Match wrap: Oxford United 4 West Ham United 0

The League Cup is our competition; we’ve beaten some of the biggest clubs in the country in it; Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds, Everton. We’ve even won it, of course; it agrees with us in a way that the FA Cup doesn’t.

But, it’s mutated into a curious beast; a trophy that’s still worth winning but that clubs dismiss with weakened teams. It’s like the EFL Trophy, but where its esoteric rules are applied to each position – the left-back is an Academy player, the right-back a first choice international, the playmaker is someone you vaguely remember from another club and another time. If you’re a lower league team, playing weakened Premier League opponents devalues your achievements, but in the League Cup, are they genuinely weakened? It’s hard to know.

The difference between us and West Ham is best illustrated by our stadiums. Ours, a three-sided concrete mess in the vice-like grip of its cruel landlord. Theirs, a world class facility acquired for a fraction of its value due to the bungled negotiations of Boris Johnson. Their team, weakened or not, was bought for £157 million, ours wasn’t.

Like last season’s game against Manchester City, the match was approached as an enjoyable diversion. The atmosphere was a contented buzz, the crowd bigger than normal, but not, you know, big big.  

After two minutes of unremarkable posturing, there was an audible groan as a combination of passes down the left cut us to pieces. The noise was familiar; from a hum of hopefulness, there was a sudden collective recognition of our inferiority. It suggested a template typical of this kind of tie; we’d play well, we’d be brave, but we’d lose. Or so it seemed.

Then after a few more minutes of harmless jousting, their back-four were pushing the ball between themselves. I looked into our half – there it was, like a murmuration; the perfect form of two banks of four. They couldn’t go round us, they couldn’t go through us, and Premier League lore says you mustn’t go over us.

We were enveloped by a moment absolute clarity; a perfect defensive formation, not the confusing nine-dimensional chess Karl Robinson tries to employ to beat likes of Rochdale or Burton. It was the old Ian Atkins adage of winning the right to play. Our conservatism was aided by our selection; Sam Long will never be a quantum full-back, Elliot Moore likes nothing more than to defend. Passes are straight and short, deliberate and moderate; we weren’t just resisting West Ham, we were throttling the life out of them.

Their £157 million team was supposedly weakened with nine changes from Saturday. But, we made six including Rob Hall fresh from a year out injured and Mark Sykes, who a few weeks ago was being mooted for a League 2 loan deal. And then there was Jamie Mackie, who can count on one hand how many more chances he’ll have for games like this.

Minutes tick by and we look increasingly comfortable, but comfort means nothing; a narrow plucky defeat would be quickly forgotten, even a narrow win would be put down to their complacency, if we want to win, and for it to mean something, we needed to win properly.

Cameron Brannagan finds himself in front of goal but scuffs the ball badly wide. Rob Hall clips the top of the bar from a free-kick. We break their defensive line on a couple of occasions; Forde has a chance which rolls harmlessly wide.

Half-time comes, it’s 0-0 and we’re the better side; but half time is always critical in these games; it’s when the adrenalin drains from the legs, concentration seeps from the mind. You’re suddenly faced at the re-start with leadened limbs and slowed reactions. Like the JPT Final against Barnsley – we were brilliant for 45 minutes, but the break broke us.

Not this time; Elliot Moore spins in a crowded box to slot in the first. It’s a tight turn and the finish is threaded through the only narrow channel available to him. The nimble manoeuvring of his hulking body is reminiscent of the craft of Matt Elliot. 1-0.

Then, Jimenez saves miraculously from Mackie. Sykes passes a ball to the back post finding Matty Taylor for number two. Everyone chases Taylor down to celebrate in front of the fans; Sykes trots across the pitch to join them, but realises he’ll never get there and turns back. To think, he might have been turning out for Mansfield or Cheltenham and here he is drilling a world class cross for 2-0 and nobody’s there to congratulate him.

West Ham are woeful, you can tell from the movement amongst their fans they’re incandescent with rage. The humiliation illustrates the gap between the Premier League players and their fans – for the players this is a distraction from their millionaire lifestyles. To the fans, it’s an afternoon off work, an expensive train journey, a decent chunk out of a weekly wage. Their sacrifice is being rewarded with a performance utterly lacking in imagination and effort.

We, on the other hand, are fully committed. For Jamie Mackie, there will be few nights like this between now and retirement, for Sam Long and Josh Ruffels, this is their calling, for Cameron Brannagan and Shandon Baptiste it’s another step towards greater things. Together, we are all in.

The commitment drives a rare perfection. Every passing play becomes more pure. We’ve won the right to play; it gives Tariqe Fosu a platform to pounce on a mistake to sprint half the length of the pitch, round the keeper and slot home for number three.

And then, as the game drifts into its final moments; the result is beyond doubt; the score illustrates the dominance, the ‘weakened team’ caveat is fully extinguished – this is not just a simple anomaly.

The ball works its way to Shandon Baptiste; the future of Oxford or of football or some other absurd Karl Robinson platitude. Above all, it’s a boy with a talent that has been blighted by a year of injury. He clips the ball over the first defender and drives into the box, feints to go past the second and rolls the ball deftly into the far post for a conclusive fourth.

It’s the bluest sky, the perfect silence, the purest diamond; Baptiste wheels away. It’s unfettered perfection. These are moments of rare fleeting beauty. Eventually a cloud will spoil the perfect sky, a noise will break the perfect silence, but right there and then in that very moment, it’s magical. These gifts, in our hard and unpleasant times, are rare and so fleeting, you owe it to yourself to simply drink it in.

The wrap – Newport County 0 Oxford United 3

I have stumbled across a quantum fact; it’s a fact which exists in two apparently conflicting states simultaneously. It is both useless and useful at the same time.

Here we go – by the end of the season we will have played a team in every position in the table apart from our own. Therefore, the average position of an opponent in our division is 12.5 – right in the middle of 12th and 13th place.

So, by looking at the average league position of every team we’ve played so far we can ascertain whether we’ve had a difficult start or an easy start. The lower the number, the more we’ve played teams at the higher end of the table, the harder the start.

Including Saturday’s game against Sunderland, the average position of our opponents to date is 7.5. Exclude Burton, in 21st, from that it’s 4.8. The lowest possible average after six games is 3.5 (e.g. playing each of the top six). So we have had a excessively hard start. The next six fixtures is an average of 12.1 – much more civilised. The twelve games together 9.8 against a possible of 6.5, so still pretty tricky.

So we have had a very hard start, in fact it almost couldn’t be harder. This will be much more, if not easy, then easier, in the coming weeks.

This is a useless stat because there are so many variables influencing it – the number of teams we’ve played, their relative short-term form, the mix of fixtures each team has played (opponents, home or away) etc. For example, the current top six may be the bottom six by the end of the season, meaning our ‘difficult’ start was, in fact, dead easy. It’s also like the Higgs Boson, it is aloof; it sort of only exists as a useful fact around this time of the season when there have been enough games to do a reasonable calculation, but not too many to make all the variables too complicated. It is also useful when looking at run-ins.

It illustrates a broad point. Fans don’t think about things in this way. We are, as they say, the greatest team the world has ever seen. Every team, particularly in the early part of the season, is there to be beaten. It doesn’t help that at the start of the season that we have no benchmarks to judge fixtures against. It’s different in the Premier League, but in League 1 club fortunes are volatile – at the start of the season it is impossible to predict if Portsmouth or Fleetwood, or Plymouth or Shrewsbury are going up or down this season.

So, crudely, we had a bad start against really difficult opponents. The opening four losses weren’t without their casualties; several players were battered by fans for the poor performances. Rob Dickie, Luke Garbutt and Jonathan Obika all started against Barnsley, but have lost their place in more recent weeks.

Dickie and Garbutt are both relatively young – and I wouldn’t assume Obika is immune to the criticism. Being compared to a wheelie bin on Twitter, as Garbutt was, is both damaging to the club and to the individual. People forget that he is starting a new job, in a different part of the country, with different people, with different pressures. In normal working life, it can take months to get a new employee functioning, in football, 90 minutes can be enough for people to start drawing conclusions.

So, while Shandon Baptiste has rightly been the centre of attention after his wonder-goal in the 3-0 win over Newport on Tuesday, the League Cup is serving an important role in re-building confidence amongst players who took a battering in the opening weeks of the season, in part due to the vagaries of the fixture schedule. Garbutt, in particular, seemed to be involved in everything, showing that he shouldn’t be written off as a poor signing in the opening weeks of the season. 

Cheltenham wrap – Oxford United 3 Cheltenham Town 4 (aet)

Tuesday’s performance felt a bit like watching a school orchestra attempt Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. If you listened hard then you could hear a recognisable tune, but it felt slightly forced and disjointed, lacking in flow and rhythm.

The performance was better than the result implies, we have a rich abundance of creativity throughout the team, the likes of which we have rarely seen at the club. Each one; Xemi, Hall, Henry, Johnson, Obika, Rothwell, Payne all showed moments of class and ability, but not enough of them together and not for long enough.

In the past, there have been patterns that we could rely on; if you put the ball in the box then Sercombe was likely to be arriving late to fire home any rebounds, if you can get a set piece then Maguire would often deliver a quality ball and Dunkley was always good for getting on the end of crosses. If you need to stretch the play or relieve tension, then Lundstram could pass his way out of trouble. Last night, it felt like nobody quite knew anyone’s special move, so when we came under pressure, beyond sheer individual ability, there was no reliable fall-back to gets us on track.

Cheltenham, on the other hand, found a weakness they could exploit – principally whipped crosses. That’s what kept them in the game before Mo Eisa scored his stunning winner.

It didn’t feel like we’d been set up to win; it was much more about giving players a leg stretch, the plethora of substitutions felt more like simply giving players a breather than making tactical game-changing decisions. The result seemed less important.

Partly this is about familiarity, nobody knew what to expect from each new introduction (or those who started). It’s not necessarily Clotet’s fault, he’s learning too and at the moment he has to rely on training and intuition to see what works and what doesn’t. In time he’ll know the right players for the right jobs but I don’t think anyone could safely put their finger on what was wrong on Tuesday night.

Johnson – our current de facto match winner – has been given the label being the wrong ‘un but he too, rather than being disinterested, seemed to be getting a bit of stiffness out of his legs. I don’t buy the idea that he’s wasted at left-back, if anything it allows him to build up a head of steam when running at teams or ghost into advanced positions undetected.

What was lacking was the reliability that we need to sustain any kind of challenge. Creative players spark and pop, come into form and drop out, but they can’t do their thing if there isn’t a reliable core that won’t concede possession and goals. It’s like we have a number of effective Plan B’s but no Plan A.

That’s not to say we don’t have them in the club; Eastwood was pretty decent throughout as was Nelson, Williamson should be relied on. Ledson is only likely to get better while Pep Clotet described Ivo Pekalsi as someone who can carry the ball out of defence John Lundstram style. Everyone loves a reliable, 20 goal a season striker, which may be van Kessel. If these players can stay fit and gel, then they will provide the platform on which others can perform. Ultimately, this time next year we won’t remember Cheltenham, so the result is bothering, but not, ultimately, a disaster.

Brighton wrap – Oxford United 2 Brighton and Hove Albion 2


Tuesday was a strange night from the off. People voted with their feet, confirming, if it were ever needed the terminal decline of knock-out cup football. Brighton fielded a second string, even Michael Appleton, not one to rotate his squad, rested Chris Maguire and Alex MacDonald. It seemed nobody was that interested in the game, god help the EFL Trophy game against Exeter next week.
The weather meant that those who did come were dressed like they were attending a family bar-b-que.  The soporific atmosphere meant that we started the game half-asleep. Sam Long seemed to have completely missed that the game had started despite significant evidence to the contrary. That evidence being the ball in the back of our net.
The score should have been embarrassing a long way before Thomas put us level, but by that point we’d pulled ourselves out of our stupor and were looking increasingly comfortable, even threatening.
It was the tortoise and hare, while we accelerated slowly, Brighton started fast and plateaued. I was thinking that somehow we might actually nick it, which would have been the oddest giant killing in history. Roberts and Rothwell, who for 25 minutes I assumed was Crowley, looked lost in the first five minutes, but grew into it. Had there been a decent crowd, and a solid back-four, a surprise might have been on the cards.
The back-four is clearly the problem. Long and Ruffels had a torrid time, you can almost sense that Skarz, loyal to a fault, dreams of being back at full-back like a homesick boy scout. Dunkley can’t hold all that together for 90 minutes against a team of Brighton’s quality.
After the initial shock, we matched them for a good seventy minutes. Roberts got cramp, perhaps the first sign we were running out of steam, was substituted and four minutes later we conceded again and we were back to where we started. The hare hadn’t quite napped for long enough for the tortoise to win.
No shame then. Brighton are clearly a good team, even if it was their reserves, for perhaps 20 minutes in total they really showed it, though that was more than enough. They exploited our most obvious weaknesses, which will hopefully begin to resolve themselves in the next couple of weeks.  

Weekly wrap – Chesterfield, Birmingham City, Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town

Oxford United 1 Chesterfield 1

If this makes any sense, I remember our first game of the last season we had in League 1. The last season at The Manor, Denis Smith had a close season to forget; his attempts at re-signing many of the previous year’s crocks had failed and so, in their place, he signed an even bigger pile of crud. Things weren’t looking good.

In a season which would see finish bottom, concede 100 goals and, of course, get relegated, we opened against Peterborough at home. We dutifully applauding so many new signings that my hands hurt when we finished, though I barely knew any of them.

Though the mood and quality is somewhat different this time around, we have similarly replaced a whole team this summer. The consensus in the car was that Michael Appleton had a good summer with each new signing offering something new and exciting to the squad. The big question that hadn’t been answered in pre-season was whether he could make them gel.

Appleton kept most of his new toys hidden as Saturday’s selection smelt of, if not stability, then experience. It reminded me of our first home game back after the Conference against Bury. We’d expected to storm the division, but we got caught out by a team with more sophistication than we’d anticipated. We didn’t want the same thing to happen here and the focus on experience seemed to suggest that was at the forefront of Appleton’s mind too.

We looked solid enough, Wes Thomas is a kind of Danny Hylton character; he doesn’t make sense context of the squad in general, but looks reliable. Ribiero’s injury was a blow, but Sam Long seems to have had a growth spurt and looked completely settled in his place. The loss of Dunkley was a worry, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll be out for long.

Difficult to know whether we looked at home in League 1. Chesterfield were certainly better than most of League 2, and Swindon from last year, but not a patch on Millwall or Barnsley. With Ched Evans’ signing causing consternation and a laughable crisis involving a fake raffle to deal with, they presumably, like us, will look on mid-table security as success. If they are the benchmark for mid-table, then we should be fine and maybe should hope for more from the season.

Nobody is really expecting promotion, though it would be nice, so ticking off the points rather than storming the division is perfectly acceptable. With three away games coming up, a point is OK. Nobody wants to get to September with people pining anxiously for Hylton, Roofe, Wright, Mullins and O’Dowda.

Birmingham City 0 Oxford United 1

So, for the third year running, we delivered a League Cup giantkilling barely worth of its name. Nobody really knows what Birmingham City are; Premier League pretenders? Relegation certainties? Neither? Can we truly benchmark the result in terms of its achievement? Can we really call this a giantkilling?

City made nine changes from their opening game against Cardiff, such is the sniffiness of Championship managers towards the League Cup. They will talk about the league being a priority as if that sort of pragmatism is supposed to impress us. There are typically three trophies to play for per season (League, FA Cup and League Cup) and on average each team will win a significantly less than one of them. For most teams a couple of memorable wins is what leaves a season in the memory and the cups should offer those moments. But, the idea of glory being is lost on most managers who choose to effectively ignored the cup in order to concentrate on standing still.

I like the Appleton mentality that every game is there to be won, it plays to both the romantic notion of a football team wanting to win every game they play, but, more importantly, it creates a template in which the team learns how to win games. There are precious few players, if any, who can decide when to perform and when not so developing a habit of winning has to be an advantage. Whatever the benefits of resting players are they have to be balanced against the lost opportunity to practice winning games.

Honorable mention has to go to Liam Sercombe. The departure of Jake Wright in the summer brought an era at the club to a close. It wasn’t immediately obvious who might take the captain’s armband when the likes of Sam Long and Josh Ruffels are the longest serving members of the squad. Sercombe must have been in the running for the job.

It’s not so much that he leads by example; he just does what comes naturally with seemingly endless energy. If he’s like that at home, it must drive his fiancé mad, but it must also be completely infectious for young players at the club. If they plan to model themselves on anyone, it’s not the superstar pretentions of the Premier League, it’s the boundless enthusiasm of Liam Sercombe where they should look.

Sercombe has been in the middle of everything that’s been good about the club over year or so, his goal against Birmingham was another chapter in a stellar Oxford career.

Bristol Rovers 2 Oxford United 1

… And just as Sam Long and Liam Sercombe emerge as heroes of the first week, they conspire to make a significant contribution to our first defeat of the season. Brilliant.

The response has been, as you might expect, completely binary. From the innate confidence of promotion to the abject failure of defeat. We are in trouble, or perhaps not.

Frankly, who knows at this stage? I don’t, and nor do you.

Rovers are a bit of a benchmark for us, we’ve always competed at roughly the same level, so a defeat probably feels like we’re falling below a perceived watermark. However, they held onto their core squad and star striker, and we didn’t. So they’ve started the season a bit more established, whereas we’re likely to evolve into it.

Talking of strikers, the good news is that Kane Hemmings got off the mark, which is important despite the result. The figures may be moderate in wider footballing terms, but transfer fees are an unequivocal measure of perceived quality. Goals are an unequivocal measure of the return on that investment. As a striker that brings a pressure that other players won’t feel. If the goals don’t come, then everyone gets restless and the pressure builds. Dealing with that pressure takes a special mindset.

If the goals do come then the pressure goes away. A few more goals in the coming weeks and another jigsaw puzzle will be slotting into place.

It’s been an OK week, and not one that should have been wholly unexpected. One win, one draw, one defeat; fairly predictable. It could have been any order. We were always likely to start more slowly than last year and it was always likely to be a bit harder. This is no time to jump to any conclusions.

Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0  

Some people seem to suggest that our defeat to Fleetwood is a sign of impending crisis. That’s two defeats in a row, meaning we’ve taken only a point from three games, time to panic.

But, in every sense, it is too early to tell whether this is how our season will pan out. It is only our third league game, we’ve only had one game at home, and, lest we forget, we are playing in a higher league. This seems to be one of our problems; we’re ‘only’ playing Fleetwood, a team that we ‘should’ be beating. But we forget that while they don’t have any heritage at this level, the team is there on merit and by definition they, like everyone else in the division, are going to be harder to defeat than  the teams we faced last year.

When will we know our direction of travel? Looking at the fixtures, I don’t think we’ll have a clear picture until October at the earliest. The early season is fraught with difficulties,  MK Dons, Sheffield United and Bolton away, Swindon at home. Things look more settled into October, but it’s not until January that we start to play batches of teams more like us. We might need to be patient, while the team find their feet.

Perspective and cool heads are needed right now, as Michael Appleton says, it’s time to focus on the basics. That said, with Brighton next Tuesday and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United away the following Saturday, a nerve settling result over Peterborough will do everyone the power of good this weekend.

Sheffield Wednesday wrap – Sheffield Wednesday 1 Oxford United 0

If you Google ‘Hillsborough’, as you might expect, you get pictures of people being crushed to death in 1989. The word is synonymous of a grim past, where it was once a step from Wembley.

Following a lower league club in the cup can become a tour of what feels like abandoned religious temples. Look around and you can see the echoes of something once glorious, but it lacks people to give it purpose. A great dinosaur, now extinct.

It’s partly because football is no longer a predominantly a social activity, its a form of entertainment. Fewer people go because it defines them, more people choose to attend based on the prospect of getting value for money. Will they be entertained? If that prospect is remote, then people stay away. We’re not particularly box office in Sheffield.

There’s a lingering feeling with teams like Sheffield Wednesday, as to what their point is. Are they preying for a rich benefactor to come along and propel them forward? Are they just treading water  because that’s fractionally less sad than giving up? And then, for us, is giving them a game an act of heroism or a missed opportunity? Is it neither?

Michael Appleton seemed to be similarly conflicted; was the deliberately weakened team a sign that he wasn’t interested in the fixture? Did it suggest that there are more important objectives to focus on? It was understandable given this was our sixth game in just 18 days, but in the name of consistency, I don’t like the idea that you pick and choose the games you compete for.

Some tried to read things into Jake Wright’s omission, but given the other changes, including nailed on starters Roofe and Hylton, I suspect this was a simple case of giving him a rest rather than anything tactical. As he approaches 30 he probably needs to manage his fitness and recovery more closely these days.

In the end it was one of those harmless defeats in Yorkshire that seem to have peppered our cup campaigns since our return to the league. We weren’t humiliated, so there’s no real risk to any confidence we’ve built up in recent weeks. We’re also not burdened another fixture to clutter up the schedule. Newcastle might have been fun, but it’s a bloody long way away. Yeovil on Saturday represents the end of a frantic opening month, now we’re out of the cup, it’s time to settle into a more controlled rhythm.

Coming Up: Sheffield Wednesday

The drop

A distraction or an opportunity? The problem with the start of the season is the mush of league and League Cup results makes it hard to fully know how you’re getting on. To lose to Sheffield Wednesday tonight is to lose an unbeaten record, does that mean anything? Logically, no, Wednesday aren’t on any critical path to promotion, but emotionally, maybe; the template of success driven out of performances against Notts County and Luton will be eroded a little bit by a defeat. Suddenly, Yeovil becomes a high pressure game; we don’t want to lose two on the trot.

And if we win? Well, that’s another step closer to an inevitable defeat – unless we’re planning on winning the trophy. It might be a Premier League team next, and they could really remind us of our own mortality. But, on the other hand, we did play West Brom last year and that ended in the almost perfect defeat, if such a thing can exist.

Really, when it comes to Cup games, you want to be like a pacemaker in a middle distance race. We want to heroically lead the race for a period before stepping off the track before you’re consumed and humiliated by your better opponents.

 

OUFC retro

Nineteen years ago we played Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup, so history is repeating itself tonight. This one is a proper treat, the first leg at Hillsborough ended 1-1 with a Paul Moody goal. The Manor was rocking for the return leg, one of the last times it was like this for a cup tie.