marsh; ignoring that our frailties were principally at the back.

Statistically speaking, if you label enough people the saviour, one should turn out to be exactly that. There was palpable excitement that he was picked to start against Southend. Every ball placed in front of him was greeted with near hysteria; “GO ON TY”.

Whether Marsh turns out to be a Beauchamp or a Mark Druce time will tell. But he didn’t look out of his depth, in fact he physcially he looked the part and got himself into good positions, had a decent number of chances and scored a good goal.

It was a refreshing debut in a refreshing game; the crowd was surprisingly sparse; the JPT isn’t exactly the most exciting competition, but a semi-final of any competition which ends up at Wembley has got to be worth a punt. We can all debate endlessly the importance of the JPT, but this season has been great. Those who didn’t come missed perhaps the best game we’ve had at the Kassam since Swindon in the, um, JPT.

That one’s for Chris Wilder

Everyone hates Swindon. It’s not just us. If you ask anyone to name a dank, soulless British town then people say Slough. Or Swindon. It is neither a quaint northern relic of our industrial past, a gleaming economic powerhouse, a seat of learning or innovation, or a monument to our establishment. It represents, if anything at all, the rigmarole of everyday life where nothing much happens.

Paolo DiCanio is very Italian. Italy is, in one sense, stylish, engaging and beautiful. But it is also morally and economically corrupted. In one sense we envy its ability to achieve the spectacular – Ferrari, Armani, Da Vinci – but we’re British and we like steadfastness so the erratic behaviour of Italy and Italians gets up our noses. Paolo Di Canio gets up our noses.

Di Canio and Swindon seem like such an unlikely match, but they are perfect for each other because they are so easy to dislike. It is, of course, unfair to tar every Swindonian and every Italian with the same brush, but it remains a fact that many people expressly don’t like the town or the man.

Our manager is dour and pragmatic; he talks about budgets and hard work. He is very British. People like Oxford; it stands for something that we, as a country, can be proud of; learning, innovation, saving lives, improving lives. Great things are achieved in Oxford. It is extraordinary, you ask someone to name a British town that represents great learning, people will say Cambridge. Or Oxford. We are the perfect counterpoint to Swindon.

I suspect that Di Canio and Swindon rather like their reputation, after all, if you can’t be loved, being hated is better than being ignored. The derby is a quintessential good versus bad story. It’s context; whether it be a cup final or Johnstone’s Paint Trophy has an endearing quality about it.

Last night’s derby was a builder; I’d set off early because of parking anxiety. But I parked easily, more easily than a league game. I was in the ground 30 minutes before kick-off. Swindon fans, who had presumably been escorted in, were loud, raucous and in plentiful number. We were nowhere to be seen. I thought I’d fallen into the trap of believing the hype. Nobody was really going to turn up to a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy 1st Round tie, Swindon or not.

Then suddenly, 15 minutes before kick-off the car park – already full of cars – filled with people. Coming from the direction of The Priory; it seemed the entire Oxford crowd were arriving together. They swarmed around the cars like a river. Pausing briefly to exchange insults with the Swindon fans in the ground. Then they poured into the ground. I’ve never seen anything like it. Suddenly, bang on time, the noise was turned on and the place thundered into life.

The game was loud and energetic, but there wasn’t a cramp-inducing tightness in the muscles or the gnawing stomach grumbles. It wasn’t like the game last year. It was more like one of those early season League Cup games we used to land periodically against mid-ranking Premier League teams. A big game we wanted to win, but weren’t that fearful of losing.

As the minutes ticked by and penalties seemed to only logical way of getting us home at a reasonable hour, I’d pretty much settled on the idea that the draw was the right result. That way, regardless of the penalties, nobody could definitively make much of what the result meant in the great irresolvable debate of which club rules supreme.

I was enjoying the game, and the atmosphere, but drifted in and out of the specifics. In my head I was filing it away under ‘unremarkable, but fun’. The time ticked by towards the 90th minute and suddenly, from nowhere, James Constable was clear. He’d been OK, again, a decent target man, but not full of movement and threat. He could have taken it on, probably would have if his confidence had been with him. But he squared it, and there was Alfie Potter.

You couldn’t mistake the similarity to Potter’s goal at Wembley, just with Constable playing the Deering role. Wilder hooned down the touchline, exactly as he did at Wembley, stopping just short of giving himself wedgey and grass burns with an ill advised slide on the turf.

With all the talk of Wilder going to Coventry, winning the derby, in the last minute with a goal from two players who have been with him pretty much throughout, who he’s nurtured, protected, defended and battled for seems almost too perfect.

There may be more to come from him, this might be it, who knows? But perhaps this was a result for Chris Wilder. A testimonial to his achievements with Oxford. It means nothing in the great scheme of things; but it was a bloody fun load of nothing.