The wrap: Luton Town 3 Oxford United 1

So that’s it, the end of a brutal and bruising year. One where every game appeared analogous of the whole season, yet seemed to signal something different. A season full of contradictions; where we’re owned by the richest people in our history, but can’t pay the bills, where we’ve developed an infrastructure for the future, but struggled for results today, where we spent 84% of the season in bottom seven (55% in the relegation zone) and finished in the top half of the table.

Because of this, I genuinely thought we might beat Luton, but in the end we stuck to the script; which I suppose, was a contradiction to the script-ripping nine months we’ve had.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Luton were champions; it’s difficult not to admire what they’ve achieved as a club. I’ve always seen them as a barometer; how we’re doing relative to each other and what we can achieve. But simultaneously, they (their fans, and perhaps just a minority of them) are loathsome, as their reaction after the game showed. And if you think that them taunting the away end and throwing a smoke bomb into the stand is just the excitement of the moment, then you’re forgetting them doing something similar in 2010 when York City players were forced to into the away end to escape. No set of fans deserve their success less.

In other ways, it’s heartening to see Luton succeed, it gives us a glimmer of hope. In truth, if you look at all our ups and downs over the decades, mid-table in third tier is probably our natural place, despite ambitions stating otherwise. The biggest challenge is that the increments needed to navigate beyond where we are grow by the year. A team can spend £4m on a striker and finish fifth in the third division now.

Luton’s promotion means that three of the four teams you’d think have Championship infrastructures – Sunderland, Portsmouth, Charlton and Doncaster – will still be with us next year. Of those coming down, Ipswich, Bolton (if they survive the summer) and Rotherham are all similarly capable of competing for promotion despite their woes.

For us, bridging the gap and breaking into the top six has to be our target. This season reminds me of Eric Morecambe’s famous line to Andre Previn – we played all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order. If we want to progress, then we have to be more organised; our season was killed by our form in the opening weeks, which was preceded by a chaotic summer.

The last few weeks have been as entertaining as anything we’ve seen in the last decade or more, even the promotion seasons, which have been laced with anxiety. We’ve been swashbuckling and daring, sparking life back into the club just as it seemed to be on a downward spiral. Even narrowly avoiding relegation in our 125th year would have been a grim way to celebrate.

Any sign the problems that caused us to fail so badly are sorting themselves out may come in the next couple of weeks. Our previous two promotions were characterised by high quality early signings. Fans will always get jittery during May and early-June because signings aren’t flowing in. In the main, that’s not justified because football slows down during those months as people take a well-earned break. However, if our results on the pitch in the last couple of months are a reflection of us getting our act together off it, then maybe we’ll see some signs of that in the coming days.

Midweek fixture: Eight moments that remind us why we support Oxford United

Most of the time supporting Oxford United is a miserable experience. Then, every now and then, there’s a moment which reminds you why you do it. Here are eight moments which make it all worthwhile.

2009 Jamie Cook versus Luton

The aim for the season is promotion back to the Football League. The division’s other fallen giant, Luton Town, are in town. Over 10,000 turn up for this clash of the titans, we take the lead, then Jamie Cook sells the stadium a dummy and goes for goal.

2012 Peter Leven versus Port Vale

A so-so game against a so-so team in a so-so season. Mercurial playmaker Peter Leven breaks down a Port Vale attack in his own half, nudges the ball forward, then looks up. He hasn’t, has he? Yes, I think he has.

2013 Alfie Potter versus Portsmouth

Relegated but rejuvenated, Portsmouth sell out the opening game of the season; billed as a celebration of their club’s re-awakening. We’re the stooges for the occasion, there to be sacrificed for the entertainment of the locals. The script says they take the lead which they do, then Alfie Potter tears the script up and throws it in a bin fire.

2014 Nicky Rowe versus Wycombe Wanderers

Despite dominating our game against Wycombe at Adams Park, we can’t make the breakthrough. Then, with two minutes to go, Nicky Rowe picks the ball up just outside the box and lets fly with the sweetest strike you’ll ever see.

2016 Liam Sercombe versus Carlisle

Despite a season of highlights, with three games to go we need three wins to secure promotion. Hundreds make the journey north for the last game of the season against Carlisle. We take the lead early, but the signature moment of the game, of the season, of the decade, is Liam Sercombe’s marauding second. Absolute limbs.

2017 Toni Martinez versus Middlesborough

Limbs (part 2). An enjoyable run in the FA Cup is all set to end as Middlesborough take a two goal lead. It’s all over. Or is it?

2018 Ryan Ledson versus Charlton

Nothing seems to be going right; we’ve lost our manager and seem unable to get a new one. We head to Charlton, managed by Karl Robinson, who are threatening the play-offs and lose our only recognised striker to injury. With two minutes to go, we’re 1-2 down. Seconds later, we’re all square and heading for a decent, and important point. That’s never enough for Ryan Ledson.

2019 Jamie Mackie versus Bradford

We’re in the 94th minute of a relegation six pointer and Bradford are just about to score the winner to tear our hearts out and potentially send us down. They miss, we take the goal-kick, and seven seconds later, the ball drops for Jamie Mackie for a goal for the ages. Then things get really weird.

The wrap – Oxford United 1 Luton Town 2

Joe Burnell won’t demand many paragraphs in the history of Oxford United. So much so, I had to look up his name, and then again when I forgot it twenty minutes later. But, he made a significant contribution to the resurrection of the club when things were at their lowest.

At the end of September 2008, having only won one league game at home, we faced Cambridge United. There were rumours we were going into administration and that the season was already lost. Burnell was captain, brought in by Darren Patterson. In the opening minutes he flew into what you might call an early-doors reducer, which drew a booking. It also set the tone to fight for a 3-1 win.

Ultimately neither Patterson nor Burnell survived long, but after that result we no longer felt sorry for ourselves and remained unbeaten in the league at home until the last day of the season. By this point Chris Wilder was manager and we’d gained enough momentum to threaten the play-offs. A year later, we were promoted.

That tackle galvanised that squad, last night confirmed this one is falling apart. At the heart of the problem is chaos. It’s everywhere you look.

Shandon Baptiste – ‘the future of the club’ – got the captain’s armband for the Manchester City game, principally for the experience. Then, with John Mousinho dropped, he got it again against Luton. Why?

According to Karl Robinson, being captain is such a distraction, that experienced players like Curtis Nelson can’t do the role while negotiating a new contract. And yet, it’s so trivial it can be handed over to a 20-year-old with seven league games under his belt during a losing streak. So, is it important or trivial? Has it been taken off Curtis Nelson to relieve some burden, or as punishment for not signing a contract? Nelson may well leave at the end of the season, maybe before, but what benefit is preventing him from being captain offering? If he’s not performing don’t play him, if he is, use him to his max. Wouldn’t making him captain hold him to account even if he were looking elsewhere?

When the players needed to pull together and keep their heads, the onus was on Baptiste make it happen. Not only did he lack experience and authority, he was already on a final warning before being sent off. It might have happened without the armband, but it was an unnecessary complication for him to deal with. Perhaps without that sense of having to lead by example, he’d have pulled out of one of his challenges and stayed on the pitch.

When Luton equalised, Cameron Brannagan was seen berating Nelson. Would he have done that if Nelson had been captain? Perhaps not. Does Brannagan – consciously or sub-consciously – look at Nelson as a weakened authority because he’s lost the captaincy? Maybe. Did Baptiste have the authority to defuse the situation? Probably not.

The ill-discipline spread. Baptiste’s sending off was inevitable and deserved. But Hanson was flying around with no discipline. He could have been the Joe Burnell, igniting some fight, Robinson said he’d ‘lost his head’, then went on to him being ‘the club’s signing’ (not his). And despite him deliberately isolating the player, he then claimed he was his protector. But which is it? 

Up front, Jon Obika’s role was never going to look pretty; lone strikers never do. It’s you against three or four defenders. You run into walls, lose out on challenges and fall over a lot. Your role is either to hold the ball up for others, flick them on to runners, chase them down  when sent over the top, or simply to wear their defenders down in order to let others with pace to exploit their exhaustion. Most of the time you’re just being crowded out or out muscled. It’s just maths, you against three or four others, you’re not going to win very much. It’s thankless.

Obika did some of these things he needed to do, some of the time, but those around him weren’t ready to benefit from his work. Was there a plan? Robinson claimed they’d talked about it, it’s just the players hadn’t done what they were told. This raises the question as to why? But, I think it was more flawed than that – Obika is the man you bring on late to exploit the damage done by a battering ram like Jamie Mackie. We did the opposite.

Now, look at Ricky Holmes’ goal – it was an excellent goal, driving to the edge of the box before threading his shot through six or seven players who were converging on him. Even then, look more closely, you’ll see Oxford players being caught up in Holmes’ break. There’s no shape to give him options, nobody anticipating rebounds, eventually everyone stops running because the space has become so crowded. Thankfully on this occasion, it wasn’t important and Holmes found the net, but he frequently runs into traffic and attacks break down or worse. Has Robinson got a plan for Holmes? It doesn’t look like it.

Here’s my theory. We often applaud managers that are good with a tight budget – John Coleman at Accrington is an excellent example, maybe Chris Wilder as well. Then there are managers who are good with a good budget. It’s often considered easy to have a big budget, but it isn’t. Having a big budget means having more players who expect to play and expect their talent to override the need for tactics or plans. You can’t manage things as tightly, you have to let players express themselves, but only within a framework that wins you games.

Robinson is the kind of manager that needs a good budget to be successful. It can be expensive and wasteful, but it can be very successful. There’s a skill in keeping stars happy, keeping everyone engaged and involved. Perhaps when Robinson says the players think they’re the best managed in the league he means his squad has the best fun. In these cases, organisation is less important than the vibe you create. If you get the right vibe, then the performances take care of themselves. If you get the vibe wrong the creative space become a chaotic space, then the failure is uncontrollable and spectacular. Those who like that environment no longer contribute, those who hate it become disillusioned. The discord is evident, the lack of product, the utter and abject failure is there for all to see. Look as hard as you like, there are no shoots of hope.

I think that’s where we are at the moment. Enough ability in the squad, but totally out of control. It’s impossible to see how ‘fun-boss’ Karl Robinson can suddenly pull rank in order to instill the discipline needed to win games. I’m not sure he has the ability to do that either, he’s the life and soul of the party, not a sergeant major. To not put too fine a point on it; it looks like we’ve reached a dead-end.

Luton wrap – Oxford United 2 Luton Town 3

Luton Town is a horrible club. I mean they are a horrible club, but I also mean that they are a horrible club to face at this stage of the season. They are rarely terrible, but if you look at the table, neither are they wildly successful. This is a dangerous thing to encounter; a banana skin duly slipped up on.

Their first goal was a mess, but these things happen, a catalogue of errors. The second one, though technically the best of their three, was truly criminal. Having conceded so horribly and so close to half-time, it was time to slow everything down, retain the ball and re-group over the break. But, we flapped and floundered and they scored again.

What is needed now is cool heads, we have bags of ability, but minds are tired and we’ve got to think a bit more about managing games. We’re lacking the steadying presence of Joe Skarz, Ryan Taylor, Alex MacDonald and Jake Wright. These are the players that provide the platform for others to play.

Only Jake Wright is fit, of course, which presents a problem; where to play him. There was some debate about changing the system to accommodate Wright – either in a back three with Dunkley and Mullins, or with Mullins, or Wright, playing as a full-back – a role both have played, without ever looking entirely comfortable.

Changing the system seems to be a risk though. Let’s remind ourselves that we are still the second best team in this division, in the main the system works. But, I think it’s time to get experience into the team by whatever means possible; and that means finding space for Wright in the starting line-up. But, who does he replace?

Chey Dunkley has been excellent, rightly voted player of the month, and he offers something at set-pieces that we’ve missed for years. But Wright is a settling influence who alongside Mullins provides a solid foundation for the rest of the team. This is harsh on Dunkley, and no reflection on him or his performances, but I think we gain more than we lose by bringing in Wright. We need to bring in experience wherever we can get it.

Saturday was a blow, although our form is better than people perceive – this is partly down to the distorting impact of our less than stellar home form. We need to remember we’re still second and that we were never likely to secure promotion before the last couple of games of the season anyway.

Cool heads is what we need, on and off the pitch.

Luton wrap – Luton Town 2 Oxford United 2

‘We’d have lost that last year’ one person inevitably said after the big comeback draw against Luton. It’s one of those phrases that has seeped into the lexicon in recent years. 
We’d have lost that most years, I’d wager. It was as freaky as it was welcome. Jerome Sale and Nathan Cooper rightly highlighted the fact that Oxford and Luton share many common traits. We’ve both been at the top and the bottom, we both think we deserve more, we both think that there are other forces at work that prevent us from progressing. We’re both fragile, and that’s key because while others have exploited our own mental fragility in the past, this time it was our turn to be the beneficiary. When Kemar Roofe drilled in the first goal, it stuck the knife in and as Dave Brailsford said of Chris Froome’s Tour de France win – once you’ve stuck the knife in, you have to keep twisting. 
Sale and Cooper also got it right when they said that if you win at places like Luton, then you should be fighting for the title, if you draw; promotion should be your goal. ‘Should’ is the operative here. This season should be about promotion not just the isolated ‘buzz’ of freaks and one-offs. We’ve had a few of those in recent years and they become a vague memory by the time we hit May and are soft pedalling our way into the summer.   
What it does do is it helps paint a picture of a type of success; that if our backs are against the wall, then there’s no reason to give up. That’s worth having in our locker for when things hairy. It needs to be applied properly – we don’t want to get ourselves in that position in the first place; so it’s an escape pod only to be used in emergencies. Let’s not forget that even going into injury time, the most likely outcome was a defeat. In most cases in the future, that’s what we’ll get; nothing. 
And this is not the product of magic, spirit or any of that nonsense, it’s hard work, application, good tactics and intelligent play. One thing that Gary Neville said about Manchester United’s fabled ability to score last minute goals was that where most teams lose their heads when chasing a game, their key was to focus on creating one really high quality chance. Underpinning their mythical status as comeback kings was the application of high quality football. Or, if you like, doing what they should always be doing.
I wasn’t expecting us to get much out of Luton, so the point is a good one, but in the context of promotion it claws back one of the two dropped against Crawley. If that sounds downbeat, it’s not meant to be, but promotion is about being relentlessly effective for a long time. Historically, we’ve been pretty bad at that. But, that’s the real objective.

Coming up: Luton Town

Next up is Luton Town, according to the pre-season predictions, this one could be an early sharpener for the promotion race.

We’ve got plenty of history with this lot, being the only fixture in the country to have been played in each of the top five divisions in the country. Here’s a frankly mental 7-4 defeat from 1988.

Oh, and if you think Luton’s pitch looks like a carpet, that’s because it is.


From the blog archive

It’s 2010 and our season has started like a rocket. Title favourites, Luton, arrive at the Kassam for a clash of the biggest beasts on the Conference scene. 10,000 fans turn up for a game which isn’t all-ticket. The place is mayhem.

“Admist the melee and noise the carrier took centre stage. He raised his right arm and gestured to the gawdy lights of the bazaar of restaurants, cinemas and bowling alleys. The crowd were still.” 

Read on.

Intensity breeds instinct

Now we’re in February, someone you know will, at some point over the coming months, say ‘I can’t believe it’s [enter month] already, it only seems like Christmas was yesterday’. As we get older, the weeks, months and years blur into one long slog. Seasons come and go, Christmases come and go, life passes by in a flash.

There’s a fairly simple explanation for this. As you get older, pretty much every experience is a repeat of a previous experience. If you were to do something genuinely remarkable, then it would last longer as a vivid memory providing the illusion of a extending the year. For most of us, through necessity, life cannot function if all you are doing is having unique experiences; life is more likely to become one long groundhog day.

To break the mundanity, it helps to have something to focus on or look forward to, particularly if you follow Oxford United. Otherwise the season’s blur into one; the kits change, slightly, the players change, slightly, but otherwise, it’s much the same from one year to the next. If you can’t rely on having a decent cup run or, heaven forfend, a successful league season, then it’s the moments, the single fixtures, that make the effort worthwhile.

Saturday’s game against Luton was probably the one banker of the season; a mutual dislike, two teams, not that far apart geographically, with similar histories. The only fixture to have been played in all five of the top divisions in English football. Not a derby, but with some of the characteristics of one. A quarrel neither of is prepared to resolve or back down from; no matter where one of us is, the other one will hunt them down and start the argument again.

It lived up to its billing. A nice big bank of away fans and a vociferous response from the home fans. Niggle, rabbit punches and bickering on the pitch. Good stuff. Intensity was the watchword; the way we played, the atmosphere; it was a fixture unlike any we’ve seen this season.

We benefited from it because we had to play football rather than dwell on The Philosophy. Jake Wright made tackles rather than misdirect cross-field passes. Luton’s fans brought the intensity, their players took it onto the pitch by getting into our players’  faces and opening petty feuds. But, it did them no favours, where others have absorbed us and then gently picked us off while we drowned in our own self-importance, they badgered us to play on instinct.

Even on the touchline there was more animation; Derek Fazackerley kicked over a water bottle in frustration, Michael Appleton remonstrated with a linesman after a petty foul late into injury time. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it.

But, that’s pretty much it for the season in terms of an external stimulus triggering us into action, how will we re-create the intensity we need to perform? Mansfield are next at the Kassam, nobody is going to be fired up to teach Junior Brown a lesson. It’s unlikely to come from the touchline; many managers are borderline sociopaths who frighten players into playing at the right intensity regardless of the occasion, Appleton prides himself on his detachment. This has it’s place, of course, but it can leave us needing something else to get us going. It is too much to ask the fans despite what some say (more of that in a minute). A lot of expectation is being placed on this creative midfielder to drive the team forward, it might work, but it’s a big job.

In cyclist Michael Hutchinson’s book Faster, he describes what happened when he tried to use the psychological technique of visualisation to improve his time trialling. Because he spent so much time thinking through what he did rather than rely on his physical conditioning, his anxiety and stress levels increased and he actually got slower.

With us, without the intensity, there is the tendency to overthink everything rather than simply execute deeply imbedded subconscious ability. The net impact is that performance is more likely to drop than go up; particularly if it repeatedly appears to fail.

And another thing…
The first person on the phone-in was berating Oxford fans for not backing their team despite ‘the chairman’s investment’. The first point is that investment is spending money to get a return; by my reckoning Appleton has brought in 17 players since he started, of which six are still at the club (and none of those have played more than five games). The return has been average so it’s not investment, it’s just spending. The second thing is that regardless of the cost of bringing in these 17 players; it hasn’t yet materialised into results – despite Saturday’s encouraging display, we haven’t won at home since 13th December (with a last minute goal) and before that it was Tranmere in October. So, in fact what the caller was telling Oxford fans to do is attend in less-than-once a month possibility of seeing a win. Results draw crowds not investment, I’m sure the club are aware of that even if the said fan isn’t. Oh, and he claimed we all supported Kassam when he was chairman; I think I must have missed that game.