Midweek fixture: Oxford United’s biggest rivals… ranked

How do you measure a rivalry? Location? Envy? Superiority? Or is it just a feeling? A few weeks ago, I asked you who you thought were our biggest rivals. Well, here’s the top nineteen.

19. Peterborough United

Let’s not get carried away; it doesn’t take many votes to become our 19th biggest rival. This one is the result of a brooding dislike following the curtailing of last season and the antics of the Peterborough hierarchy.

18. Cambridge United

Really? I’m surprised so many lazy Sky Sports commentators voted. The tenuous varsity link between the two cities has never turned made it into the stands in terms of a rivalry.

17. Queen’s Park Rangers

While many of these lower rivals are based on a single issue, any rivalry with QPR is surely based on a single game, 34 years ago at Wembley.

16. Coventry City

Maybe a bit of a surprise to some, but if you live in the north of the county, you may be more familiar with Coventry fans than other parts.

15. Sunderland

The biggest team in our division probably attracts a few ‘pick me’ votes, but the added link of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Chris Maguire, mean that Sunderland make the list.

14. Stevenage

The team that denied us promotion from the Conference in 2010, but most likely, any rivalry is down to one man and his drinks break; Graham Westley.

13. Wimbledon

Familiarity breeds contempt, Oxford and Wimbledon have shared many seasons together over a very long time. Alongside Luton, they’re the only team we’ve played in both the top flight and the Conference.

12. Bristol City

I can’t fathom this one, we’ve played each other once in the last eighteen years.

11. Crewe Alexandra

In almost any other season, Crewe wouldn’t attract a vote, but the vitriol surrounding their double postponement earlier this season adds a bit of spice to an otherwise dormant relationship. The only rivalry based on not playing any games.

10. Cheltenham Town

Into the top ten and we’re beginning to touch on more sensible rivalries. Cheltenham Town’s relationship must be down to location.

9. Leyton Orient

Some will never let it go; some fourteen years ago Leyton Orient came to the Kassam looking for a win to secure promotion. They did it in the last minute, which sent us down to the Conference. They danced on our pitch, apparently, though I’d left by then. Some will never forget or forgive.

8. MK Dons

The newest rivalry in the list. It’s not exactly what you’d call white hot, but geographical location has always promised a good large following and made MK Dons a decent away day.

7. Portsmouth

Portsmouth sat on their own in terms of votes – some twenty ahead of MK Dons, and a similar number behind Northampton. We’ve shared many seasons with Portsmouth, I think secretly we’re a bit envious of their size and history, which makes beating them all the more sweet.

6. Northampton Town

Now we’re into the real rivalries. First up Northampton Town, another team whose path we’ve crossed countless times. Added spice came from Chris Wilder leaving us for them in 2014, then keeping them up. Then two years later, Wilder took them up as champions despite Michael Appleton’s assertion we were the better team.

5. Luton Town

There’s a genuinely visceral dislike for Luton Town, we’ve played them in the top division and the Conference, we’ve been promotion rivals and they’ve poached our manager. All of which adds up to a relationship with a bit of bite.

4. Bristol Rovers

A team we’ve played with almost monotonous regularity, any rivalry is spiced up by the fact we’re both very capable of winning away in the game. Matty Taylor helped turn the heat up a notch, he hates the Gas, pass it on.

3. Wycombe Wanderers

It’s not a derby, but of all the non-derbies out there, this is the biggest one for us. We won decisively in a key game on the way to promotion in 1996, they beat us in the FA Cup when we were on a roll in 2010, six years later we secured promotion against them, and last year they secured promotion against us at Wembley. It’s not a derby, but it’s getting there.

2. Reading

Perhaps at the expense of Reading? We haven’t played each other in 16 years and not as equals in 19. But, a rivalry still exists, apparently, though it’s kind of like the Korean War – it’s still technically happening, but in reality it’s made up of irritating each other on social media.

1. Swindon Town

The big one. But, this list wasn’t really about finding out who our biggest rival were.

Midweek fixture: The Kassam’s biggest crowds

We all know that the Kassam Stadium is the ground we love to call home, a place where dreams happen. Mostly, those dreams involve wistfully staring over to the Vue cinema wishing you were watching the latest blockbuster, not another defeat at the hands of Bristol Rovers. But, sometimes we (nearly) fill the place. And when we (nearly) fill the place, we always lose. Or do we? Here are the Kassam’s top ten biggest crowds (excluding Elton John gigs).

12,243, Oxford United 2 Leyton Orient 3, 6 May 2006

During the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games in 2018, this game did surprisingly badly. OK, the result wasn’t the best, a 2-3 defeat that relegated us from the Football League, but it was febrile, visceral and ugly, an absolutely brutal afternoon not helped by the fact I arrived late having not slept all night due to the birth of my eldest daughter that morning. It was quite a day which, strangely, I loved.

12,177 – Oxford United 0 Aston Villa 3, League Cup, 6 November 2006

Technically the Kassam has a capacity of 12,500, but it doesn’t account for segregation. Drawing Premier League Aston Villa in the League Cup was an early tester for handling larger crowds. It turned out we couldn’t, largely putting paid to future crowds of over 12,000. It was pretty grim, fans ended up breaking through the doors under the North Stand. On the pitch it wasn’t much better as Andy Woodman had a stinker for the first two goals before Homes Under the Hammer’s Dion Dublin hammered home in the closing minutes.

11,963 – Oxford United 2 Rushden & Diamonds 0, 2010

Oxford United always fail, just when you think they’ll succeed, they screw it up. Right? Wrong. Having cruised into the Conference Play-Off Semi-Final and drawn away at Rushden and Diamonds, we just needed to put them to the sword in front of a massive and expectant crowd. Without a fuss, and with Jefferson Louis lumbering upfront for the hapless Diamonds, we cruised to Wembley. Just one of those days when everything went right.  

11,825 – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0, 3 March 2012

No derby has been more anticipated; it had been 10 years since we’d last played them at home. A win, following an away win earlier in the year, would see us achieve our first ever double. Then it all fell apart; Swindon were on a surging unbeaten run, we had a wave of injuries sweep through the side. It couldn’t get any worse, but it did, 20 minutes into the game talismanic star striker James Constable is sent off. And then, like the Ultimate Warrior recovering from an apparent knock out, a cross swept into the six yard box; Asa Hall bundles in the first, minutes later Ollie Johnson does it again. A heroic rearguard, including ballboys fighting with Swindon players, saw us take a famous win.

11,815 – Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0, 7 May 2016

The best game we’ve ever had at The Kassam, according to the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games. A beautiful sunny day in which we swept to promotion on a tidal wave, following a year in which we fell in love with the club again. A slightly nervy but ultimately comfortable first half ended 0-0, then Chris Maguire swung in a corner, Chey Dunkley crashed through a crowd of players, connecting with the ball and slamming it into the back of the net. Maguire made things safe with a penalty with 20 minutes to go. In injury time Callum O’Dowda danced his way through the Wycombe defence, which was already on its second sangria in Torremolinos, to slot home the third. Bliss.

11,810 – Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0, 28 January 2017

In some ways, this had ‘meh’ written all over it (see Blackburn). Newcastle were a decent home draw in the FA Cup, but were focussing on promotion back to the Premier League. An FA Cup tie was always likely to be a low priority. What’s more, with their resources, even a weakened side had the potential to sweep us away without a second thought. If we were going to make it a memorable game, then we had to do something special. So we did.

11,790 – Oxford United 0 Northampton 1, 26 December 2016

OK, so it’s Boxing Day and it’s Northampton and they always bring a decent following, but even so a league game and somehow, like Kelis’ milkshake, it brings all the boys to the yard. At which point we characteristically end up in a turgid affair before being caught napping in injury time. Merry Christmas everyone.

11,673 – Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

Michael Appleton’s greatest game? A true awakening of our dormant club? Yes and yes. It was difficult to know what to expect from the visit of Swansea, who were fighting relegation rather than focussing on Wembley. A moment of Premier League class saw them take the lead, after which we hand over to one of Oxford’s greatest ever sides; Liam Sercombe equalised from the spot, Kemar Roofe scored two beauties. The second breakaway goal is not only a wonderful team goal, the eruption in the East Stand as the ball looped in tells you everything about the club at the time. A Premier League performance by a League 2 team.

11,655 Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 0, 2003

As we know, absence makes the heart grow more spiteful. When we were drawn against Swindon Town in the FA Cup in 2003, it was the first meeting at the Kassam. It was an ugly time; the Kassam still wasn’t home, Ian Atkins was not in the game to entertain. The result was an ugly game, but a beautiful win. In the XX, the most glancing of headers from Jefferson Louis found the only route to goal available narrowly missing Steve Basham on the line. The reward was an away draw against Arsenal, Louis filmed celebrating naked in the dressing room live on TV.

11,647 Oxford United 0 Blackburn 3, 30 January 2016

A real after the Lord Mayor’s Show FA Cup tie. Weeks after the glory of the win over Swansea, and in the middle of a period which saw us get to Wembley, Blackburn, though struggling in the Championship, was a game too far.

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.

Leyton Orient wrap – Leyton Orient 2 Oxford United 2

Jordan Graham lost his head; two silly bookings leading to a red card leaving us with 10 men against a resurgent Orient with 25 minutes to go. The second one was harsh. It’s the football equivalent of Heath and Safety Regulations; there for a good reason but with its original purpose – to prevent players from booting the ball out of the ground – largely forgotten. How much time was lost from Graham flicking the ball away? Nothing in comparison to the referee completing his admin on the red card.

Graham is an intuitive player, his game isn’t based on tactical discipline, if it were he’d be less effective. It’s a game of pace and a joy of being on the ball. The kick looked little more than his subconscious doing what it’s been trained to do – see a ball and do something with it. He’s apologised as though he’s committed some kind of hate crime. Which is frankly ridiculous. What he gives far outweighs what we lose. Why are we putting players under pressure to act like members of the clergy?

The fans lost their heads, the game seemed to be positioned as some kind of revenge mission for what happened in 2006. But is there anyone who believes that our relegation was their fault? Seats were broken, although it seems it wasn’t done out of malice. That said, it is quite possible to avoid breaking seats at football, as my 30 years of not breaking seats all over the country testifies – and there was a mood around the game that wasn’t pleasant. This isn’t cool. We’re about to enter an almighty shit fight for promotion; you can treat it like a war or like the best fun its possible to have.

Radio Oxford lost their heads; the commentary between Jerome Sale and Nathan Cooper increasingly went down conversational cul-de-sacs like two drunk mates in a pub managing to stray onto a subject obviously wrong or offensive, then spending 20 minutes convincing themselves it was less offensive than it was meant to be.

At one point Pat Hoban broke free rounded the keeper and fell to the floor. Jerome Sale, who had spent 20 minutes building his case against the referee, said that there had to be consistency with a previous incident that had gone against Oxford. Nathan Cooper said it was a dive, Sale agreed, but still, he said, the ref had to be consistent and he wasn’t so it was everything was his fault. Being consistently wrong is better than being occasionally wrong?

Will Michael Appleton lose his head? It seems unlikely, he is relentlessly level headed and despite the frustration of this game specifically, he still knows that taking a point from a promotion rival is a positive.

I hope he realises that many around him won’t be quite so measured. This is not exactly familiar territory for us. This game, and Tuesday’s against Plymouth, have the potential for paltry returns, and that’s when panic could set in. But, after Tuesday, the highest place team we play until the end of November is Cambridge in 14th. It’s a fixture list consisting of games against 17th, 19th, 20th, 23rd and 24th. With points-aplenty on offer in the coming weeks, is the objective for Orient and Plymouth, given we’re currently on 10 from 12 this month, a bucketful of points or to go into November with clear heads and good focus?

Coming up: Leyton Orient

The drop

The biggest test yet, a genuine clash of the Titans, or some Titans. Some medium sized Titans in a relatively small fighting pit. Orient started the season like a firecracker but have faltered in recent weeks. This is probably just a bit of a readjustment and we should probably expect them to be fighting for promotion or the title at the end of the season. Three points in East London will be hard won, a point would be more than satisfactory.
We’re in rude health and should be firing on all cylinders with all key people reporting for duty after losing Danny Hylton for Swindon and Callum O’Dowda for the game against Wimbledon last week. Danny Rose could be back, but Lundstrum and Sercombe look to have cemented their position in the midfield. This is good, at the start of the season, we looked to be lacking in midfield.

This game, and Tuesday’s showdown with Plymouth have loomed large as key fixtures in the month, but with a decent points haul already banked we should be able to go into this both relaxed and with confidence.

Old game of the day

Shudder. We finally face the team that sent us into the Conference. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. The former is obvious; we were relegated to the Conference. But also, Jim Smith and Nick Merry (and in the background Ian Lenagan) had wrestled control from Firoz Kassam, so things were looking up on that front. But also, this was a game of epic proportions; the like of which we have rarely seen at the Kassam. I arrive 10 minutes late direct from the maternity ward of the John Radcliffe having witnessed the birth of my daughter after a sleepless night. At 4am, I’d given up on the idea of seeing the game, but the hospital threw me out anyway. It was a pretty trippy day.